Two days shy of 10 weeks sober, sitting in the sand, laughing alone, like a madman who’d just escaped the doctors and orderlies.
I’d just finished a run. After covering two miles, I stopped to catch my breath, posted a quick, self-aggrandizing Instagram story to aggravate a few of my raft guide friends still in the Rockies, then hit the deck and was overcome by the giggle fits. Not because I found what I’d posted to be particularly entertaining or clever. But because my life has been, and continues to be, so goddamn absurd.
Me–the restless suburban Jersey kid who was too scared to put himself on the page and too quick to throw up fists–31 years old, recovering from life as a river guide, getting paid to write and now a sober, soon-to-be surfer, welcoming a California sunburn with open arms and gliding into the honeymoon phase of a relationship with a mistress who’s eluded me for so long– peace.
The ways in which it’s all played out don’t add up with use of the standard calculator for life. And that’s exactly what teenage me would’ve wanted.
With the onset of puberty, I either bickered with or made life hell for every math teacher I had from sixth grade onward. Sitting through Algebra III sophomore year hurt my insides more than a colonoscopy in the absence of anesthesia.
I would openly beg my teacher to stop calling on me for answers in front of my classmates– I’d never raise my hand, I’d never start doing the homework and I wanted to understand integers as much as I wanted to get my girlfriend pregnant, quit the football team and start picking up work as a bank teller to support our soon-to-be family.
So much of what the school’s curriculum forced down my throat felt flavorless and nutritionally deficient. And what I saw as the end result of an imposed education that made little room for art or experience, was a life in the suburbs, which I found as appetizing as a bowl of sawdust and lugnuts.
I wouldn’t do the cookie-cutter, prepackaged, suit-wrapped or dad-jeaned horseshit for the rest of my life. Just getting in one container to move to another, and then the next–car, cubicle, car, condo, so on and so forth– absolutely not. There was life outside those walls meant to be tasted, savored, then chewed to mush and digested.
Senior year, I’d talk over my Sex Ed teacher and completely derail whatever lesson plan she’d created. I’d regale everyone with tales of one day winning a Pulitzer Prize, jumping out of helicopters, or running with the bulls in Pamplona. Or, sometimes, I’d expound on my conspiracy theory that the chemistry teacher with the funny accent was a communist spy and that the principal had such droopy skin because it wasn’t actually skin at all, but a rubber suit meant to conceal her scales and tail.
On the whiteboard, I diagrammed a plan to move into the woods on my 18th birthday, where no one could tell me what to do or where to be.
With a dry erase marker in hand, I fielded questions from the class and deflected their skepticism with inarguable logic.
As a legal adult, my parents couldn’t implore the police to force me home. And with the spare change I’d been stuffing into my sock drawer every weekend, I could survive on beef lo mein delivered to the outskirts of the forest and pay community college kids to supply me with Milwaukee’s Best Beer for at least a month.
Autonomy, food and carbonated fun. What else could I want?
My teacher had a soft spot for me and would mostly play along while I blabbered, until the day I stole her binder, begged to fill in as instructor, and promised to stick to whatever lesson plan she’d put together. Exasperated by my determination (and maybe just a tad bit intoxicated by my relentless grin and imagination), she reluctantly agreed.
After covering the introductory bullet points on prophylactics, I began to slide in references to my own sexual experiences, and then a full on recap of my love life, with physical demonstrations for clarity. Though it garnered raucous applause from my buddies, I was threatened with a suspension and told to shut the fuck up and sit down. I feigned shock, asked her not to use “such language” and stole a few bashful smiles from the girls in the back row on the way to my seat.
I was barred from any more front-of-the-room diatribes for a time. That was, until I started scribbling grand plans for a cross-country RV road trip and couldn’t stop whispering about the logistics with anyone willing to lean over from their seat and listen.
Just get up here, and get it OUT.
It turned into a recurring series in Sex Ed, where for a few minutes here and there, I was allowed to wax poetic and try to sell my classmates on the idea of pooling our money to buy an RV.
We’d start at home and stretch things out as long as we could, with the West Coast being our ultimate goal.
