Most surfers can’t understand how anyone in their right mind would choose to move inland.
Coming off an intensive, five-year workaday stint in SoCal, I needed to regroup. Efforts to keep up with the tragically hip Jones had worn my sense of self to a nub. So, off to Montana we headed to begin our weaning process from the corporate teet. Cindy, plump with the impending arrival of our first-born, had ridden out the salad days in her job. With parenthood looming and the nervous prospect of seeing half our income disappear in the rear view mirror, we headed north … trying to act sure of ourselves … in control of our destiny.
Despite the dismal prospect of my surfboards collecting dust, mountain games beckoned. Shredding powder in the backcountry, kayaking steep creeks, spinning miles of deep woods single track – it’s all-good, I rationalized. And, retreating from the urban coastline, with all its upwardly mobile madness, seemed like the right decision for our nascent family. But, surfing remained the dominant monkey on my back.
I kept a toe in the salt with quarterly “business” trips to Cali where I’d stashed a trusty rounded pin in my buddy’s garage. To get through the snow-choked Rocky Mountain winters, we took surf-focused sojourns to mainland Mex, Hawaii, France and the Caribbean. Despite our shrunken income, surf getaways remained a priority.
For five years things went along just fine. Then one day the call came in from headquarters. “We’re, um, consolidating. You need to move back to the main office or we’re going to have to cut you loose.” By now my family had grown to include two toe-headed boys, one full-time mom and me, the sole breadwinner. So, what would it be – balanced lifestyle & family-first ideals or a regular paycheck, health benefits and 401(k)?
A few restless, mind-spinning nights led to our decision – screw so-called job security, take the severance and head to the South Pacific. There my ohana and I might regroup in the flickering kerosene lamplight of a thatched Tongan fale. Or, experience moments of clarity, camped on a headland in Oz. Or, achieve fresh perspective motoring out to a feral reef in Fiji. Ready or not, it was time for another lesson in downward mobility.
Ten years in Big Sky Country now, I’d survived the past five as a free agent – gluing together work in the snowboarding business and trying my hand as a freelance scribe. Though not the most reliable way to buy shoes for the kids, the writing had taken me on some far off snow & surf trips. All of which stirred my inner-nomad.
Cindy felt the itch too. A decade of interminable winters and the need to bust out of her mommy routine had her pondering the map as well. “Let’s figure out a gig in Australia”, she suggested. So résumé’s went a flyin’ – “Will wash feet with my hair for a work visa”. Though one lead nearly came to a boil, the less than robust Aussie economy kept four less seppos off their soil – and out of their lineups. But one key to monkeying with the status quo, we’d learned, was to have a solid Plan B.
Plan B was to mothball our Rocky Mountain lives and head to the place of my youth – Hawai’i. Having spent some indelibly formative years on Oahu in the late ‘60’s, I was keen to see if it was possible to “go back to my little grass shack”. Our boys, now seven & nine, would be just the right ages to get their first boards and learn to surf. Every “good dad” owes an extended tropical, ocean-focused experience to his kids, or so I conjectured.
A move like this was, however, going to necessitate bailing on my existing client base and starting from scratch – again. Granted, it was no big deal putting our lives on hold in our 20’s or early 30’s, doing whatever the hell we felt like. Choice and hedonism ruled. But as “settled down” 40-somethings with a mortgage, school-aged kids, a mountain of accumulated stuff and the litany of conventional responsibility, the series of logistical hurdles we faced was daunting. Oh, but what truly devoted surfer hasn’t fancied the notion of chucking it all and setting up a life that focuses on maximum surf time?
Call it a mid-life surf sabbatical; it was time to walk the talk. For years, you see, I’d been describing in foaming-mouth detail to anyone who cared to listen, my dream of checking out. How my family and I would redefine our lives around a simple, island style existence. How we’d expose our boys to a cultural bouillabaisse – and teach them how to pull into the barrel. How my wife, Cindy, and I would reverse rolls, her taking the bread earning lead, me assuming the househusband / Mr. Mom responsibilities. And the kicker, my days would be flexible enough to surf the relative lonely turquoise reefs whenever the swell bumped. No time clock, no boss man, no traditional worker bee shackles. Deluded perhaps, my little grass shack fantasy included arms, reflexes & cajones that would confidently stroke me over the ledge, into throwing Pacific set waves.
We’ve been living on an out-Island for just over a year now. Today the boys are at school, Cindy is at work and I’m here in my 3’x 3’ “home office”, punching out a little story on my laptop. It’s flat and the trades are howling, filling my keyboard with a fine volcanic dust. ‘Figure I might as well muster a little productivity. My shoulders & lats have residual lactic burn from last week’s south swell.
Mason, who’s now eight, grows ipus out back. Beating a primal rhythm on his calabash gourd he bellows a spirited Hawai’ian chant – choke mana for one malahini keiki. Standing proud in his red malo, he’ll bend your ear describing the kapa making process in laborious detail. Where did this kid come from, we ask ourselves. Last weekend, he and his little local buddies kicked ass in their first outrigger canoe regatta - an open ocean sprint with large blue swells rolling under their ancient hull.
Clyde, like his little brahdah, has taken to the ocean with the boundless vigor of a ten year old. Healthy respect for the lip and appreciating the subtleties of rip currents are but a few of his newfound skills. Now an aspiring dingy skipper, we’re spending our evenings glassing & sanding – glassing & sanding a beater little boat he hopes to soon sail. And though he still has a ways to go on his duck-dive, his ukulele strum is smoothing out.
Mind, body & spirit, Cindy was meant for the tropics. The salt water has heeled her ailing snowboarder knees. For her, evening swims out to the blue edge, tangs & parrotfish darting all about, beat the hell out of putting another log on the fire. When the sun drops below the western sky you’re just as likely to find her basting a Hawai’ian quilt with perfectly symmetrical taro or breadfruit leaves. And, get this, after investing 10 years of her life to being an at home mom, she’s keen for the challenge and professional stimulation of going to work (!). She’s just fine with me running the carpool, grocery shopping, scrubbing the toilets, and cracking the homework whip on our lads.
We live in a tiny, one road community in a rural area. Everybody pretty much knows everybody and aloha still exists. There are four solid reef breaks within a bike ride from our door. It’s the year 2002 and when I paddle out people actually smile. Often we paddle up to one another – shaking hands, exchanging pleasantries, talking story, offering one another waves. Yes, those are canary feathers blowing out of my mouth.
Granted our income is half of what it was a few years back. We have to keep a sharp pencil on our budget and limit our poke & malasada splurges. I have to hustle up extra cash when the surf’s not firing. But, the kids are healthy & stoked. My beautiful wife smiles almost all the time. And each of us have an oceanic gleam in our eye. Bottom line – I’ve been surfing myself silly. The way I see it, ain’t no 401(k) can offer that.
This is Downward Mobility: How To Actually Achieve Epic Work Life Balance by Mike Harrelson