Prologue – the Elk Diaries

I’m on my way to hunt elk in Jackson, WY.  I have no idea what I’ve gotten myself into.

I grew up on the freeway.  Not in the romantic sense of having traveled the US, wind in my hair, sights to be seen.  No, the freeway was my back yard.  Route 8 in Akron between Tallmadge and E. Glenwood Avenue to be exact. You could hear it at night but just like those who grow up next to train tracks you don’t know the difference.  That’s just what the world sounds like.  We didn’t have air conditioning either so our windows were wide open in the summer. Those windows let in the sounds of the neighborhood.  Not big city sounds like sirens and construction.  These were small city sounds.  Kids playing, cars on a brick street in front, cars on the freeway in back, dogs barking.  That is if it wasn’t too hot.  If it was too hot all you heard was the fan in the window and the silence of staying as still as possible.

I go back there whenever I’m in Akron.  My house isn’t their anymore.  It burned down.  It was a great house.  Lots a room to run around and for friends to come over and play.  The backyard was huge.  At least in my mind it was.  We had an above ground swimming pool and we could play wiffle ball in the front yard with a fence for home runs.

But it burned down and all that’s left is a small strip of land.  A lot next to the freeway filled with overgrown grass and weeds.  And when I drive by and look at it all I can think of is how did such a magnificent house and such a great yard fit on this strip of land.  Next to the freeway. 

We were holding hands and walking down the street. Nik and I had just gotten married and we moved from German Village to Clintonville.  It was our first house and it reminded me of the houses in North Hill.  It was built a long time ago by people who cared about what they were doing.  We weren’t downtown anymore but we still lived in the city.  When the windows were open you heard the sounds that informed my memory.  You heard kids, and the cars, and the heat, and the dogs.   It was a magical walk we were on.  The kind of walk where you talk about where you’ve been and where you want to go, where your past connects with your future to make the present the best time ever.  And then I almost shit my pants.

Sure I’d seen pictures and I understood in an abstract way that they existed but I’d never seen a real live raccoon in a sewer before.  And it scared the shit out of me. I could not believe that wild animals could actually live that close to human beings. And I let go of Nikki’s hand and ran home and hid under the couch like a dog in a lighting storm.

Guns were never a positive thing for me.  Thinking back on growing up I can’t remember a single kid talking about or actually going hunting.  The people I knew who had guns, or I thought might have them, tended to not be good people and the only animal that was around to shoot, besides another human being, would have been a squirrel. 

Really the only time I ever shot a gun as a kid was when we’d have bb gun fights at my friend Steve’s house in the 5th or 6th grade. The ground rules were pretty simple:  one or two pumps only and no head shots.  I think everyone would have been able to abide by those rules except when there’s a pair of brothers involved.  That’s when the policy of mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent but an absolute guarantee.  I think Steve’s brother might have got him with a couple of extra pumps so Steve pumped his gun until he couldn’t pump it anymore and then he put a bb into his brother’s ankle.  I remember Steve’s brother’s foot bleeding and his mom taking the time to beat the shit out him with a wooden spoon before taking his brother to the doctor.

The truth was in our neighborhood wooden spoons were way more dangerous than guns.  We could see and feel the damage from those things.  And they were always loaded.

But now I own a .340 Weatherby mag. It’s a bad ass gun.  And I’m planning on shooting a large mammal and then I’m going to cook it and eat it. 

It’s a long way from growing up on the freeway.

Hot Blood (or something like that)

Finn and I ended up staying in Nosara from Saturday night until Tuesday afternoon. Our schedule was pretty routine. Steven would pick us up around 7am in the morning, we would surf for a couple of hours, head to Soda Vanessa for gallo pinto, nap, eat a snack, surf in the afternoon, shower up, and then head to Rancho Tico for casados with fresh snook. Those were the constants. In between were life lessons from Steven, fresh coconut water and the colorful cast of Steven’s rasta buddies. None was more colorful that Steven’s buddy Cacho, who owns a surfboard rental shop at Playa Guiones.

Cacho (his nickname by the way which means shoes) joined us at Soda Vanessa one morning. It’s hard to describe him but the closest I can come is a Tico version of Jonah Hill. We first heard of Cacho when we were driving to Nosara and Steven told us about his buddy and his lazy dogs. Steven tells us how his buddy, Cacho, complains all the time about his two dogs who do nothing except play on the beach all morning and then sleep all afternoon. Right on cue when we pulled into Guiones the first time there was Cacho’s dogs on the beach having a great time. We also saw Cacho with his feet up on his desk sound asleep.

Anyways, Cacho joined us for breakfast and he and Steven started speaking in Spanish. Finn and I didn’t understand a word they were saying but we could tell a) it was funny and b) Cacho was a good guy. They switched back and forth between Spanish and English until we ordered our drinks. They didn’t have passion fruit that day so Finn had to order something else. I stuck with my regular, tamarindo juice, because, you know, it cures the “hot blood” whatever that is.

Steven started extolling the virtues of tamarindo juice as soon as I ordered it and immediately brought up its medicinal properties. I had been drinking it for a couple of days and had not been afflicted with the dreaded “hot blood” so I was all on board with Dr. Steven. Cacho, however, didn’t seemed to be as impressed. He looked at Steven funny and then, in a total surprise, said,

“Bro, it’s heartburn. Not hot blood.”

Mystery solved.

Redemption Song

Every trip begins with optimism and trepidation. It’s just a matter of degrees.

We left for Cincinnati with a lot of hope. It’s hard to remember that but we did. There was a time when Sam was sick but she wasn’t sick. She went to school, she rode her bike (kinda) and hung out with her friends. We had no reason not to expect good things from our trip. All we needed to do was get down there, spend some time in the hospital, and then come home.

