Stellar Spans

By Michael H. Kew

Yaquina Bay Bridge, Newport, Ore.

WITHOUT ICONIC BRIDGES fusing mystique and architectural allure to trips up and down Oregon’s U.S. Route 101, you’d see scant coast. Few motorists realize it was just one architect—Conde Balcom McCullough—who engineered the connective grandeur.

Born (1887) in the Dakota Territory, McCullough’s storied career began at Iowa’s Marsh Bridge Company, where he worked for one year before taking a job at the Iowa State Highway Commission. In 1916 he moved to Corvallis to work as an assistant professor of civil engineering at Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University). Three years later, he became the head engineer at the Oregon State Highway Department’s (OSHD) bridge division, where he immediately began planning hundreds of bridges for Oregon’s new web of roads. McCullough stayed with the OSHD (now the Oregon Department of Transportation, or ODOT) to 1935, then again from 1937 until he died from a stroke in 1946.

In this early 20th-century career, drafting his bridges, many with Gothic spires, Romanesque arches, and Art Deco obelisks, McCullough felt his coastal links must be built soundly and efficiently and with architectural elegance enhancing the endemic beauty. The ambitious government-funded project to build Roosevelt Coast Military Highway, named for President Theodore Roosevelt, was a perfect conduit. Construction began in 1921. In 1926, the road was dubbed U.S. 101; in 1931 it was named the Oregon Coast Highway and spanned more than 360 miles of dramatic scenes from the Columbia to California. (In 2002 it was listed as a National Scenic Byway/All-American Road.)

Before 1921 most coastal towns were isolated from each other, separated by waterways and rocky headlands and heavily forested hills. Thanks to McCullough, gaps were bridged—literally. His big six (over the Rogue River at Gold Beach, Yaquina Bay at Newport, the Alsea River at Waldport, the Siuslaw River at Florence, the Umpqua River at Reedsport, and North Bend at Coos Bay) nixed the coast’s last ferry lines. The OSHD formed a parks division and, by the end of the 1920s, developed public waysides along the new coast route. In 1935 the OSHD launched a bureau to hype “the scenic and recreational attractions of the state conducive to bringing motorists to Oregon over its highways.” This program fed coast tourism which, in 1936, the year following bridge completion, increased by 72 percent in the face of the Great Depression. Ultimately, McCullough’s Oregon projects—hundreds of bridges, including more than 30 arched spans—coincided with the rise of automobiles and their grand effects on America.

In 2001 Robert W. Hadlow, Ph.D., a Portland-based historian at the Oregon Department of Transportation, wrote Elegant Arches, Soaring Spans: C.B. McCullough, Oregon’s Master Bridge Builder. “McCullough pictured the bridges that he and his engineers constructed along the route not merely as structures carrying traffic, but as ‘jeweled clasps in a wonderful string of matched pearls,’” Hadlow said. “That string of pearls was the Oregon Coast’s collection of headlands and coves, beaches and cliffs. McCullough’s bridges, especially the large ones, complimented these features. None of them were ordinary clasps. They were all jeweled.”

Hadlow remains smitten by 3,223-foot-long Yaquina Bay Bridge, Newport’s classic span of steel arches, decks, grand stairways, and observation platforms. “It has everything one might want to see in a McCullough bridge in terms of architectural ornamentation,” Hadlow said. “Like his other bridges along the coast, the Yaquina Bay Bridge combines classical, Gothic, and Tudor elements with those from the then-popular Art Deco and Streamline Moderne vocabularies to create a visually pleasing structure both individually elegant and complimentary to its environment. One observer saw the Yaquina Bay Bridge as ‘arching across the water like a ballerina taking several smallish-but-impressive leaps—one a great soaring, breathtaking leap, followed by a succession of smaller leaps to the opposite bank.’ For me, the Yaquina Bay Bridge is the one at the top, like the finale at a fireworks show, or the final movement of a beautiful symphony.”

Yaquina included, 11 of McCullough’s U.S. 101 bridges are in the National Register of Historic Places, the other 10 being: Wilson River, Depoe Bay, Rocky Creek, Ten Mile Creek, Big Creek, Cape Creek, Siuslaw River, Umpqua River, Coos Bay (McCullough’s personal favorite, posthumously renamed the McCullough Memorial Bridge), and Rogue River.

According to Hadlow, McCullough wanted his coastal bridges to instill “aesthetic excellence” for both visitors and locals. McCullough hoped his work would help to boost traffic (which occurred instantly), generate substantial fuel tax revenues, and enhance touristic commerce in the towns—everything the Oregon Coast depends on. “Once the last big bridges opened in 1936 and the road was complete, tourism skyrocketed,” Hadlow said. “Since then, tourism along U.S. 101 has been an important part of the state and local economies. Even today, travelers marvel at the many wonderful bridges McCullough and his engineers designed and built along this route so many years ago.”

Conde B. McCullough in 1935. Photo: Oregon Historical Society Research Library. 

Woodsy at Wolf Tree

By Michael H. Kew

Joe Hitselberger. Photo: Kew.

LATE FEBRUARY. Weeks of springlike warmth are at last slain by La Niña, reviving winter and sending snow levels a-plunging. Eight miles south of Newport, wheeling east through sleet, I pass a wealth of wooded and riparian habitat—views of waterfowl, of leafless alders, of conifers laced white.

A few miles later I park in front of a remote red barn that looks nothing like a brewery. I’m on the edge of a 600-acre working cattle ranch.

“Most people who live on this road don’t know there’s a brewery out here,” bearded-and-beanied Joe Hitselberger says as he gives me a sample of his mildly tart, wild-yeast kriek, brewed two years ago and called Beaver Kriek per the Beaver Creek Valley this ranch occupies. “Here,” he continues, eyeing the lush landscape, “there are so many ingredients for beer.”

Aside gently bubbling Bowers Creek, a Beaver Creek vein, we’re standing at the end of a private graveled lane piercing the bucolic ranch that’s been his family’s since the late-1980s. Technically the barn/brewery lies within Seal Rock, an unincorporated area between Newport and Waldport. It’s where Hitselberger, 37, innovates.

What’s a wolf tree?

Merriam-Webster defines it as “a very large forest tree that has a wide-spreading crown and inhibits or prevents the growth of smaller trees around it.”

Or: a tree spared during the ruthless age of logging virgin rainforests.

Hitselberger is also a steward forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry. “At the coast,” he says, “wolf trees are usually Sitka spruce. We’ve got groves of juveniles everywhere, so we pick from them, mostly out of convenience. The smaller trees put more of their energy toward growing rather than producing cones, so they’re easier to get tips off of.”

In 2013 Hitselberger began with 20-gallon batches. Today his shiny outdoor coolship and indoor 7Bbl Portland Kettle Works system birth all sorts of unique liquids, kingpinned by his pride-and-joy flagship.

“It’s a true Northwest-style beer,” he says, handing me a small glass of malty, amber spruce tip ale, Wolf Tree’s unique year-rounder. It’s used as a base for more sprucey specialties like a barrel-aged oud bruin and a richly complex gruit that won an Experimental-class gold medal at 2017’s Oregon Beer Awards.

“Spruce beers are fun to make,” Hitselberger says, grinning. “Each April, we have friends come out here and we pick 3,000 pounds of tips so we can make spruce tip beers year-round. Compared with the volume we want to produce, it’s hard for other breweries to replicate what we do because of the availability of tips. It’s hard to buy them.” (He recently sold some to Rogue Ales.)

The world’s third-largest tree species (behind Douglas fir and coast redwood), Sitka spruce are native to a narrow coastal belt from southeast Alaska to Mendocino County, Calif., where Hitselberger gets his wine barrels. But Alaska, where Sitka is the state tree, was where he found his brew muse. In the early 2000s, employed as a wildlife biologist in Juneau, Hitselberger first tasted spruce tip ale. “I drank a lot of it from some of the microbreweries up there. I got hooked. So I started homebrewing.”

One of his first non-spruce tip recipes became Camille’s Golden IPA, named for one of his dogs. Part of the beer’s proceeds are donated to Heartland Humane Society in Corvallis.

Yes, Wolf Tree is kind to four-legged friends.

“A brewery is a good complimentary business to a farm,” Hitselberger says. “Our cows eat the spent grain, and we grow a lot of ingredients here, including hops. Our spring provides really good brewing water. We’re getting more and more into coolship beers, and what’s fascinating with that is it’s unique to this valley. Our beers have interesting flavors. We do a lot of wild styles and eventually our beers are going to pick up a kind of signature from the brewery just because of the yeasts we use and how things are in close proximity.”

Animals—elk, owl, dog, bear—grace all Wolf Tree bottle labels. All were drawn by Julia Goos, an Oregon Coast Community College art teacher and beertender at the Wolf Tree Taproom located upstairs in the squeaky-clean Wilder Corner Building, mere yards from the OCCC campus and a new housing subdivision. “We built a pretty big customer base before opening our taproom,” Hitselberger says. “Having a strong customer base outside beyond the taproom is good, though, because we don’t rely on all our revenue from it.”

Since August 2017’s Eclipse Weekend, the taproom has allowed direct public access to Hitselberger’s fresh rotating creations which he estimates to be 50-percent farmhouse style, 50-percent conventional.

“The coast is interesting for beer,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of our products leave this area. People in the Willamette Valley are more interested in these kinds of beers; most people in Newport have never heard of us. (laughs) You’d be more likely to find someone in Portland who’s heard of Wolf Tree.”

Light snow resumes. It’s a Sunday. The taproom beckons. Spruce tip ale will fill my future.

“You’ve got to be unique in this business,” Hitselberger says before heading back into the barn. “Making beer in Oregon, you don’t want to have any brand fatigue and you want to keep making interesting things consumers want. Spruce tip beer alone is compelling enough to grab peoples’ attention. It’s different, and it tastes different.”

 

Wolf Tree Brewery Taproom

4590 SE Harborton Street, South Beach (Newport)

541-563-6181

wolftreebrewery.com

The Third Beer

By Michael H. Kew

Lyon and his mutant. Photo: Kew.

THOUGHTS ON FLAGS, ETHNIC CLEANSING, AND CONNOR LYON’S 5’5” FINLESS

THE LION STARES. Eyes wide, he seems rapt to roar. Like he’s about to walk, lion to Lyon.

His lifted right paw rests on a brown knuckle of stone. His orange mane is big, his whiplike tail swayed right. Washing his body is a low gold hue from a sunrise or sunset. Above his head is 1881 and below his paws are the words Lion Lager, odd since lions have never lived in Serendip. Leopard Lager would be more apt. Or Little Egret Lager. Or Lesser Bandicoot Rat Lager. Or whatever. At least the Brits had brought beer to the north Indian Ocean.

Ceylon Brewery was Serendip’s first, built in 1881 to reflect a boozy piece of home for the Brits while they gazed over their tea plantations in the hilly burg of Nuwara Eliya, 115 kilometers west of where Santa Barbara’s lionish Connor Lyon had side-slipped on his self-modified, finless Spence displacement hull across his 26th wave of the afternoon session that had led to a deeply colorful dusk.

With its subtropical highland climate and spring water, Nuwara Eilya was a sweet spot for a long-term brewery. Nicknamed “Little England,” the town was also an ark for the British civil servants and tea planters, an insular sanctuary where they could improvise Union Jackisms like hunting, polo, golf, cricket. Beer-drinking.

Not a big beer drinker, Lyon does like a good pint, generally of California craft beers. But those are on the other side of Earth. Here in Serendip, he’s sunken two large Lion Lagers before the one he’s now holding, all three bought from the empty rasta-themed bar down the lane, just past the empty beach and the empty tin fish shack.

The carbonated yellow liquid in his brown glass bottle behind the big male lion label is lukewarm. Lyon thinks Lion is better than Bintang, the other Asian beer he’s tried. At best, lukewarm Lion is “mildly refreshing,” he says. At worst, I counter, it’s another limp beer on another hot island. But that’s a topic for another tale.

Dark now—near 7 p.m. Crickets with mosquitoes and other pests that bite our feet. Lyon is lounging on a white plastic chair in front of the room where Kyle Albers was once vomiting so many moons ago. Drinking the beer and thumbing through a copy of Slide magazine, Lyon’s manelike hair remains damp from the late surf. The hair covers his ears, clogged with saltwater, but he can hear the muezzin reciting Salat al-‘Isha, the Islamic early-night prayer, his Arabic words drifting from the speakers on the minaret atop the nearby mosque. We can’t see the mosque; it’s somewhere over the hill, south, in the dark.

The muezzin’s voice is hypnotic, spooky, soothing in a weird way. It’s the fifth and final of the daily ritual Muslim prayers, starting with the first chapter of the Qur’ān, the core religious text of Islam, translated to:

In The Name Of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise Be To Allah, Lord Of The Worlds. Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Master Of The Day Of Judgment. Thee (Alone) We Worship And Thee (Alone) We Ask For Help. Show Us The Straight Path. The Path Of Those Whom Thou Hast Favored; Not The (Path) Of Those Who Earn Thine Anger Nor Of Those Who Go Astray.

Allah is Arabic for “God,” who in Islam is the prophet Muhammad (his full name: Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim), from the Arabian hamlet of Mecca. He launched Islam 4,794 kilometers and 1,391 years from where Connor Lyon sits with his warm beer and wild hair and magazine and bugs and the small mosque summoning him through the twilight.

But like 91 percent of Serendipians, Lyon is not Muslim.

“I ain’t religious, dog.”

Serendip mosques seem a bit quaint, though Islam has existed here since the 8th century and is represented on the national flag, the one Lyon admired three hours ago as it flapped in the offshore breeze in front of a small roadside restaurant. (Its fish curry was superb.)

Called the Lion Flag (more lions!), the Sinhalese ethnicity is repped by a yellow lion clutching a sword over a red rectangular background with a fig leaf in each corner. Around the background is a yellow border, and to its left are two vertical stripes—one orange, one green. The orange represents Tamils, the green represents Muslims, who are the majority ethnicity 'round the beaches we’re surfing. To us, they’re nice, friendly folks—fishermen, farmers, merchants, taxi drivers—but not everyone agrees.

Back in the late ‘80s, because Muslims were believed to back the Sinhalese government, the Tamil Tigers began attacking Muslim towns, forcing thousands from their homes, torching buildings and killing residents. In August 1990, during this very same Salat al-‘Isha prayer that Lyon is listening to, the Tigers murdered 147 prostrating Muslims in attacks on four mosques in Kattankudi, 93 kilometers up the coast from where Lyon has just now sank his third Lion Lager of the evening. In October 1990, the Tigers expelled 95,000 Muslims from Serendip’s north, calling it an “ethnic cleansing” to help reach the Tigers’ goal of creating Eelam, their monoethnic state.

Perhaps they should’ve built a brewery up there and made Liberation Lager or Attack Ale. Something like that.

Me: “Should we go get more warm beer?”

Lyon: “Hell no. Shit tasted wack. Like, double wack.”

Recently, Sinhalese nationalists flipped their ire from Tamils to Muslims, and, led by Buddhist monks, they’re attacking mosques and Muslim-owned businesses as well as churches and clergy.

Allah Ale? Islamic IPA?

No.

Buddha Beer? Sinhala Stout?

Connor Lyon would sink those. But he’s not. He’s going to bed with a lion-sized headache.

Finless frisbee, anyone? Photo: Kew.

Light One Candle

By Michael H. Kew

Saipan. Photo: Kew.

JULY 1944. Of the 71,000 US troops who landed on Saipan, 3,000 were killed; more than 10,000 were hurt. Of Japan’s garrison of 30,000 troops, 921 were captured. The rest died. Some 5,000 others, including the Japanese commanders, killed themselves.

I wanted to see what they last saw. With an hour of daylight left, I drove to Banzai Cliff. It was serene. No sounds but wind and slight muffle of surf sloshing against the crags. I watched seabirds swoop and swirl above the chop.

A red convertible Mustang broke the vibe. A group of brightly clothed Chinese got out and smoked cigarettes and took selfies and laughed. It was irritating. Disrespectful. I was unsure if they’d grasped the gravity of the place. Another few groups of visitors drove up, parked, walked to the clifftop overlook, took selfies, smoked cigarettes, and left. Nobody read the memorials. Some played loud rap music and peeled out, burning rubber.

Left in the dust of the soft gold of sunset, the grounds of Banzai Cliff felt sacred with the moving and haunting tragedy of the memorials—stones and obelisks and Buddhist figures pleading for world peace. It was a pilgrimage site for most Japanese tourists, particularly during Saipan’s Japanese-tourist heyday. Other Japanese memorials nearby were park-like, beautifully landscaped, clean, quiet. Goodness knows Saipan was loud in 1944, its three-week summer bloodbath.

Etched in stone at Banzai Cliff:

This memorial was erected on behalf of all people for the purpose of consoling the spirits of those many victims who lost their lives in the battles between Japanese and American forces in the Central Pacific during the Pacific War (Greater East Asia War) and as a prayer that our world be free of all such conflicts. —May 2008, The Head Temple of Nenpou Shinkyou Shousouzan Kongouji

I saw no Japanese visitors at Banzai Cliff. Annually since 1988, members of Japan’s Shikogakuen Mission visited to lead a Peace Ceremony to honor the war, the dead, and to pray for peace. Launched in 1945, Shikougakuen was a religious group that built the memorial on Banzai Cliff in 1988 not only for those who died there, but for people who died in wars worldwide.

Darkness fell. A white cat ambushed my feet. At the adjacent Japanese Memorial, carved on the monument, I found the touching words of Rev. Seizan Kawakami, Shikogakuen Mission’s founder:

Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.

Bridge to Eden

By Michael H. Kew

Photos: Kew.

[“You defiled your sanctuaries by the multitude of your iniquities….” (Ezek. 28:18)]

[And He said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18)]

 

Pulsating, it rose in crescendo and veered to a different timbre. The melody soaked the scene, resonating from the light with hues more potent than the notes themselves. Lifting, dropping, vibrating like a climactic omen. The place shook in unison before and beneath. A small vestige of shadow appeared in the color.

Bright white burst into silence, and all fell in awe as He exhaled…expelling the source of that orgasm of sound.

The flameball arced through the heavens, swift as lightning, rolling in a thunderous shriek of anger, shock, and pain. Its source reeked of a new emotion: hate.

Writhing and steeped in spite with remnants of glory and brilliance, spinning off into the darkness, strata of divine obedience and empyreal beauty fell from Lucifer’s being. His transgression? No tempter for him, no blame—only one to account for and to. And his body touched the cold dirt of earth, raped of the light of praise, strength, solace, love.

Black, hollow, empty. A shell of what he had been, Satan slithered into the inky depths of his newfound netherworld. Leering to the heavens, the night flickered with sparks, which faded, one by one, as a third of all God’s siblings followed in Satan’s fate.

 

* * *

 

[And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (Gen. 2:7)]

Blackness out…midnight. A forested setting…parchment paper and a small oak table. A spartan, intimate setting: wood fire, one door, one window, one chair. Wan, flickering candlelight bathes the shack perched cliffside two thousand feet above the sea. Burning logs wheeze and murmur in the stone hearth, flame playing faintly onto the room’s uneven, undecorated wood walls.

A dim alcove in nature shelters an ancient, pious man and his thoughts. To anyone else, this would be a cozy nook. Happy place. To him, this is a lonely place—a narrow place, a desolate place, a fearsome place…a place to confront himself within God through the written word.

Aside a ceramic cup full of red wine, he sits and writes earnestly with a quill, its loose strokes producing a rhythmic scratching which blends into the woodstove’s sporadic fire-pop and the wind’s moan in the chimney. The man grips his quill tightly, a mortal and immortal lifetime of emotion and observations flooding the page. This is a formal documentation, one he hopes mankind will read and digest. But not tonight.

His cursive handwriting is long and pronounced and somewhat regal, as one would expect from a man of his stature. Yet today, nobody knows who he is, this man of antiquity.

 

I am Adam. I am a carnal being. The land in the east and the blessing of God created me. The bone of my bones created her. I called her Woman, as she was taken from Man and became the mother of all living. So it began.

By consuming the forbidden fruit, God’s command was breached, and He sent us away. Elsewhere, I tilled the dirt I was taken from. We could not re-enter Eden as God used a flaming sword and cherubim to protect the garden.

I recall life after banishment. It was our inaugural cognizance of good and evil. I crept back to the land God made for me, but His presence, like wind, swept the borders of that place. As I drew nearer to it, I felt upon my skin the heat and warmth which afforded my soul extreme suffering. I could not bear His presence. I knew that if I could enter, I would be consumed from the inside out. That unholy seed, sown and sprouted from Satan’s insubordination, barred me from the good land and life the Architect had designed for man. I obtained knowledge of death, and embraced it. It comes for me now—I can hear it in the night, as a ravenous wolf outside the door of my heart and even this very place.

Yet, at nine hundred and thirty years of age, I am ready to disperse as dust once more. We challenged God’s very omnipotence. I dwell on this. Mine is a dusky, old life today, a pyramid of skin, heart, and memory in concert to project a lucid recollection of blissful times, perceptive and enlightened. Unsentimental sexuality was never part of the program, though it is axiomatic today. Wanton behavior belies winsome intent.

[“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” (Gen. 2:16-17)]

“Be fruitful and multiply”—yes, the divine command to procreate. Assertively sexual, Eve’s was never strange flesh—she came from me, after all. But it was she who was fool to temptation. The serpent spoke but twice, which was enough to corrupt the balance of Eve and I and our Creator. Upon the serpent’s encouragement, she gave me the fruit from the sun, seduced the faithful to fornicate, and it was good. We swallowed the fruit’s aphrodisiacal jelly and succumbed to lust. We seized the moment and experienced it intensely—this was the Earth’s first coital affirmance, and then there was Cain, though he came after much disgrace and internal trauma. As we then knew sin, we also bore Abel, Seth, and several others.

We believed God to be withholding the knowledge of good and evil from us. We desired to be like God, though we were of him as we were created in His image.

 

Pausing to re-ink the quill in the well on the desk, he knocks the wine glass onto its side; the drink spills, pooling on the flat surface, dribbling like blood onto the dirt floor and his bare feet.

The dust at his feet is from whence he came. These feet have stood the demands of time—they have sunk into the sands of Eden, burned from the exiled fire of Hell, and survived the test of a lost soul drifting from century to century.

He unhands the quill, leans back, sighs, slowly gazes up to the window behind him. God is here, the man thinks—He created this environment for a purpose. No, this man is not senile or desirous, and this is far from mere serendipity. It is an unsought and valuable circumstance.

Wind shrieks beneath the door, cooling the man’s feet, wet with wine. The whistling pane of cobwebbed glass reveals the cold, stormy darkness. Its gusts jar the ambiance—each begins with a low, subtle hiss, quickly accelerating to peak velocity before subsiding. The seeping wind stirs the smells of the room. He inhales the dankness of the place, its musty air, the candle, tobacco, the smoldering sap and woodsmoke. This is how God decided the man should spend his final days.

Vexed and woeful, he looks back down at the pages before him—perhaps twenty lie scrawled with ink; a stack of blanks await his word of the hand of God. God never left him. He had left God. He was unwillingly purged from his creator. God loved him immensely, deeply, unwaveringly. His unconditional emotion lay the foundation for a divine, rewarding existence. Eden was bliss.

The man’s white robe flows loosely over bony arms and sunken chest, drooping to his feet. His appearance is unkempt but fiercely focused as he smoked from a thin pipe of ivory given to him by an Ethiopian bushman in the thirteenth century.

The man’s face is pale and creased yet full of wisdom and the look of distance. His thick brows veer sharply atop each eye, joining on the bridge of his nose, a bulbous knob for blind perception. His hair, smooth and brilliantly ashen, fairly greasy and worn long, flows from the monkish shawl, meeting his beard at the heart from which he writes.

His heart beats heavier than most.

 

My secret of the universe is borne from a devotion to God and Eve and my emergence in Eden—our original nest. We were heirs to natural bounty and we had everything we needed. We knew not good nor evil until the fruit was eaten.

