I had a free morning so I drove to San Onofre State Beach. The internet told me they have beach camping there, the kind where you can pitch your tent right by the sand, but I couldn’t get anyone on the the phone to answer questions about availability, so I checked it out with my free day. I did not find what I was looking for. I found something different entirely.
When I was ten I did not know much, but I did know I wanted to surf. I had just discovered complex math and the associated reality that meant I would never be an astronaut. I had always known I would not play in the NFL, so the only dream I had left, at ten, was surfing.
I grew up inland, but on the side of the Mississippi that flowed toward LA, not New York, so cool was all T&C rather than CBGB. We knew we were posers with our long bangs and neon shorts, but I wanted to move past that. After years of begging, my parents let me go stay with my aunt in California the summer before 8th grade. It was a step closer to my dream and I was planning my path in my head. I figured I would have to start out with a boogie board, but if I got good enough I would advance to standing up. I would need a board. I was ready for the breeze and splash of salt water. What I got was dirt and cactus because Aunt Nancy lived in Palmdale. It was a lesson on the dangers of mobilizing in ignorance.My last hope was college, because I had been trained to know that I must go to college, but I didn’t know anyone who had ever been to school in California and everyone told me I could only afford in state. So I stayed home. Eventually jobs, kids, and adulthood squeezed everything childish, like the dream of surfing out of my head. I moved on. I grew up.
I gave little thought to my childhood self when I took a job an hour east of LA. I was just thinking I needed a job.
Then I made that drive to San Onofre.
There was no paved parking lot and no packs of families lugging coolers canopies and beach chairs. There was no pier and no one renting out tandem beach cruisers. There were only surfers.
“Great morning right?” a leathery grey haired man asked as I closed my car door. He was sitting on a log facing the water. Next to him sat another old man wiping down his glossy red board. “Uh… yes. Sure is.” I replied awkwardly. The two men both smiled and went back to chatting with each other. I looked out at the water and it was bustling with people bobbing up and down just past the breakers, some paddling up and over the waves, and then, out there and everywhere, people were surfing. They stood up on their boards and shuffled out to stand on the nose. They popped up, cut left, then right, then pumped the board to stay out ahead of the whitewater. I loved seeing it.
I looked around on the rocky sand wondering when Anthony Keidis and his band of hooligans were coming to tell me to go away. They weren’t there. In their place were happy people who looked me in the face and said hello. There were men and women, old and young, and they all looked happy. I knew they were surfers, and only surfers, not because they were blonde or said “stoked” but because they all had boards. I saw a wrinkled bald man covered in tattoos chatting with a woman who looked like my frumpy mother. I saw a white guy with dreadlocks playing paddle ball with a child while a boisterous group of ZZ Top beards came lugging giant boards out of the water. There was what looked like an Abercrombie model chatting with some little guy who was wearing what looked like a beret, and a striped shirt that matched his striped board. It was some sort of intergenerational utopia based on a shared vision of riding on waves standing up.
My childhood aspirations came flooding back and I did not like it. It made me loathe myself.
Here I was standing right in front of what I had always wanted and the thing I felt the strongest, was that I did not fit. It looked like everyone was welcome, this feeling wasn’t coming from them- it was coming from inside me. My mind defaulted to this excuse making checklist of practical reasons why I could not join in. Not just right then, but forever. I live more than an hour away, I do not own a board and do not have any extra money to invest in a hobby that I could reasonably only think to dabble in, and I am fat. I am a poser. I remembered that I always wanted this and I do not belong. The list came so quickly and so naturally that I disappointed myself.
I am grown and capable. I can find solutions. I can learn. I have lived a life standing just outside closed doors and have nearly a half century’s practice of picking locks, borrowing keys, or kicking the door down. If I really want this, I can have it. Knowing this made me tired. I felt lonely.
I could save up money and buy a board. I could set my pride or awkwardness aside and ask someone to teach me. I could make some arrangements and over a period of time, maybe years, I could carve out a schedule allowing me some beach time. If I want it I can do it.
So the question is always whether it is worth it. Do I want to be on that side of the door bad enough to do the work? What will it cost? What will I gain? When you pass through previously closed doors, you inevitably leave something back on the other side. Often you leave someone. What if I am not trying to leave anyone? What then?
Traffic made the trip home take 2 ½ hours. Sitting in my car in my long pants and wingtips, thinking all of the things I just typed out above, I came to the conclusion that I think too much.
I should knock it off and just surf.
7 thoughts on “Childhood Dreams at Old Man’s Beach: San Onofre”
Yeah, I know what you mean. A couple of years ago I got my first chance to surf. It was in Hawaii with my wife. The problem was that to get standing on a board, you must make a quick move kneeling to standing upright while maintaining balance on a moving, unstable board.
At over 60 years and 260 lbs. I could not even manage the above mentioned maneuver on terre firms, let alone on a surf board. Nevertheless, I gave it a few tries to the laughter and amusement of other tourists watching a tall, fat, very white man attempting to work his way up slowly, one limb at a time, from the prone to kneeling to standing position.
I was never successful, but I had a great time and the water was great.
You learned how to box. Surfing is a piece of cake. You will look foolish but it doesn’t matter. Just do it!
Sounds like you were in San Clemente.
That area has campers that you and your family can rent for a weekend or week.
Just rent a longboard as well.
Longboards on short waves is what most tourists do in Hawaii.
That area is pretty cool and family friendly so I’m sure the locals will give you pointers.
Frumpy? You is in trubble, HA
So did you surf yet? I want to invite you back down to surf. I’ll let you borrow a Longboard even. My family is going this Saturday, August 5th. SanO is a place for surfers, those learning to surf, those trying to surf, those dreaming to surf, families, friends, loners…. But if one is a loner, chances are someone will strike up a conversation with you. SanO is contagious, relaxing, and fun. Get back to me for you have been officially invited down to have fun and learn to surf.
I should have taken you up on that offer. All these years later, I finally gave it a shot. I’m no good…. but I LOVE it. I haven’t paddled out at San O yet, still trying to get the hang of it at Doheny. Maybe I’ll get down there soon and you can say “you shoulda done this years ago.”
Great blog post! I’m a middle aged guy that started surfing 4 years ago… changed my life, I’ll always surf when I can now in the chilli Oregon waters.