I live in Missoula, Montana, the only spot in the world I have ever felt remotely at home. The why of that is complex, and quite boring if you aren’t me. I don’t surf much anymore. The nearest ocean is 500 miles west and gelid and I recently decided I will wear no more rubber forever.
I used to surf a lot, though I grew up in a part of greater Los Angeles so far inland that Valley Cowboys called us Valley Cowboys. Ventura was our patch, a right point south of Rincon we called Doc’s but no one else did. Then I went to college as far back east as you can reach. What with that and summer jobs, my skills grew rusty. Then they got the hell polished out of them: Maui for a year or so, then Spain and Morocco ever so briefly, then Maui again, then a Montana hiatus (graduate school), then Guam, then Taiwan, then Guam again and Saipan, then a long wave-search with Bill Finnegan in lots of places you can read about in his memoir Barbarian Days. Then Missoula for good after a few waves in Spain while Bill continued on abroad. Since then? Nova Scotia and Baja drive-bys and, until I said adios, those freezing sonsofbitches in Oregon with a dash or two of Morro Bay in-between.
All my surfing life I’ve tried to brush the back-trails. I surfed Rincon only twice, despite the billions of days we spent just downcoast. On Maui, I eschewed Honolua after a half-dozen frustrating sessions and discovered Rainbows/Osterizers, in front of the Maui Kai in Honokawai, and planted my flag there. It smacked all raw and jaggery on shallow reef ridiculously close to shore. It was, 90 percent of the time (it seemed) cross-winded, and the sudden, looming faces all cockeyed and big-ribbed. Compared to the angel palace of Honolua, these waves seemed under construction. Skipping across one of those faces felt like riding a bike over a railroad crossing. They were creatures of a careless god. I loved them every one.
Every nitty “surf guide” on the web calls it a right. Well, yes. But you hang at a place long enough, things happen. I rode rights, sure, but the lefts are what I recall. I found at least four other breaks connected and semi-connected to Rainbows/Osterizers (I never found out which was which) and named them myself: Your Left; Leftovers; Mole’s End; Shoeless Joe’s.
My wife calls me a hermit with social skills. She doesn’t know the half of it: sometimes my own company flat out pisses me off. People grate on me. In the water, too. Especially. If I were to list the most dreadful spot in the world, it might well be Kirra at full pump. Part of my aquatic misanthropy is garden-variety neurosis, part of it my constitutional passivity and shyness, and a lot of it plain selfishness. I was, at my best, a journeyman out there, lower-middle of most packs. I got angry, satanically envious, watching Honolua pass me by. Kirra, too. Even wayback Rincon. So I sought out places not a quarter as grand or majestic or lovely and gave them my heart, ran with them all the way to heaven, got to know their every bleb, bump, blemish, and wen. Day after day after day. Tens, dozens, scores of waves a session. I, or my friends and I, depleting their emptiness, aiding their imperfection. Briefly, along the way, Bill Finnegan and I got the best waves in the world to ourselves, Tavarua before it became, uh, Tavarua.
Alone, or nearly so, I could study, without pressure, without anxiety, those waves I chose—those waves the watery equivalent of girls who had good personalities and sewed their own clothes. I could…relax. I could do out there what I do now with words: muse, doodle, dawdle, ponder, give leash to whimsy, experiment, goof, screw up. Play.
I guess you could say I was writing those waves. I guess you could say that these days I surf the language.
The Surfer’s Journal piece consists of sections I pipetted from an unpublished-as-yet novel, I Still Miss Someone. It’s a tragi-comedy (a lot of comedy) that follows one Everly Tillis, a surfing savant, through his life, from Idaho idiocy to magazine covers and lucrative sponsorships to the day the world has passed him by and all that’s left is his charm and memories and a failed marriage. It’s sprezzatura and sorrow and Dora meet Purpus meets Greenough meets The Ginger Man meets Keats. It’s a bright jig danced on the warmest sands of wishing.
I’ll leave you by giving credit to my inspirations. Here’s who I call on often and why:
Bryan Di Salvatore has written for The New Yorker and many other magazines. He also features as William Finnegan’s globetrotting companion in Barbarian Days. The inclusion of his fiction in 26.1 marks his third appearance in TSJ, and our second deployment of an excerpt from his novel-in-progress, I Still Miss Someone.