The Impermanence of All Things

Surf sessions, catastrophic earthquakes, and the difficulty of experiencing time and place in the immediacy of living.

Light / Dark

I’m new to the Pacific Northwest. These cold waters and lonely peaks feel a little unsettling. But my real problem with surfing here, at the moment, is a larger problem. When asked, the locals give me the Buddhist treatment. They say: One must accept the impermanence of all things. Take it in stride buddy.

This advice wigs me out. Did you say take it in stride? Fuck that. I’m not going out that way. Stammering koans as the ocean engulfs me? Nah. I’m more of a scratch-and-claw, kick-and-scream guy. Surely there are precautions to take? Things to buy?

It’s Friday night and I’m preparing to surf in the morning. Here is what I got: My George Greenough stubby. My 5/4 and booties. Gooey, cold-water wax. My last will and testament, license, passport, and social security in a plastic baggy. I got $600 in cash in a sock and lots of socks. I got a bar of soap, fire starter, okay rain gear, okay tent, warm clothes and a book for the aftermath. Into my phone I type: How dieth the wise man? Same as the fool. Maybe goodbye. I send that out via group text.

What else?

I got multiple gallons of water. Stagg Chili with the pop-tab lids. Tub of smooth Jif. Water purifier. Duct tape. Leatherman. A ripped sleeping bag but I got it. I got a badass machete. I got my red whistle on its lanyard. I got all this spread out on the living room floor.

“Are you serious?”

Super serious.


In June of 2015, The New Yorker put out a story called The Really Big One by Kathryn Schulz. The article described what will happen to the Pacific Northwest when an earthquake (a.k.a. the Really Big One) occurs. The article is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a quick recap:

There will be an earthquake in the Pacific Northwest. This earthquake will be either scary or batshit wild. The scary version has a 1-in-3 chance of happening in the next 50 years. The batshit version has a 1-in-10 chance. Either earthquake will happen 80 miles off the coast along a 700-mile fault line known as the Cascadia subduction zone. The batshit version will cause portions of the Northwest to drop 6 feet and move 30 feet to the west. Parts of Seattle and Portland will undergo liquefaction. Landslides will number in the thousands. Buildings, bridges, and infrastructure will fail.

And the tsunami.

Roughly 15 minutes after the earthquake, a tsunami will inundate large swaths of the coast. So basically, the Pacific Northwest is an iffy place to build a civilization. But it was built during a bubble of geologic calm. And now, new shit has come to light and upended the status quo. This place is dangerous. To accept the danger is to commit courageously to a new reality. But come on. When has that ever been easy?


Short Sands, in Oregon’s Oswald West State Park, is probably the most populated surf spot in the Northwest. Through the summer and fall, this wind-protected cove draws hundreds of beachgoers and surfers from Portland-metro and the nearby beach towns of Seaside, Cannon Beach, and Manzanita.

Forget the cosmic meat grinder—surfing lures me into the brownout sludge of Bowls, the shark-breaching peaks of Pacifica, and now, the brooding waters of the Northwest. Surfing is the escape. It is the paradoxical escape into danger. Such is its power.

Like a lot of Oregon surfing, Short Sands is an escape from the world of man. I walk for several minutes through big Douglas Firs out of which a wonderland reveals itself. Waves break along each point with several peaks in between. Children, families, and surfers abound. Dogs frolic in the sand. (I pay special attention to the doggies. They’ll hear the earthquake’s high-speed compressional waves before we do. That’s an extra half-minute notice.)

Coming out here, I do not know what people are thinking. Yours truly has his reasons: Poor impulse control and an addiction to surfing. But all these families? The old folk? The children? Do they not know? The beach is happy but I am a manic Disturber of the Peace. I go around asking the Tough Questions like, You know about the tsunami RIGHT? How fast can you paddle that thing? What are you, some sort of crazed, action junkie?

“It only bothers me when I’m not surfing,” says a yuppy from Portland. “When I’m sitting around thinking about it. That’s when it’s bad.”

“It’s such a long shot that we’re actually in the water when it happens,” says his friend.

“A calculated risk,” says a retired math professor from the University of Washington. “But my wife and I love it here. And it helps that we’re old. I’m 74.”