Nothing could harm us. Storm-free, the nightly starscape was engorged in detail, every dot on it tropically sharp, like nightside sailing across the middle of an equatorial sea, navigating with stars. Our time unfolded, blessed with a complex beauty, and our dress was nudity, of which we did not realize. Later, our genitals were sheathed with fig leaves. This was the “garb of Eden.” Yes, we were starkers but hid ourselves once shame prevailed. It was then when we were no longer like God. We sought wisdom but found only toil and vanity.

To absorb Eden was a lesson in patience, but that was all we knew. It was an unconscious beat. Serenity, water, and soil evoke the environs of erotic sin, and the serpent Satan knew all of this when he approached Eve:

[Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you, lest you die.’” Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die for God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. (Gen. 3:1-6)]

Eventual temptation and lust of the eye led to our carnality, which became eternal hell and vast consequence. This is how I have lived, tortured and silent. Cast from the presence of God, I bear an overwhelming, everlasting sense of loss from this fall. Essentially, Eve took me from Him. The serpent spoke, she listened, and here my tired soul weeps. His evil legacy, it has become mine. Its knowledge burns, scalding my soul to this day and possibly into my eternity.

 

Skin sags under green eyes, faded from extended reflection upon the world he was thrust into by his past choices. A witness to time, coursing away and beyond his obviously finite place in it, Adam had seen cultures shift, oceans rise, lands collide and separate, societies birthed and deceased, warfare of religious and economic decrees. He had seen it all but few, if any, knew this.

God had blessed Adam in spite of the curse he and Eve had caused to fall on his family and an entire world. He knew God still undertook for them all, despite the curse.

So he wrote.

 

* * *

 

[He who is of God hears God’s words. (John 8:47)]

 

Kate’s feet throbbed. The outskirts of Torrance were still many blocks away. Her black-and-white saddle shoes, a size too narrow, cramped further by sweaty white cotton socks, made walking painful. They were the only size of appropriate shoes her mother could find at K-Mart last night; on Friday afternoon her neighbor’s dog chewed her pair of oxfords to bits. An avid surfer, sandals were her normal footwear, but St. Mary’s prohibited them on campus.

Kate was sixteen years old. She’d missed the bus ride to school, and with no car or bicycle, walking was her lone option. Mother never gave her rides. But the school was only a few miles from her house, she reasoned, and sitting in a bus wouldn’t afford time to break these shoes in.

It was 8 a.m. on a chilled Monday in November 1997. The sidewalks were littered with orangey brown leaves of birch and maple, dead after two seasons of fluttering in the wind. Today’s wind was crisp, the cloudless sky a pastel spread in the swelling sunlight—dawn was an hour past. Rustic scents—the heart of autumn—captured her as she walked past homes and storefronts…woodsmoke twirling lazily from chimneys, fresh pumpkin and apple pies in Safeway, the potpourri and cinnamon spiciness of Sadie’s Candle Shop display.

At breakfast, her mother had again scolded her for not locking her bike, burgled from her garage last week. Because she knew Kate to be careless and immature, there was no talk of a driver’s license. The girl was on her own—sixteen was old enough.

Her long, curly blonde hair drawn into a ponytail, Kate shuffled down this bustling urban rush-hour avenue, shivering in her school uniform, a navy blue pleated skirt and white middy with a long blue neckerchief that matched the color of her eyes. Trucks and cars blared past, headed in the school’s direction. Kate considered hitchhiking, but last month’s news in Lawndale had featured her cousin Renee’s fatal hitchhike abduction case; the perpetrators were at large.

Like her walk, life limped. She hated the shoes, the school, the town, her mother’s dereliction and their grubby home, the rowdy neighbors, her lack of friends. Other people looked spirited, so healthy and alive. Kate felt neglected and effete, dazed and lethargic.

Time crawled since she’d last surfed. A few weeks ago, Patrick, the handsome nineteen-year-old up the street, was arrested while driving drunk; his truck was impounded. His father kicked him out of the house. Patrick was gone.

Despite her lifelong proximity to Redondo and Hermosa, Kate befriended no other surfers. None of her classmates knew the beach. A Navy mechanic, her estranged father lived and surfed on Guam; he gave Kate her first surfboard—a battered 6’2” Nectar—when she was twelve. But he was in Micronesia, not California.

Nothing was here for Kate, particularly her alcoholic Catholic mother. Reticent and unapproachable even on the sunniest of days, Mother was the one who paid the mortgage, bought the food, drove the car, and went to work as a telemarketer six days a week. Hers was a dismal template of how Kate did not want to live her adult life. She ached for a more loving path, an auspicious path.

Now…just a few more blocks to school. She kicked whatever pebble crossed her path, scuffing the damned shoes. Town’s edge evaporated behind her as she passed the last building, an Italian deli with dirty windows and an aura of failure.

Behind the deli, she approached the vast bridge spanning Clark Street, where she was hit with wind—a penetrating, stirring gust. But this autumn cold snap was so ineffectual, Kate thought, appropriate to her inviolate mood, exempt from catharsis. Lost in discomfort, she hugged herself for warmth and walked, eyes to the ground. Must be a better way, she told herself. I need to get out of this place… to get out of myself.

The pain in her feet was severe, each step indeed one closer to confined torture, heeding priests and nuns, faced with a doleful crucifix in each classroom. It was a loveless place, and she felt like a convict of a defeated, loveless life. Eventually her small fists clenched and the tears fell.

Her nose was runny, her eyes puffy and wet. Her face, pink with cold, was a picture of incongruity—natural classic beauty scarred by aimlessness and immutable malaise. She shivered and sobbed. The bridge, longer than she’d ever known it, became a path to academic prison.

She paused and glanced over the railing: cars below sped to other places—to better places. The cars weren’t headed to St. Mary’s or to Kate’s broken home. She wanted to be in one of them, driving away from here. She wanted to leap from the bridge and land in a truck, sitting next to a smiling surfer boy on his way to the beach. If mis-timed, she would splatter on the pavement and be done with everything. Death didn’t seem like such a bad thing, after all. She knew God, and even Heaven awaited. Hell may be somewhat like Torrance. How could she escape?

Suddenly the wind seemed to shift. It went strangely warm and a sweet aroma wafted through it…the scent oddly familiar. A phantasmic sound pulsed, a voice: calm, soft, seeming to be at one with the fragrance—a perfect match.

“You are my child now. Your place is with me.”

She stopped and looked around but saw no one. Was the wind, now strangely dry and heated, playing an aural trick on her? Was it the noise of the traffic below?

The voice spoke again, soft and confidential.

You are my child now. Your place is with me.

Again she looked—besides the passing cars, she was solo on the sidewalk. Nobody else could have heard this. Then the wind cooled; the scent evaporated with it in the change. She resumed walking, listening. Nothing but traffic and the chilly breeze. Was she delusional? Perhaps her Torrance-bound life was far too much to sanely bear.

 

Kate dripped into a daze for the first couple of hours. Mid-morning’s recess between Biology and History found her on the asphalt outside observing seven uniformed classmates engaged in a loose, lopsided match of volleyball. The sun was bright, the sky huge. The girls’ faces glistened with sweat despite the chilled air; their grins and giggles and back-and-forth leapfrogging exhausted Kate. Alone, she eyed the cracked pavement.

A hand came to rest on her left shoulder. It was Mother Francis’s.

“No volleyball with your friends?”

Kate looked up at her. “My feet hurt, Mother Francis. My shoes are too small, and I walked to school today.”

“Sorry to hear that. Perhaps your mother could buy you shoes that fit?”

Kate shrugged and pointed down at the shoes. “She bought these. It was all the discount store had—all she could afford, I guess.”

Mother Francis glanced away, wincing as if she scorned poverty despite being a nun. She came from Texas wealth, daughter of an oil magnate who now lived in Palos Verdes Estates, a brief drive from St. Mary’s. Her mother was deceased, but in the past five years, her entire family had relocated to southern California—her two brothers to La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe, her two sisters to Malibu and Laguna Beach. Contrarily, Mother Francis chose Torrance not for its ambiance or quality of life, but for St. Mary’s School—raised in a strict household, the Catholic church became her escape. Postulancy was consecutive.

“God spoke to me this morning,” Kate whispered.

This drew the nun’s eyes back down to hers. “And what did He say?”

“’You are my child now. Your place is with me.’”

“Repeat, please.”

You are my child now. Your place is with me.

Mother Francis was nonplussed then relaxed, assessing…filtering…Finally and authoritatively, she spoke.

“There is a verse in chapter four of the gospel according to Mark. It says: ‘If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear. Then He said to them, Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given.’”

Kate closed her eyes. Take heed what you hear.

“God is telling you something important, Kate. Listen to Him and write it all down. Actually, what He said to you reminds me of something I read last month—it’s from a book I had borrowed from our rectory.”

“What’s it about? Can I read it?”

“It’s about the Garden of Eden, and, yes, I suggest you do. It’s in Narratives on Mankind—quite a deep and controversial book. I’m surprised we even have it here, and it’s certainly nothing to advertise, Kate. You’ll find it next to The Story of Civilization, a set of volumes by Will Durant. You can go to the rectory now. Tell Father James I sent you.”

Kate stood. The rectory was across campus. She ignored her feet and went.

Father James was at the door. Tall and gaunt, he looked how a Catholic priest proverbially should—robed, bespectacled, graying, pale, wiry, whiskery. His balding head resembled an eggshell, and he was barefoot, with long toenails. Eagerly affable and smiling, it was obvious he had spent much time alone.

“Mother Francis said she had sent you,” he said. “I’m Father James. Please, come with me.”

Wide and uncluttered, the rectory felt comfortable to Kate. Its light was diffused, its expensive-looking carpets thick and dark. Elaborate drapes adorned each window, and the walls were virginal, cornered with ornate pillars of dark wood. Vaulted ceilings disguised the air of heaviness—the place was vaguely snug but unmistakably clerical.

They ambled toward the back of the building, to two hidden oak bookshelves flanking a desk with a computer.

“Mother Francis says you’re looking for Narratives of Mankind.”

“She said I should read it because God spoke to me today.”

“Oh, yes?”

“He said, ‘You are my child now. Your place is with me.’”

“Excellent! Then you should find some references to His statement in this book. There are many voices in the world besides the Church’s, you see.”

He stooped and fingered through the titles on the bottom shelf, his spinal outline embossing the thin robe.

“It’s an amazing piece of literature. Hmmm...let’s see…here it is!” Father James unveiled a thick book of small font, with few pictures. He briefly eyed its featureless cover, then handed it to Kate.

“It’s a most interesting read. You may sit at this computer”—he stirred the air above the computer with a bony forefinger—“and read for as long as you like. I’ll be in the front room if you have any questions.”

She settled into a hard, creaky chair. The book’s pages smelled faintly of mold, and its words were barely legible, as if each page had been exposed to the sun to obtain this degree of fade. She flipped through the book and stopped randomly on a chapter titled “Eden” sandwiched between a dissertation on Greek religious philosophy and a long verse about gnomes by Tolkien. Here, she thought, this seems harmless enough—the first sentence was only three words.

This chapter unfolded from the mind of a deceased man named Adam, who wrote of Eve and the Garden Of Eden. The story was short and sad, almost pathetic, but Kate connected with it. The author wrote as a child of God in His habitat of forested, tropical bliss: The serpent, the temptation, the sin, the sex, the exile, the sorrow, the regret.

A warm breath of air washed over Kate’s face; she shuddered and dismissed it as a hot flash in this stuffy corner of the rectory.

Eden—what was it? She went to the room’s opposite wall, where the atlases and maps were. She looked at everywhere equatorial—Southeast Asia, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, Central America, Africa. There was Aden in Yemen, Edéa in Cameroon, Ed-Dueim in Sudan, but no mention of Eden.

Surely it must be a real place. Adam wrote of it. Perhaps it was an obscure village too small to warrant a dot on the map, or an island that both time and cartography forgot.

She walked over to the reference computer and typed Eden. A list of businesses…Eden Project, Eden Electronics, Eden Foundation, Eden Studios, Eden Bridals, Eden Camp, Eden Foods. She scrolled further: City of Eden Prairie, Minnesota. City of Eden, North Carolina. Scotland’s Eden Court Theatre. New York’s Town of Eden (“Garden Spot of New York State”). Australia’s Port Eden. Cumbria’s Eden District of England.

None of these places were tropical.

Then there was the Libertarian Society’s site, replete with its version of Eden’s flag (though there never was such a thing). The Society’s members sought to “create the independent, sovereign nation of Eden so that (they) might live freely and peacefully without fear of government intervention into their lives, whether that government is tyrannical or benevolent.”

It seemed idyllic to Kate, but more so if that description had included a loving mother, an interesting school, and a nice beach at her doorstep. The image of Eden in Narratives Of Man was that it was a libidinous outdoor boutique of curious animals, lush greenery, fresh fruit, and endless sunshine. It was God’s halcyon nudist colony, but with only two people in it.

At its core, Adam’s scripture was a mnemonic device. It was an act of writing only he could have done as an exilic expatriate. Kate related to this, although she remained trapped in dreary Torrance, was fully clothed, and had no man to offer fruit to or to conceive offspring with. She felt that God could be as close to her as He was to Adam—indeed, God had spoken to her that morning—but she wanted to actually find Eden before the agony of teen life threw itself over the rail of a cement bridge on the outskirts of town.

 

* * *

 

[The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed. (Gen. 2:8)]

 

Vernal 2004. The search for Nirvana beckoned. Curiosity and unease suffocated nubile Kate in her Arcata apartment, so she fled it one gray morning, hauling her surfboard and travel/camping gear to San Francisco’s international airport. During the long Greyhound bus ride south, she listened repeatedly to Peter Gabriel’s “Passion,” soundtrack to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

This was a metaphysical quest driven by her crepuscular mantra—happiness and peaceful understanding eluded her. The St. Mary’s era had segued into an anti-Catholic college stint rife with solitary dereliction, terminating with a degree in computer science from northern California’s Humboldt State University. There she drank wine alone and excelled in academia, plotting her future not in religion nor surfing, but in the burgeoning field of technology.

Still, Kate’s early twenties lumbered with a strained soul, seeking something but manifesting nothing. Formal education was done and her future was unknown. Restless, she craved a sojourn of purity. Dreaming hopelessly and soothed by the promise of simplicity, tropical idyll also seduced her for a utopian pursuit.

 

 

Kate and the old white man next to her were the plane’s only tourists—everyone else was black and looked local and spoke no English. It was a small aircraft, perhaps fifty seats, and it smelled of mildew and sweaty feet, foul to the fragrant plumeria flower behind her left ear, a gift from a blind lady in another airport.

She pressed her nose to the window. From above, the destination sparkled like a storybook isle. In fact, it was.

Though this trip had a historical dimension, time had the trick distortions of a dream. This was not a real place—the gift of airplane slumber and quiet fantasy tuned Kate for the island’s reality. It was unmodern, sunny and slow. It was off the radar, sunken into the periphery of an ocean theater long revered for its treasure, piracy, mystique. Misery and bliss were common themes.

It was a tortured culture, a displaced colony of lepers and slaves and exiles governed by harassed figures of European regime. It was highly functional but hardly hospitable in those days, more of a location for sea wars and infamous corsairs than enjoyment and seduction. Unsmiling men sought these shores not for paradise, but for tangible loot. In the end, it was an escape.

In reality, this place was beyond dreams. Uninhabited until two hundred years ago, it lay rooted silently in an equatorial sea which isolated all else. History’s first recorded exploratory voyage to the island revealed a bounty of fresh fruit, water, fruit, tortoises, coconuts, and birds—a shipmate said the island was “some earthly Paradise.”

Indeed it was a paradisical refuge from Kate’s bleak world. Mother was forgotten, friends were nonexistent, all school and society lost to the wind. She sipped from a bottle of water. The man next to her drank deeply of the flight’s free rum, claiming it to be the “very nectar of the gods.” For Kate, the heady scent of drink spurred college memories of hangovers, depression, sickness, vomiting.

The mental visuals could not taint her first glance at this place on the edge of nowhere in a brilliantly blue tropical sea.

A great mass of exuberant vegetation defined this place, a place of verdure, a place of repose. From a distance, the peaks appeared as velvety verdant summits wreathed in cloud, veined with streams and waterfalls, avoiding the traditional geography of a traditional place. Its white beaches were rockless and pretty, fronted by postcard lagoons, backed by humid, mossy woods saturated with layers of life, home to millions of insects and birds and small mammals. The inland parts were steep and impassable and appeared to have never been touched or interfered with. Few lived on this island; fewer visited.

Islanders who did live there were relaxed, unambitious, soft-spoken, with skin as black as licorice—so black it looked purple. They were stoic, even among adversity. They were affable and polite and lazy, dragging their feet as they walked. They had wide, flat noses and full lips covering horrible brown teeth. Smiles came easily and frequently.

The men were well-fleshed and unshaven, and the women were voluptuous, with enormous breasts. Dreadlocks and reggae were common. Islanders wore sarongs, sandals, shorts, T-shirts, hats, flowers behind their ears. Their faces carried that air of smugness intrinsic of islanders worldwide, knowing they are buffered from the world’s dysfunction by vast fields of seawater in all directions. They saw themselves as immune, untouchable, unimpressionable. Long gone were the days of raiding buccaneers and conquistadors in their big wooden ships, planting flags, corrupting natives.

Kate’s seatmate was John, who would not say where he was from, though he did say he was born on the island they were flying to. His relatives were all dead, and he had no friends. He was seventy-three. “But I feel much older.” Kate was twenty-three.

He was a gaunt, graying man with a sweaty face and dandruff on his lapel. He picked his nose with long, dirty fingernails, and his skin was scarred and wrinkled as if he had spent much of life outside. He grinded his teeth when he spoke, barely opening his mouth. His wiry lips looked like those of a fish, and his bushy, upturned eyebrows gave him the look of deviance. His eyes were bloodshot and fearsome, his pupils strangely oval, not circular, and his breath smelled like rot. Around his neck was a polished crucifix. He wore white tropical dress clothes, like Jimmy Buffet or Panama Jack, but the garments were wrinkled and soiled, and he reeked—almost offensively so—of musk aftershave, like a woman wearing too much cheap perfume.

He said he was an ex-religious philosophy professor and had saved his retirement fund to see the world “before I’m worm food.” This island was his last stop.

“What’s a lovely little girl like yourself doing traveling across the world alone?” he asked, grinning, radiant with rum.

“God told me to.”

John said, “God also has sent me to my birthplace to commune with Him and—”

He fell silent and looked out the window.

Kate confessed about hating her pious mother who forced her into Catholic school for twelve miserable years. It stifled her social and sexual development, Kate said, and caused her to despise her hometown, her teachers, and herself. She remained a virgin and had never been intimate with a boy or man. It was a sad existence that could have easily ended in tragedy. And here she was, halfway around the world with no itinerary or ties to anything.

They fell into conversation and, with John’s prodding, steered from requisite pleasantries to religion and the human condition.

“Women are bitches,” he said. “They lure us like they have a hook and bait for a fish. Of course, there are a few good women out there, but I’m wary of the black widow variety. Their sting is fatal to us, and then they devour us. As Nietzsche said, ‘God created man, then created woman; that was His second mistake.’ Nietzsche also said warriors should not mate with milk maidens.”

Close to landing, the island’s features became clear through Kate’s window. Coconut palms bristled from granite boulders at water’s edge; lushness filled the voids—cinnamon, casuarina, takamakas, banyans, hibiscus, orchids, vanilla, breadfruit, mango, bananas, pineapples, passion fruit, papaya, Nepenthe pitcher plants, bougainvillea. The sea was another world, undermined with colorful corals and millions of fish. She saw it wholly as a supernatural creation habitat of epic grandeur, conducive to abundant beauty, organic wealth, and God’s love.

“The world is an erotic arena,” John said. “Every living thing has sex to procreate. Men love sex all of their lives. Women eventually lose their heat and desire, and men look other places for it. Men get addicted to sex, and their brains fall into their loins. As Zorba the Greek said, ‘God made us this way, and it is not fair.’ He said we must love and enjoy women. It is also a game—it’s a hunt, and you women are the prey. Except as Hemingway said, ‘The female species is always the most dangerous prey.’ Women are the most delicate and most dangerous species. They like their inner feelings and are driven by love and mating.

“She picks superior genes to mate with, except when her brains go down to her loins—a nymphomaniac with brains in her pants becomes a prostitute and loves the nectar and ignores the consequences. Those women breed the bastards of the world and enjoy their pleasures and must endure their eternal miseries. The smart ones go for a rich prick, thinking they might as well get paid for it. They are never happy, like the monks who abstain, and many become homosexual.

“But temptation is always around the corner, and we blame it on the devil. By the way, has anyone ever told you that your curly hair looks like a bunch of snakes?”

“No.”

He stopped talking. Kate leaned toward him and peered into his eyes.

“Why are you coming here, to this island?” she asked.

“I will die in its dust.”

 

* * *

 

[And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed. (Gen. 2:25)]

 

Mid-afternoon. Eric sucked on a cigarette, his eyes darting uneasily at nothing, fingering his thick black dreadlocks while slouching on the cement curb outside of the airport’s arrival terminal. His truck was parked in the small lot ahead. It was as if he was there waiting to meet someone yet nervous of their appearance.

As she walked outside through the terminal doors, the shock of Kate’s white skin and long blonde hair made Eric stand suddenly, smashing the cigarette with his foot, as if he were greeting the presence of royalty or a distinguished military officer. Eric was a tall, strapping man with a narrow, fierce face, two blazing bloodshot eyes, a square jaw, and stained teeth. He was unkempt, barefooted, and wore black cargo shorts below a filthy red, yellow, and green-striped tank top that read “One Love” across the front.

He looked like the dusky, serious Rastafarians Kate saw onstage at a famous reggae music festival she’d camped at on the banks of the Eel River in California. Late on the third night of that three-day event, a well-known Jamaican singer took a keen interest in Kate, and although their mutual attraction soared, she abstained and withdrew with the zip of her tent flap.

Eric resembled that man, which is why Kate noticed him immediately.

“Need ride?” he asked, eagerly.

Kate had lost John in the immigration line. She stopped and looked at Eric, lowering her luggage onto the cement.

“You speak English?”

“Yiss,” he nodded with a toothy grin. “Where you go?”

“I want to camp. In a forest, near a beach.”

Baffled by this, Eric said, “Why you sleep in trees when you come my house?”

“Because I want to. Do you know where I can camp?”

“Yiss. There a place not far. We go.” He motioned her toward his truck, then pointed at her surfboard bag on the ground.

“What that?”

“Surfboard.”

“Surfboard?”

“You know, for surfing—for riding waves on the sea….”

She slid her bags into the bed of the tattered pickup. Its tailgate was missing.

“Will my bags be safe while we drive?”

“Yiss. No fall out.”

Hunched over, elbows against his ribs, Eric gripped the steering wheel and squinted through the dirty windshield. He drove around pigs and chickens, slowly and distractedly, which was of minor consequence on the empty coastal track. It was potholed and bumpy, flanked by dense foliage.

He was a demure young man of twenty-six who spoke limited but adequate English, which he learned his from minister, a British expat. Eric’s local language was called Kreol, widely thought to be an inferior dialect since it was essentially a slave-era adaptation of French. But it was his true voice as he was born and raised here, not France, spending his life outdoors fishing and farming with his family, who lived on the island’s opposite shore. He had a wife named Tinaz (“she very fat”), a daughter named Sharen, a son named Mohammed Ali.

“Are you Islamic?” Kate asked.

“No.”

“Why did you name him Mohammed?”

“Me very much like the boxing.”

Eric’s truck had a radio-cassette player; there was a pile of tapes in a brown paper bag at Kate’s feet. She fished out Israel Vibration’s Israel Dub and inserted it into the player. Eric raised its volume and they drove without talking for several miles.

The lane weaved in and out of dense sea-level palms and pandanus trees bordered by steep and impossibly lush mountains of green. It skirted waterfalls and the shores of three photogenic bays; the tide was out, and wooden fishing skiffs sat dry-docked on the flat white sand of each one, lending the place a look of neglect.