“Hey, Rasta!”

“Bro, Rasta means your closest friends. You might say hello amigo or something else but when it’s your really good friend then you call them Rasta.”

It’s no surprise that there’s a certain culture around a surf community. But it was a surprise to me that the Costa Rican culture had such a Jamaican influence. Everyone listens to reggae music and there are a lot of dreadlocks. Now, I’m sure there are those here who embrace the totality of the rasta lifestyle in all its hazy glory but that seemed to be of absolutely no importance to Steven. To him rasta was good vibes, a natural lifestyle, and sharing your love with friends. Steven had wild hair and never wore anything but shorts. He looked different, sure, but he was different – in a really cool way. Rasta.

The surf at Playa Guiones didn’t look too menacing when we got to the beach that first morning. The first thing surfers do when they get to the beach is they sit and look at the ocean. They look at the waves, see where and how they’re breaking, and measure the time between sets of waves. It’s a moment of peace and calm before heading out into the energy of the surf.

The beach at Guiones was unlike any beach I’ve been to in that the difference between high tide and low tide was at least 75 yards. When we arrived there Sunday morning it was low tide so when we set up on the beach the waves were a significant distance away. From our perch at the top of the beach, the waves at Guiones looked pretty reasonable. Like this:


The reality is that they were really more like this:


To the eyes distance can make something appear smaller than it is, more manageable. With distance we can see the forest for the trees. Sometimes the mind works like that. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes with distance the mind can make things seem less manageable. Like when your child dies.

Sam nearly died on three separate occasions at the hospital. The first time I was sitting next to her on her bed. Were just talking and hanging out when she seemed to just be staring at me. It wasn’t unusual for her to tire out quickly at any given time and want to go to sleep but it was odd that she kept looking at me but stopped talking. I said her name a few times but she didn’t respond. I realized she wasn’t connected to any of her monitors, which happened occasionally, so there was no way of knowing if something was wrong. I went out to the nurses station and described what was happening and then all hell broke loose. It seemed like every nurse and doctor at Cincinnati rushed into the room. All of the equipment and monitors got moved out and new equipment was brought in. I didn’t know what to do except stand in the corner and pray. It might have been 5 seconds or it might have been five hours. They were preparing to do a tracheotomy when she started breathing again.

Whether or not hope likes it, reality often invites trepidation along for the ride.

As we walked towards the ocean for the first time the waves got bigger and bigger. And louder. This was not North Carolina, even during a hurricane. These were big, long, powerful waves. We walked our boards as far as we could each time bracing ourselves for oncoming waves. When the water got pretty deep we laid on our boards and started paddling. And paddling. And paddling. Every time I thought we’d be outside of where the waves were breaking a wave would hit and push me back starting the process all over again. Steven was helping us as much as he could but by the time we finally got to the outside I was exhausted. And thrilled. This is what I had come here for. To feel these waves and to get on a board and ride their power.

It’s a tricky thing figuring out which wave to ride. It’s an art really. Steven was very, very good at it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be around a better surfer in my life so we were in good hands. As we waited for the right wave Steven positioned Finn’s board towards the shore. As the swell approached us the wall of the wave got bigger and bigger. Steven pushed Finn’s board forward, told him to “paddle, paddle” and then yelled, “stand up!” Finn did exactly that and I saw his head rise up above the top of this gigantic wave. He was surfing. Then my head dipped below in the trough of the next wave and I didn’t see him anymore.

Me? Yeah, not so good. Steven got my board pointed forward and gave me the same directions with decidedly different results. As the wave grabbed my board the whooosh it made was deafening. I did exactly the wrong thing and grabbed the rails of the board and tried to a) stand up and surf and b) hold on for dear life. Those two things are mutually exclusive. As a result I pitched from my board and tumbled into the wave. Although tumbled may accurately describe it, it doesn’t fully capture the experience. When you fall off a surfboard in a big wave you suddenly become aware of the wave’s energy. It surrounds your body and hurls you in all kinds of directions under the water. It also does the same thing to your surfboard which is attached to your leg so your body also feels like it’s getting pulled apart. It’s scary. If you’re lucky you bob to the surface with enough time between waves to get your shit together and get control of your board. If you’re unlucky, you repeat the process. It gets scarier each time you have to repeat the process. Exponentially scarier.

I managed to get it together and started paddling back out again. It was even harder this time. On more than a couple of occasions I tried to paddle into and over a wave only to be swept back almost completely to shore. The process of getting back outside to Steven was humbling and exhausting and when I got there I laid my head on my board, sucked air, and wondered how I was ever going to be able to do that again. We were only ten minutes into a seven day trip.

The first time Sam came home to Columbus I got to drive her from Cincinnati. She was sick from the radiation that killed her bone marrow and her body had changed. Gone was the beautiful brown hair and her face and body were now puffy from the steroids she was on. But she got to see the friends and family who lined Shelbourne and welcomed her home. I’ll never forget how emotionally overwhelmed she was by the outpouring of love from her friends and family.

The second trip home was in a special ambulance equipped to move medically fragile children.

Finn also struggled getting back outside and I think he, too, was starting to wonder how he was going to keep getting out there. I didn’t realize it though because I was too excited thinking about the ride he just had. The ride of a lifetime to me. It didn’t dawn on me that it could have also been completely terrifying.

