water - sound - art - energy
Every once in a while the best waves are in your back yard or at least a short drive away from your back yard.
My friend Peter discovered a surf spot about a year ago, tucked in the industrial corridor between Chicago and Michigan City. We’d caught it good a couple of times but it had yet to produce anything that set it apart from the host of other surf spots along the South end of Lake Michigan.
Around here we like to give our surf spots names like: Shooters, the Shoe, 57th, Hobos. This one seemed to have a little more power than most and thus, I suggested we name it Magia. A name that hasn’t stuck yet, but I’m working on it. Considering not many people know about the existence of this spot, it probably won’t stick.
Tuesday Peter called me at work to let me know he had a visual and that the spot, he didn’t call it Magia, was “going off.” I shuffled some work obligations around and was in the water by 5:30. Peter had already been out for a few hours and was taking off by the time I got there. He was right. The waves were good but for twenty minutes it seemed like they were dying off.
Twenty minutes later, it was a different story. The wind died. The water became glass. The waves were peeling right and offering up 40 yard rides on punchy chest high walls of fresh water perfection. I stayed until dark. There was a brilliant orange sunset, gallons of adrenaline, wave after perfect wave, and nothing that could wipe the smile off of my face.
I had the place to myself for the most part. At least I had the pick of the waves. There were two locals in the water who had only been surfing a couple years and didn’t really know what they had stumbled on. I didn’t mention my name for the spot. I tried to play it down. Not for a second was I going to let on that this was one of the best days I’d seen on the lake in the last 7 years. Just between us though, you know the one or two of you actually reading my blog, I’d rank it in the top 5.
Wednesday night, I decided to try my luck again at the same spot. The wind wasn’t right, but I knew it wasn’t right for anything else within driving distance either. Again I stayed until sunset. I dropped in on some big lumps only to kick out a few seconds later on a mushy shoulder and paddle back out. It didn’t even seem like the same spot, but the water was warm, the sunset was beautiful. How could I complain? There was surf. It’s a lake.
Thursday, I refreshed web pages of wind charts and buoy readings every ten minutes at work. I tried to get out early and only managed to just beat the rush hour traffic. Again, Peter had beat me to the punch and once again on the phone said that it was “pretty good.”
When I got there, I decided he was right. There was a little more wind and a lot more texture on the water. Right away, I paddled into a few gems. Magia was waist to shoulder high and peeling. Not perfect, but pretty good indeed.
Peter had to leave which left just me and my friend Ahmad in the lineup. Ahmad is new to surfing and bought his first board from me. I’ve watched him surf all summer and have to say I’m quite impressed with his progress. The surfboard he bought from me is a 8 foot longboard that I had purchased five years ago for my now ex-wife. It had never been ridden. It had never touched water. I didn’t want to look at it in the garage and I DEFINITELY didn’t want mess with my own karma and ride it myself. Trading waves with Ahmad, I realized the curse of that board was long gone. It was now his and only his. The white and blue striped monolith was his accessory and no longer shiny and new. It was covered in dirty wax and probably needed a few dings repaired. The board had a new identity and so did I.
I try not give Ahmad too many pointers. I don’t want him to feel like I’m watching him when he surfs. I want him to feel free to make mistakes and enjoy his early moments in the sport of kings. I was impressed with his comfort level and poise in the small but pumping surf. Between rides I would think back to my first few months surfing, and this of course led my brain ultimately to consider my first wave.
I was in Florida. It was another, different blue striped longboard. This one didn’t belong to me either. The waves were messy but about the same height as this night. The sensation was complete freedom and weightlessness. I wasn’t sliding, falling, slipping, or floating. I was in motion, but a more intimate motion. The world around had melted away. I had somehow slipped out of the grasp of space, time, gravity, and velocity. The lines were blurred. If there is a god, catching your first good wave is like sitting in the palm of his hand, and the rules of physics, need not apply.
