The Spark After the Darkness
A surfer takes solace in the dark before the dawn
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Civil twilight. Over the course of this past long year in California, it’s the one time of day I’ve allowed myself a sense of Before Times normalcy. It’s during this dim period, when the stars still mingle with the moon in the sky but the sun announces that it’s on its way, that I’ve maintained a tenuous hold on the outside world through surfing.
I’ve been surfing for the past decade near my home in the Bay Area, but during the pandemic it has become a near daily habit. In deepest winter, I’ll wake at 5:30 A.M. so I have a little time for coffee and a quick stretch. I’ll fill up a jug with hot water and load it in the car, along with my wetsuit, still dank and a little musty from yesterday. The surfboards are already packed up. The stars are still crisp against the night sky. I often see Venus. But there’s been an imperceptible shift when the sun hits 18 degrees below the horizon. It turns out that there are gradients of dawn, and they all have a name. This moment is the first: astronomical dawn.
It’s still dark, and will remain so until I’m almost at the beach. The sun, creeping from 18 to 12 degrees below the horizon, is working its way through astronomical twilight. The roads are quiet, but the world is waking up. Lights flicker on in houses, and solitary runners with headlamps begin to dot the sidewalks and trails. By 12 degrees, nautical dawn, early-morning traffic starts to slow on the Bay Bridge, which I cross en route to Pacifica or San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Yet the night still hangs on, enough so that I can’t quite make out the faces of the other surfers when I arrive. We chat from a car’s length as we suit up and try to see what the waves are doing. I have to use the flashlight on my phone to find the wax at the bottom of my bag.
When the sun is six degrees below the horizon, it’s civil dawn. Thus begins civil twilight, the phase when the sun makes its final move to the horizon. The sky brightens. This is when we paddle out, hoping to steal some uncrowded time with the waves.
I like this phrase—civil dawn. I like the sense that, when we’re in the water, we are respectful of the ocean and each other, together but apart. There is room for generosity. Few of us are out at this hour, so we have plenty of space and a quiet lineup. In these moments just before day breaks, it’s possible to surf by the glow of both the moon and sun if the time of month is right. Sometimes we surf by the glow of the Pacifica Taco Bell if the lights are on. At Ocean Beach, the container ships blink just offshore.
Surfers can be a grouchy, territorial lot. All it takes is one person dropping in on you to generate awful thoughts about humankind. But I try to be my best self out there. I smile and say good morning and look before I go for a wave. By and large, the people I see at civil twilight are doing the same. We are existing in a liminal space, between night and day, ending and beginning. Together and alone. The neither-nor quality of this period is somehow inclusive. In its fuzzy borders, I feel that we take more care.
To many, twilight suggests finality: the end of a day, the end of a career, the end of a life. But twilight bookends the day, presenting itself both at the beginning and the end. It is an in-between period, during which the sun isn’t yet visible but the earth is neither completely illuminated nor completely dark. It is a soft and scattering glow, the promise of both day and night held together.
I catch a wave, and in the moment I’m flying down the face, my focus is acutely intent: I am, however briefly, free of the world’s cares. That present sense of lightness is joyful. It’s because of surfing that I still know how to smile when things are otherwise grim. The unusually big swells of this winter season have also forced me to be prepared, push my limits, and handle rogue waves and hold-downs and other people’s flying boards and bodies. I know to expect the unexpected.
Civil dawn ends at sunrise. I stay for another hour or so, navigating the lineup until there are too many people for my comfort, both as a surfer and as a human mid-pandemic. I head home, back to a schedule of virtual work and virtual school and virtual community. I put on my force field and mask up with my sons for walks around the block or to the corner store. I stay inside and make dinner with my husband and read books and watch movies. Tomorrow we’ll do it all again.
We’re awaiting the light at the end of the tunnel after doing this strange work—a low-level hibernation into the murk of a largely interior existence, intimate with our familiars in a too small space, in order to survive the raging uncertainty of a pandemic and the unrest of a divided body politic. In December, color technology and design company Pantone announced its 2021 colors of the year: Ultimate Gray and Illuminating. Normally, there’s just one hue, but it turns out we need both—the dark and the light—to accurately represent the arc of the coming year.
The civil dusk of an old year and era merges and moves through night into the civil dawn of a new one. Perhaps this is the spark after the darkness. I am preparing for reentry, into a changed new world that is only just making itself visible. And though it might not feel like it quite yet, so are you.