"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Surfing, Extreme Skiing, Risk, And Love

I grew up in Connecticut, so the biggest waves we ever saw were little blebs petering out on the rocky shores of Long Island Sound. I graduated to Misquamicut Beach in Rhode Island which was on the Atlantic and a step up, but the waves were still tame - enough to for a gravelly pink belly on the way in, but little more.  The ocean off Kennebunkport was broken by breakwaters and frigid, Arctic, blue-lipped, aching ankle cold; exciting to look at as the surf broke onto the basalt and igneous rocks on the shore (‘Blowing Rock” was a tourist attraction), but no surfer idyll.

I spent many summers day-tripping on the Jersey Shore - Asbury Park, Ocean Grove, Belmar, Spring Lake, Manasquan, Point Pleasant Beach, and Seaside Heights.  The waves there got big enough for body surfing; but me and the Nicky Nork goombas never went for the waves. We were cruisin’ for poontang, and not about to get blue balls in the early July North Atlantic.

I graduated to the big time in the mid-60s when a work buddy and I went hurricane kayaking off of Pt. Pleasant. A day after the hurricane had passed, the winds died down but the surf was up, ugly big breakers under a cold, grey October sky.  I paddled the kayak out past the surf line, then caught a wave towards shore. I got it just right, and the kayak slid inland on top of the wave.  However, the convection currents of the roiled hurricane-driven waters circled up and around faster and with more power than I had anticipated.  The nose of the flimsy kayak dipped forward and got caught by the wave’s centripetal force. I was tipped, turned, and driven head down into the sand.  The weight of water and kayak forced me into the sea bottom.  The surge of the next wave dislodged me, and pushed me to the surface.  I struggled to gain traction underfoot and purchase in the water.

A few years later I was body-surfing south of Atlantic City.  It was a bright, sunny day, and the beach was crowded, all Coppertone and tan. The surf was regular and strong. I caught a wave at its crest, on its sweet spot, the perfect poise of 3000 miles of Atlantic fetch and shallow, regular beach bottom; but the pitch was not perfect, nor the calculus of the wave; and I was upended, tossed, and thrown into the last thrust of the long, African wave.

I gave up messing with the Atlantic surf, spent years in the calm tropical waters of the Caribbean and the South China Sea, the island inlets near Colombo, and the waters off Batu Feringhi in Penang,

A few years ago I was in Porto-Novo, Benin; and the Holiday Inn was on the beach – a long, interrupted stretch of undeveloped sand and dunes washed by the Atlantic. I saw no one swimming, not even at the shoreline.  No one wading, ankle-bathing.  No women lifting the hems of their panyas. They were removed, elegant, and seductive, but not wet.


They were not interested in the ocean, nor the surf; and afraid of the notorious riptides of the Bight of Benin as much as they were maintaining West African decorum.

Many a seaman, ship, and unwary tourist had been sucked under the waters of the Atlantic to disappear without a trace.

The waters of the Atlantic off the coast of Mauritania were the most inviting.  The local expatriates disparagingly referred to the coastline of the country as ‘The longest beach in the world’ – not because its 1000 miles was longer than any other, but because the Sahara extended for 2000 miles to the west– unremitting sand, desert, and emptiness until the Arabian Sea. 

Some of the most extreme surfing in the world is off the coast of Humboldt County in Northern California – rocky, treacherous, cold, and unpredictable; and it has some of the highest surf in the world. You have to be crazy to surf there – obsessed and death-seeking.  You can die in a minute, dashed on the rocks onto a cold, grey, and misty shore.

I have read of surfers getting their necks broken in the surf off of Maui.  Their last thoughts are of the green, tropical mountains, the warm sun, and the soft sandy shores of the beach.  They surfed in Paradise, and were pulled under by a friendly arm of the sea.   Drowning at Patrick’s Point, on the other hand, was letting go of life alone in freezing waters off a desolate, grey, cold, and isolated coast, never to be found.

I have read of surfers in Australia who have hd their arms torn off by White Sharks, others who have been paralyzed from the neck down after being tossed into the sand by the crippling blow of a wave; others who have been sucked out to sea by rip tides and ocean currents.

There is nothing more dramatic than the sight of a surfer in the tube of a wave off of Hawaii.

Perfect poise, balance, confidence.

I have known extreme snowboarders who ski the double black diamonds at the top of the most challenging slopes in the Rockies.

A snowboarder catching air of rock cliff in the backcountry in Golden, British Columbia, Canada.

Speed, air, precipice, rock outcrops, and the risk of getting crushed to a pulp at 12,000 ft.; yet this is nothing compared to the terror of getting sucked out into the North Pacific off the Northern California coast, joining the Humboldt Current, and pulled at 25 mph towards Japan on frigid, dark, and deep waters to another continent.

I once went hiking in the Catskills.  The mountains were nothing compared to the Rockies, but were challenging in spots and were tricky in the late Fall when early snowstorms moved in from the west. We stopped at a gas station, and my friend asked for directions to the trailhead, pointing to the sheer cliffs hanging over the small Greene County town.  The attendant looked at us, shook his head, and said, “You should be in bed fucking your girlfriend, not climbing those cliffs”; and right he was, for as we approached the summit an October storm blanketed us with a foot of snow, leaving us stranded 500 ft. below the shelter.

In my life I have risked disease, abduction, kidnapping, dehydration, and discovery. I have risked censure, moral indignation, and been fined for sexual libertinage. I have narrowly avoided teetering, overloaded Tata trucks on potholed Indian highways; nearly pitched over the railings of 1000 ft. ravines in the Andes; eaten scrofulous and rotten bush meat in Cameroon, been eaten by Anopheles mosquitos in the Comoros and bitten by Tse-Tse flies in Malawi; but never have I chosen to risk death.  I took my chances in the massage parlors of Bangkok or with a lover on the gurneys of the surgical ward of the Aga Khan Hospital in Rawalpindi, but never on the slippery rocks of the Yellow Mountains or the slopes of the high Appalachians.

I have never understood the nature of extreme risk – why people risk their lives for what seems to me few rewards.  I am told that the exhilaration of skiing down a 30 degree slope high on the highest mountain at Whistler is incomparable and almost spiritual.  Next to God in the thin air, crystalline sky, brilliant blue sky and blindingly white snow; but I cannot get beyond the thought of concussions and compound fractures, plaster casts and immobility.  The pain I feel after leaving an Indonesian lover will dissipate; but I will have indelible memories.

Risk is what makes life bearable.  Without it there would be nothing but lunch pails, cubicles, and stale sex. Extreme risk-takers are part of an exclusive club.  None of us take the same risks,but we all share in the adventure of leaving ordinariness behind.

I have become friends with a double Bronze Star Vietnam veteran, 3-tour helicopter pilot, and much decorated hero of the war. He has endless stories of landing in hot zones, avoiding withering fire from the bush, negotiating sharp turns up and down the rivers of Pleiku, flying under the radar and behind enemy encampments.  He did this because it was his job and his duty, but his medals were not only reward his courage under fire; but acknowledge his very American sense of risk, challenge, and reward.

Although I have been a social risk-taker all my life, I place myself only at the bottom of the pyramid.  I have risked reputation, family, and occupation; but my Vietnam buddy, the extreme surfer in Humboldt County, and the off-piste hiker in the Yellow Mountains have risked their lives.

Where we all land, however, is in the land of rewards.  I will still and always take the memories of love and sensuality in the Far East over surviving a fall in the Grand Tetons.

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