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A Center of Gravity

At Home with Nate Tyler.
A Center of Gravity

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The dirt driveway is more than a mile long, fully canopied by thick oak trees. At the end, past the sizable firewood pile and through the gate marked by a rusted “NO TRESPASSING” etching, is Nate Tyler’s zone. The place feels more like an experience than a home. The property, which consists of 120 co-opted acres of rolling hills, tree-covered valleys, green spring grasses, and countless trails, is nested at the fulcrum between California’s north, south, east, and west.

The landscape is naturally manicured by the area’s unique blend of steady wind, morning fog, afternoon sunshine, and winter rains. A vibrant aroma floats on each breeze. Salt from the sea, raw dirt and fertilizer from the well-nourished inland vineyards, and floral scents from blooming spring flowers all ride the swirling and unpredictable air currents together. No single wind direction dominates, thanks to the rising hills and dipping valleys. Microclimates sit within each shadow. 

And despite both the staggering landscape and the tendency for humans to showcase raw beauty of this magnitude in some gaudy fashion—by building it out into multimillion-dollar wineries or importing zebras to graze—quite the opposite exists on this piece of property.

Tyler, 36 years old and a full-blooded Californian, emerges from one of his two quaint-yet-well-stocked workshops flanked by a 115-pound, 1-year-old Great Dane and a teeny-tiny, 2-month-old French bulldog—a sliver of the total pet population here. The two workshops stand sentry in front of the handmade wire-and-iron fencing that surrounds his adorable yellow-and-blue house, adorned with river-rock flower beds and rusted lawn ornaments, and nestled in this private valley near Templeton, California.

Tyler is not the gruff, tool-toting Central California inhabitant you might expect. He’s not intimidating. He’s not a cowboy, or even a waterman of Malloy stock. Nor is he a stereotypical granola eater. He’s a California chameleon. He’s mellow and polite on land. And in the water, his surfing is punk while also rich in grace and style. 

“As much as I look like the cliché of a surfer,” he says, “I was a pro surfer against all odds. I lived really far from the beach as a kid and I couldn’t easily get down there. I didn’t really start surfing until I was 13 and then, once I started to compete, I was really shitty at contests. I’ve never been an overly confident person, and I feel like to be a real competitive pro surfer it takes a knowing-you’re-The-Man level of confidence. I don’t have that. Even when I look back at what I’ve accomplished in surfing, it’s hard for me to really own it.” 

Tyler did accomplish a lot, and he’s still having a rather successful run as a professional surfer. 

Through the aughts, Tyler worked heavily with magazine photographers like Chris Burkard, Tom Carey, Peter Taras, and Dave “Nelly” Nelson, and shots of Tyler were prevalent in Transworld Surf, Surfing magazine, and Surfer

Tyler’s first video part appeared in Volcom’s 2006 cult classic Creepy Fingers. He went on to become a regular star in all of their later surf films. Then he started riding for Australian shoe brand Globe, which retains surf filmmaking icon Joe Guglielmino (widely known as Joe G.). Thanks to that relationship, Tyler would go on to star in some of the best surf films of the last decade, including Year Zero, Strange Rumblings in Shangri-La, and the “Cult of Freedom” series. He also released his own profile film titled Mute with Victor Pakpour in 2016, among other video appearances. 

Through their work on the Globe films, Tyler and Joe G. developed a solid friendship that continues today. They currently work together as partners on the accessories brand Octopus is Real, and Tyler continues to film for projects. 

On the dirt in front of a tool shed, he’s approachable and kind, greeting me with a hug and genuine warmth. And despite all the gruesomely gorgeous nature around him, he doesn’t quake with fear at the thought of city life.

“I really like big cities,” he says, acknowledging that he’s no recluse. “I love how people just blend into them. The anonymity of it. There’s no day-to-day judgment, the mass of humanity is too large. You just float through.” 

Tyler loves venturing to San Francisco and, during the early days of his pro surfing career, he spent two years living in Newport Beach to be near his sponsors. 

Today, he wears a black hoodie, khaki chinos, work boots just as fashionable as functional, and has long, sun-bleached, salt-matted hair tucked under a cap. You would have just as hard a time distinguishing him in a group of SoCal surfers as you would among the hooded NorCal brethren of this area’s cold-water coastline. He is a product of both, blending the two perfectly and creating an optical illusion for those inquiring about where he’s actually from.

“We’re literally dead center between Los Angeles and San Francisco here,” he says. “Three and a half hours either way.”

My arrival coincides with that of Tyler’s wife, Jody, and his three daughters, Ruby, Lucy, and Gwen, ranging in age from 2 to 8 years old, getting ready for a walk. As is customary for any afternoon, they tell me, we all take a hike up to one of the ridges above the house. 

Tyler borrows Lucy’s floral school tote to stow a few beers, and we set off on a tour of the property. Tyler grand marshals a family parade over myriad self-maintained dirt trails that connect various features of the property. 

“One of the other house owners likes

to mountain bike,” Tyler says. “He’s kept up a lot of these trails.” 

He then points to another trail he’s personally working on, a pickax lying in the grass awaiting use. Ruby asks if I can see the sun in her eyes and we all giggle. Up ahead and leading the way is Biggie, the Great Dane, followed in not-so-orderly procession by Henry, the brave little 2-month-old puppy who I fear could tumble to his death along the very steep ridges we’re walking. Also joining us is Petey, a once-feral city cat from Bakersfield who seems to have a personality disorder, judging by the way he runs the trails with the dogs. 

