Sandra was curled up into a ball near the wing and I was startled when she grabbed my arm, squeezing viciously.
How can he be dead? she said. How can your dad be dead?
I growled like the wolf that I had imagined I had become and her question got rejected, spit out, before my brain could fully absorb it. A layer of rough hide seemed to grow over my cold skin, shielding the snow and wind and bad thoughts, and I hunkered and drew it tighter to my body. Then I slithered under the wing. I lay the rug over the snow and tucked it against the back edge of our shelter.
Get under the wing, I said.
She crawled under and I crawled in after her. She wrapped her arms around me. Two animals huddled in their cave.
I hope they come for us, she said.
Go to sleep, I said. Rest.
Are we going to die? she said.
No, I said, then wondered if we would freeze to death waiting there for someone to rescue us.
It got warm under the wing with Sandra wrapped around me and I faded into sleep.
As I dreamed I knew it was the same dream that I had dreamed before I woke up the first time after the crash. I wondered how many hours ago that was. Or was it less than an hour ago? In the dream I float upside down. My blue Vans above my head. A luminous white oval encapsulates me, black beyond its edge. At the top of the oval seeps a granular light. I drift feet first toward the light and ask myself what is happening. Calm and lucid comes the answer: You’re dying. Oh, I’m dying, I say back to myself with wonder. Something is pulling me down. I can’t quite reach the granular light, the cracked doorway. Two hands, two currents --- no, a wave-shaped force pitches over me. Holds me from floating up into the granular light.
He jumped over me, I said, and my voice woke me from the dream.
Sandra was wrapped around me tight. Her hands were very cold. I turned and snuggled her, my face nestled against her neck. I envisioned my dad jumping over me as the plane broke apart. He saved my life and I would find a way to save his. I held this hope in my mind even though some part of me knew it was too late. Melting into Sandra’s body I dozed again.
A muffled thwack against the air woke me. It repeated itself and I couldn’t understand what it was and it came and went like the waves of fog.
I noticed Sandra’s watch. It was still ticking. I thought of the commercial catchphrase Takes a licking but keeps on ticking. I looked closely, and it was a Timex. It was nearly twelve noon, the big hand and little hand both near the twelve, and I laughed.
What’s happening? she said.
It’s still ticking, I said.
What’s going to happen to us, Norman? she said.
I did not know what to say. I thought about how long we’d been up here. We took off around seven, I remembered. So it’s been five hours. What the hell have we been doing? Then the thwacking noise got closer and I identified it. I slithered from under the wing and rose off my belly onto all fours.
Where are you going? said Sandra.
I hear a helicopter, I said.
The fog was breaking and the sky was patched with blackedged clouds and the strips of blue looked far away. I had to get out from under the broad reach of the spruce limbs. The light
was brighter now and the trail was trodden from my two trips back and forth and I scampered across the chute. The thwack of the blades was gone again and I wondered if I had imagined it.
For the first time I could make out the chute’s broader features. As I had guessed, it was shaped like a half-pipe carved vertically down the mountainside, dropping for at least twenty yards, maybe more below the receding clouds. The icy chute was bordered by chunks of rock. The rocks hemmed us in and trees grew out of the rocks with snow filling in the nooks and crannies like mortar. A slick, icy groove washed straight down one side of the chute --- the funnel. Instinctively I understood that the funnel was the predominant fall line where your skis would gravitate, the most direct and thrilling way down. I wanted nothing to do with it today.
Suddenly rotors boomed overhead again, sending laps of noise against the mountain. I yelled up at the checkered sky. Struts appeared through the shifting pools of smoky fog. I waved with both hands and yelled at the belly right above me. I waved and yelled.
Hey! Right here! Hey!
I thrashed my arms and screamed so loud it burned my throat raw.
Right here! See me?
The helicopter hovered above the treetops. The struts were like the rails of a sled that I could grab.
Just in time, I thought. Dad can’t hold on much longer.
I screamed at the ’copter and kept whipping my arms.
Dad. We’re saved!
The ’copter dipped to one side and I saw a guy with a helmet and expected him to call back through the loudspeaker. I’ll guide them over to my dad and they’ll lower down and fly him
to a hospital.
My adrenaline spurred me across the chute toward my dad and I motioned to the ’copter to follow. The ’copter powered up. It whined.
