I won’t call it a mid-life crisis because I’m only 34 and plan to live until at least my mid-80’s. Mid-life crises don’t happen until the middle right? So I have 8ish more years until that. It has to be something else that’s pulled me into picking up surfing.
I had this vision once in my early twenties while living in Maine of driving clear across the country until I hit California. I’d find my way to Hawaii and settle down for a relaxed existence on the beach and pick up surfing. It was one of a million plans that I seemed to have bouncing around in my head at all times, and so I was easily discarded. But it did have some steam for a few months. From then on, it was a brief flicker from time to time that left an impression. It was still illusive though, and I had no solid plan. I kept it as an ember.
Maybe it was this vision that I was chasing when I packed up my car with music essentials and started driving west in my beat up Mercury Sable. The dream of the west coast where all unknown urges would be realized. Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” blared it’s pristine drop-d tuning over my tinny speakers. Robert Plant crooning, “going to California with an aching in my heart.” That line always crested like a wave for me, the silence after the matter of fact statement flooding with pensiveness.
But I didn’t make it to California. I made it to Kentucky, and my car broke down, and I worked for a few months in a deli slicing meat, bagging groceries, and selling cheese. The giant wheels of apricot-colored parmesan that I attacked with cheese wire every day were a poor substitute for the west coast sun. I had to get out of there, and the job in Korea appeared like someone propelling down from a helicopter, hand outstretched, to my life boat of prosciutto slicing and olive scooping. I blindly grabbed the hand and didn’t look back, escaping to an unknown island in Korea.
I lived on Jeju Island for six years and never tried to surf once. Jeju is one of the best spots for surfing in this country, a sport that has exploded in popularity in recent years. I had friends who surfed, and would occasionally spot a board strapped to the top of a car on the highway, feeling a pang of ache for my lost dream. I never took the initiative to try it myself though.
Returning to Jeju after two years in Shanghai, I had a chance to reassess what I had missed. The nature of Jeju contrasted with Shanghai’s sprawling metropolis. The outdoors called, and eventually my mind started to turn back to that ember that I had held for years: the itch to surf.
My plan was to go to Maine for Christmas, and then work my way back to Korea from there. I’d fly to Oregon to see my brother for a few days and then go on a solo trip to Hawaii, that vacuous vision, where I would take surf lessons and get the basics. By the time I got back to Jeju, I would be a competent surfer. After a cold few weeks in Maine and a damp five days in the pacific northwest, I was ready for a tropical getaway.
Hawaii was a shimmering dream. The days were ideal, and time flowed. I cruised in my rental Jeep listening to local radio for the first day, mapping out Oahu, discovering rush hour traffic on my return to Honolulu. I ran my first full evening there along the shoreline under Diamond Crater, and took in the coast and the waves.
I booked a surf lesson on AirBnB, carefully weighing all of the instructors before deciding on one that seemed to fit my pace. Matt turned out to be a good-natured Frenchman who had relocated to Oahu many years ago to pursue his dream of surfing. He was pro for a few years, and now is building a business teaching lessons and taking people turtle watching on paddle boards. We met at the Waikiki Aquarium at 7am, him pulling up in a battered surf van packed with various boards and leashes. “Let’s do it bro!” he said and I jumped in.
The wind was enormous that morning, and we stood on the shore overlooking the waves in silence. I felt like a warrior in my newly bought convenience store swim trunks and my breathable running shirt–the closest thing that I owned to a rash guard. Matt and I were ready to brave the elements, and I was primed to become a surfer. “Very windy this morning!” Matt said with confident enthusiasm. This seemed to be his only mode.
We drove up the coast a bit more to a cliff overlooking a sea of choppy but surfable waves and then started working our way down to the water. I clutched my large foam board, my fingertips barely wrapping around the rails, readjusting every few steps to prevent a drop. Matt confidently strolled with his shortboard ahead of me. And then we jumped in.
