by Dan Harder
© 2001 SF Chronicle and NPR
The request was simple
enough. A friend wanted me to take him body-surfing the next time I was in LA.
I loved body-surfing and made the trip from Berkeley to LA once every month or two to visit my girlfriend. The only problem
was that the guy who made the request weighed over 300 pounds, was living an unathletic bottle-to-mouth existence, and was
Worse still, he wouldn't take no for an answer.
was an up-stairs neighbor of mine. At the time, I was a studious senior at Cal and living in the cheapest housing I could
find -- a run-down apartment building just to the west of campus filled with frugal students and the desperately poor.
Philip was one of the latter. He supplemented his meager disability checks by playing a mean harmonica
on various street corners around town. If there was cash left over after buying the barest essentials, he'd venture off
into the night to the toughest/most tolerant parts of town in search of adventure. He'd usually find it -- sometimes in
jail, occasionally in the hospital.
Still, other than love, the BIG ADVENTURE he dreamed of
was to swim in some warm and jostling surf. This had been one of the last things he'd done before losing his sight at
age eight. Almost twenty years later and completely blind, he wanted to do it again and I was the one who needed to make it
happen. And so, after months of entreaty, I reluctantly drove to LA with a giddy Philip by my side. Somehow, sometime over
the weekend, I would have to take this blind leviathan into the not-always-so-pacific ocean and turn him loose in the surf.
The evening before the experience, I worked myself into quite a panic. Although I was a "certified
lifeguard", the certification was only for pools, not ocean rescue. And though I was a good body-surfer, I was mediocre
at best on a board. Truly, if this three hundred pound fellow got into serious trouble out there, there wasn't going to
be a whole lot I could do about it.
The next day when we got to the beach, my fears went from
bleak to worse. The surf was moderate, four to five feet from trough to peak -- big enough for a good ride or a bad roll.
All the while, Philip remained either oblivious or utterly unconcerned. Dressed in nothing but an immense pair of blue trunks
and holding his white cane, he blithely stepped onto the sand and started to chortle. He hadn't had warm sand between
his toes in over fifteen years, and he wasn't going to let a little imminent disaster ruin the fun.
With a surfboard under one arm and Philip lightly holding on to my other arm, I walked to the edge of the water. As I deposited
our towels and discreetly started to hyperventilate, the lifeguard in front of whose station we'd stopped sauntered up.
With his eyes dancing from Philip's cane to Philip's girth, he said to me,
know there's no board surfing here."
"Yeah," I replied as nonchalantly as
I could, "I'm taking it just in case he needs it."
"How far is he planning
to go out?" asked the lifeguard, now, definitely on guard.
"I'm gonna go body
surfing - Yeah!!!" exclaimed the exuberant, obese, blind man with the unbelievably white skin.
After a moment of incredulous silence, the lifeguard put words to disbelief, "No way. No way."
"Oh yes I am," said Philip and with no more than that, he put his cane down and started into the water. "Danny,
I looked at the lifeguard. All he could do was shake his head and say, "Man,
if that guy gets in trouble, there's no way I can help him."
"I know; that's
why I'm going out with this old aircraft carrier." I raised the nose of my ancient surfboard. "I'm also
a lifeguard," I exaggerated, "and a surfer," I stretched it. "There's nothing to worry about,"
"You guys are crazy. Crazy! And you're on your own."
That's as good as I'd hoped to hear. With Philip up to his chest in water and alternatively laughing and sputtering,
I took my board and started in after him. I pulled up about ten feet to the side and ten feet to seaward -- just past the
break. I told him where I was. He didn't care. He was too busy whooping and hollering and clapping his hands.
For the next few minutes, I kept one eye on him and one on the swells. Whenever a larger wave approached, I'd let him
know. About the fourth or fifth time I told him, he did more than just listen to me. He responded, "I know."
As I was wondering how in the hell he knew, he began to turn his body. His face scrunched up in
pure concentration, he backed seaward a few steps, and then, just as the leading edge of a relatively large wave sloped into
him, he took off.
It was an unbelievable sight, heightened by the raucous noise he made over
the foaming wall that pushed him shoreward. In fact, it was such a sight that by the time he galumphed back out for another
ride, there were over a dozen people on shore on their feet watching him.
