The 20-Year Surf Trip

A Slight Overstay In San Diego, California

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1968 Mustang, with seagulls in the trunk. Photo: Adler

Photos By Will Adler

On a long surf trip, you might buy a car—a beater maybe. On an extended, or particularly rough journey, you might have to fork out for a couple of vehicles. I’ve owned a lot of cars on this surf trip—it’s been going on for about 20 years.

I actually started my San Diego vacation living from a ’68 Mustang—primered in spots, mostly mint green. It squeaked as if I’d trapped seagulls in the trunk. Someone reported it as a smog hazard. The car was towed from Santa Cruz Street. The drive shaft fell out on Santa Monica. I sold it for a song on Newport. What’s vexed me most about these vacation rentals, however, has been the consistency of the lost keys—as if it’s part of the deal—lost in the sand, on trails, in the ocean. There’s nothing sadder than being locked from a vehicle you’re obviously living in.

Two weeks ago, even. I’d just surfed Mission Beach. The early morning atmosphere shifted amid layers of marine gray. The pounding surf formed a blanket of mist. The smell of trash-day mingled with warming asphalt and ocean and rotting seaweed. It was in this haze that I located my Ford Ranger—the second one I’d purchased on this trip. It was parallel parked on Mission Boulevard. I opened the passenger-side door. My T-shirt, jeans, blue towel, and keys were there jumbled on the seat. I pulled the ratty wetsuit off my arms and shoulders and reached in for the towel. I didn’t notice that the truck’s keys were actually traveling with the towel until they fell from it, clattering on the pavement. I saw them slide toward the curb. But I didn’t flinch. I could already see myself retrieving the keys once they reached the cement crease of the curb. But there was no crease, there was no curb. As it happened, I’d parked in front of a rain gutter.

In my towel, hobbled by a neoprene straight jacket, I heard the slightest tinkle of dropped keys landing somewhere below the sidewalk. I continued to dress, because well, this was going to take some time. I could see myself laying down on the street, shoulder deep, feeling for and reaching the keys. When I was actually shoulder deep, however, I felt nothing. This city’s rain gutters, I realized, are deeper than I thought. I searched the Ranger for some kind of implement with which to fish the keys from the gutter. No such luck. Stepping out of the cab, I suddenly noticed the large manhole cover recessed in the sidewalk. This is when I lunged back into the truck, grabbed the lug nut wrench and bent and worked and grunted and pried up the manhole cover. And there, down in the dirty abyss, I saw the glint of keys. They’d landed in the heel of a child’s rainbow-colored Croc sandal, about two dozen feet down.

Luckily there was a ladder. As I descended, I considered the smell of this rain gutter. I hoped I would not find a dead bum. Midway down, the concrete walls ended and became dark, slimy dirt. I came upon the outline of a fossil in the wall and wondered if it had been a dinosaur. I looked below me to measure my progress, but the Croc sandal only seemed to sit deeper. I climbed further, so far in fact, that I lost sight of my immediate and future plans, so far that I lost sight of the keys and Croc completely, so far that I suddenly found myself back at the very beginning of my San Diego surf trip. This is how I am able to remember all of the shit I’m telling you now:

There is a figure—a total of all shark-related fatalities in California since 1952—that is presented by the local media upon every newsworthy shark encounter. About as regularly as this fatality total is mentioned, it dips or climbs by one—one more, one less. That one represents the 1994 death of Michelle von Emster.

A longboarder surfing a Sunset Cliffs break called “Garbage” was sitting pretty far out on a junky April day. A bit further toward the horizon, he noticed a raft of disembarked kelp that intrigued a number of sea birds. The birds landed, took off, circled, landed again. When the kelp drifted near enough, the surfer paddled out to it. Entwined in the kelp and sea grass he discovered von Emster, the 25-year-old art store clerk who’d gone missing from Ocean Beach a couple of days before. She was a fair complexioned brunette. Various lacerations marked her flesh. One of her legs was missing above the knee, as was half of a butterfly tattoo on her shoulder. The San Diego County coroner would later note that her neck was broken “as if she’d been in a car wreck.” Her pelvis was also broken. She was completely nude.

Three small articles appeared in the Union-Tribune. One announced von Emster’s discovery. The next posed the question: shark, or foul play? The third reported the coroner’s finding: shark. Within a couple of weeks this official inquiry was concluded despite the community’s misgivings. It was not acknowledged until later that her leg had been severed clean off and didn’t display markings consistent with a shark bite. There was no clear explanation of the broken neck. Her clothing was never found. Her purse was discovered miles away.

