Great news yesterday: Booklist gave The Dog Stars a starred review, saying in part, “Heller’s surprising and irresistible blend of suspense, romance, social insight, and humor creates a cunning form of cognitive dissonance neatly pegged by Hig as an ‘apocalyptic parody of Norman Rockwell’—a novel, that is, of spiky pleasure and signal resonance.” Yay. The pic is the Paonia valley three weeks ago. Hig flies over it on his quest.
Got a Starred Review from Publisher’s Weekly this weekend. Said in part, “this novel, perhaps the world’s most poetic survival guide, reads as if Billy Collins had novelized one of George Romero’s zombie flicks. From start to finish, Heller carries the reader aloft on graceful prose, intense action, and deeply felt emotion.” Yay! The pic is last week on favorite creek. Western Colorado, creek already low, way too early. Incredible fishing. Pray she holds water all summer.
First time in the Beast for two months. Was surfing in Mexico, on deadline, had little time this winter till now. I swear, when the hangar door groans up on the winch and the early sun pours onto the jaunty old Cessna, she smiles. Pull the car in under her left wing and plug a little compressor into the cig lighter and fill up her tires. Buddy Jason does a walk around, we push her out, climb in. Prime the motor, push the starter. Somehow, for me, a Continental engine starting up in a small plane is emotional. Beast shakes and roars, oil pressure needle swings and pegs. We taxi out. A lid of clouds, gray veils of snow or rain on the mountains. Of course Jason wants to go there.
Up into the first peaks, threading through storm, across the Poudre Canyon, over Estes Park, flying so close over the ridges you could see elk tracks in the snow had there been any. Glorious. The elk are smarter than us, I guess–they are down in the deeply cradled valleys where spring is coming early.
North Haven, Maine. Recovering from a blast of a book tour. Flight back across desert much less eventful than the way across. WIndy out in Kingman, windy in Gallup at the reservation when I stopped to gas up, windy in Santa Fe where I stopped for the night. Then a perfect, clear, green morning back up the San Luis valley, brushing the Sangre de Cristos on the through La Veta Pass. Now fog, ospreys, buoy clang, gull cry. More fog. Mom’s husband Pete–he basically grew up here on the island, his grandfather built the farmhouse. He comes alive here. I love it, too. Rock, dark woods, a field like mown gift, the cold sea. Lots of reading. Kim and I take the sea kayak out in the late afternoon. This morning, early, little niece Cammy and I flip through the bird book, both agree that a wood duck with his brightly colored head is just the fanciest thing.
Read at Capitola Books and Café. Four old classmates from high school showed up which made my night. Good, little engaged crowd, some real old time surfers—silver foxes, or fish—and I was honored to have them there. This morning drove from the oak and grass hills of Aromas, back to Surf City. Walked down the twisting wood steps at the end of 41st, trotted along the sandstone skirt of the cliff and out into the kelp beds and surfed the famous Hook. This stretch, less than half a mile in either direction, has more famous breaks per yard of shoreline than maybe any place on earth. Pleasure Point, O’Neil’s, 38th, Drainpipes, the Hook, Shark’s. On and on. For once in my life I had stood up on the bluff, leaning on the wood rail, and watched before I launched. One guy told me the place was notorious for localism.
“Will I get my tires slashed if I go out there?”
“Nah. Just don’t drop in on the wrong guy. You might have an altercation.”
It was pretty crowded. Maybe twenty longboarders, rising and falling in the thick brown kelp, not too many sets. I paddled out. An older guy smiled. “Where you from?”
We were off. Nobody understands a surfer from Denver. “You get points for just paddling out here,” he said.
Wierd surfing in the thick kelp. Once I took off on a nice shoulder and the kelp grabbed my leg, cinched it like a constrictor, wouldn’t let me go. Caught a few, fast drops, got sectioned, wiped out. Always takes me a little while to figure out a new wave. Then one long green ride all the way to the tiny beach. Got out.
Santa Cruz. It wasn’t cold, it wasn’t sharky, and the surfers were friendly. Go figure.
Big Sur yesterday. Fog, wind, birds. Cliffs, rocks, cold green water, birds. Every time I see a bird now, I think, “You are not covered in oil. The water you dive into is not covered in a burning sheen. Lucky birds.” Well, they capped the well. Can’t get the tarred birds out of my head. The teeming, nesting skimmers whose fledglings launched into that stinging water. Thank god for the unpoisoned places.
On to San Luis Obispo for a reading at Border’s. Spent the night with Mandy, old ship mate from the Sea Shepherd’s Farley Mowat. We became friends in the gales and twenty foot seas of the Antarctic ice edge. Her cabin is on the edge of the the Morro Bay estuary, miles of wild wetlands and the Pacific breaking on the empty beach. Surf thresh all night, and—ferrets. She has two white, wriggly, rescued, manic, bundles—or tubes—of high energy play. She and her boyfriend Twister went into the bedroom with one last entreaty back at me on the Thermarest on the living room floor: “They’re gonna harrass you all night. You sure you don’t want to sleep in the RV?” No, I wanted to brave the ferrets.
As tight as I clutched the sleeping bag to my chin, Mo and his sister nosed and pushed and found their way in. They slipped down either side of me like torpedos of mischief, and nibbled on my toes. They ran up and out and licked my hair. They leapt onto my stomach. I laughed out loud. They had more sense of fun than any five year old human I’d ever met. Finally they took pity on me; Mo clamped onto the meat of my palm with one more affection filled bite, and they bounded off to wherever they slept. I slept better than I had in weeks.
Huntington Beach, up at 4 am, excited to drive down past San Clemente to San Onofre State Beach, and the break lovingly called Old Man’s. Carl Hampe and I decide to meet and have a day. He’s a smart, adventurous producer who loves a good story, worked on Slumdog Millionaire and likes to kayak difficult whitewater, and surf. Sunday, gonna be crowded, they only let 250 cars in at a time, better be in line by 6am. We are. I can see Carl’s old bio-diesel twenty cars ahead on the switchback above. The guy behind me in a big old truck drinks his coffee, smokes a vanilla cheroot, and invites me to paddle down to “Dogpatch” to surf with his buddies. He’s an old hippy/cowboy, a rare mix, and we chat quietly while the sun rises. When all the cars start up to enter the park, he gives me a hug. Surfers always frigging surprise me, the random glimmers of aloha spirit.
Surfer’s have been winding down off the bluff to ride this generous wave for fifty years. Carl and I surf the big slow waves until my biceps cramp. Hours. Catch some long rides. Take off together on waves and split the peak, he one way and I the other. I love my new, used Takayama 9-0. Between sets, we sit the boards, rising and falling, and share kayaking and surfing stories, stories about making stories. He is funny, unguarded, a blast.
Finally we crawl out of the water, shower in the bamboo grove spigot, drive to breakfast at the firehouse-red café in Dana Point, then go out to Doheny’s in Dana Point for another session. The place looks, smells, sounds like a dream of So Cal summer, yells of kids, beach volleyball, grills smoking, bicycle bells jingling, gulls. Must be 60 surfers out there. Somehow we paddle out and find an opening. Catch one shapely little wave after another. Carry our boards back to the cars on the hot paved path. Body humming with fatigue and a pervasive, muscular good will.
I love surfing.