At first, I was impressed
with Philip's courage. He wasn't an experienced body-surfer or even an experienced swimmer. And yet, here he was,
up to his neck in the Pacific Ocean riding waves he couldn't see. The more I watched him, though, the more impressed I was in his skill. For the next half-hour, he caught almost every wave he
went for and he only went for the larger waves.
He was experiencing the ocean in a way I had
never really experienced it. In a sense, he was more a part of that great sloshing medium than I had ever been. He chose the
waves he would ride by the feel of the waves he would ride -- those gentle tugs and touches the rest of us ignore. We, who
see, see the "outside" waves, see where they'll break and how they'll break long before we feel them. They
are objects we assess, admire, and eventually, if we've liked what we've seen, ride.
Philip, too, was assessing all the information he was feeling -- how hard did the undertow pull at his legs, how far did the
trough move down his chest, how steep did the incoming swell feel at his finger tips. But there was nothing "outside"
about these waves. Instead, to do what he was doing, Philip had to be essentially "inside" these waves, to become
a part of their complex and fluid geometry.
When he rode his final wave on to the beach, I realized
I'd been treated to a strange and private surfing lesson -- how not just to choose the wave but to become a part of the
wave. So I closed my eyes and waited for the feel of the next good swell. I let two go, then, my eyes shut tight, I turned,
paddled a couple of times, and started down the face. I'd intended to ride all the way in with my eyes closed. After all,
Philip had done it over and over again. But as soon as I felt the board slide down the face of the wave, as soon as I needed
to jump up and actually ride the wave, I couldn't help it. My eyes popped open and in that moment of readjustment to the
comforting/distancing sense of sight, I fell.
Justice, I figured. It was Philip's day, after
Los Angeles Times Site Search Results
Sunday, August 1, 1999 Home
Edition Section: Los Angeles Times Magazine Page: 14/15
A Most Solitary Place
-- He'd Been Ignored Often Enough in L.A. to Know
What Being Alone Felt Like.
But It Wasn't Until He Worked on the Cojo Ranch and Experienced Its Isolation That He Understood
How Exhilarating Solitude Can Be --
By: DAN HARDER Dan Harder is an essayist, poet and children's book author
no place in the West where you can learn to be alone better than in Los Angeles. You learn, for example, that unless you look
like--and I mean really look like--Sharon Stone or Brad Pitt, no one you don't know will look at you. (Why waste a good glance
at a nobody when, sooner or later, a real somebody will happen by?) Even more formative is the sort of high-speed, lonely
closeness you get used to if you spend any time on the freeways. (At 70 miles an hour, you don't really want to get very close
to any of your ballistic neighbors.) As well, in a place where absolutely anything goes, you learn to project a certain cool
detachment, a sort of "thanks all the same but I'm going somewhere else" that appears as a slight tightness at the
sides of the mouth.
born and raised in the wide-open spaces of Los Angeles, I'd learned not just to accept but even, at times, to enjoy my aloneness.
I was a city kid from a town of challenges that stretched, horizontally, over an area half the size of Connecticut. So when
I went one summer to work at a cattle ranch a little to the north of town, I thought the solitude would be the least of my
I was wrong.
I'd wanted to do something different, but I hadn't expected the differences to be quite so complete. There were,
of course, the obvious ones. I knew, for example, how to enter a freeway and cross four lanes of traffic in a single move.
. . but I'd never ridden a horse in my life. I knew how to wake up at the last minute and make it to an early morning (9:30!!)
class at UCLA in an acceptable state of semi-sentience. . . but I'd never had to get up to the sound of a predawn breakfast
gong and be thoroughly ready for a day of labor by 7--at the latest. I knew how to make a 10-foot jump shot in the middle
of a crowd. . . but I'd never dug a series of 3-foot postholes in the middle of nowhere. These, however, were mostly mechanical
challenges and so, with a bit of practice and a few calluses, easy to get over.
What wasn't so easy to get over--what became, in fact, an almost insurmountable challenge--was the terrifying, utterly
inescapable solitude. Aloneness I knew. After all, I had done the freeways, had ignored the propositions, had been ignored
by thousands of people every day. But solitude? That, I discovered, I really didn't know.
not that there weren't other people out there. Four cowboys and a cook on 6,000 acres. Not exactly high density, but at least
there were a few other folk you could run into once or twice a day, maybe. And there was the beauty of the Cojo Ranch itself.
