The Snows of Hope Ranch Beach
by James Powell
Originally published as a cover story in the Santa Barbara Independent.
When I was a kid, any truly respectable stretch of coast in Santa Barbara, any reputable expanse of sand with a good name and a suitably high opinion of itself, began to attract its own elite coterie of surf bums. Suddenly the waters off points such as Miramar, reefs such as Hammond's, coves such as Campus, and river mouths such as Rincon found themselves a-bob with blond-haired boys astride surfboards, awaiting waves. At one secluded beach, where vast lawns and orchards aflutter with butterflies basked beside the sea, and where the waves swelled and peeled translucently over the summer sandbars, a metaphysically inclined cult of surf bums emerged. The core members of our tribe were, beside myself: Whooper, The Goose, Modoc, Chaddy, The Hog, The Ace, Stein, and The Ravin' Baby Ese Animal Gargantua Ca bron. We were brought together by a couple of simple facts. First, my big brother, The Ace, owned a woodie that ran well enough to get us all to the beach. But more importantly, as we sat eating lunch at La Colina Junior High, we shared one deep secret - isolated by steep cliffs, miles of sand, and a guarded gate that opened only to members lay one of the most lyrical beach-breaks on the entire coast - Hope Ranch Beach.
The Orphan Shaman
Now, any respectable cult in Santa Barbara finds at its center a charismatic leader, and the Hope Ranch tribe could boast of its own shaman-poet-seer - an orphan named John Lenorak. Everyone called him Stein. Stein, however, didn't know what his real name was. He had no idea who his mother or father might be. He lived with an elderly woman he called his "aunt" high on a hill in Hope Ranch - a house to which he never invited his friends. There he devoured captivity narratives and brooded upon who he might be and what his real name might be, and how he might find out such things. And in those same private moments of questioning he conjured up nicknames for just about every surfer and point and beach and cove around Santa Barbara. Some of them even stuck.
Stein was not only our Namegiver. It was Stein who imagined the mythos for our collective dream. Without him the cosmos of our little surfing clan would have been infinitely smaller - as flat as the surf on most days - as contour-free as the chests of each year's new covey of nymphs as they lay thin and thoroughbred atop their beach towels on a summer's morn at Hope Ranch Beach, absorbed in their solar devotions, transistors tinkling with Percy Faith's "There's a Summer Place," lifeguard slouched sleeping atop his white wooden tower, four or five long surfboards top-down on the wet sand, their owners stretched out on the warm dunes, lulled by the lapping of little wavelets, swarms of flies buzzing lazily above heaps of beached seaweed, seagulls screeching and pecking at the remains of a watermelon rind, College Point hazy off to the north, Woff Woff Point dimly to the south, and, shining silver in the haze - indolent, indifferent, and self-contained - the great Pacific, the majestic Pacific, the wide stretching, everflowing, endlessly rolling Pacific.
The surf was not always flat. On mornings of windswells, the haze usually loafing over the summer shoreline would ghost away, the sky would blue, and above the roaring surf the warm air would tingle with salt spray. The covey of nymphs would come to life, plunging through the waves while straining to keep bikinis in place; the lifeguard would wake up; and a few of us surfers would be out in the water, spread along a mile or so of sun-drenched beach. From time to time one of us would take off on a surging swell of blue water, drop to the bottom of the wave, lean into a turn, and then squat on his board as a bellowing, hollow vortex of Pacific curled over him.
A day later the beach would be dead again, the nymphs, surfers, lifeguard, and kelp flies somnolent, and the Pacific - now once again slumbering behind ever-shifting veils of mist - would resume its long silvery daydream.
Not So Mystical Mysteries
To the ignorant observer, the great Pacific flowed according to its own deep and mysterious rhythms. To Stein, however, its mysteries were not so mystical. He felt he had them all figured out. According to Stein's metaphysical musings, the Pacific was actually controlled by a God - Kahuna, God of the Surf - with Stein as his chosen priest. Thus, Stein taught us that days of good surf did not arrive unsolicited. And this is why, during spring and summer, we prayed to Kahuna for windswells. Occasionally, Kahuna answered our prayers, sending us playful peaks porpoising toward the sands of El Capitan, Haskell's Ranch, Sands, Depressions, Hope Ranch, the Pit, and Summerland.
But there was a countervailing opinion. Ray Strange, an oceanographer who daily walked the sands of Hope Ranch Beach, suggested, tactfully, that our spring and summer windswells were not generated by a god, but, scientifically speaking, by the prevailing winds off Point Conception. To this heresy Stein countered that prevailing winds might well act as passive agents involved in the formation of waves, but they could never be their Supreme Cause. We followed Stein's explanation. After all, we could pray to Kahuna, but not to anything as pitifully puny as prevailing winds.