I walk up to a kid looking at a dead Dungeness crab. He says he knows all about the earthquake. They teach it in school. He knows the evacuation routes and where the high ground is. We bump fists like old comrades and go our separate ways. My nerves are raw from the interviews when I realize a dark comedy: the only antidote is out there. I must slide down the faces of waves and let those portentous waters wash away my worries.


Hours later, the earthquake still hasn’t happened. But I’ve developed a tick. Five. Four. Three. Two-one! Over and over, I count down in my head. I try to nail it just right. When will the ground start shaking?

When I roll into the Nehalem Bay State Park campgrounds, it’s dark. Fall is Chinook salmon season and Nehalem Bay is one of the few productive fisheries left. Like many late summer, Oregon Coast campgrounds, this one is writhing with humanity. There are riverboats on trailers, heavy-duty trucks, R.V.s, and tents everywhere. The spectrum, from ambling toddlers to knobby-kneed old-timers, composes the ad-hoc village.

Due to a cancellation, I get the last of 265 campsites. Is that good luck? I won’t even go there. The park ranger takes my credit card and I ask whether we’re in the inundation zone or not. She laughs and says you betcha.

Just how screwed are we?

“Well,” she says. “In terms of the earthquake, this is may be the worst campground on the whole coast.”

She smiles and I stare out through my face.

“Yeah forget the car. Run back the way you came. But really, we’ve been told this whole area is unstable.”

You’re saying it’s high-risk.

“Definitely. The highest. No one thinks Manzanita will even be here. But no one knows when it’ll happen either. I think you gotta live life.”

She laughs from inside the hut. I ask whether any other campers have mentioned the earthquake.

“No. And I don’t know if that’s not knowing or just not wanting to think about it. To me it’s a little like gambling. There’s risk, but at least you’re playing right?”


Beyond the earthquake, Schulz’s article is about the difficulty of experiencing time and place beyond our immediate lives. The carbon tipping point, deforestation, bleaching reefs, our Texas-sized pile of floating trash in the Pacific, over 65 million refugees, systemic injustice in the land of the free, et al. ad nauseam—these are travesties of scale for which we have not yet proven our collective chops at addressing, let alone preventing. We remain shortsighted, easily distracted, utterly exceptional at moving on with our days.

When I roll into the Nehalem Bay State Park campgrounds, it’s dark. The park ranger takes my credit card and I ask whether we’re in the inundation zone. “Well,” she says and laughs. “In terms of the earthquake, this is may be the worst spot on the whole coast.”

I get it. I poke the phone too. I escape to cat videos. Sometimes I give money to the homeless or scan a food-bank donation, but I didn’t TEXT $10 to Japan. Or Indonesia. (Will I help with Haiti?) Those disasters shook me. But still, I found ways to escape. I thought: The impermanence of all things.

I went for a surf. Which is sort of wild. Surfing is like alkahest, the mythical, universal solvent. It is the dissolver of my ills, time out of mind, and the greatest reverie I know. Forget travesties of scale—surfing lures me into the brownout sludge of Bowls, the shark-breaching peaks of Pacifica, and now, the brooding waters of the Northwest. Surfing is the escape. It is the paradoxical escape into danger. Such is its power.

Call this the tricky nature of consciousness. How hard it is to reconcile the immediate Now with…everything else. Why think outside of myself when I am the Taj and Steph and John John of my supercool, inner experience? My personal trip is the realest trip I know. To slide within myself is not only easy but natural. Like surfing itself, my personal experience is a seamless escape. Nothing more is required. To go beyond? That is uncomfortable work. The earthquake is uncomfortable work.

Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safely. Shakespeare.

The danger is the earthquake. Which is the shark. Which is the statistical risk. Which is, ultimately, the impermanence of all things. The cosmic meat grinder. Absolute zero. Matter in stasis. Within that we must reconcile ourselves. We, the flower, the surfing monkey, choose what? Do what? That is the question we answer with our lives. That is the privilege, which distinguishes us. We can study our evacuation routes or hunker down indefinitely or take it all in stride. We can choose to scream into the night. The cosmos can only scream.