Originally posted to Facebook notes on May 10, 2010, from a little back patio in Long Beach.
Southern California, a strange half-remembrance of this place though I’ve never been here, I guess the coastline’s burned in our cultural consciousness from thousands of movies and TV shows. Streets are lined in palm trees. Paul tells me they’re not native, I ignore him because it shatters my fantasy of this place. Rust-free vintage cars run on every road, the Pacific stretches endlessly in either direction.
Traveling the coast, place names are as familiar as street names in my hometown: Huntington Beach, Newport, Trestles, Orange County, Seal Beach, Malibu, Long Beach. We’ve been here since Saturday, and we’ve been hearing “should’ve been here yesterday” at every break from San Diego to Ventura.
That’s alright. We sit and bob in the current on borrowed longboards, knee-high rollers meandering their way past us, eyes on the horizon for the one that we’ll turn and paddle for. The sea salt has seeped into my skin and hair — I can smell it even when I’m away from the beach, my body exuding it like alcohol after a night of binging.
In spite of their reputation, the people here are friendly. No road rage, no gang violence (though we’re hardly in the area for it), no getting called a kook at the break. We’ve sat and chatted in the water and on the beach to other riders, who are always shocked that we surf in the Great Lakes, looking at us like we might next tell them we’re actually Martians, not Michiganders. A little boy who was bodyboarding next to us at Seal asked me if there were sharks in the Lakes.
I suppose that’s one stereotypical characteristic of Southern California that’s actually true — when you’re here, the rest of the country just doesn’t matter. How could it? Why bother to know about it? We sat at Old Man’s near San Onofre after our session, talking to the owner of an advertising firm based in Monterey. He picked us out as tourists from my wicked sunburn almost immediately. We told him we were from Michigan, that we came out here for a surf trip and to visit Paul’s family. He talked about Michigan like it was Afghanistan. Can you surf there? Does it get really cold? What does it look like? Does the Yeti, in fact, call mournfully from the icy Michigan hilltops during the frigid twilight?
But, really, how can you blame them? Since I’ve set foot on this arid low desert, I’ve found myself slipping away, coerced into a state of semi-coma by the reggae they play endlessly on every rock radio station in this place. This area encompasses every type of microclimate you can imagine within a few hours — from desert to still-snow-capped peak. You have Ferraris parked next to ratted-out surf wagons. You can sit on your board and just relax as the sea rolls into the land, or grind from day to night to buy the things that Southern California (at least LA and Orange County) seems to value so much: homes, cars, boats, trophy wives. My point is, you can do anything here. Whatever it is that you want, this place can facilitate it, if you’re willing to give up something of equal value — your time, your money, your morals.
This is the Faustian bargain that makes Southern California so appealing and simultaneously repulsive to those of us from areas with a culture that touts set values arising from years of indoctrination by family, religion, climate, culture. The beauty and danger of this place is that it can be anything — anything — you want it to be. A materialistic Gommorah, a hippie commune, a religious sect, a family paradise, a tourist wasteland, an environment to expolit, a Shangrai-La to save.
As for us, Paul and I are living our Southern California — our interpretation, that is — for this short week. Ours is a place free of work, the evocative smells of neoprene and surf wax filling the cabin of our rented Jeep, our eyes closed, running the length of the Pacific Coast Highway as it winds through beach towns that all blend together after a while, looking at at the waves breaking to our right, the azure Pacific foaming and spitting and all the while calling us, begging us to put our feet in, take our boards down, live for the present.