The Plastic Age

Posted on: May 5, 2008

Tom Slater

Two thousand feet above the ground, Ian stretched out on his porta-ledge that was precariously hanging from the rock face of El Capitan in Yosemite.

Tomorrow, early, he would push with all his strength for the summit, but tonight he would sway under the stars by a thread and ignore the world below.

Ian licked the cold tin of his last can of tuna like a starving cat and then gulped down some crackers and warm water. The last pools of light evaporated into the night blackness as he counted the stars as they began to appear.

He rolled over to the side of his porta-ledge. The material creaked as he shimmied his body over. Looking down into the black void, he saw car lights flickering like fire flies in and out of the forest trees and across the quiet meadows. Then he rolled over and pulled half of his sleeping bag over his greasy head and battered body. I’m a lucky son-of-a-bitch, he thought to himself, and then closed his eyes.

The full moon came early that night and beamed like a light accidentally left on. It washed the stars away. Ian woke up. He peered at the moonlight reflecting off the huge granite walls. It was as if he were staring into an eerie hall of mirrors.

“Whoa...” he whispered.

He then closed his eyes and let the image etch into his retina, then into his memory. All was silent except for the Merced River far below, the icy vein of life that stretched from the high mountain tops to the lush valley floor below and across the flat farmlands to the ocean.

He imagined another time when glaciers filled this valley and sent these waters raging to the sea. It was an ancient cycle. Only now, the once raging waters had now slowed to a soft hush as they flowed across the pesticide filled farmlands and polluted cities to the sea. Ian fell back into a restless slumber.

By late afternoon, Ian had climbed the upper reaches of El Cap and finished his solo ascent of Zodiac, one of Yosemite’s classic big wall climbs. He stared down at the cluttered valley below. The cars, busses, lodges, tents, and thousands of spectators were strewn out along the floor of the valley like colorful trash spilled from a can. “Too bad the Ice Age is over,” Ian said to himself. “This place could use a big flush.” But amazingly, the thin emerald green Merced still managed to find its way through it all and that made Ian smile.

Later that evening, on his drive home, as he washed his swollen hands in the cold Merced, he marveled at the late fall colors. He knew it was time to stash the rock climbing gear and wax up his winter quiver. The reefs and swelling river mouths would soon be alive and it’d be time to conquer other mountains.

After a few weeks of rest and some much needed home repairs, Ian was again back on the road searching for the source. He knew of a clogged river mouth that had probably opened back up after the first heavy rains last week. He wanted to surf it before the bars broke down.

He drove the winding road out to the coast. From a pullout he saw where the river mouth spilled into the sea. He saw perfect empty a-frames held delicately back by off-shore winds. Ian smiled.

He popped his trunk. Today he wanted to last forever, but he knew it’d only a few hours at best. He stared up at the gathering rain clouds and wondered if Yosemite had received its first snows yet. He could picture El Capitan frozen there in time like a relic from the ice age, a giant popsicle. He reluctantly pulled off his warm clothes and quickly pulled on his wetsuit.

After the cold paddle out, he found the best bar, then lined it up with a cluster of trees just inland of the dunes. A large bump lumbered in from the horizon quietly moved his way and then lurched up forming a pointy mountain of ocean in front of him.

Ian stroked hard and deep. He rose up and then plunged into the liquid valley, arms rising above his head, floating him as if he were a bird. He laid it over on a rail and then drifted back up to mid-face in slow motion. He dragged his back hand across the wave’s grey-green ruffled face. The off-shores howled and froze the lip, a hooking statue of stone, until it finally cascaded over him.

Ian was sucked up into the living cycle, riding the vein pulsing from the mountains down into the heart of the sea. He pumped up and down, moving in and out of the shadow of the falling lip. He wanted to make this first wave, his first tube of the winter. But just as he was about to explode from the depths of the spinning cavern, his board just stopped, a clot in the artery, and he flew headfirst over the nose of his board as the zippering curtain closed down around him.

After somersaulting across the newly formed sand bars, he emerged in disbelief. His leash was still tight and his board was stuck in a wad of kelp. He swam towards his board and pulled again, then reached to untangle it. But to his surprise it wasn’t kelp, but a huge tangle of black plastic that had floated out to sea, someone’s backyard trash. The next set pushed him back to the water’s edge.

Once on shore, he drug the clot from the water and set about untangling himself. After fifteen minutes he screamed into the howling wind, “Fuckin’ piece of shit!”. After a half-hour had passed, he collapsed, panting on the sand in the rain with ribbons of black plastic all around him, catching the off-shore winds, drifting like cancer back into the sea.