Like drugs or religion, surfing makes you sound stupid when you try to explain its appeal, like you're using the language of idiots, of the devoted. Probably this is because, as is also the case with drugs or religion, a real dedication to surfing could kill you a number of different ways—and not all of them metaphorical. And the specter of death, it reorients you away from the intellectual and into the realm of the visceral. You start to speak in the language of the gut; your words loosen, meanings expand.
Here's how, while standing at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, surfboard under my arm for the first time, words loosened and meanings expanded.
"You're a good swimmer, yes?"
This is asked of me by Sergio, the surfing instructor at the W Punta de Mita, a luxury hotel and resort in Mexico's Riviera Nayarit; I am there to learn to surf. The only problem is, the waves are "bad."
But what does "bad" mean? I'd been warned the waves were bad before flying from New York City, and I'd taken it to mean that the ocean was flat and that there wouldn't be much upon which to surf. But that's a different kind of bad. The kind of bad that the waves actually were here led to red flags being staked at every pathway that led from the hotel to the beach; the red flags, of course, serving as a warning that it wasn't safe for anyone to swim. Compared to how the waves are in other parts of the world, they weren't that high, maybe. They were mostly cresting at about six to eight feet, though some of them looked to arc up to about 10 or so, which is high for a moving wall of water to be coming right at you. And then another moving wall of water. And then another. The waves were that kind of bad.
But enough about bad, what does it mean to be good? As in a "good" swimmer, which Sergio thought, yes, I probably was. But was I? My favorite stroke is sidestroke. I hold my nose when I jump into the deep end of a pool. I think that's all that needs to be said about if I'm a "good" swimmer.
But my words loosened and meanings expanded, and I really wanted to go surfing, because that's what I'd flown across a continent to do, and so I said, "Yes, I'm a pretty good swimmer."
And then I pointed at the man I was with, who also held a surfboard under his arm, and I said, "But him, he's a really good swimmer. Como un pescado. He's a Pisces."
Sergio smiled at me and said, "You, too. You are like a fish, too!"
I wasn't so sure. And so I decided that it was as good a time as any to tell Sergio: "Sergio, I am afraid of the ocean."
Those words had meaning. About a week after my 17th birthday, in an ocean other than the Pacific, I was pulled out by a current while I was boogie boarding. It was early in the summer, the beach was all but deserted. I could see my brother on the shore, running up and down the sand, looking for someone to help, pausing only to bend over and vomit in fear. I unleashed the boogie board from my wrist and watched it fly out behind me toward the horizon. I turned my eyes back to the shore and tried to swim straight back in, but only found myself growing weaker and weaker, and getting no closer. It could only have been a few minutes before my brother finally found someone, a man who knew enough not to swim out toward me and get pulled in himself, but who waded into the water and waved his arms like an air traffic controller until I understood he wanted me to stop swimming toward the shore and start swimming parallel to it. And so I did, and slowly at first and then all at once I broke free of the riptide, and started making progress, until I got close enough that the man—who was not an air traffic controller, but, rather, just a brave, scared, helpful man—came to me and lifted me out of the water and carried me to the beach, where I lay, unable to move, for some time. The boogie board was brought in by the waves a few hours later.
That was half a lifetime ago for me, and I've been in the ocean countless times since then, but never without some fear, never without some awareness that "the ocean was like an uncaring God, endlessly dangerous, power beyond measure." That's how William Finnegan described it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, which is not only one of the best chronicles of surfing, but also of fear, or rather respect.
Finnegan learned to surf as a child in California, but really became a surfer when his family moved to Hawaii, and he was immersed in the state's singular surfing culture. Surfing became a thing that defined Finnegan, a passion that continued as he grew up, traveled the world, and became known for his war reporting for The New Yorker. Through it all, surfing was a constant for Finnegan, even as everything else changed—most notably the places where he and his fellow surfers once experienced desolate stretches of beach and idyllic, uncompromised waters. Where once there was nothing but surf and sand, now there were sprawling condominiums and hotels, populated not by itinerant surfers but by wealthy vacationers who were there to surf, yes, but whose presence was of a wholly different nature than that of the mythologized "surf bum."
The idea of the "surf bum" is an interesting one now; not because it doesn't apply to some, or even most, surfers, but because of how totally impossible it is to imagine the presence of "bums" of any kind in many of the places around the world that are known for being surfing paradises and have more recently become known for catering to luxury-seeking clientele. Mexico's Riviera Nayarit is one of those regions. The incredibly charming towns of Sayulita and San Pancho are famous surfing towns, the type of bohemian paradises that attract expats from around the world and are in possession of an anarchically vibrant, yet simultaneously laid-back vibe. And yet, these towns and the surrounding areas have lost the allure of the secret surfing spot that they once had; they are known, now, with visitors coming from as far as Australia and France to try the waves. This makes an obvious kind of sense, this loss of a secret. The world is smaller than it was only a couple short decades ago, there are no secrets on the internet, and hidden gems get exposed and exploited at a rapid-fire rate.
