Thursday, January 24, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell. Photo: Rip Girls: Mom Julie Parker, left, and daughters Chloe and Ali Barger have been making trips to the beach since the girls were small and Parker was a surfer on her way to a championship.
The wind at Carmel Beach is blowing hard enough to pick up Chloe Barger''s custom surfboard and send it tumbling down the beach, the mermaid hand-painted onto its surface somersaulting in and out of view. Barger, her long blond hair blowing in the fierce wind, sprints to retrieve the board and piles wet sand on top to keep it from escaping again.
Tourists bundled in thick down parkas huddle together on Carmel Beach and stare at the slim 21-year-old and her two boards, wondering why anyone would choose to set foot in a frigid ocean on a biting winter day like this. Barger smiles at passersby as she contemplates whether she can get away with using her more challenging board. The small 2-3 foot waves are demanding a longboard, and her 7''10" hybrid will definitely work, but Barger''s brought along the lighter and faster shortboard, just in case.
As she tugs her wetsuit on, Barger watches the ocean for a break in the waves. A gloomy gray sky hovers thickly over choppy green-blue surf as male surfers paddle out on their stomachs and catch short, frenetic rides, twisting along the faces of the waves. It''s a really mushy day, and Barger''s fighting a bad cold, but she needs her moment in the water, the time that centers her for the rest of the day.
Realizing she''s forgotten something, Barger walks barefoot up the hill to Scenic Drive, the mermaid board under her arm. She runs over to a couple of guys who are just backing out their truck and asks them something. They hand her a round tin labeled "SEX WAX QUICK HUMPS-THE BEST FOR YOUR STICK," and while Barger rubs the minty-smelling half-moon in a circular motion over her board, a white 1965 Volvo with surfboards tied on top pulls up alongside her. Barger''s mom, Julie Parker, and Parker''s boyfriend, a big wave rider called Paul "Gorilla" Kaululaau, get out to check the conditions.
"Are you guys going out?" Barger asks.
"No way," answers Gorilla, looking out from under the brim of his Hawaiian straw hat. "Too small."
Parker examines her daughter. "Chloe, you need booties," she says, digging in the back seat. "And you still look sick."
Barger''s usually tanned face is pale, and her green eyes look tired. "I''m only going out for a little bit, Mom," she says. Parker doesn''t argue. A one-time surfing champion who used to spend hours hunting for surf, she''s been setting a certain example for her daughters their whole lives. "The water will actually help your cold," she tells Barger.
Barger pulls the booties onto her reddened feet, walks back down the hill, Velcros the leash of her longboard to her ankle and heads out into the 55-degree water. She turtle dives as waves crash over her, rolling upside down with the board clutched to her body. The sky and water seem all one, the sound of wind and waves blurring together. Past the breakers, Barger straddles her board and ponders where to catch her first wave.
Barger, who just completed a year traveling and surfing around the world by herself, isn''t one to hesitate for lack of companionship. Armed with a combination of innocence and street smarts, she made it in one piece even though her family questioned the wisdom of her even going.
"I was totally against it," says Parker.
"I''m not scared of people," counters Barger. "Most people were generous and excited that I was excited to be there." Her photo albums, decorated with her artwork (of which the mermaid on her board is an example), are organized by country: Tahiti, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Australia, Bali and Hawaii. They depict Barger in an endless array of bikinis surfing in impossibly clear water. She spent almost a year waiting tables and living with family to save money for the solo trip.
"I felt like I was jumping off a huge cliff of fear and had to let go," she says. "But I think I''m a different person when I''m alone. I''m stronger."
Fear turned to joy as the plane approached Tahiti and she saw the island in the blue water. "Here was everything I asked for," she grins. "It was like a Roxy Girl dream." Swatting at mosquitoes all night long and too excited to sleep anyway, Barger spent her first night at a pension in Tahiti listening to her Walkman and writing in her journal. In the morning, she found herself watched by tattooed faces. She was the only female surfing, and the only white one with blond hair at that.
