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Liquid Refuge: Why Writer/Photographer Johnie Gall Keeps Paddling Out

Posted by Rhea Cortado on

By Johnie Gall 

I was 22 the first time I tried to surf. I washed up on the sand with a bloody nose and a bad attitude. I remember the salt water clinging to the ends of my eyelashes, but whether it was from the ocean or my own furious tears, I can’t really be sure. I dragged my board across the beach, messy and angry, all bruised cartilage and ego, telling myself it would be my last time paddling out. It wasn’t.

I was 22 when I realized that noses break and the things that can go wrong probably will. I’m lucky, really, because that’s fairly young to realize I wasn’t built for spreadsheets and shoes designed for sitting; that maybe road trips and dirty feet were more my speed.

I write and photograph for a living now, but that’s also my life. Home doesn’t feel like an address or four egg-white walls anymore. A front door. The potted plants that keep dying because I forget to water them or the candles I keep buying but rarely have a match to light with. No, home is strained muscles and an overstuffed backpack and a horizon perpetually out of reach. It’s the smell of a down jacket one washing past due and no plans for tomorrow. It’s heavy eyelids and deciphering between the universe and the insects splattered on a windshield. They all look the same at midnight.

I told myself I wouldn’t surf again, but I did, and I like to think I’ve learned a few things since then. I learned you can keep a computer in your pocket and still feel wonder when you look up at the night sky and catch a glimpse of the galaxy. You can eat a salad for lunch and tequila for dinner and no one will stop you. You can wake up in the bed of a truck in mountains, with frozen shoes and a cup of bad coffee, and feel more at home than you do between four walls.

You can also learn to love surfing, even if you’re never very good at it. Maybe it’s because we’re made up of the stuff, 60 percent water, so we’re drawn back like rivers and bossed around by the moon. If we fail at surfing, then maybe swimming or kayaking or sailing or even just floating will be our thing. Maybe it’s because we can find water no matter where we go in the world, like a liquid refuge for the restless.

I’ve learned that life is just a collection of moments, ones that happen whether you notice them or not. Noses heal and things will continue to go wrong. And you just keep paddling out.

Photos of Johnie Gall with hat on by Andy Cochrane, all others by Johnie Gall. Kayak by Oru Kayak




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1 comment

  • What a beautiful piece of writing. I love reading your experiences with nature and how true it is that one can feel completely at home in it. You took the words right out of my mouth.

    Christina on

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