AUDIE CORNISH, Host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
Author Peter Heller has followed eco-pirates through the Antarctic Sea to duel with Japanese whaling fleets. He's journeyed through the belly of the deepest Tibetan gorge. But it wasn't until he got into surfing that he found himself in over his head.
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PETER HELLER: Surfing is one of the only pursuits on Earth that can drub you into numb exhaustion and blunt trauma time and again and give you nothing in return, nothing but sand in your crotch, salt-stung eyes, banged temple, chipped tooth, screaming back and sunburned ears.
It gives you all of this and not a single stand-up ride time again, day after day. It gives you nothing back but tumbles, wipe-outs, thumpings, scares, and you return. You're glad to do it. In fact, you can think of nothing you'd rather do.
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CORNISH: Heller is a travel writer from Denver, and his latest book is called "Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave." Peter Heller joins me now from the studios at KCFR in Denver at Colorado Public Radio.
Peter, welcome to the show.
HELLER: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: All right. So I'm going to start off with what I hope is not an insult, but to say that this whole surfing idea actually started with a midlife crisis, right?
HELLER: Yup, it did. I had finished this expedition through the Tsangpo Gorge, which was, you know, thoroughly exhausting and written a book about it, which was also exhausting in its own way, and I was kind of sitting on my porch in Denver, watching the spring snow sweep over the mountains, thinking, you know, what am I going to do next?
You know, I just did this big thing. You know, now, am I supposed to do another big thing or could I just do some little things for a while? And the phone rang, and it was a friend of mine who was a corporate lawyer. He'd been transferred from Chicago, where he was very happy, to Huntington Beach, Surf City, USA, and he asked me if I would come out and learn to surf with him.
CORNISH: And what I love about this is you guys basically just buy the shorts, buy the board and show up at the beach and kind of assume we'll be able to take this up pretty quickly.
CORNISH: And this is where you first hear the term kook, right?
HELLER: Oh, yeah. I mean, you know, taking your board and trotting into the water at Huntington Beach would be sort of like, you know, you and I saying, let's go to Yankee Stadium, you know, hit some balls with the Yankees. It's, you know, it's just not done.
CORNISH: You bleeping kook. Get the bleep out of the water, you know, or I'm going to bleep you up. And it kind of hurt my feelings, really.
CORNISH: Well, what's the definition of that term? Give us the full sense, full impact of what was being hurled your way.
HELLER: Yeah, kook. I mean, it's a beginner, but it's not a neutral term. I mean, it's a clueless, hopeless beginner. It's the guy that paddles up to the other surfers at the lineup who are very quiet, you know, and just chatters away like it's a cocktail party and, you know, gives a rebel yell when he does manage to stand up for a split second and drops in on people, you know, when it's not his wave, cuts people off and collides and basically he's just a menace. And that was me.
CORNISH: What gave you the idea to go from being a complete kook to essentially at least not embarrassing yourself in front of the pros in six months? Because you decided to take out a six-month chunk of time.
HELLER: Right. I mean, that's what I had, you know? I figured I could drop everything for six months and get away with it. And I bought an old Vanagon, and I thought, well, you know, could I go from kook to riding like a big, fast wave like you see in the movies in six months at my age? I was 47 when I started.
And I also at the same time knew that I was a kook in relationships, and, you know, I hadn't had much luck in that area. And so I invited the woman that I was dating at the time, who was just the greatest woman.
I just thought she was, you know - I loved her, and I thought, you know, if I invite her and we go on this trip down the coast of Mexico and try and learn from experts along the way, and I thought if I invite her, you know, maybe, you know, I could get to know her and maybe, you know, I could actually learn, you know, how to love someone else while I learned to surf.
CORNISH: You really kind of put herself out there with that.
HELLER: I don't know. I can't think of anything better to do than share, you know, our vulnerabilities and share our own truths. You know, as we write, that's what I try and do.
But - so I did that. You know, I invited her, you know, the surf, the love story, and then, you know, I found out there's this whole other element to the surf deal, which is, you know, the oceans are in big trouble, and that started to really dawn on me at the same time.
CORNISH: Now, as a journalist, you've covered whaling, pirates and the sea, but all of this has been, I guess, essentially from the surface. And in this book, you're not in a boat. I mean, you're in the water. You're actually, at one point, I think hanging out with sea lions. Talk about how surfing actually changed the way you see the ocean.
HELLER: I mean, if you're a kook, the best thing you can do is go out basically in the dark, you know, as early as possible, before other people get out there, before you have to compete for the wave. And it's also the most beautiful time, you know, on the coast.
So Kim(ph) and I would wake up in the dark. You know, we'd turn on the little propane stove, boil water, make instant coffee, you know, slap on some sunscreen, which is kind of weird to do in the dark, and then, you know, paddle out into the waves just as the light is coming up and getting that kind of grainy, gray look.
And then, you're out there, you know, sitting on these swells, you're rising and falling easily on your board. It's the feeding time, so pelicans probably and terns, maybe some blue-footed boobies, are diving into the water, you know, corkscrewing and plunging into the water around you with these splashes and coming up with fish. Sardines are skipping over the water or smelt and maybe a sea turtle lifts her head.
And, you know, the mountains start to kind of outline themselves inland, you know, the Sierra, and the sun starts to rise. And there's a wind coming off the shore, and it's just - you know, it's intoxicating, and it's so beautiful.
And there's something about being on the ocean that way, you know, on a surfboard, you know, lying down on a surfboard. You feel this, you know, communion with the ocean, and the wave, the surfing part, actually becomes - for me, it became sort of like the cream. You know, it was like, that's cool that you could actually catch a wave and surf also, you know, on top of this.
CORNISH: Now, not to give away the ending here, but you actually now live on a lake or near a lake in Denver. And I was actually pretty surprised because I didn't think you'd walk away from surfing.
HELLER: Listen, I got a partner, which was the best thing in the world, and that's partly what that - the whole story is about. And also, I think, you know, it's interesting about surfing. I mean, you go out every day, and you don't - you're not looking for a life lesson. You're just trying to catch a frigging wave.
And every day, you have to totally commit to something that seems, kind of in your brain, seems insane, which is to throw yourself, you know, over the lip of something that looks, you know, like a wall, and you have to totally commit.
You have to let go to a power that's greater than you. And I think, you know, those are really good things to practice, you know, if you want to live with someone else and have a good relationship. So they get drummed into you every day without, you know, meaning to.
CORNISH: Peter Heller is a travel writer from Denver, and his latest book is called "Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave." He joins us from our studios at KCFR in Denver, at Colorado Public Radio.
Peter, thanks for talking with us.
HELLER: Thanks for having me. It was great.
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