Steven set Finn up again and sent him on his way. Finn didn’t make the drop this time and he got thrown into the Guiones washing machine. I got on my board and waited for the right wave to come and when it did I was off…my board again and into the surf. After getting pounded back to the shore I headed back out. No way I wasn’t going to do this. I came all the way to Costa Rica to surf and my arms would have to fall off before I would stop trying. I thought I saw Finn heading back out and started to paddle out myself. I kept looking for him but couldn’t spot him. The waves kept coming and kept throwing me around and I started to worry about Finn. I took solace that he was a much better swimmer than me and I hadn’t drown yet but still each moment I couldn’t see him started to bother me more and more. When I finally reached Steven I hadn’t spotted Finn in quite awhile and I was getting close to panicking – which I have a rule against doing. The first thing I asked Steven was whether he knew where Finn was. “He paddled in, bro.” Relieved, I proceeded to do yet another underwater cartwheel to the shore of Playa Guiones.

“C’mon Sam, we gotta go.”
“I can’t Dad. I can’t get up the steps.”
“What do you mean you can’t get up the steps? Quite messing around and get up here. We’re late.”
“Dad, I can’t breathe.”
“Seriously Sam. It’s only 10 steps. Get up here.”

The risk for most transplant patients is host versus graft disease. The host (the body’s bone marrow) sends out white blood cells to attack the new organ (the graft) it doesn’t recognize as its own. In bone marrow transplant patients it’s the reverse. The graft (the new bone marrow) attacks the host (the patients organs.) We didn’t know it yet but Sam had graft versus host disease. Her new bone marrow was attacking her lungs which was causing scar tissue to build up. She was slowly suffocating to death. She really couldn’t breathe.

I met up with Finn on the shore. He was visibly upset. Really upset. In a voice that was shaking he said, “Dad, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to go back out there. It’s not fun.”

I took a moment and looked at him. He was genuinely upset. It wasn’t an act. I just said, “Don’t worry about it. I totally understand.” He looked at me a little funny and I just said, “Seriously, don’t worry about it. It’s no big deal. I’m scared out there too so I totally get it. Take your time until you feel better.”

I went out a couple of more times and even managed to stay upright on the board on occasion. I wouldn’t call it surfing but at least I wasn’t a complete train wreck. In the back of my mind I was still jealous of Finn and the wave he caught. I really, really wanted to do that.

We loaded the boards on top of the truck and headed into Nosara for breakfast. According to Steven, “Surfing makes you hungry, bro.” That’s an understatement. I’ve never been more hungry in my life. We settled into our seats at Soda Vanessa and let Steven go to work. Finn and I were not feeling that great and were pretty banged up but listening to Steven talk just made us feel better. Steven told us about sodas and rastas, juice and salsa, beach breaks and point breaks, schools and churches, Nosara and Tamarindo. He also introduced us to our favorite Steven saying: “Bro, this is so good. So good.” After a dose of Steven’s spirit and a huge breakfast of gallo pinto we headed back to the condo.

Surfing doesn’t just make you hungry, it makes you tired. When we got back Finn and I showered up and headed to the couch to check emails and fiddle with our phones. I don’t know about him but I was asleep in five minutes.

When I woke back up Finn and I hung out and had a snack. He mentioned to me that he appreciated that I didn’t yell at him when he was on the beach. I was a little surprised but not really. I was capable of telling him to sack up, get back out there, quit complaining, c’mon let’s go. Actually, I’m more than capable of saying something like that. It’s a near certainty that I would. I didn’t this time, though, and it made him feel better. A lot better. And that made me feel a whole lot better. So much so that it was as good as I’ve felt in a long time. After chatting a little more, Finn let on that the feeling he had in the water that morning was one of his lowest points ever. I knew he was pretty shook up but when he put it on those terms I knew it was pretty bad. “Finn, just keep in mind a low point is exactly that. A point.”

A couple of days before she died I got really mad at Sam. She couldn’t get comfortable and kept hitting the nurses button every 30 minutes or so and asked them to move her in bed. I had been staying with her that night so I woke up every time the nurses came in. I had finally had enough and yelled at Sam to quit calling the damn nurses. I’ve lost my temper before but never like that in the hospital with Sam.

In hindsight I think we knew what was happening but Nik and I had decided a long time before that we would put our heads down and work and fight as hard as we could through this. We never thought about losing. No matter how hard we worked or fought however, it was nothing compared to what Sam did. Her body was ravaged by a terrible disease and the cure was even worse. Throughout it all she maintained her dignity and her grace. She was always nice no matter how bad she felt. Complaints were rare. Our heads were down so we didn’t see who was leading us in the battle. It was Sam. It was always Sam. But she was complaining now and I was tired and exhausted and I got pissed at her. But if I could ever have one moment in my life to do over it would be that one. I regret that morning every single minute of every single day.

We had a meeting on the schedule with the doctor that afternoon. These were pretty regular but when this one started you knew immediately that it was the meeting you never wanted to have. Sam’s doctor talked about an experimental procedure that might have some effect but what he was really saying was that there was nothing else they could do. Sam was dying.

We were scheduled to head back to Playa Guiones with Steven later in the afternoon. I told Finn we’d take the cameras and if he wanted to surf great, we could take turns with the camera, or if he just wanted to take pictures that was cool too. I think Steven knew we were in over our heads that morning so he spent some time assuring us that the waves at high tide are much mellower.

As usual, Steven was right. The waves were smaller and not nearly as powerful. Still powerful enough to knock you around but the opportunity to recover was much greater. It was raining which gave the beach and water an awesome vibe. I paddled out a couple of times while Finn took some pictures. Then we switched and Steven had Finn back into surfing. Not just surfing either but surfing on a shortboard which is really, really hard. Finn had a regular surfboard but Steven let him borrow his shortboard. The shortboard has to be Steven’s most prized possession in the world and if you saw him on it you would totally understand why. For him to teach Finn how to ride it was an act of generosity I will never forget. Rasta.

