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The Compound

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The road to Johnson Valley passes through several small towns as it disappears toward the Mojave, which get smaller and smaller until they become little more than roadside convenience stores. A 12-pack of Modelos, a bag of ice, and a propane refill. When the road finally ends, keep going, you’re almost there.

The compound juts out from the desert landscape. The slanted roofs of decrepit greenhouses. An empty concrete reservoir.

A pile of boats. Road signs and license plates. Tire piles and gas cans. Patchwork buildings. Like something out of Mad Max, this architectural flotsam and jetsam.

This is homesteader country. Back in the 1950s, you could buy ten acres from the state for $50. No power. No water. No road. No shade. No rules. Do as you will. And people did. Little shacks popped up, but were just as quickly reclaimed by the tumbleweeds. Most folks aren’t cut out for life in the desert. Some aren’t cut out for anything else.

A few hours’ drive from the coast, Johnson Valley is a moto-rider’s paradise. Photograph by Matt Cherubino.

Forrest Minchinton sits at the wheel of his 1986 Dodge Ram. Dark, focused, low-key. Now and then, he turns down the Stooges CD—the only music he’s ever had in this truck—to point out various nuances of the desert. He then gets out and drags open the gate to WMW Ranch, and pulls into the partially fenced ten-acre plot. 

This is Forrest’s home away from home. He fires up the well pump, unbolts various padlocks, pours ice over the Modelos, and climbs into the treehouse to get an early start on the sunset. They’re worth the wait out here, all blooded in gold and dust.

With no one around for miles, there’s an unbridled sense of freedom. It makes you want to spin donuts in the truck, shoot guns at clouds, and blow shit up. And that’s what people do—the meth cookers, the doomsday preppers, and the other upright roaches who survive out here. 

Huntington Beach shaper Mike Minchinton, Forrest’s father, had camped in the area with his friends for years. When one of them, Dix Whitecotton, came upon a “For Sale” sign on this specific hunk of land in 2002, he pulled it off the fence and called the realtor. A long-abandoned pot farm riddled with debris, chemical waste, and broken glass in the middle of nowhere, the place was literally a dump. 

Mike, Whitecotton, and Bruce “Wally” Walczy split the $30,000 deed, and started driving out from the city every chance they got. Each trip, they’d haul something new, from odd road signs and discarded furniture to sunken boats and bar promo giveaways. They jokingly called it “what-you-got construction.” But after a few beers in the treehouse, with Forrest recounting the salvage stories behind each detail, the effect starts to seem less curated chaos and more picker poetry.

Forrest holds tight to the reliable. Photograph by Harry Mark.

The stars come out. Hours from the smog and light pollution of Los Angeles, they pinhole the night sky into a milky glow. Cool and calming. Forrest grills burgers on the sheltered porch between two slab structures, then pushes a weathered VHS tape into a VCR and hits play. 

“Four million people ride motorcycles in the US,” begins filmmaker Bruce Brown, narrating his 1971 Oscar-nominated documentary, On Any Sunday. “They come in all shapes, sizes, and ages.”

It’s the only movie they have out here, and Forrest watches it every single time he stays.

*

Bruce Brown gave Mike Minchinton that VHS copy of On Any Sunday on a visit to Hollister Ranch in 1985. Mike was there with his boss and friend Robert August, who starred in Brown’s other seminal film, The Endless Summer. Having much in common, Bruce and Mike hit it off immediately. And Mike watched that movie many times over the years to come while living in Huntington Beach, surfing, shaping, and dreaming of the desert. 

Mike shaped his first surfboard in 1969, using a $35 DIY kit from the boat resin shop in Seal Beach. He sold that board for $35, took the money back to the shop, and bought another kit. Sold that one for $35, too. This went on, in various sheds and garages, for a decade or two. 

Mike had just been evicted from a garage space behind the donut shop on 6th Street when August offered him a job doing production work for Robert August Surfboards at the Spanners factory in Huntington Beach. Five shaping bays. Scrubbing out several boards a day. 

“Mike was kind of a screw up when I found him,” recalls August. “But he was a talented shaper, so I took him in and taught him what I know. You don’t last long with me unless you’re good, and Mike was good.”

In 1991, Mike and his wife Shannon moved to Costa Rica with 1-year-old Forrest. The surf was good, but the roads were terrible. Forrest grew up riding around in his mother’s lap on her motorcycle. He surfed his first waves at Playa Tamarindo when he was 3, but quit surfing at age 7 to focus on two wheels.

Mike flew back to Huntington Beach every other month to keep shaping, sleeping in a van behind Spanners and powering out boards like his freedom depended on it. The cycle was a grind, but the downtime in Costa Rica made it worthwhile. 

When he and Shannon split in 1998, Mike went back to Huntington. Forrest went with him. After school, Forrest would go to Spanners while Mike shaped boards. He’d make coffee, sweep up, and eventually took on ding repair. By the time he finally shaped his first surfboard, there wasn’t much left to teach him. “Without even knowing it,” says Forrest, “I’d been studying shaping my whole life.”

