Feature

A Mechanized and Shimmering Vision

In a tepid, fabricated lagoon in Texas, one surfer grapples with the artificiality of the artificial surf experience.

High noon in Texas Hill Country is some real malignant shit. The sun’s rays bore deep. You can practically feel your skin mutating. Where the southwest desert meets the gulf subtropics, confusion arises: desiccant heat and jungle humidity, open cerulean skies and sudden, gray, depthless weather from the north. In the junipers and oaks, fat cicadas chirk like raptors. Hordes of fearsome, feral grackles prowl the land, snapping, shrieking, terrorizing one another.

It’s mid-July. The temperature nods toward 100. Despite the sapping heat, I perch happily atop a big, yellow soft top. My girlfriend sidles up atop a big, blue soft top. Here we are, just two grinning rubes floating blithely in a 14-acre man-made lagoon—sheepish customers enthralled by what man hath raised out here, on old cow lands, from the sorrel, Texan dirt. We are charmed souls among several dozen, tethered to Crayola surfboards, having our surf park experience, flying high like Icarus at the teetering heights of American hedonism.

Pleasure has won out. Whatever deep and caustic skepticism I have cultivated for this surf park enterprise—this parasitic tumor upon the sacred body of surfing—has all but melted away. In this tepid lagoon, I have succumbed to typical pre-surf giddiness. The waves have not yet cycled-on, but soon they will and isn’t that something? Can we concede that? Out past the airport, past Austin’s cookie cutter condos and brutally gentrified neighborhoods, past the curated storefronts and rashes of colorful food trucks, past the big boxes, strip malls, and concrete overpasses, past the men’s clubs, worship centers, and heavy machinery retailers, there exists, amid these shrubby pastures, quite suddenly, and without anyone asking, waves to surf. Joy to be had. The sublime act of wave-riding here, which is to say: anywhere.

Beneath the lagoon’s surface, I clap my feet like a goosy toddler. Ills of the world be gone. Surfing has always been for the kids—for the big kids, too.

We are grinning rubes floating blithely in a 14-acre man-made lagoon—sheepish customers enthralled by what man hath raised out here, on old cow lands, from the sorrel, Texan dirt. We are charmed souls among several dozen, tethered to Crayola surf equipment, having our surf park experience, flying high like Icarus at the teetering heights of American hedonism.

The lagoon is large enough to not want to walk around it. Through its silty-brown waters lies a bridge, or pier, made of steel and ash-gray wood. The bridge bisects the lagoon into east and west halves. This is how the lineup works: on our west side, Surf Guides herd about a dozen panting customers into a long line. The Inside is a party wave that picks up surfers along the way. More partiers tiptoe down ramps to join us. A man slips on the lagoon’s white liner and drops to his butt with an oof. From loudspeakers all around us, we bathe in the dulcet tones of contemporary Jawaiian music.

Suddenly and unprovoked, my girlfriend chops water into my face.

According to a big digital clock mounted on the bridge, our hour-long session on the Inside Wave ($72 + tax) will start in three minutes. A Surf Guide in a bucket hat and full-body rash-guard paddles over. He assesses us like rotated tires.

“Good job,” he says. “Y’all well-positioned. Not like them over there.”

I give him a thumbs-up. My girlfriend nods and says, “Thank you for your service.” He glides off to straighten out the others.

Some customers—a younker boy, a woman in her late twenties, a man in his early thirties—enter the lagoon with Surf Coaches for a lesson ($85 + tax). Others slide in with actual surfboards—not the soft-tops required on the Inside Wave. These customers, mostly middle-aged men, except for one little ochre-haired grom, paddle past us looking steely-eyed and no-nonsense. These are the swamp’s grizzled vets, its top performers.

They line up along the bridge’s protective cage, which separates surfers from a tow cable and wheel system within. As ownership describes it, a snowplow-thing gets dragged through a deep channel beneath the length of the bridge. This snowplow-thing lifts water up and outwards over two shallow ridges on either side of the lagoon. The Reef Wave ($90 + tax), to which all ambitious and doughty swampers aspire, breaks along these ridges toward the bridge. To catch the Reef Wave, you claw along the cage. From there, a stomach to head-high wave awaits. Inside surfers, we of the brightly colored soft tops, sit several yards away and scratch into a white-water reform that radiates outward.

Out past the airport, past Austin’s cankerous condos and ruthlessly gentrified neighborhoods, past the irreverent storefronts and rashes of colorful food trucks, past the big boxes, strip malls, and concrete overpasses, past the men’s clubs, worship centers, and heavy machinery retailers, there exists, amid these shrubby pastures, quite suddenly, and without anyone asking, waves to surf.

