Getting Outside Saturday: Wipe Out!

categories: Cocktail Hour

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This is from my essay, “Learning to Surf” which appeared in Orion magazine in 2006 and won the John Burroughs award for best nature essay:


Of course the year didn’t conclude triumphantly with me astride the board, trumpets blaring, as I road that great wave to shore. I kept surfing into late fall, actually getting up a few times. But then one day I abruptly quit. On that day “it” was big, much too big for a beginner like me. I should have understood this when I had trouble paddling out, the waves looming up above me before throwing my board and self backward. And I should have understood this as I waited for the waves, the watery world lifting me higher than ever before. But despite the quiet voice that told me to go home, I gave it a try, and before I knew it I was racing forward, triumphant and exhilarated, at least until the tip of my board dipped under and the wave bullied into me from behind, and I was thrown, rag-doll style, and held under by the wave. Then I was tossed forward again and the board, held to my foot by a safety strap, recoiled and slammed into my head. I did not black out: I emerged and staggered to the shore and touched my hand to the blood and sand on my face. The next night I taught my History of the Essay class with a black eye.

So that was enough, you see. One of the new countries I was entering was that of middle age, and the world didn’t need too many middle aged surfers. I had feared fatherhood, but most of the results of procreation had been delightful ones. One less than delightful result, however, was the way that disaster suddenly loomed around every corner–disaster that might befall my daughter, my wife, my self. There was no sense adding “death by surfing” to the list.


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