I was thinking, too, about how proud I was of Finn for having gotten back in the water. If he had never gotten back in I would have totally understood. The ocean, and especially the ocean that morning, can kill you so not messing with it is a sane option. But he not only went back in he surfed it. Over and over. He might have been shaken up in the morning but he was bringing it in the afternoon. When it was my turn I started paddling out and I started humming Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery
none but ourselves can free our mind…

And I thought how cool it was for Finn to have freed himself from his fear. When I got out to Steven I asked, “You know what song is going through my head right now? Redemption Song.”

“Bro, that’s a great song, bro.”

Won’t you help me sing.
These songs of freedom.
Cause all I ever had
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

Nik and I had to spend some time together. We needed to spend some time together. There was a lot to talk about. How would we tell Sam’s brothers? What about Kyra and the Bakers? Where will we have her funeral? Whenever we needed to be together when we were living apart we usually met for dinner at the J. Alexander’s in the northern suburbs of Cincinnati so it just made sense for us to go to dinner at the one in Columbus. When we went into Sam’s room she was sleeping. I sat next to her bed and told her how sorry I was for being so angry that morning. I told her I wasn’t mad anymore and that I wouldn’t be ever again. I asked her for her forgiveness and I told her I loved her.

I don’t know if Sam heard me or not. While we were at dinner she slipped into a coma. I like to think she waited and fought and fought until she knew her mom and I were finally ready. She led us until we didn’t need to be led anymore. And then she said goodbye.

I got up the next morning after surfing and made some coffee. I grabbed a cup and went outside and listened to the howler monkeys make a racket. Man, they are loud. I started to sing “Redemption Song” in my head again and quietly cursed having an ear worm. But then I thought of Finn. And then I wondered why I was signing that song for him. He didn’t need to be redeemed. He is strong and courageous and tough and not wanting to drown is a rational desire. And then I thought about that morning with Sam.

And then I realized who the song was for.

It was for me.


Hot blood and sodas

“It cures the hot blood. You know, the people they get the hot blood.” I really didn’t know what Steven was talking about. All I could think about was leukemia when he talked about “people with the hot blood” but I really couldn’t fathom that the Tamarindo juice I was drinking would be a cure for cancer. And then I wondered if there was a strange Costa Rican illness that made your blood hot – like a Central American ebola. That thought started to freak me out a little. The juice was really, really good though.

We were eating breakfast at Soda Vanessa. A soda is a small Costa Rican restaurant serving traditional food. The kitchen is open so you see everything being cooked and there’s usually only a few tables. According to Steven the main ingredient, or the best ingredient, at a good soda is love. “They cook the food with love and with their heart and that’s what makes it so good. So good.”

Finn and I didn’t realize it yet but we were just at the beginning of our life education with Steven as our instructor. We didn’t realize yet because we were too busy thinking that this crazy bastard almost got us killed that morning in the waves of Playa Guiones. At least the scorpions didn’t get us first.

It’s not that many miles from the airport in Liberia to Nosara on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica but let me tell you it is a loooooong trip. It had been a long day traveling and by the time we got to the condo we were staying in Finn and I were pretty beat up and tired. During the last 15 minutes or so of the drive the subject of scorpions came up. I’m not sure how or who but I asked Steven if it was something we should worry about. Steven answered, “Bro, you don’t have to worry about scorpions. But, yeah bro, you kinda do.” He then started telling us about the 4 times he was bit last year. The first two times the scorpions were in his clothes when he put them on. The bites weren’t too bad, he said, just some numbness in his hands and feet and his tongue. Huh, I guess that’s not too bad. But then he told us about the third time he got it. Let me tell you, the third time is NOT a charm when it comes to scorpions. According to Steven, this particular scorpion was on the toilet paper int he middle of the night. He did not go into detail about where the bite occurred but he did mention the intense pain, the feeling of paralysis in his whole body, including his lungs, the looseness in his hips and the inability to walk, and the slurred speech when he called off work the next day. “But, bro, they can’t kill you.”

That was Steven’s good bye and good night story to us.

Finn and I didn’t hold hands but we slept in the same room and every time I had to get up to go the bathroom I thanked God for the Apple engineer who figured out how to put an anti-scorpion flood light on an iphone.

I woke up early the next day and made some coffee. Our condo was on the ground floor with a patio in the back. I grabbed a cup of coffee and the computer and headed out there. It wasn’t long before I started hearing the howler monkeys making all kinds of noise to each other. It was really cool. The thought that I was drinking coffee and monkeys were basically replacing the squirrels I usually see at home.

Then this thing showed up. It’s called a coati. It was not afraid of me at all which made me very afraid of it.


I was starting to wonder what I had gotten us into.


Eat, surf, eat, lay down, get up, surf, eat, sleep. I would have written something sooner but it’s taken some time getting used to not being able to lift my arms. Fortunately I have a full size keyboard and really flexible toes.


On the flight down here Finn asked a number of questions about what to expect. What’s it like where we’re staying? Is there going to be this or that there? Are we going to do this? My answer to him was that whatever he was thinking it was going to be… 70% of that. That’s not a knock. It’s really the great thing to me about traveling to a place like Costa Rica. Because by the time you leave you’re at 70% too and that feels so much better than running at 110.