The current county coroner is sensitive to these points but will not reopen the case without additional evidence. In the nearly 20 years since her discovery at sea, no one has come forward with information. So the “accidental death” decision stands. But scientists and shark experts like the Shark Research Committee, or those who assemble what is called the International Shark File—a compilation of global shark encounters—don’t believe a shark killed von Emster.

This is the reason the number of shark fatalities rises and falls by one each time it is mentioned. The total depends upon the reporter’s point of view. However it falls, the addition or subtraction of that one fatality causes a reflection in San Diego surfers. When swimmer Deborah Blanche was attacked off Avila Beach in ’03, or when abalone diver Rand Fry was killed in ’04, or triathlete David Martin off Solana Beach in ’08, or bodyboarder Lucas Ransom at Point Mugu in 2010—each time the total number of California shark attack fatalities is reported, it relays a second point: that we’ll never know what happened to Michelle von Emster. And this reflection and the line of thought that eventually follows is part of what being a city surfer on the edge of the Pacific is all about. The violence of the ocean meets a violent number of human beings, and neither violence will yield.

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Nearly Mexico. Photo: Adler

There’s a fence—border patrol agents nicknamed it “snaggle-tooth” because its black and rotting pylons look like the yawning maw of an old street dog. This is the United States/Mexico border fence where it enters the surf off of Imperial Beach. On the Mexican side sits a lighthouse, a bullring, and the neighborhood of Playas de Tijuana. On the American side you’ll find the only wandering and unbroken tidal wetland in Southern California. Until Homeland Security took an interest in the border, Mexican families and their relatives working in the U.S. used to meet on either side of snaggle-tooth fence. They picnicked, talked, and held hands through the pylons. On an average south swell, directly in front of the fence, a left peels from Mexico into the United States. On your board, laying on your belly or standing on your feet, you can cross and re-cross the border. Families, however, are no longer allowed to picnic at snaggle-tooth fence.

Just inland from the border is a hill called Spooner’s Mesa. It overlooks the bullring, the border, and the beach. Standing on this mesa, you can turn your gaze 90 degrees left and look right up a canyon called Los Laureles. The hillsides of this dusty crevasse are buttressed with plywood and tin-roofed shacks. Their foundations are made of spent car tires, stacked and filled with dirt. When it rains, the dirt foundations erode, the shacks slide, and the tires wash downstream back into the U.S. It’s a physical metaphor. The canyon is a way station for hopeful migrants—not just Mexicans, but Asians, Brazilians, and Central Americans—and it is one of most desperate corners of Tijuana. From the same spot on Spooner’s Mesa, you can turn your head 180 degrees right, and note the gleaming downtown towers of San Diego, the bustling harbor, the palisades of Point Loma, the tawny neighborhoods of Coronado.

Long before the downtown towers or the shacks of Los Laureles, however, Spooner’s Mesa provided a necessary function to the early development and spread of surfing. It served as one of two hills that big-wave surfers like Dempsey Holder, Peter Cole, and Pat Curren used to guide themselves to the outside peak at Tijuana Sloughs. This was in the 1940s, and the river-mouth break was the very first big-wave destination. The thunder of the tumbling cobblestones, the endless lines of white water, the size of the playing field, and spookiness of the landscape combined to create a feeling that the surfers who went there continued to search for. It soon led them to the North Shore, Third Reef Pipe, Kaena Point, and Waimea Bay. Their antecedents pressed further—Phantoms, Puerto Escondido, Todos Santos, Mavericks, Cortes Bank. If not for the now-polluted and rarely visited Tijuana Sloughs, surf exploration, big-wave surfing, and how we think of ourselves as surfers may be very different.

And yet, I’m always amazed at the ironic collision of the geographic features we use for surfing and the political and historical geography that overlay them. You can surf a spot directly off Plymouth Rock, for example, or another directly below the Golden Gate Bridge. In San Diego, you can sideslip Boarder Patrol and Homeland Security, and surf between worlds—the Third World and the First—or between the past and the present.

I once ran into a friend from Puerto Escondido on a street corner in Ocean Beach. “How did you get here?” I asked. I meant the question financially. Oaxaca State is a long way away. The last time I’d seen this kid he was begging for wax. “I paddled,” he said—past snaggle-tooth fence, guided by Spooner’s Mesa, through the inside of the Sloughs, and into Imperial Beach. Walking up that stretch of sand with a surfboard, he would have blended perfectly. You might have passed him on your way to the lineup.

Not too long ago, a young city lifeguard was out surfing the wedge that forms off of the Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach. It was his day off and he was enjoying this well-regarded yet everyday sandbar. From the corner of his eye he noticed an older guy making his way out on a brand new Skip Frye. This is Skip Frye country—the San Diego legend’s shaping shack stood just three doors in from the pier before the wrecking ball came. So everybody out that day looked at the board like it was a fine Cadillac. Then a set approached. All eyes shifted for the horizon. The lifeguard stroked over a wave and another, but then he spotted and scrambled for a corner. He paddled hard, the wave warbled, he got hung up, and then he completely blew the drop. Falling from the sky, the lifeguard noticed the older guy and the Skip Frye below. He landed right on top of them.