Kate saw the clear warm water of the lagoon and a broken line of whitewater out along the barrier reef. Further along, they passed a series of small, pretty coves fringed with coconut palms and granite boulders. Scenics dominated; during the drive, she did not see another car or human.

The road deteriorated to dirt. Forty minutes had passed. Eric stopped the truck in a turnout at a curve on the road’s right side.

“Here I take you. Camp.”

It was a slim patch of dirt backed by a forest of tall palms and strange plants. Unseen birds sang from within. It was an oddly familiar fairyland, a place Kate knew she’d dreamed of or read about.

Eric pointed to the left. “Sea is there. After the trees.”

She looked around and was pleased—the spot was secluded and serene. The valley was enchanting. The beach was footsteps away. Here, she thought, being alone and idle will be easy.

“How much do I pay you for the ride?” she asked, despite having none of the local currency.

“No pay. You my friend.” He smiled. “Maybe I see you again.”

He shook her hand and she stepped out of the truck, quickly gathering her gear from the truck bed and placing it on the ground. Then she leaned into the passenger window and smiled a relieved sort of smile.

“Thank you, Eric. I do hope to see you again.”

“How long you camp?”

“I don’t know.”

“You not scared alone?”

“I’ll be fine.”

He rattled away, leaving a cloud of dust and then ultimate stillness, with birdsong and muffled roar of waves. Lethargic, Kate stood on the dirt and gazed at the turquoise lagoon scintillating between the trees in front of her. I’ve made it at last.

She peered into the valley, then up at the mountains and sky. Dusk was near. She needed to find a campsite before darkness prevented her. The valley was already dim except for a strange vertical column of light in the middle of it, like someone shining a spotlight from the treetops. It was bright enough there to make camp and eat a supper of trail mix and dehydrated fruit.

Fruit bats circled above. Kate hesitated, then shouldered the luggage and trudged toward a transformation of spirit. The grove was primeval and alive—yes, she had been here before. The valley instantly evoked an atmosphere of visceral divinity, as if she had penetrated a time warp to an earlier period on the planet preceding the genesis of man.

She walked into the wide shaft of light and looked up, but was blinded as if looking straight at the sun. She rubbed her eyes and instead admired the forest around her, a place of magic: the understory was blanketed in ferns and philodendrons, jackfruit and vanilla; granite boulders were everywhere, splotched with bluey-green algae, moss, and lichens; a hidden stream gurgled nearby; a whistling black parrot, with dark gray feathers and hooked beak, loitered in the palm above her head; geckos and tree frogs clung to its huge boles and fan-shaped fronds. What type of palm is this?

They were tall, ancient trees, the biggest nearly a hundred feet, and some with large, bilobed nuts. A few lay scattered on the ground; Kate picked one up and it was heavy, perhaps fifty pounds. Another had a large crack in its side, from which oozed a white, gelatinous substance. Malnourished, she tasted it timidly with the tip of her tongue—it was sweet and mild—then she devoured the jelly, sucking it vigorously out of the nut until there was no more.

She dropped the nut and looked up at the palms surrounding her. There appeared to be male and female trees, both with erotic reproductive shapes. The male trees had large catkins, resembling penises, while huge nuts on the female trees, clustered beneath ten-foot-wide fronds, resembled a woman’s pelvis.

Her eyes lowered to the forest floor. The rug of dead leaves was good for her blanket and inflatable pillow. The air was so hot and steamy that she would definitely sleep nude. She stripped and stood in the warm light, feeling euphoric and liberated and intensely sexual. In her shadow she could see the outline of her breasts and nipples, the curve of her hips and buttocks, shoulders, and back.

The wind whipped loudly through the treetops. She kneaded her breasts and rubbed her clitoris and pubic area, realizing she had never before so desired the company of a man. Her heart beat furiously and she began to sweat as a tingling sensation shot through her entire body. Her panting grew heavy with soft moaning.

The desire to be penetrated ensued as a visceral ache, like an unfulfilled promise, a deep wanting, a deep torment. Heat and energy flooded the insides of her hips. She sensed an opening of her sacrum, a yearning to be complete and whole. It was an urge to create, to connect, a coil wrenching tighter and tighter inside her pelvis.

The air temperature rose and a flowery, fragrant wind whipped her hair, roaring loudly through the palms like a storm.

Then: a voice.

“You are my child now. Your place is with me.”

Light vanished and she was alone in darkness. Kate’s arousal was quelled by the silence of trees; her eyes adjusted and the valley looked surreal with its spookish silhouettes and panes of filtered moonlight. The wind was dead, like time had stopped.

Cessation of movement seemed prescient of the night to come. Is this a result of my suffering and privation? It was an unprecedented lucency. God had again spoken, returning her to that black day in Torrance.

She breathed deeply and slowly, feeling her heart relax, inhaling the tranquillity of night beneath this cathedral of palms—a celestial canopy. The bliss was palpable; the valley was a seductive place. Kate felt immune. The palms were prescient, the starscape hallucinatory.

It was early April. Time was telescoped in the middle of nowhere—an elusive world from a fairytale. She lay on the blanket, attempting and failing to sleep beneath the valley’s strange, late twilight. Here, moonlit nature afforded clarity to the sounds of the earth—a solace, murmuring.

Supine, she gawked at the male trees and their phallic catkins outlined by moon and stars. The urge to mate overwhelmed her, and she resumed masturbation, envisioning a man; his lips on hers, his sweaty, hairy chest and abdomen rubbing against her sweaty breasts and belly, his penis penetrating deeply. She felt the natural inclination to move her hips, like an animal. A fleeting thought struck her, how she could feel so electrified from the mere fantasy of a man’s touch.

The sensation was explosive and wavelike, commencing within as uterine contractions, coursing outward through her stomach and legs, sparking throughout her entire body.

The wind returned and intensified, rattling stiff palm fronds with an immense scratching sound. Directly above Kate’s head, a male tree leaned into a female tree, colliding in an apparent tryst of love-making, its catkins jouncing against the female’s nuts. Arboreal fornication in God’s land, Kate reasoned. All was possible.

 

* * *

 

[And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. (Gen. 1:4)]

 

She woke from postorgasmic sleep. The midday atmosphere was windless and dank, misty and pungent with tropical forest decay and ocean air. Naked and rested, with newfound strength, Kate walked to the water and saw that the beach was virtually unphotographable. Film could never do it justice, and it did not deserve a name: it was too perfect. She squinted at the white sand, glary in the dazzling sun, and the lagoon shimmered hotly, like a plate of glass.

Judging from this beauty, furious weather was unknown. Tree trunks were unscuffed, the beach sand pure and trackless, the lagoon a placid, greeny-blue pool of fish and coral—everything was pristine and inviting. It was the epitome of tropical paradise.

Surfing sprung to mind as Kate noticed waves crashing onto the lagoon’s barrier reef. But the waves had no form, breaking simultaneously over shallow coral. Kate decided to walk further and find a wave worth surfing. She returned to the campsite for her surfboard and sandals, but nothing else—she would walk nude.

Sun scorched her pale skin. Energized by its light, she walked steadily and confidently along the dirt lane she had driven on with Eric, and within an hour she approached a rift—a narrow tunnel—through the tangle of trees and vines. The ground was gouged with wheel tracks and hoofprints heading out to the lagoon. She passed a rickety wood cart attached to an dozy, sulking ox. Flies buzzed around its eyes and ears, snot oozing from its nose. Its fur was ruffled, faded, dirty; its left horn was broken, and the rope through its nostrils seemed painful. A wiry tail swatted Kate as she walked by.

Emerging from the jungle, she studied another arc of white-sand beach, hot and tranquil, its only sound that of the waves peeling around both sides of a narrow reef pass a quarter-mile from shore. Behind the surf, two dark men sat in a large wooden canoe low in the water, apparently sinking. They carefully paddled through the pass and across the lagoon toward shore; the vessel was packed to its gunwales with large fish, perhaps tuna.

These were the first humans Kate had seen since Eric. Shirtless and shaggy, wearing wet floral-print sarongs, they looked middle-aged, with knotted hair and gray beards. One man hopped from the canoe as the other tossed a small stone anchor into the knee-deep water. Both men grabbed a fish by its tail and trudged up the sloped beach toward Kate and the ox cart. They seemed impassive to her nudity. She said bonzour—Kreol for ‘hello’—as they staggered past, arms and faces glowing with grease and sweat.

The ox was unflinching as the men lunged heavy fish into the cart one-by-one. Its wheels and frame were rusted, and the wood appeared rotten, inept to support the weight of the men’s catch.

“What kind of fish are those?” Kate asked.

“Deese good feesh,” the first one pointed. His voice was extremely hoarse—talking seemed painful. “Deese good fo’ eat.”

“Where are you taking them?”

He shrugged.

The men walked slowly back down to the canoe. Kate watched the waves. An hour elapsed before the canoe was emptied and the cart was crammed with a slimy, shiny heap of dead fish. They were big and plump and all looked alike. Drooling, the ox was indifferent. It was sedate and unmoving. It winced from the rope looped through its nose.

The men mounted the front of the cart, whipped the reins, had the ox reverse its direction, and limped back into the jungle toward the road.

Orevwar,” the tall one croaked—Kreol for “goodbye.”

Kate waved at him, wondering if there was a town nearby, but it was of no real concern: this beach was heavenly. Its lagoon was clear and warm, lapping up onto soft, powdery white sand between spectacular granite rocks. Palms and takamaka trees bordered the beach, providing shade from the fierce afternoon heat.

The surf was good.

 

* * *

 

[And God will swipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away. (Rev. 21:4)]

 

She straddled her surfboard atop an incandescent mirror, her back and shoulders warmed by sun dropping into mountain silhouettes. Meditating, waiting for waves, her legs dangled in an exotic aquarium: snapper, angelfish, butterfly fish, chromis, fusiliers, wrasse, trumpetfish, pipefish, needlefish. Flying fish dashed across the surface, chased by barracudas.

On one wave, a large turquoise parrotfish surfed alongside her, as dolphins sometimes did in California. With every turn, the fish mimicked, drawing the same lines underwater. Like surfing with a mermaid.

Fairy terns flitted. Green turtles floated. The palmy beach awaited. Between waves, all was Edenic.

Vivid light evaporated and morphed from distinct saturation to a flood of pastels…sea and sky glowed violet and ocher as the play of light distracted her from an approaching swell.

Like the rest, this wave was perfect. Purply and tapered, it humped onto the reef and let her in. The tube’s almond eye reflected all to be seen. Facing the sun, it was resplendent of gold spinning around her. The mountains, the sinking sun, the beach fronted by a glassy lagoon—a dream.

Nobody saw any of this. The beach was a fantasy of clairvoyance, a nirvanic déjà vu. And her first surf session, after her first night on her second day, was a hallucination of ecstasy. It was all unblurred and ethereal, her years of suffering and privation being purged by the sea. Surfing brought her closer to God. Each moment was a month regained from her wayward life, and, back in California, she believed it was here—only here—where this could occur.

Her arrival and perception of place could have been a model of serendipity, but out there, adrift, she knew it was all a bequeathal of God’s altruism. It was no act of schemed proselytization—He had been with her from the beginning, reluctantly at St. Mary’s, faithfully throughout college. And now, tonight, He was here, as was she.

 

* * *

 

[“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened for you.” (Matt. 7:7)]

 

The ocean is endless and eternal, much like Nirvana, and only God accompanied Kate in the landscape of her unconscious mind. The sun had set…sea with sky.

Twilight was mute, psychedelic. On her surfboard, waiting for a final wave, Kate’s face and breasts gleamed in wet reflection of the afterglow. In an aqueous crimson baptism, her skin softened, her brow relaxed. All tension and mental knots fell away, pressure replaced with pleasure. Yet the onset of darkness startled her. Thoughts turned to shore.

Like a mirage after dusk, the wave came and she stalled into another tube, this one narrow, a teardrop. The ride was brief. She turned shoreward and began paddling the half-mile in. Large fish—perhaps the kind those fishermen had caught—blurped from the water around her, snatching baitfish, and her hands dipped into pods of them, the whole lagoon alive under the early, starry night reflecting coolly into Kate’s sunburned eyes.

She could see the beach and coconut palms, fuzzed in darkness. Orangy light, like that of a village’s, pierced through the trees a few miles to the west. That must be where Eric lives, and where the fishermen took their catch.

The sand was silk to Kate’s feet. Her paddling muscles ached. Her nipples and belly were chafed from surfboard wax. Wafts of hibiscus floated through the air.

Approaching the tunnel leading back to the road, she looked back at the faint whitewater lines winding around the pass. It was pristine and deserted, quiet and balmy, as she imagined many of the world’s beaches to be. But surely none of them could compare to this.

It was too perfect. It reminded her of the place she had read about that day in the St. Mary’s rectory, in the solemn scripture of Adam, so humble and real, wedged between rants of theologians and philosophers.

The tunnel was pitch-dark, so she walked slowly, patiently, afraid of nothing, feeling the cool, soft sand underfoot. The darkness was warm, redolent with fruit and flowers—a comfort. Here too she was immune: the tunnel was womblike, a passage alluding to a place above all others, and she made her way toward its source.

Kate felt protected, her spirit harbored in the fragrant night. She walked serenely, reflecting on Adam’s allegorical writings, which seemed to reappear for her upon the tunnel’s breeze. His observations paralleled hers of this island and the valley of great palms in which she slept. Indeed, God had spoken to her there last night.

Adam was created as God’s companion in His garden. The garden was warm. The serpent ultimately ruined Adam and Eve’s fellowship with God; they relinquished their idyllic nest and fell from grace after succumbing to the dark tempter rather than the light of truth. They were banished from His garden, the place that had encompassed everything perfect and beautiful on earth, and were never allowed to re-enter it.

Yet Kate was here: A woman somehow alone in God’s land. He made it that way. All the implications illuminated in her consciousness in distinct order. It struck her as simultaneously odd, yet perfect, how the light of reason always shone in the blackest phases of her life, rescuing her time after time.

Feeling reborn, she reached the tunnel’s opposite end, which connected to the dirt lane. She considered a walk to the west, to the lights, but felt her pale nakedness confronting a foreign black village would be unsuitable. The valley was her private garden. God allowed her to exist there, exempt from adversity, with plenty to drink and eat, including the aphrodisiacal coconut jelly.

Her hair was heavy and wet. The lane was silver with moonlight (or was it Godlight?), unraveling like an ethereal ribbon.

A specter appeared in the middle of the lane ten yards ahead. Dismissing it as a hallucination of night and expecting it to vanish, Kate walked toward it then stood still, looking for a face in the moonlight. She found it. The wraith was recognized: it was John, the old man from the plane, looking furtive and ghostly, with a strange whitish glow to his skin. He was sweaty and jittery and still smelled strongly of musk aftershave. He had a slight weave to his gait and breathed heavily, smacking his lips, obviously drunk; Kate could see the dirty, dagger-like fingernails of his left hand coiled around a bottle of rum.

His right hand raked his greasy gray hair, slicking it back, and he was in the same soiled, wrinkled white clothes he wore on the airplane. The front of his pants had an obvious bulge—an erection.

He took a swig from the bottle, then pulled a flask from his chest pocket.

“Breath freshener,” John said, sucking his teeth. “It kills germs the alcohol doesn’t!” He poured some into his mouth, swished it around, gurgled and spat. His crucifix necklace gleamed from the reflection of a light Kate could not see.

Suddenly she became aware of her nakedness and felt ashamed that John could see her womanhood. His breathing deepened, and he wiped sweat from his brow with a dirty shirt sleeve. His gaze slowly scanned her up and down, returning to her breasts and pubic region. Noticing this, Kate used her surfboard to partially hide her young body from his old, eerie mind.

“God made woman to tempt man,” he said slowly, looking directly into Kate’s eyes. “Woman has always ruined man, so God has always ruined woman. He gives women beauty then takes it away from them with age. You, my dear, are young and beautiful. You deserve this nectar of the gods.”

He laughed loudly and leaned back, guzzling messily from the bottle, spilling rum down his chin. He thrust the bottle at her face. She jerked her head back. He stood very close to her now; she could smell his awful aftershave and rancid breath.

“I’m sorry, I cannot,” she stammered. “I quit drinking…after college and all.”

He pursed his lips, smiling vaguely, revealing black, fangish teeth. He spoke quietly in a beastly voice. “Try a little rum to warm your soul. It won’t hurt you. It will help you. The book of Proverbs states, ‘Give strong drink to the one who is perishing; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.’”

She frowned and stepped back; he matched her movement and stepped forward. He held the bottle at her mouth. The rum smelled of death. Its clear cracked glass was smudged with greasy fingerprints, and its label was missing. Bits of cork and viscous saliva floated on top of the amber fluid, which looked undrinkable.

He guzzled again and raised the bottle to her eyes, shaking the bottle, agitating the rum. He continued to walk into her, breathing hotly onto her face. She stepped back until she was trapped between John and the impenetrable foliage lining the road.

He pressed his body to hers; she felt his erection on her crotch and the heat of his skin. His shirt was soaked in sweat. His offensive breath and aftershave made her gag. Beads of sweat dropped from his face and chin onto her chest, burning her breasts. He slipped his tongue between his lips, which to Kate could have been forked, like that of a reptile’s; he dripped rum onto it, which sizzled and evaporated. He belched deeply.

“Just a little sip,” John grinned, waving the bottle at her face, his nose an inch from hers. He slurred. “This is the nectar of the garden that God has given us to partake. It is the finest of…the finest of sacrament drinks.”

Kate was stunned. She could not speak. Her arm hurt from holding the surfboard, but it was her only defense.

Then John paused serenely, with a sudden aura of death in his complexion. He looked as if he were to die right then and there. Then he shook the bottle violently at her, his bloodshot eyes widening.

“Go on, bitch! Take a sip! This is the nectar of the gods!”

Her eyes distracted by the bottle, John discreetly touched her left breast. She immediately swatted his hand away, his sharp nails scratching the tops of her fingers.

“Don’t touch me!”

Instinctively she kneed his erection. He winced and dropped the bottle, shattering it on the ground, rum splashing Kate’s shins and feet. John was crippled; he lurched over and grasped his groin, groaning with pain. He hissed and lunged wildly at her with his left hand, slashing at her buttocks as she turned to run away. His nails scratched her soft skin, and she screamed louder than she ever had. She gripped the surfboard and sprinted from John as fast as she could. He was grounded in immense pain, panting and cringing, and could not stand up to chase her. She glanced back.

Gone. He’d vanished just as he had appeared, suddenly, silently, in the pale moonlight.

Kate ran all the way back to her campsite in the valley. When she stopped, she gasped uncontrollably, shocked at how far she had run, and how fast, and how she had not fainted. She had never run like that before, not even at St. Mary’s, when she had to run timed six-minute miles around the track. She always thought she was a poor runner, but this was not of herself. It was as if a supreme athlete had been placed inside of her, and that she could run for miles and miles without falter. She could run anywhere, quickly and steadily, and this was a euphoric sense of new strength and endurance, things she never had.

Registering fresh safety and relief, Kate stood motionless by her bags. The valley soothed her. Her heart slowed and beat normally, and a wave of comfort flushed through her body. The air was humid and full of metaphysical energy as she’d left it earlier that day. All was mute besides the sporadic whistle of a black parrot. Moonlight bathed the massive palms, fronds splitting the soft light, spilling it across the forest floor.

She walked to a nearby freshwater stream she found the previous day. The stream’s sloshing and gurgling sounded like laughter and happiness to Kate; she kneeled and splashed the cold water all over her body. A baptismal cleansing. She put her lips to the stream and gulped vigorously—her first drink of the day.

The coconuts had milk. She found a green one, cracked it with a rock, and let the clear, sweet liquid drain into her mouth, dripping it down her face and body to her toes and the fertile soil. This is the nectar of the gods.

She strolled back to her bags and laid down. The leaves and sleeping pad felt feathery. She closed her eyes and listened to the woods. The presence of the place enveloped her.

“My child now”—the voice seemed to come from within.

 Eden, God’s garden. He led me here to be reborn, just as I am.

 

* * *

 

[Resist the devil and he will flee from you. (James 4:7)]

 

Months passed. Summer. Kate was in Torrance again, living with her mother. Days were sunny and warm, nights of stars and pleasant dreams.

Her mother was rarely home, occupied with work and a tall, skinny boyfriend from Hermosa Beach. Kate rejected the non-attention as being perfidy—she was an adult, on her own. Not that it was ever any different. Now she understood.

Mother’s boyfriend Bruce was a publican at The Drink, a seedy, smoky dive near the pier, frequented by drunks and lost souls, often staying in all day and night. There they consoled one another, talked and downed shots of bourbon, fumbling quarters into the jukebox, throwing darts and shooting billiards until 2 a.m. Mother, if she came home at all, would stumble incoherently through the door at 3 a.m., only to wake at 7 a.m. fully clothed with a cracking headache, due for the 8 a.m. bus into town to her telemarketing job six days a week.

Kate had removed herself from this. Natural light fueled her like caffeine—an emission of constant solar energy. Each dawn was a blank slate, a daily twenty-four-hour chapter of growth and upliftment. Her previous life had never known such truth and love. She welcomed everything and everybody. She was confident. It all made sense to her.

She was no longer cared of her body’s appearance and concealed it with boyish rags from the thrift shop. Gone were the pale-skin days of pants and long-sleeved shirts on the sands of L.A. Her beachwear was bikini. She was a bronzed, blonde goddess to the young men who pursued her. Her love life had at last blossomed, particularly with a thirty-year-old painter named Paul who lived alone in San Pedro. He understood Kate and had heard her rite of passage, vicariously reliving it with her, from here to there and back again.

They surfed together, explored together, slept together, laughed together, ate together. They drank postprandial wine and massaged by candlelight with oil and incense. They took road-trips. They drove to Oregon and hiked its majestic coast, an adventure Kate had yearned for but prevented from by inner weakness. They immersed themselves in a cosmic, cloudless week there. Paul swore the experience changed his life—it never could have happened without Kate, he said.

But Kate mentally did not need Paul for internal content. She required no one. Her redemption was her two healthy feet on solid ground today. Paul was but her first sweetheart and companion; rarely was she onanistic. All else was within her, twenty-four years after birth. Life had syncretized. Trust, hope, and the embracing of love were so obvious now.

One bright, surfless morning, Kate took a stroll into town, passing familiar storefronts with faces both fresh and faded. She wore her favorite leather sandals, tight white shorts, and a logoless white tank top with no bra beneath.

She stepped from front door and looked up: the sky was full of fortune and opportunity, infinite and anew, as it had been since her return. Soundness of mind paced her routine, adrift in the space between self-understanding and inner peace. Kate was independent. Torrance became a place of refuge and tradition, something it never was, eliciting reflections for her from which to flourish.

She walked down the same sidewalk she loathed each day of her scholastic youth and its idioms of hopelessness, confined to her remote mother and the nuns of St. Mary’s. Those were additional black memories; today’s sunlight banished them from Kate’s periphery.

Homes along the sidewalk were decorated with barbecues and plastic swimming pools and lawn chairs—accessories of summer. Scents of charcoal and sunscreen and visions of happy families pleased Kate, and, one day, she thought, she too would live in a home like these, with a loving man and perhaps a child.

She plucked an orange poppy flower from the dirt and slipped it behind her left ear, like tropical maidens did. Entering town, she walked past the old Safeway supermarket, now an Albertson’s, and the old candle shop, now a beauty salon full of middle-aged women. The avenue was clogged with traffic. Men hooted and catcalled at Kate. Waves of heat quivered above the asphalt and the engine hoods of cars, a stench of exhaust flooding the westerly breeze. Her brow and sides of her face were laced with sweat; the air temperature hovered in the low nineties. It was lunchtime; the peak of summer.

Each smell was similar but different: after all, this was the same soil and cement she had walked countless times before, in every season and every day. Yet a certain vibe resurfaced as she passed the Italian deli, its outdoor patio full of eaters. The vibe was not salty French fries or meaty, greasy sandwiches served with fizzy soda, nor the glistening pepperoni pizza being wolfed by the fat Filipino boy near the deli’s entrance.

