Ocean Beach, SF


Crossing Great Highway

Ocean Beach is an ugly, boozy old uncle misbehaving. This temperamental stretch of the Pacific Ocean is restless and busy at its calmest. At its most flagrant, eruptions from cannonading waves stir everything up into a uniquely lethal space. We quest to give it a more positive visual explanation, when in reality an unnatural and defiled climax of the elements happens where cities and the sea collide. The citizenry has developed a tolerance for OB’s intrinsic volatility and steadily-rising body count. This week, in the midst of a summer doldrums no less, we were reminded how an August surge can serve up its own version of superhuman eddies, undertows and nasty surprises, resulting in yet more deaths. A surfer, a swimmer, tokens thrown into nature’s injustice; mix uncanny timing and a moment of indecision—and it is over. These were supposed to be the mellower months at OB, with fewer challenges than its ill-reputed winter bombardment. How are we even vaguely embracing a shoreline legendary for indiscriminate drownings and disappearances in all seasons? One that sits just around the corner from high frequency “suicide-by-the-sea” where fitful Golden Gate Bridge jumpers draw out their gruesome task when the king tide ebbs? Such abrupt partings usually involve suffering in some unimaginable way. OB has a schizophrenic disregard for capability and experience, and reminds us of the dilemma presented by a pleasant but sketchy friend who might be moonlighting as a scary criminal behind our back.


We access OB’s adjoining hillock, dune and cement configuration—a slow-rolling parkway dubbed Great Highway—on foot, en route to the swell. Vehicles pulse through timed lights at stained crosswalks. Ravens scowl and clop their greasy beaks from desiccated pine trees and catenary wires. Corvids are quarrelsome and eat garbage, peering down at all the other varieties of opportunistic foragers and the kind of ecological mismanagement that might someday qualify for a Misrach project. Civil engineers are clever here—below the thoroughfare is a carved-out substructure, incognito and ripe with duality. The entire length of Great Highway delivers a road or a lid, two sides of a plane—its drivers cannot see the flooded basement of the West San Francisco Watershed and the Underground Westside Transport Structure that feeds into Oceanside Pump Station and Treatment Plant. Almost 25% of the city’s total drainage, natural and synthetic, reaches this stony barrier to Ocean Beach and the sea beyond. Buried rebar-encrusted containers await cubic tons of metropolitan offal and caffeinated rainwater. It’s all part of the Master Plan, hidden in plain sight. There’s mercury, pesticide and pissed-out methamphetamine in there, tooth whitener, dead owls. Subconsciously surfers ignore it, hope there’s no seepage from the tombs, and carry on. We’re pleased with the disguise of four-lane scenic thruways, how the median is landscaped with reedy grasses warped eastward by the prevailing onshore wind. We have fond traditions of ignoring the unsavory. During the winter maelstrom fine-grained sand drifts across the northbound lanes, road closures go up for dune and subterranean sewer maintenance, and the waves obtain high potency in that “you’ll-get-nothing-and-like-it” sort of way. It’s a rare occurrence, but you can still find OB scraped clean of people when it’s cold, dark and raining sideways.


358 days of the year, all processed wastewater is piped through a turd spigot four miles offshore into a nearby marine canyon south of the city line. As the system’s stormwater overflow threshold is reached on special events, so are the limits of what can be pumped through the treatment plant fast enough. Our population explosion backfires upon us as a hideous fecal coliform-infused “broth of humanity” invades the Ocean Beach lineup six to seven times per winter, on average; double those numbers when El Niño is in town. Avoid gank-water contact at all costs. The emergency discharge of sewage and effervescent street runoff exits directly into Ocean Beach after it has been “decanted” of funky sediments underneath Great Highway. Decanted. Like letting a vintage grand cru breathe in the carafe, we are decanting the methane stink chamber under the motorway. Similar to Los Angeles, the natural history along this segment of Northern California is also bastardized by technology, industry and its own popularity, giving birth to the state’s twin hypoxic zones. In the summer, a dismal red tide arrives to provide us with new ways to get sick on domoic acid. In a diluted, technical sense, we surf in neurotoxins and the faint residue of radioactive isotopes migrating across the ocean from Fukushima Daaichi. Having taken an x-ray snapshot of our tainted Anthropocene, we can devote ourselves to focusing on OB’s upside…


