April 5, 2006

Surfing SoCal For Meaning

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Orange County is pretty famous now, at least the part by the ocean. The coastline there is about forty miles north to south – and all along it you can find Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) with all those now-famous towns beside the waves.

PCH isn’t the quickest way to get from Los Angeles to San Diego County. It’s not really a highway, and although it’s occasionally a pretty big road, it often becomes a local downtown street when you go through those little communities. So you’re better off taking the freeways if you want to get out of L.A. fast.

Yet, from Huntington Beach to San Clemente, a trip along PCH can become something more than just a simple ride. Sometimes those miles can become more meaningful, more profound, as you head off looking for some kind of transcendent moment in Southern California – if such a moment does exist.

You can start in Huntington Beach. Most people in Orange County don’t live in a town like this, by the ocean. Most people live further inland – somewhere in that densely populated suburbia of three million people. But anyway, Huntington Beach (population 200,000) is the biggest town along the coast here. In the summer, it seems like half of California pours into Huntington Beach to catch three-foot waves by the pier. You’ll find everyone trying to live some kind of impossible California utopia for a day. And it basically becomes a tourist spot: “Surf City.”

You can find huge surf shops (surf malls, really). There’s always some kind of big promotional event going on near the pier. There are surf competitions all the time and occasionally the downtown beach can seem like concrete.

Although, Huntington Beach can still be a cool town, as out-of-season, it’s not such a carnival. But there’s no real transcendence there – it’s not what you’re looking for. You want something more.

So you continue along the coast. The main part of Newport Beach is the next community you find. But you don’t stop there because, like Huntington, it’s still too built-up and developed for your taste. So onward south.

Next is Corona del Mar. It’s a little community – very rich, with some nice, almost quaint homes and streets. But you stay for only a few minutes now. We’ll come back here later.

Further along the highway is Laguna Beach. On a Sunday, everyone is a tourist there. If you go on a weekday, maybe in the spring, you’ll get a better idea of this coastal hamlet. And it’s not what you think. It’s a pretty relaxed town – and very liberal for Orange County, with art galleries, even. The waves there are okay – although the TV show can apparently make the place look like Waimea. There are also some nice ocean views in Laguna Beach, but it’s still not what you’re looking for.

About ten miles further along PCH, you get to Dana Point. It’s another small town, with a nice harbor and marina. There used to be a great (and supposedly dangerous) surf break in Dana Point called Killer Dana. It was known as one of the best surf spots in all of California. However, that wave is long gone. It was ruined in the 1960’s, when it was replaced with a breakwater to build the town’s nice harbor.

That lost break is often associated with a legendary surfer named Phil Edwards. When he was a kid in the 1950’s, he surfed some huge waves at Killer Dana and really made a name for himself. Around that time, he was also very poor and basically living at Doheny State Park, which is located nearby. In his autobiography, he recalled those days as happy, peaceful times, where he surfed all day and lived carefree.

Yes – some actual transcendence in Orange County. But that was also a long time ago – that kind of story, today, would just be a dream. And so you keep going along the coast.

Next up is San Clemente, just a few miles down the road. It’s a sleepy town; it almost seems like New England at times. It’s also where Nixon lived after he left the White House. There are some great waves by the pier, but after all, it is where Nixon chose to live.

Pacific Coast Highway ends about now, as you approach the San Diego County line. But first, you realize that you’re pretty close to a couple of world-famous surf breaks.

Both spots are incredible – but for different reasons. One is called Trestles. It’s often called a “performance wave,” which can sometimes mean “locals only.” But everyone who surfs it on a good day will tell you it’s the best wave around. And it’s also a break that could be lost to history – just like Killer Dana – if a long-proposed toll road is built nearby. Apparently, the population growth of south Orange County means that it’s necessary to build a new, major road. And, apparently, it’s also necessary to build the road through a state park.

Anyway, the design of the road will probably alter nearby San Mateo Creek in such a way that Trestles will be ruined. That’s because the exact sediment flow of the creek – and how the creek directs the sand around Trestles – is basically responsible for creating that perfect wave. And so another chance at Orange County transcendence would be gone. But for now – as environmental groups try their best to save the wave, and the surrounding park land – Trestles is still here.

Along with Trestles, the other famous break in this area can be found just a little further south – it’s the classic spot you can just call San Onofre. As one of the original California surf destinations, San Onofre was where proto-beatniks in the 1930’s came to live and surf. They lived in a way that seems impossible now – their days revolved only around the ocean and their hopes of escaping the Great Depression. And like their Polynesian-inspired lifestyle, the waves at San Onofre are calm and relaxed. You could almost play a guitar while you surf the easy-going waves there.

After San Onofre, you can get on the San Diego Freeway and keep going south. The laid-back town of Encinitas is about a half-hour away – maybe that’s the surf community you’re looking for.

However, today, you’ll return north along Pacific Coast Highway. And in a little under an hour, you’re almost back in Huntington Beach.

But first, you decide to stop again in Corona del Mar.

You find a place there, right above the beach, called Inspiration Point. There, you can watch the sun drop below the Pacific, and see the boats out along the horizon. To the right, there’s the harbor in Newport, the breakwaters, some distant lights. In the half-hour before the sun goes to the bed, a small crowd will gather and watch the day end. The sun will go down quicker than anyone wants. Once it has set, most of the crowd will leave, reluctantly. You watch them say a few easy words – that young couple watching this sunset for the first time, an old couple that’s seen it many times before. And then they head off into the night.

But a few people stay just a little while longer, watching what little remains of the day. The air is cool, the evening is quiet; a few surfers, far away, try to catch just one more wave before the night arrives. It’s then that the ocean seems to call out, and say, like a poet once did, you must change your life.

Ted Nyman is a Sun Senior Editor.Fast Times will appear every other Wednesday.

Archived article by Ted Nyman