It was the bridge over Clark Street. Here she was, and here she had been so many times, so many years ago. She stopped at its mid-point and squinted down at the six standstill lanes of every vehicle imaginable, shimmering in the midday glare. It looked like a parking lot.

The sun seared. Cars overheated. Drivers cursed and honked horns. The road’s center divider was littered with weeds and trash and shredded tires. A terrible, stressful scene, loaded with anguish and bad timing for everyone.

But up there, on the bridge, stood a young woman with a flower in her hair, dressed in white, smiling at all of this.

She turned and walked away, down the sidewalk, across the bridge, to a place in her mind she never knew existed, but was well aware of today.

A place of hope.

From This Rain

By Michael H. Kew

Praslin. All photos: Kew.

TUESDAY, JULY 7: A howling gloom. High swells flexed and torqued against Praslin’s geology. Yonder was a rare surf spot. Perhaps tomorrow.

With a beer I sat on a low stone wall facing moored boats just north of the reef. A genteel Creole man appeared from a nearby shack. He was smiling, mustachioed, sixtysomething, wearing a heavy brown coat. Sans one leg, he limped with a cane.

He asked if I liked deep-sea fishing and pointed at his speedboat, bobbing in the chop, the sole vessel with two outboards. He said mid-year trades were too strong but in season he roamed forty to sixty miles out. He lived to hook billfish. He ran charters through a luxury resort. For eight hundred euros, he took four to six anglers out for the day. But business was sinking. He blamed Arabs and mentioned the Plantation Club, sold to the Seychelles government which sold it to sheikhs who now used it for their personal playground.

“When it was Plantation Club, we Seychellois had jobs. Now? No jobs. We used to take our clients to that beach to barbecue the fresh catch but now, since it is Arabs, they try to prevent anybody from going on the beach. Banyan Tree? Arab. Four Seasons? Arab. At Maia right now? Full of Arab. The Arabs want to buy everything here. And they bring all their own staff on their private jets. Only the hotels get the money. The Emirates airline is trying to build a hotel too. But the young Seychellois, they will stop this in the future—foreigners coming in and buying everything. Please tell people in America about this.”

Thursday, July 9: On Instagram the Indian Ocean is smoothly blue and sun-kissed. This morning it was again a thrashed gray. I began walking to the car rental office in time for another dense, soaking squall.

“Many rain today,” the office clerk said. “We are very happy now, because for so long we had no water. Now we have water. Usually this happens with the full moon. Lasts for three days. If we had no wind, it would last longer, but we have wind, so it will not rain for long.”

His assistant gazed out the window. “You would think we are in London.”

When the rain paused I went for a drive, first through the enchanted Vallée de Mai, then to a café in Cote D’Or, where I saw many tourists.

In a newspaper:


Tourists to the honeymoon hotspot of the Seychelles are being warned to take extra care following a rise in the number of robberies and attacks. The Foreign Office said there had been a spate of incidents on and around the Cote D'Or beach on the island of Praslin. Incidents have taken place both after dark and during daylight hours. “You should take care when walking in this area, particularly at night," said the Foreign Office in an update to its travel advisory.

As I ate, a young Creole man approached. He shook my hand.

“You want to smoke something?”

No.

I finished the sandwich, bought a newspaper (five rupees for the Nation; its headline was “Faiths In Historic Union With Govt Against Drugs”), and got into my car. The man followed and knocked on the passenger window. He introduced himself as Christopher.

“How are you, my friend? Where you staying? Where you going?”

No plan.

“Let’s go for a drive,” he said. “Anse Lazio? You been Anse Lazio?”

Yes.

He asked for a lift to My Dream, a hotel on Praslin’s east coast. I obliged. Aloud I wondered why there were so many tourists on Praslin, far more than when I’d last visited.

“More?” he asked, wide-eyed. “My friend, there are less tourists now. Less jobs. It is very hard for me to make money. I sell a little bit of compost, but we are struggling. That is why I wanted to talk to you. I saw that you were alone and might want somebody to talk to. Maybe we could help each other.”

I mentioned the rain.

“Yes, this is very good now. We have water. Tomorrow will have more sun, believe me. Always around full moon there is rain.”

We arrived at My Dream.

“My friend,” Christopher said, “can you help me? Maybe so I can buy something to eat? I don’t steal, you see. I can talk about these things. I can just ask you instead of being a thief. I don’t rob.”

From my pocket I pulled a wrinkled 100-rupee (US$7) note and gave it to him.

“My friend, you can give me 200 rupees?”

“I spent the rest of my cash on lunch.” True.

He thanked me and said he hoped he could help me in the future.

Aldabrachelys gigantea

Friday, July 10: Christopher was wrong. Rain blurred sky, flooded roads. The surf still sucked.

I breakfasted while skimming Louise Welsh’s The Bullet Trick, the sole English-language book in my bungalow. It was a gritty fiction drama featuring William Wilson, a Glaswegian magician who’d fallen on hard times.

Online forecast: four-meter south swell. Reality: two inches. Off seaweedy beaches the water was brown, far from Instagram opulence.

Drove to Anse Lazio, cool and dark but where tourists still swam. I had surfed there in 2004. In 16 days in August 2011, Lazio’s water gave two fatal shark attacks. Both were honeymooners.

Praslin’s other beaches were empty, the rain constant, intensifying come afternoon. Aquatic thunder. Last night, the news weatherwoman claimed the storminess was “very rare, especially during the southeast monsoon.”

Sunday, July 12: Island storms seemed to mute and privatize humankind—locals stayed at home, tourists hid in hotels. From my bungalow for hours I watched the winds whip and clouds drain. Drank from sweating green bottles of SeyBrew, noting that, since rain created Seychelles’ drinking water, SeyBrew technically was borne from it.

Tuesday, July 14: Bastille Day elsewhere. Festivities. On Praslin, the rough weather stayed stuck on repeat. No sun, no surf, no Instagram, no rare reefbreak. Palm fronds danced in the wind. I was quite alone, as sooner or later we are all meant to be.

Bandon Gets Beered

By Michael H. Kew

Jonathan Hawkins at his bar. Photo: Kew.

"BANDON?" AIN'T NO brewery there!”

Leaning against the yellow-cedar beam bar he made, sipping a pint of ale he made, Jonathan Hawkins laughed at the memory, a quip from the 2017 Great American Beer Festival, one month after Hawkins first brought his Portland Kettle Works 5bbl Hopmaster online.

“It’s a great little system,” he told me, gesturing at the shiny steel tanks behind us. “A Cadillac for its size.”

A lifelong beer lover, Hawkins, 43, spent much of his time between Gold Beach, Ore., and Lake Quinault, Wash., where his mom ran a resort. In April 2013 he moved to the quaint seaside village of Bandon (pop. 3,200) “chasing Nicole,” his wife and business partner who he originally knew from high school. Years later, they were reacquainted at a mutual friend’s party in Portland.

With his background in professional construction, Hawkins launched Rock River Resources, now R3 Construction. In 2015 he and his wife bought the historic 9,500-square-foot McNair Building as a new home for Bandon Vision Center (Nicole has been a local optometrist for 13 years) and briefly shared walls with the pizzeria Hawkins bought. In September 2016, R3 broke ground for the vision center on one side, brewery/pizzeria on the other.

“I told Nicole that if I was going to take on a restaurant and do pizzas, I wasn’t going to do conveyer pizzas. I was going to do wood-fired pizzas, and I was going to make beer. She was gracious enough to agree with that, and away we went.”

His first taste of hands-on commercial brewing occurred via weekly trips to Labrewatory, run by Portland Kettle Works, where he tested and refined his recipes before hopping head-first into Oregon’s coastal craft beer scene. “It’s been a phenomenal experience,” he said. “Brewing has been the most collaborative industry I’ve been a part of. So many people have been encouraging and supportive, showing me their operations, offering advice and suggestions.”

Bandon Brewing’s grand opening was September 8, which coincided with the 71st annual Bandon Cranberry Festival. The reception was “fantastic,” Hawkins said. “I feel fortunate I got to be the one to do this here. Residents and visitors have really embraced us.”

Near the mouth of the Coquille River, at the entrance to Old Town Bandon, near the big, nautical-themed We Hope You Are Enjoying Bandon sign arced over the road, the cedar-shaked McNair Building originally was a hardware store, then many phases through the years. In recent times it was managed by Bill McNair of Gold Beach. “We called Bill and asked him if he’d be interested in talking about a sale,” Hawkins said. “Nicole and I met him at Redfish (a restaurant in Port Orford) with the intent of just discussing some possibilities, but three-and-a-half hours later, we walked out of there with an agreement. We wrote out the terms and everything right there in Redfish. It happened fast. Totally unexpected.”

On being the Oregon Coast’s newest brewery amid the nation’s craft beer boom, he viewed the building’s current ambiance as natural progress. “There used to be churches and taverns,” he said, “and they competed and tried to put each other out of business, basically. You had the diabolically opposed on each side, and taverns kind of opened that space up. I call (brewpubs) the new churches, places where people from all walks of life can get together and discuss ideas, art, jokes—whatever. It’s a great environment. And I don’t know of a single town I visit where I’m thinking, Damn, there are just too many breweries.

So far, Hawkins has made instant classics like One-Eyed Jacque IPA (named for his one-eyed schnauzer), Pacific Puffin Porter, Camp 7 Coffee Porter, and Rogue River Red. From this year’s harvest, he has plans for a cranberry saison, a tribute to Bandon’s large cranberry industry. Ultimately Hawkins aims to offer nine taps of in-house beer, plus five guest taps. “Having guest taps is awesome camaraderie,” he said. “I’m not asking anybody else to carry my beers, but I’ll always be happy to carry other beers from Southern Oregon.

To help with brewing and imminent expansion, Hawkins hired James Petti, who, after five years at Karl Strauss, launched Wavelength Brewing in Vista, Calif. “I’m gonna put him right to the fire when he gets here,” Hawkins said with a laugh.

From the copper-covered Wood Stone oven, my pizza emerged. Hawkins and I took seats in the airy south-facing dining area, warm with golden midday autumn sun that radiated off the brewpub walls, all coated with gorgeous reclaimed wood from Redmond’s Barnwood Industries. Out on the street, a horseman rode past.

“The Bandon area has some phenomenal coastline,” Hawkins said, sipping some Camp 7. “From Brookings to Florence is some of the prettiest coastline anywhere. Being in the Navy and also having sat on the back deck of a crab boat, I’ve seen the whole coast, from Cape Flattery all the way down to San Diego. And guess what? We’re right in the middle.”

 

Bandon Brewing Company

395 2nd Street SE, Bandon

541-347-3911

bandonbrewingco.com

Pohnpei | Part 7 | The Reality

By Michael H.Kew

Pohnpei dusk, November 2004. Photo: Kew.

ON SEPTEMBER 22, 2008, I received a promotional email from World Surfaris. The subject line was “Micronesia is about to fire!” and the text inside began with: “The swell is starting to brew in the Northern Pacific, the upcoming Pohnpei surf season is about to kick off next month. P-Pass has been unridden since last season and is ready to turn on. The crew of Pohnpei Surf Club eagerly anticipate the first surfers of the new season to arrive to share their tropical surfing paradise. Pohnpei offers a great balance and variety of waves for intermediate and advanced surfers, not just pit hungry pros. Pohnpei Surf Club have capped the surfer numbers to 20 for your enjoyment! That means NO CROWDS and MORE WAVES.”

Palikir Pass + 20 surfers = no crowds didn’t compute because, although PSC was somewhat limiting its number of guests, there were also the island’s resident surfers, plus the surfers from Nihco, plus the guys doing it on their own, using local fishermen to reach Palikir.

“It’s the slippery slope of exploitation,” Mike Sipos told me. “Once things get pushed to a certain point, they tend to spiral out of control and it becomes a free-for-all. That’s the reason places need to be respected for what they are before foreigners come in and turn them into something else.”

The seven spots listed on PSC’s website are Palikir Pass, Sokehs Pass (which is actually Main Pass, a swell-magnet), Easy Pass (actually Lighthouse, best with summer typhoon swells), Freddos (the normally windblown left at Mwahnd Pass), Sondens (Mwahnd’s equally windy right), Spaghettis (the ultra-rare left at Ohwa Pass), and Russell’s Rights (the soft right at Nan Madol). Though Pohnpei’s spots were already named and pioneered by others, PSC went public and claimed the names of Easy Pass, Freddos, Sondens, and Spaghettis. “Russell’s Rights” was eponymous for Russell Hill, the Kiwi who wrote the erroneous Pohnpei Surf Report in 1998; the spot’s real name was and is Napali.

Palikir Pass, November 2004. Photo: Kew.

"SURF CAMPS ARE FINE as long as they don’t start thinking that they own the waves just because they provide a service,” photographer Ted Grambeau told me. “Saying you own the surf is like two fleas arguing over who owns the dog they live on.”

For surfing’s innate individualism and deliberate dodging of crowds, surf camps are a strange concept. But they serve a purpose.

“Surf camps are great for a guy who’s an executive who’s got two weeks per year to pack in as much surf as he can,” said Randy Rarick, a famously hard-core traveler and director of the North Shore’s annual Triple Crown series. He has never been to Pohnpei. “The camps allow people who don’t have the time, the energy, or the wherewithal to maximize their surf experience. I think there should be a thousand surf camps where people could go and enjoy the surfing experience in different places.”

Palikir Pass will never be what it was before November 2004. Even with its tiny crew of dedicated tube-addicts, the wave still existed firmly on the fringe and was a private haven for those in the know. But now everyone knows. Palikir is the latest addition to the elite world right-hand ranks of Jeffrey’s Bay, Nias, and Lance’s Right. It’s the same thing that happened to Tavarua in 1984, though it took quite awhile longer for word to spread, because Palikir had the internet. It had surf forecasting sites, it had cell phones, it had a huge surf-travel world starving for something new to fixate on, something warm, hollow, and easy to reach. We’d all seen those green lefts of Indo, the blue bowls of the Fijis and the Tahitis and the Samoas—what else, besides Teahupo’o and Tavarua, was out there in Oceania? All those decades of surfers jetting across the Pacific to Indonesia or Australia or the Philippines, many flew right past Pohnpei and never gave it a thought. They didn’t know it was there. Many had never even heard of Micronesia despite it consuming 4.5 million square miles of the Pacific, which possibly made it the world’s most surf-rich fetch, with the largest number of reef passes, the most swell exposure, and the fewest surfers. Of course that’s fantasy, because all of Micronesia—Pohnpei included—is as fickle as they come. But Palikir Pass has always been out there, barreling flawlessly, when it was able, in total solitude.

Last May, when I asked for his opinion about how things unraveled on Pohnpei in the past five years, Kosrae’s Ken Miklos said: “I don’t think Allois should be dished for starting something that someone else would have if he hadn’t.”

Which begs the question: Would there be two surf camps on Pohnpei right now if Malfitani had kept his promise of never to expose or exploit Palikir Pass? Further, did the first media coverage of the wave by Gilley, Shamlou, and Grambeau accelerate the process? Their articles mentioned nothing about Palikir, Pohnpei, or Micronesia, but there were those images of Sokehs Rock. Grambeau: “Places will evolve regardless of my impact, but from my perspective, the slower the better.”

McIntosh, the guy who first surfed Pohnpei in 1971, reflects on the scenario with a hint of rue. “I’ve been back several times, but like any place, especially since they started the surf camp and they’ve got all the groups going there, it’s not as fun as it was before. I have friends here on Guam who go down to Palikir every now and then, and they say the same thing.” Hamilton: “When I heard about the surf camp, it broke my heart.”

The good doctor Miklos, on a zen path of his own, shrugs and accepts what has happened to the premier wave of his neighboring isle. For all he knows, it could happen to his. “There are still a lot of perfect waves here and in Pohnpei (State) that go unridden,” he said. “In fact, more that go unridden, by far. And it’s true Micronesia is no longer very secret, but I guess that happens everywhere.”

(Author's note: This story was written in June 2009 for The Surfer's Journal. Ken Miklos passed away in August 2015.)

  Photo: Federated States of Micronesia Visitors Board.

Photo: Federated States of Micronesia Visitors Board.

Pohnpei | Part 6 | The Backwash

By Michael H. Kew

  Photo: Federated States of Micronesia Visitors Board.

Photo: Federated States of Micronesia Visitors Board.

IN JUNE 2004 ALLOIS MALFITANI pledged on the record that his camp would only bring small groups of 6-8 to keep the impact and crowds low. This did not happen.

Dennis Gearhart was from Pennsylvania. In 2001 he moved to Pohnpei to teach math at the College of Micronesia. “When Allois came here in 2004,” Gearhart said, “I was just starting to surf. I knew nothing about the world of surfing, the rules, etiquette, etc. When I met Allois, he said he couldn’t understand why Mike Sipos was so upset, that he intended to keep the surf camp operation ‘low-key.’ Since then, I’ve seen his advertised surfer ‘limit’ go from eight to 18; I’ve seen film crews, dozens of magazine covers and articles, an ASP contest, a scaffold built on the reef, and now the guy has his camp on the postage stamps here.”

Not everyone is upset. Surfing photographer Rob Gilley put it this way: “It’s a situation where you want to claim the death of secret spots and the decline of Western Civilization, but it’s not applicable. My friend was just (at Palikir) and he said it was just them. Perfect barrels and no one around, just like in 2000. The only difference now is that you’re staying at a surf camp instead of a seedy motel, and your rides out to the reef pass are more dependable. Plus, it’s a boost to the local economy.”

Sipos tends to disagree. “I can give you photos of the PSC boats pulling up to Palikir packed with people,” he recently told me. “Even though that’s a universally accepted breach of surfing etiquette, those guys think that because they are the first to exploit the wave commercially, it gives them the right to disregard the rules that apply everywhere else. And by doing so, they give the middle finger to anyone who doesn’t stay at the surf camp, the average polite solo traveler or small groups who are often already there when PSC arrives each morning.”

Dennis Gearhart: “PSC brings money and tourists into Pohnpei, no question about it. But I don’t think you can judge the ethics of Chris’s and Allois’s actions based on that. Their motivation was not to help Pohnpei. It was to help themselves, and to do it, they had no qualms about walking over a handful of surfers who were already here.”

Historically the Palikir Pass channel bottom had repeatedly been pierced by the anchors of surfers’ and divers’ boats. This was not a desired effect on a pristine ecosystem. So in early 2004 Sipos requested Tyler McAdams, a volunteer employee at the Conservation Society of Pohnpei (CSP), to install a mooring buoy in the passage to eliminate need for anchoring. The mooring was placed where the water rushed off the reef adjacent to a sandy break in the coral. According to Sipos, when PSC arrived in November 2004, it began “monopolizing” the mooring, “very much the same as they are now doing with the entire surfing area.” Pre-PSC, the mooring saw light use by the local surfers. But with PSC came more boats, and there was no choice but to drop anchors onto the coral bottom. This concerned Sipos, who then boated CSP personnel out to the pass and arranged for the installation of two additional mooring buoys. “The other two were installed after Chris Groark yelled at me as I approached a PSC boat, skippered by Beru Mendiola, a friend of mine,” Sipos said. Sipos had been surfing alone at Palikir, left briefly to troll for fish, then returned after Brendan Margieson arrived in one of two PSC boats. It was January 19, 2005.

“Beru’s boat was tied to the mooring; Groark’s boat was floating in the lineup with Andrew Shield, who was taking photos. After Beru waved me up to tie off on his boat, Groark started shouting to him not to let me tie off. I shouted back that I was going to tie off on that buoy one way or another since I arranged for its installation and that I wouldn’t be intimidated or vibed off the spot.” Sipos went to CSP the next day and arranged for the installation of two more moorings that very week. They were placed on both sides of the original mooring; Sipos had personally picked the spots with divers in the water. “But on other occasions,” he said, “Groark has been cordial to me. The only time things got ugly was when he tried to call me off that buoy.”

  Photo: Federated States of Micronesia Visitors Board.

Photo: Federated States of Micronesia Visitors Board.

IN OCTOBER 2005, nearly a year after the camp’s inception, Mark Lovett set out to surf Palikir Pass. “Pohnpei was known elsewhere for its great women and for shipping marijuana out in taro plants,” Lovett told me, “so I knew it would be exciting.”

He shoved his surfboards and a mildewed duffel bag into a taxi and went looking for a hotel. Driving down the road in Kolonia, Lovett noticed a white guy in a truck with a boat in tow. He introduced himself to Mike Sipos, who said Lovett was welcome to stay at his house for free until he got his bearings. Lovett surfed Palikir the entire 2005-2006 season. He witnessed “about 50 pros” sampling its barrels. “All-in-all,” he said, “if the camps are giving a big portion of their profits to the local economy—like schools and hospitals and throwing big events for them—then it’s great. But unfortunately I had the opportunity to surf with Allois and Chris, not as a paying member, but as a hard-core feral who would get dropped off by a fisherman every day. They were totally cold to me, pricks who acted like I was not welcome to surf ‘their’ wave that they’d been shown by Sipos just a few years before.”

Despite all this, PSC has produced some happy guests, particularly those who lucked into good Palikir—never a sure thing. “Allois has all the qualities you would look for in a host and surf camp owner,” Henry Morales, director of Wavehunters Surf Travel, said. “He’s a genuinely nice guy who puts his guests first, is by nature unselfish both in and out of the water, and well-intentioned in his management of the Pohnpei Surf Club. I have gotten to know Allois through regular correspondence as well as from my time on Pohnpei, and he could best be described as a low-key family man.”

Several positive testimonials are published on the Wavehunters website. From Chris Ruotolo: “Thanks to all the boys—Allois, Chris, Sonden, Biro and Roro. The trip of my life. Best barrels and best time ever. Can’t wait to see you all soon”; from Donny Valenzuela: “Just had the best surf trip of my life. Insanely sick barrels, great crew, and great people. Thanks for giving us a taste of paradise. Allois and Chris, Sonden, Biro and Roro—you guys rock”; from Gary Elkerton: “Been around the world a million times. Seen the best waves in the world, but this trip was one of the best. P-Pass is fucking sick at two feet or eight-to-10, the place (is) unbelievable. To all the boys at the camp: great work.”

After the 2004-2005 winter and media frenzy, Steve Ware, like many surfers, learned about “P-Pass.” Ware was a stonemason in Narrabeen, a suburb in northern Sydney, Australia, where surf magazines were commonplace. Inside one he saw a World Surfaris ad for a surf camp in the “Caroline Islands” and the connection was made. The following year Ware chose Pohnpei over the Mentawais, where he visited annually, because the Mentawais charter boat he booked had caught fire and sunk.

In October 2006 he visited Pohnpei for 16 days with PSC. “I didn’t think the camp was very good value for the money,” Ware said, “and the service wasn’t very personal, but we did manage to have a good time.”

He scored Palikir. It set the hook, and plans were made to return for an extended period of time each winter, sans PSC, which to Ware was “just another expensive surf camp.” In the summer of 2007 he flew back to Pohnpei and spent three weeks determining how he could live on the island all winter. The idea was to return to the same house each season and invite his Australian friends to visit, stay, and contribute expense funds.

Damian Oswald was an old mate of Ware’s. He too was a solid surfer and Narrabeen fixture, a deep-sea fisherman who sought waves of consequence. To Oswald, Ware described Palikir Pass being “Backdoor crossed with a big Burleigh Heads pit,” which for Oswald was a dream come true. “It sounded like a spot to get to,” he said.

For their first extended trip, Oswald and Ware filled and filled and shipped a container with 30 surfboards, fishing tackle, a small jeep, a ping-pong table, and a 60-horsepower outboard to affix to a boat once they arrived. All they needed was a house. They met Wilbur Walter, the genial owner of Nihco Marine Park, a pleasant waterfront nook catering to swimmers and weekend picnic groups. It was a fine, wind-sheltered place to while an afternoon away. Amongst the mangroves, the park had an enclosed lagoon where coral fill was once dredged; it had inner and outer beaches for swimming. And it was located on the closest point of land to Palikir Pass, its waves visible from the camp bungalows.