I booked our travel through a company called CR Surf Adventures and I did pretty much everything through the internet and email. The reviews were pretty solid and they looked legit so I booked flights, sent my money in, and then really didn’t think that much more about it. About a week out I sent an email with some basic questions – anything in particular we need to pack, do I need to convert currency, that type of thing. It wasn’t until we were about to land in Liberia that I thought, “Hmmm, all I really know about this trip is that I’m supposed to walk out of the airport and look for a guy holding a sign with my name.” The next thought is “Well, this is either going to suck or be really awesome.”

Arriving in Liberia is pretty easy actually. It’s a new airport but small and you basically walk off the plane, go to customs and walk outside. The nice thing is that you don’t have to walk the Mexican gauntlet of hustlers and carnival barkers trying to sell you every sightseeing trip known to man. So we walked outside and looked for our name.

Our driver’s name was Alex and, like most drivers, was pretty chill. We got into his van when the cell phone rang and he handed it to me which I thought was odd. The guy on the other end spoke pretty good English but it takes your ears a little time getting used to the accent. Basically the guy on the other end wanted to know what kind of surfers we were. I said, “I don’t know, pretty good beginners.” Which I think with my American accent must have come out something like “We shred and rock barrels all the time.” I don’t think he caught the part about “on the Scioto River behind a boat and one time in the Outer Banks with a giant of a man named Phil holding our boards.” That was ok because I was still getting my head around the fact that the plan was for Alex to drop us off at a grocery store about 45 minutes away where we would be picked up by the guy at the other end of the phone. Hmmmm, 70%.

I have to admit that I was pretty pumped to go the grocery store. First, I go to the store all the time at home anyway. Second, if you’ve read this blog, you know about Nik and I going to the Mexican supermarket. Aside from the walk through the airport, going into the supermarket in Mexico was, to me, just mind altering and it gives you a firm sense that you’re not in Kansas anymore. I couldn’t wait to take Finn.

We pulled into the grocery store about an hour later. It might have been only twenty miles but let’s just say that Costa Rica doesn’t have the greatest transportation infrastructure. I should also stress that this was a grocery store, not a supermarket. Think IGA in West Jefferson. The whole front of the store was open and there were kids all over the place. We didn’t have a grocery list and didn’t really know what we needed which is perfect when you can’t read anything. I knew Finn was probably a little nervous which is totally understandable. It’s weird when everything around you is in a different language. After a little but of time in the store, however, he was comfortable enough to venture out solo to pick up some different items.

We managed to get some basic supplies for the couple of days we would be in Nosara. Eggs, milk, bread, cereal and headed back to the van where Finn leaned over and said “That was awesome.” Yes, yes it was… and is.

We waited about 15 minutes more when this white Land Cruiser pulled up next to us. I’m not talking New Albany Land Cruiser. I’m talking Nairobi Land Cruiser. The real deal complete with surfboards on top. The driver jumps out and lands like a cat. He was tan on top of tan, no shirt, no shoes, with long wavy hair streaked with blonde. Hello, casting? Yeah, we need someone who looks like a Costa Rican surf instructor. Got one? Check.

All the kids immediately ran over to him like he was Kris Kringle. This was a good dude.

We said goodbye to Alex and hopped in the truck with Steven. We did the perfunctory exchange of pleasantries and headed down the highway, or what is considered a highway in Costa Rica. Pretty soon into the trip Steven asked if we minded taking the dirt road. I thought we were actually on one already so how bad could it be?.

To say the roads are terrible in Costa Rica is to do a great disservice to the standard of terrible.You know those dirt roads the Amish use that you can see from 71? Superhighways compared to Costa Rica. Top speed is about 25 mph but that is only for brief moments between slowing down for ruts and the occasional cattle drive. I couldn’t decide whether it was like being in a blender, a washing machine, or a set of maracas. But it’s pretty cool when you stop the truck and get out to see monkeys. That makes it worth it..

That’s it for now. Time to go surf.

In the next edition… Scorpions, coatis, and low points.



The High School Trip

Funny how a blog about where you’re going can also be about where you’re supposed to be.

I’m supposed to be in Akron. Two of my best friends growing up are having a graduation party for their kids tonight. That’s where I’m supposed to be.

Finn and I leave in a week for Costa Rica. It’s a new tradition based on an old tradition. This is the high school trip modeled after the kindergarten trip.

If you know me you know the kindergarten trip. Starting with Sam I took each of my kids to Chicago the summer before kindergarten. They’re all my favorite trips really. Though each was a little different they all had common themes: Southwest direct, train downtown, Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum and holding hands wherever you go

I think it’s the holding hands that I miss the most.

Chicago’s a big city with lots of action so when you walk down the street, and you slow down to match your gait with smaller legs, you hold hands. It feels really good. And I think the kids love it too. You’re not carrying them or pushing them anymore. They’re big kids at 5 and they’re walking next to you on an adventure. They’re grown up now, ready for school. But in their hearts they know you’re holding on to them. And you’re not letting go.

That’s a whirlwind summer before kindergarten. New clothes are being bought, school supplies and lunch boxes are getting picked out. As parents you’re thrilled and excited to see your child take the next step. Just like you’re excited for their first baby step. But all the talk about kindergarten must be pretty terrifying to them actually.

I think about Sam a lot. Most of the time it’s memories. Tea time at the American Girl store in Chicago, her chestnut hair, Baby Baby and Rabbit going everywhere with her, Cincinnati. Memories are good. Even the bad ones. It’s thinking about the future without her that hurts.

Which is why I didn’t go to Akron. I’m not going to see her graduate.

Unanimity among three boys is nearly impossible, especially when they’re 7, 10, and 14. Oh, and they’re brothers? Forget about it. But everyone was on board for the high school trip. Finn, of course, but so were Joe and Jack. When the idea came up at the dinner table there was no arguing, no whining, no existential angst over the concept of fairness, it was just…of course there should be a trip. And impatience and jealously lost out to memories and anticipation.

