Twenty-four years and thirty-eight days of remembering what it was like. Twenty-four years and thirty-eight days since the outflow of human filth finally turned that once-beautiful, pristine playground into a cesspool filled with toxic sludge released from the bowels of humanity. It’s been that long since the EPA–or what remained of the organization, anyway–finally deemed the ocean “unfit for humans.” The animals are still in there, of course. Some of them, at least. We couldn’t live on this planet without them, after all, but they’ve been decimated by the decades-long onslaught of poisons we released–and continue releasing–into their home.
I live inland now. Far inland. It was a forced migration, but I guess I’m glad I’m here. If the rumors are true, living in the coastland would kill me–although I thought living inland might do that, too. I was born on the coast and spent over thirty years traipsing along its vastness, finding waves where I could, living out of a 1981 Dodge camper van.
It had a good motor in it, a 318, if I remember correctly. It was fucking bulletproof, that thing. Easy to work on, not that I ever needed to. Parts were cheap back then, easy to find, and easy to install without a mechanic. Took it to Mexico a few times, filled it with sand and scorching air, and it never let me down. Took it from Canada to Southern California, filled it with the pine-scented air of the Oregon coast and the stinking, exhaust-choked air of the I-5. Filled it with the sand of a thousand beaches, the salt of a thousand waves, the stink of thousand days of wetsuits drying on the heater. I still think about that van sometimes. I wonder where it went; who has it now, whether it’s rusting into oblivion in a scrapyard somewhere. Maybe it was crushed flat years ago. I don’t know. I loved that van. Makes me sad to think about it crushed flat.
Now, of course, I drive an electric, just like the rest of the world. It’s the law, and even if it wasn’t, oil and gas ain’t an industry anymore. I swear, the air is clearer. Even inland, where I live now. The young ones don’t know it, but this place used to be a smog-laden valley. No crisp morning breeze blowing it seaward, just hot, murky stink, like melting rubber baking in a dusty oven. Didn’t take long to clean itself up, which is surprising. Soon as China and the U.S. got the message from the rest of the world and shut down their filth-puking stacks and made the switch to the green stuff, it only took a few years. Strange how something so far away can make a difference. Those electrics, though. Murder to work on. Couldn’t do it if my life depended on it.
You fucked yourselves, and there’s no one to blame for it except a generation of pussies scared to get their knuckles busted pulling wrenches.
Literally, if my life depended on it, and I was a decent mechanic, back when regular people could work on vehicles with tools. Fucking robots do all the work now, lined up in factories, with metal fingers programmed to do a thousand of the same motion a day without the employer worried about repetitive stress injuries, or whatever the kids back then complained about. Expensive as hell to build, but once they’re there, no need to pay them a wage.
Saves a buck, good for the bottom line. Bad for the human workers, but fuck ’em. They brought it on themselves, as far as I’m concerned. Complaining about how much work sucks, instead of just shutting up and working. Someone’s got to do it, and now the robots are doing it. You fucked yourselves, and there’s no one to blame for it except a generation of pussies scared to get their knuckles busted pulling wrenches.
What used to be the holy grail of wave riding has become the equivalent of a morning jog. There’s that old saying that ten thousand hours of anything makes you an expert, and I believe it.
Kids are doing shit in there that I’d never have expected twenty years ago. No fins, flip tricks, all sorts of shit. The barrels become the new open face. Power carving’s like the fucking Mona Lisa: seen and admired in a museum, but old as fuck and fallen by the wayside.
Got up, unplugged the car, and headed down the road to the pool. I’m still not really used to surfing in a pool, and I don’t think I ever will be. But it’s a necessity now that the ocean’s off-limits. Got barreled off my head, just like always. Water was an electrically-heated, balmy 75 degrees if we’re going by the old ways. About 23 degrees now. I can’t get Fahrenheit out of my head, though, no matter how long the U.S. runs on Celsius. Took us long enough to catch up to the rest of the world, and I know it makes sense, but man, it’s hard to get used to. I’m getting old, I guess. Got old, I guess I should say. Still don’t know when that happened. Since I’ve moved inland, my tube riding has gotten a lot better. I’d say it’s been about thirteen years since I finally caved and got my annual pool pass.
