My memory is a tricky thing. The days and their details shatter and blend until I am left with a collection of mosaics created from people, places, and events. What continues to translate itself fluidly over the years is essence – I can remember the presence of a beach down in Baja California. I remember the feeling of sand giving way beneath my feet, the bright, knobbly shell of a lobster washed up in the shore line, the heat on my skin. I remember moments, so perfectly preserved, of people as I connected with them, before life tumbled us onwards crashing and retreating over and over again.
This evening I have found myself remembering someone who I haven’t thought about in years and the clarity of these memories involving Noel surprise me.
The coastline where I learned to surf in Northern California had a small community of surfers. I think things have changed now, they were already changing back then, but in those years that I lived in Bodega Bay, everyone generally knew everyone else. There were only a handful of female surfers who consistently braved the cold waters and heavy conditions, and those of us who did were surrounded by a group of men who acted like big brothers to us. In my years of travel, I learned that there was a breed of surfer that could be found in most places and when you found them, there was an instant sort of kinship created by the connection with the ocean – a tribe of surfers.
Because Bodega Bay didn’t offer any of the glamorous versions of surfing, it generally only attracted this type of ‘soul surfer.’ Any one who surfed on that coast did so because they had a deep need to connect with the ocean. Everything about the surfing experience in those conditions failed the romantic versions of surfing.
We wore thick wetsuits that often smelled vaguely pissy because we all took full advantage of the warmth of our own pee in those early morning sessions. After getting washed in ice-cold water, you’d see a fellow surfer get this private little smile and know that he was peeing in his wetsuit and enjoying the temporary warmth. Most of us also wore thick neoprene booties and hoods and sometimes gloves to keep our hands from turning into numb claws. Our tan lines stopped at our wrists and necks. We squinted through the early morning fog, usually right before dawn, clutching our various hot, caffeinated drinks of choice, determining whether to drive an hour one way up north to catch the swell or muscle through the beach break of Salmon Creek.
People who surfed for years on that coast became weathered by the conditions and almost all of us were always planning trips to warmer waters, but others, unlike me, remained fiercely loyal to the wild nature of the coast. I longed for warmer waters. My relationship with the coastline was a love/hate one. I loved the ocean and waves, hated the fog, the cold, the howling winds. Nearly every surf session spit me out on the shore with numb fingers, weary bones, and a need to hibernate under a pile of blankets until my body recovered. But I had to surf. The cold was an initiation process for me, testing my desire to learn.
During those years, Noel had a place among a group of men that I admired for their surfing. Like the spirit of the coast itself, there was a wild, fierce, diverse group of surfers that were like demigods out in the waves. All of them traveled to better waves, better conditions, but they came back to the coastline again and again. I believe most of them still live there. Images of those dark figures crouched on waves that moved like mountains are a permanent part of the landscape of my imagination.
I knew Noel in the pre-days, meaning, it wasn’t until tonight that I became aware of what he had gone on to achieve. He was just beginning to test himself against Puerto Escondido. Stories of his adventures circulated with the other stories the men of his rank would bring back from their adventures. I knew a Noel that was always flashing cheeky smiles at me and flirting when he shouldn’t have, because that’s exactly the kind of guy he was – he took life by the teeth and shook it around. I admired him and was always shy in his presence. He made me aware of how silly my own self-seriousness was. That is the essence of him that remains in my mind.
When I was first learning to surf and only just starting to master moving against the weight of the cold and the bulk of my wetsuit, I remember him being on the inside of a wave I was dropping into. He hooted and hollered as I got to my feet. My heart had pounded with adrenaline. I didn’t want to get slammed by the wave, or to be humiliated in front of one of the local ‘big bros’.
Later on, Noel said to the man I was involved with, “She was charging into that wave…You really need to buy her a helmet.”
I was so proud – even if he was insinuating I was likely to knock myself out.
I thought of him as one of those guys that was so durable he could throw himself at the ugliest waves and he might get battered, bounced around, but he’d eventually pop back up at the peak, smiling and ready to charge the biggest wave in the set. Tonight, I thought about the fact that he had died doing the thing he loved. There is something beautiful and blessed about that.
Tonight I tried to imagine what might have happened in those warm, Mexican waters that took his life. My mind gave me a series of images blending into one another, the strongest being an impression of his smile.
Noel is one of those gleaming pieces of memory in the mosaic of my memory. I imagine that he is somewhere on the other side, riding endless waves, gliding over the shadows of sharks, and I want to thank him for living his life the way he did.