Numerous were our ways of praying to Kahuna - some more austere than others - and our devotions were many. It is an activity we began in junior high and continued into high school. During lunch hours at San Marcos High, by then being long-practiced contemplatives, we would forego the nourishment of the common herd in favor of fasting and opening our souls to Kahuna's manna. Besides, we were saving our lunch money for surfboards, gasoline to get us to distant shores, or an issue of the then fledgling Surfer magazine. One favorite method of prayer was to stand on the concrete steps by the gym and repeatedly step forward and then backward - symbolically hanging-ten hundreds of times an hour, each time proclaiming a devout "Hail Kahuna." Or, we would stand aside the towering outside wall of the basketball gym and, imagining it to be a humongous Hawaiian wave at Waimea Bay, throw up our hands in futility.
Watching us perform these rites were sneering gangs of Hodaddies - pasty-fleshed, greasy-haired car guys who never went near the beach, who carried switchblades, and who basically had it out for all surfers. Though minor skirmishes sometimes erupted back then between Anglos and Mexican students or between San Marcos and Santa Barbara High kids, these divisions were nothing compared to the division between Hodads and surfers. This latter division, after all, was not merely cross-town or racial, but religious: Car guys contemplated Grease and we contemplated The Ocean. Obviously, this had to lead to a great war of faiths. Back then the Carrillo Rec Center hosted dances every Saturday night. One enchanted evening after the dance, all the surfers in town, armed with broken beer bottles, lined up on one side of Carrillo, while Hodaddies by the hundreds bristled on the opposite curb. Our Gods, we were soon to discover, were inherently bloodthirsty.
The fine points of our theology were worked out by Stein in private moments while coasting on his bicycle beneath the cool, dark canopy of oaks, down the dark winding road from his aunt's house. And they were imparted, discussed, and refined in conversations with two of his colleagues: Modoc and myself. These sessions always took place in a very secret spot, on a roof atop a row of lockers behind the changing rooms at Hope Ranch Beach. From the age of 15, on evenings when the surf was flat, we would climb up, assume philosophically comfortable postures, and brood upon eternal verities.
Central to Stein's cosmos was a pecking order of surf beings. Kahuna, of course, presided over all. Next were Santa and Frosty, two huge stucco statues stationed at Santa Claus Lane. Then followed the All-Time Charleys. These were surfers who actually appeared on the pages of Surfer magazine. Slightly below them reigned the Big Mothers. These were surfers like Bob Hazard and Jimmy Grey, who were a couple of years older than we and had started surfing before we did. Next came ourselves, and below ourselves were those bushy bushy-blond-haired surfers younger than us that we called gremmies.
The Highest Form Of Worship
Of course all gods require rituals, and our highest form of worship was to actually go surfing. At that time, San Marcos was a closed campus. However, once each week school assemblies were held just before lunch. Rather than sit and watch cheerleaders and football heroes cross-fertilize imaginations, we would sneak down into the parking lot and rush to the beach for two hours of surfing. Our homeroom teacher, Barbara Clark, was sympathetic to our faith, and simply overlooked our absence. She understood that by observing such penances we were storing up merit, and that if we accumulated enough we might eventually ascend to Kahuna's Heaven - a Happy Hunting Grounds of eternally perfect waves. Otherwise, we were sure to land in Hodaddy Hell - a world where we would be pricked by switchblade knives, basted in hair oil, then roasted and served up as the main course at a hot-rod show in Bakersfield. If a devotee of Kahuna should go out with a girl when the surf was up rather than going surfing, he would incur a thousand units of sin. He would likewise incur sin by giving preferential attention to homework, a job (in the unlikely event he had one), or his dying grandmother.
