By Regina Coll
Web Exclusive, March 20, 2006
My boys are 14 and 16 years old, which means that many years ago I literally had to carry them on my hip if I wanted to get anywhere. I still spend a great deal of time directing their activity, and driving—always driving—but their own legs manage to keep them upright on land, and on water. We live outside Washington D.C., which is not a town readily associated with surfing. Yet a trip to Hawaii four years ago deeply branded my children with the experience of wave riding. In Lahina, this seemed charming, allowing me to boast and shower friends with Gidget-y pictures of novice riders. But now the waves are bigger, and they go out farther, making me wish sometimes they were still riding on my hip.
This year I had the opportunity to spend a few days with my teenage sons on what I can only call my first road trip. We had been planning a family getaway for spring break since the winter holidays ended, and this year it happened that their spring break fell over a period of two weeks in March after an early Easter. When my husband Rob and I examined our various schedules, we were left with only a 5-day vacation window—not enough time for a fly-away vacation, and too long to visit relatives. Instead we came up with the prefect getaway—a surfing road trip. I had no clue that it would turn out to be the dearest, most revitalizing vacation I had ever had, as well as present my children to me as young men of passion and determination. These qualities often lie dormant in their everyday suburban mumble-shuffle, but for five days, the boys were positively ignited by music, water and fiberglass.
My elder son, Opie (short for Owen Patrick), is the surf-pusher in our house. He subscribes to surfing magazines, papers his bedroom walls with exploding curls or flowing mountains, and wakes most mornings to the soft glow of the sun coming up over Ocean City on the beach web cam. We have many surfing videos in the house, most of which are modeled after Bruce Brown's surfing travelogue "Endless Summer" which follows two intrepid surfers across the globe in search of waves. Opie's brother Tommy also surfs, but with a sensibility about him—unlike his brother—that allows him other urban interests like soccer and baseball. However, Tommy has an equally unbalanced fixation; his is with music. Recorded, live, original, covers, old, new, jazz, classic, metal, R&B—I think he has woven it all into his heart.
Finally there's water. As a family, we are preoccupied with this element. Two natal water signs, dreams of water, blue rooms, birdbaths, pool memberships, a sailboat—even a wet basement - water rules our family. We often drive six hours in a single day in order to spend five hours at the Delaware beaches.
But last March the water was still too cold for the boys to surf Delaware with their lightweight wet suits, so we spent some time on the web reviewing the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's data maps for water temperature and storm activity in the Atlantic. After a thorough review, and disappointment over the fact that there were NO storms anywhere in the Atlantic (storms churn up the surf), we settled on South Carolina's Charleston area for this trip. I thought that if the weather was bad or the water was flat, we could at least sneak in a bit of culture.
We invited Opie's lifelong friend Isiah to ride along and left at 2:30 am with three surfboards carefully strapped to the top of the van. As morning broke on the interstate, I was surprised at the lack of other van-vacationers on the road, and realized that I hadn't seen anyone else on the highways with boards. Where were all the other surfing families on Spring Break going? Did they ship their boards ahead of them? Where they going to rent boards when they got to the beach? Our trip started out with a lot of questions - in retrospect, a road trip hallmark.
When we got within 40 miles of the coastline it became increasingly difficult to stick to the original Charleston plan. Road signs stating BEACHES were a constant reminder of how close the water really was, and each sign teased us into the decision to change our destination from Charleston to the Wilmington, N.C. beaches. This choice intensified the road trip feeling: the feeling that possibility and change should be part our process. At this point we consciously inventoried our travel criteria and came up with things that had little to do with grand objectives. Our goals were to:
- Care for the Board
- Go to the wave.
- Listen to your stomach
- Rest when tired.
We treated these rules as if they were our commandments, and we, eager supplicants. My husband and I played peripheral roles, more the facilitators on this journey, but our children were bursting with the excitement of a new beach, new waves, and different sand. The superficial sameness of the place where ocean touches land felt like meeting a new cousin, or moving into a new house—there was something consistent wrapped in delicious difference. The boys spoke of the sameness and the difference through comparison "The current looks stronger than" "The dunes are smaller than" or "The shells are fewer than" all of which revealed an appreciation for coastline features that I was surprised they noticed. This told me their life experience was gathering more depth, and that their awareness extended beyond the mad dash -from car to the water- of years past.
The boys were itching to get out of the car, so we finally landed on Wilmington's closest beach, Wrightsville, and were very surprised to find only one surf shop on the main drag. Tommy and Isiah needed neoprene booties and gloves because the water temperature was hovering around 52-54 degrees. I wandered around the shop looking at surf gear and sunglasses while I listened to the boys talk to the shop-hands about the surf forecast, and Sunday's clean overhead (surf-tales are not unlike fish-tales). We picked up a tide chart (yes, tides matter to surfers) and as luck would have it, the breaks were ok just up the road.
Despite the fact they are both 6 feet tall and over 175 lbs each, I typically guide, suggest, even push in order to help move things forward in our teenage household. But because surfing is important, my children can be remarkably organized and methodical in their approach to surf preparations.
Surfing's importance is related to my boy's needs—the need to be in nature, in unpredictability, in drama, the need to feed their senses, the need to be away from their parents—separated, yet within sight, and the need to be physical—in a big way—an explosive way. So as they embraced these needs, I stood to the side and witnessed a ritual of preparation unfold before me. Day after day, I watched them care for their instruments and ready themselves to play them. They:
- Piled out of the car at the end of a beach road
- Stared at the waves and the other surfers for 8-10 minutes (monitoring set frequency)
- Pointed at the breaks
- Made a decision (it had to be really bad not to go in)
- Started unloading the van
- Changed, wrapped in a towel on the street (what would my mother say!?)
