Larry Moore, photographer, explorer, innovator, photo editor and mentor, was one of the most private people I’ve ever met. I personally know friends of some 25 years who had never once been to his house. Myself, I knew Larry for over two decades, and I could not tell you what music he listened to at home, anything about his politics, taste in movies and pizza toppings, nor anything much about his life before the early 1970s, when he lived in a trailer park across the street from Santa Ana River jetties and ran a head shop. Flame, as he came to be known for very obvious reasons, was a very private man. But these moments he shared with me.
We stood on the beach together on Isla Natividad, the northwest wind whipping around Cedros Islands and across the Dewey Channel drying the salt to lace on my shoulders, buffeting his tripod, watching spellbound as the setting sun lit up the Punta Arena beach break as if by flaming torches. Perfect tubes, perfectly front-lit—we’d both found what we’d come looking for.
Dawn, 100 miles off the coast of California, our 21-foot WellCraft just another white speck on a trackless sea. The loom of North America run down over the horizon—a horizon that now circled us like the rim of some vast bowl. Larry on the bridge, reciting coordinates on his new handheld GPS, watching the tiny screen, not the giant ocean. Our destination: a single seamount, rising up out of the depths to within eight feet of the ocean surface. Marked with a buoy and an innocuous name on the charts: Cortez Bank. Finding ourselves here, almost in international waters, our big boards stacked on deck, staring out over the glassy surface of the Pacific, for one reason and one reason alone: Larry’s will. Not knowing what we might find, not knowing where we were, exactly, not knowing much of anything aside from the fact that if we hadn’t passed our point of no return yet we could turn the boat around, follow an easterly course and eventually run into the continent. Somewhere. Looking up at Larry on the bridge, head down, holding the Garmin like a divining rod, Bill Sharp, I think it was crying out. “Waves. I see waves. Thar she breaks!” Far in the distance, in the glittering sheen, a wisp of spray blown back off the top of a breaking wave. Cortez Bank. Larry finally looking up; the smile on his face.
Floating off Isla Todos Santos, a single panga. The first clean-up set hit around noon, a 20-foot kelp-sweeper scouring the lineup of anyone not sitting outside of the boil. Boards scattered like jack-straws. Terror trips into the gray rocks; late drops, long, drawn-out bottom turns, nervous laughter and hoots from broken voices. Unbelievable waves, almost seven years before Maverick’s hit the stands. Cold water Waimea, or at least Sunset. The real thing, right here in our backyard. Paddling back to the panga to let some of the adrenaline flush. Sitting there on my board next to the skiff, bobbing up and down and turning away respectfully while Larry, who had been shooting all day from in the boat and on the shoulder, vomited ruefully over the lee gunwale. “Get back out there,” he ordered hoarsely, wiping the puke from his chin.
Eleven seconds from eternity, wedged into a grossly over-loaded Cessna 152, diving as straight as a peregrine onto Guerrero Negro’s steaming tarmac. My brother Matt sitting right seat next to the Mexican pilot, me in the back, Larry squeezed tightly beside. All our gear (and, unbeknownst to us, an undocumented stowaway lying under the Prolites in the tail section) weighing us down like guilt. Stall alarm shrieking in our ears, horizon inverted, no sky, no sea, only dusty cement, rising up fast as if to catch our fall. The realization: not this time. This last time. These last few seconds. Craving human contact, a partner with whom to step over the line, I gently placed my hand on Larry’s leg. He looked into my eyes. “Well, Sam, this is it.” Then, at the last moment, the heat shimmering up off the runway buffeting the wings, providing lift. The wheel pulled back into the pilot’s gut, the Cessna leveling off, riding now on a cushion of hot air, ten feet off the deck and racing toward the salt flat, building speed for another try. Larry’s eyes as he smiled into mine at 6000 feet.
A hospital room in Mission Viejo. The aerosol bite of antiseptic, an industrious hum of monitors and pumps; the squeaking of the nurse’s white shoes as she fluttered around Larry’s bed. He lay propped up against his pillow, arms at his sides, eyes closed, not clenched, but with the lids resting softly on his cheeks. The red hair shaved on one hemisphere; the horseshoe scar, startling, impossible. Then the eyes opening, focusing, registering, then closing again. My hand on the starched sheet, resting on his leg, his hand finding mine. The 6000 foot smile, this time stretching across drawn cheeks.
“No, Sam. This isn’t it. Not now. Not yet.”
Fly free now, Flame, free and forever, with the sun and wind at your back.