I shuffled my feet, careful not to slip, and kept flagging them toward the impact zone. The closer I got to my dad, the funnel, the slower I had to go. Any moment now I’ll have to drop to my belly and hug the mountain. I won’t be able to flag them. So I stopped where I was. Arms raised high like a ref signaling a touchdown I motioned the ’copter toward my dad. You guys are the greatest. Thank you. Thank you.
Then the ’copter dipped to one side and slowly banked away from me.
Hey! Right here! Wrong way!
A cloud swallowed the blades, then the belly and struts. The thwacking noise thinned. Then faded.
What the hell?
I turned to my dad, who was about fifteen feet away across the chute. Can you believe that?
He was coated with snow like an ice sculpture.
My adrenaline went cold and flushed down my body, leaving me hollow.
I closed my eyes. I pushed everything away. Tough it out. Focus on the next thing. Don’t worry about what has already happened.
Did they see you? called Sandra.
No, I said.
She asked more questions, and I was fixed on something way way down below. It was barely visible over the clouds bottled up in the chute. My eyes settled on a flat meadow. The flat spot
was unnatural and improbable in this jagged landscape. The round bed of snow glowed woodless and I thought that if I made it there I would be okay. My eyes stuttered, gobbling up the terrain that led to the meadow. How to get there?
Below my feet the chute disappeared under a long blanket of fog. Several hundred feet lower the fog bent with the easing grade and a sparsely wooded slope emerged. As my eyes traced the slope downward the trees gave way to a steep, bald apron of snow. It nosed away so that I could not see how far down it went. The fog made the terrain difficult to follow but I filled in the blanks. As if I were water I flowed with the various gullies and ravines for thousands of feet until the mountain’s creases and bulges all seemed to feed into a tight gulch, sandwiched between two walls of glacier-scathed rock. A massive ridgeline grew out of the gulch. It would take hours to climb over it, and it looked too steep, too slick. But the gulch might squeeze through or around the massive ridge. If Dad and I were skiing back here we’d flow right into that gulch and find a way through.
Then I saw a rooftop. It was not far from the meadow. Looking down on it from a couple miles away, I almost did not believe it. My eyeballs strained to segregate the clean smooth man-made shape from the sawtoothed woods. It was definitely a roof.
The woods surrounding the roof were thick except for a furrow that cut toward the meadow. It was some kind of road, a passageway through the dense woods between the roof and the meadow. I retraced my route down to the meadow. The chute, the wooded section, the long apron of snow curving away into the gulch, the massive ridgeline, then the flat meadow where we could rest before stumbling through the woods to find the shelter chiseled a map in my mind, fixing the meadow as my true north.
I took in the rooftop one more time to make sure. Looks like a ghost-town building, I thought. We can get warm there.
The storm heaved like two waves closing in on each side of me. The respite was over. Bales of mist crawled over both sides of the chute and collected in the middle. I stared at the roof. Mother Nature waved her wand and the roof turned to vapor and it was suddenly hard to trust that it was there.
Are they coming back? said Sandra.
The helicopter noise was long gone.
I don’t know, I said.
I heard her complaining from under the wing. The wing and the trunk receded behind fog. Her voice was lost in the wind. I came to all fours and stared at my hands, the wet air stuck
to them, and I could feel it on my face. It crept under my ski sweater and down my socks, and the wet seemed to bite at my skin. The resurging storm was dark and angry. I was five feet from the wing when I finally saw it again.
I saw a cabin, I said.
They’ll come get us, she said.
I huddled against her. Snow piled up fast beyond the edge of the wing and I imagined the well-worn trail back toward my dad evaporating, obliterated by the wind and snow. I stuffed my hands into the cup of my armpits. I looked down to make sure they were there because I could not feel them. The tip of my nose stung and my forehead ached the way it did diving under a chilly winter wave at Topanga.
I turned my back on the cold and buried my face in Sandra’s neck. Should we wait here in case they come back? Or should we go?
I was close to the reef and my dad was behind me for some reason. Coming out of the trance, I realized the waves were twice my size. I sat up on my board. The reef halted the swell’s forward momentum and the swell lurched upward then heaved outward, hollowing out the face of the wave. The leading crest was pointed like an arrow as it knifed down and impaled the surface of the ocean. My dad paddled up next to me.
