When i arrive at the area i last saw the spouts, sweating, i stop and float. Silence. Nothing. The anticipation of a sudden startling noise, breaking the silence instantly, of a very large creature surfacing from the depths of the ocean, builds, almost unbearably, like watching a scary movie, waiting for the killer to strike out of the darkness. I brace for it. What seems like an eternity passes and then, finally, i hear it....
Rewind to a few hours earlier.
Its not my day. I seem to have a knack for disappointing people lately. Enjoyment warms me, from the steaming cup of coffee in my hand and looking at that big blue beautiful thing out in front of me, but under it all lies an uncomfortableness, eating at me. I feel like a failure. This is what happens when i don't surf. Its been over a week and this day is dedicated to getting out in the water so i can put the chatter at rest. After feeding and taking care of my dog and myself, and much a-do, its time to go. Board and gear are already loaded because this has been the missed goal of the last few days: Get in the water. A quick stop at the market along the way for a sandwich and coconut water to enjoy in the sun and i'm actually going. I'm actually going to surf! When i arrive, i'm greeted by a band of three other wheelchair users. The brash, potty-mouthed audacity of one of them who is "Sponsored by everyone under the sun" turns me off and i just want to enjoy my lunch in the sun alone, so i politely excuse myself to my wave watching. I remove my shirt, feeling the sun on my back. As i sit and watch, my intent wanes slightly because the howling wind is ripping across the surf. Kite boarders enjoy it, slicing though the chop, drawing white lines that disappear several feet behind them. When the kite boarders are out, its not a good sign, but i still have hope. A ridable wave rolls in every now and then. I ask each surfer, normally a good motivator because the usual responses are things like, "Its better than the parking lot," or "It felt good to get wet," or simply, "Its small but fun." Not the case. This day, i get, "Windy," and "I couldn't get into anything because of the wind," and "It was better earlier." I check the report. Its supposed to get even windier. Normally, i'll go out in any conditions. I always have fun. Being in the ocean is healing no matter what, but i came alone. I would need to amass a force of perfect strangers to help me and i'm just not sure the conditions warrant such an effort when i can easily find an alternate activity i can perform solo. OK asking strangers for help isn't exactly "massing a force", but sometimes it feels like it. This does not bode well for my grumpiness though and, after thirty minutes or so, i retreat.
Back at home, i enjoy another cup of coffee in the sun, watch the morning show for the surf contest in Australia, catch up on emails and trudge through a text conversation with someone who i am disappointing. I decide that a sunset bike ride along the beach is a good alternative, even though my heart aches. I want to be in the ocean. I go through the motions of loading my bike in the car, a task not to be taken lightly and, as i leave the house, my upstairs neighbor yells, "Whales!" from the balcony, "At 9 o'clock," pointing straight out...at 12 o'clock. I laugh, correct her and drive off with a seed planted in my mind to keep an eye on the horizon. Back at the beach, I arrive to a surprise. The wind has stopped. I don't need to watch the surf long before i'm scanning for potential board caddies. Aha! A lifeguard truck sits unexpectingly on the other side of the parking lot. As i approach, i see its not one of the usuals. A young, tanned, good-looking female sits in the driver's seat, scribbling away on a form support by a metal clipboard. "Hey! How do you feel about helping me with my board after i get my suit on?" She's excited to help, we discuss details and i'm rolling back to the car, frothing, not at her, but about the fact that i'm about to surf! I can't get my suit on fast enough, the whole process hindered slightly by the massive mountain bike contraption in my car with me, but i figure it out. Within a few minutes, i'm in the water with my board, thanking the young girl as she walks back up the beach. Thankfulness overwhelms me. The embrace of my Mother, the Ocean, instantly washes everything away. I'm happy. It takes a while for my core muscles to start firing so the paddle out and first couple waves are a little awkward, constantly adjusting my seat and position. I catch a couple waves and its really fun. Small, but clean and lining up well on the reef with the extreme low tide. I see a whale spout about mile out and yell about it. A couple more waves and see more spouts in the same spot. The thought hits me, "I could paddle out there." "No way. Thats way further than it looks and they'll be long gone by the time you get there. Besides your wearing a 4/3. You'll be dying of heat." Over the course of the next 15 minutes or so i see the spouts two more times in the same spot and its on. I'm paddling out into the ocean, into the sunset, chasing whales and i'm happy. I feel at home. As i predicted, the distance turns out to be much further than i thought, but the spouts spurt up every five minutes or so and help me keep my bearings. I'm getting closer.