A native Pohnpeian, Walter was married to a state senator and he owned an office supply business, retail shops, and a printing company. By FSM standards, he was financially sound. He knew Palikir Pass was a natural resource being singularly exploited by foreigners to whom, by birthright, Palikir did not belong; Walter was displeased about this and asked Ware if he would like to become an employee of his, entering the realm of Pohnpei surf tourism. “I declined and told him that I was not there for that purpose,” Ware said. “He asked me again and said he would buy whatever boat we suggested, within reason. I started warming to the idea of business and making an income surfing and looking after guests.”

Inside the park Walter built a nice two-bedroom bungalow for Ware and Oswald. There were plans for five more. Wilbur freely offered the use of his boat. “He said I could handle everything,” Ware said, “and all he wanted was the rental for his bungalows. Of course this has all changed now and he is after more than just rent. I think the general expectation from a local point of view is that a business of this kind should be very, very profitable. I think that is true, but maybe the fact that mortgages have to be serviced means that it could be five or 10 years before the business becomes profitable. Not everyone understands this point.” Nonetheless, Walter was optimistic; he invested more than US$1 million in the property. “(Palikir) is among the Top Ten places to surf in the world,” he told Guam Business magazine. “Every year there is a 10 percent increase of surfers coming to Pohnpei.”

And, perhaps inevitably, Palikir Marine Adventures was born. “There’s nothing wrong with a bit of competition, and Allois didn’t discover Palikir,” Oswald said.

(Written in June 2009.)

Pohnpei | Part 5 | The Kickoff

By Michael H. Kew

  Palikir Pass, opening day: Nov. 14, 2004. Photo: Kew.

Palikir Pass, opening day: Nov. 14, 2004. Photo: Kew.

ON THE SUNNY MORNING of Monday, November 8, 2004, after two weeks of exploring Palau, I sat in Guam’s airport awaiting my Boeing 737 cruise to Pohnpei. Continental Airlines Flight 958 would depart Guam at 10:20 a.m., with a 45-minute stopover at the Weno airport on Chuuk, 600 miles southeast.

In the prior months I exchanged emails with Mike Sipos, who suggested I stay at the rustic hilltop Village Hotel (now closed). Its expat owner gave me a discount. Sipos would be around if I wanted to go surfing. He also said Allois Malfitani’s surf camp was coincidentally slated to open the same week. I emailed Malfitani to see if it was indeed true. He said yes, and, by the way, would I like to write a story about it?

Seated across the Guam departure lounge were five Australian men who looked like surfers. Chuuk’s barrier reef had a lot of surf potential, I thought—maybe they were headed there? Doubtful. They were photographer Simon “Swilly” Williams and professional surfers Tom Innes, Craig Warton, and Rique Smith, plus Global Surf Guides’ David Scard (office manager of World Surfaris Kirra Surf). On behalf of Tracks magazine, Williams and crew were the first official guests of Pohnpei Surf Club (PSC), which Global Surf Guides advertised as “Caroline Islands.” Some of the men appeared a bit miffed at the sight of another surfboard bag (mine) on the Pohnpei airport carousel, but Williams and Warton were friendly to me. Our paths crossed vaguely in the ensuing week, mostly because they and Malfitani went for dinners at the Village Hotel, and there was an awkward moment or two when we all ended up at the Nan Madol ruins one flat, blustery afternoon. Palikir Pass was nonexistent, and throughout the week Williams’s crew surfed mediocre windswell at Mwahnd and Napali.

Things changed Sunday, November 14. A clean northwest swell rose, and the wind swung lightly from the southeast. The sky was blue and cloudless. Sipos, his 2-year-old son Andrew, FSM lawyer Shaun Simmons with his wife Felicia, and I headed out in Sipos’s Mako 238. Palikir was sheet-glass, six feet, and going off. Malfitani, his PSC crew, and Williams’s group were all in the water, along with a few Seventh Day Adventist kids. It seemed crowded but I paddled out and caught a few. Later, sitting in the shade under the bimini of Sipos’s boat, pondering the new surf camp, watching Williams document the pros in idyllic overhead blue barrels, I turned to Sipos and said: “You know what, Mike? This is it. We’re witnessing the beginning of the end for Palikir.”

It all added up to one photogenic cannonball for Williams that spawned the February 2005 cover shot of Tracks, followed by a 10-page feature called “Sweet Caroline” of which the magazine screamed: “World Exclusive!! The New Indo—Hundreds of islands, thousands of waves, not a surfer in sight…Welcome to the newest, sweetest surfing destination on Earth—the Caroline Islands.” Tracks called the wave “P-Pass” and said it was in the Pacific; the article, like Shamlou’s in TSJ, included two photos of Sokehs Rock and one of Nan Madol. In the back of the magazine was a Global Surf Guides ad that read, “Introducing the Caroline Islands—New Surf Camp.”

News of the Tracks trip spread like wildfire. The surf media was hungry for a new elite tropical right-hander, and Palikir was it. In December a team from Surfer was greeted by Malfitani in the Pohnpei airport. Waves, ASL, Surfing, Japan Surfing World, Fluir, Trip, Pacific, ESPN, Fuel TV, Rip Curl, Free Surf Hawaii, Hawaiian Skin Diver, and Surfing World soon followed.

“We fought hard and tried our best to protect it and save it, but greed prevailed,” Ben Schroer told me. “With the greed came harsh, destructive feelings. The next time I surfed with Allois at Palikir, where earlier that year I’d taken him to four times for free, he deliberately dropped in on me in solid six-foot swell. My friends witnessed it. Then Allois said to me, ‘Go learn how to surf, and stay the fuck away from my wave.’”

From obscurity, Palikir Pass was tossed onto the world stage. Malfitani named his business “Pohnpei Surf Club,” and a quick online search of “P-Pass” or “surfing Caroline Islands” revealed the island’s name. Malfitani’s fleet of pangas had “Pohnpei Surf Club” written on both sides. Even Surfer magazine, featuring Palikir (and another shot of iconic Sokehs Rock) in the July 2005 issue, called it “Ponapei” in the article’s opening photo caption. Quickly, Palikir Pass became the surf media’s worst-kept secret.

The wave became the subject of several commercial film shoots, most infamously the one in January 2006 that became part of “One Track Mind,” directed by Chris Malloy and released by Woodshed Films in October 2008. Controversy erupted in mid-2006 when, after Malfitani’s and a local fisherman’s urging, Malloy and his filming partners built an illegal scaffold on the reef at Palikir to afford Malloy’s filmers a frontal angle on the wave while it was surfed by Andy Irons, CJ Hobgood, Sunny Garcia, Tom Curren, and Mark Occhilupo. Still photos of the project were published in Surfing magazine’s “Trip of the Decade” feature in its June 2006 issue. The November 2007 “Filmmakers” issue of Surfing contained a photo of Malloy atop the scaffold.

An employee of environmentally-conscious Patagonia, Inc., Malloy was branded a hypocrite, issued considerable heat from incensed Pohnpeians and dozens of others worldwide in a thread on Surfer’s website. The thread was later deleted. At the time of this writing, Malloy was not available for comment, though in an email to Sipos on July 11, 2006, Malloy wrote, “I will never argue that I should not have taken the camp’s or the local fisherman’s promise that it was alright (to build the scaffold). I never should have.”

Malloy redeemed himself. “I think it’s worthy to note,” Ben Schroer said, “that Chris Malloy is the only surf pro who has ever done anything for Pohnpei to show some gratitude and put forth an effort to help the local culture in a sustainable way.” Schroer and Malloy organized the September Swell Hits Gstaad charity event held September 6, 2006, in New York City. It was a successful fundraiser for Schroer’s cousin’s organization, MAHI International, which was thus able to give free health screening and solar energy technology to Pohnpei and Sapwuahfik Atoll. “For the record,” Schroer said, “Chris told me that when he built his scaffold, all four of its legs were on sandy locations among the coral, not touching reef anywhere. I believed him, and although this didn’t make it okay to do something illegal in Pohnpei, it was PSC who told him it was okay to do so, and when he did it, I think that he did it in a conservative and appropriate manner.”

Between the hundreds of PSC guests, the magazine and surf company photo shoots, and the film crews, in February 2007 Palikir Pass hosted the Inaugural Hobgood Challenge (IHC), an ASP North America-sanctioned specialty event at the so-called “craziest right-hander in the world.” The IHC crew was hosted by Malfitani. The event became a major feature in Surfing and Stab magazines, the former including a full-length DVD with its June 2007 issue. Neither Pohnpei or Palikir were mentioned in the event’s widespread coverage. “Our destination,” Surfing’s Matt Walker wrote, “is one of the freshest finds in the sport— barely a few years old—yet already lauded as a world-class right by past visitors such as Pancho Sullivan and Kieren Perrow, whose guestbook entry brags he ‘spent more time looking out of the tube than in.’ Unfortunately, there’s even more messages sadly scrawling, ‘Sorry we didn’t get to see what she can really do.’” The IHC itself had generally fair-to-poor waves, and to date is the only surf contest to be held on Pohnpei.

In the past few years, Palikir has entered the mainstream media, including Wikipedia, NBC, the BBC, and Apple, who, in its recent marketing campaign for the MacBook Pro, used a Grambeau photo of Shane Dorian (the same photo made the July 2007 cover of Surfing). “The Apple campaign started with my being sponsored by one of their photo software products called Aperture,” Grambeau told me. “During one of the photo tradeshows, where I was invited to give a slide show, (Apple) expressed interest, and it just went from there.” Surf photos of Palikir by Grambeau and Andrew Shield have also been featured on FSM postage stamps.

In its February 2009 issue, National Geographic Adventure listed Pohnpei as one of its “Best Island Vacations.” In “Catch the Greatest Wave on Earth,” Meg Noonan wrote that Palikir “is one hell of a wave,” and quoted Aussie pro Dylan Longbottom as saying Palikir is “by far the best right in the world.” It’s safe to say Longbottom hasn’t surfed every right in the world, but surfing, concluded Noonan, was the best reason to visit Pohnpei.

Pohnpei | Part 4 | The Seeds

By Michael H. Kew

  Dylan Longbottom. Photo: Mike Sipos.

Dylan Longbottom. Photo: Mike Sipos.

IT'S SIMPLE—the scenic flight over the Pacific and its myriad atolls. United's thrice-weekly service from Honolulu/Kosrae (or four times weekly from Guam/Chuuk) puts you at Pohnpei International Airport, three miles east of Palikir Pass. You get your passport stamped, retrieve your bags from the carousel, drive to a hotel, unpack, and hope for stand-up barrels by sundown. This basic mode of surf travel occurs daily in Hawaii, Australia, Indonesia, Mexico, wherever. But the world is huge, the oceans somewhat infinite. Each day, millions of tropical waves break unseen. Anyone with time, money, and moxie can find them, and those willing to endure risk are sometimes rewarded with sublime lineups unlike the banal beaches at home.

Allois Malfitani was knew that. In 1986 the jovial goofyfooter was 24, living in Florianópolis, Brazil, skateboarding the city streets and surfing the scenic adjacent beachbreaks. Days passed quickly—life was good, but he knew it could be better. Brazil was home but, surf-wise, it had limitations.

That October, Malfitani was casually thumbing through the new issue of National Geographic; a large color photo on page 478 made him stop and stare. It was an aerial view of Kosrae’s airport, lines of whitewater wrapping around its barrier reef, with three passes—and more whitewater—clearly visible to the southwest. Malfitani knew nothing of Kosrae or Micronesia. Yet the hook was set, and he sensed opportunity in the Pacific. Ascending from Brazil in 1992, Malfitani landed on Oahu, where, after obtaining his green card, he managed the front desk in Mark Foo’s Backpackers hostel at Waimea Bay. The Brazilian was gregarious and charming, an endearing host.

Eight years passed. Good times. Eventually Malfitani realized there was more to life than surfing the crowded North Shore. That Kosrae airport photo from the ‘86 National Geographic was etched in his brain. They were so enticing, really, those three reef passes and the rights bending around the pale coral encircling the island’s tarmac, 3,000 miles from Oahu, certainly emptier than Haleiwa. Conveniently, Honolulu International Airport was the eastern hub for the Continental (now United) island-hopper path—heading west from Honolulu, the first three stops were Majuro, Kwajalein, then Kosrae. Malfitani saw the route map and smiled.

Arriving on Kosrae in the summer of 2000, Malfitani met Dr. Ken Miklos, an expat Southern Californian dentist who for a few years had had the island’s waves to himself. Miklos gave Malfitani a tour of Kosrae’s fickle surf spots. Unfortunately the airport wave was flawed and not Kosrae’s wave of choice; for Malfitani, it couldn’t justify a long-term stay. But only 300 miles west, an easy one-hour flight, the next stop on Continental’s island-hopper ticket was Pohnpei. It was worth a look. But before he left, Miklos made Malfitani swear that, despite seeing nothing world-class, he would tell nobody—his North Shore friends, especially—about what he saw on Kosrae.

Once on Pohnpei, Malfitani asked around. Many Pohnpeians knew Sipos was a surfer, seen trailering his boat with surfboards strapped to the bow rail; colleagues saw his office walls covered with surf photos. Malfitani heard Sipos’s name and opened the Pohnpei phonebook. He called Sipos at home. “I told him he’d come during the wrong time of the year and wasn’t going to find surf,” Sipos said. “I then gave him the details about when and where it breaks during the season, and he returned the following March. I took him out and showed him Palikir Pass. We surfed together quite a bit that season and the next.”

Malfitani then befriended Scott Dodd and stayed at his house for a nearly a month. Malfitani returned each year for three weeks, occasionally with friends. In 2002 he arrived alone. In 2003 he went with two friends who had been installing cell phone towers around Hawaii. Throughout, Malfitani solemnly pledged to Sipos and others, like Miklos and Dodd, he would not expose or exploit Palikir Pass. He said he intended to retire on Pohnpei and would shield the wave from the public eye.

GEOGRAPHICAL ISOLATION, bad infrastructure, and cultural values emphasizing sociality over financial prosperity have stunted Pohnpei’s economic growth. For now, the island’s economy revolves around commercial long-line tuna fishing by Asian fleets; each year, the FSM receives nearly $30 million for license fees from foreign vessels. High rainfall and rugged terrain aren’t conducive to large-scale agriculture, either, and Pohnpei’s main source of revenue comes from—you guessed it—the United States. Since 1986, under its Compact of Free Association, America pays around $100 million annually to the FSM, about a quarter of that going to Pohnpei’s government.

On February 21, 2004, Allois Malfitani and Chris Groark, a tall, lanky, twentysomething Southern Californian, flew from Honolulu to Pohnpei. It was Groark’s first trip to Micronesia. Ben Schroer’s parents were also inside the plane. Once on the ground, Schroer’s father noticed Groark and Malfitani had surfboards, and was quick to introduce them to his son as soon as they exited the baggage claim. It was a beautiful, sunny day. Ben Schroer was stoked to see the surfers and said they could contact him should they need a free boat ride to Palikir Pass. Forty-eight hours later Malfitani rang Schroer and asked if they could catch a ride; Schroer was skippering a 29-foot fishing boat, so he said yes. En route to Palikir the trio talked about how good the wave was, but once they arrived, the wind was onshore and the surf was flat.

While trolling for fish on the way back to port, Malfitani turned to Schroer and said, “Aren’t you scared about the surf camp that Mike Sipos is going to start?” Schroer looked at him blankly. Malfitani mentioned Shawn Shamlou’s then-recent “Meganesia” article in TSJ, and said it was printed to subtly expose Palikir to the surf world to incite awareness and publicity about a camp that Sipos was founding. Schroer assured Malfitani that he was wrong. “Allois then pushed further and asked me, ‘Well, why wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t you?’” Schroer replied: “Obviously not. That would ruin it.”

Sipos assumed Malfitani was acting preemptively to convince other Pohnpei surfers that a surf camp was inevitable—in other words, an excuse for why it was suitable for Malfitani to start one. “He was trying to temper opposition,” Sipos told me. “Never did I say I intended to start a camp, nor did I ever plan to do so. Rather, in a conversation with him in 2001, when the subject of potential future commercial exploitation of Palikir Pass came up—as it occasionally did between all of us—I said that if it was going to happen, I ought to be the one to do it as I was best-equipped. It was during that same conversation when Malfitani first promised he’d never start a surf camp, keeping with his many subsequent assurances of not exposing Palikir. I had the time, resources, and experience to open a surf tourism business, but it wasn’t something I ever wanted to see happen.”

Schroer took Malfitani and Groark to Palikir thrice more before their time came to leave Pohnpei. During the final return boat ride, Schroer desired clarity. “I knew Allois lived on the North Shore, so I said to him, ‘You guys are never going to tell anyone about this, right? I mean, this is a secret you have forever. You have a free place to stay here, you have a boat to use, and as long as it stays a secret, the wave will always be a sanctuary.” Malfitani and Groark quickly agreed, promising Palikir would “always stay a secret” and they would “do anything to protect it.”

“That was all I needed to hear,” Schroer said.

The three men exchanged email addresses and phone numbers, made plans for next time. Unbeknownst to both Schroer and Sipos and everyone else on Pohnpei, however, Malfitani was in the process of applying for a foreign investment permit (FIP), which he was granted on June 14, 2004, to start “a new adventure eco-tourism business.” His permit was issued for something called Hi-Point Adventures, but he and Groark would be doing business as Pohnpei Surf Club (PSC), with one restrictive condition: “Grantee shall not manage, operate, and own hotel or similar facility in the State. Instead, it shall secure with the local providers place for the guests and tourists to stay.” So he sublet rooms from the decaying Misko Beach Hotel on the mangroved shore of Sokehs Bay, aside the airport’s runway. From Misko it was a 15-minute boat ride to Palikir Pass. Malfitani wanted to have a larger operation, but his permit was limited, so he had no choice.

“I couldn’t believe these were the same two guys who vowed to keep Palikir a secret,” Schroer said. “The same guys who had talked about coming back over the next decades and surfing perfect waves with a few friends. Chris told me, ‘Dude, next year I’m going to call you ahead of time and plan. I’ll crash at your pad and we’ll just cruise with your boat.’”

For answers, Schroer rang Groark in late June. Fifty cents per minute to call the U.S.

Schroer: “Chris, it’s Ben.”

Groark: “Hey, dude—how’s it?”

Schroer: “So, is it true? Are you guys really starting a camp?”

Groark:  “Yeah, man. It’s what we see as best, but we’re going to do it real low-key and make sure that it never gets crowded—not more than six to eight guys, ever.”  

Schroer: “How can you do this, Chris? You have it all. You know where the spot is, you can come back the rest of your life and surf it perfect with your friends. How is that not enough?”

Groark: “Ben, you know (Palikir) is a goldmine, and we’re not going to let anyone else get it before us.”

Groark then tried to justify the reasons why and how he would manage the camp maturely and properly: by limiting the numbers. “He even tried to persuade me into thinking that if I had enough money to invest,” Schroer said, “I would’ve done the same thing.” He “bitterly and sadly” tried to persuade Groark that a surf camp was wrong, that it was a blatant exploitation of foreign resources. Then Schroer’s 20-minute phone card expired.

Churning interest ahead of the camp’s opening, GlobalSurfGuides.com detailed seven passes, claiming all of them to be of good quality—lefts, rights, multiple possibilities. “It was false advertising since everyone who had surfed Pohnpei knew there was one wave—Palikir Pass—that held the trade wind at bay,” Schroer said. “Every other pass was onshore and horrible during the winter months, but (the camp) still advertised as if people would get this diversity of waves.”

In an email to his Kosrae friend Ken Miklos on May 22, 2004, Malfitani wrote: “Come on—what are you thinking about all this? The camp in Pohnpei is happening for sure. It is going to be a small operation carefully catering for six to 10 guests. I could have media from all over coming out there for exposure of my business, but I am not. I have the high end clients ready to come.”

To which Miklos replied: “I think you’re going to destroy one of the last classic uncrowded surf locations…What, you’ve had enough uncrowded, perfect days there that you're ready to turn it into Hawaii-style crowds where everybody is scrambling for just one wave to themselves? You’re the last person who I thought would do something like this. After all the things you said about keeping it pristine and secret. I think you’re a stupid greedy bastard that, yes, will make some money initially on your lame exposure of our surf, but only initially. You can’t own our resources above the reef. But you certainly can ruin them for a handful of locals, future visitors, and yourself. Allois, why don’t you just shoot yourself in your foot? It makes the same amount of sense as starting your surf camp here. One doesn’t shit where one eats, but that’s what you’re doing.”

Malfitani’s reply: “On the last 2 month there were 3 articles about the FSM on 3 different magazines. There are 5,000,000 surfers in the world. Lots of them are not stupid, and have a lot of money. It is going fast now Ken. How long do you think it will take for them to come? I would not give more than one season. Someone once told me, that if anyone was ever going to do this kind of business in Pohnpei, it was going to be he [Sipos], not me. It hurts to loose a great business opportunity, specially after so much time spend advertising, just in case you were never told of this side of the story. If there had not been all this exposure, I would never had done it. What would really hurt would be me not do it now, and see someone doing it 6 month down the road. This is what I know how to do. It is going to be a clean and organized operation. I won’t need to make a article on a magazine for people to come because I already have my clients.” Malfitani then suggested Miklos start a surf camp on Kosrae “before someone else does it.”

(Author's note: In June 2009, when I wrote this story, my requests to interview Malfitani were ignored.)

Pohnpei | Part 3 | The Murmurs

By Michael H. Kew

Palikir Pass, 2003. Photo: Mike Sipos.

NEAR 2 P.M. ON February 19, 2000, Rob Gilley aimed his telephoto Canon lens off the bow of Smell the Glove, Mike Sipos’s 17-foot Boston Whaler Montauk®. The boat was named after a Spinal Tap song and the Pohnpeian practice of wearing a fish-stenched glove to pull lines from the water.

Click-click-click.

Gilley was shooting something special.

Click-click-click-click.

July—five months later. It was in every surf shop, bookstore, and Muzaked 7-11. “Dan Malloy in the secret South Pacific” was the small incorrect (Pohnpei is in the North Pacific) caption on the lower left corner of the cover of Surfer’s annual oversized summer issue, 316 pages of “Epic Surf Adventure” crowned with Gilley’s photo of the California regularfoot gouging the back half of his surfboard into a tropical-blue right wall, the lip line behind him cradling a perfect tube. Inside the magazine was a 12-page feature called “Simple Procedure,” written and shot by Gilley, showcasing the young Malloy and his Laguna Beach goofyfooted friend Mike Todd trading perfect barrels alone at the same “secret” spot. Gilley, one of the best in the business, had woven a new dream for readers worldwide.

We wanted to know where the wave was. It was in the Pacific, but the almond-eyed islanders in Gilley’s photos precluded the wave from being Melanesian. And the island was rugged—Gilley didn’t visit an atoll, so that nixed Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. Polynesia? Perhaps. But Gilley said English was the island’s national language, and that disqualified everywhere between New Caledonia and the Archipiélago de Juan Fernández.

In the story Gilley wrote about going to Barnes & Noble, where he’d found just one travel book about “the area,” so I too visited Barnes & Noble to view its Pacific titles. Only one was about Micronesia; English-speaking bits of Micronesia were the Republic of Palau, the Territory of Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, and the FSM. I knew Gilley’s shots weren’t of Guam, because Guam had an active surf population. Later, my friend in Palau confirmed no pro surfers had been there, and suggested Gilley’s shots were likely from the FSM—Pohnpei, to be exact.

In March 2002 I was in the lunch room at Surfer awaiting a slide show by then-photo editor Jason Murray. Sam George, and Ross Garrett were there chatting with Surfer’s then-associate editor Carl Friedmann about a solo trip he’d just taken, something about a perfect right-hand barrier reef pass bowl off a mysterious Micronesian isle. At a pause in the conversation, I asked: “Where’d you go, Carl?”

“Pohnpei.”

“Good?”

“Yeah.”

The lights dimmed and slide show began. Friedmann left midway through. That night, I emailed Dan Malloy.

