Dreaming in Blue

Surfing the Ranch with Dana Brown and "Wingnut" Weaver

The Quest

I have to start with Kem Nunn because Kem Nunn is where this started for me, just about a decade ago.

At the time, I was living near Vail, Colorado, chasing powder on a snowboard and writing a novel that tried to portray that fleeting sensation of being in a bubble where time and the world's distractions stop and you come close to feeling something beatific. Of course, there were fleeting tastes of this sensation before in my life, like the time when I was 12 years old and lying on the floor in the living room listening to some music. My dad came in and asked what I was doing. I said, condescendingly, "I'm listening to rock & roll," as if my dad wouldn't understand. My dad, into his cups, pulled the needle (it was that long ago) across my Elton John record ("Someone Saved My Life Tonight," if memory serves) and said, "That's not rock & roll." Then he reached into his record collection, put on the Doors' "Break On Through," and said, "That's rock & roll." When the first sinister thrusts of the song's bass line (the band's singular contribution, if you ask me) shot down my spine, I knew he was right, and something had changed for me forever. There were other moments, too. In high school I once played a perfect game of soccer during my team's championship run. There was the totally spent last eighth of a mile during the New York Marathon. There have been moments in love and, of course, there were years of getting high trying to fabricate the bliss I eventually found in the mountains and snow and which I consider to be grace. I've learned over time that for me the spiritual realm follows closely on the heels of physical expression. From what I can tell, God, or whatever, doesn't want us to think soul, he wants us to do soul. I never found a better place to do it than in 2,000 vertical feet of untouched powder.

A friend who read my manuscript told me I should check out Kem Nunn's surfing-noir novel, Tapping the Source, because they were in the same vein. I did. In Nunn's book, there's a mythical surf spot north of Santa Barbara—forbidden and foreboding—called The Ranch. It's where the two protagonists' quest for grace comes to a climax. Having cut any number of ropes, done some hiking into the backcountry and been dropped into difficult spots by helicopter, I could easily identify with the heroes' pursuit of the illicit dream spot and their willingness to sneak into the private, guarded stretch of coast to get their slice of nirvana.

The Ranch Nunn described checked deeply into the back of my conscious. It seemed both foreign and ghostly, like an Indian burial ground. I remember thinking of the young newbie whose mentor takes him on that journey: Wow, that'd be cool. Ten years ago, though, I had no idea that for me, Colorado would give way to California, or that at this late stage, I'd have renewed my dormant quest for those moments of grace, only now on a surfboard instead of a snowboard. I surely didn't know that the quest would lead to the mythical spot Kem Nunn wrote about. Hell, I didn't even know if The Ranch was for real.

We Can Be Heroes

In another semi-great surfing novel, The Dogs of Winter, Nunn writes: "Surfers love their heroes." In the '60s, with the Beach Boys and Gidget spawning the craze, heroes were guys like Mickey Dora, known as "Da Cat," who surfed Malibu Point on a longboard with a seemingly effortless, but highly technical, style that is still legendary. In the '70s, boards got shorter, and a more aggressive, or "aggro," style took over, epitomized by Hawaiians like Larry Bertleman. Locally, guys like Jay Adams and the Z-Boys adopted the surf Nazi, punk stance. These guys didn't have much except their surf break, and they made it clear it was for them, not for you. It was the decade of the anti-hero, and surfers were among the most anti. In the '80s, the sport virtually went off the radar, perhaps the result of a hangover from all the bad vibes of the '70s.

In Colorado, I didn't surf and thought I was too old for heroes. But one bored day waiting for the snow, I did happen to watch The Endless Summer II, Bruce Brown's 30-years-later follow-up to his seminal 1966 surf-adventure film, The Endless Summer. I couldn't help but fall in love with one of the two central characters, Robert "Wingnut" Weaver. Wingnut's attractions were many. First, there was his insistence on being called Wingnut without explaining why. Second, was his obvious joie de vivre—the guy seemed to find delight in just about anything fate or the film threw his way. From the plane crash in Costa Rica (the smashup wasn't staged, I learned recently) to nasty waves breaking over jagged coral in shallow water, the guy just charged with a smile. He had an openness, a gameness in his persona that I admired and envied. He seemed to be touched in that divine way some people just are. Most alluring, though, was the way Wingnut surfed: It was on a longboard.

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