There are no secrets on the internet... but the ocean is full of secrets... even if the ocean doesn't let you have any secrets, because your only secret is that you're scared, and the ocean will pound that out of you, until you cough it up, the truth stinging the back of your throat... These were the sort of things running through my mind the day I was going to learn to surf. I was able to let these—silly, unhelpful, totally unprofound—things run through my mind because I sat for a while on the shore, watching Sergio go out into the ocean with the Pisces. They were far enough out that the cormorants hunting for breakfast were dive-bombing the water between them and the shore; later, I'd see the cormorants perched up high on spindly branches, completely still, their wings stretched all the way out from their bodies.
"Why do they sit like that?" I asked.
"To dry out their feathers," said the Pisces.
Before all that, though, I watched the Pisces catch a wave. He did what we'd been taught to do on the sand. He paddled furiously as a wave crested behind him; he grabbed the rails of the surfboard and, in one smooth motion, hopped up onto his feet and into a crouching stance. His hips seemed tense at first, his arms wavered as they spread out; and then everything got loose and open as he stayed up on the wave for an exhilarating four or five seconds, before his feet flipped up and he crashed beneath the water, popping up a moment later with a wide grin on his face, toothy like a shark.
I was ready to go.
Sergio came out of the water, meeting me and walking back into the ocean by my side.
"Just do what I say, you'll be fine. Did you see him? He's like a fish!" Sergio told me.
"He's a Pisces," I reminded him.
And then he shouted to me: "Duck dive!"
The wave was only about seven feet high; it hadn't broken yet, but I inhaled deeply and dove right into its blue-green face, aiming downward, clutching at the sand with my fingers, then pushing back up and into the air.
And then again: "Duck dive!"
And then again.
The waves were, as waves do, coming one after another, breaking big and fast, and sometimes I wouldn't be able to come up for air in between them and stay down, gripping the ocean floor, while the water churned above me. I hadn't yet gotten on my board. These were, I guess, "bad" waves.
But every time I came up, Sergio was there, encouraging me, and we made our way out past one of the breaking points and I got up on my board—or, rather, I got down on it, and into position, to paddle and try and stand. This is where I had a few moments to think, just long enough, in fact, to realize how completely I hadn't been thinking until then, how everything I'd been doing had just been reacting; how every part of my body suddenly felt important, how surfing was a thing that could make you feel whole. Part of the reason, of course, I was able to let go of thinking, let go of my fear, was because I had someone there with me, looking out for me, telling me when to dive, helping steer the nose of my board. A good surfer is using their brain as much as they are using their body, but for me, whose life often feels like one long series of analyses, this was an opportunity to let go of some of that type of thinking, and embrace the barbarism of feeling, and of fear.
"This is your wave!" Sergio said to me. "Paddle!"
And so I did. I'd like to say I stood up. I'd like to say I rode it in toward the shore, that I was triumphant in the water. But no sooner had I stopped paddling and grabbed the rails, attempting to rise in one smooth motion, it became obvious that I'd been too slow. The wave crashed over me, and I flipped under my board—"Dive!"—and reached for the bottom of the ocean floor, kicking downward. Only, I wasn't able to find it, to feel it; I was yanked backward by a receding wave and tried now to kick up toward the surface. Only I couldn't find that either, because another wave crashed down. I stayed still for what was probably a second but felt like a year. I felt the different pulls of the ocean. I steadied myself, and I found the ground with my feet, and pushed off, breaking through to the surface, and gasping for breath.
"You okay?" Sergio asked.
And I was. My heart was pounding and my body was thrumming with adrenaline, but I was okay. I felt like a kid. I felt free. I just felt.
And I dove again, into the blue-green face of a wave. This time, when I came up, I was still feeling things. I felt depleted.
"I want to go back," I told Sergio.
And so I went back to the beach, and lay on the sand, marveling at this perfect place, where nature meets, okay, commerce, yes, and where the days are definitely less barbarian than they are bohemian (and bourgeois bohemian, at that), but where those sometimes jarring juxtapositions can feel like they're melting away when you're out in the water, and there's nothing to do but think about being out in the water, where a capricious wave or God or both can knock you under and pull you down and have you thanking it, blessing it, for allowing you to come back up and do the whole thing over again.
That night, we walked to the beach and saw the sunset. This part of Mexico is famous for its sunset. If you could buy a sunset, this is the kind that would cost a million dollars. This sunset is so beautiful it's a joke, and what's the point of describing a joke? You only ruin a joke by describing it. Especially when its punchline is: You turn around and see a double rainbow arcing across a silver blue sky, pinned in place by lissome palm trees. And just like there was more than one rainbow, there was more than one punchline. The other punchline: This once-in-a-lifetime sunset, it's going to be here tomorrow night. And you'd probably see it the night after, and the night after that, if only you were able to stay for a little longer in paradise, if you could only afford it.