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Most sunny afternoons in Newport Beach, Orange County, in the fall of 1997, Veronica Kay, a five-foot-eleven sun-bleached blonde Valkyrie, a junior at Newport Harbor High, could be found surfing toward shore on a killer wave. It may have cost Veronica $1,600 to do this bit of surfing-that's the fee she would collect that afternoon in Los Angeles after modeling for Union Bay jeans, J. Crew, Sunglass Hut, or any other company that was seeking a knockout blonde with the Southern California surfer look. Veronica Kay was certainly that: she had won Seventeen magazine's New Star Showcase (supermodel Niki Taylor got her start in the same contest), and was already the star of modeling sessions in Tahiti for Wave Action magazine and heading for Bali in May for another shoot. Kay was also a ranked surfer, obsessed with the waves since the age of thirteen, winning at the end of her sophomore year her first national competition at Trestles, a surf spot near San Clemente.
Without the surf, Kay might have been just another lost California kid. Her parents divorced when she was six. The split plunged Kay's mother and two siblings into poverty. Only contributions of groceries from friends kept them fed. Her brother and sister struggled with drug addiction. It was the same old California story, sadly, and at thirteen Kay might very well have been expected to follow the drill; but she picked up a surfboard instead, and in May 1996 was discovered by a modeling agency. ("She surfs," says her agent, "and it just so happens she's absolutely adorable and has an amazing figure.") Soon she had her first client, Oakley of Foothill Ranch, a maker of sunglasses, for whom she posed while continuing to surf competitively.
"The first image I saw of her," remembers surf contest promoter Allan Seymour of Capistrano Beach, "was a picture of her at Waikiki holding a board and kind of looking over her shoulder and laughing. So I figured, 'Oh, she's a model. She can't surf.' Then I found out she's one of the top short-board women in the world. I was like, 'Wow.' " With Kay's income, her brother and sister-to whom she remained devoted-got off drugs and into college. Her mother had no trouble with the groceries. "I'll model as long as it doesn't interfere with my surfing," Kay noted. "Modeling is just a real easy way for me to earn the money I need. Surfing is my life."
California writer Jack London deserves as much credit as anyone for publicizing the Hawaiian sport after his 1907 visit to the islands on his yacht, The Snark, en route to Australia. That very same year, Pacific Electric Railroad magnate Henry Huntington brought surfing to the California coast when he hired an Irish-Hawaiian man by the name of George Freeth to give surfing demonstrations off Redondo Beach to promote the completion of the Los Angeles-Redondo Beach Interurban Electric. Another Hawaiian, Duke Kahanomoku, swimming gold medalist in the 1912 Olympics, continued to practice and teach the sport. Surfing grew steadily through the 1920s and 1930s as an elite pursuit, helped after 1932 when Tom Blake patented a hollow surfboard, halving the weight (up to 150 pounds) of the older redwood models, which were so heavy it often took two men to carry them to the waves. After World War II, Bob Simmons-a 4F aerospace engineer at Douglas Aircraft (a 1935 motorcycle accident had nearly severed his right arm) who had surfed through the war-lightened boards even more, using combinations of Styrofoam, resin, and fiberglass.
Through the 1950s surfing remained a quasi-outlaw occupation, or at least the rebellious pursuit at Malibu and San Onofre of such nonconformists as Tom Wert, who surfed under the nom de surf Opai, and Terry Tracey, a.k.a. Tubesteak. It was a James Dean sort of thing, Wert later stated, a way of proving that you and the other surfers-Mickey "Da Cat" Dora, Mickey Munoz, Kemp Aaberg, and the other guys-weren't into 1950s conformity and gray flannel suits. Both Tracey and Dora had tried it in the straight world, working as clerks at the Home Insurance Company in Los Angeles. Both were fired within the week. Better to stay out on the beach and surf, protected from the draft by the calcium deposits building up on your feet and kneecaps.