Perfect left-hand tubes. I’ll be damned, he said. I’ll be goddamned.
A vein rippled with thumping blood from his bicep to his shoulder and his eyebrows forked down over the bridge of his nose, as if he were a savage poised to attack.
I felt ridiculous --- these waves were too big and strong for me.
A tube like that will change your life, he said.
I don’t want to change my life, I said.
Another swell bared its vicious claw.
You want to watch it for a while? he said.
I thought about it. Yes meant that later I would stop watching and actually try to surf it. No could mean that I wanted to surf it now.
I’ll test it out, he said.
This was a reef wave, a quick combustion of energy that lasted about six seconds, nearly opposite the long reeling point break in Baja. The reef wave dissolved where the water got deep again, where there was an opening in the reef --- the channel. My dad paddled through that opening and out past the reef, before cutting over to the take-off spot. In the unlikely event that I would decide to paddle out, I felt that the channel would protect me, and once out there, if a giant set came I could take refuge in its safe harbor.
My dad paddled for the next swell. He got right under the peak and a tumult of water gathered from the floor of the wave and shot up the face, loading the lip. The heavy lip stacked over the face of the wave, separating my dad’s board from the coveted arc where a surfer did his thing, and my dad was stuck on the roof. He gripped the rails of his board, sat up and leaned back. Just as the roof collapsed against the reef, the nose of his board ripped free and Dad spun around out to sea. Barely avoiding getting pummeled against the reef.
Faintly I heard voices. I turned and the beach was alive with cheering kids. Behind them the dark jungle flourished as if about to gobble them up. Rounding the sand spit came the vaqueros on horseback. One of the boys from the village was in the lead.
I looked for Papaya’s yellow shirt against the shells, but it appeared to be gone. The vaqueros made their way along the wet sand and the horses shied away from the lapping waves.
The horses stopped in a perfect row and their shadows fell onto the wet sand. The vaqueros looked out at us and waited. It struck me that the vaqueros had left whatever work they were doing because they expected to see something extraordinary.
Immediately I paddled for the channel. The channel was safe. Deceptive because it appeared to be in the line of fire yet was just out of reach of the wave’s angry bite.
As I got closer I heard a groan rising from the reef. Not understanding where the noise was coming from, I sat up. When the next wave came I watched closely. As the swell wrenched and dragged at the reef the groan sounded. At the same time the crest pitched outward, transforming the wave into a tube. I looked into the big oval eye zooming toward me. There was something peaceful about the inside of the tube. Then the eye blinked shut and the wave exploded against the reef.
I glanced to shore. I saw the vaqueros astride their horses staring at me and I was sure they understood that I was hiding in the channel and that I was a coward. Then Papaya came around the spit on horseback and the disgrace was unbearable.
To make matters worse my dad waved me into the lineup. I wiped my eyes, pretending to have salt in them. I simply chose not to look up and floated there for a while. Nonetheless every second seemed to double the weight on me. I felt the vaqueros watching and Papaya watching and the pressure kept mounting. It finally broke me and I started paddling.
The doubt came right away. It felt like poison under my skin and my head rang. I even imagined Nick laughing at me. He was there helping feed the poison.
I looked up to get my bearing, to make sure I was following the channel out far enough past where the swells hit the reef. Just then a big wave stormed down the reef. The fear it unleashed was like a headwind. I tried to paddle but the headwind beat me back. A burning heat amassed from this friction. I vibrated and coughed and suddenly an ember broke free and seared through me. I stopped paddling.
I searched the clean clear water, trying to gather courage. The hot fear was spreading. I mashed my teeth and imagined a toxic ball beating like a heart inside me. The ball spit its toxic juice through my body, eroding my will. I hated the fear more than anything, so I focused all my hate onto its source, hoping to overpower it.
Fueled by this hatred, my arms oared again. The current wrapping around the reef into the channel shoved me backward. I paddled harder. As I came over a swell I saw my dad dropping into a cavernous pit. His back was to the wave and his board wiggled at the bottom, nearly bucking him, and he leaned so far into the bottom turn that his left hand grazed the water. He was unable to bring his body upright and the mighty forces sucked his board up the face. They drew him to the ceiling. For a split second his body stood tall and it seemed like he could just step right onto the roof and walk down the backside of the wave. Instead the wave pitched him out over the reef. He was horizontal to the ocean, his board chasing him, and he fell out of the sky and belly-flopped. He skidded and the lip struck his torso and the explosion of whitewash obliterated him.
