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South of the Speedway

At home with Trey Edwards.

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Trey Edwards isn’t returning my messages. It’s been weeks of persistent, at times incessant, phone calls. With time closing in and doubt hanging over me, I call a mutual friend for help. They simply send me his address and tell me, “Godspeed.” It’s a story that anyone who knows Edwards knows all too well. To say he’s elusive is an understatement. But according to everyone I’ve spoken with, nobody makes surfboards like his, and I felt compelled to see for myself. 

By the time I pull into town in August, the blue light of fall has already arrived. I push east along State Road 421 towards Edwards’ house, nestled in the few acres between the Atlantic and the Halifax River known as Wilbur-By-The-Sea, Florida—an unincorporated nexus of roads flanked by Ponce Inlet to the south and Daytona Beach to the north.

Here in Volusia County, a span of land and time pressed against the Atlantic in north-central Florida, one finds everything American and everything Floridian. The state’s three colonial powers laid claim to land here. Settlements predating written record undergird the place. Battlefields and “times not forgotten” are everywhere. But to most, this is home to the cultural departure points of Spring Break, Bike Week, and NASCAR—which is to say, Daytona Beach. It’s also where an unlikely medley of bathymetry and engineering has created Florida’s most consistent wave, New Smyrna Inlet. For Edwards, this is simply home.

When I walk up to his place, Edwards pries open the fence with a grin that could charm a rattlesnake. He warns me about the dark little furball, Peppi, because the dog is allegedly evil. Inside the mid-century block home perched on a dune, the curious visitor might get lost. Patio chairs sit next to modern heirlooms. Storied surf artifacts hang next to kitsch. But everywhere, there’s a strange concoction of surfy ephemera, art, and literature. There’s a reverence evident in the stacks of books, VHS tapes, and photographs, but it’s doused with equal parts irreverence. You could laugh looking at something, turn your head, and fall down a philosophical rabbit hole somewhere between Jeff Spicoli and Baruch Spinoza. 

On the ceiling, in corners, and outside, Edwards’ surfboards hold court. And not in the sense that most do. They are hewn, gorgeous shapes. But the terrazzo inlays that mirror the floor and the Rauschenberg-like compositions of photographs sealed beneath the hotcoat keep you from identifying them as surfboards immediately. Once the double-take passes, the aesthetic bears that same confluence of camp and charm, of probity and “what the fuck is going on” that leaves many befuddled with the prospect of describing Edwards’ boards, let alone Edwards as a person.

Under the auspice of Peninsula Holding Company, Edwards has been making surfboards for the past decade in a way that is perpendicular to most board makers. He’s closer to a studio artist than a shaper, in part because he’s also a photographer, filmmaker, and homespun folklorist. He’s known as an uncompromising aesthete, equal parts enigmatic and magnetic. When pressed to describe him, friends spit out words like “beautiful” or “complex.” For most, he’s earned a reputation as difficult to reach, challenging to understand, and maybe has come to serve as an apt reflection of just how mysterious this little blip of land in Florida truly is. The word that always comes up is “elusive.”

“I’ve never met anyone like him,” says Dustin Miller, a major force behind Dane Reynolds’ Marine Layer Productions and director of Craig Anderson’s film Slow Dance. “He’s absolutely brilliant. I truly believe he’s one of the more talented people I’ve ever worked with in my life.”

*

In 1984, home beckoned to Edwards’ mother. So she and her husband headed north from Fort Lauderdale to Daytona. That same year, they opened a canvas shop along Beach Street and closed on a house just off the river in Ponce Inlet, hemmed in by palmetto and ancient oaks. When Edwards was born the following year in 1985, they set to making their house a home.

Edwards leads me through all of this as we peer through the gauzy columns of white light spilling through a stand of live oaks near where he grew up. We’re at the edge of a boatyard, staring at the 30-foot Olsen sailboat he learned to sail on. Back then the town of Ponce was just a little backwoods haunt composed of fishermen, a far cry from the canyons of stucco condos that march down the beach now.

