On an otherwise parched Sunday afternoon on the sand flats near Palm Springs, some of this country's best surfers are challenging the waves at an amusement park called the Oasis Water Resort. In a glorified swimming pool. The prize, if you can believe it, is $7,000. We are at the Budweiser Desert Classic, a new event on the U.S. Pro Tour of Surfing and Bodyboarding, and the images are difficult to take in all at once: the magical blues and whites of the water-fun park giving way, just past the surfline, to vacant scrubland; the competitors jockeying their boards beneath the snow-capped peaks of Mt. San Jacinto; and the whole backdrop framed, appropriately, by the power lines that make these pleasures possible.
The desert surf (such as we know it) is generated by pneumatic wave machines. The surf 's always up here, and always precisely the same. The waves measure four feet from bottom to lip and are spaced 2 1/2 seconds apart. They swell from right to left, then carom off a gaily tiled wall before curling and breaking back toward the right corner of the pool, lapping up finally on a concrete shoreline bordered by all-weather carpeting. This is sport impure and denatured--like hang gliding in a wind tunnel or skiing down runaway-truck ramps.
When the announcer, in a fashionably Australian accent, describes the action, it sounds like a billiards match: "A nice bank for that four-foot mark! . . . He snaps hard off the paint work and into the power pocket! . . . He blasts off that wall, splashing the Budweiser sign! . . . nearly taking his nose off on the stepladder! . . . and gator-crawling up on the cement!"
The surf doesn't clap but babbles like a mountain brook. The waves lack the power of those from the sea, so the athletes have to wrench and flail their bodies all the harder to stay afloat. By the end of a wave's run, these desert surfers look like birds with broken wings trying to take flight, like rabbits trying to hop with their feet roped together.
Still, this is surely a high-water mark for our civilization: bringing surf at long last to the Coachella Valley.
How do they do it?
Gary Bennett of Aquatic Amusement Associates explains that gigantic fans behind the back wall of the pool force air into concrete chambers. When valves release the pressure, the water is forced outward--"just like you plunge a toilet." He leads me behind the wall, where a brutal metallic WHAM-WHAM-WHAM is coming from the engine room. "THEY SAY YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO MESS WITH MOTHER NATURE!" Bennett screams. "BUT WE'RE DOING IT!" The engine room's doors jerk open and shut to the rhythm of the monster's breath. We put on industrial earmuffs and enter. It is a technocidal nightmare inside, the racket absolutely terrifying. Back at poolside, the announcer is raving on: "Some good power moves over by that two-foot-six mark! He rocks it into the lip there radically! . . . Look at him kiss that concrete! . . . He's going to do a cement back-ender! . . . He does a face plant over the nose of his board!"
Still, hairy descriptions aside, a four-foot wave is a four-foot wave. As a spectator sport, this is a lot like watching Nicklaus play miniature golf. It holds something in common with drinking non-alcoholic wine. The surroundings, in fact, are the most fascinating part: the cheerful beach-club cabanas against the khaki wasteland; the wacky water-slide tubes cascading down an artificial mountain; the surf bunnies getting a start on whole-body tans alongside poolside banners celebrating the latest cures for excess rays. And overhead, there's a helicopter drumming, with a dude from Breakout magazine inside catching it all on film.
As the sun sets over the desert, a youth with blond curly locks, one of the day's big winners, steps up to the microphone and gives heartfelt thanks to "my bubble-gum sponsor and the Lord." Amen.