"I make no promises that I will watch every wave. I might get distracted by the yoga class or the SUP races. The schedule is so packed."
I’m floating on my back in the pool, staring at the sky. I can’t remember where I am or how I got here. I’m not entirely sure where here is. There’s just the pool’s cool water and the sky’s endless blue. My bikini’s blue, too.
But there’s something about a pool. It’s tickling the edge of my brain. I’m here about a pool, I remember. Not this pool, not the pool where I float aimlessly, staring at the sky — this isn’t the pool I came here to find.
Somewhere near Pismo, I almost turned around. I could go home. It’s Memorial Day weekend. I could turn around and go back to my nice life with the comfortable couch and the cute cats. Right there at Spyglass, I could have gotten off the freeway and turned back.
But I promised. Also, there was the bribery. If you go to Surf Ranch, you can buy a new board. I bribed myself. That’s the real truth right there.
Later, I run into Britt Merrick. I tell him I’m only here so I can buy a new board. He laughs at me. At least, I can make someone happy.
Reaching Paso Robles, I made the fateful turn east. There was the sign to Cambria right there. The coast, it’s so close here. But I turned east, and well, then it was entirely too late. There was no turning back.
That’s where I saw my first Trump flag truck. They’re so familiar, and yet still so strange. It’s always a pickup truck. Sometimes, the truck is flashy and expensive, the performance of being working class more than the reality. But just as often, the truck has seen some days. It’s battered and old.
An American flag. Trump 2024. There was a third flag, too, but I couldn’t see it. Is it annoying to have flags flapping in the back of your pickup? Nothing is too much for the cause.
As I drove east, the rolling green hills turned gold. There’s a lot of places in between in California. It’s not much more than 40 miles from Paso Robles to Kettleman City, but it feels like forever. I pass through the terrain twisted and torqued by San Andreas fault. Jumbled hills surround wide flatlands. I feel like I’ve driven off the edge of the map.
As I approach Kettleman City, I see a sign pointing to Los Angeles. There’s one last chance. You can still go back. Go ahead, make the turn.
I imagine my new surfboard. I stop for ice cream. Then I follow the straight line of the road.
I catch my first glimpse of the California aqueduct with rows of almond trees planted next to it. It’s nearly full. As I drive, the bypasses and channels that parallel the road brim with water. On the long, straight roads, the horizon never seems to come any closer.
The Sierra Nevada’s record snow pack has begun to melt, sending water downhill. Just south of here, the ancient Tulare Lake returns to life. Signs along the road call for more dams. Fire Newsom, they say, in reference to the current governor.
Accounts of early California describe the Central Valley as a lush wetland. The demands of thirsty cities and industrial agriculture have changed all that, but at the time, Tulare was the largest of the Valley’s lakes. In fact, it likely submerged the area of the present-day Surf Ranch.
If this were 1880, I wouldn’t have to be here. There would be no Surf Ranch. I could float in the lake and stare at the sky. If it were 1880, I could go home. It is not 1880.
One day not too long ago, I stood in chill, dry air of Santa Barbara Mission’s archive. My friend, the former archivist pulled out a drawer, and inside lay an eighteenth-century map of California. The cartographer had carefully traced out the boundaries of his known world in precise black lines.
So far, the dykes have held at this end of Tulare’s ancestral lake bed. I drive past the Surf Ranch. It’s still there. It’s not underwater. At least, not yet. My last hope dissolves.
Somehow I find my way here without consulting a map or any directions at all. I am not proud of this feat at all. It’s a sign that I’ve been here too many times.
I send Chas a picture of the Tachi Palace. He writes back: Welcome to hell, now go to hell.
I pass wildcard Alyssa Spencer in the lobby. Carrying her fresh boards with her bright blonde hair, she looks like the perfect surfer, and perfectly out of place. I recognize Gabriela Bryant, but I can’t think of her name.
My brain melted somewhere out there. Hello lost and found? Yes, I think I lost my mind. It was out there between the Trump truck and the ice cream. Think you could find it? I think I might need it.
I’m sitting in the lobby again now. There’s plenty of people to watch. João walks past with his new Red Bull hat on backwards. He heads to the coffee shop, as though he needs more energy.
Caroline Marks comes in from training with Mike Parsons at her side. Caity Simmers rushes past, and looks even smaller in person. The sprays on Gabriel Medina’s boards pop even more in person.
The slot machines sing their siren songs. Someone wins. A man visits the ATM near my table. He yells at it. This thing shorted me $20! Pulling on my headphones, I decide not to learn what happens next.
Tomorrow, the Surf Ranch gates swing open at 6am, and the men’s heats start at 7am. I can’t promise to be there when the gates open. But I will drink so much coffee and try so hard to get there before it’s too late.
Should we talk about the format? Sure, why the hell not. The opening round features four-surfer heats. The winner advances directly to the quarterfinals for men, and to the semifinals for women. The loser goes home.
At night, there’s a winner-takes-all second round. Each surfer gets two waves. The top two scores for men advance. For women, only the winner of the evening session continues.
That’s it. No second chances. No do-overs. Will there be tears? There might be tears.
I make no promises that I will watch every wave. I might get distracted by the yoga class or the SUP races. I could even go shopping! The schedule is so packed.
I could also go to the pool, float on my back, and stare at the sky.
It’s too late to turn back now. Here I am.
Welcome to hell, now go to hell.