Forrest sold the boards he made to friends to pay for motorcycles. He still does. “I’ve never really thought of myself as a shaper,” he says. “It was just something I did to pay for motorcycles.”

He was 12 when his father bought the property in the desert. Forrest was raised by it, almost. There weren’t any other kids around. While the adults drank beer and shot guns, young Forrest would take his dirt bike, find a jump, and hit that jump over and over until he had it mastered. Then he’d find another, and master that one. On each new jump, each new trail, each new dune, he’d venture a little farther into the desert. He was careful not to venture farther than he thought he could walk back home, though he once shattered his arm and leg, luckily being discovered by a passing dune buggy a few hours later.

“I remember I was wearing these brand-new boots,” recalls Forrest, “and I wouldn’t let the doctors cut them off even though my leg was jacked. They were expensive boots.”

At night, alone in the trailer, he watched the only movie they owned on repeat: “A motorcycle is whatever you want to make it. Turn it on, you can give yourself a real thrill.”

Forrest knows every trail through the chaparral and has never had the trouble of disturbing the neighbors. Photographs by Matt Cherubino.

At 14, he began entering races. There was a famous Hare and Hound event not too far away, and Forrest was determined. While the other racers showed up in fancy RVs with box-trailers for their bikes and a mechanic in tow, Forrest just rode out across the desert, arriving at the race site already covered in dirt. “Dad would show up an hour later with a gallon of gas,” he says, “and off I went.”

The following year he entered the Baja 500 on an all-Mexican team. They spent weeks in the desert camping and training, and he made a pretty good run at the race until his bike blew up. 

On weekdays, Forrest surfed for the Huntington Beach High School surf team, which helped build his clientele to sell boards. He was a good surfer, but held no aspirations toward competition. On weekends, he continued to enter moto races. But his style of riding never really fit into any sort of box. A talented generalist, he wasn’t an enduro or motocross or street rider. What he excelled at was tearing across the desert, way out on his own. He’d blast the lip of a dune, fang it across wide salt flats, or tail tap moguls at breakneck speed. He kept shaping surfboards to pay for it.

When the Spanners factory closed down in 2005, Mike hauled as much leftover wood and metal as he could salvage out to the compound to build a carport for his truck. Then he stood there, somewhat unemployed, and thought, If only we could figure out some way to make money out here.

Flat-track Fibonacci in the salt flats. Photograph by Drew Martin.

The next morning, he welded two hubcaps to the base of an old Spanners shaping rack and got out his Skil 100. No lights. No templates. Crude tools. But there it was, the first board from the compound’s new shaping bay. 

Forrest might have shaped the second one, only Mike immediately started in on another.

*

Forrest rises before the sun. The desert is cold. Quiet. He makes coffee, then wanders over to the shaping bay and examines the unfinished Bastard Fish he’s been carving. Harrison Roach gave it that name, noting the board’s traditional outline and modern foils. Like his dad, like any good shaper, Forrest shapes a bit of everything, but most of his models marry classic designs with progressive features. And every board they make at the compound is shaped, glassed, and finished by hand.

Instead of picking up the planer, Forrest preps his bike, then braps out into the desert before the sun cracks the foothills. A morning ride is the best way to start the day.

Fifty years on and a hundred miles from the ocean, Mike is still refining rails by hand. Photograph by Matt Cherubino.

He’s grateful for the places his bike has taken him. Some years ago, he connected with the surf-moto brand Deus Ex Machina, and spent several summers shaping boards in Bali and making films throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Traveling with classic loggers like Roach and Matt Cuddihy, they made moto films in the style of surf films, focused on scoring waves in places four wheels could never reach. 

More recently, he’s opened a shaping-themed guest house in Costa Rica called House of Somos, inspired by what he experienced at the Deus residencies in Bali. “I just love how they made board-building feel special again,” says Forrest. “And it creates opportunities for shapers to take a surf trip and make some money on the side. It’s like a step back in time there. You order a board, then watch it get shaped.”

Mike appears from one of the trailers with plates of eggs and bacon. “The difference between here and those places though,” he says, “is that there’s waves right across the street and people actually need boards. Out here…” 

He trails off, staring out into the vast expanse, and then smiles. 

“Yeah, but there’s something about shaping boards out here that’s just more fun,” says Forrest. “There’s no pressure. You’re more free to just be creative. It becomes art again. My dad went from one of the most advanced shaping facilities in the world to, well, this. And it’s more fun here.”

Forrest, washing off the dust and dirt in a lower gear. Photograph by Harry Mark.

Forrest’s growing success as a moto-rider has taken pressure off needing to sell boards to pay for bike-widgets. With the travel films forming their own genre, he’s gradually acquired sponsorship support. He even entered the Baja 1000 last year, and was in the lead until the bike blew up. 

Mike claims he’s semi-retired, but he still shapes a few boards a week. The unhurried program at the compound makes it easy and pleasurable again. 

“I still love it,” he says. “What the hell else am I gonna do?” 

He watches his son pass the planer over the board, then saunters off to sit on his homemade porch. Forrest knocks the dust off the Bastard, then walks out into the desert sun and pours water over his head from a plastic jug.