“We have 12 cats, three dogs, a bunch of chickens,” Tyler says. “Once you have the space you sort of just acquire them.”

The hike has authenticity. This isn’t a stroll around a lot; it’s a trek along distinct trails with rewarding views. The vistas are extended, each more beautiful than the next. 

“That’s the witch house!” says Gwen, pointing at a dark building way out on a distant hillside, which I later learn is a winery. 

“We’re really fortunate to have this out the back door,” Tyler admits.

Up ahead, we hear Jody shout. 

“Biggie NO!” 

Tyler trots up ahead to find Biggie rolling in grass, swiping her face. 

“This is bad news,” he says. 

We all look down the hill and see a skunk scurrying away with its tail in the air as Biggie sneezes, pawing at her eyes and snout.

The girls all laugh and cover their noses. I assume it’s the end of the hike, time for tomato baths, and maybe my signal to go home. But Tyler hardly misses a beat. 

“Let’s just hike upwind from it,” he suggests. 

Nature and the wind lead the way.

The first question anyone would instinctively ask upon arrival to a property like this, solely based on the unlikeliness of it all, is: How? How do you find this in California? How does one live here, tucked between the Central Coast and inland valleys, and do it in such an organic way? How is it possible, without being William Randolph Hearst?

The answer has a lot to do with a stroke of luck and a determination to maintain, which was led by Tyler’s father, John, a fascinating, industrious, mathematical man of invention and precision. 

“My parents always called this a land co-op,” Tyler explains, “which always sounded weird. Apparently properties like this were quite common back in the day, but not many still exist with people who still get along.”  

He’s referring to how his dad purchased the property along with friends and partners, including one Laurel Miller, who is Tyler’s mom, in the late 60s. This allowed the 120 acres to be divided up between three neighbors in a rare opportunity to secure a piece of rich Central California property without it being devastatingly expensive or burdened with unrealistic property taxes.

“My dad has done a lot of things to make this place possible,” Tyler tells me. “He and my mom were toymakers when they moved here, and they built up this particular house we’re living in now from one room into what it is today over the course of 12 years. Unfortunately, at the end of the 12 years, they decided to get a divorce.”

The house itself is a jigsaw of architecture and creativity, custom built at every opportunity. One-of-a-kind fixtures, like handmade steel door knobs, and custom wooden features are everywhere. Windows are all uniquely placed and shaped. It’s cozy and full of creativity, with frequent reminders that it’s a house full of children. Ruby, Tyler’s youngest, is quick to show me her favorite parts of the house.

John still lives on the property in his own house, which includes a homemade yurt where Tyler and Jody once lived together. John is teaching and mentoring Tyler on what has become a lucrative and rewarding artistic endeavor in the field of kinetic sculpture. They build uncommon steel outdoor installations that get their range of motion from their natural reaction to the invisible effect wind and gravity have on them—moving the sculptures in an infinite number of serene and mesmerizing movements. Tyler works at it daily in the two workshops. 

“I think he realizes that I really enjoy making them now,” Tyler says. “I would love for that to be my next step in my life. It’s pretty interesting. My dad has also realized that I can be his little grind monkey, too.” 

The next morning, we head out to check the waves. The journey features a classic fork in the road at the end of the oak canopy: head to Cayucos or head to Cambria, all dependent on the conditions, season, and weather. Today, under bluebird skies, we go right. 

The drive to the coast along a sneaky, little-trafficked road is breathtaking. The mountains and rolling hills hit the ocean’s edge in a collision, leaving only slow-paced restaurants and retirees in its wake. The local surf scene, however, is well policed. Tyler is an anomaly with stickers on his boards and a global profile, but he maintains a respectful status, waving at several vans and regulars we pass. The typical surfer here is older than surrounding surf zones. It’s cold. It’s a bit remote. As we check the waves, Tyler points out various locals.

“That’s Torsten, a lifelong bartender, probably one of the best bartenders in the world. He surfs more than anyone and sent all his kids to college on his own, a real legend.”

We paddle out with modest expectations, but are pleasantly surprised by how much fun we have, trading glassy peaks on a sunny Tuesday morning with little to no crowd in the water. Tyler manifests lefts, and when he stands up he has the preternatural ability to rhythmically link-link-link the quick wedgy sections together until spotting his target on the final pitch, the grand finale. That’s where the crack of liquid coping meets surfboard, signifying a well-timed aerial, followed by the subtle psshhhhh of a smooth landing. That’s Tyler’s surfing. The spot may require a little bit of local knowledge, but as crowded as the world seems, it’s comforting to know places like this still exist. 

Back at the house, Tyler’s dad is filming a new sculpture with his iPhone that was recently planted in the flower bed. The two begin discussing physics, bearings, and movement. It’s another language entirely. They shuffle about the yard watching the sculpture react to the slightest breaths of wind, perpetually creating new movements. They run to the shop together, measuring pieces, making marks and notes, then run back out to the yard. I wander the walls, noting the inventory of tools, measuring sticks, wood dust, and general clutter associated with a working shop. Biggie lazily stretches out before me. I’m careful not to pet her; it hasn’t been long enough since her skunk incident. Nature hasn’t had time to take its course and fully knock the smell from her coat.

Out at the sculpture, father and son debate a movement they want to get out of a new piece they’re tinkering with. They look on and take notes as wind, nature, and gravity do their work, affecting the piece based on the careful calculations they’ve done to locate the elusive “center of gravity” that makes these works of art so fascinating, so infinite. The wind is light. The sun is shining through the trees. No one says a word. Tyler and his father stand and watch their creation react to the world around it.