‘Caught Inside’ 25 Years Later
Twenty-five years ago, Daniel Duane published the surfing memoir Caught Inside. When I was a teenager in the late ’90s, I picked up a copy, proud of myself for intellectualizing a sport stereotyped as synonymous with stupidity. I read it, and I liked it. But the book, like the surfing to which I wasn’t fully dedicated, was shed during years of dissipation in college, made easier by the cold weather climate I’d moved to from a Los Angeles suburb. For some of us, I suppose, college is a time when our priorities come into sharper focus; for others, it’s a desultory sojourn on a longer road to the recovery of your most authentic self.
On the other end of a time tunnel 15 years in length, I’d moved from Scotland to New Orleans and somehow, now, back to California. A board and a book seemed to be waiting there for me the whole time, as a benevolent parent awaits a wayward son. The originals of each were long since lost or sold by my parents in their move from my childhood home, but when a fellow teacher mentioned a surfing memoir he’d just read, Barbarian Days, I was reminded of the pastime and the memoir I’d left behind. After this colleague and friend gave me a meandering explanation for why he couldn’t take up surfing even though he’d thought he would—the second midwest transplant I’d heard from whose L.A. surf fantasy hadn’t come to fruition—he became incredibly concise and incisive.
“So, wait, a minute,” he said, turning to me, “what’s stopping you from surfing again?” Instead of echoing the common excuses of landlocked Angelenos who, like myself, live at best 45 minutes from the beach without traffic, with a potential surf widow left in the lurch for a minimum of three hours per surf session to boot, I thought about his question.
“I don’t know why,” I said.
Surfing and a Sense of Place
“[H]e enthused at great length about the serenity of my life, how all I did was write and surf.”
Caught Inside, like his celebrated work about rock climbing, Lighting Out, is the product of Daniel Duane’s grad school years. By Duane’s own admission to me in an interview, the dissertation he finally wrote in a two-month sprint to the finish line, thus avoiding the dreaded ABD status (All But Dissertation), was sandwiched between speaking tours for Caught Inside and an epic surf trip in 1997 to Iceland with Donovan Frankreider, Mark Renneker, Wingnut of Endless Summer II, fame and legendary photographer Jeff Divine.
Graduate school, particularly in the humanities, is a gift of time that most of us never get back until retirement. The fruits of that gift, at least for surfer’s like myself, is measured not by his dissertation, but by his memoir, which is in turn a product not just of surfing, but of surfing thoughtfully. Take, for instance, Duane’s assessment of the spot that by the end of the book he is proud to call his home break, somewhere outside Santa Cruz he refers to simply as “the Point”:
The combination of lagoon and sandspit, rocky point and submerged reef and trickling creek was, in fact, the perfect coastal unit, an exact microcosm of the whole northern Californian coast—and so, of course, more than enough world for me. To the right, the Point reached out to a natural arch; in the half cove protected by it, four small waves lifted through a kelp bed while in the breaking day stood three other guys, sweatshirt hoods low over their eyes, shaking out their wetsuits–just loitering in God’s country as if it was their old backyard. I decided right then, on the spot, that I too wanted to become vaguely bored of this place, to drink so much of its daily beauty I no longer felt that remorse you often get from visiting magnificence, about how you really ought to change your life to include such places and moments, but know perfectly well you won’t.
What surfer can’t relate to Duane’s desire to love a place so much that he becomes “vaguely bored” of it? Which of us surfers can’t remember, or doesn’t desire to remember, the moment we chose a home break or it chose us—the decision to love and cherish it, ’til death do us part, despite all its flaws; to cognitively map the peaks we know are less crowded and maybe more fickle but still produce a wave you can get to yourself while the pack scrambles in their ignorance? Perhaps this is the place we will request our ashes be scattered at our passing. (Be aware you will need a permit for that, as I found out when we scattered my grandparents’ ashes in Santa Monica Bay. But it’s still cheaper than a tombstone.) Most of all, what surfer can’t relate to that “feeling of remorse” we have when we realize we haven’t dedicated our lives to surfing and to secular devotion to a place that becomes our own? I’m not sure whether it was Duane’s book or the feel of board gliding over water under my feet when I first got back in the water that made me realize I really ought to change my life. I think it was both.
Passages like these are the how-to manual for the surfer who wishes to—or needs to out of WASPy compulsion—justify the hours in the car chasing the right swell direction, offshore winds, no winds, or the appropriate balance between drained out low-tide surf and swampy hightide surf. Reading them shapes the surfer’s soul, like a secular version of Saint Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, so that you are open to the fullness of beauty, to the forbearance necessary to appreciate creation and the surfer’s unique place in it. As Duane states, “It’s unsettling to discover how hard-won is real understanding of place, how much it demands stillness and time; real time, daily visitation.” He’s right.
As follows, a list of my place observations that would not have been possible without Duane’s book-length sermon as priest in the high church of place:
- At Topanga, a point break just south of the more famous Malibu Surfrider beach, the creek breaks opens in November or December when the rains come and all that stagnant water drains out to sea, and as you cross the creek in your booties you begin to appreciate how the creek not only drags out the rocks that shape the point’s cobblestone bottoms but also, after hard rains, pushes out so much sand that the rocks are partially submerged and there’s even a little sandbar beach break hidden within the point break, only for the eyes of the initiated, that appears from nowhere.
