Ask just about any surfer on a bleak, windblown summer day what the waves look like, and, in a kind of hushed aside, the response you'll get is, "It's flat, but I heard a New Zealander is coming."
The New Zealander is always coming, so they hope, for it is the only dependable wake-up call for a dozing North Pacific. The cold, frothy peaks from the Gulf of Alaska have long dwindled, and the late-summer hurricanes off Mexico are too close, their swells still fitful and wind-battered when they arrive on the coast.
But the New Zealander is spawned far away in sub-Antarctic turmoil. Its journey here is so long that the storm chop dies en route and the swell is smoothed out and lined up over thousands of miles of open Pacific.
It hurls itself clean and warm over sand and reef, pounding a faint mist into the air that announces its arrival. On glassy days, surfing it is near bliss: holding a trim on a crystalline wave, pulling under a pitching lip while your friends howl with laughter, no wetsuit, sunlight glittering on the water.
Never mind the wax rash on your chest, the sunburned nose, or the sea gulls eating your peanut butter sandwich on the beach. It doesn't matter.
Even the afternoon onshore wind can't dampen your spirits, because you look out to the mountains and see the faded thunderheads rising from the haze. Soon they will cool down the desert and force the breeze toward hotter pastures, toward the coast. You get out of the heat a bit, maybe go to work and wait for the wind shift to smooth the sea into evening glass.
As the waning light reflects gold on the arroyo willows at Lower Trestles, or amber on the drying ramparts above Topanga Point, or sienna on the crumbling bluffs of Dana Point, the palm fronds will droop and their trunks will bow lazily westward.
You will shuffle through the shallows to avoid stingrays, leap on your board and paddle into a peeling, backlighted wave. Gone will be the sprawl, the smog, the job, the past, the future. Just a finger, a rail and some fins tracing a foamy line across a wall of green.