My first float on a board made me doubt the whole endeavor instantly. I couldn’t find a spot on the giant foam board where it didn’t tip and try to throw me off. Matt gracefully paddled circles around me on a board that seemed half the size, giving instructions about placement and paddling. Eventually we battled out to some wave breaks and got ready.
It happened fast. Matt yelled, “OK it’s coming!” and I felt my board spin into position. He was tossing me around, getting me primed for the wave. I wasn’t ready. “Now! Paddle! One! Two! Three!” I felt him give my board a shove and I was off, the surge of the cresting water throwing me forward. I put my head down, almost kissing the board. I tried to do what I had been trained to on shore. Push up, place the back foot, and then the front. My result had the grace and fluidity of a robot standing on an exercise ball. I fell forward, the wave swallowed me up, I tasted brine on my tongue and salt in my sinuses. And yet I was grinning.
I paddled back to Matt. Was that a hint of skepticism that I detected for the first time that day? He said in his French accent, “slow it down, plant your back foot. Here we go!” And another wave grabbed me and threw me off of my board. “Whoo! Yah!” Matt yelled. I battled back, and we repeated the process again and again. Paddling to different spots, making small talk before I awkwardly slipped off my board and had to reposition. He told me about his wife and daughter and his love of Hawaii and surfing. The wind was kicking up more and more, and my arms were getting tired. I kept getting smacked down, but this is what I had come here to do, right? Learn surfing?
Matt kept giving tips, and I kept pushing down my discouragement. And then, on one of the final waves of the day, I got to my feet and rode a wobbly invigorating ride. “Alright, bro! You surfed!” Matt said, masking what I’m sure was impatience. I scrutinized his face, but could only detect that chilled out enthusiasm that had been a constant through the session.
We made plans to go later that week when the wind died down. After practicing pop-ups on my hotel bed for a few days, I met him at the same spot and we jumped into the ocean. The surf was more reliable, the waves coming in smooth lines that hummed and crackled. There were occasional rain storms rolling through mixing with periods of sun. I looked out over Honolulu and followed the shore down to Diamond Head and breathed deep. Almost on cue, Matt called out, “I think there’s a whale!” I scanned the horizon just in time to see a massive humpback breach and then looked right to see a full rainbow connecting the city to the sea. “Yah!” Matt yelled. “Alright!” I said. And we grinned.
Since getting back to Jeju, I’ve stocked up on the requisite gear: a long board, a thick wetsuit, a roof rack, and began the frustrating business of reading surf forecasts. It’s erratic, to say the least, and on the good days people swarm Jungmun Beach, the most reliable spot on the island. I’ve slowly been working my way from the small beginner waves to the bigger ones, standing up more frequently, gaining confidence, working up to turns. It’s a process. But waves need to start somewhere. Some travel thousands of miles before finding a shoreline.
There were many doubts that swirled around in my head at the outset of my surfing dream, when I was first driving across the country before my breakdown in Louisville. It was ephemeral and out of reach. What felt like a detour to Korea, actually turned out to be an entry point into the sport. Years of waiting and slight envy at people actually surfing slowly transformed into the plan to do it myself. Without those years of slow maturing, I’m not sure if I would have had the patience to keep getting back onto the board. I don’t think I would have had trust that I was making imperceptible progress with each fall during my early twenties. At that time, I might have walked away after that first windy session.
Part of youth is the generation of dreams. The overwhelming possibilities of what can be. The standing at the beginning of a million paths that sprawl in different directions, and the impossible task of choosing one. What you don’t realize is that these paths aren’t exclusive. They cross each other, and even circle back sometimes, perpetually churning and reforming like waves in the sea.
Recommended listening Memories in Beach House by Seaside Lovers. This is an album that I picked up based upon the cover alone. The record itself is a beautiful see-through sea glass. From the album drop on track one, the ocean is conjured and I float away on a tropical dream. This is the quintessential soundtrack to summer.