As the Himalayan skyline subsided for a moment, they looked in to see
the island as a speck in the distance. Without a word it was decided that
this day was simply beyond them, and they decided to make the hard paddle back against the current to the panga. They had made some headway when
the next set arrived and without enough strength to paddle back
out again, made the only decision left open to them. 

They, verbally this time, agreed to take the next wave in. The first wave was a solid fifteen feet, perfectly shaped and brushed clean by the increasing offshore wind. The takeoff was surprisingly easy and so drew Max into it. Once he had committed to the wave, however, it jumped another five feet in size, and went vertical while stretching out in a line that raced ahead for what seemed like miles. Max paddled down and was pulled back to the top several times before his board connected with the steep face, and he finally took the elevator drop; the spray from the offshore wind blinded his eyes while he lost his stomach on the air drop and instinctively, miraculously, stayed on the board and connected with the flat water at the bottom. He made just enough of a turn to get beyond the explosive power that chased him for a hundred yards, the board chattering on the face, the wave steepening up, boiling when it encountered shallow spots on the reef and taking him half a mile beyond the takeoff spot. If he had not been terrified he would have enjoyed the ride of his life on a wave that finally, gently, released him into water so deep it could have been an infinite hole in the ocean.

Max had survived the wave, but felt no relief as he contemplated the distance he had traveled, something that did nothing but increase his paddle back to the boat. His lungs ached, and his arms were rubber as he finally lifted himself into the panga and watched Tomás, a dot on the horizon, paddle up and over three increasingly large waves, any one of which might take him down forever if they broke on him. It required every bit of the tremendous knowledge and skill he possessed to out guess where the waves would land. As the first wave threatened to break, Tomás climbed the face of the avalanche before realizing he would need to push his board up and over the wave in order for it to clear the top of it. About half way up the face, he slid off the tail of his board and pushed hard, hoping he would find the board on the other side as he swam through the wave that was an Olympic-sized swimming pool wide. Surfacing, he could feel the breaking wave that had passed tugging at him, threatening to drag him along with it. But there was no time to consider that wave—another, bigger wave was nearly upon him.

Exhausted and unwilling to swim through this wave, he instead paddled over the top. The wind gusted hard at the peak of the wave before he fell endlessly behind it, landing so hard that the fiberglass on his board cracked, leaving what surfers call “stress fractures” throughout the board. Then Tomás saw a wave so vicious he hoped to never see another like it. As he paddled toward the horizon, he could feel the wave pulling him toward it as it sucked all the water from the reef and he fought the sick panic that rose within while wondering if something still bigger lurked behind this mountain. If so, he would surrender his lifeless body to the sea without further resistance. His only other choice was the madness of trying to ride the approaching wave.

Spinning around he took long, hard strokes, rose to his feet as the wave jacked behind him and the offshore wind gusted like a firehouse. The wave sucked still more water from the reef until it exposed lava boulders not far beneath the surface. The wall went vertical and then concave, and even he, one of the best surfers on the coast, had no chance against it. He was only about ten feet down the face when the board slid out from under him. “God no,” shouted Max from the boat, in a prayer that echoed the heavens as his brother’s board and body fell and the entire Pacific unloaded, the board held down like a toothpick before shooting back up, thirty feet or more above the wave’s crest, now in two nearly equal halves. The pieces fell before being eaten by the whitewater and eventually vomited up onto the lava cliffs where they would be ground like coarse sand.