I didn’t go to Akron but I’m going to Costa Rica.

It’s a whirlwind summer before high school. New clothes are being bought, technology needs are being argued about, and textbooks are being picked up. As parents, it’s actually a little terrifying. You can only think “Holy shit, he’s going to be driving in a year and a half and college costs how much a year now???”

I’m not going to hold Finn’s hand on this trip. I think he’d punch me.

We’re going surfing, he and I. 7 days of getting up early, hitting the beach, and coming home exhausted. It’s what he wanted to do for the high school trip. You know what? So did I. I got to hold his hand and walk around and see things in Chicago. I cut up his dinner and made sure he didn’t go into the bathroom alone. I tucked him in. Not on this trip. Nope. On this trip he’s going to be stronger than me. He’s going to paddle harder and longer and catch more waves. I’m going to sit on the beach while he’s still out in the water. And every time a wave comes in I’m going to watch as he paddles and I’m going to hope that he catches that wave. And when he does I’m going to celebrate his success and when he doesn’t I’m going to celebrate his effort. And I’m going to celebrate his future.

I held Sam’s hand when she said good bye. I’m going to let go of my little boys hand and say hello to a young man. This time, where I’m going is where I’m supposed to be.

Thurnesday – La Lancha

Thurnesday – La Lancha

It was time to step up.

We were each getting up pretty easily and riding waves into the beach. The Chica Surfista had her running route down, my spanish was becoming muy buen, and we met a couple more great bartenders here in Punta Mita. Maybe a little more on that later. We even kind of sometimes knew what time it was. And the Chica even laughed when we saw a Chihuahua trying to saddle up a pit bull but couldn’t get past the knee joint.

It was time to go to a real surfing break.

La Lancha is a point break a little more than a 5 minute drive outside of Punta Mita. It’s the kind of place you think about when you think of a surfing spot: rocky landscape, surfers bobbing up and down in the water, random surfer stuff laying around on the beach. It also has a beach break that beginners can ride without having to get in the way of real surfers. It’s the real deal and the reason you would travel all the way to Mexico. But, this being Mexico, there’s a little catch.

According to my spanish translator app “la lancha” means “the boat.” Not so. It actually means “5 minute walk to the beach down a mud caked path through a rain forest populated with any number of bugs you wish you never knew existed but the ones you are certain that exist are the thousands of mosquitos that are flying around and biting you relentlessly that you can’t swat away because you’re carrying a surfboard and you’re afraid of falling and never being able to get out of the mud because it’s so thick and you really start to think you’re the guy in the boat who was sent to get Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” except instead of bullets and arrows mosquitos have been sent to kill you and you’ll never see your kids again and why in the hell am I doing this.” Yeah, I wish I would have known this when I tried my translator. I better get my money back.

So our man Jesse has taught us to gather ourselves when we get to the beach and spend time looking out at the ocean evaluating the waves. Look for where the waves are breaking. See when the sets are coming in and get a feel for their rhythm. I only pretended to do this. Instead I took a deep breath, took in my surroundings, and then tried my best to figure out where in the hell a helicopter could land to get me out of there so that I didn’t have to walk back to the car. Then I wondered how much it was going to cost me. Not that I wasn’t going to pay any amount. I just needed to know so I could start to figure out how many pesos it was since I always freeze at the cash register and when the clerk says “two pesos” and I say “Lo siento, no hablo espanol” and she repeats “two pesos” and everyone in line laughs well the whole pesos thing is a problem “Okay let’s get in the water.” What? What?

Oh, and by the way, there was no chance I was going to look at the Chica Surfista. You know how a dog always looks away when it knows it’s in trouble? Exactly.

With my helicopter plan foiled I strapped on my leash, grabbed my board and headed into the water. The difference between La Lancha and Higuera Blanca was pretty significant. At La Lancha we needed to know and use the skills Jesse had talked to us about and you really got a sense of the ocean’s power. One of the first things Jesse taught us was knowing how to either push up or turtle roll when a wave is coming at you. A push up is self-explanatory and it basically keeps the wave from smacking you in the face. When it doesn’t look like you can push up and get over the wave and the wave is going to break on you then you need to turtle roll. Now, the Chica had been a little freaked out when Jesse was going over the whole bottom of the ocean thing. When he explained the turtle roll I kind of hesitated. The turtle roll isn’t hard to understand. Before the wave breaks you grab the board by the rails and flip over so you’re under the board as the wave goes over you. So the concept is pretty simple. What isn’t simple is the reaction your mind has to being instructed to do something completely opposite of what a million years of evolution have taught it to do. Ok, let me get this straight. I have a potential safety issue in the water and the solution is to capsize myself? Huh. That’s like your mom yelling at you to run faster with scissors or your driving instructor passing you a cold one.

But it works and a couple of times at La Lancha I needed it. The waves were bigger and longer which meant the rides were faster and longer as well. That’s the fun part. It also means the paddling is much, much harder and the wipeouts just a little more hairy.

The folks at Wildmex give us a rash guard, which is basically like a skin tight athletic shirt, to put on each day. It’s not mandatory but it’s a pretty good idea unless you don’t care if your nipples are scraped off the rest of your chest. At La Lancha I noticed another couple with the same rash guards and realized they were also there learning to surf.

Here’s the thing about surfers – they’re in great shape. I mean great shape. Old or young they’re almost all ripped. I’m not, and neither was this guy. If I was going to leave Mexico with any pride left I was at least going to out surf the only other guy like me out there.