Our kind is roused by the tableaux vivant and the signature snap of sea mist, particularly diffused ions that pour into the hollow recesses between smooth-domed set waves rolling deep off the hard-packed ocean floor. At Great Highway, we’ll cross between the lights and trounce through rampant non-native ice plant carpeting the ground; we share the “invasive species” label. Our increasingly rapid heartbeat gets muffled by rows of traffic-bound passersby, it goes undocumented. There is road kill as they travel headlong to deal with everyday emergencies. Everyone is after a fantasy in situ, and of the same sphere—sentient machines darting through timed lights in a cadence, finding the winning combination on Frogger. Ours is a temporal solution, and then it starts all over again. As we traverse the fringe, the air is worn raw by the North Pacific Gyre, dusted with a dim whiff of British Columbia on the California Current. Just for today, the plot beneath us is a stationary yacht that occasionally sets sail on roiling magma; our random die is tossed along the Ring of Fire.


One by one we scream down Ocean Beach’s vertical drops and buy the ranch. Repeat. Be agile. Skip the pastiche unless you’re imitating Lopez, extra points for style and grace under pressure. This is surfing, so don’t get faded. The quantum physics part kicks in when you start to lose track of time, and ignore hunger pangs. Power and unpredictability are the goods here on epic days. Opinions are moot at 10 to 12 feet and “troubling.” A harrowing false ledge invites us to tuck into folding, lurching, snapping saltwater basilisks. There’s a boiling kettle down there, looks scalding hot even when it’s icy-green. These waves would enjoy maiming, killing or giving a heart attack to 99% of the human race. Self-propelled whirlpools have been known to wander through the line-up, never hinting at what’s to come. The fiendish sea beasts are real, we’ve seen them on all coasts but especially here, yea, exhaling into resignation. With the forbidden, sharky Farallons packing the mythos of morbidity on the horizon, the Ohlone called it Great White and stayed the hell out of there, plumb center of a Red Triangle. We theoretically saw faint expressions of subdued horror on a fleeing seal’s obsidian eyes, replicating the uncertainty of shadows and imaginary phantoms of our own invention. “Duly noted for future reference” is how we grew to learn. Something inimitable must propagate and enmesh. Singular skills arise, and we found a certain quietude best handles the turbulence of an ocean trying to slay you several different ways. Tectonic fissures of San Andreas grind plate to plate below us, and here we are immersed in our obsession several feet above the fault line—we have very peculiar needs.


With the unleashing of Thanatos and the death drive, OB surfers are seeking the short-lived gift of stoke in the vertical face of a wave, and minimize thoughts of food chain rearrangement in the presence of toothy lamniformes. Sharks have a chilling authority in their little corner of the universe. Even the grizzled old chargers balk, demurring into enforced denial by avoiding some of the area’s sexiest, emptiest and notoriously shark-infested wave gardens. We are forewarned about the elusiveness of a curse or the theft of mana, and the vibe is rotten. A beckoning teat of questionable milk—all those spinning, flawless point breaks spied over-the-shoulder down Highway 1 on the way to the crowded place. Deserted waters—the glassy kind, bathed in syrupy oversaturated halos of a new dawn—are lying there like placid dungeons, holding shady ghost stories that brush them eerie and slightly depressing. Aside from the in-born common sense afforded even to fools, answers to why surfers don’t visit these breaks are written in Psychology Today. Hanging in there involves exploiting certain instincts and forgetting others completely.



