A blaze of triumph in Chicago…
I quickly wax my board, feeling a combination of self-loathing and grudging acceptance.
I tie my boardshorts, throw on a cotton shirt (it’s not cause Dane wears them, it’s cause I prefer stepping on the bottom of my shirt mid popup) and do my best to look like I belong.
Strange how I now feel more self-conscious “surfing” in middle America than I did paddling out at spots in Northern California I had no business being at.
Michiganders gawk, chuckling at the small man walking through a Lake Michigan parking lot with a surfboard tucked under his arm.
I am acutely aware of the caricature I am.
“Surf’s up, man.”
Not sure if he’s making fun of me. Probably.
I stare at the lake.
Last time I was here it was a jumble of frozen blocks of ice. Now, I might consider it an actual beach, as long as I ignore the reddish brown water.
Surf is pumping. A jumbled mess of white caps, four foot at five seconds. I ponder to myself if it’s really worth the hepatitis.
We aren’t far from Chicago.
I throw my leash on, hyper aware of the judgmental, mid-western eyes.
The paddle out isn’t bad.
It’s probably because I can walk out the lineup, or the fact that the waves are gutless. I bob in the lineup, trying to ascertain if the waves breaking fifty yards outside of me are rideable.
My thoughts are quickly interrupted by frantic whistles.
I look back.
On shore, a pre-pubescent lifeguard frantically signals for me to come in.
His friend sits atop an ATV – an apparent necessity to cover the fifty yards of beach.
“I just can’t let you go out here. We just can’t. But, if you walk, like, one hundred yards north, I can’t tell you what to do.”
He glances at me, unsure if I understand his hint.
As I trudge north, I hear him say, “Seriously, be careful out there man.”
I feel like Bodhi paddling out one last time.
I repeat my paddle out, gleeful when a single wave breaks in front of me and I’m forced to duckdive.
I’m joined by a middle-aged, balding man wearing a nineties-era O’Neill electric blue and yellow rash guard. I’m pretty sure he’s not wearing to appear ironic or retro.
He flashes me a pair of vertical shakas, the thumbs pointed to the sky, a smile plastered on his face with a look that says, “Can you believe this?”
I like my new friend. He’s riding a five-o Beater-like a boogie board. I respect it.
And even though he will inevitably be staring up at me when I stroke into the only set of the day, a waist-high burger, I can’t fault him.
There’s a whole lot less kooks here than Southern California right now.
I’m greeted by childish screams every time I lumber to my feet. There’s a family splashing in the waves on the inside and I’m relatively sure I’m the first person they’ve ever seen stand up on a surfboard.
Though my rides consist of a pop-up to a not so graceful kick out, that’s all the waves offer, I feel as though I’m ripping.
These people have no idea what good surfing looks like (a stark reminder Elo – the WSL doesn’t, and won’t, garner watches in Michigan).
Might as well enjoy the one instance when I am the best surfer in the water.
An hour or so later, I leave the water feeling more disappointed than satiated.
I wonder if this is what Lemoore feels like? A long drive back through rural America, no coastline in sight, no feeling of dried salt on my skin.
Even so, as soon as I’m home I check the NOAA wind reports for next week. Maybe next time I’ll find a salty local to scream at me in the lineup.
Or when I ask the boy at the surf shop counter for a bar of wax, he won’t look at me as if I’m not speaking English.
Or, who knows, it could be five foot at four seconds.