Beneath the broken wave, Tomás was tumbled into blackness, each joint aching as he felt the power threaten to dislocate his limbs. He told himself to keep calm until he could no longer listen to that rational voice and began clawing up toward the thick aquatic clouds above him. But the clouds proved impenetrable, and he was pushed back into darkness again where he was forced to wait for the storm of the broken wave to clear. He gave himself to the blackness of the deep without struggle, floating in the netherworld. This was easy for him, since this was not the first time he had died. He recalled his uncle’s words from long ago: “If you’re drowning, breathe water.” He took in a cool, satisfying lungful and drifted off, memories of his childhood playing behind sealed eyelids like a newsreel. As the force of the wave decreased he drifted up lifelessly and as he did he awoke and his will to live returned. He could now see beyond the blackness, up beyond the grey, watery grave. Swimming for his life, he broke the surface and cleared the thick white foam that was neither air nor water but more resembled heavy snow. Breathing was nearly impossible until he cleared the foam away. Then he spat out most of the water in his lungs and deeply inhaled all the air in the vicinity before vomiting hard. His body was dead but his mind hung on, and he hoped and prayed there was not another wave like this behind the one he had just survived.

Max jumped from the boat with his board and paddled back toward the disaster, searching the churning water for signs of life until he saw the head of his brother being moved slowly forward by whatever strength remained in his limbs. Another wave broke behind Tomás, a bit smaller this time, but still twenty feet for sure, and Tomás again disappeared from view where he was tossed into blackness for an indeterminable amount of time. The next two waves in the set were mercifully smaller, and Tomás had less trouble getting beneath them. Suddenly the ocean quit moving and went lake flat. But calm water could be another enemy, as the water moving toward shore also has to move back out to sea in the form of a riptide that in this case was as strong as a Colorado River rapid. If this rip caught him, Tomás would be beyond anyone’s reach. As Max paddled forward, he was unsure if he would find life. Then, suddenly he was there, Tomás swimming slowly toward him, exhausted before collapsing on Max’s board as the two embraced weakly, teary eyed, paddling the board in tandem, back to the boat that bobbed, tiny in the distance.       

The ocean continued mysteriously silent just long enough for them to make the boat. When they arrived they panicked to note that the extra gas cans they always carried had been washed overboard. With less than half a tank left, their chances of making it back to land seemed remote. It took three tries before the engine finally caught and they pulled anchor. As they began the ride back, the wind switched to onshore, and the ocean gave way to a rage they were blessed to have escaped. The ride home was more up and down than straight as they were tossed by the elements and nearly capsized several times. But this seemed easy compared to what they had been through, and they laughed and relived each wave until they ran out of fuel a few hundred yards from shore. Fortunately the tide moved in their favor and they were pushed toward the beach. Finally achieving the shallow water in the bay, they jumped over the side and walked the boat to the sand.

They pushed the boat forward until they touched precious land in the way early explorers must have, the way only those stuck at sea for long periods can appreciate. They pulled the worthy panga up onto the sand until they collapsed beneath the now dark sky, afraid of nothing, thankful for everything, especially solid ground, especially life, especially each other.  

The above is an excerpt from the book, Behold What Is Greater Than Thyself by Chris Ahrens.

interview with author Chris Ahrens

What was the inspiration for your latest book Behold?

We were 16-years-old when my best friend and I pooled our money and bought a car together for $100. It was a 1950 Ford Station Wagon with four bald tires and no spare. Almost every Friday we would pack the car with sleeping bags and canned food, fill it up and drive to Baja over these crazy mountain roads with roadside grave markers littering the roadside. Our deal was that we would drive until the gas gauge reached the halfway mark and then pull over and camp on the side of the road. This was in 1965, we never got hassled, and it seemed the entire coast belonged to us. We usually surfed alone and met all sorts of interesting people, some of them running from the law. We actually met an American surfer our age that was living on his own in Baja. I had no idea how he came to live there on his own and I never asked. Still, I knew something horrible had happened between him his family.

Around the same time, a close friend had a trailer across from the Newport River Jetties. On the weekends when we didn’t go to Baja I would stay there with him. There were a lot of broken people living in that trailer park; many of them severe alcoholics and I would hang out with their kids, who had basically been abandoned by their parents.

