When I was in college, I was living the California dream. I was at UC Santa Cruz studying poetry, I had an apartment on Ocean a few blocks from the beach, and I had a beat up old Karmann Ghia with a ragtop and an East Cliff surfboard. I used to go out to Steamers and surf really badly. There was a grandma who used to surf out there in a pink wetsuit and a straw hat who could shred circles around me. But I wanted to learn.
Most of Steamers is pretty tame. It’s a long cliff line running into a small bay where the break comes in long and slow. A great place for learning. But at the mouth of the bay near the lighthouse, where it’s more exposed, the break can get a lot rougher. It’s out of my league, but it took me a good lesson to figure that out.
I was paddling out into the first set of the day, and it wasn’t until I was getting into the waves that I realized how big the surf was. The waves were suddenly looming, and I was right in the crash zone, not far enough out to roll under the wave, and too far committed to back off and ride the whitewater. When the wave came down the concussion was surreal.
I remember first the sound of the explosion in my head, and the muffled bubbling groan of having the wind knocked out me. I remember the sensation of pinwheeling end over end like a thrown doll. I remember that somehow the rushing underwater light looked like stained glass. And I vividly remember fighting against the overwhelming weight of water, being pushed further down until I realized I just needed to relax and let go. And almost immediately I came to the surface, gasping for air, wiping the water out of my eyes. My board was floating nearby on the leash, and I grabbed it reflexively before looking around to gain my bearings. The next wave was just coming down over my head.
A few years later I had gotten my first job as an editor and I was living with my wife in Santa Barbara. We’d traded the Ghia for an old convertible Mustang, and I was driving along the back roads off Highway 1 in the North County south of Pismo. It was an early summer morning just after sunrise, and I was following the fenceline along a stretch of wild grass, the sunlight burnishing everything gold and bright.
Some distance ahead, a deer burst through the grass to the left, leaped across the road and launched into a high arc to clear the fence on the right. The scene was a snapshot of perfect flight, the deer fully extended, spun from gold in the summer grass and sunlight, and I remember thinking in that moment, this is as close to God as you can get on earth. And in the next moment, the world flipped over. Another deer emerged behind the first, just a few feet ahead of the Mustang, and I didn’t even have time to hit the brakes. Time compressed into frames of film. The deer just ahead. The deer bending into the front of the car. Shards of glittering light. The body arching away in a parody of flight.
The car slid sideways and stopped in the middle of the road. The engine was dead. Coolant poured onto the asphalt, smelling hot and sweet. Paul Harvey was pitching from the radio to an empty country road.
I hold both of these stories in mind in turbulent times like these. When you’re flying high or struggling to survive, the milestone you’re focused on next, just as you reach it, can be one step ahead of the unexpected. Don’t forget to look ahead.