Bobbing here, I feel a little uneasy. The pool has settled and we must wait. No little bumps or waves roll through. Nothing other than the Surf Guide’s advice and two yellow flags to tell us where we ought to be. A mild southerly flow drifts like a tide off the Gulf, hundreds of miles away. The heat pulses. Customers stare out of their faces like cows. With the wind as it is, northbound waves will be onshore, crumbling fatly. Southbound waves will be offshore and might even barrel. People on the bridge chat with surfers below. Coaches exhort positively to clients who do a lot of blinking.

Usually, the way we process the ocean is deeply intuitive. By wading in, paddling out, duck-diving, floating over waves and homing in on where to be, we internalize the energy and subtle complexities of the lineup and the ocean. We do this unconsciously and astoundingly well in what amounts to an enormous, continually transformative environment.

In contrast, the lagoon is either on or off. A wave is either being made or it isn’t. The tide won’t change. At midday, the wind won’t either. In this strange binary system, where the technology feeds us our single-serving waves—basically the same wave over and over—intuition, serendipity, and nature’s idiosyncrasies fade away. Surfing’s mindless fugue, what comes of the obsessive, fine-grain pursuit of a particular moment in space and time, never takes hold. We are subject to the surf park. The surf park will happen to us.

When the lagoon wave finally rises, it rises like the breaching head of a deep-sea beast. Instead of a subtle line off the horizon, the water bulges up, as if something were coming from below. You hear it before you see it. The tow cable whines, surfers jostle, and the experiment shudders to life.

A Reef Wave warrior, first in the queue in our midday session, spins around and paddles along the cage. His technique is suspect, with lots of flailing and not much pull, but the man has paid and so the wave is his. Very clearly, some sort of lizard-brain response has taken hold: his pupils dilated, body gone rigid, face contorting into a shrieking mask of primal fear.

As this middle-aged man claws forward, the wave approaches. Slithering beneath the bridge, the mechanized creature builds a bank of water off its back. From above, skipping along the railing, presumably his partner (with a stroller nearby) hoots him on.

“Yeah baby, go!”

When the lagoon wave rises, it rises like the breaching head of a deep-sea beast. Instead of a subtle line off the horizon, the water bulges up, as if something were coming from below. You hear it before you see it. The tow cable whines, surfers jostle, and the experiment shudders to life.

The wave closes in. It rattles, hissing through the cage, looming over this man who’s found surfing here—in a hole filled with water in Texas. The wave lifts him up its steepening face. He writhes atop the lip, hanging there, suspended in a moment of pure potential. He’s so close…but hung up. Not in.

The poor soul still scratches as he disappears out the back.

Of the Inside goons, I am the greedy first. The wave has broken and, on approach, its mush of whitewater begins to dissipate. When it reforms it does not trench or swell or suggest anything weird will happen. It simply arrives, whisking me up, casually, carrying me through the hinterland heat.

Up and on this subtle mound, neither left nor right looks any more or less appealing. Until further notice, I remain straight. Along the way, the wave adds my girlfriend and two more customers. We grin our rictus grins, going straight, maintaining speed.

Time lengthens on this thing. I think about thinking about thinking. Should I do something? What should I do? Why? It feels wonderful, this wave made by man. Human beings are extraordinary creatures. Look at us. We have an innate capacity to learn language. We come together in vast numbers. We invent ways—like synthetic waves—to enjoy ourselves in the world. Our fascinations send us far and, of our many fascinations, do any match, or exceed, the beauty of surfing? Truly, over our many millennia, have we found or contrived a more supernal pursuit or pastime or way of being on planet Earth as this—upon, within, slicing through, flying above, the curling crest of a wave? Human beings have done and do far worse, all the time, but has a single human being done better?

Sometime later, I am deposited in the shallows. A series of breakwaters stifle the post-wave sloshing. Various little rips and swirling currents roil the lagoon. Grinning like an alligator, I ride the backwash out and toward the lineup. I want more of these tasty little ersatz waves.

We slide on waves where they’d never existed before, not in any recent ecological era. Waves made by human beings. On-demand, more waves, thousands more to enjoy on Earth.

Every two minutes a new one boils to life. Back and forth, the surf park generates twenty-four waves per hour-long session. Most people, more than two-dozen Lagoon goons, beginners mostly, smile with eyes alit. A few of those grizzled vets are actually just plebs. Having failed repeatedly, they exit the lagoon with a bashful, hangdog mien, disappearing to the parking lot, hurriedly. Aside from them—success and happiness, all around. We have slid on waves where they’d never existed before, not in any recent ecological era. Waves made by human beings. On-demand, more waves, thousands more to enjoy on Earth.