Kids don’t give a shit about the old fundamentals anymore. The fundamentals, now that I think about it, aren’t even fundamental anymore. No reading waves, no battling the current, none of that. It’s rare to even see anyone on a “surfboard” now. I mean the ones we used to use, made of foam and fiberglass and all those other toxic materials that contributed to the downfall of the best place to use them.
I talked to a kid this morning after my scheduled session was up and my watch beeped at me to get out. Nice enough kid. Stupid looking haircut, but nice enough. More polite than most, I guess. Looked me in the eye, even took off his computer glasses to talk to me, instead of looking at porn with one eye and looking at me with the other like all the other little perverts nowadays.
Porn used to be shameful. Now it’s just beamed into your eyeball all day. Rape rates are through the roof, but no one seems to blame it on anything other than the women getting raped. Same old story. Some things never change. He was riding this little disc with no fins, reminiscent of those skimboards people used to ride. I was on the pulley back out to the peak about halfway through my session, and I watched him do a full el rollo on it. I remember when that was something that everyone talked about, but never really managed. Far as I know, no one ever did one on a surfboard. Right at the top, he did a quick shove-it. He was upside down in a barrel, and he did a shove-it. Blew my mind, but he acted like it wasn’t anything.
I guess, compared to what the pros are doing now, it wasn’t. That’s what happens when you grow up surfing the same wave over and over. Kid wasn’t even sponsored or anything, just had rich parents that could afford to stick him in the pool every morning since birth. We talked briefly, because an adult talking to a kid is pretty much a no-go these days. That’s sad, but that’s how life goes. I hate to sound like an old man, but the good old days sure were good. Anyway, I asked him if he ever wished he could surf in the ocean. I think I asked because I woke up feeling a bit nostalgic this morning. Had a dream about a wave in Mexico I surfed for a few weeks back in early 2016, I think, a couple of years before shit really hit the fan. It made me feel a little sad.
I hate to sound like an old man, but the good old days sure were good.
Fuck it, though, sadness can’t change reality. Nothing can do that except time, and I’ll be dead before the ocean’s alive again. Kid just laughed. “Why would I want to do that?” he asked me. “This wave is perfect!” I started to tell him it wasn’t perfect; that imperfections make perfection, that this wasn’t a real wave, that he missed out on real surfing. I stopped myself, though. No point in vomiting an idea onto a kid that can’t grasp it. Just make myself frustrated. I spend a lot of time frustrated now. Something about watching kids going through life without knowing that they’re missing out on what used to be the best part of it. They’ll never know the feeling of sitting in sand still cool from the previous night, watching the sky slowly explode with colors.
Sure, they can change the bathymetry in about a million different ways, but in the twenty-or-so years I’ve been surfing these pools – they’re all the same, since the Company monopolized the wave pool industry and made every single one from a stock template–I’ve learned them all. Every little nook and cranny, every little fake warble they throw at me, I know what’s coming.
They’ll never know the smell of a stiff offshore breeze whipping the backs off a wave, pelting your cheeks after a deep duck dive. The worst part about it is that they don’t even know what they’re missing, and they’re happy. I should be happy that they’re happy, but I know they could be so much happier if we didn’t rip away what would have been a much different future, like ripping warm bedclothes off a baby in the middle of a cold night. It seems as though the only respite I get is when I’m getting barreled the pool, and even that is wearing thin.
It’s like playing a video game you’ve beaten a thousand times already. Fun to a point, but only because you know you’re going to beat it. Shit, I haven’t even fallen on a wave in years. I miss the poundings. I miss the salt water drying in my eyebrows, turning to crystals on my skin, catching sunlight like a thousand little diamonds stuck in the hair on my arms. I even miss the long drives in the early morning dark, sipping coffee from a plastic cup with the window open to wake me up, only to pull up to the beach and see the ocean was a blown out, un-surfable mess in front of the rising sun before I drove home again, dejected but happier for the experience. It is always the failures that make the successes so great. Then, of course, we decided to get rid of the failures. Now the successes are just the norm. How boring.
They say that going in the ocean is a death sentence now. It makes sense. Since we were outlawed from going in it, it’s just gotten worse. We kept right on funneling all of our shit into it, from antibiotic-laden hospital waste to millions of gallons of crude oil, like it was some kind of global toilet. Yeah, a few people raised a stink, but nothing really got done. A few pieces of lip-service legislation pushed through, a whole lot more money pushed further, and even more putrid waste sent out to sea. Now, even though I’m more than a hundred miles from the sea, if the wind blows from the west, I can smell the filth from the coastline. When one of those Pacific storms hits, it smells as though a million dump trucks full of fish sat in the sun for a month, then tipped over in front of a giant fan. I can’t imagine what it must look like. I don’t want to imagine it.
