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The Dark Neoprene Queen
4 January 2003

It was a dark and stormy week that rolled over the fading Yule fires. Rains and tooth-chipping cold and fog and damp damp WET and things blown away. During sunnier times, we had made reservations at the campground at Pismo Beach for Dec. 30. Waking to the rain rain rain on Dec. 30, we gave up our plan to crawl up the Northern California coast on New Year's week. We clung to the reservation at Pfeiffer Big Sur campground for 12/31 and 1/1. The weather stopped blustering for a moment to clear its throat. We packed the car and took off.

About 3 pm we found ourselves a nice spot on the Big Sur River, campsite #140, recommended to us in a conspiratorial tone by the dreadlocked angel at the check-in gate who reminded me a great deal of my eldest daughter. On entering the redwood cathedral of that forest, our hearts were saddened as we passed behemoth campers, one with a directional satellite TV dish, another (the "campground host") with a plastic American flag, all bringing their shit into the woods rather than the time-honored tradition of letting the woods clear out their shit. This sorry lot could raise a blister on your soul if you let it, I thought.

At the back of the campground we encountered an young man of about seven years of age on a bicycle dressed all in black wearing a yellow helmet. We slowed down as he looked over his shoulder at us. Then suddenly he leapt up to stand on the seat of his bike. After a moment he dropped down again, looked back at us, and repeated the exercise. As we passed I gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up, which he acknowledged with a curt military nod.

At site #140, the white voice of the river wove its high notes among the throatier tones of the RV generators. We pitched the tent, hung the lantern, and toasted under the just-dark sky down by the riverside where all that could be heard, finally, was the song of the water herself. After a few rounds of poker at the picnic table, our fingers were frozen and we proceeded to Nepenthe for New Year's dinner and some cheer.

Actually, it was all about amateur anthropology. There are only about sixty consenting adults in Big Sur at any one time, and we had enjoyed in the past the sense of being swarmed and poked at by the long-haired resident folk, but even more we appreciated the patterns they made as they wove their way through former lovers, fellow shopkeepers, and persons involved in agricultural pursuits in search of something just a little beyond the tiny meme pool of that community.

Sadly, Nepenthe was not hopping on New Year Eve; only one morose middle-aged blonde wove the patterns at the bar. The cold had reasserted itself and everyone else was at home, no doubt praying for the soul of our morally impaired president and stirring tofu stew over a wood hot fire, ignoring for the moment the warnings about particulate pollution that we should all feel guilty about as we warm ourselves in the old way despite the cheap, clean, available energy brought to us by the coal-burning power plants of a conscientious, government-approved energy industry, companies so upstanding that even our leaders invest in them. We retired to our sleeping bags at 10 and left the New Year (Roman Calendar) to take care of itself.

The next day we hiked along the coast among freezing shadows and intermittent bursts of the sweetest sunlight on a trail advertising a panoramic view. At the site of an inauspicious clump of dwarf manzanita and a radio tower in the high distance the trail turned downhill again, panoramic view hidden among the awakening raspberry bushes and fallen mud and rocks. A near miss.

We returned to the campsite as the sun was setting. I noted that my brain was moving slow, to misquote Jefferson Airplane, and that there were ice crystals already forming on the leaves. The river exhaled malevolently, cold and wet. I thought of refugees in the mountains of Afghanistan and how unimaginably horrific their lives must be. I thought I should probably tough it out in solidarity. But in the end, I persuaded Rob to break camp and take a room at the Inn. This, as every true patriot knows, is why God made credit cards. I slept like the dead for ten hours in a heated room.

On Friday we made our way to Pajaro, our old stomping grounds, where condos are expensive but you can get three nights for the price of two in the winter and hell, we'd already paid for it before we knew we were broke. A sweet little place with the obligatory glass fish on the mantle, photos of whales in the bathroom, and random seafarin' bric-a-brac throughout. I wondered if there is a decorating firm down here that does the "ocean thing" for those who own these condos - tarting them up with sand-dollar sheets and seashell rugs so they can rent them out to pay the bills until that golden day when the owners can retire and look at the sea every day. Then, I think, they will throw out the plastic fish and improve their speaker placement. Lucky bastards. There was a time when I aspired to just such a future, before all the money I ever made in my life (which admittedly wasn't much) was gone.

And just as I'm feeling sorry for myself I see migrant workers stooping in the fields on a Friday afternoon, not making enough to buy soup at the local Albertson's, and I am ashamed.

Saturday afternoon we took a few flat waves on our boogie boards. Felt so good to be in the sea.

Today, the weather report promised, there would be kick-ass waves. And indeed there were. At the new moon, the ultra-high tide came up over the steps to the beach. There were waves, all right - waves sporting small trees, waterlogged and deadly, bouncing just out of sight, waiting to bash out the brains of a middle-aged wannabee from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Nevertheless we suited up again. Here I must admonish all Neoprene wearers that it is not good to attempt to dry your suit on the railing of your deck. When you put it on, it is one degree above freezing. I imagine being tortured by some dark figure (the president, perhaps?) who requires me to put on wet, cold Neoprene twice a day and go dodge the dark logs bobbing around in the hidden mighty power of the surf.

I struggle into my Neoprene suit, Neoprene boots, Neoprene gloves, Neoprene hood. The Afghani refugees are still in my mind. What the hell am I doing? We walk down the steps toward the beach. The sun is shining fully now, and silly flowers, ice plant and mustard, are blooming in January. The horizon line is missing and the water is all sky. There are three teenage girls poking around in bikinis and goosebumps looking forlornly for a place to sunbathe. They see us - mildly rotund middle-aged bipeds completely coated with Neoprene carrying absurdly gaudy boogie-boards - descending the steps that disappear into the water.

"You guys are awesome," one of them says. I pause. I turn. I address the young woman. "There is nothing, nothing in your life that will make you look or feel worse than cold Neoprene." She replies, "No really, you're awesome."

And so it came to pass that a teenager told me I was awesome.

And that made it all worthwhile.