From a literary standpoint, the character of Huckleberry Finn reminded me of those kids. I wanted to take a kid who had nowhere to go and push him into survival mode. The Mississippi River became Baja, Huck became Tommy, and Jim became Jose. Once they get to Baja and start surfing it becomes a different story. Like all writers, however, I owe Mark Twain a great debt.

How much of the book was based on your own personal experiences?

The book is partially based upon my own experiences. Most people who read it will say they never knew the exact people, but did know someone like them. Tommy is a compilation of three kids that I knew growing up. There’s a bit of me in there also, but I’m not nearly as courageous as Tommy.

What were some of the challenges in writing this book?

The biggest challenges were recalling what it was like to be young and have a burning passion for surfing. I also wanted to be certain that the experience of living as a young American on the run in Baja was believable.   

What is the overall message you are hoping to communicate to your reader?

A feeling of great wonder and endless possibilities. That they don’t need to stay in the same dark place they were born into. I also hope they get the idea that nobody is beyond redemption.

Tell us a bit about your first experiences surfing.

In 1958 my friend Robert and I went to the Garmar Theater in our then hometown of Montebello to see Gidget. It’s no exaggeration to say that movie changed my life. We were 10-years-old and like every boy our age we fell in love with Sandra Dee who played Gidget, never realizing that Mickey Munoz was her surfing double. A big part of it was being attracted to Sandra, but we had never before seen surfing in person or on the screen, and it set the hook deep.  

After the movie we ran home, and Robert said he knew how to make a surfboard. He borrowed his father’s power saw, I ripped the train tracks from my HO Train set and we cut the plywood base into two rectangular sheets. We squared off the noses and painted our boards yellow. I guess they were really Alaia’s, but when we tried to surf them that weekend, it proved impossible for us. We ended up using them as skim boards. It wouldn’t be until 1962 that I really started surfing. A little later my sister came home with Surfer’s Choice, an album by Dick Dale with a photo of him surfing on the cover. I would play that record every day after school, and try to imitate Dick Dale’s stance, thinking he was the best surfer in the world. I finally got to meet Dick Dale 20 years later. There’s a short story about that meeting and the kindness he bestowed on me and a friend in Behold.

How did you get into writing? Was it a passion or something you stumbled upon?

I was the last person in the world you would ever expect to become a writer. I still have my sixth-grade report card with straight F’s in writing on it. Still, I loved telling stories. On the last day of school in third grade I wrote a story called Big Bully. It was about a boy in our class who beat everyone up. When our teacher read it aloud, everyone in the class knew who the story was about and they all laughed at him. After school, the bully beat me up. I realized right then how powerful story telling was, and from then on I had to be a writer. When I told my parents I was going to be a writer, they couldn’t understand how that could happen. I mean; saying I was going to become president of the United States would have made more sense. I was never a voracious reader, but I learned to write by listening closely to people and telling and retelling stories.

When I began hitchhiking to the coast in the early ‘60s I would come home and say that the surf was ten feet and I shot the pier. It wasn’t true and nobody believed me, so the next time I would say it was two-feet and I didn’t shoot the pier. They believed that, but they didn’t care. So, the next time I came home from the beach I said the surf was six feet; I borrowed a board, tried to shoot the pier, broke the board and its owner was looking for me. That made for a good story, and everyone believed it.

When I moved to Australia in 1972, I had zero money and was sleeping on the beach. A few months earlier I had sold a few photos and decided I’d become a surf photographer. After I got my camera stolen I bought notepad, hand-wrote a story and it got published in Tracks, an Australian surf publication. They sent me a check for $50, which lasted me several months. A few years later I was published in Surfer Magazine. It had been about ten years from the time I started surfing.

What’s next for Chris Ahrens?

I’m finishing up a screenplay on my previous novel Twilight In the City of Angels. It’s a historic novel based in LA between the early ‘40s and late ‘60s. I have some interest in it, including talking to Danny Trejo about playing the lead. I am also working on a few non-surf related book projects.

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