Next day means pristine session beyond the cars. The fish are shoaling into bait balls offshore, inviting predators from above and below. We cross Great Highway again, over its sullied asphalt box top and into the narrow strands of some perturbed, so-called National Park that skirts the district’s tsunami evacuation signs. Here we feel the sand unpack from concrete. The dunes are simultaneously expansive and unattended, yet also a scurvy warren of trails, vagrant campgrounds and lingering evidences of nocturnal minglings. Seaside drugged-out ribaldry. First we pause at the gallery al fresco to observe what the roving horde of talent-free graffiti artists and taggers have accomplished overnight; at least 80% of them should have remained in practice mode, vandalizing mom’s basement instead. The seawall revetment they call a canvas is already defaced and covered in bird splatter, so it doesn’t really matter. We spy distant watery peaks, stop and breathe the charwood cut with salt air, tasting the odor of hobo campfire embers licking up in the breeze several hours after their minders have vanished. Glowing coals hold on to life, desperate for fuel. As we step gingerly through cumulative debris fields above the high tide line, thoughtful birds peck at styrene cups and sip fluorescent dots of juice pooling at the bottom of empty Otter Pop sleeves. Neoprene booties are as much for shielding us from an array of rubbish as they are for cold-water insulation—we’re preventing nails, glass, pallet shards, anti-freeze, syrup with no maple in it, and all manner of petroleum-based deposits from durging up between unwary toes.


Storms whipped in from the Bering Strait, sent low pressure bursts of set waves radiating around Point Reyes. They swung by like loose dominos, a wintry punch tethered to the end position of a long chain in Neptune’s roller rink, whipping a million pounds around the horn. They are destined to smash the wall and they are golden. They required a matador; you toy with your ego to call him rider. You feign such control. You cannot finish your meal when you see them, already having dedicated yourself to identifying their reactive connotation: Pure dynamite. Some clench up and pee a little; others prescribe a dram of whiskey to steel the fortitude. With their specific gravity and velocity those North Pacific set waves pass the live oak and bramble that has overgrown into parapets of defunct Nike missile batteries lining the earthen ramparts. The heaving ocean grinds past a rusty hulk and dormant, corroded bulwark, into San Francisco’s barren bay of contaminated fish, industrial blight and prosperity. The swells eventually refract and rifle around Point Lobos, lope along Sea Cliff’s concealed treasures, and go ping-ponging among the rubble before choking through the iron gate at Fort Point. In an ancient maritime recluse a sandstone coliseum called Dead Man’s holds echoes, mysteries and wide-eyed locals—the hairiest swells find us there at negative tide, nearest the rocks where you have to “take a look” at an erratic field of physical hazards gnashing just underfoot. Any surfers exhibiting a spidery, hesitant style are immediately consumed like a tic-tac fed to a whale. This freight train pulls into surreal 200-foot cliffs—attending spires surrounding—then dives in around us, pushing up boulders and heretofore unknown columnar postpiles that barely catch your eye as you lean and drop. Ledging out in conical formation to reach the race track, uncommon “bomb” pulses will peel for a quarter mile into the Eagle’s Cove boneyard. It was here that we once saw something awful on the filthiest post-storm washout—creosote-covered telephone poles, Styrofoam cooler lids, adult diapers, McRib packaging, vile-looking couch cushions and the bloated, fish-bitten carcass of an unlucky St. Bernard swept unconscious into the storm-surf zone on the outgoing tide. Poor dog still had its collar on. Who knew just how far, how many miles up the dirty delta those cast-off delicacies came from?



