Surf's up in Santa Cruz
'Everything's bigger' is a common reaction, I would guess, from those visiting the USA from crowded Europe. In a country that's almost a continent there's a lot of space to go around, and a lot of Nature.
California's teaming with it, from noisy sea lions on the Santa Cruz peer and pelicans bobbing between surfers to the ever-present threat of the Great White. Despite being undeniably subdued - most of California's forests have long been felled - Nature seems somehow more assertive here, on more equal terms - and perhaps less fragile? Is that one of the reasons American's have found it hard to accept humanity's wholesale alteration of the climate - in spite of their role as pioneers in our industrial-scale tinkering with the carbon cycle?
I spent a weekend with my friend Adam, out here finishing his Oxford doctorate, and quickly succombed to the fun-seeking optimism of one of surfing's home towns.
Adam had arranged for my first surf lesson with Tod, a forty-something local surfer who, fresh from a Saturday's labouring as a painter was ready to get down to the real reason for his existence and get onto the waves. "There's people who surf and there's surfers", Tod eplained. "I'm a surfer. It mean's everything to me. See, if I moved inland, I'd die, no question. I'd die." One surfing mag had featured a letter's page titled 'Is surfing a religion?' and I was about to learn why.
Driving out of town and parking on the freeway, Tod took us to a favourite local surf spot: '3 Mile'. We walked down a track between millions of brussel sprouts and down a steep path to a beautiful little beach, unspoilt coves stretched out in either direction. Tod was reassuringly relaxed about the size of the breakers (but there did seem an awful lot of spray coming up from the rocks) and about the presence of sharks ("No sharks today. Maybe tomorrow, but not today" he said, winking). Quite a spot for a first-timer.
I threw myself into it and within minutes had a newfound respect for surfers and the sea. It is a tough sport - Tod was chiselled like an Athenian marble - and you pit your fitness and skill against the might of the ocean. I managed to body-board the first time (jumping off when I realised only the approaching rocks were going to slow my wave) and get onto my knees the second. The third effort was a lesson in respect. Off the board, into the wave and battered again and again, kicking away from the rocks and trying to punch through rolling walls of foam, only to get jerked back by the board trailing behind one leg by its chord, kicking free of kelp, amidst the rising sombre panic of a survival situation. The waves subsided (as Tod promised they would - they come in sets) and hauling myself onto my board, exhausted, ('like, totally'), I limply paddled towards the calm water, only able to grunt in reply to Tod's remarks: "You're tired, uh?... Hard work, isn't it?".
Afterwards we sat in the fading sunlight, sipping beer and staring out to sea, and the potent combination of mortal challenge, beauty and community that makes surfing much more than a sport for many was clear. You taunt the might of the ocean, playing in the Lion's den, learning to skip away inches from a foamy mauling, and in the sparing find a communion with Nature.
That night I had a running dream - the one's where you're chased until you wake up.
The following day Adam and I drove to Big Basin Redwood State Park. California's oldest state park, it was saved from the loggers when the Sempervirens Club bought 15km sq. of old growth Redwood forest in 1902.
'What were the loggers thinking' Adam and I wondered, as we strolled through the echoing halls of giant Redwoods. Did they feel sad, driven on my hungry mouths at home and bosses far removed who didn't care? Or did they actually see these high-Gothic cathedrals of nature as 'resources', counting each ones' size by the number of railway sleepers it could yield?
We hugged a tree each. Had to be done. Then hopped back into our gas-hungry hire car and left.