I paddled over the wave just before it got me and stroked hard to make it over the next one. Beyond its crest the ocean lay flat. I caught my breath.
I was numb. In a state of shock. Convinced that my dad was fine but that I could never take that kind of beating. Yet, in that moment, I would have rather died than succumb to my cowardice.
I noticed that the smaller waves missed the outer coral heads and peaked inside. With the drop in size came a drop in heft all around. I paddled for the inside zone, unfazed by the fact that if a set came I would get pummeled.
I shook with adrenaline. Fuck being scared, I muttered.
I monitored the ocean like a big cat waiting to pounce. It wasn’t long before a four-footer steamed past the outer reef. I paddled under it and the tail of my board tilted and I was looking straight down at the white and purple coral heads. I jumped up and stayed centered, fighting the forward pitch of my body.
Get the back foot down, I told myself.
The floor of the wave dug a trench. I swept down the face to the bottom and pressed on my back foot and the nose of the board scooped out a chunk of water as it ripped from the trench. The twisted veins of water pulling off the bottom sent a shock through my board and nearly bucked me off. I leaned hard into the wave. It towered over me. The lip eclipsed the sun and the face of the wave turned dark blue.
My brain protested. A wall of water is threatening to collapse onto you. Bail out.
A voice, some kind of knowing force, told me --- it opens up. It wraps around. You will fit inside.
Impossible. A mountain is toppling and you are under it and you need to dive out of harm’s way.
No. It bends and you fit inside.
Automatically my knees drew up to my chest and the board climbed into the pocket. My eyes closed as I entered the tube.
The groan rumbled. I opened my eyes. An oval window framed the sand spit. The rock spires. The coconut palms. And the groan sucked away and the spinning cavern was silent. The ominous wall had bent and wrapped me in its peaceful womb. I was buried inside a thing that could maim or kill me, yet was cuddling me now --- I was stretched between panic and bliss. Everything essential, everything formerly invisible, burst forth and pulsed through me. I was there, in that elusive space --- the dream world of pure happiness.
The window changed shape and --- whoosh --- I emerged and the world came crashing in, noisy and bright and chaotic.
I saw my dad down the line. A dazzling smile. His eyes beamed with love and I felt like a knight bringing home the golden chalice. I rode out over the back of the wave.
Holy cow, Boy Wonder! What a fantastic tube ride!
I nodded and my lips burned against the salt. And I noticed blood trailing down his rib cage. A big gash on his back.
Are you okay? I said.
I’m fine, Ollestad.
It’s bleeding real bad.
It looks worse than it is.
I remembered my mom telling me the same thing about her black eye.
So how was it? he said.
Just... I searched for words, images. All that I could grasp
was the feeling --- I had never felt so good in all my life.
I don’t know. Radical, I said.
He held my gaze as if perfectly attuned to the ecstasy spiking and reverberating in every part of me.
You’ve been to a place that very few people in this world have ever gone, he said. Someplace beyond all the bullshit.
We drifted and thought about the perfect place I had been, and the ocean grew very calm. My dad bled into the water and the threat of sharks was somehow negated by my tube ride, as though we were invincible because we were a part of everything. I looked around and this strange world suddenly made perfect sense.
When we got in the pickup truck the seats were already sticky. My dad wedged his guitar case behind the seat bench and tuned in a country station that was playing his favorite, Willie Nelson. It was dusk when we hit the Tijuana border. A fat man in a uniform and hat approached us. He circled around the truck bed, eyeing the tarped washing machine and our two surfboards rainbowing over the edge. He waddled to my dad’s window.
Buenas nochas, said my dad.
The man nodded and asked in Spanish for something. My dad reached in the glove compartment and handed the man the Sears receipt. The man inspected it for a long time. Then he said a number --- I knew this because I had learned some Spanish while visiting my grandparents last summer.
My dad grumbled and said a different number.
The man smiled and flashed his gold teeth. Before the man spoke again my dad handed him some pesos. The man counted them. As he did my dad put the truck in gear and rolled forward. The man looked around before stuffing the money in his pocket, and my dad hit the gas.
Why’d you have to pay him?
They call it a tax. But it’s a bribe.