The surf park is well-moneyed, that much is obvious. An architect with taste designed it. A major clothing brand partnered-up. Employees wear this brand. Professional surfers have provided their likeness and approval as well. In interviews, ownership says they want to expand. It would be their pleasure to “Make Waves,” as the tagline goes, in every flush American city. Given a monopoly on waves in bustling Austin, coupled with our raw capacity to engorge on whatever the marketers so-deftly concoct, how could this venture possibly fail?

Before my own Reef Wave atrocity, the girlfriend and I wander the compound. From entrance to lagoon, sprinkled here and there, are various little board-and-batten structures painted white with punchy red and teal doors. A surf shop, ticket office, restaurant, and brewery overlook the old, longhorn pastures. Below us, the machine revs up and drags another wave. A mother and her toddler take selfies nearby. Another family mills about on the bridge. Of the park’s demographics, the starter family is a consistent presence—dad embarrassing himself in the pool while mom holds the tyke and points him out. Various species of corporate guy and Silicon Hill techie can also be found. Others have flown in on business. Some have driven up from the Gulf.

I walk down toward the water through fescue and newly planted trees, past several glistening metal silos, and arrive at a juice/coffee shop. Inside the simple structure, an employee stands eerily still, staring vacantly, waiting for a rare customer. Beyond her are locker rooms, a board rental, and a large white tent for surf instruction. A “Looper,” or golf cart, ferries a surfer to his designated “Launch Pad,” or entry point. I step onto a small gray beach with a Carolina-style picket fence. The tow cable squeals and another wave rises.

Six lifeguards, gone coriaceous in the Texan sun, gaze out on swathes of mostly-vacant water. These sentries must witness the screaming absurdity of man-made waves rolling through un-ridden, uncaught, or otherwise blown by human error. That these waves have value (admission divided by the quantity produced per hour) and costs (what’s spent generating them) makes this feel even more wasteful.

In general, the public has delivered reviews and first-reactions that are mostly positive. The oddity of surfing out here, at least initially, overwhelms. The wave itself is not particularly interesting, but as an amenity or attraction it’s hard to imagine a city or populace that wouldn’t want their own surf lagoon.

And yet this place is somewhat empty. On a withering, summer Saturday, and more so throughout the week, the compound is relatively quiet. It’s not dead, but it is lesser attended than it likely wants to be. Awkwardly so.

Its “dry” personnel—cafeteria cashiers, ticket people, barcode scanners, Looper drivers, surf-shop and juice-hut girls—carry a sort of latent eagerness that betrays their not having much to do. Six lifeguards, gone coriaceous in the Texan sun, gaze out on swathes of mostly-vacant water. These sentries must witness the screaming absurdity of man-made waves rolling through un-ridden, uncaught, or otherwise blown by human error. That these waves have value (admission divided by the quantity produced per hour) and costs (what’s spent generating them) makes this feel even more wasteful.

The emptiness casts an ominous pallor. What’s often a vibrant, social scene—the beach, the parking lot, the lineup—is less so here. Jawaiian music, which might ease Honolulu’s traffic misery, echoes strangely through these vacuous lands. The bareness is spooky. Even unsettling. Scarred into swathes of the American psyche are the memories of widespread, material ruin. After our manic bouts of economic exuberance, fraud, and cyclical overproduction, comes the trauma: foreclosures, rundown Main Streets, shuttered businesses, neighborhoods left to the weeds. Reach a certain age and you know where such emptiness leads. But right now is a supposed boom time. So where are the hordes of varlet groms throwing sand, chopping water, and snaking each other’s waves? Austin seethes with dumb money and bubbling excess. Why should the surf park go so underused?

Usually, the way we process the ocean is deeply intuitive. By wading in, paddling out, duck-diving, floating over waves and homing in on where to be, we internalize the energy and subtle complexities of the lineup and the ocean. In contrast, the lagoon is either on or off. A wave is either being made or it isn’t.

My initial, gagging revulsion to the surf park horror is as follows: if more surfers, and thus overcrowded lineups, comprise surfing’s slow, body-clogging demise, and if the surf park’s raison d’être is to profit from surfing by creating evermore surfers—and if the masses of existing surfers garner no benefit from there being more surfers, but must abide all of the body-clogging costs—then fuck the surf park. (And the Olympics too.) Exorcise this swindling demon. Jugulate this leech before it latches onto other cities and infects their inhabitants with surf mania.

