Cody French never thought about death until now. Graduating high school was as far as his imagination had let him roam. With that behind him, his horizons were all stocking shelves at Bixby’s in Carmel, and messing with the junior college girls from Monterey, until he got the text: Underwater seismic activity at San Gregorio fault! Ghost Trees gone huge!
The scruffy good-looking local teen was about to throw away his non-demanding perfect job to catch a maverick wave—the wave of the world. But before he could say I quit, his manager Albert said, “Get the hell outta here kid. Go make some surf history.” The blonde-haired, blue-eyed bro didn’t need to be told twice.
“Thanks dude! I’ll be back before the lunch crowd.”
Albert slapped Cody on the butt like a coach, and said, “Hey kid…”
“One of us has to live.” Cody shook off the warning.
“I said I’ll be back.”
“That’s not what I meant,” The forty-something, Italian-American meat-slicer shook his head at this uncomprehending youth. “Get outta here!” That was all Cody needed. He was out the door climbing into his orange Chevy and Hurley surf truck with the 10’2” four-fin board hanging over the tailgate. Pulling on his 4-ply O’Neil, he figured he’d be at Ghost Trees in eight minutes, easily back in time for lunch—a big wave surfer, not just some frube who couldn’t catch a killer wave to save his soul.
To the unenlightened, the place called Ghost Trees in Pebble Beach was all about golf courses and the superfluous beauty of sunbeams that spin fields of diamonds across the face of the sea. The real Ghost Tree was nothing but a gnarled wooden remnant of a dead cypress trunk marked No. 17 on the tourist map of the famous Seventeen Mile Drive across the road from No. 18, a quaint plot of manicured pathways and stone benches called Pescadero Point, where old ladies walked their dogs and herded tourists arrive in busses and snap selfies. The place belied a dangerous big wave break a hundred feet below, called Ghost Trees, by the surfers.
When Cody arrived at Ghost Trees the sky was petal pink, the swells were big and dark, and there was a pervasive white noise that soothed and terrified him as he looked at the gargantuan waves with their deep troughs. Fucking mavericks—how do they work? He recognized a miracle whether he could explain it or not.
The jet-ski driver towed him way out to where the aggressives were playing, amped. They were executing deep fades into the bowl, taking drops and grabbing cutbacks, bunny-hopping over shallow boils, and searching for that hangar-sized barrel of a lifetime. These guys were no slouchers. They were in peak condition, seeking peak experiences—the kind where everything else falls away. “Dude!” the driver shouted, as he signaled his release of the tow line. Cody took his place in the lineup.
Meanwhile, half-a-mile-away, in the spot called the boneyard, a pair of thirty-foot waves flooded into Stillwater Cove and pummeled the Beach Club—that gray-shingled hundred-year-old institution just above the 17th hole of the Pebble Beach Golf Links: that place so reminiscent of old-world East Coast sodalities, where rich, old, young, strong, weak, widowed, orphaned, lost, found, fearful, brave, knowing and unaware, populate the scene.
Straddling his board, Cody watched as guy after guy paddled up, took the drop, and tumbled out. None of the four surfers before him rode their wave. The first one took an injury to the shoulder.
These were the biggest waves anyone had ever seen in California. Dudes were rushing down from Santa Cruz and up from Paso—every top surfer in the state was on his way, but Cody and the other locals had them beat because there was no warning. These mavericks were caused by an underground earthquake—not a storm.
Two photographers with 1300mm lenses paddled out on long guns to catch the drama unfolding on this dangerous break that had only been surfed for the last twenty years. A guy from Monterey’s On the Beach Surf Shop jetted over to help with water traffic control. Maybe I’ll make Surf Magazine, Cody thought. A Coast Guard patrol boat showed up to tell the tow-surfers they were operating illegally. (Someone always called to complain whenever there were jet skis in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.) Staying wide of the boulders around the West Coast’s heaviest wave, the Coast Guard vessel checked itself before the liquid wall that was Ghost Trees.
Transfixed by the ascending wall of doom, Cody positioned himself for the drop—epic, filmic, lethal as fuck. This is it, killer wave, homicidal, he thought. An immemoriam squeezed his finest nerve. He had a sense of being in a dream where someone was dead. This ain’t no dream. There’s only me. He was clucked like a chicken. No way out but through it. He pushed off. “Akawww!” he shouted. His voice shrill and chill as he tried to sound old school entering the backdoor on the wave of the world.
Fading into the bowl of this deadly right-hander, he got worked—wiped out into a fold. Now he was deep under water, tomb-stoned by a two-wave pin-down. Yanked up by its buoyancy, held down by its leash, the board stood straight up like a grave marker out of watery hell. With all that ocean tonnage above him for two times the count, the leg rope snapped and the board split. Flailing cartwheels in the washing machine thirty feet below the level of air, his mind slowed to higher frames per second.
Famous surfers drown here. I’m gonna be one. His thoughts turned dark. What if I’m just a Barney, out of my league? It was time to release the pressure from his lungs; the weight of it all. It was time to open his mouth and take in the frigid sea—find out what’s on the other side. Then, Cody had the thought of a lifetime. It’s sad not to live. It’s sad to NOT live.
The eyes of the Coast Guard engineer scanned the horizon-less surface, though he couldn’t believe Cody had a chance of surviving the roiling hold-down. Only minutes before it had been the playground of elite young men and those so-called men in gray suits: those great white sharks that play and feed here in one of the coldest, most heavily shark-infested surf breaks in the world.
In a flash-bang, Cody was jolted—rammed hard from underneath. A bastard shark knocked the remaining bubbles of stale air from his pipes. The boy pressed his lips together. The last experience of his life was about to be death in the jaws of a monster. Again, he got shoved mightily. Rammed from beneath, he felt himself begin to ascend. He flailed his oxygen-deprived weakened noodles around the beast and held on for life until, miraculously, he popped to the surface, gasping for air, coughing, sputtering, and at last, breathing. His body braced itself, still entangled with the creature that had brought him from the depths. He was certain that he was about to get shredded into a car-sized blood stain. He’d seen foamies turn pink before. But nothing happened.
As his brain began to defog, he came to the realization that his savior was not a great white shark, but one of those Pacific dolphins that likes to shoot waves alongside surfers. The terrifying anticipation of his stone-cold death was instantly morphed into the exhilaration of a near-death experience. Sick!
At the same time, the terror experienced by the small crowd of onlookers transformed into elation at the sight of Cody's fist pumping the air. In unison, they shifted their attention to the creature that had him entangled. The young surfer’s savior was not a dolphin, but an old woman, and she appeared to be quite dead.
It took almost an hour for the personal watercraft to wrangle the body and tow it to the Coast Guard boat. Paramedics pronounced Cody good to live for other days— saved by an anonymous old Jane Doe who died before she could wake, newly privy to the mystery beyond whatever mind may comprehend.