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The Warmest Sands of Wishing

In 1977, two travelers found a surfing Eden. Then reality set in.

Light / Dark

Where is the sea high and the winds soft

And moist and warm, sometimes stained

With sun, with peace so wild for wishing

When all is told and telling.

—JP Donleavy, The Ginger Man

We had arrived, Mike Siegel and I, in a profoundly foreign land. What we had come for was tropical water and fine empty waves. Pulled by rumors, pushed by crowds, we were 7,000 miles from our Southern California homes, in a village bordering a national park, several miles from a small town that was many miles from a small city, knocking on an apartment door, finding no one home. Stunned with exhaustion, we lay on our boards, our backpacks as pillows. We had no choice, really, but to wait for the only other surfer on the island to get home. If he still lived there. If he was still on the island.

It was 1977, but the journey had been years in the making, beginning with high school auditorium showings of The Endless Summer, continuing through the minefields of the Golden State and its thousand-and-one aquatic aggravations, its dryland distractions—both pleasurable and onerous—that perform their attritional black magic on stoke, and ending in this fishing village in another hemisphere, before a locked door facing a minor highway, a pasture of breeze-wafted scrub grass, lowing carabao, a silky sand berm, and, beyond, a vast and flat blue sea.

The popcorn hull of paradise had long before become stuck in our teeth. Yet we stayed mostly close to home, at our stuffed local breaks, loving them less yearly, resenting them more, finding ever-larger faults with ourselves and the teeming others who, for some reason, felt they had equal claim to the waves. We were annoyed and frustrated and self-loathing. We viewed ourselves as a pair of self-mired poltroons. We had learned trades and were making money, which we spent foolishly on essentials. It had become easier to complain than to, you know, actually set about absenting ourselves from the cling-web of that giant suburban spider we called home.

Yes, I had dipped into Oahu and Maui. I fled back. The Islands seemed to me sad, enervating. I was an intruder, part of a ghastly degradation-in-progress. 

And then, one post-session autumn afternoon—maybe alcohol was involved—we had, finally, had enough. The details of the throwing blow aren’t important. We decided to damn-it split. Somewhere. Just go. Our little bundles of loot would go to waste if we continued standing where our feet were. (There were two other friends with us that day. They were leaning toward Australia and Bali. They weren’t interested in gambling, choosing instead the transpacific version of a Baja run, a damn-near-sure thing and mini-adventure wrapped in one. A package.)

But for us? In for a penny, in for a pound. 

We had heard tales of an island I’ll call Avalon. A friend of a friend, years earlier in the service, had been on leave and on a train, and through the window saw what looked like someone on a wave. But it was raining, and it might have been a fisherman in a narrow boat. He didn’t know. It was a long time ago, and he had been righteously stoned. 

An atlas showed lots of coastline, a perimeter about half California’s length. A National Geographic photo showed whitewater and, behind it, a heave that might become a wave.

Finally, a well-traveled non-surfer had mentioned to Mike, during a chance encounter, that he had met a guy, Jim, who lived on Avalon. Or did. This Jim said he surfed there a lot, that the waves could be exquisite. He said no one but himself surfed there. The traveler—one sketchy hombre, to be sure—had no last name for Jim, and only an approximate name of the village where Jim lived. The only thing he was sure of was that it was in south Avalon. Pretty sure, anyway.

Rumors. Yarns. Bilge. Tropical Rincons, empty Honoluas, un-surfed Ala Moanas. Warm coasts and offshore winds. Waves that refused to die. You could live a year on a dollar. Swear to God, man.

It’s one of the gutball essences of surfing and, at once, one of its frailties, this unceasing capability of eliciting bitchin’ visions in all but the incorrigibly cynical. Paradise around the next bend, pots of tubular gold at the rainbow’s far reach. The sport of unfounded reality. We were hungry and we bit.

Eight months later, there we were—just-landed, bedraggled, time-zone-befuddled, and entirely clueless travelers. We didn’t remember Hynson and August dealing with no stinking megalopolis airports. We had assumed we’d get off the plane and, I don’t know, find ourselves before a strand of white sand with a palm-thatched hut, a couple of hammocks, tubs of icy beer, and empty lefts and rights: 6-foot, offshore-kissed.