In Louisiana, we’d sneak into French Quarter bars and pay for a guided gator hunting experience in bayou backwaters, then head New Mexico’s way, to spot UFOs, dress up like aliens to tease tourists in Roswell and shoot guns at ghosts in the desert.
We’d tip cows in the flyover states, go whitewater rafting in Colorado, gamble at shady casinos off the Vegas strip, spot whales in Washington and camp beside Lake Tahoe.
I wanted us to cook together in the mountains, rename constellations in the desert and welcome as many new friends as we could on the road. For a few months after graduation, we’d live outside of containers constructed by the grown-ups and giggle ‘til our stomachs hurt.
Anyone who wanted to bail on college and stay on for the long haul could, because once we hit the Pacific, I’d fall in love with a California girl, convince her rich parents to bankroll my creative pursuits for a time, then write a screenplay about our trip that would sell for millions and help with the purchase of a home in Hollywood, with room for everyone, an infinity pool, a bike ramp into one of those foam pits, and a fountain in the entryway that spat out Yoo-Hoo at the perfect temperature.
We’d live outside of any other entity’s control and loosen our own grips on premeditated paths as well. We wouldn’t allow ourselves to be controlled and wouldn’t attempt to control anyone else either.
One day my teacher stopped me on the way out the door, after I’d commandeered the last 10 minutes of class to argue with a buddy over whether anyone in Arizona would actually let 18-year-olds rent and drive dune buggies.
You know, beneath that mischievous, masculine, troublemaking persona you put on, there’s a brilliant, warmhearted person who’d do a lot for a lot of people if he finally started putting his thoughts and real feelings on paper.
I told her I would once I found a way to get on the road.
But I didn’t.
I followed a different, but still somewhat prescribed path that led me across the Hudson River into New York City and the entertainment industry. Kicking it with my favorite comedians, shooting tequila next to Lebron James at a party hosted by Amy Schumer, writing lines for Ice Cube and Brooke Shields in a recording studio, getting cornered and tickled by Gary Busey during a photo op and, when I was able to snag time on the mic, telling stories to an audience that was bigger than the one I’d had in Sex Ed by a few hundred thousand.
Wild and unpredictable, but still, a restrictive, materialistic existence, subject to the rule of my superiors and fueled by a desire for status that felt out of alignment with who I wanted and was supposed to be.
So I quit the golden ticket job, moved to Montana and started life anew as a dirtbag raft guide, ski bum and skid, which would see me live in eight different states over the course of six years and go fully feral. It was the indulgence and unshackling I’d been fantasizing about since the first hairs on my scrotum had started to grow in.
With this new way of being, teenage me was allowed time out of his cage for walkabout.
But in the last two years or so of my rabid Mountain West journey, drop offs, deaths, shit luck and seeing things not go exactly to plan set me bitter. This summer in particular, I spent most of my time chewing my cheek and driving my canines through my tongue. Booze helped me to keep the younger version of myself (who would’ve lusted after the lack of a set, defined and guaranteed path) silent and allowed me to bring the dead and gone into every aspect and context of my present. I wrote about it and how I started a long overdue healing process at summer’s end in The Sobriety Experiment.
Amongst the thousands of lessons I learned in getting sober, crafting a routine for self-care, prioritizing emotional maintenance and getting comfortable with surrender, is that there's a major difference between wanting and forcing.
In June of this past summer, I decided that come the end of whitewater season, I’d head to a coastal town and become a beach guy. After a trip to Carmel-by-the-Sea, The Golden State felt right. I’d guide two raft trips a day, save half of every tip out, bartend at night, fix up the camper I’d purchased with my then-girlfriend as fast as we could, and dress it up nice enough to sell it for thousands by the time the river dried up, then head further west with fistfuls of cash.
And that could have happened. But in the face of detours and roadblocks, like an injury on the job and loss of income, rather than adjusting, or moving in sync with the ebbs and flows, I drank, ruminated on things not falling into line the way I had intended them to, and tried to force my way to multiple different desired outcomes.
The day I quit drinking at the end of August, I had something like 600 bucks to my name. Any beach, much less California, would be completely out of reach.