She plunged in, making friends, taking native dance classes, and zooming around on a scooter chasing rainbows with new friends she met on the Cook Islands. "Every day I wanted to write a song-I couldn''t believe how beautiful it was," she says. Checking in with her mom by email once a week, Barger extended the trip to over a year, spending the longest time in Australia. With funds running low, she stayed in youth hostels and found odd jobs, from picking blueberries to selling ice cream cones on the beach.
"I felt like the luckiest girl on the planet," she says. At the final destination, the North Shore of Oahu, Barger met up with Parker, and mother and daughter got to surf together at one of surfing''s high holy places.
Back home in Monterey County, Barger has moved between Monterey, Big Sur, Carmel Valley and Carmel, and surfing''s had to be incorporated into the more mundane elements of life, such as going to school and paying the rent.
"I fight that 9-to-5 job pressure, although it''s kind of impossible to choose life this way, and you take a lot of risks," Barger explains. "Most girls my age in college are doing it differently, but I''m glad I live this way." Barger examines her hands. "Sometimes I wish I was a girl who just cared about makeup and my nails and lived really simple, but then it wouldn''t be me."
As she says this, Barger''s wearing silvery glitter around her eyes, a fluffy white angora beret, and a tiny rose tucked behind one ear. A pair of her grandfather''s jeans, a relic from the ''60s, hangs loosely from her waist. Crystal beads sparkle in the piercing January sun against her tanned neck. She plucks a blade of grass and chews on it. "I end up being rough and natural."
Barger embraced the natural life when living in the Big Sur Wilderness in an Airstream with no plumbing last summer-"a Coors can turned on its side," as she calls it. Barger waitressed at the Ventana Inn and had her first near-death surfing experience at a secret local surf spot she refuses to name. (No surfer gives away a good spot, especially to the reading public.)
"I was held down for so long and hit the bottom, it felt like 25 feet down," she says. "Sometimes when scary things happen it shows you the power of the ocean, and you can''t take it for granted." Another type of fear sometimes floats through her briefly as she surfs-"an eerie, sharky feeling"-but then Barger decides to try her hardest not to resemble an elephant seal.
we are family
For safety and socializing, Barger tries to go out in the waves with a surf buddy or her sister Ali, 19, who rides a boogie board. The two blondes, decked out in surfer girl clothes, platform sandals and sunglasses, turn heads. It must be something in the genes: They both possess an inexplicable mixture of girlie giggles and tough-as-nails athleticism. If Ali''s not available, Chloe often makes a spontaneous solo trip to the beach between painting, dancing, taking classes at MPC and working for her latest passion, the Surfrider Foundation. "Lately I''ve been going three, four times a week as a release-it''s an addictive thing," Barger says. "It gives me more strength and bravery, although I still have instances where I go too far and scare myself."
Julie Parker is calm about her daughter''s hobby. "I don''t get nervous about her-both Chloe and Ali have more guts than me," she says. "When the girls were 5 and 6, I got them mountain bikes. And they''d point them straight down the mountain. Chloe went bungee jumping off a bridge in Australia. She''d do things I''d never do."
And although Parker would prefer for Barger to pursue her talent as an artist more seriously, she approves of her daughter''s passion for surfing. "It''s a great way to start the day and gives you a good outlook on life. You''re in the elements, outside, exercising a lot and meeting nice people."
As good as it is here, Parker feels the cold waters of Monterey Bay impede Chloe''s abilities. "If she was in Hawaii, she''d be a much better surfer."
Parker''s daughters acknowledge that their mom has nurtured their love of the active outdoor life. "My mom was always the cool surfer mom," says Ali, whose truck is decorated with surfer girl stickers. "My friends were always jealous that they had regular parents at home." Ali, known by her friends for her constant smile, is less competitive than Chloe. But her true love always remained the beach.
When the girls were growing up in Half Moon Bay, Parker would make the mile trek down to her favorite secluded beach with a surfboard under one arm and Ali in the other, Chloe running ahead to look for rabbits.
"She''d draw a circle in the sand around us and tell us to stay put," Chloe recalls. "We''d look for abalone shells and play with our sand toys and watch her surf."