But this place, this clanking cavernous holding tank, made deplaning at Honolulu seem like getting off the train in Mayberry RFD. One of us sat guarding our stuff. The other bought a highway map. Neither of us could find Jim’s village. In fact, we realized, we hadn’t a clue where it was. East coast? West coast? How far south?

We were screwed. Chumps. Our friends’ first postcard had arrived three days before we left: “Offshore Ulu, 8- to 10-foot. Insane! Aussie chicks! Bulk Beer!” We felt sick, lost, helpless. 

Then things got downright biblical. 

A young guy, maybe 20 years old, pointed at our boards.

“Jim friend! Jim friend!”

Uh, yeah, not really. Okay. Whatever you say, Slick.

He led us out of the airport. He found us a cheap hotel. He marked an X at Jim’s village. He wrote its name—it bore only the merest resemblance to what we had thought it was—in two languages. Next morning, he took us to the train station and helped us change money and buy tickets.

How long ago had he seen Jim?

Yes. Many times. Jim’s friend.

Nine hours later, we were at the locked door of the cement two-story apartment. We dozed. We watched carabaos do nothing. We watched the ocean do nothing. We nodded at the occasional spear fisherman barefooting by. We waved at overloaded scooters. An old lady two doors up—Jim’s place was one of a string of 20 or so identical units—stared at us as she puffed her pipe. Her daughter washed clothes and spit red betelnut juice. She and her mother spoke to each other. They sounded like two fast typewriters. It was dusk. The mosquitos had begun sawing us. A man emerged from a taxi in a T-shirt, drawstring trousers, and sandals. He was frightfully gaunt. His straight blond hair, parted in the middle, hung to his shoulder blades. His was the only white face and the only hair longer than a crew cut we had seen since arriving at the capital. 

Jim smiled. Friendly, but not surprised. He checked our boards, nodded. “They’ll do,” he said. 

We went upstairs for tea, stir fry. Jim told us his story, slowly, elliptically.

Palos Verdes, the service, Taylor Camp, Avalon. Three boards. He spoke the twisty island tongue well enough, and he owned a small shop making costume-jewelry beads for export. He was the only American, essentially, the villagers had ever seen in person.

“Kojak and John Boy Walton and me. That’s America here. A pig, a wimp, and a weirdo. I’m gonna say something that’ll make you hate me. I sometimes get tired of surfing alone.”

We went to a window.

“There, between those trees. A right. Mostly offshore. Fast. Steep. It can hold size.”

There was just enough moon to make out a flat ocean. It was like a blueprint of a spot. Twenty miles north, a fast, hollow left. Just down the coast, a spitty beachbreak. A reef on the other coast, always onshore. We asked about other places. We had seen a hundred, easy, on the train down—points, reefs, wide sands, rivermouths, jetties, bays. If it had been California…

Yeah, he said. Plenty of places. Reefs, beachbreaks. A point just south, impossible to get to from land, home to a rare giant left and a friendly channel. More. The list was staggeringly long.

“But,” he said with a shrug, a sweet smile, “I rarely feel compelled. I haven’t even named the one out front. Maybe I’m lazy. That’s why I came. To avoid the scramble, all that.”

We got our first waves two days later, on the reef out front. Waist-high, clean but a bit sectiony, glassy, then an evening offshore fidget. Ours alone. For hours. We were dizzy with delight. It was like playing in the Rose Bowl on January 2.

The swell grew for a week, staircasing to well overhead. Offshore every day. The sections disappeared, the walls steepened. Jim had to go north for business. I had never ridden so many waves in so little time in my life. Neither had Mike.

The evening before he left, Jim had mentioned that no one stared at him anymore. 

“I paddle out, they watch a minute, shake their heads, and go away. I used to be a novelty.”

For some reason, this indifference didn’t extend to us. People would come up to us on the beach and poke our boards with their toes. Fishermen would stare and walk away, chattering and shaking their heads. A crippled old man pointed his cane at Mike’s board, made air pictures, dipped and dove with his palm-down hand, giggled.

Once, a school bus stopped. We were on the beach and turned at the shouts. Three dozen heads popped out the windows and serenaded us with bits of “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Mike countered with “Kung Fu Fighting” to claps and more shouts. We headed to the water, on the way watching a beautiful, untouchable young woman flirt with her boyfriend. 