I dropped the bottle and became militant when it came to my mental health, bettering myself and my protocols for processing emotion, and putting words on the page. But outside of that, I just let it all flow. I was stuck in Colorado indefinitely. I still held on to a want for the West Coast, for surfing and for seafood, and I worked hard when I could and should, but also just surrendered to an acceptance of where I was at.
And then it started to lay itself out; a path to my wants made itself manifest and danced naked and suggestively in front of my face.
Money started coming at me fast, magazine editors began responding to my work, an author liked my stuff, then linked me up with another established writer, who introduced me to the editor of a surfing publication, and after a debut piece on their site, I was offered the opportunity to get paid to write a series about learning the sport. As a cherry on top, I flipped the camper for twice as much as I thought I would.
I surveyed the coast and average rents. Ventura made the most sense financially and had been suggested to me months prior as a town I might like. That same established writer was nearby and encouraged me to make my way to her neck of the woods to write, ask questions and start learning the sport before the winter swells kicked in.
Surrender to my current state, then the arrival of dozens of different green lights, and it was go-time.
None of it came about without work. I’m not saying I just sat next to the river, lit some sage and called in all of this shit out of the ether. I busted my ass. But I did it in a way that allowed me to practice presence and lean into an enjoyment of life as it was.
No gestapo-like adherence to method, map or outcome. Just a desire for fun and flavor and a willingness to work for it. Not a strict decree.
Which is why I found myself overcome with laughter the other day in the sand.
California was where teenage me had wanted to be. I’ve made it.
When things had gone south this summer, when I couldn’t shake my father’s ghost in the years after his death, and when life didn’t look exactly the way I felt it should, I had unfairly placed blame on the dirtbag raft guide culture, the real-life Dirt Lot and life in the mountains as a whole. And I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Had it not been for dirtbag raft guides, the lessons I learned from them and the spirit they’d gifted me, I’d have never been able to pull off a move like this. More importantly, had it not been for their love and support, I’d have put a pistol in my mouth in the summer of 2021. Six years of scattered travel and scraping by, from one coast to another, and now, finally, in position to savor the full spectrum of sensations.
The journey that started in Montana and took me all over the country over the course of six years was what I’d been after. Dirtbaggin’ had been my RV, and the path I’d taken to different rivers and ski towns had been the road trip I’d started planning in Sex Ed thirteen years ago.
It had just manifested itself in a form slightly different from the one I’d molded in my mind back then. And by dropping the bottle, finding purchase in the present and letting things come as they may, I’ve found my way to an ultimate destination that I’d forgotten I wanted.
When I stopped giggling and my breath slowed, I sat up to stretch. Leaning forward and reaching for my toes, in front of me was the surf, bikinis, dogs and owners on walkabout, and couples holding hands with pant legs rolled halfway to their knees. Flipping over into a bridge and rolling out my neck, I saw upside-down mountains to the east, where I could hike, camp, run and let my dog run free to terrorize small mammals and birds.
Here there’s piers, fishing vessels, fresh seafood, bike paths, bustling beachfronts and they’ve even got fucking pelicans, son. Pelicans!
In town there’s culture– a variety of cuisine, nightlife, art shows, meet-ups, gatherings, and various going-ons– a departure from the repetitive, five block radius of podunk mountain towns and the opportunity to slide in and out of different scenes; to wear whatever identity most suits my wants or needs in the moment.
The chance to live a somewhat civilized life, but still, space for any necessary re-wilding within driving distance. Everything I want– nature, culture, crowds, solitude–I’m now in a place that presents the opportunity to check every box.
On the East Coast, I’d wanted desperately to run, fearful that the confines of a conforming culture and societal failures would somehow fence me in. And in those last few years at elevation, I was worried that there simply wasn’t enough going on to allow for any growth at all. But the answer all along, whether near concrete or creek, was to just be.
I was hesitant to come here and attempt to find home in a new place for the umpteenth time, but the green lights I’d received in Colorado had come in a horde and were too many to ignore. So, I latched onto the dirtbag spirit that had been passed down to me from my river mentors, Pipe Bomb and Miss Information, and just sent it.
