Dreaming in Blue

Surfing the Ranch with Dana Brown and "Wingnut" Weaver

When you live in Silver Lake, surfing El Porto in the morning before work means getting up at 6 a.m.—about the time I normally fall asleep. For a few months I'd been managing to do this two to three times a week. I thought that was dedication, until I saw the old guy featured in Step Into Liquid who has surfed everyday for 27 years. That's dedication!

I started going surfing more and more, forsaking sleep, and my health, to get some time in the water. But my stoke—the unifying theme in all of Step Into Liquid's vignettes—was growing. Everything—work, house, wife—was starting to take a back seat to getting in the water and catching the wave that would bring back that old feeling of being in the bubble. And it would almost happen. Sometimes once, sometimes twice a day, sometimes not at all, I'd get a wave that hinted of the possibility of other waves and better rides. The feeling haunts you once you have it, and, like a dope fiend, you gotta have more.

I knew I shouldn't have gone that morning after I felt a cough getting deeper in my lungs, but I went anyway, despite my suspicions that I had picked up something in El Porto's surf, which is conveniently situated next to a power plant, oil refinery and sewage-treatment facility. The week prior to The Ranch trip, the cough was a full-blown respiratory infection, complete with the clambake in the lungs. I was nervous now that I wouldn't be able to make it, but also, wasn't I a bit relieved? For my self-doubt had found an excuse. I spent the entire night before the trip sleepless, hacking up nasties. I called Steven at 6:30 in the morning just hours before we were to leave, and told him he'd have to hold up our end of the bargain. It was a disappointment, but it was safe. I wouldn't have to reckon with The Ranch. I went back to bed with the whole thing—Kem Nunn, The Ranch, the bubble, the quest, turning over in my head. I thought about all the people who would kill for this opportunity, and I felt like I was letting them down. It's hard to explain, but I also felt that by going back to bed and missing the trip, I was going back to the Pittsburgh still in me. Fuck it, I decided, I'm going.

Steven and I were supposed to meet Dana and Wingnut at Bruce Brown's house, about 25 miles north of Santa Barbara, by noon. Getting there wasn't the easiest part. Although we had directions of a sort, an address and the caution that "if you pass the Blade Runner–looking refinery, you've gone too far," we must have driven up and down the stretch of the 101 freeway in question five times before we found a sun-baked Highway Patrol cop with a nose that looked like he stole it from W.C. Fields.

"You know where [address given here] is?" we asked.

"No, wouldn't know where that is," he said.

"Umm, we're looking for Bruce Brown's place?" we tried.

He looked at our truck and the boards on top and said, "Oh, that figures. I know where that is."

With his help we found the Brown residence—a gorgeous, expansive, ranchero's house west of the freeway set against coastal mountains topped with jagged rock. Outside his door in the near distance, the unperturbed blue of the Pacific beckoned. When we arrived, the Browns and Wingnut were filming talking-head footage to accompany the DVD release of The Endless Summer II. That's when we learned that the plane crash wasn't staged, and also that some of their friends from the film, like the South African lion handler, hadn't made it. Unironically, his lions had killed him.

To The Ranch

Although there was business to take care of, interviews and such, the real business was waiting out there in the blue, and it was clear to everybody that a couple of Barneys like Steven and me would be distracted to the point of uselessness until we got there. Dana and Wingnut understood. While The Endless Summer movies are about the search for the perfect wave—and what that means to different people—Step Into Liquid is all about the stoke that keeps people going back for more and more once they've had a taste.

There are plenty of hair-raising scenes of big-wave and pipeline surfing in Liquid, but the movie's soul comes from the guys like the crew in Wisconsin who surf Lake Michigan, and the nuts in Texas who ride huge tanker wakes in the Galveston Channel, and especially from poignant vignettes in Ireland and Vietnam where surfing brings together people who are supposed to be in conflict by birthright. The most touching scene involves a young surfer who was paralyzed when he got slammed into the sand at a shallow break. But he still surfs almost everyday with the help of his friends, including Rob Machado. These scenes brought bigger cheers from the crowd at the Ford Amphitheater than the big-wave spectaculars. As Nunn said, surfers love their heroes. There was something reassuring about Dana Brown's choice of heroes and the way the local surfers watching the movie reacted to his choices. The stoke, it seems, is universal and observed like a silent language.

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