“It was Pohnpei,” he replied. “The wind can be bad, but if you get it clean, you’re in for a treat.”          

Shawn Shamlou, an environmental project manager from San Diego, flew to Pohnpei with his artist friend Michael Cassidy in February 2003. Their trip resulted in an eight-page The Surfer’s Journal feature called “Meganesia” and it was the first media exposure of Palikir Pass since Gilley’s in Surfer four years prior. “It doesn’t matter where it is, though, even if I told you,” Shamlou wrote in TSJ. “Know why? Because you are not going there…(it’s) one of those places that’s too expensive to justify in light of other more dependable wave zones…Aussies won’t come here; Indo is closer and tremendously cheaper and more consistent.”

Page 57 of Shamlou’s article showed a photograph of Sokehs Rock, a famous Pohnpei landmark, proof of his story’s locale. Also included were four photos from Gilley’s 2000 Surfer trip. But how did Shamlou find Palikir? “I figured it out from a Nature Conservancy magazine,” he told me. “The airport, lagoon, and steep topography were big clues. Around the same time, Cassidy had been wanting to explore Micronesia, and we agreed Pohnpei would be worthy. Gilley’s Surfer article confirmed it.”

“Gilley was in a skiff he had hired, holding a camera, when Sean Stratton and I pulled up in my Whaler late one weekday afternoon,” Sipos told me. “Dan and Mike Todd were the only guys out. I yelled to Gilley that he was breaking my heart, and that his group was the first time I’d encountered other surfers in the water since my arrival almost two years before.”

Sipos paddled out and chatted amicably with Malloy and Todd; they and Gilley later dined with Sipos at his home near Kolonia. “I filled them in on the whole deal after Rob agreed that they would all keep it under wraps, which they did,” Sipos said. “I showed them videos and stills, the whole shebang. Those guys embodied what surfing and surf travel should be about, and I was glad to share it with them.”

Via Gilley, Shamlou contacted one of the Pohnpei surfers mentioned in Surfer: Mike Sipos, though Gilley did not write his last name in the article. In TSJ Shamlou referred to Sipos as “Jude,” Sipos’s middle name. I asked Shamlou for “Jude’s” email address, and on the grounds of secrecy, Sipos said he would be happy to meet me and take me out to surf Palikir.

In the late 1990s Gilley was Surfer’s photo editor; he’d tracked the Pohnpei scent from inside the magazine’s drafty gray San Juan Capistrano warehouse—all editions of the now-defunct Surf Report lay within. On lunch breaks Gilley ditched his light table for the steel shelves to lose himself in the printed-guide world of waves. Naturally he saw the Surf Report’s February 1998 issue about Pohnpei, written and photographed by a Kiwi named Russell Hill. Hill’s spot descriptions were grossly inaccurate—he even named a spot after himself, one Bruce Talley and others had been riding for years. He also claimed Pohnpei’s best surf season was summer.

South swells in Pohnpei are rare—the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea are in the way. The calmest months are August and September, when Pohnpei has light wind patterns and plate-glass seas unless tropical disturbances sweep by. Autumn is transitional, with intensifying rain, wind, and swell, which almost never arrive until Halloween. Winter is windy, with sustained trades from the east or northeast in the 20 mph range almost every afternoon. Unfortunately the windiest season coincides with the biggest swells; onshores for most spots are the norm, and the rainfall can be overwhelming.

Though the Surf Report described eight surfable reef passes, only one of them would be considered real. “The other spots,” Sipos told me, “are either too far away, too windy, too inconsistent, too shallow, unmanageable because of tides, currents, and boat anchorage/access issues, or unworthy as to wave shape. Whereas Palikir Pass is the gem from all angles and is so much better than every other spot. It is the magnet, and in reality is the only ‘true’ surf spot on Pohnpei.”

Rob Gilley knew this. Augmenting intel from a Tavarua boat driver who’d competed in a Pohnpei fishing tournament, there was the conversation with his Oceanside, Calif.-based dentist. A diehard scuba enthusiast, Dr. Bridges had visited Pohnpei and to Gilley described the shapely waves he’d seen at Palikir, an obscure diver’s paradise with superior visibility and copious marine life, the pass itself more than a half-mile long and 135 feet deep at its center. The bottom was more than 300 feet deep on the outside, and the currents could be severe, especially during the large winter swell which transformed Palikir into a surfer’s paradise.

“Pohnpei opened the world to me,” Gilley said. “It made me realize most surfers were sheep, and what you really wanted to be was a shepherd. To paraphrase Ted Grambeau, anybody who thinks that all the best waves in the world have been discovered hasn’t been looking.”

Grambeau first went to Pohnpei in the late 1990s—maybe 1998. He doesn’t recall. But he was alone, just scouting the setups; he had many frequent-flyer points with Continental Airlines. “The surf was pretty good,” he said, “but it rained the whole time I was there. I then studied rainfall patterns of the area and found it was one of the wettest places on Earth. I shelved any immediate plans for a full-scale surf trip.”

Soon Grambeau saw Gilley’s Surfer article. “Straight away I knew where it was despite no indication given in the article,” he said. In January 2004 Grambeau photographed Mick Fanning surfing Palikir during a three-day trip urged by swell models. “With Fanning, it was just a quick raid, deliberately keeping it low-profile as there were already regular surfers from Guam and Australia and the U.S. by that stage. There was absolutely no advantage for me to pinpoint its location.” An eight-page feature called “Clean Getaway” graced Issue 189 (April 2004) of ASL; photo editor Lee Pegus and the cagey Grambeau tried to stump readers by including a portrait of wild-haired Papua New Guineans and an aerial photo of Chuuk’s barrier reef.

Five years earlier, another Australian surf magazine (Tracks?) had shown Pohnpei via photos of small waves shot in summer; the feature was unmemorable. And the sole prior surf-media mention of Pohnpei appeared in the April 1986 issue of Surfer—photographer Erik Aeder had island-hopped from Guam back to his home on Maui, spending a week on Pohnpei (in Surfer he called it “Ponape,” the island’s name until 1984). It was summer, so he saw no surf, though he had heard good things about it. In his mistitled article “Melanesia,” Aeder mentioned the ruins of Nan Madol and included a photo of women and handicrafts in Pohnpei’s Polynesian village of Pohrakiet. His surf photos were from a different island.

In the four-year gap between Gilley and Grambeau, besides Pohnpei residents, Mike Sipos estimated Palikir hosted fewer than a dozen solo travelers—guys like Shamlou, Cassidy, Tony Pittar, Eric Havens, Friedmann, and Fred Mendiola—plus the temporary expat surfers: Ryo Aoki and Koyo Matsudaira from Japan, Dodd, Schroer, Stratton, Shaun Simmons, Dennis Gearheart, and Tyler McAdam from America. “But I should clarify that none of the magazine exposure came about at my urging or insistence,” Sipos said. “I didn’t initiate any of it. The photographers, writers, and pro surfers came on their own and contacted me, not the other way around. It was called sharing stoke and spreading aloha, which is something I did for every visitor who came along including, most notably, Allois Malfitani.” 

Pohnpei | Part 2 | The Sequents

By Michael H. Kew

Ben Schroer and his unexpected employment perk. Photo: Mike Sipos.

MIKE SIPOS WAS A Californian-cum-Floridian who, in 1986, after a five-week stint teaching windsurfing at Club Med in the Dominican Republic, chose to practice law. He graduated from the University of Miami and in 1990 moved to Los Angeles, where he worked eight years at Haight Brown & Bonesteel.

May 1998, nighttime, beachfront Santa Monica. Online, Sipos saw an ad seeking a lawyer to serve as general counsel to the Supreme Court of the Federated States of Micronesia—the national capital complex in the town of Palikir on Pohnpei. Sipos knew nothing of Pohnpei nor the FSM. After scribbling the job contact information onto a napkin, he reconsidered and dismissed bailing the L.A. law career he’d worked so hard to get. An hour passed. Sipos crumpled the napkin and threw it into the trash. Two days later, slogging through San Diego freeway traffic, looking at the smog, the cars, the concrete, the frowns and the billboards, he had a daydream. Bailing the rat race for an exotic isle sounded good, didn’t it?

That night he went online but couldn’t find the FSM ad; trash-can digging revealed the suddenly valuable napkin. In the end, Sipos got the job: a one-year contract.

He landed on Pohnpei—another planet—in June 1998. The surf was flat. Using the 17-foot Boston Whaler he’d shipped from Long Beach, Sipos explored the pristine reef passes, fishing and envisioning waves breaking where no crowds existed. By August he’d met one of the two other surfers on island. This was Weston Yap, a Hawaiian in the Peace Corps; he’d landed on Pohnpei in May 1997 but had yet to surf Palikir. Sipos had Yap on standby for the first winter groundswell. But one day in early September, as Sipos boated out to hook tuna beyond Sokehs Pass, a flawless, head-high right rose and peeled sectionless over the length of reef, expiring into the channel. “I was blown away,” he said. “I couldn’t believe the waves could be that perfect without anyone knowing about them.” The sun seared his shirtless shoulders. Sipos knew his days in Los Angeles were done. Excel in the outpost law position, surf good waves, land big fish, marry the pretty local girl, make children, live happily ever after. Sipos reversed course, found Yap, and the two surfed that clean two-day typhoon swell. Yet six miles to the southwest and superior to Sokehs, Palikir Pass was empty.

By October Yap and Sipos had sampled the passes from Main down to the ruins of Nan Madol (translation: “Spaces Between”), an ancient and famous aquatic city of basalt logs. The two men rode small, clean waves at Mwahnd and Ohwa passes; later, Sipos encountered some Americans from Guam who’d arrived for a dive holiday. They experienced one dreamy session off the south end of the Madolenihmw harbor entrance at Napali.

A month later Sipos rode smallish Palikir Pass for his first time. With him were Yap and Mark Hepner, who had returned briefly to finalize his divorce from a local woman. Hepner had asked around, looking for someone to take him surfing. Sipos offered a board and a boat ride and in return Hepner introduced him to the glory of Palikir. “We pulled up to Palikir and it was solid, consistent, overhead and glassy—and empty,” Yap told me. “It broke so far out and bowled in so hard. It was amazing. Afterwards we actually looked for other surfers on Pohnpei because it’s creepy sitting solo in that lineup. The ocean has things jumping and swimming all around. But there was no one. It was just us.”

Yap finished his Peace Corps stint and left mid-1999. Shaun Stratton, an English professor employed by the College of Micronesia, arrived in August. Six weeks later, after occasionally surfing the reef at Nan Madol, Stratton’s colleagues said something about another surfer living on Pohnpei. Soon Stratton met Sipos in Rumors, the dingy waterfront pub. “Like a Little Leaguer excited about getting a hit,” Stratton said, “I described how fun my Nan Madol sessions had been. Mike listened impassively before interjecting. ‘The real wave is Palikir,’ he said, pointing northwest. ‘When it breaks, it’s world-class, and you and I are the only ones here to ride it.’” Sipos mentioned his Boston Whaler, “our taxi to the surf,” and for eight months Stratton and Sipos were the sole full-time surfers on the island; they surfed Palikir Pass every time it broke. (Bruce Talley surfed only the south coast spots.) In May 2000 Stratton left after a cholera epidemic closed the college.

Looking to recruit a lawyer who surfed, Sipos sent an email to friends in California. He found Scott Dodd, who was living in Hawaii. Dodd arrived on Pohnpei in August 2000 and stayed three years, tripling his one-year contract with the FSM Supreme Court. “The first time I surfed Palikir was with Mike within a week of my arrival,” Dodd said. “It was beautiful, slightly overhead on the sets—pretty mellow, not the bombs you see pictures of now. I could see the incredible colors of the reef, the fish. And we were the only ones out. In fact, there were no other boats of any kind, no other people at all. I was in disbelief—I could not believe how good it was.”

A year later, a skinny blond kid named Ben Schroer arrived from New Hampshire. He was a Seventh Day Adventist volunteer school teacher, not a surfer, but on Pohnpei he quickly became one, learning how to surf at windy, hollow Palikir Pass. It was nothing like Waikiki or San Onofre. Schroer progressed from blowing each drop to consistently pulling even the latest bombs—backside. For the first three to four years of his surfing life, he never once rode frontside; he got barreled backside before ever making a drop going left. He surfed Palikir consistently, usually alone or with Tyler, his buddy from the Peace Corps. Occasionally they would see Sipos out there, but their paths rarely crossed. “That’s how Palikir was,” Schroer said. “Our sanctuary. Those first two years, 19 times out of 20 we would be the only people in the water. The other one time out of 20, it would be Mike and one of his friends. One time Mick Fanning was out with us for a couple days. I asked him for some advice on how I could improve; his response was: ‘Just go for the barrel, mate.’ And that’s what I did.”

From 1999 to 2004, taking advantage of the Air Nauru flight straight from Guam, Ernie Nelson saw the world from Palikir’s biggest barrels more than anyone. He was committed to charging Palikir’s precision and made serious sacrifices to establish such a lifestyle. A Floridian landscaper initially hired to work at Leo Palace in Yona, Guam, Nelson met Sipos through Wade Olszewski, a Floridian friend of Sipos who in 1995 also moved to Guam. Nelson rang Sipos, and in March 1999 found himself deep inside Palikir Pass tube gluttony.

A civil engineer on Guam, Olszewski first saw the wave in 1996 during a panga tour of the lagoon with his girlfriend. He didn’t know it was a legit spot, but there was enough swell to pique his interest. “After I learned Palikir was a real wave,” he said, “it always amazed me that it wasn’t more exploited since the regular dive tours flew right over it and used the pass. But I guess a lot of divers don’t surf for fear of sharks. If you dove off the ledge at Palikir you’d see a bunch of grey suits down deep, but they’re well-fed out there and don’t need to come up for the surfers.”

With Olszewski, Nelson returned to Pohnpei in December 1999, lucking into two large, clean swells. “We were amazed,” Nelson said. “Then the rush was on for trying to score it as much as possible before the word got out. By that time, I’d done quite a bit of traveling, and I knew surfers would go anywhere there’s a wave, and with an international airport sitting right on top of Palikir, I knew it was only a matter of time.”

Pohnpei | Part 1 | The Antecedents

By Michael H. Kew

Palikir Pass, 2007. Photo: Mike Sipos.

THE AFFABLE MORT MCINTOSH, 68, was one of the first. It is unclear who, exactly, its first surfer was, but Pohnpei was cracked in the 1960s, possibly by someone from Guam, where surfing landed around the same time Kennedy defeated Nixon in the 1960 U.S. presidential election. Or it might’ve been a local. “There was a Pohnpeian guy who went to school in Hawaii, where he started surfing,” McIntosh told me. “He went back to Pohnpei and was surfing there way before anybody. I never met the guy—I just heard about him when I was there.”

For any Guam surfer like McIntosh, island-hopping was innate considering Continental Airline’s schedule, and so in February 1971 he spent three weeks on Pohnpei, surfing daily. The swell never dropped below eight feet. “People were surfing Main Pass the day I arrived,” McIntosh said. “I borrowed the hotel’s binoculars and I could see two guys who’d gotten dropped off by a fisherman. There was a shipwreck on the inside, and when they were done surfing, they came in and sat on the shipwreck and waited for somebody to pick them up.”

Years later he surfed Palikir Pass. But in ‘71, McIntosh simply made the rounds east, sampling Main Pass, Lighthouse, Mwahnd Pass, and a special little wraparound left near the Nan Madol ruins, courtesy of windswell. For one guy, it was more than enough surf, and McIntosh credited a local for the lead. “This Pohnpeian who I went to school with here on Guam, he came out with me a couple of times and saw the waves and said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got waves like that on Pohnpei, but they’re bigger and they’re farther out on the reef.’ So I did some research and got some charts that showed me what it looked like and where it was, and I said, ‘Okay, I’m going.’ I went down there, and he’d take me out and drop me off. I’d surf alone, he’d go spearfishing for two hours and catch all these giant fish, and we’d go in, eat, drink some sakau, and pass out.”

In 1980 another Guam surfer I’ll call “Chevy” surfed Pohnpei. He worked for Continental, so he’d seen the island’s surf from aloft; McIntosh also gave him a little insight. Not wanting to be directly quoted here, Chevy told me he didn’t surf Palikir but found good waves at what locals called “the old harbor,” the right-hander known today as Lighthouse. He’d hired a fisherman to take him to Nan Madol; along the way, blown-out windswell crumbled into the various eastside passes. But on the way back, as they motored around the north end of the lagoon, the wind switched and blew offshore into the wave at Lighthouse, which was “peeling.” The fisherman stopped, Chevy scored.

Alan Hamilton grew up in Palos Verdes, California, and moved to Santa Barbara in 1967, when he was 17. In 1971, a few months after Mort McIntosh surfed Pohnpei, Hamilton and partner John Bradbury became the first owners of a parcel (#55) in California’s Hollister Ranch, a secluded right-point dreamland where the regular-footed Hamilton surfed exclusively. A diehard sailor, he became a commercial fisherman, skippering Alamo, an old shrimp boat based in Santa Barbara Harbor, and in 1987 he hired an energetic Pohnpeian deckhand named Danny who was in the U.S. illegally. “After Pohnpei and those other islands got their independence in 1986,” Hamilton told me, “they hired this guy named Bill Bixler to go out and do a survey of the tuna. Bixler hired Danny, and when they were done surveying, they smuggled him back to Santa Barbara, and he started getting jobs on everybody’s boats.”

At Danny’s urging, Hamilton visited Pohnpei in early April 1991. He brought two surfboards with him and stayed at Danny’s house at the base of Sokehs Rock. “I got a map of Pohnpei and saw Palikir Pass on it,” Hamilton said. “I thought it looked like a good setup for surf. Danny was there with me, and he had a little boat, and I said, ‘Danny, take me out to this pass.’ We went out there, and it was just this dynamite wave.” Palikir was offering glassy, head-high sets. It was Hamilton’s second day on Pohnpei; he stayed two months.

One night Hamilton was in a smoky bar called Rumors, shooting pool with FSM president Bailey Olter. Olter offered Hamilton the job of skippering the 80-foot Kocho, a Japanese fishing boat seized while fishing illegally in Pohnpeian waters. Skippering sounded good, and he knew boats, so in June 1991 Hamilton returned to Santa Barbara and sold everything he owned, including Alamo and the Ranch parcel, in less than two weeks, because on Pohnpei, a new life of deep sea-fishing and Palikir-tuberiding awaited.

Not all went to plan. “The senator who was in charge of the project was from Mokil Atoll, like 100 miles from Pohnpei, and he had a store out there. I ended up just taking all of these sacks of rice and cigarettes and everything out to the senator’s little store instead of going fishing, like I was supposed to. I was supposed to do all these fishing trips and stuff, but never did.” Yet surfing was never far. Palikir was Hamilton’s main wave, but he surfed around the island, in all seasons. And he was always alone except the few times he took a visiting marine biologist out, or when he surfed Palikir with Mark Hepner, a Kauaian diver who exported tropical fish.

On April 9, 1994, Hamilton almost lost his left hand and forearm to an 8-foot bull shark. He was surfing at Palikir; it was a foot overhead and perfect, with nobody in sight. Around 2 p.m., he kicked out of wave, and started paddling back out. On his second stroke—BAM! “The shark came up from behind super fast and it was like a grenade went off in my arm. It was going in too fast; it bit and then it slid down my arm. The shark yanked me off my board and then went backwards off my arm with its jaw clamped down, scraping my flesh off down to my fingertips. It took all the tendons and it broke my bones—and I was way out there by myself at Palikir. My panga was parked on the reef, so I just caught a dinky wave with my one arm and glided on in to the boat. I was bleeding like crazy. The only chance I had was to get into town as quickly as I could.”

Hamilton’s boat had a paltry 9-horsepower outboard; the trip to Palikir from Kolonia took nearly 30 minutes. He managed to start the motor, untie the anchor, and head back toward town, but immense blood loss caused Hamilton to drift in and out of consciousness. “I went blind because all the blood went out of my head, so I laid down because I couldn’t see anymore. I figured that, hell, I was going to die, but when I was laying down, my vision came back, so I just stayed down and drove with my feet.” Hamilton’s boat crashed into the Micro Glory, a docked freighter that was about to depart for Kapingamarangi. The crew looked down, grabbed him, and rushed him to Pohnpei Hospital in Kolonia, where he remained for six days, receiving rudimentary but adequate care. He flew to Honolulu for further treatment at Tripler Army Medical Center, but the hospital would not accept him. So he rang Santa Barbara’s Cottage Hospital, which “couldn’t wait” to get him in. “They treated me like I was Mick Jagger,” he said. Cottage sought to specialize in orthopedic surgery, and Hamilton was a prime test subject; the hospital treated “the sharkbite guy” for free, and over the next four months he had four operations. The fingers of Hamilton’s left hand no longer functioned but, permanently stuck in an outward closed formation, he could still paddle, and in February 1995 he started surfing again. Back on Pohnpei, his blood-stained surfboard was nailed to a wall in Rumors, the lively bar among the mangroves at Sokehs Harbor.

In late 1995 Hamilton bought a 30-foot fiberglass boat and sailed it from Hawaii to Tahiti, where he stayed three years, doing essentially nothing. Via Yvon Chouinard, a friend of Hamilton’s, Chuck Corbett (of Kiribati) heard of him and invited him to Tarawa. The two sailed to Fanning Island in separate boats. It was the summer of 1999; Hamilton stayed for 18 months, surfing Whaler Anchorage and English Harbor. “He was 49 years old, smoking two packs a day, and surfing double-overhead waves alone,” Corbett said. “To this day, he is the most stylish surfer I have ever surfed with.” In 2001 Hamilton traded his small boat for a 40-foot sailboat and went to Hawaii. Today he collects disability checks and lives on the boat in Molokai’s Kaunakakai Harbor.

In the early 1990s there was another surfer on Pohnpei, but Hamilton never met him—he didn’t surf Palikir. Bruce “Whitey” Talley, a beatific tradesman and sarong-wearing hippie, lived near Wapar in the island’s remote southeastern jungle. He was the stepson of a Pan American World Airways captain stationed in Germany and France, where Talley lived until he was 17. He returned to the United States to attend college. It didn’t last, so Talley joined the Marines and ended up on Guam, where he met and married a Pohnpeian woman. A few years later he decided to meet her parents, so he took a week off from pipefitting and flew to Pohnpei on January 13, 1990. On tattered dirt roads it took nearly four hours to drive the 22 miles from the airport to Wapar, where her parents lived. Two days later his pregnant wife grew ill, so Talley stayed. He’d brought three windsurfboards and two surfboards “just to check it out,” he said, because in the ‘70s, a guy he knew on Guam, Mort McIntosh, said Main Pass “really smoked.”

Talley surfed the other side of the island, opposite Palikir, because that’s where he lived. Having no boat, Talley rode waves he could paddle to. “Well, here I was—Pohnpei,” he said about his first day on the island. “I go in her parents’ backyard and look out, and there’s smokin’ waves, right side, left side. Okay! But, here’s the big thing that people seem to forget: that fantasy about going out in the water, being the first one to go surf the place, and all that, that’s a bunch of horseshit. The simple fact is: it’s scarier than shit when you go out there. To be sitting out there and look down and see three sharks underneath you, let me tell you something, man, your heart goes really fast.”

Talley heard of Hamilton but never saw him because he was a south coast guy with no car; Hamilton was a north coast guy. His spot was Palikir. “Unfortunately for him,” Talley said, “when you’re at Palikir and the birds come, you’d better get out of the water, because the birds means the school is coming right onto the reef, and that means the sharks are following right after. He didn’t get out of the water, and he got nailed.”

Hamilton left in April 1994. “So it was back to me only,” Talley said. “Never did get to find anybody to go surf with. Then there was the guy from Hawaii, he was a fisherman. He came over here, I guess he got mixed up with a local girl, too—big total nightmare, man.” That was Mark Hepner, and from 1987 to 1997 he lived on Pohnpei, surfing Palikir and exporting tropical fish. He was a stylish regularfoot who occasionally surfed with Hamilton; he was unreachable at the time of this writing. Today Talley, 72, lives in a shack among mangroves near Nett Point. If he walks a hundred yards west he can see the right-hander at Lighthouse. There are often waves. Talley has no computer, television, or telephone. Life is sweet.