One of the most important matters we discussed was the ritual for surfing Rincon. Rincon, of course, is the Santa Barbara Channel's most remarkable cobblestone point, a subtle bend in the coast about 15 miles south of Santa Barbara. During the fall, winter, and early spring, Kahuna moves from His relatively close roost off Point Conception, repositioning Himself thousands of miles to the north - in the general area of the Gulf of Alaska. There he produces violent storms, generating powerful, long-period ground swells that pulse into Rincon thousands of miles later with seismic power. We established the Rincon ritual because Kahuna was so distant at that time of year - so far to the north - he could not hear us. We needed a host of local deities and demigods to intercede, to carry our prayers to His northern domain. Our ritual consisted of this: (1) While driving in my big brother's woodie down the coast to Rincon listening to KRLA in Los Angeles, we listened for an omen. If we heard "Bonanza," as played by the twangy guitar of Dwayne Eddy, we knew the surf would be good. Even better, if during our drive over Ortega Hill, it so happened the dj Wolfman Jack was playing "Bonanza" at the same time we spotted a big north swell, we knew the day would be perfect. Once, it actually happened. (2) Midway between Santa Barbara and Rincon, at Santa Claus Lane, atop buildings between the freeway and the ocean, presided our demigods, the two huge statues of Santa and Frosty the Snowman. We waved to them because, after all, they were divinities of the far north - and thus in close touch with Kahuna in His wintry workshop. Our other salutations were to our only local All-Time Charley, Renny Yater, and his wife, Sally. Renny, after all, was the only area surfer whose photo appeared in Surfer magazine. He was the first and for many years the only surfboard manufacturer in Santa Barbara. In our theology he was viewed as almost semi-divine. He was, at any rate, not quite as aloof as Frosty and Santa. Occasionally - once every five years or so - he would even say something to us, such as "Nice ride." Coming from Renny that was quite a compliment - because in those days surfing was more functional than frilly, and Renny surfed with a pure economy of movement. Rather than riding smaller waves, he would sit patiently, far out in the ocean in position to catch only the monsters. When these huge swells flexed and feathered on the outer reefs, most of the other surfers would be caught inside, and could only watch as Renny glided effortlessly along in perfect trim.
In order to understand Santa's and Frosty's and Renny's place in our cosmos it is important to understand that Stein's universe possessed a peculiar quality that might be called Northness. No one ever talked or thought about Northness, but it was there nonetheless, terrible in its tacitness, savagely aloof, ontologically prior and socially superior to everything, the Prime Mover of our cosmos. To possess a degree of Northness was to be elevated in the hierarchy of surf beings. In its highest expression, Northness was not north, but up, the Happy Hunting Grounds of Kahuna's Heaven with its endless shores of humming surf. On a lower level, Northness was the realm where Kahuna conceived the largest and most powerful swells - the Gulf of Alaska. To possess Northness was to possess a kind of spiritual isolation and remoteness, as when during the cold winter months the senses recede from their objects. It was Northness that had compelled Renny to sit like a hermit so far out in the middle of the ocean, waiting for only the biggest, darkest mountainous waves; that had chiseled his style so clean, and that had hollowed caves in the north-facing sandstone in the mountains near Point Conception, caves illumined by paintings of Chumash Indian deities.
The expression of Northness we dreamed of most, the earthly counterpart of the Ideal Forms of Kahuna's Heaven, was the Hollister Ranch. Located some 40 miles north of Santa Barbara, just south of Point Conception, the Hollister Ranch was a working cattle ranch. On its 20 miles of private shoreline broke some of the best waves in the world. Some older surfers had formed an association called the Santa Barbara Surf Club, and worked out a deal with the Hollister family allowing exclusive beach privileges to its members. Membership was fixed at 60. The only way the members of our tribe finally got into "The Ranch" (some eternal three years after the events I write about here), was to put our names on the waiting list of the Santa Barbara Surf Club and wait in purgatorial impatience until some member would drop out of the club, or get killed in Vietnam. Then we would be voted in, and the Golden Doors of Heaven would open for us.
The Opposite Of Northness
Our faith in Stein's theology was eroded little by little. One of the major obstacles in our belief was the very presence of the Big Mothers. The Big Mothers were a group of surfers a couple of years older than us who surfed at the Pit and the Hollister Ranch. As mentioned, they were the next rung up the ladder from the Hope Ranch clan in the hierarchy of surf beings. Above them were only the All-Time Charleys, Frosty and Santa, Kahuna, and Northness itself. They formed our only living link to the higher world of surfing knowledge and lore - especially the lore of the Hollister Ranch.