Am I right?

Or am I being unreasonable?

Am I, like some aggrieved fossil in the lineup, only spewing self-serving swill? If the technology exists, if the big money entities are bringers of joy, who am I to deny that? And what of these surf park employees, these humans, young and old, who rely on this venture for their livelihood? Further still, if the problem is more surfers and fewer waves, wouldn’t surf parks—a maker of thousands more waves—be part of the solution?

Centuries ago, Hawaii’s ali‘i understood this core conflict within surfing: more braddahs and sistahs in the water means fewer waves for the royalty. So, because the maka’ainana commoners loved to surf, and surfed plenty, the royals prohibited surfing to preserve their own wave-riding pleasure. Through the kapu system, certain beaches, breaks, and surfboards could only be surfed by the ali’i. Kings only my braddah. Go scrape opihi. Pound dat poi. Make useful. Or else.

In one legend, recounted by a missionary named William Drake Westervelt, a wave in Waikiki could only be surfed by the queen. In that same story, a man named Piikoi mistakenly dropped in on her, rode into the beach, and caught a near-death beating. He had taken what was not his.

In different forms, this basic conflict endures. Who owns surfing? Who gets to surf? Given wave scarcity, we have many strong opinions—locals only, be respectful, surf where you live, etcetera. Generally speaking, we have moved on from the Hawaiian kapu system to anarchical human relations, and informal structures of hierarchy and control.

These structures are not necessarily bad or unjustified, although they can be messy. At best, crowd control happens naturally and allows lineups to run smoothly. Experience and proficiency approximate one’s time in the water and grant a sensible advantage. When an aggrieved, aging uncle chews out a young transgressor, he communicates an important message: Learning is best done elsewhere. Come back when you don’t ruin the lineup. It’s probably not personal.

My girlfriend and I sort of agree: surf parks—not that innovative. We are literally dragging what ownership calls a “snowplow” through a pit filled with water. This is no moon landing. No one’s splicing genes here. Anyone waiting for a proper surf park hasn’t been waiting for some wild advancement in technology. We’ve been waiting for some big money and some eccentric interests to deem man-made waves a viable investment.

Other forms of hierarchy serve the same purpose but operate at scale. Surfing’s perennial drama—the inland versus coastal dichotomy and the lowly kook who personifies it—illustrates this well. To lambast the kook is to partake in the time-honored purge of surfing’s mainstream influences. In conducting this ridicule, the subculture, like all subcultures, maintains a degree of exclusivity. Mockery becomes another form of crowd control, but it’s a misplaced form of crowd control. After all, the existence of kooks is only a symptom—a highly visible and often annoying one—but not the problem itself.

The real issue is growth—the selling of surf to the inland realm, the capitalist mandate to make new customers and deliver quarterly results. That is what underlies kook proliferation. Kook ridicule doesn’t actually address the source of surfing’s growth. It does, however, give voice to those who bear the burden of all this growth: your everyday local who lives with the industry’s aftermath—thickening crowds, dysfunctional lineups, fewer waves. Ultimately, exclusivity and hierarchy hearken back to the ocean and surfing’s core conflict. With wave scarcity, how do we divvy waves up? Who does the divvying? Is this divvying at all democratic?

These types of questions lie at the heart of political economics. With finite resources comes the issue of ownership. With ownership comes the potential for deprivation, exclusion, and repression. The Hawaiian monarchs wielded absolute authority and denied, at times, the maka‘ainana the joy of surfing. They enforced this policy by murdering any who transgressed. In 1819, Kamehameha II abolished the kapu system. Soon afterward, the Protestant missionaries showed up and convinced the ali‘i and maka‘ainana that surfing was immoral nonsense, then effectively banned it for everyone. The issue of wave scarcity would rest until Duke Kahanamoku and the beach boys popularized surfing some hundred years later. Today, we still negotiate this basic question of resource allocation. The wave is coming. Who gets the wave?

Regardless, the girlfriend and I sort of agree: surf parks—not that innovative. We are literally dragging what ownership calls a “snowplow” through a pit filled with water. This is no moon landing. No one’s splicing genes. Anyone waiting for a proper surf park hasn’t been waiting for some wild advancement in technology. We’ve been waiting for the commingling of big money with eccentric interests who may deem man-made waves a viable investment.