Upon arrival, I was living in the back of my truck with the dog, no prospects for a day job or a home. But after 16 hours, I locked up a place to live in what had been described to me as one of the toughest housing markets in the country. After 48 hours, I was employed. Four days, and I was published again, then another surprise chunk of change fell into my lap. Five days, and I found a free board, a wetsuit and multiple potential mentors who offered to teach me to surf. Green lights galore.
And in my first week, I’ve already begun to build a life. Seeing and doing, spotting and savoring the glimmers when they slip around a corner.
I run along the beach and talk to strangers when I stretch. I’ve gorged myself on pork fat tacos and ahi tuna. Awkwardly shuffling into a hot yoga class, I was greeted with open arms and invited to surf once I was able to find myself a board and wetsuit. At a patio show, I sang along to corny songs with genderless hipsters, fist bumped a grisly-looking dude who offered me meth on the sidewalk and one afternoon, got a surprise invite to a gathering of local creative professionals, to network, talk the monetization of art and discuss my ideas.
As I sat to watch surfers the other afternoon, and tried to find some parallels between how they do what they do in the water and how raft guides read the river, an old pervert sat down next to me, lit a cigarette, surveyed the sea of butt cheeks almost all the way out and free on the beach, shook his head and made me snort-laugh.
I don’t know how your generation always finds something to complain about when women’s swimsuits are cut like THAT nowadays.
I had dinner in Santa Barbara the other night and was given a tour of a town that was even more alive, where the people were pretty, the streetlights cast a soothing glow on the pavement and the energy in every bar, restaurant and lounge we passed was connective and communal– which seems to be the theme in this part of the coast, a veritable land of milk and honey.
On the drive home, I thought about how peculiar it was that over the course of a multi-block stretch I'd driven before dinner, all the traffic lights had experienced a power outage-- neither red nor green. Then as the miles ticked by, I finished writing a thousand-word piece in my head, didn't hit a lick of traffic on the way to my house, outlined it before bed then put it to paper the next afternoon.
It was published before the end of the day– the second thing I was paid to write about surfing, without ever having actually surfed.
Green lights and good feelings, again and again, by just stepping into each day with a willingness to indulge in whatever happens to be laid on the buffet table.
I’m still prone to the occasional slip up and negative thought loop here and there though.
I walked out of a local spot after drinking in some music and dancing the other night, and started heading back towards other venues on foot. After a block, I had a relapse and started ruminating over the few minor red lights I’ve encountered in the past two weeks.
Then I got hit by a truck while crossing the street.
That’s not hyperbole or a metaphor. I was literally hit by a fucking truck.
I wasn’t injured. Not badly. But it was close.
A dude in a silver Silverado had gunned it while texting, and not seen me until the last second. I was chewing on my thumbnail and overanalyzing a handful of things when the Chevy logo burst into my peripheral vision and I leapt into the most athletic maneuver I’ve ever executed, just as he jammed his foot onto the brake–one leg up on the bumper, palm on the hood, and my calf against the grill–a life-saving Heisman pose.
Sliding off the hood, I landed on both feet next to the driver-side window and burst into a shell-shocked laughter as the driver forced the gas pedal to the floor and exploded through the next intersection and off into the night.
It wasn’t my fault. I’d waited for the walk signal before crossing and that dude had come around a corner screamin’, then ran a red light.
Three or four months ago, drunk me would’ve put my fist through the window, unlocked the door, yanked the driver out, put him in a guillotine choke and left him unconscious on the pavement. But instead I laughed, uncontrollably almost, and kept moving, even when a concerned witness sprinted to my side.
Holy fuck, dude he almost killed you. Are you ok? I got his license plate. Do you want it? I can call the cops right now.
Nah, man. I’m good.
My hip is still quite sore. I’ve taken to pressing into the tender spot with my palm in the morning, a masochistic practice meant to remind myself to make as little room for rumination or lamentation as possible. I’ve been namaste-ing like a motherfucker lately, and leaning into all kinds of mystical trust and faith shit. I took the Silverado as a message from on high, to stop fearing, and to continue making belief the beverage of choice.
The more time I spend in surrender, the more I see how real the world 16-year-old me had imagined in Sex Ed can actually be. And is.
