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.
In the early '90s, when The Endless Summer IIwas filmed, longboards were out of fashion. At a time when Tom Curren was setting the table for the mind-blowing maneuvers of today's stars like Kelly Slater and Rob Machado, Wingnut was iconoclastically retro. His heroes were old-school surfers like Corky Carroll and Robert August, one of the star of The Endless Summer. Though talented enough to have made a mark professionally, Wingnut largely eschewed competition and dedicated his life to a throwback interpretation of the quest—one based on style and purity. He was the progeny of Mickey Dora and the soul surfers of the '60s. What he was doing wasn't always understood or even welcome at the time, but Bruce Brown was a genius for putting him in The Endless Summer II. Watching the film, you can't help but laugh in appreciation for his brilliance on the waves and still be stirred by his quixotic insistence on riding everything—everything—on a longboard. As ridiculous as it sounds, given his stunning talent, Wingnut seemed to be telling everyone, Hey, you can do this too. Simply put: If you want to blame anyone for the popularity of surfing these days, might as well blame him.
The significance of all this wasn't apparent to me when my friend Steven called a few weeks ago to tell me he had a plus-one to the screening of Step Into Liquid at the Ford Amphitheater during the Los Angeles Film Festival. Having recently gotten stoked on surfing, I said hell yeah to his invitation.
It's hard to overstate how far from the realm of possibility the idea of a surf trip would have sounded to me when I was growing up in Pittsburgh, a place of unlimited limitedness, it seemed to me. Once, though, it was the third largest corporate headquarters in the country, the steel-made Seattle of its day, with Andrew Carnegie playing the role of Bill Gates and Old World barons like the Mellons, Scaifes and Olivers amassing fortunes in his wake that would make Microsoft millionaires of today feel like petit bourgeois. Unable to transition to the new service economy, the city—dark, rusting, claustrophobic with hills that seemed like prison walls—started dying in the '70s and '80s. Success, what little there was to be had, was frowned upon. As a teenager in Pittsburgh, you drank boilermakers, smoked pot, got in fights to prove you were tough (the highest aspiration), and generally walked around with a chip on your shoulder. In short, you imitated the adults. Only the Steelers—during the team's glorious late-'70s and early-'80s championship runs—gave the city anything to cheer about. But let's face it, even the Steelers, epitomized by fang-faced linebacker Jack Lambert (a Kent State graduate who is rumored to have answered "Reload" when asked what should have been done during the Kent State Massacre), weren't the jolliest crew.
A place like The Ranch would have seemed so exotic to me then, so California, so far, far away from the gray skies and Black Sabbath T- shirts of Pittsburgh. The bliss the two surfers in Nunn's novel were chasing would have been scoffed at. If I had even known about such a thing, or even the possibility of such a thing, in my teens, I can just picture the puzzled looks on my friends' faces had I tried to tell them about it. "California?" they would have said, "Isn't that where all the fruits and nuts live?" This was Deer Hunter territory, after all.
But life, as the philosopher said, is what happens when your old friends from high school are still in Pittsburgh being pissed about theirs. As fate would have it, I ended up in California. I actually ended up surfing in California. A few weeks ago, I ended up watching Step Into Liquid under the stars at the Ford Amphitheater in an audience full of stoked surfers, marveling at how Dana Brown managed to pull off such a beautiful, soulful film, despite having the weight of his father's Endless Summer legacy hanging over him. The day after the screening, Steven, my surfing archangel, called me again. This time it was with news that we'd been invited up to The Ranch to surf with Dana Brown and Robert "Wingnut" Weaver. I could hardly believe it. It was both wonderful and terrifying. Across the bow of my excitement shot the arrows of doubt: Who was I, who had been surfing for a matter of months, to be allowed into this hallowed place? I felt overmatched.
Nothing Worthwhile Comes Easy
I spent the couple of weeks leading up to the trip in the water, hoping to develop enough chops not to embarrass myself. The place where I surf, El Porto, is a notoriously closed-out beach break with a fast, hollow wave. Its only advantages are consistent waves—quantity, not quality—and enough room to spread out a bit. They say if you master El Porto, you can surf anywhere, and it's true there are a lot of really good surfers there. I'm not one of them.
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.
So, with few skills but plenty of stoke, Steven and I loaded our boards into Wingnut's van. But, as close as you think you are getting to The Ranch, it seems like you're never quite there yet. We had to drive another 10 minutes north on the freeway. Along the way, Steven babbled like a kid on Christmas Eve. I said little as the reality of heading into the Promised Land with Wingnut sunk in.
They say it's a mistake to meet your heroes, and I can't rightly say Wingnut was a hero of mine before this trip, but he is now. Every quality I invested in him while watching Endless Summer II turned out to shine even brighter in the flesh. Wingnut was warm and hilarious— sharing stories, answering Steven's endless questions with patience and interest, bemoaning mooks who vibe people at their local spots, and treating us like absolute peers. That is, until it was time to pull into the Gaviota Beach general store and buy beer. That was our toll fee for riding with Wingnut. Not bad considering that to gain access to The Ranch you have to be a guest of a member, and members have to own one of the 100-acre parcels in the pristine 14,000-acre former cattle ranch along 8.5 miles of unmolested coastline. The cost? Well, James Cameron and the owner of Patagonia have pretty nice spreads there. A twelfth of a share in a parcel can cost hundreds of thousands.