You No Eat This?

By Michael H. Kew

All photos: Kew.

MONDAY AT THE MALIBU OF AFRICA. Walid, a white Ivorian, is a black dot on his shortboard thruster a thousand yards from land, floating in the brown Atlantic off the tip of a luxuriant point. Sent here to die, long-period groundswells afford overhead tubes and lengthy walls that croak as closeouts near the mouth of a lagoon. This is where the elephants play. Twenty-two of them, big and small, young and old, spraying themselves with their trunks of water, trumpeting, flaunting tusks, wallowing in mud laced white with seafoam. Sociable elephants on a desolate beach backed by a deep-green rainforest unaffected by poaching or illicit logging. Here at the Malibu of Africa, Walid shuns the chaos of Abidjan, his home city, the decaying Paris of Africa, a hive of crime and cocaine. The elephants don’t notice the goofyfooted figure flirting with the wave, zipping along the glassy wall, smacking its lip, thrice burrowing into the barrel. He does this for them. The elephants. They squirt more lagoon water from their trunks as Walid is blasted with compressed tube spit, then bottom-turns and boosts a spectacular flyaway kickout over the closeout end section. Daily, the elephants see this wave. Right now, the Malibu of Africa is far better than California’s Malibu, where it is near midnight yesterday. In Côte d’Ivoire—the Ivory Coast—today has just begun.

THAT NEVER HAPPENED. No elephants on the beach. They are extinct.

Wartime dust seems unsettled as we leave a shaded alleyway home in the dense Abidjan commune of Marcory. Walid’s English is bad, his French accent thick. He chainsmokes his hand-rolled marijuana cigarettes. He is 35 years old.

In his olive-green Renault station wagon, we weave through Abidjan, pass a big cocoa-processing factory—the air smells of chocolate—and blast out onto the A100, Voie Express de Bassam, under a hazy bluey-brown sky. The road is paved but crowded and lawless, noisy and dirty and stinky and loaded with litter. Walid says that, during the civil war two years back, nobody could drive their cars in or around Abidjan. “Here was many war, many sniper. People getting shot everywhere.” He waves his left arm out the window. “Dead guys right here!”

We pass a gloomy French military camp, the 43rd BIMA (43rd Marine Infantry Battalion), ringed with razor wire. “They saved Ivory Coast,” Walid says. “If no intervention from this army, Côte d’Ivoire was finished.”

Flanking the A100 are several billboards in French and dozens of impromptu-looking stalls offering thousands of things for sale, almost everything imaginable for anyone with West African CFA francs. As in the rest of the Africa, the stuff is all the same—furniture, fruits and vegetables, lumber, clothes, tires, electronics, cell phones—things locals need, not tourists, because Côte d’Ivoire tourism is dead. During my trip, except for a few business travelers, I saw no foreigners.

At one of the road’s many checkpoints, a soldier stops us. Says he’s hot, implores Walid for cash for bottle of cold soda. Walid informs the soldier that I’m an American tourist, and it would look bad if he palmed money to the unsmiling man in fatigues holding a loaded AK-47.

“If the military and police see me, a white Ivorian guy, not from France, they like this,” Walid says as he resumes driving. “I born in Cocody (an Abidjan suburb) in 1977, my father Ivorian, my mother French. Côte d’Ivoire is many mixed. I have double nationality, Ivorian and French, but I don’t want just Ivorian. Ivorian passport I want for go Ghana, go Liberia, for go Dakar. Is good. No visa. My big passport is France. Is better for travel. Is nice.”

Two minutes later, we veer off into the dirt and stop in front of a yelping group of small, rag-clothed boys. Their arms and hands reach frantically into the car, pushing small cellophane-wrapped bundles of sugar cane at our faces, haggling with Walid. He buys two bundles and hands me one. “Good for chew, eh?” he says with a smile. “Delicious sweet.”

“Yeah, sugar highs are great. I think those boys agree.”

Aside from acres of coconut plantations, the road from Abidjan is essentially one long marketplace, stalls hawking all sorts of things. We stop aside one of the many roadside stalls to peruse a colorful spread of fresh, locally grown produce. In fertile Côte d’Ivoire, full of farms, such bounty prevails—nearly 70 percent of Ivorians work in some type of agriculture.

But no one really farms in Abidjan, and we’re happy to leave. Exiting one of Earth’s most dangerous cities is a retreat from pain, mental and physical. Muggings, robbery, burglary, and carjacking are common. The world’s third-largest French-speaking metro (after Kinshasa and Paris), Abidjan’s weary black heart throbs among the inlets and headlands that pierce Ébrié Lagoon. It is West Africa’s largest, covering a surface of 120,000 hectares, one of three long, thin lagoons that parallel the Ivorian coast. Once the pristine “pearl” of the country’s lagoons, the Ébrié is now a woeful cesspit of urban and industrial waste here in Côte d’Ivoire’s economic hub.

For its first 33 years of independence, under its first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny (“Very nice guy,” Walid says), Côte d’Ivoire was famous for its cultural harmony and robust economy, the latter due to Côte d’Ivoire’s status as the world’s leading cocoa producer and Africa’s main exporter of pineapples and palm oil. But when Houphouët-Boigny died from prostate cancer in 1993, a new president was needed, and the nation found itself struggling with its first democratic process and a new national identity, impeded by the divisive influence of the three Rs: region, religion, and resources.

Henri Konan Bédié, then-National Assembly President, succeeded Houphouët-Boigny, ruling until 1999, when he was overthrown by Ivorian military leader Robert Guéï in the nation’s first successful coup d’état. At issue was Bédié’s law, hastily drafted and approved before the 1995 election, that required both parents of a presidential candidate to have been born in Côte d’Ivoire.

Before the 2000 presidential election, Guéï sparked ethnic hate and xenophobia against his main political rival, Alassane Ouattara, who represented northern Côte d’Ivoire’s immigrants, particularly Muslim plantation workers from Mali and Burkina Faso. Due to the parenthood clause, Ouattara was disqualified from the election by his mother’s Burkina Faso heritage.

Guéï’s rule lasted just 10 months, but it marked the beginning of conflict in once-peaceful Côte d’Ivoire. Defeated by Laurent Gbagbo in the 2000 election, Guéï refused to concede, and it took a citizen uprising to topple Guéï and lift Gbagbo to power. Still, the discontent over discrimination and voting rights exploded in September 2002, when Ivorian military troops, many from the north, mutinied and launched attacks in several cities, including Abidjan. Guéï was killed the first night, and thousands more died in the conflict. Ending in 2007, the war led to the death and displacement of thousands of Ivorians.

Still, Côte d’Ivoire stayed split. French and UN peacekeepers routinely patrolled the buffer zone that separated the rebel-controlled north and the government-controlled south. Finally, in October 2010, after repeated delays, elections aimed at ending the conflict were held. But the vote sparked chaos when incumbent Gbagbo refused to concede victory to Alassane Ouattara, who won with 54.1 percent of the vote. It escalated into a full-scale military conflict between those loyal to Gbagbo and Ouattara’s people, and the ensuing stand-off stopped only when Ouattaran and French forces seized the Ivorian south, capturing and deposing Gbagbo. Since Ouattara’s inauguration in 2011, Côte d’Ivoire has remained somewhat stable.

Political tensions persist, however, namely via Gbagbo supporters, who launched violent attacks near the Liberian border in 2012 and 2013. Then, four months before my visit, municipal and regional elections held were generally quiet aside from incidents of localized violence when results were announced.

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CHILDREN SCREAM and wave as we rattle through another rural village, kicking up dust. “Michael, this is good,” Walid says, smiling, tapping the ash from his spliff. “The young good, happy. They look the white man—hello!” He waves his left hand at me. “Happy. After years of war, it’s very nice, you know? Future of Ivory Coast is good.”

The swell has jumped. Sheltered right points entice. En route: plantation workers stroll along the track, holding machetes for coconuts. Many trails into the wilderness, in all directions, no signs—easy to get lost. Tall weeds and fields of maize. Walid has not ventured this way for a long time; he stops the car to chat with a hobbling old man and ask for directions to the beach. Walid hands him a cigarette; the man clasps his hands in thanks.

“Cigarette no easy for the villagers to buy,” Walid says. “Everybody want the cigarette. I keep the ganja. Ha!”

He drives for a while. We listen to reggae. I eat peanuts and drink orange Fanta. Eventually we find the heavily rutted, overgrown track that winds to the edge of the forest, the glassy Atlantic offering large, severe shorepound.

“The jungle is quick to reclaim the road,” I say. “This place was almost impossible to find.”

“No problem, eh?” Walid replies with a wink. He parks in a small clearing between palms. “The spot is over there,” he says, pointing left as he exits the Renault. It’s a sharp bend in the coastline—a hidden right point—pounded with thundering whitewater, a place my guidebook describes thusly: “With its curling breakers, it’s enough to inspire poetic musings.”

We walk for a few minutes. The heavily eroded beach is littered with driftwood sticks and garbage, mostly plastic bottle caps. The sand is course and pink, the air thick with salt mist, the sky a low, ominous gray. Big, powerful groundswells explode along the uneven rock shelf. The lineup is a roiling mess of currents and closeouts, an odd corner off the edge of the channel. But the set-up looks nice for a smaller swell—the shelf piercing the straight backbeach, which falls away into a gradual beach curve before restraightening down to what appears to be another right point in the distance.

“Is shit, eh?” Walid says, relighting his spliff. “We keep going.”

“Where?”

“Spots. Places need big swell like this.”

Back at the car, I study the map where I’d marked 38 possible right points between Abidjan and Liberia. Most look inaccessible by land, but there is one southeast-facing nook in our general vicinity that looks like it would “need big swell.” Finger on the map, I show Walid.

“Ah! This spot very good for fishing. Last time I there for surfing, one guy caught a snapper that was 45 kilos!”

“Does it need a big swell to be surfable?”

“The big swell, yes. Long time I went there.”

The day itself is long, as are the drives to find anything remotely surfable. Checking this spot: misfire #1. Much time wasted.

Retrace north into the crickets and tall grass, to the main road, lined with maize, swaying in the wind. We are westbound again, this time in a national park. The route is marked by tall, deep-green trees, reminiscent of driving through Northern Californian redwoods. Twenty minutes of non-talking, just reggae on the radio.

Beach turn-off approaches. But first, a roadside stop: flyblown roasted corn, handled by filthy fingers.

Pass.

The seller, a man, in a black leather jacket, mildly offended: “You no eat this? You no belong in Africa!”

WE ARE HUNGOVER in a vile city, a lilliputian sketch of Abidjan, on the opposite side of the country, 350 kilometers from the Paris of Africa.

Its surf is not what I’d grokked via Stormrider Guide detail: A black lava reef where waves break in crystalline waters surrounded by lush jungle. It also has a consistent low-tide shorebreak. Reality: consistent, closed-out, onshore beachbreak. Polluted, murky water. Rusty, industrial setting. No jungle.

A late start today. Breakfast on the beach in front of our decaying hotel, which is empty. They all are.

Low overcast sky, looming rain, haze. As Walid navigates the city, honking the car horn and shouting at bad drivers, I shoot stills and video from the passenger-side window. “Wrap camera strap around your arm,” he warns me. “People can take and run.”

At the city border, a soldier (large bread crumb stuck to one side of his mouth) demands money for the surfboards stuffed in our car. Then, the stink of citified Africa: traffic, beggars, sellers, sewage, open drains, garbage, thick crowds of people. Lawless, impromptu, impermanent. At one intersection, where we are nearly broad-sided by a truck, a man is holding a chicken in one hand, using his other hand to publicly piss into the roadside weeds.

“The future of the road is very good,” Walid says. “You look, you have many guys trucks, many guys work. The new government is very good. I see money, you know? I see money in the population working. Very nice for Ivory Coast.”

Pens of live chickens for sale. Vegetables and roasted corn. Peanuts. Slabs of raw meat. Overcrowded blue taxis, oppressive low clouds, cocoa factories, diesel exhaust, vinegary scent to the air (chocolatey on the outskirts). More dusty red roads, more potholes, more skinny men on bikes hauling bundles of sticks behind them. “For barbecue,” Walid says.

Hard rain. Liberia is near. Smell of burning leaves and Walid’s spliff. Swamps, fields of maize and cocoa, splattered red mud on roadside foliage. Cassava rows growing up low hillsides. Dense jungle—palms, ferns. Earthen scent to the air, like what it must smell like inside the many homes in villages scattered throughout the bush. Women washing clothes in the rain, idle men and lurking kids beneath awnings and umbrellas.

Jagged with snags and dead trees, the road becomes singletrack and nearly impassable. The jungle suffocates, crowding our sight and scratching the car. Then the Atlantic appears, draped around a palmy headland doubling as a right point.

The water looks cool and dark, with fish traps several meters off the white beach, on which two men repair their green fishing nets. Behind them, two men with large machetes group freshly harvested coconuts into a pile. Behind them is a decrepit hotel, recently abandoned, now consumed by termites and the wild jungle it was built amongst. African idyll, returned.

The four men stop tasks and walk to us. Handshakes, smiles exchanged. Walid hands them cigarettes and there are words in French. He translates: Where you come from? For why you come? Long time no guys come here. We want guys to come to our beach for surf and fishing, good for the people when we have money for barbecue.

“I tell them in one year, maybe two maximum, you have many guy return in west Ivory Coast for tourist, because the road is finished.”

I want to send message to white guy: you come. Ivory Coast problems finished.

Peace is precarious, perishable, like that ex-hotel over there. Like the reality of military truth.  Like the majority of rural Ivorian homes. How long, really, do those mud huts last?

Through African Dreams

By Michael H. Kew

Entering downtown Abidjan; flags raised for Independence Day. All photos: Kew.

TWO MONTHS BEFORE I landed in Abidjan, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs website issued a warning:

The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Côte d’Ivoire. U.S. citizens who reside in or travel to Côte d’Ivoire should monitor conditions carefully, maintain situational awareness, and pay very close attention to their personal security. Although the security situation significantly improved in 2013, security conditions can change quickly and without warning.

And near the bottom of the page:

Swimming in coastal waters is dangerous and strongly discouraged, even for excellent swimmers. The ocean currents along the coast are powerful and treacherous, and several people drown each year.

Though great for surfers, the latter is permanent on all travel warnings for Côte d’Ivoire. Fifty-five kilometers from Abidjan, near the Ghana border, are turbulent beachbreaks and leisure homes along a palmy sandspit between a canal and the muddy mouth of a lagoon, which Walid says it can be a fun place for longboarding. “Maybe we go there, but maybe not. Longboard, this I don’t really want to.”

“Same.”

“Shark and crocodile there. Lagoon, you know?”

According to my guidebook, the area “tugs at the heartstrings of overlanders, washed-up surfers, and rich weekenders from Abidjan, who run their quad bikes up and down its peroxide-blonde beach.”

Today is Tuesday—“washed-up” or not, Walid promises we’ll have the onshore, head-high closeouts to ourselves.

“If you come here in January, February, wind offshore all the spots,” he says, lighting another spliff. “Now is onshore but bigger swells coming. Summer good for waves big, good no for wind normally. But is okay. We surf.”

Soon the road deteriorates into a bumpy, palm-lined, red-dirt lane, its potholes filled with smashed coconut husks. Once in the village, we pass several colorfully painted, cement-walled bungalows, most with thatched roofs, but there are no people present aside from a woman walking and a small, dazed boy standing atop a large pile of husks. Walid pulls aside one of the bungalows and stops the car behind a small pickup with two shortboard thrusters in its bed.

“My friend staying here for today. Come. We surf.”

The surf facing us is junky, the salt air soft and breezy. In an open veranda Walid’s tattooed, non-English-speaking friend sits with a bikinied girl, both looking half-asleep, cross-legged on wicker chairs, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. “Salut,” I say when they nod at me. “Comment ça va?”

The water is steps away; the soft white sand squeaks underfoot. The sunlight is wan and low, the air thick with the haze typical of coasts in the Gulf of Guinea. Needing to shed my travel grime, dumpy low-tide beachbreak or not. Mostly closeouts, strong currents, many duckdives. The biggest waves are slightly overhead, the water reddish-brown and murky, not as warm as I’d expected. Just past the surf line is a near-constant stream of local fishing canoes heading west, their outboard-motors humming through the windchop.

Toweling off post-session, Walid says the surf will be smaller but cleaner down the beach, where his parents’ house is. To get there, he parks the Renault in a rocky, dusty lot on the north bank of the canal; we load our gear into an elderly smiling man’s (Walid: “He my second father.”) long blue wood canoe that will slide us a half-kilometer across to the canal’s south bank, which initially appears to be a long wall of coconut palms, obscuring the pleasant oceanfront homes beyond. This is where upmarket Ivorians, including President Ouattara, often spend their days off. “On the weekends,” Walid says, “many people here. Weekends is crazy—many jet skis, boats, wakes….” His eyes widen as he twists an imaginary jet ski throttle with his right hand. “Vroom-vroom!

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The water near this dock is vacant except for two other canoes, one with two squatting fishermen, the other with a small boy and his father slowly moving with a stick, pushing off the shallow sand bottom. The late-day sun coats the glassy water in liquid gold, silhouetting the land, and within minutes we step onto the rotting south-bank dock, walking with backpacks and surfboards along a mossy covered pathway directly to Walid’s parents’ tile-floored house, built in the 1970s, replete with beachfront swimming pool and exceptional peace and privacy. As Walid predicted, the surf here is smaller but much cleaner. We opt out of surfing and instead, while daylight fades, relax by the pool with sweating bottles of Flag beer.

Inside the main house, Walid’s housekeeper is cooking dinner—barbecued chicken, attiéké (fermented and grated cassava, a Côte d’Ivoire staple), French fries, chilis, onion/tomato salad. Later, while heavy rain pelts the roof, we slouch on a too-soft sofa, our feet on the glass coffee table. On my laptop screen appear the six videos on Walid’s YouTube channel, including a 39-second clip filmed from the inside of his Abidjan house—gunshots shatter the air outside; Walid gets his handgun; Walid shuts the sliding metal barrier fence around his front room; Walid is panicked. When the shooting stops, three men lay dead on Walid’s driveway.

“Scared? Oui. Yes. Very.” He drinks some beer. Long pause. “This thing happened all the time during the crisis.”

“Did you ever grow numb to it? The public killings and chaos? Blood on the streets?”

“No. I never do this. Impossible. My country torn apart. Nobody want this.”

“So how did you deal with the fact that your immediate domestic surroundings became a battlefield?”

In reflective resignation, his right eyebrow lifts.

“I can do nothing.”

He swallows another Flag swig. Shrugs. Blinks six times. Frowns. Coughs. Leans back and gestures at my computer screen.

“What we do? Not in military. Not politician. Can only wait. And hide in our homes. Not go outside any night for long time.”

This night: windless, with near-constant rain. Can go outside, but we don’t.

Next morning: dreariness, a gray haze. Muffled, like I’m wearing earplugs. Faint hum of fishing boats heading west. I peer through the fogged window. Surf: clean, a bit up from yesterday. Thirty minutes later, the end game of stove-boiled water is bad imported instant coffee, odd since Côte d’Ivoire is a big coffee exporter, once the world’s third largest, behind Colombia and Brazil. While coffee remains its second biggest export (behind cocoa), the industry has been struggling for years, particularly after the turbulent 2010 election. Ex-president Gbagbo, who initially investigated corruption amongst so-called “coffee barons,” tried to nationalize the coffee industry in 2011, suffocating production and export.

In Abidjan I’d bought a 500-gram bag of Café Malaga robusta beans (“Coffees from the Ivory Coast are strongly aromatic with a light body and acidity,” says the National Coffee Association of USA website. “They are ideally suited for a darker roast and are therefore often used in espresso blends.”), planning to sample some here, but Walid’s house holds no coffee grinder nor strainer nor anything of the sort. Could use a sock a la Pat Curren on O’ahu in 1955. But no socks, either.

Still, the hot cups of instant move us to surf. For an hour, the sun shines. In Atlantic murk, I admire the soft terrestrial backdrop of white sand and tall palms and nice homes. An exclusive, empty place when distanced from weekends.

We race closeouts till the wind comes. Walid and his helper take two hours to prepare an outdoor lunch (taquitos de parra, salad, mango for dessert) whence twice a butterfly landed next to me on the table. “Here, that is sign of good luck,” Walid says. “Oui, maybe we get some good waves tomorrow, eh?”

Jet-lagged, I doze the afternoon away. Outside: cloudy and bleak, surf junky and smaller. Only sounds are occasional soft birdsong and the whoosh of waves, surreal and serene.

Floating through African dreams.

Many Food for the Shark

By Michael H. Kew

All photos: Kew.

LUMPY PILLOW, BAD SLEEP in the empty three-story hotel on a hill. It overlooks a town and its harbor, once used to ship timber from now-deforested Mali.

My gut shakes, result of last night’s langouste feast with Solibra Bock beers in the hotel’s restaurant, where Walid and I were the sole diners. This morning, the little town is abuzz—birds, honking cars, sawing, hammering, rap music, lumber being stacked, wind, people talking, kids yelling. The sky is sunny with some clouds; there is, of course, the smell of burning trash. Muezzin creeps into the airspace. Shanty clusters are stacked up the hill, little square boxes of white and brown smooshed unevenly aside one another, with sparse relief patches of green trees. Atop the main hill are the larger, richer homes. Many people walking—where are they going?

The Atlantic shimmers in the heat, the low, hazy skyline a silhouette of immense jungle stretching eastward to infinity. Down on the steep beach, fishermen push their wooden canoes into the backwashed shorepound near a brown rivermouth that has a right-hander mushing off of it. Last night, over the beers and lobster, Walid told me it can get good, “but many big fish.”

Near noon, he knocks on my door.

“We go. Waves should be okay.”

In town we stop at a stall for an unrefrigerated bottle of orange Fanta, which soothes my belly. The midday sun is searing, the track to the remote fishing village bumpy and overgrown, unsigned and obscure. Not obscure is the onshore wind, trashing the mushy, lumpy righthanders smashing off pinkish granite rocks that cradle a small cove, featuring a small fleet of fishing pirogues.

The wave here is a summertime favorite among Walid and his friends; they drive from Abidjan to surf and relax with bearded, cheerful Jules, a part-time bodyboarder who lives full-time with his family in a shack overlooking the cove, 200 yards west of the main village. The extent of Jules’s English is “Yes I,” something normally said by dreadlocked rastafarians.

We shake hands.

Je suis heureux de vous rencontrer, Jules.” (I’m happy to meet you.)

“Yes I!”

He laughs in that crackly, deep-voiced, African-smoker way. He’s happy. Walid brought cigarettes.

I survey the scene while Jules hacks a couple of coconuts open for us. Burning leaves scent the air, while on the small pocket beach fronting the wave, men hammer on a new pirogue. Aside from going to sea, the boat will never leave this village.

Drinking from the coconuts at Jules’s shaded plastic outdoor table, while the wind eases, rustling palm fronds above us, Walid describes a great outside interest to develop the beach touristically. He suggests this would essentially corrupt and dull the shine of the place, so he’s taking charge, donating money, helping Jules to establish a surf camp, which today is nothing but two flimsy rooms with sand floors but no beds, toilets, or running water.

“If we don’t help Jules, in two or three years, here is finished. Hotel, you know? Place like this no change because of the war, but war is finished. Development now, you know?”

“So you think that, because the war is over, people are going to want to come here?”

“Yes! Many guy want this spot. Many opportunistic. Not now, but five years, 10 years, they come. So we preparing. It’s not good to have l’étranger (strangers) to come here and take this place. Good for local person, long time life live here. I live here many war, many population, no problem.”

Édouard.