When i arrive at the area i last saw the spouts, sweating, i stop and float. Silence. Nothing. The anticipation of a sudden startling noise, breaking the silence instantly, of a very large creature surfacing from the depths of the ocean, builds, almost unbearably, like watching a scary movie, waiting for the killer to strike out of the darkness. I brace for it. What seems like an eternity passes and then, finally, i hear it. The sound of a whale's exhale is like music, caressing my troubled brain with softness and wisdom. Its not too close though. Maybe 75 yards away...at 9 o'clock. As my attention focuses on that spot and i start to paddle in that direction, not even 40 yards away, directly in front of me, a juvenile whale launches itself into the air, its entire body except for its flukes out of the water, splashing down sideways, sending various geysers of displaced water 30 feet into the air. Its a baby, but still the length of my apartment. I scream! Then, seconds later, another full breach and another. Four full breaches! They are playing! "Are they showing off for me?" "No way. I'm nothing to them. They don't even know i'm here." And my doubts are silenced. A whale head emerges 25 yards away and stays still. Its one of the larger ones, an adult. She is looking at me. Silence. And then disappears into the dark blue water. I choke down a sob. Thankfulness moving my soul so powerfully, it hurts. I feel loved and trusted. I feel given to. A large pod of small dolphins races through, elegant and graceful. They cruise right by, seeming to take no notice of me. Their breathes and splashes causing me to twist and turn around, trying to see them all. They come close. Almost within touching distance, but i simply admire, now moved to tears. I am so small, but special simply in my being.
After they pass, my thoughts move to the sun, now low on the horizon, and my dwindling time out here. I tell myself i'll wait to see the spouts one more time and then start making my way back. I sit. A straggler dolphin breaks the silence and startles me. After several minutes a tall white spout bursts into the air in the distance. There they are! Further away now and i think about paddling in pursuit, but decide to relinquish the chase. I still want to surf! The return paddle is arduous, especially in the thick warm wetsuit. The swell pushes me in and i work on my paddling technique, stroking hard to stay on the runners, resting between them, stroking hard again to stay on the next one, and i'm brought back to paddling in Hawaii last summer. I crawl over the kelp bed, inching closer and closer to the surf line. White crests and eventually the red trunks of a paddle boarder begin to take shape. Then one black dot and another. The swells gradually increase in size and power underneath me and i finally find myself back in the lineup, turning around just in time to catch the golden sunset. I imagine my large friends frolicking way out there, as the sky changes hue, and i smile. Anything we do with a heart full of thankfulness, will have an element of grace to it...and i surf my ass off til well after dark. Friends in the lineup stay late to help me out of the water and when i finally get home, i walk my dog, order a pizza, and pass out watching Dumb and Dumber, with a smile on my face, in all my clothes, with all the lights on, into a deep satisfied sleep.
The all-to-familiar sound pulls me out of sleep once again. Half cry, half bark, light and airy from a parched throat of yelling at the wall night after night. I feel like a new parent, sleepless, waking throughout the night to care for a new soul. This one is old though. Dementia reaping havoc in the brain of my 14 year old labrador named Freedom, now held captive by his ailing mind. I don’t know if its the need for sleep or anger that my best friend is dying, but i feel frustrated and throw my covers off with a huff, leaving the warm confines of my cozy sanctuary for the seventh time this particular night. I jump into my chair awkwardly, muscles and coordination just as groggy as i am, still careful not to injure myself at all. One false move can be disastrous. I position my legs and proceed, through the darkness, towards the sound that woke me. I feel something wet on my hand but think nothing of it. Just slobber probably, a frequent occurrence in the home of a labrador. When i get to him, i reach down and caress his silky black fur, performing what little comforting i can, feeling somewhat powerless. “Its ok, Buddy. I’m right here.” I open the door to offer him an escape, if he needs to go out. He doesn’t. I offer him water. He’s not thirsty. I give him a treat and that seems to help. A little rough petting to pull him out of whatever dimension he is in and i make my way back to bed, embracing the silence and delighting in it. Sleep comes back quickly.
In the morning, i awake feeling rested. He usually sleeps solid through the morning hours, 4am til whenever i let him. The thought of coffee pulls me out of bed after i scroll through Instagram for a little while, liking photos of friends adventures and girls butts. I smell something. Its not pleasant. Smells like shit. I look up, down the short corridor that leads to the door, and see a pile of dog shit. My first thought, “Ah poor boy! He must be embarrassed.” I feel badly for my sweet old labrador. I know how he hates to disappoint me. Do i make coffee first or clean it up first? I decide on the latter, leaving the smelly pile for later. I need my coffee in the morning and that is priority. I usually take the time to french press myself a nice craft of aromatic freshly crushed bean stained water, soaked for ten whole minutes, deliciously strong and smooth. I want coffee immediately though, so i use my single dripper to make a cup fast. This way, i can sip it while i’m waiting for the grounds to soak. Yeah, i know, i have a problem.
