We lost another one this year.
Native Nags Header and longtime Rodanthe stalwart Walter Walker Pruden passed away in his second home in Eleuthera, Bahamas, in late March. As his longtime friend Richard Byrd said to me, “He made his last stand in a place he loved.”
Many of Walker’s old friends were too broken up or just not social-media-wired enough to share in the online condolences, but wanted to put something out there. So what follows are a few personal memories, with the well-wishes of his friends.
Walker was a proud Outer Banks native, one of the last of the first who were born and raised surfing these waters from birth. He shared a birthday with Jimi Hendrix, and would not hesitate to tell you so. In his youth he rode the same wave of fearless energy and experimentation that powered his generation and fueled the creativity of his rock and roll heroes.
Walker cut his teeth on the the local breaks of the northern beaches, heading down to Hatteras when he could get rides, and living the semi-feral life of young Nags Headers in the ’60’s. There are vaults, location currently unknown, of video footage of Walker, barely a teenager, pulling in to massive closeouts at the Lighthouse, circa 1970. Other evidence exists, scattered around kitchen drawers and attic boxes, of Walker’s young days as a boondock surf-punk, not afraid to charge it, always quick with a smile, and always open to make new friends and offer what hospitality he had to offer.
One afternoon surfing Nags Head Pier, Walker ran into a young charger named Richard who had come up from the Atlantic Beach region in search of better waves. The pair hit it off, and that session began a lifelong friendship. They messed with cars, shaped boards, road-tripped to California, shared good times and hard times. They came of age in the wide-open surf scene of Hatteras in the ’70’s, when Buxton and Rodanthe ruled the roost as the epicenters of the shortboard revolution on the East Coast.
Walker had started shaping surfboards in his teens. Eventually he created his own label, NuClear Surfboards. Together with Robert "RedMan” Manville, Walker carved out some of the most experimental designs on the Outer Banks. His greatest legacy to the Outer Banks shaping world, however, remains his collection of old school fish shapes. You could spot the curve on a NuClear tail; Walker had an intuition about that shape that was well-known among his peers.
When Walker appears in my memory, as he has so often lately, It’s the grin that stands out. You couldn’t call it a smile; it was something much more complex; not so much an expression of happiness as an acknowledgment of the absurd. It was sly, knowing; friendly, but with an edge. It spoke of a lifetime of ups and downs, friendships and betrayals, bitterness and sweetness. It said, I’ve been there dude, and I get it, man, I get it; so don’t try to pull anything over on me. But I’m happy to spend some time and share the wine with you, so let’s have one.
I met Walker in the summer of 2000 in Ocracoke in the company of Bert Lowdermilk. Bert and I had been playing a couple of music gigs together, and generally just hanging out while he courted a local barmaid. Walker came down, the three of us went for a surf, and for the next couple of years I spent many hours of hang-time with these salty dogs. It was Walker who told me, “you’ve got to meet Richard.” And as time passed I saw the tight bond these three amigos shared, experienced their easy company, and had many a beer and many a laugh with them. I don’t know why they let me, a vagrant kook with a guitar, into their world. But without a doubt the experience of being with these guys transformed and deepened my understanding of the culture and history of the Outer Banks.
When I’d landed on the northern beaches some months before, I’d been faced with — don’t hate me for saying it — a dank and unfriendly bar scene, populated with punks and wiggas trading dime-bags of cheap coke and tattoo-girls who were loose and lovelorn for the local bad boys but straight-up high-school bitches to anyone who wasn’t significantly on the scene. Hanging out with Walker, Bert, and Richard was like stepping out into the sunshine. These guys were way too legit to care, too much the real deal to make an issue out of it. The stories they traded, the folks they introduced me to, the attitude and the pace of their lives…I really believe that it was through them that I first got a true sense of what it means to be an Outer Banker.
Walker and Bert both had property in Eleuthera in the Bahamas, and both bought lots — side by side -- in Waves, the town south of Rodanthe, NC. Side by side, they built their dream-houses, so completely different but so expressive of their personalities. During that time, however, things went a little south in their relationship. I won’t go into the details; suffice to say it was sad to witness as an outsider who had known them before it all went down, and saw the beauty of their longtime friendship lose its sheen. Shit happens, is about all you can say.
In his later years, Walker surfed less and less. He was a master carpenter, and worked hard at his trade, but if you saw him on the beach, he’d most likely be alone, just staring out at the waves. What he was thinking about, if anything, I don’t know. But the squint in his eyes, the salt-bleach in his hair, and that grin -- it was all still there, if you got him talking.
Walker was a font of information and anecdotes, and it’s to my great regret that I didn’t have a tape recorder rolling all the nights I crashed at his house, spun vinyl records, and slept on his couch. One afternoon surfing we found ourselves in a cloud of a green-and-red algae bloom, drainage from over-taxed septic fields in the height of the tourist season. “We call that Yankee Poop”, he said. Watching a bunch of longboarders from the top dune of S-Turns one winter afternoon, he remarked, “That’s the way to do it on a day like today. High and dry.”
Richard and Claire texted me the day the day they found out about Walker’s passing. “Our Walker has left this world,” the text read. They wanted to get something out there for him, but the collective grief was too much to bear at the time. Eventually we traded a few more texts, calls, and emails, with the help of Barry Wells. They also sent me some pictures. Since that time there has been an outpouring of online love and memories for Walker, and I can only hope that this brief elegy adds something positive to it all, and serves to honor the life of this truly authentic Outer Banker.
Walker's older brother Jay Bagwell writes, "I guess I'm the one who got Walker and McMullan into surfing. I know my mother never forgave me. Walker has been described as a light spirit, always with a smile on his face. He knew who he was and where he wanted to be. He loved the oceans of our world and he loved surfing. Walker knew the end was near and so he went to Eleuthera, the place he loved the most. Walker died in his sleep under a tent, listening to the waves beneath his campsite."
My time with Walker was but a brief slice of his life, and others with longer memories and friendships no doubt have more to say and stories galore. But I knew him as a friend, and experience his loss with regret that I didn’t get to say goodbye or express to him what he meant to me. I believe he would have appreciated knowing how much he was appreciated, by all who knew him.
Anyway, we will miss you terribly Walker, and will remember you with fondness and love. Farewell, compadre.