One day the winds turned contrary—as Jim had said they would—and we raced north in a taxi to the wickedly hollow left he had mentioned. We brought, per Jim’s instructions, sweets and cigarettes for the soldiers stationed in a hut near the point—sentinels for a perpetually expected invasion—as enticements to allow us in the water. 

A long day of overhead surf and not enough drinking water left us limp and dreading the long walk to the highway along muddy, snake- thick rice-field berms. The soldiers invited us for cool tea. We sat—us in our trunks, them in their T-shirts and shorts and helmets—with hardly a single word in a common language.

A farmer drove up in a three-wheel putt-putt. He spoke enough English to ask where Jim was. Said he had thought we were him, how he always shows when there are waves. He told us the soldiers collect snails, which he puréed to feed his shrimp. He gave us a ride to town. “Call this number. I tell you.” Our own Dial-a-Wave.

The days became weeks and hasteless. We strolled the beach—it was one of the more consistent waves we’d ever experienced—after tea and a banana or two in the morning, again at midday, again until dark. We read. We wrote in our notebooks. Mike doodled on one of Jim’s guitars. Our schedule was ours alone. For the first time in a long time, we did not feel inflicted upon. There was our energy and the ocean’s energy. There were no weekends, no dawn patrols, no after-school rushes, no calling in sick to surf. No looking over shoulders. No calendar, no clock. Beyond food and drink and sleep and waves, no wants.

We’d occasionally make our way to town for supplies, a change of scene, and, once, a haircut. We’d eat molten rice dishes, sparrows on sticks, octopus, shrimp. We’d sit with our food and our beer at a streetside table and watch the stampeding traffic—packed, clanking buses driven by madmen and air-conditioned, tape-decked taxis with four headlights, two fog lights, too-loud girl pop singers wailing from the speakers, spaceship red and blue and green clearance lights, door panels laminated with pictures of St. Moritz, Notre Dame, Farrah Fawcett, Bruce Lee.

Maybe it was Jim’s anachronistic mien—he had not been in America for the best part of a decade, his boards were cordless, he sprinkled his conversation with “flipped out,” “far out,” “long-hairs”—or the ongoing joy and wonder of aquatic solitude. We felt ourselves wafting toward a sort of mental yesteryear: We were odd men out doing an odd thing. I saw us as Bob Simmons and Joe Quigg at postwar Malibu. I imagined 1935 San Diego, Waikiki, maybe. At first we were skittish in our wave solitude, afraid of a crowd arrival—some equivalent of convicts arm-guarding their dinner plates. But we came to realize that, in Avalon, lineup emptiness was not a one-off. Instead, it was a constant, a reality, the only reality. We became infused with a loping optimism, easiness, never-ending-ness. We had become a pair of joyful isolates in the thick of nothing but easy pickings, surrounded by a benign and basically indifferent populace. The world we had once known had retreated, disappeared.

The magazine mighties also slipped from our consciousness. The Smirnoff became the Tang, the Duke the Baron, the Grand Prix the Bumper Car. We respected the circuiting wonders, their awesome abilities, but no longer did their world quite make sense. We, like them, were kings of our hill, but we never thought of wearing crowns. What good was competition? We were merrily adrift in a starless firmament.

Oh, how fine and rare that summer was, how eternal it seemed. 

But, being human, we began to take things for granted. We found ourselves grumbling a bit when the winds out front were cross or onshore or too strong to manage. Once, Mike’s cord broke and his board spinnaker’ed toward the horizon. We grabbed it, easily enough, but recalled Jim’s first-day warning: Islanders believe the spirit of the drowned and near-drowned transferred to the rescuer. In the water, you were on your own. We had seen a huge tuna butchered at the far end of a nearby cape, and began, occasionally, to shark-think.

An oh-so-promising beachbreak—a long, hot walk south—never didn’t wall up. The sandbars at another place never brought us relief. The outer lines would push and promise and flatten and push and promise and flatten until they finally managed to rear and dump on fatal shallowness in 30-yard-long sections. We did give this one a name: Blue Balls.

That place that Jim said was always onshore on the far coast? It was always onshore. The island roads didn’t hug the shore enough. Many of our exploratory hikes ended in futility.

