The Last Time
A few months ago I was in the water out beyond the Golden Gate bridge, as I have been at least several hundred times. I often call it “sailing” for simplicity’s sake, but more precisely I was riding a hand-built racing hydrofoil at over twenty miles per hour, surfing the incoming swell massed against five knots of outbound ebb-tide current. I could feel every ethereal thread of a crisp northwest wind lashing down over the Marin headlands, its muscular sway and thrust compressed by the rocky gap spanned by the bridge to meet me there and press itself against the wing-like sail that I gripped with my bare hands. Racing across the water I was aware of my tiny form set against the massive scale of the bridge, my hands somehow holding the mighty force of the wind, itself of a infinite scale even larger than any human construction.
Once launched from the beach at Crissy Field, I made my way upwind towards the bridge, dressed for weather and well prepared by years of practice. I knew exactly where I was going—and yet, given the strength of the conditions and the undeniable reality of the situation in the water here, there’s no way to know exactly what I was getting myself into, or how I’d feel once I got there. Two thirds of the way across the bay I flashed past a triumphant sea lion with a salmon clamped between its jaws, my own teeth clenched against the elements as I worked to keep my feet planted on my board, the wind doing its best to tear me loose and send me sprawling with the sea life. One glance for the fish, and I returned my eyes to my goal, the nexus of the sailor’s world here in San Francisco Bay—the roiling center span of the Golden Gate.
Just a mile or so from the sunny green stretch of bayside lawn where we prepare our gear, the water beneath the bridge on a new-moon falling tide is a mess of saltwater rapids more than a mile wide—a million million tons of water pouring from all of California out into the sea—and on that late-March day with the wind blowing snot and the air and water both still below fifty-five degrees, I was shivering, half my fingers numb, as I made my final tack upwind into the center of the channel. Going hand-to-hand with the elements and immersed in the most direct, powerful and dynamic states of nature, feeling the shape of the wind and waves and hearing the whistling wind-song of the great bridge above as the river of tide froths white against the piers, navigating this tumbling of infinity in real time—and right here at home, close enough to turn and see the streets where I grew up—that’s exactly what I was there for.
I was in my element—and, then, after twenty minutes of what feels like survival sailing, as I felt another gust try to strip the sail from my cold and grasping hands, watching the land slide away sideways as the current pulls me seawards, I noticed a feeling in my chest and belly, trying to make itself heard.
What I felt right then was cold, and fatigue—and fear.
I had put myself in a position not so much of danger—although there was that, certainly—but of such intense bodily stress that I could not help but consider right then and there as I skimmed across the surface of the wind-blasted water—why was I there at all? Why do this to myself? and why do I do this to myself?
I know the answer. I know the answer very well. I do things like this to feel alive. To feel the sting of the wind and the slap of cold sea water. To feel my heart full in my throat, my pulse strong and my eyes wide and to feel my body move in instantaneous, continuous response to the relentless and ever-changing motion of this environment, so alive itself that to be immersed in that aliveness does, by force, make me feel that I too am alive.
So feeling alive is why, and feeling alive is a good reason—and there is no reason not to continue go out there, to immerse myself in nature and to seek that very real feeling—and also, also, in that moment of frigid, thrumming fear, it became clear to me again and in a new and deeper way that it is my choice to be there, and that at some point I will choose not to got out there any longer.
At some point I will choose to make one day my last day out under the Golden Gate, just as I’ve already chosen my last time with many other things. I sold my motorcycles when I turned forty. I gave away my last skateboard not long after that. I sold my business in 2015. In early 2018 I chose to radically change my relationship with alcohol, and so January of that year was the last time I will ever drink to excess, or with any frequency or regularity. I spent thousands of hours over the past ten or more years becoming a competent cross-country paraglider pilot, and then one day last year, flying at six thousand feet above Mount Vaca, I chose to go and land, pack my glider, and to make that my last day of paragliding.
This awareness of the last time has been growing in me lately. I felt it again just yesterday as I walked again towards the beach with my sailing kit in hand. It was a midsummer day on San Francisco Bay, and the fog hung low and grey, leaving a gap between the clouds and water lit silver and wan in the partial sunlight. Despite the gloom, the regular crowd of fellow sailors was on the scene, some already out in the water, some still chatting together by their cars. I was wearing a wetsuit, a white helmet and a harness wrapped around my waist. The physical sensation of my tight and supportive superhero costume bolstered my confidence as I eyed the wind on the whitecapped surface of the Bay.
Crossing the parking lot as I approached the shore, I felt a clear and strong premonition that if I continued out into the water, that something would break. I’ve never had the experience before of asking my intuition a follow-up question, but this time I was able to pause and ask, would it be something of my equipment, or my own body? The clear answer was: broken gear, not broken body, and at the moment that felt like enough for me to proceed. I reached the water line and walked in slowly, feeling the cool salt water permeate my suit, and soon I was flying across the water out near the bridge as usual.
