About six months ago, I made a weird decision. I’ve been working as an editor at this website for around three years now, and up until that weird decision, it was just something I did at night after real work because I liked doing it. There were a lot of times when that seemed ridiculous, because most of the jobs I had were labor jobs, and as anyone knows that works as a grunt, you’re usually up pretty early and pretty beat when you get home. There’s usually just enough time to get half-drunk before you pass out in your clothes so you can wake up feeling shitty the next day. But there was always that fleeting possibility that, at some point, I could just write about surfing for a living.
So when the opportunity arose for me to make enough money to eat doing that, I took it. I quit my job working in trees as a Utility Arborist and bought a van for $1500. I’m in my early thirties. I had a good job that paid the bills, a decent little apartment in the town that I grew up in. I had a little pub where the bartenders knew what I drank and didn’t bother to ask if I wanted anything else. There were reasonably uncrowded waves which, although fickle, were good enough for me when they turned on. I had friends that I grew up with and enough experience doing stupid shit in my twenties that I could, at least hopefully, continue on the path I was on without too many regrets. But all of a sudden, I had quit my job and was fixing a camperized 1981 Dodge 100 for a trip to sunny Southern California (Los Angeles, specifically), where Rincon and First Point waited, in all their magazine spread glory. I had a pretty girl on my arm as I said goodbye to my friends. South was in our eyes, and we were happy.
The plan was pretty loose: drive the coast from Vancouver Island to LA, surfing, laughing, and sleeping where the road let us until we eventually got to our destination. The trip was amazing. I won’t get into it here, but the story is floating around on the internet, if you want to read it.
We arrived together in Venice, sweaty, unkempt, and covered in road dirt. The van was beginning to limp; stinking brakes and odd noises that are still worsening, despite my numerous roadside attempts at repair – I was forced to replace the entire exhaust manifold out in an O’Reilly’s parking lot with a screwdriver and a borrowed hacksaw in the dark, among many other, smaller problems.
We lived on the street in Venice for three months, parking in different places at night – usually residential, because of Venice’s incredibly strict parking laws. It’s interesting living on the street, pissing into cut-off milk jugs and trying to remain inconspicuous. There is a small community (in Venice, at least) of other homeless people, all vying for that spot with wireless or the one that’s in the shade for the brunt of LA’s August. The wealth here is buttered unevenly: a piece of bread with all that delicious strawberry jam piled at one side, and just a thin smear in the middle before disappearing into a schizophrenic bare patch on the other side that’s screaming incoherently at nothing. Living on the street makes you more aware of that bare patch. It’s impossible to ignore when it’s sitting outside your van at two am, desperate for crack and some form of meaningful health care.
But it was fun, living on the street. I surfed a lot, despite the waveless spell that blanketed California’s coastline for much of the fall. We ate dinner by the beach in pay parking lots, giving our extras to homeless people that, more often than not, seemed completely normal, except for their lack of a house or a helping hand out of the gutter. I went to work in an office every day, where the parking lot was full of extravagant cars. A Bentley blocked me and a Mercedes in one day. The arrogance of that Bentley owner confounded me. But it was California, in all its palm-swaying glory. Fantastic haircuts and women with plastic faces. Magazine fashion and sand in my pockets. October heat, shimmering on cracked white pavement while extraordinary sunsets painted the Pacific each evening.
But eventually, it started to get to me. There is so much about Los Angeles that is almost unbearable. It is bathed in a sense of falseness, one based on living a life that everyone else wants. Humans, in western society at least, are so easily able to fall prey to a stifling narcissism. But somewhere underneath all that still lies the beauty that dragged people west so long ago: the perfect weather and incredible views, all that serenity just waiting to be skimmed from the surface of our filth. That’s the funny thing about it, I think. People know it’s there, but they’re blinded by all the glitter that crouches above it, hiding it underneath its mud-stained dress.
Los Angeles is interesting, though. Just outside the glittering mess are a few outcroppings of the area’s previous beauty. After three months, my girlfriend went home, for a few reasons, the important ones of which are probably pretty obvious. To her credit, she took it like a champ, enjoying her time living with a homeless writer on the streets of Venice. She wants to come back, if you can believe it. We had some fun: a trip to Mexico, a few trips up and down the coast, cooking in the van, looking at an endless expanse of water, loving and arguing passionately.
After she left, I moved up to my aunt’s house, about an hour north of Venice in the hills above Malibu. I parked the van on the street outside her house and bathed in the silence that I had forgotten about. What’s striking to me is that this is not the norm. People actively chase the noise of crowded cities instead of finding their own noise. I had initially planned on getting an apartment in Venice and diving into my new(ish) job. Maybe getting a fantastic haircut and a poorly placed tattoo of Ché Guevarra to go with my rolled up skinny jeans and fashionable accessories. But luck! My aunt told me that, if I wanted, I could build a mini-house on the hillside above her house. A tiny house. Very tiny. But from dirt through roof, it would be mine, and I would pound every nail and plan every step.
So here I am, six months later, still living in a van with dirty feet covering the sheets in clay dust and broken leaves. Drinking vodka out of dirty mugs and reading awful novels that I just can’t seem to put down. Weekends spent building and weekdays spent in the office, reading the interesting words from anyone and everyone, from Kelly Slater to your neighbor. The house will probably be done in a few months, with a loft bed and an outdoor kitchen. There will be little white lights that break the silence of the canyon. And just down the hill lies Los Angeles, in all her fantastic noise.
And you know what? I am starting to feel settled, which isn’t something I’ve really felt before. I’ve spent most of my life banging around the planet, getting drunk and throwing up in odd places, getting kicked in the chest by old Thai-fighters, sleeping with girls in stinking fishing boats, and getting arrested in terrifying places. And now, after all that noise, in the hills above the loudest place I’ve ever been is where I’m finding it the quietest.
I surf almost every day, even when there aren’t waves. I make things with my hands. I get to intrude into other people’s ideas when they send them in on paper. And although I live in a van and my future is very uncertain, I am feeling pretty fucking happy about it. I think, what I’m trying to say – if I’m trying to say anything – is that we have a finite period of time here. It’s so easy to get mired in this weird muck that we are told we’re supposed to be in. But it’s muck. Get out of the rut and live your life, because it’s incredibly short. And the great thing about that is if you screw it all up, you don’t have to deal with it for too long. But if you don’t screw it up and you do what you want… well then buckle up, because shit is going to get weird.