Then came the novel Gidget (1957), written by Frederick Kohner, based on the firsthand experiences of his surfing teenage daughter. Fleeing the Nazis in the late 1930s, Kohner could not speak a word of English when he arrived in Los Angeles. By the mid-1950s he was master not only of English but of teenage slang and surf argot. Columbia bought the film rights to Gidget for $50,000, and the resulting movie, released in 1959, followed in 1966 by the even more successful documentary The Endless Summer, reinforced by the surfing music of Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys, made surfing a primary emblem and ritual of California identity: a daydream, an idyll, of endless youth and an endless summer on the sunny shores of an endless sea. Young men and women went down to the shore in their teens, and sometimes-the men especially-they never came back. Like the central character in the film Lifeguard (1976), they stayed on, working for the county as lifeguards or running surfers' shops, lunching at Wahoo's Fish Taco in Costa Mesa, hanging out at Jack's Surfboards in Huntington Beach, hoping for a mention in Surfer magazine, never growing up, never leaving the beach.
You could live cheaply at the beach, provided you stayed single and didn't incur a lot of family obligations. That meant remaining a kind of boy well into middle age, perhaps for a lifetime, since surfing was a young man's game. If you were rich, like A. B. Spreckels III, scion of the great Spreckels family and stepson of Clark Gable, you could become a surfing legend under the beach name Bunker before your untimely death at the age of twenty-seven. And dying in the water was cool, too, if you had a death wish, as Bunker surely did.
It was even okay if you were kind of old-forty-nine, say, as of 1995-and had a Nobel Prize in chemistry, like Kary Mullis, living in a beachfront apartment in La Jolla and surfing and trying to score with chicks two years after winning the Big One as a staff scientist at Cetus for cracking the way that DNA replicates itself, thus making it possible, eventually, to reproduce billions of copies of a desired gene in a matter of hours. U.S. Patent 4,683,202 and the Nobel Prize had given Mullis fame and financial security, but he was still a Southern California sort of a guy: with three ex-wives and two sons, hanging out at the beach, an aging but still plausible surfer, trying at once to get and not to get a life. University of California at Santa Cruz undergraduate Daniel Duane, by contrast, was barely into his twenties when he spent a year surfing the California coast while keeping a journal, published in 1996 as Caught Inside. Although it was never stated as such, the model for Duane's year and the subsequent book was Henry David Thoreau's year on Walden Pond. Duane went down to the California beach to surf and to watch, and in surfing and watching to probe, like Thoreau, what it was all about and then to write it up in delightfully sinewy and tactile prose announcing the overnight presence of an important new California author. Guys like Daniel Duane, Kary Mullis, and the others-rebels, mystic seekers, Dharma bums-were fewer and farther between on the beach by the 1990s. They were really throwbacks to the wild and crazy guys of the 1950s: rebels without a cause, existentialists, and, as in Duane's case, developing writers.
By the mid-1990s, beach dreams and the search for surf, like every other sport in the United States, had gone big-time commercial. Surfware companies such as Quiksilver, Billabong, and Gotcha, selling their lines at places like the Waveline Surf Shop in Ventura, were doing $1.7 billion a year. In March 1998, a newcomer, K2, stole Quiksilver's top rider, Tim Curran, the numero uno surfer in the United States, with a three-year, six-figure deal. Prominent surfers such as Veronica Kay and Shane Dorian could make hundreds of thousands of dollars endorsing or otherwise promoting lines of surfwear. When the Manhattan-based Tommy Hilfiger clothing company entered the surfwear business in 1997, it put an entire family on retainer: the legendary Paskowitzes, a multigenerational clan prominent in Southern California surfing circles for four decades.
Up and down the Southern California coast, from Carpenteria to La Jolla, at Malibu and Dana Point, Manhattan Beach and San Clemente, it seemed as if everyone under a certain age-every white kid, that is, and an increasing number of Asians, and the beginnings of a Latino set, but few blacks-was living on the beach or in the water as much as possible, using terms such as "raging" (stupendous), "stoked" (couldn't be happier), "barney" (stupid and annoying), "bettie" (a beach girl). Surfers knew their turf and their surf down to its ten- to twenty-yard specifics: the precise point on the beach-Old Joe's in Malibu, Super Tubes south of Point Mugu, Toes Over in Marina del Rey, and 150 precisely defined spots-where the waves were good. At Manhattan and Huntington Beach, you could find an abundance of "Newtons"-high, hollow waves. Down a steep hill near Laguna Niguel, at a little beach called Salt Creek, you could ride the tube on hard, consistent waves, not big, but clean and hollow. At the Wedge at the end of the Balboa Peninsula, just to the right of the jetty, the surf was pounding, pummeling, dangerous. For really ferocious surf, you had to travel north, up to Maverick's north of Half Moon Bay, where waves the height of a four-story building in 1994 took the life of Hawaiian surfer star Mark Foo, breaking his board and sucking him into a deep bowl called the Cauldron, where Foo's board leash jammed on an underwater rock spur and trapped him there until his breath ran out.
