It’s been just over 40 years now since the surf world got its first look at Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson, the lovable dirt-bag explorers who doubled-down on the Endless Summer notion of the “Search for the Perfect Wave”. Like Bruce Brown before them, the two Orange County boys went global, literally and figuratively. The travel articles they produced for SURFER, with Peterson handling the photography and Naughton doing most of the writing, were comic and adventurous, and the surf world debate continues as to whether Naughton-Peterson were more Lewis and Clark, or Lewis and Martin. I say both, actually. We justly enshrined them as the twin saints of hardcore surf travel. Jim Banks, Timmy Turner, Kepo Acero and all the rest of those friendly, resourceful, boardbag-toting nomads with battered passports and no return ticket? Kevin and Craig’s salty-haired spawn, all of ’em.
A little while back, Justin Housman gave Peterson a ring on his 58th birthday. Here’s what Peterson had to say:
You were 16 when you left on that first trip. Weren’t you still in high school? How the hell did you convince your parents to let you go?
I actually had to get a parent permission slip in order to cross the border; to show that I wasn’t a runaway. And the only way my parents would give me the permission slip was if I promised to return back for my high school graduation. I agreed to that, and me and another friend took off in a Volkswagen bug in March of ’72. Kevin had already gone down ahead of us, down to Zunzal, El Salvador. My friend and I had both graduated early from high school [Edison, in Huntington Beach] so we could take spring semester off. Drove all the way across Mexico in this little VW bug, and finally got to where we needed to be in El Salvador, we pulled in at night, in the tropics, in this little tiny town, and it was all quiet and we just had to shout out “Kevin!” We’d stop, wait, go a little further. “Kevin!” All of a sudden out of the darkness we hear, “Yo, Craig!” Kevin wasn’t sure if we’d actually make it down there or not. About a week before graduation I loaded up a couple suitcases of stuff we didn’t need, got on a bus in La Libertad, rode it to Tijuana, called my parents from the border, and they came to pick me up. I went to graduation and all the parties that weekend, woke up on Monday and said to my parents, “OK, time to take me back to the border,” which they did, then I caught a bus back down to El Salvador.
Were your parents travelers themselves? I can’t imagine how else you could’ve pulled that off.
They’d traveled some, but at that point I was already a staff photographer at SURFER so they were real happy with that accomplishment and they saw this as a way to extend that. I’d worked and saved money to go down, but SURFER paid for the film, and gave us a little “get going” money too. That was a selling point for my parents. Plus Kevin was a couple years older than me, and they agreed to it. It wasn’t much of a battle really.
What was your route through Mexico?
Through Nogales, then just drove straight through the desert there. It was a long fuckin’ way. Driving through the desert with just a map. And there were so many checkpoints. We learned from some local Mexicans that when you hit checkpoints at night, just turn the headlights off, bang on the side of your car, yell, and drive through real fast, and they’ll think you’re locals.
Did you guys come across many surfers?
No, not many. Once we came across a van with these nine-foot guns strapped to the roof, and we thought, “Jeez, where are they goin?” We talked to them, they were older guys from Laguna Beach, and I’m pretty sure it was Pat Tobin’s crew going down to Petacalco.
Did you have any depressing, get-me-out-of-here low points on the trip?
Not really. I mean sometimes there’d be onshore winds and it’d be some lonely night, we’d be camped out on the beach eating a tin of sardines and I’d be thinking, man, the guys back home are probably having a Friday night party, with girls around. And I’m sitting here in the middle of nowhere with this bearded guy.
What about high points?
Petacalco. Definitely a high point. We had classic conditions for three or four days. Big beachbreak waves. You could start out on the inside part of it, like 2-4 foot peaks, but then paddle out further and it’d be 8-10 foot if you wanted it, just right up the point. Great for taking pictures, great lighting.
Were you ever scared?
Oh yeah. Definitely. In all kinds of different ways. We had a lot of shit happen. You know, engine breakdown in Mexico, we’d have to drop the engine in the back of a cheap hotel in Mazatlan, with a bunch of drunk guys around. We’d pull into these towns at night, not know where we were, park next to the town dump without realizing it, then wake up in the morning, and say “Fuck, look at where we are.” But you know, at that age, you’re ready to tackle the world. It was just traveling off into the big unknown. We’d seen Bernie Baker’s picture sitting there at Zunzal with his board and his backpack, and we couldn’t wait to get to there. And geography was always my favorite subject, just reading about all these adventurers discovering different places, and to have that with surfing as the vehicle was so exciting. I loved it.