An orange/white/green (Ivorian flag colors) pirogue with Dieu Merci (“Thank God”) painted on its bow sails around the headland, soon beached with its bounty of fish that look like big sardines. The whole village reacts—naked boys, giggling girls, women in colorful dresses and men in ripped soccer jerseys. (In rural Africa, attire fashion often contrasts between those preferring traditional [colorful sarongs, wraps, headdresses] versus western [straightened hair, counterfeited designer clothing]).

As if in a tug-of-war with the canoe, men chant and grunt as they drag it from the bluey-brown shorebreak and onto the sand, past the tideline. Commotion and haggling about who gets what and how much. A group of small boys clown for my camera. Three small girls cry and yell at each other; their moms yell at each other. Many goats and chickens, some dogs but no barking. One man divvies the fish, filling large stainless steel bowls and white plastic buckets (I Love Africa on one) into which the women pour seawater before carrying them to the village.

Back at Jules’s, Walid rolls a joint while I wax my 5’4” Lovelace quad fish. The day fades but the tide has dropped and new swell has arrived. Long lulls.

Appearing from the village is Édouard, the village’s surfer, tall and shy, in prime physical shape but smoking a cigarette. Underarm is a thrashed, yellow, too-small (for him) 6’0” AXL thruster from Anglet, France. Walid gifted it 15 years ago, when Édouard was a boy. He speaks no English, so we communicate with hand gestures and facial expressions during the short walk to the slippery jumping-off spot on the nose of the point.

Backdrop: steep pink crescent beach, dense palm forest, colorful pirogues, sagging shacks in the square of village. A scene of purity, devoid of commerce or overcrowding, an innocence of subsistence owed to isolation, its absence of pavement, proximity to wilderness.

The ocean is cool, murky. Despite whitecaps behind the point, the waves are smooth and playful, the good ones running for a while, past a large washrock, ending in shorepound at the edge of the village, where young boys clap and cheer.

The sets pulse; Édouard and I trade. No talking. His surfing is economic and smooth despite his anorexic board. At one interlude, he stands on the headland and hoots, pointing to sea at the approach of a rogue set. Nice one. Paddling back out, a turtle surfaces to my left. (Walid, later: “Shark like turtle. Turtle like surfer. Ha! But here, many food for the shark.”)

During the session, fishermen in four pirogues row around the point and weave through the lineup before beaching in front of the awaiting folks, eager to see the day’s catch. Following this afternoon ritual, the women return to the village, buckets and bowls of fish atop their heads, followed by exhausted men, walking slowly with Yamaha outboards on their shoulders; the youths carry buoys, green nets, gas tanks. Each night, nothing but wet hulls are left on the beach.

Gone since dawn, a blue pirogue slides into view. Four figures: two men frantically rowing; one man frantically bailing; a teenage boy lazily steering. The arrival causes a stir. Three men leap from the point to help the sinking pirogue, which surfs a wave sideways. Returning to the beach with their empty buckets and stainless steel bowls, women wait for fish; the men building the new pirogue seem to notice nothing.

The sun drops and daylight dims. Villagers—Édouard included—return to their homes, most to stoke fires and embrace ambient darkness, the thunder of shorebreak filling the night. Tomorrow will be a repeat of today and yesterday, last week, last year. Because in the village, so somnolent and marginalized and self-sufficient, a world outside does not exist. Yet nothing but the outside can ever change it.

This Is Where You Kill Things

By Michael H. Kew

TWENTY-EIGHT: Feet, length of the black Lincoln Town Car limousine in which Daniel Jones, Nico Manos, Trevor Gordon, and I are driven for three hours, starting at 3 a.m., from the seedy Anchorage hotel to the port of a deglaciated valley town, population 3,000.

“Just driving through that place makes me feel hungover, man.”

Astride his broken captain’s chair, gazing through thick glass at the fjord waters, bushy-browed Mike smiles and sips strong coffee. He’s happy. I’m happy. We’re on his boat. The back of his navy blue T-shirt shows a goofyfooter pulling into a tropical, head-high left over the words Ride the Fury. Yes, we’d like to.

The port, groggy and foggy at 6:39 a.m., shrinks astern. Flanked by tall, white peaks, we’re southbound at eight knots inside the cramped third-story wheelhouse of this 48-year-old, 58-foot-long steel purse seiner. Built in Seattle, she spent her commercial life salmoning off the southeast Alaskan coast and off Washington, dragging for bottom fish.

We’re not going fishing.

 “Don’t you guys feel that way, man? Hungover?”

No. The town was dead. I saw nil but the dotty headache of orange streetlights and their hazy glow on orange sidewalks and orange storefronts and orange parked cars, roofed with orange snow. No humans except the gaunt convenience store clerk who sold me weak coffee and a peanut butter Clif bar. She was high on meth. Thankfully, our fat chauffeur was not. Thankfully I was not hungover — just one Alaskan Amber Ale in the hotel pub last night.

Mike sips more coffee, swallows, exhales. Smiles again. Smug. The new floor heater is working. It’s warm in here. He leans over and taps a few laptop keys. On-screen there’s a tempting nautical chart. The Kenai Fjords look like shredded witch fingers. Eagle talons. Bold headlands, wide bays, beachbreaks, coves. Pointbreaks. Rivermouths — lots of rivermouths. Scenic grandeur. Attributing J. London, it’s to be an odyssey of the north.

 

Gordon, Manos, Jones.

FIFTY-NINE: Degrees of north latitude which we occupy inside beanies and down parkas, sitting on black steel gunwales, grilling lingcod. There’s ice on the deck. Holding strong ales in gloved hands, we admire the hallucinatory reflect of snowy cliffs across this tranquil, funnel-shaped anchorage that latitudinally drifts with Siberia.

Trevor is fly-fishing for his first time. Swish-swish-swish. Off the transom he whips the line to and fro but hooks nothing. The bottom here is hard mud. The water is deep green. The time is 10:30 p.m., but still the sky glows blue.

Pausing, Trevor looks shoreward and swigs from a bottle of stout. Halfway hidden on the forested beach, he sees three old wooden cabins waiting for summer.

“Somebody’s idea of a good time right there,” Captain Mike says from the barbecue, his chin bisecting the gray fish smoke.

“Lonely,” Trevor says.

“Yeah, unless you’ve got it packed full of Bush Company dancers.” (laughs)

The Great Alaskan Bush Company, Mike means. Look it up.

A shaggy white male mountain goat grazes fairly low above the pit of the anchorage, above the cabins, on that really steep cliff.

“It’s amazing where you see them,” Mike says, flipping fish fillets. “They do fall sometimes.”

“Why would they be there and not up where it’s not so steep?” Trevor asks.

“There’s snow up there,” Mike says, pointing at the top of the slope, then lowering his arm. “The grass is down here. Good munchin’ spot.”

In a month or two, this goat will laze in high alpine meadows, eating shrubs and herbs and grass at leisure. For now, though, he risks life to live. Like us. Sort of.

 

SEVEN: Millimeters of neoprene required to sheathe extremities whilst surfing. Hoods and black six-millimeter fullsuits seal the encumbrance.

 

THIRTY-SEVEN: Degrees, Fahrenheit, of ocean water temperature, the going rate of glacial-stream-fed sting. My hands burn. It’s bone-seeping cold.

We’re sitting rib-deep in black water at a playful, shapely spot that Trevor likens to Hammond’s Reef, one of his (and Tom Curren’s) preferred waves in California. Unlike sunny Hammond’s, however, no surfers will flock here. Unlike Hammond’s, no billionaires sleep within sight. Unlike Hammond’s, this reef is tucked back in a primordial fjord, fronted with crumbling rock spires and seal-flecked pinnacles, shadowed by dark mountains and licked by the longest glacial ice tongue in Kenai Fjords National Park.

Over there, behind the gray-boulder moraine beach and its gray till and low, serrated green line of spruce, white icebergs float in the lake. Two miles behind that lake is a massive white glacier, cracked and fissured, which means this wave experiences katabatic winds howling off the icefield, 5,000 feet up and 12 miles in. Brash ice chunks often float in the lineup, which occurs regularly, per page 91 of my kayaking guidebook: Stay in deep water and away from the beach. The bottom rapidly shallows and accentuates the swell and surf.

The windless morning’s drizzle has become rain and hail and the ambiance is a cold, drab gray, the black mountain trees melding with quiet browns of nude earth and smatterings of snow.

Downstairs in the boiler room, full of wetsuits, Daniel, a creature of warmth, labors from his. He rubs his nose and cheekbones with the back of his numb hand. Two days ago, he surfed Rocky Point in boardshorts.

“Yeah, we Hawaiians usually only come to Alaska to go snowboarding,” he says to bearded Nico, another creature of temperature but, as a year-round Nova Scotian, he thrives on the opposite scale. Nico’s already got his wetsuit/hood/booties/mittens off. He’s used to surfing with snow on the beach. He says the vibe here is reminiscent of home, if only home had spell-binding glaciers and 4,000-foot sea cliffs.

 

FORTY-NINTH: State of the U.S.A., its largest and most northern. Also an exclave. Spiritually, Alaska is another country.

 

TWO: Huge icefields, named Harding and Sargent. Somewhere behind each estuarine spot we surf, they coat the Kenai Mountains up to a mile thick.

 

ZERO: Feet, in height, of the swell. We glide along. The other gents are belowdecks, sleeping or reading or drinking coffee. It’s good coffee, from Homer, where Mike lives. He runs a fish-processing plant.

Above, the sky is huge and blue. The mountain snow is blinding. Aloud, I wonder if such weather is rare.

With a small rag, Mike wipes his sunglasses. “Maybe rare is not quite the word,” he says, “but it’s nice to take advantage of ‘em when you see ‘em. That’s for sure. Doesn’t really do much for swell, though.” (laughs)

The fjord water is silty green and glassy-smooth — a little too glassy, too lake-like. Last night, Trevor suggested we try wakeboarding.

 “Are we going to get some big breakers today?” I ask Mike as he pulls the throttle back with his right hand. With yellow binoculars in his left, he’s studying the gravel beach we’ve approached.

Neighbored by a wooded peninsula and steep talus cliffs, this beach is bereft of whitewater but strewn with driftwood logs. The adjacent lagoon is serene. There are ducks and river otters and harbor seals, bushes of lupine and salmonberry amongst the moss-bearded spruce and alder. I’d like to stay and sunbathe and beachcomb, perhaps pitch a tent and wait for swell.

“Not a lot of confidence we’ll find big breakers today,” Mike says. “We’ll take a look here mainly to put some new info into the memory bank. I know guys have camped out and surfed along this beach here, but I don’t think we have the right swell conditions today, by any means.”

Awesome.

 

SEVEN: Million dollars, for which Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867. Two cents per acre.

 

FIFTEEN THOUSAND: Acres, densely forested, comprising the biggest island here. It is jagged and lung-shaped, rife with eagles and seals. There’s surf, too — peaky, punchy beachbreak, its black-sand shore poked with bear tracks among the driftwood and stray container-ship flotsam: orange basketballs, black fly swatters, blue aluminum water bottles. A ghost forest, immortalized after 1964’s four-minute, 9.2-magnitude Great Alaskan Earthquake, tops the steep beach.

The surf is fun before the sky bleeds gray and the air is seized by an onshore gale. We’re done. Tea and books in the calm anchorage. Cozy downtime again.

In the afternoon we buzz the skiff to the hidden entrance of a tiny cove. Along the shore are the skeletal remains of a bulldozer, a barn, and a termite-wrecked cabin. Through falling snowflakes, I see “Herring Pete” and Josephine Sather tending to their noisy fox farm here. But they abandoned this place in 1961, and the barn’s decay, scented with river-otter dung, makes me sneeze. Pete too was a reputedly ripe and eccentric guy, his rarely washed clothes afoul of rotten fish. His wife was an obsessive clean-freak, forcing Pete to take cold showers after his fishing trips, even mid-winter.

Admiring his view out over the cove, I picture Pete shivering wet in the bathroom while Josephine stirred a hot pot of fox stew. But, foolishly standing in snow, I realize I’m the one shivering.

 

TWO THOUSAND: Years ago, when the first humans migrated from the Alaskan interior to the Kenai Fjords coast. These were the Unegkurmiut, a hardy Eskimo breed of maritime subsistence who so excelled in boat-making that they were exploited by Russian fur traders to hunt sea otters. The Russians, who’d arrived in July of 1790, also brought smallpox, which trashed the once-harmonious Unegkurmiut population. Ensuing panic, starvation, and Russian bullying contributed to complete Unegkurmiut demise by 1912, one century removed from us.

 

THREE: Days, consecutive, which are too flat to surf. Vexing in a such a storm-washed place.

“Maybe we should go fishing or hunting,” Nico says over his oatmeal in the galley. “Get some deer or moose or something.”

“Most people do come to Alaska to kill things,” deckhand Scott says.

Fresh halibut sounds good. The inflatable white skiff is launched with tackle and Trevor and Scott aboard. Their bright orange and yellow rain jackets contrast well with the gray of the sea and the dark, conical headland, which flattens into a long gravel beach and berm supporting a large tree-lined lagoon and a foraging black bear. And topography for a perfect left pointbreak. Mike says he’s surfed it — slabby up top, ropey through the middle as it wrapped around the crescent-shaped barrier beach.

Later, black lingcod and rockfish are hooked, cleaned, and served as dinner. Alas, salmon season is two months off.

The next morning, Trevor confides to me that the west side of the fjord, three miles opposite the left point, has a long, tapered right cobblestone beach, also with a lagoon behind it. “If we had swell, that place might be just like El Cap,” he says, referring to another perfect wave he surfs at home.

“The El Capitan of Kenai Fjords” has a nice ring to it, I say. A dead ring.

 

FIVE HUNDRED NINETY-TWO THOUSAND: Square miles, surface area, comprising the Gulf of Alaska. Plenty of room to cause trouble. In winter, the Gulf is a weather kitchen, a sea of severity, a near-constant stream of cyclones and anticyclones. Sixty-foot waves with 100-knot winds are routine. Depressions twist east from Japan, stalling once they hit the Gulf and, trapped, they mutate and shove swell down to western North America and eastern Oceania. North swells deny the south-facing Kenai Fjords. We need south.

But this is a fjord and there is swell in this afternoon’s marine forecast, the charts showing a pair of modest, local low-pressure systems with favorable fetch.

 “It’s a good reason to feel optimistic instead of just feeling hopeful,” Mike says, watching a bald eagle soar in the updraft, its spearing blackness against the white snow bowl of a hanging valley. Below the raptor are steep slopes and shale landslides, chalky brown, laced with thin snowmelt waterfalls. It’s late April — Alaska is beginning to thaw. Soon, bears will be everywhere. Post-Memorial Day until September, this fjord will be flush with cruise ships and fishing boats because Seward is a major fishing hub, America's ninth most-lucrative fisheries port.

A diehard surfer and ex-merchant marine, Mike isn’t thrilled about other dingy fishing towns — Yakutat and Dutch Harbor, for example — he’s had to work in and around since he moved from Hawaii to Alaska to work at a fish cannery in the summer of ‘76.

“What’s Yakutat like?” I ask.

“Small. Some good waves over there.”

“Dutch Harbor?”

“Drunk.” (laughs)

He leans and starts steering the ship with its wooden wheel, the first time I’ve seen him do this.

“Don’t you always steer with the compass?”

He nods. “It just started acting funny. Maybe it blew a fuse, or a wire’s loose, or there’s a bunch of iron in that mountain and it threw the compass crazy. Happens sometimes.”

We approach the fjord’s entrance, or, in this case, the exit. Instantly the scene shifts.  Out here, the wind howls from the east, deeply corrugating the open ocean. The boat dips and lurches.

“At least we’re looking at waves now,” Mike says. “It’s a start!”

 

ONE HUNDRED TWENTY-SIX: Feet, in height, of the rock pinnacle that looms at the reefy fore of this exposed bay, a two-mile stretch of black sand of which my guidebook states: Beach landings are difficult because of constant surf.

We anchor 100 yards out. The beach fronts another deglaciated valley and an icy glacier lake below a glacier. Mike has surfed in front of this, at a shifty sandbar west of the faux left point we’re paddling to. It looks good from behind, the whitewater tapering in the proper direction for an ideal length of time. Stroking shoreward, there’s a nice backdrop of spruce and alder. In the rockbound lineup, we’re looking at two big, horn-shaped spires which may or may not dilute the head-high sets as they hump in from the southeast. The waves are clean but soft, the sun warm, the sky blue, the air temperature mild — our exhaled breath is invisible. The scene implies Carmel, Monterey, even Big Sur.

 

EIGHTY: Times the crabber’s fatality rate of the average worker. On average, one crabber dies weekly during Alaska’s crab-fishing seasons.

 

TWELVE: Feet, in height, of the swell. A certain rivermouth cove could massage it, Mike says, the region’s “crown jewel” of the spots he knows. He’s been talking about it all week. Studying his poster-sized nautical charts, I reckon that, on the right day or hour, there could be dozens of crown jewels along the 250 miles of Kenai Fjords seacoast. Goodness knows there is ample daylight this month.

“We can get there at 8:30 p.m. and still have a two-hour session,” he says with a grin.

But first, it’s a rough ride. Huddled in the wheelhouse, we pound west through the rain, rounding an exposed cape, a balding head of granite with hairs of spruce trees and smears of dirty snow. Its base has 13 tall, narrow black sea caves placed like sharp teeth. Joy for a spelunker. Thousands of murres and kittiwakes swoop about. Three sea lions bark. We slosh past porpoises and a pod of orcas.

Out the starboard exterior, a large gray trawler steams east, likely for shelter as fishing today would be tough. Daniel, lounging on the couch aside Mike in an unzipped black hoodie, takes a swig from his bottle of Alaskan Black IPA. “You think that’s a crab boat?” he asks.

“Nah, not around here,” Mike says. “They’re probably out for halibut. Salmon in summer. Crab season doesn’t start till October.”

“How many crab seasons are there?”

“The opilio and the king crab are the two big ones, but then there’s a different king crab way up north, near St. Matthew Island, and there’s the Adak brown crab. Some years, there’s a crab I see that’s a cross between the king crab and opilio.”

“How do the dudes know which one they’re fishing for?” Nico asks.

“Crabs live in different areas and at different depths.”

“Do the same boats hit them all up?” Daniel asks.

“Pretty much. Some of them, there’s only a couple of boats that fish.”

“A lot of the boats aren’t on that one TV show, right?” Trevor asks, referring to Deadliest Catch.

“Yeah. For the most part, the dudes on that show are a bunch of real frickin’ idiots.”

“Really?” Daniel asks.

“Yeah. I’ve bought crab from all those guys.”

“Does the TV channel pay them?” Trevor asks.

“Nope.”

“Why are they doing it if they’re not getting paid?”

“Just trying to get famous.”

“So why do they pick the dickheads?” Nico asked. “Just to make for a more interesting cast?”

“Yeah. A bunch of ‘em are crackheads. One night after the show was done taping, one of the guys was found dead in a hotel room.”

“Do a lot of those fishermen have to smoke crack to stay awake?” Daniel asks.

“In the old days, they were all cokeheads, when there was a lot of money, and nobody knew how dangerous it was. You had to pretty much go around the clock to catch your share, or more than your share.”

In three hours: Lumpy rivermouth tubes. Shallow and hard-hitting. East-wind slag bump. Rain.

Daniel: “Coldest session ever.

 

ONE: Little-known fact: Two beachbreaks cradled by the ragged, most swell-exposed barb of the Kenai Fjords can be almost flat, like they are the day our marine forecast had promised a 16-foot southeast swell. Guidebook: Here, the surf is constant. The waters are renowned for their intensity.

Previously unknown: The largest Alaskan seas Captain Mike has faced. “I don’t know,” he says, chewing a bite of banana muffin. “I try to avoid them.” Later he reveals: “There were these white lines, standing waves, and all I could do was steer right into them. My pilothouse was 60 feet above the water, and for three waves in a row, I couldn’t see a thing.”

What you probably know: Sixty-foot waves are big waves.

Partially true fact: The Kenai Fjords possess many slabs and at least one world-class surf spot. This wave may or may not employ Jeffrey’s Bay, Mangamaunu, Malibu, Scorpion Bay, or Rincon Point.

Unequivocally true: I left Alaska with a hangover.

Dog Food

By Michael H. Kew

Daniel Jones, Tonga. Photo: Billy Watts.

IT'S TOUGH TO LOOK GOOD when a metal pole has been shoved through your ass and out your mouth. You’re roasting clockwise over a pit of coal. You’ve been eviscerated. Your eyeballs have evaporated. Your legs and tail are stiff. Your tongue is out. You seem to be laughing.

You’ve got a red hole in your belly where your organs once were, now wolfed by a big brown dog in a corner of the yard. Your neck has another red hole with boiling blood bubbling from it, trickling around your shiny, pink corpse.

“What kind of meat do you get off of it?” surfer Ryan Burch asks the man turning the pig. “Ham?”

“Yeah, ham."

“Is it nice ham?”

“It’s like pulled pork,” photographer Billy Watts says. “But I can honestly say I’ve never had a pig like this.”

A fat woman in an orange dress sits on dirt near the pig. She’s using aluminum foil to wrap onions and pieces of taro and breadfruit to be set in the umu (earth oven) to be cooked by hot rocks. Tonight we will feast Tongan style to celebrate the first birthday of the daughter of the guy who’s cooking the pig. His wife is the one doing the umu stuff. Neither has a problem with eating the family pet.

“Many more where this came from,” the man says.

“Not sure if I got a pig on a spit when I turned one year old,” surfer Daniel Jones says. But it’s  possible since he’s Hawaiian and they do this sort of thing there and throughout Polynesia. I guessed that umu was a far healthier and wholesome alternative to the usual modern Polynesian diet of Pacific Brand corned beef and other imported junk.

But dog is modern fare, too. All meat is fair game — Tongans have been eating Fido for millenia. Back in the day, dog was a delicacy, tastier than pork, and both species were raised domestically. To sweeten their flesh, dogs were fed only vegetables and, in 1774, when Captain James Cook landed in Tonga, he likened the meat to English lamb.

Photo: Kew.

I glance across the yard to the dog chewing pig intestines.

“Are you guys going to eat that mutt?” I ask the pig-roasting man.

“Yeah. But not tonight.”

With his teeth, he removes the cap from a green bottle of beer. Back home I was told that, since Tonga is home to thousands of Mormons, drinking was bad. But this man was Mormon and visibly buzzed whilst swilling from his bottle of Mata Maka, the weak so-called “Tongan” lager that’s only available in Tonga but is brewed in New Zealand, 2,000 kilometers away.

“This beer sucks,” Watts says to me. He’s just finished his second; I’m on my fifth of the afternoon. Watts and I are the drinkers of this trip. Burch and Jones rarely booze.

Mata Maka is also the name of a low hill on Nomuka Island in Tonga’s Ha’apai Group, clamped between Vava’u and Tongatapu, an archipelago my guidebook described as a “sleepy, seductive place.” Nobody really surfs Ha’apai, but I know of at least one excellent left. Nomuka and its surrounding reefs might have good waves, too. So might nearby Mango, Kelefesia, and Tonumeia, green stars on a galaxy of blue. There are dozens more — Ha’apai has many secrets. A boat is required. Viewed from space, the group looks like two big atolls with no western sides, which would be clean and offshore most of the year. Yet another cruelty for surfers since east swells are painfully rare. Our boat is small, so we won’t visit Ha’apai this week.

Starting with Ha’apai, Captain Cook spent three months in Tonga. He commanded the HMS Resolution while his colleague manned the HMS Discovery. When the two ships landed on the isle of Lifuka, a lively food festival was underway. Cook and his men were so gaily greeted that he dubbed Tonga “the Friendly Islands,” a motto still used by the Tonga Visitors Bureau.

Cook didn’t know the warm welcome was actually bullshit and that Lifuka’s opportunistic chiefs planned to kill and eat him and all his men, then loot the two ships. But the nobles couldn’t agree on a plan.

I’m drunk by nightfall. Finally, with equally drunk Tongans, we eat the pig. The white meat is leathery, unchewable. I feed most of mine to the big gut-eating dog under my chair. He’s happy. He’s not on the menu — yet.

Ryan Burch eyes his prey. Photo: Kew.