As Kim Hildreth walks cautiously toward the water, his hand on Russ Smith’s shoulder for guidance, Smith asks if there’s anything he can do to make it easier once they’re in the surf.
“Talking works for me,” Hildreth says, reminding Smith that he won’t be able to see the oncoming waves.
“Gotcha,” Smith says. “I’ll remember that.”
When he looks out at the ocean, Smith sees a blue sky, Pismo Pier to the right, and 4- to 5-foot waves near the end of the pier. Now ankle-deep in water, Hildreth can only hear the whitewater rushing to the sand.
Still, Hildreth, who lost his sight a decade ago, has embraced surfing — even if his doctor has advised against it.
“I’m an adrenaline junkie,” he said during an interview earlier. “I like to do things that are exciting. The easiest way to get me to do something is to tell me I can’t do it.”
Although Hildreth lived in surf-rich Costa Rica for many years, he didn’t take up wave riding until he was in his 50s — after he’d lost his sight. But once he did, Hildreth, now 58, soon began talking about entering contests.
“It’s kind of like anything else I’ve ever taken up,” he said. “It’s not that I just want to dabble in it — I want to get good at it.”
The only thing that can stop him, he knows, is his precarious health: He’s had seven strokes since the age of 42.
“I think it’s just genetics,” he said. “They just happen — at the most inopportune time.”
Despite his enthusiasm for surfing, his health weighs heavily on him as he returns to the waves for the first time in months.
A world traveler
At his house in San Luis Obispo, two visitors are greeted by a pair of canines, his guide dog, Crystal, and a feisty Jack Russell terrier named Elmo. Hildreth, sitting on a porch, doesn’t look blind — especially when he reaches for a cup of coffee and heads into the house with no difficulty.
“Around here I know where everything is,” he says. “I kind of have the rooms set up so there are paths with different textures.”
The décor inside — ornate wooden cabinets and sculptures — offers clues to his past life in South America.
Growing up, Hildreth attended British embassy schools while his father’s job with Chiquita took the family to Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama. In college, Hildreth moved in with an aunt so he could attend Colorado State, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. But after graduation, he followed in his father’s footsteps and worked for Chiquita in South America as an assistant controller.
In his travels to Japan, the Philippines and South America, Hildreth collected some of the exotic art in his home. The eight tattoos on his body reflect some of the centuries-old Mayan jewelry collected from Honduras.After 10 years in South America, Hildreth moved close to the Bay Area and “counted grapes” for Robert Mondavi Winery in Lodi. There he had a large ranch with 23 horses.
But his comfortable lifestyle was upended by a series of life-threatening strokes.
“The stroke that took my sight was the fourth one,” he said. “I’d had three previous to that that had left me in leg braces and a wheelchair for almost 10 years.”
He was just beginning to walk again April 2, 2002, when, he said, his view went dark, “like flipping the light switch.”
Hildreth was driving back from Southern California, where he’d just sold a horse, when he started to feel violently nauseated. Two miles from his home on Highway 99, a blood clot lodged in his brain.
“All of a sudden, I couldn’t see, and I got really sick,” he said. “And I just took to the ditch.”
Doctors assured him his sight would return. But eventually, he figured out, it wouldn’t.
“Oh, it’s permanent,” he said. “It’s permanent, and it’s deteriorating.”
He can perceive really bright colors as blotches, which is why his house is filled with lots of orange and red items. And through a small pinhole in his right eye, he can read size 24-type font on a 40-inch computer screen.
“I’ve adapted, but it’s been a challenge,” he said. “I can’t say I don’t have my dark moments — I sure do.”Dealing with his blindness wasn’t the only hardship Hildreth faced. The year before he lost his sight, his father died. Then he wound up caring for his mother, who suffered from dementia.
“For the last two to three years, she did not recognize me,” he said.