Once you get through the security gate, the drive to the surf breaks traverses a winding, private road through wild hills, canyons and grazing land with pristine, sandy beaches, coves and magnificent ocean on your left. It can take up to 30 more minutes, depending on where you're going, but the view is a stark reminder of the glory of the California coast before development rendered much of it like, well, Santa Monica. Along the way we saw beautiful canyon oaks, fields of poppies, cattle, horses, hawks and a lone coyote that looked like it was out to stir up some mischief.
Our destination was Saint Augustine's, or Augie's, as it's known. It's a reef break situated somewhere between Rights and Lefts, two point breaks so called because the wave goes in those directions at each break. Once there, Dana and Wingnut were like the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby of surfing, a running repartee of slapstick and one-liners. From them I learned that it's important not to grab your board and run headlong toward the surf. First, you must grab your beers and run headlong for a bluff, whereupon you must look out over the break, debate its merits and demerits, comment on the lone, fully suited old bear having a go at the break, laugh a bit about how he's set up all wrong (too far inside, catching the re-forming wave, not the wave) and then scare the shit out of your guests by loudly questioning whether or not that was a shark in the water. Turns out it was a pelican.
The effect of all this, of Wingnut's and Dana's basic, good-natured humanity was odd given all the mythology with which I had arrived here. I wasn't with outlaw surfers struggling to live by a code, worried about being copped as the con; I was with real people at a real place in search of, well, fun. It was both reassuring and somewhat deflating. Part of me wanted the epic proportions of my expectations to be filled.
Tapping the Source
After our hosts had done enough of their Hope-and-Crosby routine to allow for a couple cold ones, we made our way down a path that opened onto a small cove rimmed by gentle bluffs. It was like a central-coast version of The Blue Lagoon. Right away I knew I'd seen this spot rendered in art galleries before, but now I was touching it. Before us was the most beautiful-looking water I'd seen in a while: clear, blue, not the steel gray I'd become accustomed to at El Porto. A few hundred yards out, a horseshoe-shaped wave rose up out of nowhere—like the fountains in front of the Bellagio. It wasn't much of a wave as far as Wingnut and Dana were concerned—probably 3- to 4-foot sets, with occasional fivers coming in, but it looked intimidating to me, especially the way it appeared almost unannounced, circled you quickly and plowed on by. This, I realized, is where the myth comes real, where the source gets tapped. The thought of this wave during a winter swell sent a shiver down my spine. I started coughing again—a psychosomatic, reflex cop-out response. But clearly there was no going back.
Wingnut told us to look at the whitewater blanket left behind by the breaking wave. "Head for the top of that." The first taste of the water was bracing. It was cold, but it felt like the way it should feel paddling out for surf. It felt restorative. Wingnut, a notorious paddler with hands like shovels attached to arms like crankshafts, paddled on his knees and got to the break in about five strokes. Dana took his time. He might have had a beer in his hand when he made the break, I can't recall. Steven and I arrived winded, buzzed and maybe a touch apprehensive.
Immediately a wave snapped up and Wingnut was off, riding it down the line all the way to the end—fluid, strong, graceful. Steven and I sat there in the horseshoe admiring his performance the way you do when it becomes clear that you're in the presence of greatness. Before we could even dig for a wave, Wingnut was back and in another. Jeezus, was that possible?
It was Dana's job to make sure nothing resembling a real wave passed us by. Steven gamely went after a couple, but the wave proved to be tricky for guys who are accustomed to beach breaks that come in straight and head directly for shore. I knew I couldn't just sit there on my board, not with Dana shouting everytime a wave approached, not with all the miles I'd traveled from Pittsburgh just to be here in this place, just to have a shot, even this late in life, at grace. How to get it?
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I decided to shut off everything else and nottry to figure it out. I listened to the ocean and waited for my body to tell me what to do. Then, just as Wingnut was back at the break, I felt the swell bearing in on the reef. Nobody was saying, "Go!" but it felt like go. I turned and paddled into the wave as it jumped to attention, looking back to see it gaining on me. It felt like I was in the right place at the right time. As the wave grabbed and my board started to plane, I popped up and took off down the face and turned left, right into the heart of everything everyone had written or said about surfing and The Ranch. It was all coming true at once, and it was coming true for me.
When I got back out, Wingnut greeted me: "Nice wave! That was awesome!" "Picked it myself," I smiled proudly.
I'm sure if this was a fishing expedition and that wave was a fish, the guide would have told me to throw it back. But believe me, I took a picture. For a few moments I was back in the bubble, wrapped in grace, and I wanted to remember. The possibilities, it seemed, were limitless.
Dana Brown, director of photography John-Paul Beegly and many surfers fromStepping Into Liquid answer questions after the film's Oc premiere at Regency Lido Theater, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach, (949) 673-8351. Fri., 7:45 p.m. Call for tickets.