Sitting at the beach checking out the surf on a flat summer's morn, the Big Mothers would detect a slight south swell, explaining that south swells, generated in the tropics or the Southern Hemisphere, were mostly blocked from hitting Santa Barbara beaches by the offshore Channel Islands. The Big Mothers would then be careful to explain that south swells did break at the Hollister Ranch, and that on a day when the waves at Hope Ranch were six inches high, the Hollister Ranch might be six or 16 feet high. As soon as they knew that we understood this principle they would jump into their cars and head out for the Hollister Ranch. Returning to Santa Barbara sunburnt and unshaven, they would swell around the beach so full of Ranch lore that we loathed to hear them going on and on about surfing pristine waves at virgin beaches like Cojo Point, or Rights and Lefts, or Perko's Point, or Ranch House Point, or Government Point, or some other esoteric spot we had never even heard of. The Big Mothers pieced together beach buggies out of odd bits of old cars and drove them right on the sand at the Hollister Ranch. They built beach houses there of driftwood and would sometimes just disappear to the Ranch for a week or a month of pure surfing. None of the girls at the beach could resist their charms, and entire coveys of nymphs, along with cases of wine, would disappear into the mattressed backs of their woodies and panel trucks for days at a time - even on days when the surf was good.
This, of course, presented a serious challenge to the validity of Stein's theology. How could the Big Mothers, who were notoriously worldly preferring women and drink to Kahuna's waves, be the Chosen Ones to surf the sacred shores of the Hollister Ranch while we, the Pious Ones, the priests and seers of the whole surfing cosmos, the Noble Ones, were left stranded in flat Santa Barbara daydreaming about waves too heavenly to be contemplated?
But it was another crack in Stein's surfing cosmos that proved to be apocalyptic. It began quite innocently. We decided to form a surf club - The Hope Ranch Surf Club - and to hold weekly meetings in the evening at the picnic grounds above the beach. We got all puffed up with our importance and decided to invite area oceanographer Ray Strange to deliver a series of talks on waves and beaches, and on how to predict the surf according to scientific weather data. Then, in an issue of Surfer magazine we saw an ad for the First Malibu Invitational Surfing Contest, to be held at Malibu Beach. It was to be a competition between surf clubs, with both surfing and paddling events. We decided that The Hope Ranch Surf Club should go.
Stein, however, was suspicious of anything originating in Los Angeles, so far to the south, the very opposite direction of Northness, and wanted nothing to do with the contest, nor with our club with all its rules and regulations, nor with our oceanographer who claimed to be able to actually predict the surf according to scientific calculations. In order to counter this threat to his world, his occasional fits of mythologizing began to erupt daily, and then hourly, and then began to blow and howl constantly at us with such a hurricane force that it made the very sky seem to darken. He argued that Kahuna's great transformations of winds and clouds and rain and thunder and waves could never be fathomed by any science. Their supreme patterns, he proclaimed, are beyond human knowing. For sometimes, he argued, Kahuna will send us faint silvery little ripples, frail as ribbons.
Sometimes he'll send huge dark watery summits that obliterate the horizon. Sometimes there will be several months of continuous swell. Sometimes a swell will come thundering down the coast, but vanish in an hour. Sometimes the waves are as black as vinyl; sometimes white as clouds. Sometimes the sea is violently windblown all day, and some surfers will say that in the evening it will glass off. But it doesn't glass off. Or sometimes it will be glassy and perfect in the morning, but some know-it-all Big Mother will predict that it will be blown out in the afternoon. But it stays glassy.
But what if Kahuna's patterns of winds and waves and thunders were knowable, predictable, and regulated by oceanographers and ruled by surf clubs, and Big Mothers, argued Stein! Why then, when Kahuna was going to send us a windswell in answer to our prayers, he first would have to muster the tribes of waves, next have them stand at attention, and then give them their orders: "I am Kahuna. Now I am going to send you waves down to Hope Ranch Beach. You, go first; you, follow; you, I want you to rise up 20 feet; you there, lay low. You, shine silvery; you, make some green little ripples on your face just before you break; you, double back into a giant wave of backwash and punch the next incoming wave in the face; you, pull in your stomach; you, puff out your chest; and you over there, go whisper all this in the ear of the oceanographer and the Big Mother and Surf-Clubber as they dream so that they will be able to prophesy what is going to happen!" If Kahuna sent waves out like that, then there wouldn't be any life left in any of them at all, and neither would there be any life left in Kahuna! This could never be His pattern of creating wind and waves. The result of such a way of sending waves would be that Kahuna would begin to feel that sending out waves was a colossal burden; and the winds and waves, from their side, would begin to feel that being sent out by Kahuna was an unbearable waste of effort. And yet, those waves would still have to be sent out every single day!
But this time we didn't listen to Stein, nor did we think so much about Kahuna anymore. All we could think about was that we, the members of the Hope Ranch Surf Club, would actually be pitted against All-Time Charleys. By simply entering the contest we would be bigger, in effect, than the Big Mothers, and might even beat out an All-Time Charley and get our photo in Surfer magazine. We immediately sent off a letter of application and went into full-time training, surfing from dawn until dark every day. Before preparing for the contest we had never really thought about surfing as a competitive activity. Surfing was just a sense of being with the ocean in the company of our tribe. Now, we had to choose the "best" surfers in our tribe, and the five strongest paddlers.
