By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Chris was cut off while riding his motorcycle in the half-light of the early morning one Easter Sunday. He laid 25 feet of skid marks across that San Francisco intersection and then laid his head into the side of a bright-yellow tow truck. He never left the bike, his hand still gripped the throttle. His neck had snapped on impact. For weeks afterward, his friends would say that when he saw what was coming, he lowered his head, gunned that throttle and screamed, “Bring it on.”
After Chris died, for most who knew him, surfing was just never the same. I would occasionally give it a go, but it never felt right. My trip to Bali was the very last of those occasions. Years passed; I moved on to other activities, Lyme disease among them. It took the doctors a very long while to figure out what was wrong with me. Much of that time I spent thinking about Chris’ last few seconds on the planet, thinking about what it meant to shout at the inevitable. The day that my friend called to invite me to go surfing was a day near the tail end of my second year with Lyme. I had already lost 25 pounds, had already lost much more. My doctors had told me there was no way to know if I was strong enough to do anything unless I tried to do something. They claimed I wasn’t going to get any sicker, or not in a permanent fashion, but that wasn’t saying much. Truthfully, I went surfing because I was already done. My ass had been kicked but good. Illness had won. I could no longer write; I could barely walk across a room. Long ago I had decided that given the right set of impossible circumstances, calling it quits was always an option. I went surfing because I had been contemplating the possibility of suicide for months and decided I could try one more detour before heading down that route. I went because that’s what Chris would have done.
My friend took me to Sunset Beach. Unlike its Hawaiian namesake, California’s version is a beginner’s wave predominantly peopled by geriatrics, the unskilled, the terrified. Most learn there and never go back. The waves are too soft and too slow, and on the day we went there was no swell in sight. The surf was barely 2 feet high, but the water was warm and the tide low, and I could almost wade to the lineup. I sat out there for about 30 seconds before a wave came. Because it was a crap day at a crap break, there were no other takers. I spun my board around, paddled twice and was on it. For the first time in nearly two years, and just for one wave-riding instant, I felt the thrum of life, the possibility of possibility, and maybe that was enough.
I don’t remember anything else about that ride, except that when it was over, I wanted another and another and another. Five waves later, I wasn’t just exhausted, I was disassembled. Those five waves took me 15 days in bed to recover from, but on the 16th I drove back for more. The waves were still small, the water still warm. I caught five more waves and again spent two weeks recovering. But I kept coming back, and slowly, very slowly, I started to feel better. At a time when everything else was gone, when nothing made sense and nothing worked, when suicide seemed a damn viable option, surfing saved my life — and I wanted to know why.?
From West of Jesus: Surfing, Science, and the Origins of Belief, due June 13 from Bloomsbury, 224 pages, $24 hardcover.