Resurfacing, the lifeguard knew he’d done damage. And he felt shame. He was a public servant after all, one who utilized his water-going expertise not only as a tool, but as a basis for self-identity. Once he saw the chunk taken out of the Skip Frye, and its recently pristine condition, the lifeguard stammered. “Man, I’m so sorry. Let’s go to the beach and swap numbers. I used to fix dings for a living…but if you want, I’ll just give you cash.”

The older guy looked at the rail of his board, his eyes wrinkled a bit in dismay. “Naw,” he said mounting the board, “Don’t worry about it.”

“What?” said the lifeguard, “Lemme make it—”

“No, I came out just to grab a few. I don’t want to waste the time.”

“Sorry,” reiterated the lifeguard before heading in. Later, he confided the story to a couple of friends. No one could believe the old fart was so cool about the incident.

A few weeks passed and the lifeguard found himself standing at the top of the wooden stairwell that overlooks the pier and the beach. He was checking out the action at the annual OMBAC longboard contest. The sun beamed, the water remained Indian-summer warm, and plenty of bikinis and Frisbees bounced about the beach. So, the traffic on the stairs was pretty steady. At one point the lifeguard noticed a family laboring up the stairs with all of their beach gear. When they reached the top, the father collapsed. He hadn’t tripped. He convulsed in a heart attack. It happened fast as a switch. The man looked close to dying. The young lifeguard stepped in and applied CPR. It was touch and go. The family fell back in shock. Finally an ambulance arrived, and the man and his family were swept away.

This event affected the lifeguard. It sat with him. He’d pulled kidlets from suspect rips, assisted in water rescues, but he’d never saved a life so directly. There was an unexpected concern for the family, coupled with a connection with the victim. But then, in the wake of the incident, maybe three days later, he experienced something new: an emptiness. So, the lifeguard let a few more days pass before he drove to the hospital. Once he located the man’s recovery room, he stepped in to see the patriarch sitting up in bed—weathered certainly, but alive and alert.

“Excuse me, Mr. …,” said the lifeguard.

“Hey!” said the patient, “You’re the kook who dinged my brand new Skip Frye!”

In the 1880s, a great battle erupted between the elite societies of San Diego and Los Angeles. The landholders of both pueblos vied for the western terminus of an east-to-west railroad and all of the government grants, manufacturing, and port business that would come with it. San Diego offered land and a big, natural harbor with a history of shipping and commerce. Los Angeles simply built one. In the end, it came down to shrewd back office dealing, government connections, and business acumen. Los Angeles proved shrewdest. It won connections for the Santa Fe, and the city’s population grew and grew. San Diego, once a rival with the great San Francisco Bay, puffed at first but dwindled into its former wind-blown backwater. And even while surfing in 2012, as the population swells and lineups become impacted, we’re often reminded that deep down, we’re not just kinda, but all the way a small town.

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Heading down the rabbit's hole in San Diego. Photo: Adler

There’s a lookout in a neighborhood of Point Loma that I hike up to—usually on the first evening of a Santa Ana event. The winds that start off as cool breezes in the box canyons of Utah bloom into hot, offshore gusts that completely transform the face of the South Coast. Tan, chalky cliffs, slate-blue ocean, and dusty green hillocks warm into the true colors following a morning rain—but with something else: an atmospheric patina that reminds one of an old photo. That past-meets-present clarity is what takes me up to the lookout. Because on the horizon at sundown, San Clemente Island looms out of the west nearly 50 miles away. Normally the island is completely invisible to the naked eye, but at times like this landscape detail emerges from a great distance. Catalina Island might sit to the north. And as always the drastic crumbs of Mexico’s Coronados—once known as the “gateway” of San Diego Bay—crouch in the south. The reason I like this vantage isn’t solely because of its rarity, but because it stands as a reminder of where my vacation falls in the great scheme. It’s a geographic version of Morse code—there are the islands of our past, and the islands of our future. The fact is, I will be standing on one too. Point Loma was a high-ridged island set off from the mainland despite the fact that sea levels were much lower then. Over time, the San Diego river pushed silt downstream so steadily that it filled a trench, bridged a gap, and connected the mainland to the island with a swampy isthmus—now called Sports Arena Blvd.