There’s been so much seen and done already. The only thing the kid in me would be pissed about was the invite to a college party I declined from a group of girls who were molesting my dog in the park. He’ll get over it. There’s more cool shit comin’.
I wanna surf, spearfish, and get my legs conditioned to carry me on double-digit mileage runs again. I could wear a ridiculous thrift store suit to a formal event, attend a group meditation or sound bath, paint a mural on someone else’s wall, write love letters that I’ll mail with extra postage, or fold them into airplanes and float them into the sea. Clip and steal a bouquet’s worth of flowers from the botanical garden and gift it to a homeless woman on the street. Might sit with the first stranger I see at the park tomorrow morning, and then maybe buy us both shrimp tacos. Or milkshakes. Or cake.
Who gives a fuck?
Perhaps meet some new folks and rally up to a secret bonfire party and free-dancing festival in the forest. Chant om or something like that a whole bunch, let somebody paint flowers and shit on my forehead, then hug and connect with a crew I’ll never see again.
I’d like to take advantage of LA’s close proximity, impulse-buy a ticket on the coastal train and blow some money on a high-end omakase sushi dinner. Score tickets to a comedy show, let loose and dance at a rave, then cool off while laughing and making dirty jokes in broken Spanish with taco vendors on the street. Burn more money on an Uber and jet back north up the coast, to hop the fence and skinny dip at a swanky hotel pool. Then grab hands and sprint barefoot from security, towards the beach.
Make love on the edge of the surf, reaching a mutual, simultaneous climax, perfectly-timed with the moon hitting its peak high in the sky. Lock two sets of eyes on each other, put arms round shoulders and waists, get wrapped up and giggly in a wrinkly blanket turned two-person tortilla– ‘til hearts fade in the face of exhaustion and pupils fall beneath the curtain of sleep. A kick from a beach cop’s boot for an alarm clock, then sheepishly dress to hurry home, have ice cream or farmer's market fruit for breakfast and sleep for two days.
Might do it all. Might not. Dunno.
What I do know for sure, is that with my time in California, I’m gonna write my fucking face off. I’ve started piecing together a book. A finished chapter has already been put to paper, but I threw it out to begin anew. I’m much looser now, but still a perfectionist when it comes to the page.
I’m gonna continue doing therapy and staying off the sauce as I gather more momentum in pursuit of becoming the man who creates and can always provide a love that’s both cozy, secure home and untethered adventure all at once– for everyone in my orbit.
Maybe I’m a lost boy. I might be disconnected from reality and can’t shake a bad case of Peter Pan syndrome.
Or, maybe, I'm connected to something else, and life in California is gonna be even fuckin’ juicier than a Colorado Palisade peach.
I don’t know if this particular town is my forever place. I’m not going anywhere anytime soon though. There’s still some tread left on my tires, but I’m done moving around. There’s a tremendous amount of writing to be done and I want to settle more into this being present thing, allowing the teenage version of myself to sample every flavor available. It feels good here.
What I wanted has revealed itself. It was right there the whole time. I just had to throw my hands up, and purge my heart, mind and liver to see. The bad shit, drop-offs, downfalls and deaths had been the dark necessities to get me here, to this place, where I see endless possibility.
There’s ocean to the west, mountains to the east, hope to the north and south, and much less bullshit on my brain.
Red lights are coming, but like that Silverado, I’ll endeavor to not pay them much mind. I’m being more vulnerable, open and just lettin’ it fucking fly. A stubborn imposition of one’s beliefs, predilections and preferences is usually the sign of a deeply troubled mind and lonely heart. The only thing I’m holding onto with a death grip now, is the fact that I must use writing as my vehicle.
When I left the East Coast to become a raft guide, the biggest goal was to get paid to do cool shit and tell the stories about it. I’m getting paid to learn how to surf and write about a subculture completely foreign to me. While it might not be super lucrative at the moment, the dream is up on its feet and taking steps.
Teenage-me would have creamed his jeans.
Like a scent-drunk dog high on pheromones, sportin’ a red rocket and rollin’ around in the dirt, I’m fuckin’ stoked.