- Took down the boards
- Scrutinized the waves again
- Wriggled into neoprene (this is fun for a mother—like watching them put on full-body pantyhose)
- Checked board wax (too slick, too nubby ??)
- Set up chairs for the older folk
- Finally - paddled away
Throughout the days I saw a similar ritual repeated by the locals. They appeared noiselessly on the sand around mid-day, some in t-shirt and jeans, some in neckties and cufflinks, some with dogs but all with a singular eye towards the east. They watched quietly, might make a phone call, then head back to their car or truck. Again and again I was surprised by someone opening the hatch or trunk of their car, only to pull a full sized board out from the dark recess. It was like watching a magician pull a coat-stand out of a black top-hat. These folks would surf for a minimum of one hour, and often up to two or three. I remember identifying with their dogs, left waiting patiently on the sand. I imagined we (me and the sandy damp dogs) shared the same concerns: "Where is he, when will he come back?" Each time my boys went into the water I had to let go; each time they came back out I was delighted. I've come to view this as my own practice, increasing my strength and suppleness for the time when they will eventually leave me empty-nested. My hope is that time might be made easier if I am toned for it.
When they come back in to eat the boys will de-brief me, "Mom did you see the one where . . . . did you see how I . . . " I'll take an assessment of their cuts, bruises and bumps while they beam and glow, kind of surf-drunk. They'll eat one-handed and peel their wet suits to their waists to warm up in the sun. I watch as a white trace of rime appears around their eyebrows and ears as the sun dries them. Even sitting ashore their eyes are on the waves, on the sets. I see a remarkable determination and affection in their gaze, and recognize a real excitement, a real love. This is a love of theirs, not mine, and I feel their ownership and independence.
Most days on this trip, they surfed until late afternoon, when the air temperature became too cold to bear, and their lips were blue and swollen. The earlier preparation ritual was reversed. Boards were loaded onto the van and we'd head out in search of a hotel and food.
One morning we woke up particularly cold and restless so decided to head further south to Pawleys Island in South Carolina. We drove two hours, found the beach, got out and were disappointed by an utter lack of waves. Not willing to believe this, we drove up and down the island and checked three more beaches, but they turned out to be just as flat as the first. So we had lunch and headed back up the interstate, to cold but productive Wrightsville. I understand this too is characteristic of a road trip—the hit or miss-ness. But we had to be willing to check it out, and go with the flow.
On the last day of our trip, it rained. Weather at the beach is always such a performance - quickly changing and intense (like a teen?). The boys said they were more than happy to surf through the rain, but the lightning gave us all pause. Fortunately the storm cleared mid-morning, which meant we could entertain the idea of one last surf-session.
The waves were already full of riders when we got to the beach, even though the surf was choppy. Rides were few and short, but the water was cranking. I got the impression that everyone out there was waiting for the water to smooth out just a tad, because the energy and periods between waves looked great. It was still windy and the boys had a hard time getting out past the breaks to the line up. The drag down the beach was strong and it took them 15 minutes to get settled. I meandered up and down the beach collecting shells because I couldn't sit in my chair (when the water moves this much I have to keep moving with it—I couldn't let go of the notion that I might, at any time, need to throw my 165 pound frame into the frigid water, cruise out to the troubled lads, and haul them both in out of danger). My concerns were, thankfully, not realized. Instead, the boys abandoned the session after about 45 minutes, broke out the boogie boards and flippers and were rewarded with a couple of great rides, prolonging the fun as long as possible. I signaled from the beach, and Opie signaled back "just one more" a few times. Leaving meant we wouldn't see the beach for a month or more, so we all let him string us along.
The ride back was long and quiet. As I drove west, then north, I watched the landscape change from the sand and marsh to pines. The egrets sloshing on the roadside gave way to highway hawks and sparrows. We got back around 9pm, dirty, tired, happy to see our animals, dreading the morning routine, the van full of sand. We managed to get the boards off the car and the wet suits hosed out. Bleary-tired, the boys ran their fingers up and down the boards checking for dings before they carried them up the stairs towards the attic, then themselves off to bed.
A few months have passed and Opie's driving now, initiated into the hustle of suburban life. He tells me he feels independent because he can drive, yet I still get to wake him for school most mornings. Tommy's started high school and Rob is back to teaching and I too have resumed my conventions at work. But every now and then I'll take the van to work, and have to brush a bit of sand off my business suit. Then I'm flooded with the memory of throaty giggles and pitch-black overskins. I remember the gray sky and gray March water of our unstructured five days together. I remember the dives and the foam, the music and my sons' knowing looks. Born out of water lust and laughter, I remember what it was like to be on the road with them.
If I were to choose three nouns to describe me, the first would be mother, the second nurse, the third learner, and the three overlap continually. The first noun is declarative - MOTHER, and I love being a mother. Now that I am firmly planted in middle-age, I've realized how much the mothering experience has offered me, and I'm grateful for the gifts my children have brought me. The second noun, Nurse, is descriptive, explaining an orientation and a profession. As a nurse I made close friends, professional colleagues, and taken care of some interesting situations - it's a rewarding and varied career choice for anyone. The third noun, learner, again describes an activity, and I find my interests leaning towards those things that are novel or weird - it's just wonderful to be surprised. Finally, an add-on noun should include poet, as I am the webmaster for the BathroomPoetProject in Washington D.C.