This geologic thinking might seem academic but it’s not. Once, while talking to Skip Frye about the diversity of surfboard designs, and the ideas to have originated in San Diego, he said, “There aren’t many places so twisted around and varied as San Diego.” In essence, he was saying that this specific landscape—the pointbreaks, river mouths, reefs, sandbars, jetty waves, pier-rips, and slabs—have defined our technology, the way we ride waves, the way in which we interact with the ocean.

In both the long and short views, this land and seascape is always changing. The head environmental scientist for Border Field State Park, Chris Peregrin, recently pointed to an imaginary spot between the Coronados and the Point Loma lighthouse. “Five-thousand years ago,” he said, “the intertidal zone was about a mile to a half-mile out there. Five-thousand years. That’s something I can get my mind around—a million years, no—but five-thousand is a matter of human generations.”

This was an easy idea for him, but a mind-altering one for me. What would happen to the dependent species, the clusters of mustachioed surfers devoted to their little bits of reef from La Jolla to Sunset Cliffs, wetsuited mossbacks who crouch in wait for a tidal swing of 6 inches either way? Could they move with the waterline? Would they cease to exist?

This process, of course, is already happening. As an example, I’ve long been thinking about a dry slab below a hook in the cliff between Bird Shit Rock and No Surf Beach. The dark limestone curve slopes into another curve just below it, and both are perfectly shaped to create a right-breaking Big Rock. On the highest tides of the year, I often drive by to watch as hip-high barrels begin unloading right onto the shelf. There isn’t enough water to allow fins to pass over the limestone, but the wave is real. There are “named” spots to the north and south, but my gaze is always drawn back to this little novelty as I imagine the two more feet of water that rising sea levels will bring us in the next few decades. Like mussels, the pods of surfers at either end of the bay will creep onto my shelf in ones and twos, and bob there in the new lineup same as they’re doing now. Not long after, however, the rising ocean will swamp out Mission Beach and Sports Area Blvd. The Silver Strand will disappear. The Tijuana River will flow into San Diego bay once more. The San Diego river will empty unimpeded into the Pacific. And Point Loma will be an island again. Now imagine all of the reefs and outcroppings that haven’t been touched by salt water in a millennia. Supposing my vacation lasts, I’ve got my eye on a rock shelf in Mission Valley with an elevation of about 10 feet.

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Fast friends, heading for the bus stop. Photo: Adler

Once you take a trip, even if you return to the exact place, ride the same breaks, and spend time with the same people, you can never expect to recreate that first special journey again—which is why, I’ve simply elected to stay on mine. But life happens, even then and sometimes right away. After surfing Avalanche in Ocean Beach one early morning, for example, I decided to drive my mint green ’68 Mustang back to my pad wearing only a towel. A block into the commute, I heard the thump, smack, thump, smack of the left rear retread in serious need of re-retreading. I pulled over and stepped out wearing only the towel. The tire was a black donut with a bite missing. I unlocked the trunk. My dry clothes, wallet, etc., were on one side of the spare. The wetsuit was in a tub on the other. Having no pockets, I threw the keys on the dry clothes, reached down and lifted the spare from the trunk. Then I grabbed the jack from its nook and got down on my knees and positioned the jack under the car’s frame. This is when I heard someone say, “Hey man.” I was on all fours at the time. It was about 8 in the morning. The streets of Ocean Beach were coming to life. I looked under my right armpit and I saw the unmistakable tatter of bum shoes behind me. The marine layer was starting to clear—the atmosphere lightening. My towel was not long. It dawned on me that probably more people than this bum were viewing my junk.

“Hey man, you got any spare change. I’m supposed to catch this bus…”

I pushed myself up, checked the towel, and wiped my hands. When I felt prepared for socializing, I asked, “Does it look like I have any spare change pockets on this towel?”

“No man, but you got this car and all…”

“Did you notice the car’s got me involved, man?”

“Yeah man, but I got this thing…”

“Sorry bud.”

I turned back to the jack and checked its positioning from the side. “Let me help you, man,” said the bum reaching into the trunk. He then pulled out the lug wrench with one hand and slammed the trunk lid with the other. He stepped over and offered me the wrench. I took it.

“My keys and wallet were in the trunk,” I said.

He looked at the trunk lid he’d just locked shut. “Wol’ don’t you have one of those thingies?” He pushed his thumb and index finger together over an invisible toggle.

“This car was made in 1968,” I said.

“So you don’t have any change.”

The bum (Gary) and I both walked to Cable Street to catch the bus with the shrapnel given to us by a raver chick who was just a bit suspicious, but not uncomfortably so, of a bum and a naked dude carrying a lug wrench. Sitting at the bus stop with Gary, I looked down to see a manhole cover with an intriguing vortex-like pattern on it, and I had this odd premonition that I was going to be there for a while.

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