We continue our exploration of Surf Fiction with another (much shorter) story from Jeff McElroy. In “Nobody’s Waves,” we meet the narrator and his unnamed girlfriend as they head toward Big Sur, Calif., a place known for its incredible and overpowering natural beauty.
By Jeff McElroy
We’re running out of land, I said.
Highway 1 rose and fell over buttery contours of fields, mountains and valleys. August sun baked the chaparral into golden hay and shimmered in the pacific Pacific. Kellie’s chipped-paint toenails rode on the dashboard and reminded me of a child’s cute, grubby little paws. But beyond that, she was all woman. Miles of tan legs barely disappeared into Daisy Dukes, and her acres of blonde curls clothed her bosom more than the bandana blouse she wore. We’d grabbed coffee in Carpinteria, ate BBQ in Cambria, and I’d already explained to her why zebras grazed alongside cows below Hearst Castle.
“William Randolph Hearst was a fat-cat newspaper man, owned all the newspapers back in the day,” I’d said. “He basically controlled the media which is crazy because he could create headlines to sway public opinion, say, towards war. Orson Welles made a movie based on him called Citizen Kane.”
She’d interrupted me with a bow-tie smile shot out from beneath big ol’ Boogie Nights glasses. Shut me right up and made me feel like a dirty, boring grandpa. She had been listening, would’ve listened to me ramble for a thousand miles about yellow journalism, the Rough Riders, and the Spanish-American War. But that smile, so fertile, so hot. It said, I’d go anywhere with you and listen to you forever, because I love you. But it also said, through no intention of hers, Shut the fuck up, we’re approaching Big Sur.
And when we ran out of land, Highway 1 floated on the same foggy updrafts lofting the fanned-out hawks. We clung to the continent by pine roots. The world became emerald sea and opal sky on the outward bends of road, then damp evergreen forest on the inward turns. “Beautiful,” I said. She nodded, contemplative. She’d told me a few weeks before she’d only been up to Big Sur once; 10 years ago with her dad, the year before he OD’d. The summer between 8th and 9th grade. She didn’t remember much, just lots of cliffs and ocean and trees. Dad was a big surfer from Oxnard, back when wetsuits were made of thick, shiny rubber and boards were short but fat with three stringers and one fin. She grew up building sandcastles or swinging on rusty swings while Dad surfed Oil Piers or The Point.
We passed Esalen. I told her the Esalen were the native people of this area, living lives more vertical than horizontal, fishing the sea and foraging the forests above. Now the Esalen Institute was a quasi-Buddhist, hippie, New Age, Yoga, Meditation retreat for yippies, mystics, hipsters, housewives, and corporate weekends. Four hundred dollars to pitch a sleeping bag for the weekend, why not? Over in the passenger seat, that bow-tie smile. She fed me a fig and kissed my neck.
Around a corner, and the waves turned on like a switch. Overhead beach-break thumping away, trying to turn an isthmus into a sea-stack. I had my board and wetsuit in the back. But this is the story of Big Sur: no access. It’s either privately owned, NAVY owned, or such a steep cliff you’d need climbing gear to rappel to the break. So we stopped to piss in Gorda.
A beer for me, a glass of wine for her. A little boy tried to sell us an American flag on a stick for two bucks while his dad slept something off in a junk-stuffed sedan. Northward. Scenic Lookout Point signs were emblems of wasted tax-payer dollars; the whole damn thing is scenic. And then a sign I was happy to pay for: Coastal Access. And way down there I saw a headland hooking back on itself, forming a perfect setup for a pointbreak. A few spokes of dark lines, chased by grinding whitewater, confirmed my suspicion, so I pulled off.
I grinned at her mischievously; she knew damn well why I’d picked this particular spot to stop. She tried to smile back, but a storm was brewing behind her sunglasses.
“What’s wrong, Babe?” I asked.
“Nothing. This is beautiful here.”
We hiked down the soft dirt path, chest-high chaparral printed gold by the sunlight. I carried my surfboard underarm with my wetsuit hung over the nose. A Eucalyptus forest made deep shade over an abandoned cabin from the 1800’s. The calm river made deep bends seaward, submerged logs and trinket sandstones reflecting the sun’s rays like pirate booty in the calm pools. Small trout finned the reeds. We reached the sand and I saw that the point was a good setup, but needed a larger swell for waves to complete the hook to the inside. Much further south, the coast lay more exposed to the northwest, and I saw the dark backs of waves combing through sea stacks. She saw them, too, because she kept walking south, still with the storms behind her shades.
We walked a few miles, sometimes talking, but mostly in silence. The gullied cliffs spoke of the prevalent winds that had formed them, their soft bends pregnant with round stones ready to become sand. The ocean smelled kelpy and fishy, the way I remembered Southern California beaches from when I was a kid. The waves grew as we walked south, until the old nervous feeling returned to my stomach. They were muscular waves, breaking over unseen reefs, detonating on sea stacks here, and backing off into deep water there. I mind-surfed a few potential spots before picking one that broke right and left over barnacled rocks.
She watched me suit up. Her gaze made me feel a bit foolish, as if she was questioning my need to surf in a hazardous and sharky place far from help. I thought about her father and felt fevered in my wetsuit.
“Be careful,” she’d said, smiling a distant smile.
That shit was cold. Even in August, duckdives brought ice-cream headaches and freezing flushes of water down the spine. I tried to remind myself I had surfed much bigger waves than these back home, but the desolation of the place added a few feet to every wave. I caught a quick right to get a feel for things. It never really stood up, so I chop-hopped around before paddling back out. I glanced back at shore and saw her sitting on a log watching me. I waved and she waved back. That sweet little thing, I thought. A product of California, content to watch her man ride his precious waves. Just like she’d watched her father catch his fill. What beautiful patience.
Big sets reared up over the rocks, and even though I was in position, they just never worked out. They pitched early or backed off. I paddled to a new spot where I’d seen a perfect left grind all the way to shore. But no more waves broke there, and the place I’d left rifled off a few rights. During lulls, big bull kelp surfaced, each one looking like a shark fin out of the corner of my eye. After an hour, I gave up and rode another chop-hopper to the flinty sand.
She handed me a towel and I could tell she’d been crying. She ran her middle finger under her glasses, sniffled, took a deep breath, and the real smile returned. “It’s so beautiful here,” she said.
I changed into shorts and a flannel, and she pulled on her jacket. We stood facing West, hand in hand. The sun dipped behind the point to the north. Of course, the waves turned on again, and this time they were perfect. The same two spots I’d sampled became machines. I pointed this out to her and she smiled and said something that got caught in the wind.
“What?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing,” she said.
“What did you say?”
She took a deep, quavering breath and looked away from me, out to sea. “Oh, just something my dad said here once, that one time I came up here with him.”
“He surfed here?”
“No. He left his board in the truck and we just hiked down to this beach. The waves were bigger than now, more perfect, and I remember asking him if he was going to surf. He sort of chuckled and said, ‘Nah, not here.’”
“Why not?” I asked.
The last glow of sunlight radiated her face and the sea reflected in her shades.
“Because, he said these are nobody’s waves. They don’t want to be ridden.”
I held her from behind, our hands joined at her belly, and watched the darkening waves dance all by themselves in this amphitheater of ghosts. And as they spun and echoed and knocked and chanted to sea-song and wind-song, I nodded and moved my lips with no sound. It was plain that no wild thing need be tamed, be it horse, man, or wave. These were, indeed, nobody’s waves.
See more of Jeff McElroy’s fiction on Korduroy
*Photos by Josh Gill