A shitty remix of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” plays on the speakers.
I’m at NLand Surf Park in Austin, Texas — the only modern manmade surfing facility in North America — and the music is painfully obnoxious. It can be heard perfectly across the nine-football-field expanse, yet its origin is hard to place; sort of like a shopping mall with music emanating from false rocks or trees. And right now, the almighty DJ gods are mixing Cash’s iconic drawl — I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die — with a clubby techno beat.
I found myself in Austin, Texas by way of Los Angeles and lunacy. For over a year, I have written about the NLand Surf Park extensively. I have writtenabout it so many different times I’ve lost count. I have built a rapport with members of the park’s public relations staff. I even received a Christmas card from the park, which, months later, still sits on my desk at work. And yet, I had never ridden the mythical wave deep in the hinterland…the white whale to my Ahab.
But recently, the opportunity arose. My feelings on getting to surf an artificial wavepool after all this time spent writing about them? In one word: finally. In two words: fucking finally.
The first thing you notice about NLand Surf Park is its sheer size. The pool itself could warrant its own zip code. The second thing you notice is how dissimilar it is from any other surfing experience. There are complimentary board-racks, a juice bar, large clocks displaying a session’s remaining time limit, eight different lifeguards monitoring sessions and said time limit, AstroTurf, instructional videos, and the ever-present Top 40 playlist, which permeates a frat party haze over the facility.
Before I wade into the earth-toned water for my session, I rent a locker and change into my bathing suit in the locker room. Naturally, of course. Because this is how you surf at an amusement park.
Once in the water, the machine comes alive without warning. A mechanical whirring, followed by a steel contraption hurdling towards anything in its path. Only a flimsy metal fence separating the deadly foil from surfer. At that moment, I wished I had paid more attention to the pre-surf instructional video. The first (and likely last) time I will ever wish I paid more attention to something like that. But in this instance, I had damn near no idea what to do. I had my traditional surfing background to fall back on, but this felt…different. And it was, which brings me to the third thing you notice about NLand Surf Park: this is not surfing.
After returning home and explaining my experience to friends and colleagues, one person in the office so eloquently called it: “Oh, so it’s like cheating on your girlfriend.”
Technically, a wavepool doesn’t create waves, but rather, wakes. The foil displaces water, like a boat, and leaving in its place, a wake. The result is a much softer, gutless version of a normal ocean-breaking wave. It really makes you work for it. But I’ll tell you one thing, you won’t be skipping leg day with a trip to the wavepool.
Back in the locker room, showering off with the other guys in my session (one in town on business from Germany, one on vacation from California), it finally made sense to me: the complimentary towels, the amusement park vibe, the tasteless music like a tourist bar in Cancun. It was all strangely fitting for the experience I had just had. Constructed, simulated, manmade, the antithesis of real surfing.
Reflecting on this over a couple cans of Lone Star, the consensus of the experience finally struck me: manmade surfing is fun, an apt alternative to the real thing for people living in landlocked areas. But it will never hold up to the real thing, the real Johnny Cash; it’s just a shitty remix.