I'm not sure if it's possible, but I think I tasted the humidity before the plane landed. In fact, I know it's not possible, but that didn't stop me from believing it, because it was the humidity that I missed. That same sticky, oppressive atmospheric pressure that Floridians despise chirped my siren song from two thousand miles away, because I had a theory.
Humidity makes you feel. That sultry air reminds you of larger uncontrollable schemas; it amplifies your anger, lust, or malaise, while also forcing you to consider your own role marinating in its presence. It's a catalyst for feeling, and I arrived ready to sweat in the Latino melting pot of Miami where R's roll like hips and tongues and hurricane flotsam.
While Miami may not be the emblematic starting point for an East Coast surf adventure, it pulses pluralistic energy befitting both Florida's surf community and our trip's infancy. On October 15 at 10:35 p.m. EST, photographer Patrick Ruddy and I embarked on a two-week trek from Florida to Maine with nothing but surfboards, a pickup truck, and a list of contacts for crash pads. Some stopovers had been coordinated well in advance. Others received calls as pulled up in front of their homes, bag-in-hand and smile-on-face. Our mission was to unveil the character and culture of the East Coast during its most colorful season, and like surfers in Miami, we were jumping out of our skin to get started.
"Overstoke," says born-and-bred Miami surfer Dave Begley. "That's the word I would use to describe the surf scene in Miami. There will be knee-high waves and everyone will be out surfing. When it's good you can't see the water—there are just 500 heads bobbing."
Likewise, we bobbed to the shuka-shuka-tat of maracas beneath electric palms on the Miami strip. The street was an Impressionist canvas of speckled colors and lights that nauseate under scrutiny, but form a beautifully digestible concept from a distance. As we came to know the state's surfers, it became apparent that the strip bore an uncanny resemblance to Florida surf culture: a composite of satisfied faces who understand their place.
A three-story cottage tilted at a 45-degree angle stabbed the frame of a 6-foot, peeling left.
"Florida surfers tend to be proud," says ESM Editor Matt Pruett. "It's not so often you have a guy from New Smyrna who doesn't claim New Smyrna, and the Jacksonville guys love being from North Florida; they have an interesting mix between city and country whereas the South Florida guys have more of a Latin influence and the guys from the Gulf Coast are really proud of being from there. It's interesting how different they might seem, but they've all got this in common: Florida surfers love being Florida surfers."
Which made me think they knew something I didn't. Loud voices don't necessarily pipe substantive messages; it's the quiet ones cloaked in grins I want to hear. After a dawn patrol session in sharky New Smyrna, Eric Geiselman confirmed what I suspected: "Everything you want as an East Coast surfer is here," said Geiselman. "I just don't want to tell anyone."
In a lot of ways, his claim demystified the flood of grins that poured along the beaches of the Sunshine State from Miami to St. Augustine. It's like they've all got a secret kept safely in their back pocket for a rainy day, a quiet confidence that doesn't require discussion to become any more real: they're happy to leave it at that.
Slinking off the sweat, breathing the neon effervescence and sabores cubanos of Miami as the shiny faces swirled, my smile blended into the sticky air too.
Yesterday a wave broke on Jesse Hines' truck while he was driving down to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
"I decided to turn around at that point," said Hines.
Considering the Atlantic has swallowed nearly 20 houses in the Outer Banks in the last 10 years, it's safe to say you lose some agency when you cross the Oregon Inlet Bridge. So we waited in an interminable chain of four-wheel vehicles watching the Nor'easter surge and snack on fleeting infrastructure. In an ironic way it was comforting to feel small amid the carnage, and thunderous Cape Hatteras obligingly reminded us of our size.
The next morning, standing on freshly cracked sand north of Rodanthe Pier, I felt microscopic. I rubbed my eyes with my knuckles in disbelief, but the image stayed the same. A three-story cottage tilted at a 45-degree angle stabbed the frame of a 6-foot, peeling left. Clearly, powerful forces were at play.
Photographer Patrick Ruddy fished the intimidation from my head with three words: "You paddling out?"
I assured him that "at some point I would paddle out," but "I should probably get some footage" and "do some interviews." After all, I was there to unearth "the essence of fall in the Outer Banks" and coincidentally the region's best surfers were in town for a contest just a few streets away. It'd be negligent to avoid talking to them. Right?
There's a delicate balance between fury and fluidity in the water that comes with capricious storms like these, and although it left as quickly as it came, the Outer Banks hangs its hat on that mercurial brute force.
"I've surfed a lot of good waves around the world," says Jesse Hines. "I would rather surf here on a good day than anywhere—hands down. There's something about this peaky beachbreak that you just can't compare to anywhere else. It just gets perfect."
…And it was. As I returned to the dune where I'd admired the giant's apocalyptic masterpiece nine hours earlier, Shea Lopez stumbled across the sand, grimacing while he clutched his ear.
"I just blew my eardrum out," he grunted. "But you should get out there. It's perfect. Don't even check it—just go."