Parker, 43, still looks the part of the surfer girl, her long brown hair streaked with blond, and her sweet smile reflected in Ali''s. Parker hit the waves at an early age. Growing up on the North Shore of Oahu, Parker and her brother Steve would ditch classes with classmate Gorilla and surf all day. Best friend Becky Benson, who currently runs a surfing school in Hawaii, taught Parker how to surf in 7th grade and went on to become the highest-ranked female shortboard surfer in the world.
"Everybody of every age, male and female, surfs in Hawaii-it''s a social aspect of life," Parker explains. "We''d ride our bicycles to the beach, go out all day, eat a big bowl of rice for 50 cents and go back out again. Everyone is like a family out there."
Parker, who left Hawaii shortly before the girls were born, found the transition to California changed the way she experienced surfing. Newly divorced, with a 3- and a 5-year-old, Parker moved to be near her parents in Half Moon Bay. As she watched the waves break on the jetty one day, Parker decided it was her last chance to prove herself.
"I became much more aggressive in California," she says. "I wanted to compete and see how far I could go. I surfed every spot from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. It became a compulsion."
After placing second in the Senior Women''s Division at the 1987 Western Surfing Association West Coast Amateur Championships, Parker quit the competitive circuit at age 28. "I couldn''t take it that far-it was taking a lot of time away from the girls and I started thinking about sharks," she says. "I spent a whole day driving from San Francisco to Santa Cruz looking for waves and said, ''This is kind of ridiculous.'' I took up mountain biking."
At the time, the girls were burned out on the beach too. "They''d say, ''Mommy, no beach!''" Parker laughs. But soon Ali, 6, and Chloe, 8, learned how to boogie board with Parker''s stepfather, John Garde. Both girls resisted surfing with Mom.
In high school Chloe found herself finally ready to follow in her mother''s footsteps in surfing. Already a top athlete who ran the Bay to Breakers with Parker at age 8 and set college records at track at age 14, Chloe finally went out. The friends who took her pronounced her a natural.
"My mom made me take out a 9-foot board called Big Bear," she recalls. "At first I was embarrassed to surf, with people watching you waiting to laugh at you," she says. "But that just became part of the challenge."
gidget go home
Other challenges included male surfers not appreciating the females encroaching on their turf. Chloe credits her mom with hanging tough in her day. "My mom was a pioneer when she surfed," she says. "All the guys are still pretty sexist, but it was even worse back then."
Ali agrees with her sister about the male surfer attitude. "The guys will give you 100 percent attention when you''re on the beach in a bikini, but as soon as you put on a wetsuit, it drops down to zero," she says. "It''s like you get more respect if you stay on the beach where they think you belong, and not doing hardcore man sports."
According to Parker, the general attitude about surfing is just different in Hawaii. "In Hawaii surfing is a spiritual experience," she says. "There is a respect for the ocean and each other. In California there''s a male attitude that''s very macho, almost like football. Girls think they can''t do it because it''s too physical, but it''s almost like a dance on the wave. It''s self-expression."
But for Parker and her girls, challenges like getting respect in the water and changing the male attitude are a small price to pay for the highs of surfing. "It''s really difficult to get that level of endorphine rush with other sports," Parker says. "You''d almost have to run a marathon. You have the negative ions from the ocean, and it''s such a wonderful feeling. It keeps you in such great shape and you never think of it as exercise. You''re a part of nature. It''s some sort of bliss."
Chloe agrees. "You know what I think it is for me, it''s that surfing is totally natural for me," she says. "It''s in my heart, it''s in my soul. I just have to be in the water."
Her next goal is to get barreled-to ride inside the tube of a wave. Her mom describes it to her.
"I only experienced being in the green room once, the last day before I moved from Hawaii; it''s the goal of surfing," Parker says. "It was almost as if time stood still, like seeing the flash as the sun goes down."
Chloe''s ready for the next level, and wants to bring along more girls for the ride. "If a girl loves being in the water and trying new things, then they shouldn''t be afraid to surf," she says. "For the first time, the guys are starting to ask me to go surfing with them sometimes. There''s a better vibe in the water."
Girls interested in surfing and making surf trips can email Chloe Barger at email@example.com.