Army Man Point? Spooky. Dark water, strong currents, a never-quite-blue sky, a shore of melon-sized cobbles. It was shallow, rockety, bone-breaking, tube-elusive. We never didn’t ride it stiffly, timorously. 

And Avalon, as anywhere, could get flat. For long periods. When it did, time hovered, heavily and miserably. We ran out of books and couldn’t find new ones. We spent days and nights half-napping, half-sleeping. Bored. There was a faint but constant fecal stench about the village. There was no ice. The toilet paper scratched. The water was pestilential, and we were sick of soft drinks and tea and soymilk and even, eventually, beer. Canned asparagus juice? Thank you, no. Mosquitos seemed oblivious to our coils. Centipedes and spiders big as fists haunted our dreams and sleeping bags. The power would go off for days at a time. Our off-road exploring ambitions were dampened with well-documented tales of deadly serpents. The local wine was sugary. 

We hadn’t minded these, hadn’t noticed them, really, when the waves were ready, willing, and able. Then, we soaked it all in, the gentle beauty of the land and sea, the thick green hills, the bright sharp outcroppings of shore rock, the gold fluming clouds, the horizon-wide lightning, the immense rainbows, the children whose shaved heads exposed oozing sores, the occasional wandering lunatic, the emaciated curs who inched daily toward mange death.

There was a three-week flat spell. 

We were snapping at each other. A young village girl, racing in a game of tag, knocked Mike’s glasses off and broke them. Jim mentioned on one of his rare visits—gently but distinctly—a possible upcoming visit from relatives.

The signs were strong. It was time to go. We wanted more, but decided our greed was uncomely. We bought train tickets. Remembering the fate of Santosha, we deep-vowed to keep silent and ignorant about Avalon. We returned to America.

Avalon is no longer a secret place. Hardly. That break in front of Jim’s house that we never named, so unsullied and bright? All these years later it’s become a destination, Avalon’s version of Waikiki and Kuta and Coney Island—loud and hideous and gimcrack, thick with surf shops, surf schools, out-of-school hordes, overpriced lodging, knickknack shops, snack stores, tour buses, jet skis, windsurfers. The island isn’t a world-class destination, will never be, but it isn’t empty no more.

The waves would be all Jim’s again, but he had become if not indifferent, then used to them. The thrill wasn’t gone, but it no longer thrilled as much. We knew, at least guessed, he wasn’t long for the place. Sometimes even the fruit of paradise becomes overripe.

But you aren’t going to hear any boo-hoo-hoo from me. Things change. They were changing even back in 1977, back when Indonesia was Bali, when boards had one fin, when we dinosaurs briefly ruled a slim patch of land and sea. On our last night in Avalon, we gave Jim a giganto jar of instant coffee (for some reason, the island was virtually coffee-less back then), and Mike’s cassette player and a pile of tapes. We went to his favorite café in town and drank too much beer and ate too much seafood. 

Jim seemed sad, a little left out. We had been decent company, sure, but it seemed to go deeper than that. He may have envied us a bit. Perhaps that is what living outside one’s country can come to mean, even in a place with excellent and plentiful waves. He allowed that he felt no longer part of America, and yet he would never quite be at home in Avalon. He was, in fact, a little timid about leaving, afraid of what he’d find out there.

We were sad as well. We knew, despite our itchiness, that we might never find another Avalon, that the swell might pick up the very next day, that Jim could well be hitting it as our jet rose from the howling capital. The waves would be all Jim’s again, but he had become if not indifferent, then used to them. The thrill wasn’t gone, but it no longer thrilled as much. We knew, at least guessed, he wasn’t long for the place. Not short, maybe, but not long. Sometimes even the fruit of paradise becomes overripe.

There would, as it turned out, be other continents and islands in Mike’s life, and mine, after Avalon. Various places, some of them beautiful, some of them thick with wonderful waves, some of them hardly worth mentioning, some of them hideous. Today, 40-odd years later, Mike lives happily on Guam. He has grandchildren and makes good music and fishes. I live in Montana and write things and edit things and teach people how to do the same. We’re both sort of old, and creakiness has set in, backs that spring, chalky knees, that kind of thing.

Mike still surfs now and then. I don’t.

Jim? He did leave Avalon. In 1994, he passed away while surfing on the North Shore.

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