This lagoon’s wave is designed for broad commercial appeal. It is not, in other words, the diabolical Wedge. Neither is it Kelly Slater’s perfect, man-made drainer. No, in the amniotic fluid of the Texas lagoon, we have a very mothering wave, the exact product you’d dish out for mass consumption and, one imagines, maximum profit.

So enters the corporate surf park, striding in with their answer to the wave scarcity question. Namely, for-profit, private ownership.

Out past the airport, but not so far as Fidel’s Auto Salvage, capital has acquired land and built the lagoon facility. To recuperate their investment, to keep the surf park running and pursue mankind’s highest calling—the royal jelly of wealth and profit—ownership hawks waves and various other tangential (i.e. unnecessary) products and services. Because the surf park survives off revenues, its design decisions tend to support revenue-generating ends. (Just to enter the compound and have a harmless gander costs $5.) This incentive structure—the surf park as moneymaker, as an investment opportunity competing against other investment opportunities—comes with several prescriptions worth noting.

This lagoon’s wave, for starters, is designed for broad commercial appeal. It is not, in other words, the diabolical Wedge. Neither is it Kelly Slater’s perfect, man-made drainer. No, in the amniotic fluid of the Texas lagoon, we have a very mothering wave. This wave accommodates the inland cheechako and his specific need to progress comfortably. Thus the lagoon wave is the exact wave you’d dish out for mass consumption and, one imagines, maximum profit.

Consider for a moment: given an obscene inheritance from daddy and mommy—and forgetting the moral dilemma of spending that obscene inheritance on a for-profit surf park as opposed to, say, alleviating poverty, or thwarting ecological catastrophe—what wave would you personally summon into existence? The answer to that question changes drastically when you consider what sorts of waves might make the most money, and what you’d actually like to surf.

Beyond the wave itself, the surf park also prescribes its Terms of Use. To surf here, customers must waive liability, obey all commands by water personnel, and abide the Surfer Responsibility Code and Lagoon Surfing Rules.

You cannot jump the fence and mob this wave. That would be trespassing. Instead, you must pay admission, don a scan-able wristband, and watch a safety video. This sort of formal, consumer relationship is quite different from the ocean, where U.S. law and statute largely ensures free public access. Because the ocean and surfing are that damn good, we have, as a society, declared shoreline access a human right for every citizen.

The age of perfect, synthetic waves looks magnificent—but only for some. And such is the surf park’s shame. We get a glimpse into the bright and shiny future, but we aren’t all there yet. Few of us are.

Putting aside the restrictive costs of living near the ocean, beaches tend to attract a broad spectrum of humanity. Fringe personas, surfing’s weirdoes, its gaggles of groms, crusty old-timers, regulars, kooks, and billionaire kooks must interact and find a way to coexist. In the average lineup, the rich must share—are made to share—waves with regular people. In our ever-atomized lives, that’s an amazing phenomenon.

Man-made waves, on the other hand, are not free. They must justify their existence. These spurious little board-and-batten buildings and whatever they peddle inside must also justify their existences. As it currently stands, the surf park must make money, or go away.

As a practical matter, a community of regulars cannot really coalesce in this lagoon, not with any meaningful regularity. As the “free” market bumbles toward its profit-maximizing conclusion, those who cannot afford to partake are excluded. Higher prices self-select for wealthier patrons, which self-selects for stale conformity, and the greasiness that wealth often begets.

To surf two hours per week amounts to $720 + tax per month or $8,640 + tax a year. Nearly everything that comes with one’s local wave—friendships, camaraderie, a shared experience through time—cannot be afforded. Private ownership may not be the authoritarian fiat of an old kapu system. But if you can’t pay admission, what’s the difference?

In their public relations, our wave park overlords have been smart to differentiate the surf park experience from the ocean. The two cannot and should not be compared, they say. But theirs is a self-serving position meant to justify the surf park as they’ve devised it—as exclusive, as inaccessible. Of course the ocean cannot be replicated. Its dynamism and complexity cannot be recreated. Design improvements will address the lagoon’s current banality—and better surf parks will undoubtedly be built—but the essential question of access remains.

The sun descends and Hill Country goes a rufous red. I have bought my time in Texas, parting ways with currency in exchange for a half-dozen tries on the lagoon wave. Despite it being bland and repetitive, I like it.

Access, who does and doesn’t get to surf, is a human issue. Access has always been a human issue. We have failed, at times, to come up with humane answers. Like “vibrant” Austin, the age of perfect, synthetic waves looks magnificent—but only for some. And such is the surf park’s shame. We get a glimpse into the bright and shiny future, but we aren’t all there yet. Few of us are.