.Log_Summer2016_OB_13“Mission: Impossible (without Photoshop)”


Math and Wilderness

The NOAA buoys read the functions of ocean sinusoids in different phases, which surfers translate back into human scale as the facts are digested. On this day, nine foot peak swells were gapping across the transom at 17 seconds with a harbinger of winter torment as rogue sets pushed 21-second intervals. Low pressure produces dendritic corduroy ripples, unyielding as they conduct near-lossless energy signals toward their final destination on the beach. OB’s outer sandbars are ready to receive their lashing, by rite. The population density of the surrounding neighborhoods has no meaning out there when the difficulty level reaches 10 out of 10 on a global scale. The dwindling crowd of risk-loving surfers looked equally stupefied by OB’s unrideable edifices. After the danger of dangling yourself in the outlands passes, far from the comfort of the EMT stretcher and cellphone roaming, a minor chord of masochistic delight intensifies the molecular chemistry and brought back vestiges of the feral boy in us, released bugbears of scheduling and consequence and cleared blocked sinuses.


We leave the city to scrub off its film. They call it “country,” but in some ways you’re just going from one wilderness to another. It starts early in the day, and arcs with the sun. Binoculars are nearby. Sweetened transitory obscurities are snapped up from a world of ready-made—the droning of consistency that instigates odd pilgrimages to the wicked depths of a forest, perched on rocks, draped before unspoiled coves and virgin waves. Walk right in and recalibrate, stabilize, and feast the senses with your tribe. We broke bread and passed through the conifer envelope, settled into a stride and breathed the wind, tinged with evergreen. We took no photos, as if in league with a silent pact. After the sunset session, we encountered a wandering dude named Orin who peeled back the panel as he unzipped his wetsuit, and a tattoo peeked out. There, revealed in the studied ink, was a miniature portrait of a crazed baboon squaring off with a robot, posed in battle, pitting simian soul versus the machinations of intellect and evolution—cartoonish synopsis of the past million years. Orin’s private act of getting the tattoo, itself, being one of those grand satires of a generation laid low by the ironies of consumerism, sinking in the proverbial sea of conformity. We left not a trace.

Before heading back to the urbane, there was a clasping of hands over the steering wheel as the opacity of the morning gloom ducked through parched October canyons. We were going to slip into some secret spots in an around Marin or Sonoma, not yet wanting a city skyline. Fingers of evening mist clung to the windows, stands of second-growth redwoods of the Coast Ranges cloaked the escarpment separating beaches and mountains, and the crew is winding up Route 1 searching for the furtive hike-ins, any respite from the oblivion of San Francisco’s unrelenting economic mission, the behavioral sink and the Skinner box, the Darwinian flux giving fresh weight to the meaning of leaves, mud, veiled point breaks and undulating Aleutian swells. What would we reclaim, having never proselytized or copped the daily dosage of metro meta-existentialist drivel that swirled to the south of our primeval destination? Kicking Ayn Rand and Kierkegaard for the loop, return to sender, playing up a crucial bender in the uncharted nether realms of an eccentric diaspora that surreptitiously treks through unperturbed scenery.



Dreams end and alarm clocks go off, but it’s not over. Back home in the hustle the glide gets better, and the hard hand of Ocean Beach allows itself to turn pretty while refusing refinement. It is the liberation of a lifetime to see the full might of Ocean Beach dumped unceremoniously upon the paper-thin surfer. They felt and witnessed wipeouts that make it seem as though an alien force showed up unscripted and wanting blood. The ludicrous angles of inside suck-ups cleanse away hesitation, hone diligence and cause brooding, serious men to smile in their sleep when no one else is paying attention. As if suspended in a lucid puzzle, we watched the kook in us morph invisibly over the years as we altered routines of normalcy, shook wild by liquid voyages summoned from bottomless marine trenches. It’s got some pebbles on top.


Although this Elemental Thing beckoned and we escaped on its energy stream, we found it tougher to realize how “caught up” we were…moneyed extropians, secular prophets, nanotechnology gene-editing freaks—we’ve got them here on down to the doyens and shitmonkeys of the underground economy, without question everybody working for the next wave, the next flight, playing on neuroses to breathe deep before the coffin ride.



California, how ya doin’?
Two inches from the ruin…
On a fault (((( • )))) line
‘tween love and the sea.
Love and the sea.