There's a spacey, fairyland quality to the California coast on clear winter days, when the sea-fog gathers offshore and does odd refractive things to the light. At times on such days, it's hard to tell what is and isn't real … but one thing any surfer knows is that fog means cold fricken water.
Roaring up the 101 somewhere north of Goleta in the cold December sunrise, a couple faithful surfboards tucked behind the passenger seat, thick as hell wetsuit in the trunk, I'm wondering to myself: Why even take this assignment? I could be in Hawaii, or at home in Australia, riding warmwater barrels, among friends.
But I feel like this is a must-do mission. Surfing's changing, as it has to, changing its shape under the sheer weight of the modern Beginner Boom, and at such times you've got to record what you can of the culture…. And Localism IS a culture. It's not pretty, the way we've made the '60s look pretty, for instance, with the Aloha shirts and surfboard collections and packaged nostalgia. Nonetheless, Localism – that tightening of a group grip around a surf spot, that flat hostility toward the newcomer, that curiously fearful sense of ownership – is a vital if utterly irrational part of how surfing's core has seen itself, ever since the original growth of crowds, the first Beginner Boom in the 1960s and early '70s.
All the spots I wanted to visit had turned Localistic in that period, and if you examine the times, it's easy to see why the Localism culture developed. Surfing in the late '60s and early '70s was not the cakewalk it is today. Surfboards sucked – they didn't do the work for you, the way a modern Thruster or epoxy longboard or retro Fish does. There were no surf camps, no forecasts, no leashes, no surf-friendly parents, no happy surfing girls, no surf schools with their smiling tribes of initiates balancing on super stable soft deck boards, ushered along by sturdy-looking instructors. No comfy wetsuits, either. None of it.
Surfing HURT back then …. it was male, it was tough, you paid the price of learning. And to many surfers who'd done the paying, it seemed only right that they alone should reap its rewards. Hell, I was one of 'em – I knew.
On top of that, at least in California, resounded the American ideal of individualism – the dream of male retreat, so eloquently expressed by John in the quote above. Wasn't this the root of many surfers' beginnings in the 1970s – a desire to get away from Nixon, from Vietnam, from all the shit, to wall off from the world? Which is all great in theory, but how could it ever stand up to any kind of worldly change? The Beginner Boom of the new millennium is transfiguring the sport in ways we still haven't fully grasped …and I couldn't help wondering if Localism might yet become its victim.
So, here I am, flying along the 101 on a cold bright morning, psyching to expose myself to several of the hardest-core midwinter Local zones in the Golden State, for no reason other than to take their butt-cold social temperatures…. And, oh yeah, to surf.