I want to keep it in my memory as the glittering, endless expanse it once was. It’s still endless, but it sure as shit ain’t glittering anymore. The storms are getting worse, too. One of the last years I surfed, 2025 or 2026, was one of those great El Nino years. The whole winter was full of massive swells, wrapping their way around points, tripping over reefs, unloading that awesome force that only Mother Nature can produce. I remember spending that whole winter tired. Shoulders wrecked, back fucked up, salt water pouring out of my nose every time I leaned over. I’ve probably built it up in my head a bit, but you get the idea. Thing is, though, the next year was better. And the next, and the next. Until it wasn’t better.
Before that winter, it was a big deal if a surfer died–it just didn’t happen. Yeah, a few times here and there – guys like Sion, Foo, Malik–people no one really remembers now, except for a few who like to tell stories. Then, though, they were memorialized. Until storms got so violent that a surfer was about as likely to die as they were to survive.
The storms got bigger and bigger as the ocean warmed and messed with the currents, great swathes of cold ramming into greater swathes of warm, throwing off the delicate equilibrium that controls the planet’s weather. At some point, the storms got too violent, the waves too big. For surfers, everything was great until it was terrible. In fact, before The Migration, something like 175 surfers died in a single winter. Good surfers, too, not just a bunch of poor jackasses who had no idea of how angry the sea had become and wound up drowning on an accidental fate.
For surfers, everything was great until it was terrible.
Pros, too. Strange how things can change in a moment. Puerto Escondido, a town in Mexico that used to have one of the best beach breaks on the planet, was demolished one winter. The whole fucking town. Huge parts of the California coastline were washed inland. It’s still happening every year, but we don’t really hear about it. No one cares anymore because no one lives there. I was part of the government-forced migration inland, packed into a bus with a million others and dumped off in some god-forsaken prairie, surrounded by GMO super-wheat, impermeable to pretty much anything other than fire. Bread sure is cheap, though. Getting sick of sandwiches.
“Welcome to the rest of your life,” they said. “We should have seen this coming.” Thing is, a lot of us did. The ice caps are all but gone now, and I imagine a lot of my favorite waves are gone, but I like to think that a lot more were created with the sea level rise. Just think of it: so many waves going unridden and unseen. I’ve heard rumors, though, that there are roving packs of surfers that live on the coastline. Judging from the west-wind stench, I don’t know how they survive. As far as I know, the coastland isn’t habitable, turned to a black and muddy wasteland. I haven’t eaten real fish in years.
From what I hear, the fish that still live in the ocean aren’t exactly edible, but that’s all hearsay, I guess. Can’t knock it ’til you try it, after all. But even if those groups aren’t there, I like to think of them in the mornings when I’m unplugging my car and packing my surfboard to hit the pool before work. I like to think of them standing on top of a cliff, looking down at some firing right-hand point break. It has an easy roll in section with a big, long wall in front of it. Enough time for a few big, arcing turns–nothing too fancy, just enough to feel the rail dig and the fins chatter–followed by a meaty barrel section that requires nothing but setting your line and holding on.
I like to think of them up there on that cliff, amid the stench of human filth, the rancid morning wind blowing through their salty hair, their old-school thrusters beneath their arms, not saying a word to each other. The ocean is a murky brown, no longer able to filter out all the toxins we’ve put into it. The waves, though, are perfect. Bending around the point one after another, completely void of any other human beings.
Every now and then, a cleanup set rolls across the bay, sending its thundering welcome up the cliffs to the lone spectators. The crowds won’t show up, because they’re all inland with me, surfing in a chlorinated pool, getting the same perfect tube ten times a morning. But up on the empty cliff top, the silence of the surfers is speaking volumes.
They understand it. There are times in life when there isn’t any need for words. And although they’re not talking, I can almost hear what they’re saying. I imagine, if I listen hard enough, I could understand. I’m just not sure that my hearing is good enough anymore.
Editor’s Note: this story features the art of Damian Fulton. You should look at more of it.