One Epic Summer

A year ago, this week, I hiked and ran through the Sierras on the John Muir Trail, and I'm sure that I used the word epic more than once. It felt like every time I took my camera out, that I was taking a picture of something epic, and each night when I wrote in my journal, I wrote about something that I considered epic. That word has become overused, and has lost a lot of its meaning. When I think about the John Muir Trail now, and what I was doing a year ago, it was really just a lot of slow walking and some light jogging through some amazing scenery. There were some difficult passes at high elevation, but the same bells and alarms start going off in my head when I describe it as epic as when I read about someone's epic 5K or epic morning run, or an epic sunset. The word has lost its meaning.

This summer has been a welcome vacation from long distance running. I have been sleeping in, sometimes joining a friend, or occasionally two on a 5 or 6 mile jog around the neighborhood trails, pausing often to talk (I think we've solved the crisis in the Middle East multiple times over), to catch our breath or to wait for my friend's dog to do its business.

This has freed up my mornings for other things, mainly spending time with my kids and rekindling my love of the ocean. I wore one pair of shorts this summer, and my goal was to wear them out. They are faded, blue Patagonia board shorts, and they smell like the ocean with a hint of the sweet, tropical smell of warm water surf wax. Most mornings I would wear those shorts to the beach, surf in them, swim in them, and then I would sit in them as the kids and I downed Mexican food. By the time I finished my plate of ceviche, they would almost be dry, but still damp around the waistband and near the single zippered pocket. In the evening, I would jump in the shower, rinse the dried salt and the few remaining grains of sand from the shorts, then hang them to dry. By morning, they would almost be dry, almost, but then I would throw them on, strap the boards to the top of the Jeep, grab the kids and a couple towels, and head back to the beach for another day, another few hours of free, pure joy. I don't think those shorts ever had a chance to become completely dry.

This was the summer that my son learned to surf. This was the summer I pushed him into his first real wave, past the breakers, on a clean, smooth face, and this was the summer he popped up, without going to his knees, slid down the face of the wave on his 5’6" red surfboard, turned at the bottom, his back to the wave, pumping the board just like he'd seen in the movies, and riding it ahead of the whitewash, all the way to the shore, falling forward as the three small, plastic fins, dug into the sand. He looked back at me and I can't adequately describe the look on his face, but I knew it, I remember it.

I've been surfing off and on for about 25 years. Way, way more off than on. My friend Ian and I would catch the 305 bus from Village Park in Encinitas, transfer to the 301 south to Cardiff, turning a 10 mile ride into about 45 minutes. We sat on the wide back seat of the bus, holding our surfboards. I remember the first real wave I caught. It was at Pipes in Cardiff, no wind and the swell was 2-3 feet, smooth and glassy. I remember the sound of the wave crashing behind me, the cliffs reflecting on the clear face of the wave and those few seconds that felt like minutes and that smile that didn't leave my face, still smiling as I devoured the post-surf maple bars at VG’s Doughnuts.

I was in Salt Lake City last week at a business conference and I heard from some of the best in the business at getting people motivated. I sat (and stood and jumped around) a few feet away from Tony Robbins as he worked the crowd into a frenzy, close enough to see the sweat pouring off his forehead and the spit flying from his mouth as he created this energy from the thousands of people in the arena, pushing them to celebrate, then to take it up, then to take it up yet again, until the room was shaking from the noise. I tried to play along, but really all I could think of was that morning's adventure.

Jess picked me up at 5:30 AM and we were at the Mt. Olympus trail-head a half hour before sunrise, for what I assumed would be a couple hours of some hiking, scrambling and maybe even a little running. Jess assured me that the slabs were no big deal. It wasn't technical climbing and shouldn't take us more than about 3 hours.

As the morning’s first light spread over the Salt Lake valley, our trail turned into a scramble, climbing over small rocks, then larger ones, and then we hit the 500 foot wall known as the slabs.

I started apprehensively, and was doing okay finding foot and hand holds. I'm not a climber. I've done some gym climbing with my wife, but nothing crazy, maybe some 5.7s and 5.8s, but only after a few weeks of building up hand and arm strength. This wasn't as technical as that, and it wasn't straight up, but it felt like it as I climbed, watching Jess easily navigate the slabs. I felt okay, working up what felt like 100 feet of the 500 foot climb, but was probably much less.

Photo by Jess

Our family would take summer trips to Lake Powell when I was a kid, filling a houseboat and puttering around the lake, finding a vacant alcove to dock the boat each night. After we docked, my brother and I would go explore the canyons. I remember how easy it was to climb the sloped, sandstone walls, and how great it felt to be up so high, but when it was time to descend back to the boat. I remember sitting there, frozen on a ledge, looking down and unable to see a path to get from where I was, shaking on the wall, to the safety of the boat a couple thousand feet below, or so it seemed. It was probably only 100 feet. I can't remember how I got down, only the fear of being there, stuck on the wall, looking down and thinking I could die.

That same feeling came back as I froze on the slabs, looking down to where I would get seriously hurt if I slipped, and up, to what, to me, seemed like an impossible climb. I told Jess I was done, and we climbed a little further to a bailout point, a dirt and rock path along the side of the slabs that still meant a scramble to the top, but did not mean serious injury with a misstep.

For Jess, that climb was basic, something he could do without thinking, something that he may not even call climbing, but for me, that climb was fucking epic. It was a climb I was not prepared for, and a task that elicited enough fear that I had to bail out. As we scrambled along the easier route and did some more nontechnical climbing near the summit, and as I took in the panoramic view of the Salt Lake valley from the summit, all I could think about was how great that feeling was, that excitement, adrenaline, and even the fear.

So, now I'm trying to quiet the alarm in my head when I hear or read the word "epic." For a lot of people, it's the struggle to get out of bed and interact with the world, for others, it's free soloing a climb where the slightest misstep could mean death, and it's really not for me to judge what is epic for them.

In the quest to keep our kids' brains working over the summer, we had them write in daily journals. I read my son's entry the day after that first, magical wave. He wrote about the day, catching the wave and how it felt like he was surfing Mavericks. We watched Chasing Mavericks a few times this summer as it was on HBO’s maximum rotation, catching 20 to 30 minutes at a time until we had seen the whole thing a couple times over. In his 9-year old mind, he had surfed a 30 foot wave on that 2-3 foot day, and that feeling he had, that stoke, and everything that beamed out of that smile was absolutely, undeniably epic.

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