Fifteen miles of private beach wrap around the 90-degree angle of Point Conception, where the coast, which surprisingly turns
west from Santa Barbara for about 40 miles, turns north once again. Here is where the relatively cool Japanese current slides
southward, not to hit land again until somewhere past La Jolla. Here is where the Chumash Indians believed the souls of the
dead finally and forever departed for Similaqsa, the invisible Island of the Dead. Here is where the worst peacetime naval
disaster occurred when the commodore of the Pacific Fleet made an 11-mile mistake on the foggy night of Sept. 8, 1923. Thinking
he'd rounded the point, he ordered his convoy of destroyers to turn abruptly east-smack into the shore at full speed. As neighboring
rancher Jane Hollister-Wheelwright once told me, "It's one of the roughest damn places in the world.
Lots of wind.
Always fog. And all those wrecks."
But it was also a
little farther from the dubious comfort of crowds than I'd ever cared to get. The Transverse Range--known locally as the Santa
Ynez Mountains-runs along the shore from Ventura up until, at the western edge of the Cojo, it seems simply to give up and
sink into the Pacific. That's the north side of the ranch--a steep, impenetrable wall of chaparral and sandstone. To the west
is the Pacific Ocean: next stop, Japan. T o the south is the Pacific Ocean: next stop, the Antarctic. Only to the east can
you glimpse a bit of the stuff of human comfort, the barbed wire fence that separates the essentially unoccupied Cojo from
the barely occupied Hollister Ranch, and a smudge of smog above an otherwise invisible Santa Barbara.
After that first month, it was clear that I'd survive the obnoxious tests of manhood
and truly earn the right to make $1.35 an hour plus room and board--in other words, a small cot and a lot of potatoes. But
was putting up with that disconcerting solitude really worth it? With whom could I argue the relative merits of Kurt Vonnegut
and Jane Austen? To whom could I show my calluses with pride? With whom could I commiserate about the relentless work, the
lack of female company and the redneck notions of an ornery foreman? I was alone now in a foreign, hostile, seriously underpopulated
And yet, with the underpinnings of familiarity removed, I made a frightening discovery.
I actually began to like being alone, really alone. I'd take long walks, sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback, along
the miles of untraveled beaches or up one of the canyons and along the ridge. My companions were the scurrying shadows of
a bobcat in the brush, the paw prints of a mountain lion, the bark of a coyote, the sharp screech of a red-tailed hawk. I
was a guest--and not a wholly welcomed one, at that--and the experience was wonderfully sobering.
There is a reason why the prophets would go where only the gods they saw saw them. True, when these "prophets"
came down from their mountains or back from their deserts, they were often a little out of touch, if not downright insane.
Ah, but the things they'd seen, things only such immense time and space and quiet will allow the mind to imagine, things one
can imagine only where one can be thoroughly unself-conscious and, hence, more conscious of other things.
Not until I'd lived with that solitary immensity for a couple of months could I
begin to appreciate it. With no TV, no radio and no telephone but for the pay phone in the mess, I was myself a little "out
of touch." I got no news of far-away tragedies to which, because they had happened to humans, I was expected to respond--shocked,
saddened or publicly outraged. I heard no music to which I could tap a foot or troll, emotionally, for meaningful lyrics.
I watched no sports and heard no weather forecasts. In short, I got none of the yammering stuff the world's come to depend
on for excitement, news and reality.
A few days after I got
back to Los Angeles at summer's end, I noticed that some of my old habits had changed. For a few weeks, I drove a little slower.
For a few weeks, I didn't comb my hair. (Not only was I not going to look anything like Brad Pitt, I wasn't going to look
like anything anybody would ever want to see.) And the tightness at the sides of the mouth was replaced with a surly grin.
Time and the seductions of civilization eventually wore down the edges of my arrogance.
Much too quickly, I went back to driving too fast. A little while later, I started combing my hair again, though I still didn't
look a thing like Brad Pitt.
Eventually, even, the surly grin gave way to the tighter mouth--poised, as it had been before,
Still, even now I have to watch it. If things
get too quiet for too long, I can forget to care and be lost for hours and hours.
PHOTO: (Four photos, no captions) PHOTOGRAPHER: Angela Wyant
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles
Times. May not be reproduced or retransmitted without permission
&LA TID=8693 89