As the sun grew closer to the horizon, Ahmad would paddle closer and closer to where I was sitting. I wasn’t only watching him. He was watching me. A good wave would come, and he would paddle along side me for it. He’d go left, or more typically straight, and I’d take the right if it was good. If it wasn’t, I’d pull out and watch him. I felt loose and crisp on my forehand. Seven years of surfing. Travel, sore muscles, bruises, studying film, waking up at dawn, and braving the Midwestern winters was all paying off. I could see the flaws in my technique clearly, but they didn’t matter. I was going exactly where I wanted to go on each and every wave. I made small adjustments on each turn and could feel everything snap into place.
I started surfing at the age of 29. I was instantly handcuffed to the lake, the ocean, the horizon, and to waves. For years I’ve been aware of the tick and tock of father time. Every poor turn, poorly chosen wave, or wipeout translated to a nagging worry that I’d never reach the mastery of surfing I longed for. I imagine seven years ago what I perceived as mastery was a lot different than what it means to me now. My idea of mastery has evolved. I know I have a long way to go to get where I want to be. The difference now is that though the bar has raised considerably, the chasm is not as wide. What I realized that night at Magia gave me goosebumps. At 36 I was improving and much faster than I had been at 29. It was at about the point of this revelation that Ahmad mentioned the sunset.
The horizon was on fire with shades of electrified orange, yellow, and blue. Lines of colors were going fractal on every reflection of light across the water. The lines that separated were blending. I was plugged in.
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Surfing is just starting to become known as possible on the great lakes by the casual beach going population. For a long time, the possibility of surf here was a secret, kept by a select few. As Ahmad and I continued to catch wave after wave in the last few moments of sunlight, I noticed a line of people along the pier gathering to watch us. In California, I’m sure we’d be dust on the background of the horizon. Here in the Midwest, surfers are such a novelty that they are part of the main event. As darkness fell, we decided to call it a day and head up to our cars.
By the time I was out of my wetsuit and had my board put away, it was completely dark. There were only three cars remaining in the parking lot. An old man with a dog approached me. He said his name was Bob. He’d been watching Ahmad and I surf along with the other group of people for whom we’d sparked curiosity. He said that he desperately wished he could be out there with us. He told me how everyone else watching had said that we must be crazy in the 45 degree weather out surfing. He had been a scuba diver for years and enlightened the uninitiated to the joys of neoprene wetsuits and the secret comforts they provide in cold weather. He complimented me on my surfing. He remembered waves I had caught and gave me a play by play of the action from his vantage point.
He was a waterman. In the sixties he had helped build the harbor. He had dove to depths of over a hundred feet in the lake. Bob had worked in the water for thirty years as a diver, seaman, and engineer. I was hooked and could have listened to him talk all night. Somewhere half way across the lake there was a girl who was waiting for me and I missed her.
One of Bob’s stories involved hitching a ride on a barge that was being pulled by a tug boat and loaded with timber across the lake. At some point 60 mph winds had kicked up. The barge had to be set adrift from the tug. The straps that held the fifteen foot stacks of timber broke. The handful of workers and divers on-board had to dodge milled logs of pine as they fell all around them as the barge bounced up and down in six foot waves. Bob said it was probably as close as he’d come to what it must feel like racing down the line of a wave. I said the sensation was probably a little different but close enough to call him a surfer.
He said as soon as the storm hit it was gone, and shortly after, so were the waves. We talked about the lake and how quickly it could change. We talked about the stars. We named the buildings on the Chicago skyline. I thought about my girlfriend and looked at the spot on the horizon where she was waiting.
Bob said he talked a lot because he lived alone and was 74 years old. Having just lost my grandmother, I had a really good idea of what this probably meant.
I told him how I had named the surf spot Magia and why. He said he comes all the time to stand on the dunes and look at the water and the sky. After a good while of chatting, both fearful that the parking lot gate would be shut, we said our goodbyes. I told him I looked forward to seeing him again and hearing more stories. In the crisp cold night air we shook hands.
Before closing the door of my jeep, I glanced across the lake at Chicago and contemplated the drive home. As the car slipped on to the freeway I began to think about motion. The car was going 70. I was 36.