Forty minutes later I was riding back downwind, looking towards my mark back at the beach, and I got thrown by a piece of chop, lost my balance, and fell forwards, planting my left knee square in the middle of my board. I heard a crunch, and came up to see that I had bashed several large cracks through the fiberglass deck, leaving the inner core of foam exposed to the salt water.
My still-almost-new custom wingfoil board with its striped race-car paint job was ruined in an instant. My big yellow toy was broken! Momentarily dejected, I rode around for another fifteen minutes or so before returning to the beach. I felt sad and dumb and ashamed for having damaged a piece of very expensive gear. I was disappointed in myself for not having acted on such a very clear premonition. And, I felt relieved, knowing that as much as I still enjoy it sometimes, I wouldn’t have to go out there anytime soon—at least not until I repair that board.
Did you catch that? I felt relieved that I wouldn’t have to go back out there anytime soon. I felt relieved of having to rig up and suit up and push off into the water. I felt relieved of the time and effort and the sand and cold, and the risk of stepping in dog shit. I felt relieved that I had just broken my board, and not my knee or leg or some other part of my body.
All of that—and—I felt relieved of the have to—the feeling that had pushed me to go out even when I’d been told that I was about to break something. I felt relieved of the pull that I feel when I hear the wind blowing in through the Gate on a sunny day, even though I love to be out there! It’s hard not to follow the urge to do something so powerfully elemental in such a magnificent place, and something so rare, but when the thirst becomes a compulsion, it’s time for something to shift.
I had a laugh back on the beach with my friends, looking sideways at the beautiful board that I had just trashed, and then I packed up and drove home. I’ve had other close calls out there recently, and it could have just as easily been an injury instead of an equipment failure. My body was telling me to change my habit.
This sport and many others have given me a lot of energy over the years. As it nets out, they have given me a huge amount of energy, and this type of sailing (wing-foiling) may well still have more to give me. But right then, in the moment, I felt relief—and an awareness that the last time for something is approaching yet again. I’m still not quite willing to say that I’ll give up this sort of sailing, but I know this moment well enough to pay close attention. I can choose to interpret the premonition—and the subsequent fall, and the damage—as a reminder to only go out when I really want to—or—it could be the case that the last time is already upon me. Either way, it’s certainly true that the last time is coming towards me—and perhaps it’s already close at hand.
We’re used to the idea that goodbyes are always sad, or at best, bittersweet. I’ve been paying attention to these last times though, and when I look back at my last hangover, my last time twisting the throttle on a motorcycle to push it past 100 on some back road in Marin, the last time I had to sign my life away in the course of doing business, or the last time alone in my paraglider high up in the sky asking, “why am I doing this to myself?”—when I look back on any of those moments, it’s goodbye with love and reverence and respect and joy, and with no regret. I have no wistful desire to fly or ride or drink in that way again. I would love to fly in some other way, to ride bicycles or some sort of electric who-knows-what, or start another, very different business, but I have no desire to go back to those past versions of myself.
It’s not just that I don’t want to go back. I have no desire to overstay my time in any particular chapter of my life. The feeling of turning the page at the right time is like knowing just when to leave the party. You had a good time. Split before it gets ugly. Quit while you’re ahead. Move on down the road. Make space for something new. Let the message in about what’s coming next for you. It’s good-bye for a reason, after all.
I’ve come to love these moments of moving on, and as much as I resist the idea of giving up that feeling of holding the wind in my hands—or giving up the set of hot new bright-red sails that I just bought—I know from all of these experiences that giving up the holding on to something when it’s started to have a grip on me—that feels good.
Many of these things that I’ve done to fight my way alive, to prove that I exist by going to the edges of the world and shoving myself up against them, many of these things—many of these things I have gradually come to need and want to do less. I don’t need to have more of those experiences to have had them, or for them to remain part of me. I don’t need to keep practicing those parts of myself to be myself.
I want to press myself more into the center now, more into warmth, more into the sun. I have felt the edges and they are part of me, and I don’t need quite so much sharpness any longer. I want more soft glow. I’m making more space for slow. Giving up some of this gripping is allowing myself to be alive in other ways, to get older, to be mortal.
Giving something up feels a lot like freedom—and the moment of that last and final time that I do something has come to feel like a gift, or a plaque that I can hang on my wall and point to—a lifetime achievement award. Giving something up is a conscious look towards the end, an acknowledgment and even, I’d say, a celebration—of death. Not to cut things short, but to say, I see you coming.
Every story has an end, and the final words are as important as the first.
To return to the moment where I began, what I saw right then, as a I flew down the face of a ten foot Pacific wave stacked up from the west and tilting ever-earthwards, is that I don’t need quite so much to scare myself alive. Looking back through the Gate towards the towers of the City, just hanging on by my toes—I felt my abs tighten and my back straighten up. My head lifted as I filled my chest with sea air, and I saw the last time coming.
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