"I’m sure the barrel is nice, but so are a lot of things in life."
Dust swirls though the parking lot at the Tachi Palace and softens the bright morning light. A Red Bull hat walks through the haze.
As I get closer, I see Griff’s compact, short-legged frame come into view. He climbs into a Tacoma and drives to the Surf Ranch.
I stash my cooler in the back of my Jeep rental car and prepare to follow him. It’s hotter today. I feel dismay.
When I arrive, more people than yesterday flow through the general admission gate. Security checks everyone’s bags one at a time. Two sad-looking LUNA bars sit on the table. No outside food allowed. I put on my most innocent face. Just a hoody and some sunscreen, I say. They believe me. My contraband GoMacro bar goes undetected.
I make it to the end of the right in time to see Griff’s first wave. He falls. Yago falls, too. The Brazilian fans cheer for him anyway. They’re entirely engaged, clapping and cheering both surfers in each heat. Griff makes it through on the strength of his left.
The energy of the Brazilian fans is magnetic. How do they do it? I see a crew from yesterday, set up in the same place under the trees. They’ve brought chairs and music. Laughing and chatting between waves, it’s a fun day out with friends.
I move toward the pool’s center. Brazilian flags wave and happy chatter fills the air. They’re loud in their support of Felipe in the next heat, but Medina jerseys outnumber all the rest. Any time the three-time world champion surfs, the noise level rises.
Back at the end of the right, I watch Ethan surf. He barely makes an air reverse to finish his second wave. It feels like an overscore, but the first turns happen a long way from where I’m standing. A nearby family looks perplexed, as though they’re not quite sure what they’re doing here. They watch the waves in a desultory kind of way. A grom sits under a tree and looks bored.
The reality is, if you really care about the surfing, you’re better off at home on the couch. One of the many dads sits in a beach chair glued to his phone. His wife asks him if he wants to watch the next wave. He doesn’t move. I’ve got it right here, he says.
There’s some unique angles from the side of the pool, for sure. It’s rare to see a turn or an air happen right in front of you, unless you’re actually in the lineup. It requires planning, a lot of walking, and a fair amount of luck, though, to see the big moments happen at the Ranch. The sheer size of the pool makes it insanely cumbersome as an event space.
As I move around, I laugh again at Erik Logan’s comment from yesterday about how we must surely be jealous if we aren’t totally in love with the whole thing. I think I’ve been to the Ranch something like five times now. The novelty has long since worn off.
The hierarchy the Ranch imposes leaves me cold. Money buys access here, pure and simple. That reality tends to smash most of the soul and spontaneity out of the thing. I’m sure the barrel is nice, but so are a lot of things in life.
I trudge toward the left in search of water and a bathroom. It’s already hot and the 700-meter distance feels even longer than yesterday. I imagine what would happen if I borrowed Matt Warshaw’s Fitbit. It would probably explode trying to count high enough. The tawny dirt coats my black Vans, a suspect choice for the day, if I’m honest.
Behind me, a couple walks together and jokes about how security took their sandwiches. The security people, they must be so hungry. They just had to have our sandwiches. I laugh. We stood in line for food for two hours yesterday, they say. There was only one food place. The rules about outside food feel petty and small. Snacks are not a crime.
At least the box water is free. The smiling woman in the booth tells me to take as many as I like. I grab four and hug them close. I pour one into my HydroFlask to keep it cold. I’m not sure when I’ll next make it back here.
Standing at the end of the left, I watch Italo go nuts. On his final wave, he hucks into a shuv-it, and falls. His fans love it. They don’t care about the fall. Like European football fans, they sing and chant his name. Italo laughs and throws shakas. He thrives on the attention. He’s through to the semifinals, and it’s all good.
Attracted by the novelty of watching Caroline surfing front side, I stay on the left. There’s no shade here, and the sun beats down. I layer more sunscreen onto the patina of dust on my legs. Caroline looks rock-solid, while Caity’s intuitive feel for how to ride an ocean wave betrays her into stalling in the tube too long.
The pool tends to favor surfers like Carissa who can replicate their surfing precisely the same way every time. It’s not that Carissa has no soul. She has plenty, especially at home in Hawaii. But she’s done the meticulous work to combine her instinctual sense for the ocean with near-perfect technique.
I need more water.
Back at the box water booth, the woman smiles at me again and laughs as I take four more. Around me, people wait patiently in the food lines, which snake through the expo area. The sun beats down. I think guiltily of my smuggled food bar. I ate it an hour ago.
I walk back to the center of the pool near the judge’s tower for the heat between Carissa and Tati. It’s one of the better vantage points. It’s across from the one video screen and offers partial views of the left and the right. As a bonus, it’s sometimes possible to hear the wave scores over the music’s pounding beat. Punk’s so over. Today, the vibe is pure dance club.
As the heat begins, two women move to the pool’s edge to watch. They pull on matching t-shirts with Carissa’s name and number on them, and pose for photos together. Behind them in the shade, a baby sleeps in a hammock slung between two trees. Dad gently rocks his baby, while mom watches her favorite surfer. Carissa rips a 9.67 on her first right. Everyone looks happy except the baby who continues to sleep.
After two waves, Carissa has the heat won. She skips her final two waves, and I begin the journey toward the exit. I’ve seen enough. I’m done with the heat and the Porta-Potties. Also, I’m hungry. I cradle my remaining box waters close. It’s a long way home.
As I walk through the exit, there through the dust, I see what must be a mirage. A tall woman strolls through the entrance in a long, colorful sundress. Her bag’s gold hardware glints in the sun. On her head, she wears a hat sequined in bright pink. I blink. Surely, I am imagining this vision. But no, as she comes closer, I realize she’s real.
An hour later, Matt Warshaw calls me to see what’s happening at the contest. I’m in Paso Robles when Griff wins ahead of Italo. I left an hour ago, I say. Matt laughs, approvingly. To the west, I can see fog flowing over the hills from the coast.
Then I’m back in Pismo, where I almost turned around a few days ago. Ahead of me on the freeway, there’s a car with two surfboards shoved across the backseat. Both ends of the boards stick out the windows. It’s completely fucked. I try to convince myself he borrowed the car. I’m sure he doesn’t carry his boards this way every day. I don’t really succeed. He does it that way every day. I’m sure of it.
At last, I pass between the walls of the narrow canyon at Gaviota. The rocks tower over me as I follow the road’s sinuous path to the coast. I imagine that I can smell ocean’s salt. I’m so close to it now.
And then I’m there. The marine layer paints the ocean in hues of steel grey. A light onshore wind ripples the surface. White water shines against the water’s dark surface as swell lines collide with the shore. A quartet of pelicans glide over the water in search of snacks. I feel the sea air’s fresh kiss on my skin.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll go surfing.