There’s a feeling I will always remember: walking out of the shop with my first surfboard under my arm. This was cool. I bet the people in the cars passing on the Pacific Coast Highway thought I was a real surfer. I had a board, wax, a wetsuit. The whole Pacific Ocean in front of me.
That was a few years back, after I turned 48. I’ve been surfing ever since, every chance I get.
Here’s my idea of a perfect day.
Wake in the dark. Rumble down Huntington Beach’s mostly empty Main Street toward the pier. I say “rumble” because you are still driving an ’85 VW Vanagon with a longboard stuck inside. This is an irrational clinging to nostalgia. If you were smart you’d buy a Subaru.
Get a cup of French Roast at Java Point inside the board room at Huntington Surf and Sport, right across from the pier. Also grab a sticky bear claw. It’s the best place on earth to get coffee at 6 am because the place smells like surf wax, neoprene and fiberglass.
Drive just up Pacific Coast Highway, a short hop to the Cliffs. It has the same parking area as Huntington’s popular Dog Beach. Surf for two hours with the Dawn Patrol as the sun comes over the top of the bluff.
Savor a mandatory late breakfast at the Sugar Shack, on Main Street one block up from the Huntington Beach Pier. The diner is a local watering hole for surfers and anyone else who knows what’s up. Surf photos and magazine covers fill the walls. Order eggs and bacon. If you’re lucky, you’ll see world-class surfer Timmy Turner behind the counter. He runs the place. Ask him about being dropped off at an island in Indonesia for a month with some good surf buddies and not enough food.
Stroll Main Street. Look at the boards in Jack’s Surfboards at the corner of PCH. Walk out on the pier. If the swell is up there might still be some top surfers ripping the waves. There’s no better bleacher.
Cruise back up PCH a few miles to Seal Beach, the small town next door. Head to El Burrito Jr., right across from the Seal Beach Pier. Order the Surfer Special — two burritos, a drink and chips — and happily slurp your Orange Bang, which tastes like a creamsicle. I like to come here with the Saint of Seal Beach, aka Michael Pless, who runs M&M Surfing School. He may be the best surf instructor in the world. Celebrities and investment bankers fly in for a day with the guy. He also teaches kids with autism and cerebral palsy. He’s the biggest, warmest dude and most days you can find his van parked to the right side of the pier.
Head back on PCH, toward Huntington, but take time to take in Bolsa Chica. On the left, there’s the Bolsa Chica wildlife wetlands popular with nature lovers. On the right, you’ll see Bolsa Chica State Beach, a long windswept beach with firepits. You just want to be in the water, so you don’t really care that the wind has blown out the waves. You like being the only one out. You love bobbing in the swell and saying hi to the seal swimming by. Also three dolphins.
On the sand. No explanation needed.
You have a bundle of firewood in the Vanagon. The wind has calmed. Start a fire in one of the fire pits on the beach at Bolsa Chica. Friends such as board shaper Bruno, surf instructor Michael and wife Jill, Michael, Jr. and other family members pull in. Distribute long skewers and hot dogs. Roast a gourmet surfer’s dinner. Top off with marshmallows. You forgot Graham Crackers and chocolate bars for Smores. Doesn’t matter. The sun drops into the sea like a round ember. You try to unstick marshmallow from the tip of your nose and realize you’ve just had the best day of your life.
Tip: Stake out your fire pit as early as possible. They go fast during summer.
Surfing the Big One. Read an excerpt from Peter Heller’s book, Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life and Catching the Perfect Wave.