While his mother passed away a little over a year ago, caring for her was a financial drain. So today, he lives in a 600-square-foot house near a friend, who helps with basic duties and acts as a financial trustee. While he’s gotten rid of most of his horses, one still remains.
Open to challenges
In the barn in front of his house, Hildreth pets his horse, Tropic Unbridled Passion, which he’s had since she was born 13 years ago.
“She’s sure a sweetheart,” he says, feeling her fur. Then he half jokes: “If you look closely, you’ll see all the mistakes a blind guy made trimming her.”
Yet, clearly, Hildreth knows what he’s doing. In 2008, he won third- and fourth-place honors at the World Championship Morgan Horse Show in Oklahoma City.
Once atop his horse, Hildreth seems to stare ahead, as the animal stoically strides around a fenced-in area, the hilly landscape around Hildreth’s home providing a scenic backdrop.
“Riding a horse is probably the best exercise you can get because every muscle is going to be used,” he says back at the barn, as he takes off the horse’s saddle.
While he has enjoyed horses since he was a child, Hildreth is open to new challenges. A couple of years ago, he was at the farmers market in San Luis Obispo when Dana Cummings, co-founder of AmpSurf — the locally based nonprofit that teaches disabled people to surf — noticed his guide dog.
“I saw him, and I said, ‘Have you ever thought of surfing?’ ” Cummings said.
Hildreth was invited to AmpSurf’s next clinic. And while he didn’t stand up on the board that first time, Cummings said, “You could tell he was hooked.”
By the fourth clinic, Hildreth said, he was able to pop up and stand on the board. Since then, he’s improved steadily.
“He’s blind, but his other senses have become so enhanced to make up for that,” Cummings said.
Still, Hildreth needs a couple of people to help, including someone who can tell him when waves are coming.
“Somebody just says, ‘Paddle now!’ ” Hildreth said. “And then I paddle for all my life until I can feel it pick me up.”
If the surf is smaller, he can paddle out to the lineup. On bigger days, he’ll stay inside and surf the white water. He usually surfs in Pismo, where there are no rocks.
“Everybody says, ‘Watch out for the pier!’ ” Hildreth said. “It’s like, ‘What pier?’ ”
While he has experienced the washing machine sensation of getting churned under the surface, Hildreth is comfortable in the water.
“I’ve always been a water person anyway, so it’s not like I’m afraid of it,” he said.
The adrenaline rush
As participants gear up for the AmpSurf clinic in Pismo, Hildreth is reluctant to participate.
He recently suffered from a hernia that doctors were afraid to operate on because of Hildreth’s fragile health.
Plus, it’s been several months since he last surfed because of his health and surf conditions. Making matters even dicier, conditions on this spring day include short periods, meaning the waves will be close together, making for a tougher paddle-out.
“I already did my yoga,” he says nervously, as instructors lead the others to stretching exercises.
When it’s time to head for the water, Hildreth touches his big orange board as instructor Jim Vargo, a volunteer from Arroyo Grande, carries it. As he steps into the water, he still looks uneasy.
In the water, the sound of the ocean is magnified as Hildreth paddles through waves, guided by Vargo and Smith.
Once they reach a good spot, halfway between the sand and the outside lineup of surfers, they turn Hildreth’s board around and wait.
Smith steadies the front of the board and Vargo holds the back as waves slap their heads and shoulders. When Vargo sees a suitable wave, he gives the board a little shove, which prompts Hildreth to begin paddling. Hildreth is slow to get up — and first does so on a knee — but after he makes a slightly unsteady pop-up, he’s standing. Riding.
While he can’t see where he’s going, he can feel the energy of the wave as he travels toward the wet sand. And it’s a good feeling — the adrenaline rush of traveling on water.
“That’s why I do it,” he says once he gets out of the water, a wide grin on his face. “It’s nice to know I didn’t forget anything.”
A couple of weeks later, Hildreth is looking forward to his next surf session. Meanwhile, he’s considering his next new challenge.
“I figure if I can surf, I can snowboard.”