By September 1997, with El Niño in the offing, surfers were talking about three-story waves once again thrashing the Southland as well as hitting up at Maverick's. (When El Niño last came, in the winter of 1982-83, three-story waves were commonplace.) "Everybody's anticipating it," noted Randy Wright, owner of Horizon's West Surf Shop in Santa Monica, and a former professional surfer. "I'm working out more and not going out as much-not on a full party schedule. You gotta make sure your lungs can handle it." Even if you didn't surf, there was always the beach, and the magic of it all, as six thousand times a day, every fourteen seconds, waves surged and came ashore. The beach was what Southern Californians had in common. It represented the first shared public space, the first county parks, the most desirable locations for real estate. Each morning, at the site of the original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica (the new Muscle Beach, founded in 1987, was further south at Venice), old-timers would gather for a light workout on the rings and bars and some schmoozing. Jean Claude Picard, sixty-eight, a transplanted Canadian who had been coming here for some forty years, could still do the flagpole, which is to say, suspend himself perpendicular to the beach from a monkey bar, his body held parallel to the horizon. Further south, at Hermosa Beach, a television crew from Baywatch was setting up its equipment to shoot a lifeguard competition. Growing up, noted Baywatch creator Gregory Bonann, himself a former lifeguard, the beach was the focal point of his life: "When I woke up in the morning, I had to get to the water to know what the day was really like. Was the surf big? Was the water flat? Was the wind up?" Thanks to his earnings from Baywatch, Bonann could now afford a home in Malibu.
The very name Malibu, at once familiar and mysterious, identified not just surfing but the whole seaside lifestyle of Southern California. Many claimed that the mystic reverberations of Malibu came from the spiritual presence of the Chumash people, who had lived there in ages past. Geographically, Malibu was a mini Chile, twenty-five miles long and no more than three miles wide, running up the coast north from Santa Monica toward Ventura County. Malibu was a kind of city, in the legal and incorporated sense of the term-it was where entertainment people maintained homes-but Malibu was a state of mind, as well, and had been since Massachusetts millionaire Frederick Rindge had paid $300,000 for the Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit in 1892 and made the shores of the sundown sea, as Rindge described his ranch, a private kingdom.
Rindge's widow, May, tried to keep it that way and spent more than twenty-five years (Rindge died in 1905) attempting to prevent the state of California from pushing what eventually became the Pacific Coast Highway through her property. By the early 1930s, however, strapped for cash, May Rindge began to sell off beachfront lots to Hollywood people, and Malibu Colony was created. Across the next half century and more, incrementally, an anti-city emerged along the Pacific Coast Highway between Topanga Canyon and the Ventura County line. J. Paul Getty built his museum there, a replica of a Roman villa, and the Church of Christ established Pepperdine University, in the form of a Greek village climbing up the hillsides; but in general, with the exception of the restaurants and retail along the highway itself, and the state beaches available to the public, residential Malibu kept itself hidden and private up along the canyons, each home enjoying a commanding view of the Pacific. If Beverly Hills were a Mercedes, noted one observer, Malibu was a Land Rover: rich but rustic, and with a touch of New Age.
Big Sur, the mystic midregion of the coast, lacked cities and towns of any size. The entire region supported a population of barely fifteen hundred permanent residents, although six million passed north and south each
year on the scary eighty-plus miles of Highway 1, frequently skirting (just barely, it seemed) a multitude of thousand-foot drops into churning surf between San Luis Obispo and Carmel. The town of Big Sur, thirty miles south of Carmel (if this tiny settlement could be called a town), was little more than a cluster of grocery store, delicatessen, gift shop, and post office. No matter: Big Sur supported some of the most unusual resorts in the country-Esalen, Nepenthe, Tassajara, Ventana, the Post Ranch Inn, the Big Sur Inn-and these resorts were cities of a sort: idealized utopian places, such as the resort hotels that in the nineteenth century had given rise to Santa Barbara, San Diego, Coronado, and other coastal towns. Big Sur Inn, the earliest of these resorts, was built in the 1920s by the Norwegian-born Helmuth Deetjen. It was rustic, Adirondackesque; yet Chopin, Bach, and Beethoven were played as guests dined by candlelight.