Who knows if I did. In the end it doesn’t really matter. What did matter was that the imaginary competition in my mind covered up some of the fatigue I was feeling in my body. After a brief break for some water I paddled back out but my arms felt like cement. I had a goal of five more waves and then I’d be done. I caught one wave but fell over pretty quickly because I was just too tired. Pissed, I paddled out again. This time I caught my best wave of the trip and rode it all the way into the beach.

I would have walked an hour in that jungle for that one ride.

Monday, Wednesday, Tuesday – Surf, Paddle, Snorkle, Surf, Eat

Monday, Wednesday, Tuesday- Surf, Paddle, Snorkle, Surf, Eat

One quick housekeeping issue: I started writing this blog a day behind and after a couple of days in the Mexican time space continuum I can no longer attest that anything I write is in chronological order. I’ve also started wearing bronzing cream in the hopes that I will fit in better in my adopted country. I also apologize in advance for the annoying habit I’ll have of using my now expanded vocabulary of 8 Spanish words whenever I can.

I also want to let everyone who’s been worried about our personal safety here in Mexico that it finally happened. We were assaulted but everything is ok.

Now, we weren’t assaulted in the traditional sense and it didn’t happen at the hands of my Mexican brothers although it’s not like it couldn’t have happened.

Half the fun, ok maybe most of the fun, has been taking the opportunity to live as much as we can in the town and not in our hotel. We were driving by this monstrosity of a half built development when I asked Jesse what the Mexicans think of this stuff. He said it was a complicated issue. On the one hand development brings jobs and economic benefits but on the other had it often shuts out Mexicans from being able to enjoy their own country. The town of Punta Mita used to be in what is now the Four Seasons development. They moved the whole town to the other, less desirable part of the peninsula and effectively closed the best beaches to the locals. We’ve stayed at the Four Seasons. It’s really nice but it ain’t Mexico. There are no dogs there and the clocks work.

Hermosa Chica Surfista is training for a marathon so I picked a place to stay that had a treadmill so she could keep running during the week. Of course we get here and the treadmill doesn’t work. Which was irritating. We went through the options. We could order one from Dick’s and have it shipped here. Not going to happen. We could find another one in Mexico that doesn’t work. Highly likely but still a problem. Or, she could run through and outside of town.

I wasn’t going to run with Hermosa Chica Surfista but I did want to keep her company. She was going to do her four mile run while I followed behind walking in sandals.

Whenever you go somewhere there’s an internal scale that ranges from completely comfortable, like when you go to a friend’s house, to a little uncomfortable, like at a dinner where there’s awkward silences, to “holy shit what am I doing here and when am I getting out of here?” Or, at least that’s where I thought the scale stopped. It actually goes further to “Holy shit, there’s a rooster in everyone’s yard!”

But, it turned out to be really cool because, you know, it’s Mexico. Everything right turns out a little wrong and everything wrong is actually a little right. I’m sure it was just as weird for the school kids on their way to school and people waiting on the highway for the bus to see some white dude in a visor and flip flops go strolling by. You got a stone face stare but if you said “Hola” or Buenas dias” first it was like you met a new best friend. I’m sure it was my awesome spanish. Well, that and my bronzing.

FYI, on her run the Chica got to see her favorite canines doing their thing. Hmmm. Let’s see. Dogs can’t see color and these two can’t stop having sex. I’m betting large that there’s a Spanish version of “Fifty Shades of Grey” somewhere in Punta Mita.

We went back to Litibu which was the beginner’s beach and this time were were actually prepared. We knew what the drill was and we knew what to expect. Plus, we had water because I might have been dehydrated. We spent a solid two hours in the water catching wave after wave. What’s crazy about surfing is that the hardest part is not actually surfing. The Chica Surfista and I probably had a little head start. We snowboard and paddleboard and I wakesurf so the whole balance and moving the board thing came pretty quickly. What’s hard as hell is paddling and picking the right wave.

It’s so much different than snowboarding that way. When you learn how to snowboard you’re basically learning how to slow and control the energy that results when gravity meets snow. And although there are steeper parts of a hill and parts where the snow may be a little more icy, those two things are constant and usually consistent.

Not so with surfing. You have to propel yourself with enough force and at the right time to then tap into the energy of the wave and each wave is different. Once you get the wave the hard part is done.

Which is why it’s is so damn fun when you do catch a wave.

Except it made me nauseous. It turns out I wasn’t dehydrated.

Have you ever really, really wanted to go out with someone and, once you did, had a great time but there was just something that wasn’t right? Have you ever gone out with them a second time and in the middle of talking with them thought to yourself “Wow, I wish I didn’t know that about her” or “I hope she doesn’t laugh because it hurts my ears.”

My hot new mistress was making me seasick. Aarggghhhh. She’s giving me the Mexican head fake!

Our man Jesse must have sensed something was up or, more accurately, figured I was some lame ass middle aged softie because he suggested that we paddle board and snorkle the next day. I actually thought that was a pretty cool idea. And, how was I going to defend myself against him thinking I was soft? That it wasn’t that I was soft but that I got seasick when I surf? That’s like fighting the accusation of being a clown by arguing that you’re in fact not a clown but actually a mime.

Paddle boarding was cool. And so was snorkeling for that matter. We didn’t have a lot of sun so the colors weren’t as vibrant but it was fun to hang out in the coral and swim with the fish. I had never snorkeled before but I figured it was just a matter of relaxing and floating around in someone else’s neighborhood. Some of the fish check you out while most others just go about the business of being a fish. I thought it was the perfect metaphor for our trip to Mexico. I was lost in that thought when I got water in my tube and choked on some seawater. And I was reminded that the word perfect has a different meaning in Mexico.