However, within a week, every surfer within a 50-mile radius of Hope Ranch was vying for a spot on our team. Suddenly the two miles of waves that had been shared in the relaxed ease of eight other surfers in our tribe were packed with 80 or a 100 outsiders, each competing with the next to do as many fancy frilly tricks as possible. It soon became clear that if we were going to compete seriously we would have to replace the more mediocre surfers on our team with the best surfers from the Pit and other places - surfers who had never been part of our clan, and who didn't even know about Kahuna. The waves were no longer Kahuna's gifts, but simply impersonal masses of moving hydraulic energy, useful only as instruments for a blond-haired, tanned mass of muscle and ego to display tricks on. All-Time Charleys were no longer superior beings in the surfing cosmos, but human beings to be competed with on an equal basis. In fact, suddenly even Big Mothers and All-Time Charleys were sneaking into Hope Ranch Beach, trying to get into our club. Even on days when the surf was flat, with little ripples lapping peacefully on the shore, the lifeguard and the nymphs and the gulls and the kelp flies would all be alert, watching, as hundreds of surfers jousted for attention.
Compared with all the ballyhoo at Hope Ranch Beach, the actual First Malibu Surfing Invitational was anticlimactic. Sure, all the All-Time Charleys were there from the Windansea Surf Club in La Jolla and the Malibu Surf Club - but the trophies were larger than the waves. Soon after the contest ads for more surfing contests appeared in Surfer magazine, which was soon joined on the racks by Surfing magazine. Surfing was becoming big business. Manufacturers of surfboards, beachwear, and booze quickly discovered that their wares would sell thousands of times faster if endorsed by champion surfers in full-page ads in surf magazines. Southness, the commercialism of Hollywood and Los Angeles, was taking over Northness.
Now every gremmie wanted to become a surf hero, recipient of thousands of dollars of prize money, endorsement royalties, free surfboards, and free travel to exotic surf venues. Every surfer's relationship to the wave and to other surfers changed. In a surfing contest each wave becomes a separate entity, a solitary mass of moving water divorced from the poetry of the sea; its sole purpose is to act as a medium of display, a platform for as many acrobatic maneuvers as the surfer can cram in. Ten points for a sweeping turn, 20 points for hanging five over the nose, 30 points for hanging ten. Thus, hanging ten became the way to accumulate points, and surfing became goal-oriented toward the nose of the board. There emerged entire surfing contests devoted to nose-riding, with announcers, judges with stopwatches, huge billboards advertising booze, smiling bikini-clad beach bunnies, and photographers from the surf magazines. Even the design of the surfboard changed to accommodate the moment the surfer hangs ten - the camera clicks, and Joe Seaweed suddenly finds himself with a sponsor. In this way, a mere fragment of functional surfing, the act of hanging ten, became the privileged image. And surfing obediently joined the ranks of other formerly wild cultural niches now shaped almost entirely by the media. In such a fluff-filled atmosphere, full of beer companies and buxom blondes holding trophies and corporate sponsors and smiles for the camera, it became possible for one of Stein's antiheroes, an eccentric All-Time Charley named Bob Cooper, a man who lamented the disappearance of true surfing, to make a bitter, astonishing announcement: "The wave is the thing."
A full week after the contest the surf was still flat. Kahuna was not smiling upon us. Only the original Hope Ranch surf clan was down at the beach. Stein decided we should offer a sacrifice to Kahuna to bring up the waves. We carried an old surfboard up the beach, northward, in solemn procession, kneeled to the waves like Muslims before a minaret, chanting in the vocative to our Deity. Stein entered the water with the board in one hand, a one-gallon can of gas in the other, and a book of matches between his teeth.
The following winter, it snowed in Santa Barbara. Lemon groves, streets, hills, and beaches lay silent and white. At school we plastered everyone with snowballs, and during lunch hour sneaked down to Hope Ranch Beach. In its radiance it shimmered like a ghost of itself, hovering somewhere between presence and absence: no lifeguard, no surfboards, no nymphs, no kelp, no kelp flies, no aspiring surf contestants - only avalanches of liquid energy thundering in from the north.
Reprinted with the permission of Booking Matters (email@example.com) a literary publication that promotes authors, book clubs, and bookstores.