- If you get off the 101 in Calabasas to head to Leo Carillo or County Line, you’re still a good 25 minutes from the beach, easy. If you veer off the fork at Kanan Road to Mulholland Highway and then Encinal Canyon, you’ll come to a stretch of hills and road so empty and open that you think you can’t possibly be in L.A. County anymore. At some moment, impossible to pinpoint exactly, the dry inland heat gives way to sea air and the temperature drops by 10 or 15 degrees as you enter the embrace of the Pacific. As you descend the hills of the Santa Monica range sometimes you can see the swells on the open ocean and sometimes, you’re looking down at a heavy bank of fog that blankets the coast.
- Many days surfing Huntington Beach are shrouded in fog, even in June and July. The “Ws”—pronounced dubyas by a bearded guy in the lineup—sometimes greet you even at the 6 a.m. dawn patrol. The water stays cold. But in late August 2020, a warm spell hit. Seventy-eight degrees in the water. People surfing in trunks like its Waikiki, and the whole lineup is in a better mood. You can see out to Catalina and down to the Ocean floor. A sting-ray darts by. Three days later the water and it’s back down to 68, then 65 by the following weekend. But you were there for the taste of sheet-glass, subtropical paradise, and you did a little carve and heard the sound of the spray as it hissed off the sides of your board.
From Place Comes Purpose
In an involuntary spasm of an email, when I wished DD (Daniel Duane) was sitting right next to me, my 35-year-old self looks at my 15-year-old self as I read this quote: “If there’s a relief in discovering the life you most desperately dream of living, there’s also a fear in discovering your soul’s needs—after all, how then deny them?”
In my email to the Pastor of the high church of place: “To me,” I write,
there’s a great irony in that use of the word “fear” because I associate fear not with pursuing the soul’s needs, but with fear-driven decisions of economic necessity, or at least what we think is economic necessity.
“[H]ow then deny them?” I think the truth is most of us do, Daniel, out of what we perceive to be the realist’s pragmatism. But your words make it sound like the opposite is more likely to happen. Brilliant.
And then at the end of the message I try to sublimate my fear that my 15-year-old self would feel let down by 35-year-old self and all the staid, bougie choices I’ve made:
I wonder if twenty-five years later that quote above still rings true to you or smacks of youthful idealism? Can that one year on the coast, unattached, be replicated more or less intact, for a lifetime? Even with the pull of wife, kids, work?
“You know,” DD responds, “that quote absolutely resonates—so much so that it gives me the chills reading it again.” Now I know I can rest easy with the knowledge that at least one of us doesn’t live in fear.
DD adds some wisdom about whether the year depicted in the book can be replicated. It seems as if his reply comes from an unpublished page of the book or, what I hope even more, from what turns out to be another book on surfing and life which he guardedly acknowledges the possibility of in our Zoom call:
As for whether it can be replicated … that’s a complicated question, with no simple answer. But maybe one way to say it is that living with that kind of intention can indeed be replicated. And one of the curious things about all human lives (I think) is that the exact nature of a soul’s needs change over time. They have a continuity, but they grow and expand in ways that can surprise us but also turn out to be wonderful. So we don’t actually have to—or want to—freeze ourselves in the amber of some particular moment in our lives and selves. We just want to be true to that moment while remaining open to—alive to, tender with—our own change.
True to his words, Duane did not stay frozen in the amber of a year in Santa Cruz. After his trip to Iceland and attentive to his soul’s needs, he followed friends Kevin Starr and Mark Renneker to Ocean Beach. “I was looking for love, I guess, and I was totally smitten…They were the friends I wanted to have.” Maybe, Duane thought, he’d meet a girl up there. He did. He also met and befriended Matt Warshaw, a former editor of Surfer magazine and professional surfer. Before he knew it he was married and living in San Francisco. His home break, a 15-minute car ride from his house (shaved down from 18 thanks to COVID), is now Ocean Beach. He describes it as a “wild, violent place to surf,” where the waves break hundreds of yards out and one late kick out on a big day could land you caught inside for the rest of your session, much to your chagrin.
No spot is perfect, but Ocean Beach has, by Duane’s estimation, a good two miles of decent beach break. Because the sandbars shift and the waves are peaky, there’s never a single takeoff spot and even in the middle of crowded California you can still find a peak to yourself. According to Duane, he “fell for the place hard,” even if it’s not, perhaps, as conventionally postcard picturesque as the semi-rural Santa Cruz coast. “The outer Sunset area of Ocean Beach is very modest,” Duane tells me, “but after a day of surfing at Ocean Beach, getting a taco and a smoothie at one of the little restaurants…I don’t need to be anywhere else.” Indeed, the soul’s needs have “continuity” but they also “change.” What Duane learned in Santa Cruz, from all the time spent writing about surfing and the coast, was “That a life built around surfing could have a lot of happiness in it, stable happiness.”
As if in an irony in the annals of the relatively slim corpus of surf literature, William Finnegan, in Barbarian Days, chronicles Ocean Beach surf sessions at great length and in detail, corroborating all that Duane tells me about the spot—the cold, the heaviness of a wave that makes no promises of a shoulder and can swallow you whole in a ball of closeout whitewater, the endless paddle out without the benefit of a channel afforded by reef breaks and point breaks. It’s as if a literary spirit, embodied first in Duane, took leave once he arrived in Ocean Beach and found another “soul’s needs” in the right place, at the right time, to put pen to paper.
Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature. He teaches high school history in a Los Angeles area independent school.
Published at Sat, 10 Apr 2021 04:01:55 +0000