Sunday – Surf day

Sunday – Surf day

I think Einstein had something to say about the space time continuum. I don’t know exactly what it is that he said. I only know that somehow space and time move differently as you get to the speed of light. I think the same is true when you travel to Mexico.

Take a shower for instance. A good shower can last you 24 hours. Maybe you have to take two if took one in the morning, worked outside all day, then had to go out at night. Or, maybe you’re a nine year old boy and then a shower can last you 240 hours. When you travel at the speed of Mexico a shower may last you 24 minutes. If you do anything except sit still in an air conditioned room you will look like James Brown closing a show with “Cold Sweat.” I mean soaked. Ever see people getting wheeled around in wheelchairs hooked up to oxygen tanks? I have a friend we call Big Sweaty II and all I could think about was him having to be in a wheelchair hooked up to a water cooler.

Which is why I think I was dehydrated.

We got picked up for our first surf lesson by Jesse, who was driving an enormous green van with a couple of surfboards on top. He seemed to be a half hour early or so which turned out to be a half hour late or so because we crossed a river into a new time zone except people don’t like changing their watches when they cross the river so they just use the same time zone. The Mexican space time continuum.

Talk about being completely unprepared.

When you prepare to go snowboarding, even for the first time, you become mentally prepared if only because you go through a process of armoring yourself. Baselayer? Check. Warm socks? Check. Second layer? Check. Outer shell? Check. Boots? Check. Gloves? Check. Helmet? Check. Goggles… It takes a good half hour before you can even think about putting on a board.

Surfing? Ok let’s see. Sunscreen? Check. Board shorts? Check. You’re ready to go. And just like that you’re in a van driving into the Mexican countryside to go surfing.

Jesse is American which is nice There’s only so many times you can say the 5 Spanish words you know just so people here don’t think you’re an asshole. I never say hello, or good afternoon, or friend, or thank you to anybody really. But, if you’re brown and I’m in your town, it’s “Hola, Buenos Dias, amigo, gracias” as soon as you glance at me.

We drove to the other side of Punta Mita from where we’re staying. Driving is a relative term. It’s basically a process of going as fast as you can between speed bumps otherwise known as “Mexican radar guns.” It’s like the whole country is a parking lot except with enormous potholes. We made our way on the main road to Sayulita and then turned off onto a cobblestone road that was the entrance to a little town called “Something Blanca.” Not my words but somebody described it as driving into an old Western. True, but even more than just any old Western I expected to see Clint talking to an empty chair. I thought if you listened closely you could hear the theme song from the “Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” whistling under the sounds of roosters, the shock absorbers of a van under duress, and my nervous chattering/interrogation of Jesse.

From the cobblestone street we turned onto a dirt road which, again, is a relative term. The dirt roads that we’re used to seeing the Amish build? Those things are like Interstate 71 compared to these dirt roads. But just as Mexico can be perfect but flawed it can also be flawed but perfect. This road led us to the coolest beach I’ve ever seen.

Ever watch an episode of Gilligan’s Island and think “Man, that’s a cool setup. Why do they want to leave?” (You know you did. Admit it) That’s what I was thinking as we carried the surfboards to the beach. We were at the apex of a gentle curve of beach that was bookended by two giant rock formations. Like being the queen on a chessboard. We set up under a (insert the whatever the hell the Mexican word for a shelter that’s made from sticks and that has old palm fronds for a ceiling) for a little shade and began our lesson.

It didn’t start well. And we weren’t even in the water yet.

Truth is that Cachorro de Gato wasn’t really that thrilled to go surfing. She’s a gamer so she got on the plane but as we were standing there on the beach, feet and minutes (again, relative term given the Mexican time space continuum) from heading into the water her reservations were pretty clear on her face. It didn’t help that Jesse started our lesson with the suggestion that we shuffle our feet at all times because the ocean floor has all kinds of dangerous things on it. He might as well have said we were going to saddle up some spiders and ride them out to the waves.

Ever want to smack someone who’s completely innocent? It’s such a raging personal conflict between doing what you really want to do and needs doing versus the pain of having to explain your actions. Oh, yeah, and there’s the whole morality part of it.

In the end, I didn’t really want to explain myself. Plus, I was betting long. I was betting that despite being away from the kids, despite the travel, despite the Mexican head fake, despite the dogs consummating their relationship without, you know, at least taking their action behind a car or something, that as soon as she rode a wave that it would all be worth it. I was betting that there are transcendental moments in life and surfing was going to be one of them.

Did I mention the dogs?

I have a different fear of them than Cachorro de Gato. I think of them the exact same way as I do people. I really don’t care what they do with their personal lives as long as they don’t bite me. Which is exactly what was going through my mind when I was laying prone on a beached surfboard.

A German shepherd is intimidating. Two of them are scary.

Every relationship begins with the check out. The sizing up. A lot of times it’s friendly and sometimes it’s not. What’s disconcerting is when you can’t tell the difference when it matters.

I couldn’t tell the difference with these dogs. They were beautiful, almost all black with even blacker eyes. And that was the problem. I couldn’t read their eyes. They could size me up but I couldn’t return the favor.

When Jesse threw the stick I knew he could teach us how to surf. He went from saying the absolute wrong thing at the absolute worst time to doing the absolute right thing at the absolute right time. The difference was this time he knew what he was doing.

She got up the first time and rode the wave all the way into the beach.

Hermosa Chica Surfista.

I had to quit before she did.

I think I was dehydrated.

Oh, and the dogs?

They stole one of Hermosa Chica Surfista’s sandals while she was surfing.

And then they brought it back when we were leaving.

The Mexican head fake.