Sometimes Absurdity is Most Effective
As summer neared again, Scotch and I began to talk about all that we hoped summer would bring. We were both deeply called by the idea of learning to surf, but wearing wetsuits into the icy Pacific didn't seem quite right. Something like Hawaii or Costa Rica, maybe, but how would we get there?
And then one day, we saw it. A cruise ship docked at the Port of San Francisco. The sight conjured images of Jan Valtin's epic stowaway voyages around the world, and all of a sudden the way to get to Hawaii seemed obvious. The interesting thing about Jan Valtin was that, although he was working for the Communist Party, those operating outside of the Soviet Union at that time did not seem to be mired by bureaucracy, and were actually required to show incredible self-motivation and self-direction. Secretly working with underground Communist sailors in China, he'd been told to go to San Francisco for an assignment. Having no money, contacts, or any means to travel half way around the world, he'd ask “But I have no money? How am I supposed to get there?” “There's nothing a Bolshevik can't do!” would be the only response he'd receive. In many ways, Jan Valtin showed just how much an individual is capable of when that person is strongly motivated by their passion. Unfortunately for him, however, his passion was to serve the Communist Party.
Were we motivated strongly enough? As “students researching the cruise ship economy,” we obtained a list of scheduled arrivals and departures from the San Francisco Port Authority. As luck would have it, a cruise ship was bound for Hawaii in three days — and it was undergoing repairs in dry dock at that moment. So that very night, we rode bikes down to the dry dock for a look. The whole area was encircled by a razor-wire fence, with a check-point for entry. We managed to get over into an abandoned building that bordered the fence, so we could observe what was happening.
Strangely, there were an incredible amount of people coming and going through the checkpoint. They all had IDs, but they weren't wearing special clothes. We guessed this was the crew. We watched them walk past the point where we were hiding in the shadows, ascend a large staircase, and then disappear through something that we thought might have been an entrance to the boat. By hopping a different fence, darting through the shadows of a storage yard, and then lifting ourselves around the side of the razor-wire fence, we were able to circumvent the checkpoint. Scotch, looking the most respectable, said he would walk up the stairs and see what happened.
He was gone for fifteen minutes, and when I asked “How far did you get?” upon his return, he responded “I got on the boat!” We thought we were set, and made plans to return the next night with our sleeping bags. Our plan was to sneak on, hide ourselves away, and then emerge to blend in by the pool after all the passengers were loaded. While doing research, though, we learned that things have become more complicated since the days of Jan Valtin. Passengers are all issued magstripe IDs, which are required both for getting on and off the boat. They do this to keep track of whether or not passengers have been left on shore, how many people are currently on the boat, etc... But for us, this meant that simply getting on wasn't enough — we also had to get off! And we had absolutely no idea what that would look like. Would there be customs people there with machine guns, a gate, a turn style, or just someone holding a swipe reader? I read a number of reviews from passengers who forgot their IDs while trying to get off, though, and were not able to.
We also learned that getting caught as a stowaway was a felony offense in the US, which made things not really worth it. Nevertheless, we returned the next night to check things out. It seemed like, if anything, we'd definitely need a sample badge if we were going to forge it in the future. I'll leave most of the story out — but I will say that Scotch did eventually obtain a badge... through seduction.
But our cruise ship left port without us, and we were still determined to take a surfing trip. So, we put our surfboards under our arms, walked out to Highway 1, and started a “Hitchhike Surf Trip.” Standing next to the highway, holding longboards and a sign which read “We Have A Rack” — Scotch commented, “It's hard to believe this was the conservative option.” Someone with a surfboard on his roof started to drive by, and we eventually shamed him into stopping by screaming “Surfer Solidarity!” As he pulled over, I said “Wow, I guess this is actually going to work.” “Wait, you didn't think this was going to work?” Scotch asked accusingly. “I guess I had my doubts.”
This guy took us to Pacfica, and the trip had begun. The trip itself was really fun, and we surfed in a few different spots along the coast. The thing about it was, we had to carry surfboards literally everywhere we went. Not just surfboards, but 9ft longboards. In Santa Cruz, we ran into a friend while walking down the street. “Wait,” he asked, “is this some kind of... disguise?”
For the most part, the hitchhiking went incredibly well. Holding surfboards seemed to legitimize us in a weird way, and failing everything else, other surfers would always stop. We got to the point where we could strap our boards to the top of a car in under 3 minutes.
This broke down on our trip back up the coast. Highway 1 was closed for repair between Santa Cruz and Pacifica, so we decided to go inland via highway 17 to 280. We got a ride out of Santa Cruz onto 17 without any problems, but after we'd gone over the hill into silicon valley, we suddenly found ourselves standing in the middle of California — nowhere near the ocean — with two large surfboards on a highway interchange. Naturally, we looked ridiculous. It only took us a few moments to realize how ridiculous we looked, as motorists zoomed by with very confused looks on their faces. So instead of flaunting our surfboards, we ended up trying to hide them. Then, motorists would zoom by with the standard look of “I'm not picking up two tall men...” mixed with “...and are those surfboards that you're trying to conceal over there?”
It only deteriorated from there. Eventually, a highway patrolman pulled over. He admonished us for hitchhiking and indicated that we'd have to leave. This was made somewhat interesting when we said “Well, I dunno where you think we're going to go, because I don't think our surfboards are going to fit on top of your cruiser.” He looked stymied, and then crossed over the single lane of traffic that was the interchange to stand on top of the opposite bank, looking around. Eventually he disappeared over the hill.
Naturally, we started trying to hitchhike again. But this looked even worse. At this point we were two really desperate looking men trying to hitchhike on a highway interchange, holding surfboards nowhere near the ocean, standing next to an empty police cruiser.
Eventually the cop appeared over the hill again, and started shouting something about us coming over to that side. “What?” I yelled back. “This is not open for discussion!” he almost screamed. “No dude, I just can't hear you!” I took a step towards the road and he held his hands up while frantically shouting “No no no! Stay where you are!” “Sheesh, fine, whatever...” we thought, and kept trying to hitchhike away. Eventually I looked up and saw two other cops standing next to the original one. I nudged Scotch, “Look, they're multiplying.”
Finally, they all came over to us. They grouped themselves around us so that we were almost in a huddle, Scotch and I still holding our surfboards. The original cop said “Alright, this is what we're going to do. I'm going to walk up the ramp a ways and take point. Jimmy, you stay down on the far end. Mark, you be here to take them across.” I had no idea what he was talking about, and wondered what the hell was going on. The original cop walked way up the ramp, while keeping in radio contact with the other two. “Alright, after this red one.... and... GO GO GO!” The cop standing near us motioned us across the road. We took literally two steps across a single lane, and were on the other side.
Suddenly I realized that we'd just witnessed a coordinated police operation designed to get us to the other side of a low-traffic single-lane on-ramp. We walked over the embankment, and down the side of another highway before getting to another on-ramp, where they left us alone. We eventually made it back, surfboards and all.