Isn’t that against the law?
Sure is. But he is the law.
He’s the police?
If the police break the law then who arrests them?
I don’t know. Good question, Ollestad.
He let me stew over the paradoxes for a while. Then he spoke. In a poor country like Mexico people try to get money any way they can. They even do it in a rich country like America. It’s not right. But sometimes --- like with that guy --- you play along because you understand the circumstances.
He checked on me a couple of times as we wound out of Tijuana and back along the coast. It was black outside. A few lights scattered around in the distance.
He’s a liar then, right? I said.
The border guard?
Uh-huh. That’s right.
I wanted to blurt out that I had lied too, about skateboarding, about where I got my scrapes. I pressed my forehead against the passenger’s window. I could feel my dad’s eyes on my back. I flashed on Nixon, his saggy jowls and hunched shoulders, and the policeman’s gold teeth, and him sitting in his box all night and him taking money from people and stuffing it in his pocket.
Take it easy on that window, Ollestad, said my dad.
You want to rest your head in my lap?
I swiveled around and put my cheek across his thigh and my bent knees up on the seat so my feet could fit against the door.
Sunlight poured in the truck’s window onto my head. I sat up and wiped my forehead with my T-shirt.
Buenos dias, said my dad.
I noticed the creases under my dad’s eyes --- they were lined in an olive yellow, standing out against his smooth honey-brown skin. He looked older and more tired than I had ever seen him look. He drank coffee out of a Styrofoam cup.
Where are we? I said.
Just pulling out of Ensenada.
One eye was still blurry and I looked out the windshield. The sun cut across the sagebrush and the sage climbed the hills, spotting them with dull greens. It reminded me of Malibu. I looked west out the passenger’s window beyond the bald headland cliffs, and the Pacific Ocean spread as far as my eye could see, the water tinted peach in the morning light.
The blacktop quivered in the heat and the world was dead and dried out all around us. We drank mineral water and ate peanuts and tossed the shells out the window. Our only jubilant moments came when we had a farting contest. My dad won. Later we squatted and shit in the sagebrush and my dad told me to watch out for rattlesnakes, and then I couldn’t go and I was doubled over with a stomachache until we stopped at some town by the water and I used a restaurant bathroom.
After relieving myself I found my dad on the beach playing guitar and singing Heart of Gold to three Mexican girls. They were dressed for winter, I thought, and one of them walked right into the ocean with all her clothes on and took a swim. They did that in Vallarta too and I wondered why they didn’t wear bathing suits.
A couple of mean-looking guys came out of the bar and stared at my dad and the girls. My dad played on like they weren’t there staring at him. One of the guys with a sunburn over his brown skin called out to my dad in Spanish and I recognized the word gringo and my dad glanced over at him, his eye bone hooking around and setting his eyeball deep in the socket.
The guy scoffed at my dad. My fingers tingled and I was anxious. The sunburned guy approached my dad and my throat closed. My dad said something to him in Spanish and it took the man by surprise. He didn’t speak for a moment and then he said something back. My dad smiled and began playing a Mexican song and sang in Spanish, and some more people came out of the bar and the sunburned guy gestured toward my dad as if he had arranged this little concert with his old gringo buddy.
I walked over and sat next to my dad. Between songs I told him I wanted to go. After my second request he glanced at the ocean.
Yeah. No waves around here. Gotta review the map, he said. We checked into a cinder block motel and my dad paid the elderly clerk to watch the truck. We parked it in front of our room and kept the yellow curtain open. My dad looked over the map. The red circles indicated a good surf spot he had heard about.
Apparently we’ll pass a few tomorrow, he said.
The road cut through shades of gray and as the dawn gave way the dirt turned more golden. Cacti posed like stoic cowboys with the sun still behind the sharp ridges. Nothing but cactus and bush could live out here. It was going to be hot and dusty in a couple of hours and we would spend another day baking in the truck, sticking to the seat, hoping for the air coming through the window to be cool but tasting the dust and slumping there like zombies. I daydreamed about snow, cool and fresh on my face, turning to water on my tongue. I would have given anything to turn back the clock to winter.
Excerpted from CRAZY FOR THE STORM: A Memoir of Survival © Copyright 2010 by Norman Ollestad. Reprinted with permission by Ecco. All rights reserved.
Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir Of Survival