On my way to the kitchen, i notice dark streaks on the floor though. “They are all over! What the heck? What’s this from?” I must’ve tracked a bunch of dirt in. But how? I didn’t go outside. Then the realization hits me. “Oh shit!” Literally. Sure enough, a definitive wheel mark lain right through the middle of the brown pile on the floor, now cold from sitting all night, and i had tracked it all over my apartment. “Wait! The wet feeling on my hand last night!” Again, the realization proved true. There was dog shit on my hand. Not the worst thing that has ever happened, any parent who has changed a diaper would agree, but apparently, during my sleep i must’ve rubbed my face, a fairly reasonable and regular occurrence for anyone and, yes, upon further inspection, the shit smeared across my face as well, a mosaic streaking across my floor continuing over my right cheek.
Where do i start? I guess my hands and my face first, shaking my head in disbelief as i clean. Then my chair, which proves to be quite the task, wet wipes tearing as i scrub, barely reaching the tiny little crevices of my front wheels as i hold a precarious wheelie in the bathroom. All without coffee, mind you, and grey wet streaks get left everywhere i go now from my damp wheels. Then the pile on the floor, using way too many paper towels. How do i carry the pile of wet crap to the trash? I need to set it down and grab a towel to put on my lap so i can escort it to the outside trash cans, but when i do, little flakes drop out and sprinkle the floor like fresh chocolate shavings from your favorite donut shop. This takes a vacuum to remedy. Now i'm vacuuming at 6:18am without having had my coffee yet, wrestling with the cord as it wraps around my wheels. Freedom is annoyed with the sound and we have words about how i'm cleaning HIS mess and he needs to calm down. Then a wet cloth to the entire floor, and another, with intentions of steaming later, but i need my coffee first…and i need to wipe my dog’s butt.
I've come to realize that i'm not what i used to be when it comes to skiing. A flat brimmed ball cap hides my thinning hair. Creases, at the corners of my eyes, from years of smiling, peak out slightly from the edges of my large rectangle sunglasses. Something in me changed a year or so ago. I don't need to go fast anymore. I don't need to scare myself. I don't need to push the limits. I just want to be adventuring with my friends. I don't want to impress them. I want to connect with them. I want to share this passion for nature with them. I find that the people i bond with the most understand this passion, this need to be close to the ocean and engulfed by the mountains.
Recently, i went on a shoot with Eider in Colorado and it was not the easiest day for me to say the least. My equipment was failing me and a group of us was relegated to the lower mountain groomers because of it. The mountains had just received a little refresh though, and my equipment problems didn't stop us from shredding together. That's what i enjoy. I used to relish in skiing out front, leading the way, being the first one down and bask in the glory of the ensuing compliments. Now, i like skiing behind or next to someone, choreographing what seems to be an orchestrated symphony, drawing on a soft white canvas, feeling together, not set apart. Togetherness: that's what this sport has become to me and this day on the mountain embodied that. And look at our sweet Eider gear!
Sometimes, i feel as if i am schizophrenic, a conflicting dichotomy sitting down for tea, in my mind. I long for companionship, but am fueled by solitude. I crave intimacy, but fight to be alone.
We tend to give that word such a negative twist, but i relish in it. I've gotten used to the lonely drive, along the Eastern Sierras, to Mammoth. That all too familiar sense of nostalgia creeping in, making way for old memories of being alone on the road flow over the horizon as i inch towards it, even though i'm blasting through the high desert at 78mph, just fast enough not to get a ticket. A song reminds me of a solo drive from the past. I sip my coffee and sigh, soaking in the fond memories of it. On the road, like this, its a good thing. I look at the empty seat next to me, wishing an adventure loving comrade sat there, playing with her hair and the playlist she's concocted for us, all the while offering stimulating views of the world with a voice thats music to my ears. At the same time, i look at that same empty seat and the empty road and relish in a deep seeded sense of pride and accomplishment, that i am a world traveler, an adventurer, and i do it all on my own.
When i arrive in Mammoth, all my grand plans of drinking beers all night with old friends fall through and i end up watching football by myself in my hotel room. I eat a Subway sandwich because i just want to eat quick and go to bed, my big outing for the night, and fall asleep focusing my designs on exercising my rusty "ski legs" in the morning.
The next day, I roll into the marketing office at Mammoth Mountain for a meeting, feeling good that i'm skiing, but feeling a little low, the good loneliness eventually giving way, just a little bit, to the longing for companionship. As i'm feeling like this, they slide a contract in front of me and i almost well up in tears. They want me to be an ambassador, to represent the mountain in a positive way, and make it official. They want to pull me into the family! How validating to have someone believe in me, in my value, and want to invest in me! This is why family is so important. I'm not that close with mine, so group bonding means all the world to me. Its funny how our psyche works too. The day before, i skied like crap, falling over, rusty, frustrated, embarrassed. After signing that contract, i skied hard, rocketing down the mountain slicing through the snow with precision and speed, projecting into the fall line with confidence. All it took was someone investing in me. Thank you, Mammoth!!!