“That whole area was just wild,” Edwards remembers as we slip beneath a canopy of trees on to the last stretch of shell road in the area, past oyster mounds and cemeteries belonging to settlers.

It was here, between the roar of Daytona and quiet of pseudo-suburban Ponce, that Edwards found his points of interest. It was in his parents’ canvas and rigging shop that he built up his reverence for making things. It was in his grandmother’s art that he garnered an appreciation for craft. But it was in looking back over the course of generations—dating back to his great-great-grandfather, who invented one of the earliest dive hoods—that he started to carve out any semblance of exactly what it meant to make something. A deep well of curiosity formed around him.

It started in the water. Although neither of his parents surfed much, the peninsula was home to an innumerable amount of folks quietly making their way down to the inlet each morning and evening. And so by osmosis, Edwards joined the procession. He cultivated a group of friends around the pursuit of riding waves, around the hope of revealing the rhythms of this little stretch of coast. Edwards dabbled in boogie boarding, even competing for a time in high school. As he tells me, “That’s on the record, off the record. No one has those records.” 

Edwards also built up a catalog of lore around local legends, paying careful attention to every kernel he heard. Inevitably, he charted out an understanding of this little corner of the world that resembled a constellation. He was both an outsider and a member of the parochial boys’ club that Ponce laid claim to—part and parcel of the past, but integral to what lay ahead.

All around us, past and present touch as we sit overlooking the ribbon of pavement that spills into the Atlantic beside Daytona’s Main Street Pier. Mid-century motel courts and art-deco buildings teeter somewhere between reconstruction and demolition. T-shirt shops, tattoo parlors, and roller coasters stake the perimeter of a place where cars slowly drive along the beach and families drenched in sunscreen run towards the ocean. The strange charm of this town, often relegated to low-lying jokes, only became clear to Edwards after six years away from it.

In 2003, Edwards headed north for New York University, where he studied photography at Tisch School of the Arts. Soon he was assisting Gregory Crewdson, a photographer who was part critical darling and part market star, as well as the figurehead of Yale’s photo program. “That was the realm I thought I wanted to be in,” Edwards says. He was making poignant work himself, primarily with large-format cameras, chipping away at the serpentine path of becoming an artist. In turn, he was also making a life for himself there. But somewhere among the periodic returns home and the persistent kicks in the teeth of New York, he started looking elsewhere.

Slowly, the increasingly noxious atmosphere of the art world caught up to Edwards. “I became classically disillusioned with that,” he says, as if the taste was still in his mouth. There was little surf and lots of work. In 2009, after six years in New York, he decided to give his notice to Crewdson and buy a ticket home.

Maybe in some adaptive unconscious way, more than a decade of Edwards’ life had been devoted to finding some place or thing or group of people that could nourish his own curiosity. He was still searching for that same well he’d tapped long ago. The art world, as it was and as it remains, didn’t incline him towards those bigger questions he was after. And the rewards, as he understood them, were thin. Back home, maybe flippantly, he thought, I want to make surfboards. But he also thought, maybe more sincerely, I want to figure surfboards out and indulge that desire.

At that point in time, materials for boards were rapidly developing after Clark Foam’s dissolution and boutique surf shops were creeping into the industry. So Edwards started messing around with anything and everything. “That was when the keel-fin fish was cool for the first time,” he jokes.

To Edwards, the omnipresent aesthetic and application of design was some mix of maudlin nostalgia and pining for the good old days. In that first year, in a warehouse shared among four friends known colloquially as the “goons,” he headed in a decidedly different direction than the norm. He wasn’t looking so much at the broader trends hanging over surfing, but back to the very set of acres he was from—a place where everyone wore black boardshorts, surfed clear boards, and never talked to outsiders—let alone allowed a photograph to make it off the peninsula. “It always had this mystique,” Edwards says of Ponce.

What was strange, though, was that he didn’t stick to that program as prescribed by the wealth of board builders in Volusia County. He paid no deference to local customs. He made no clear boards. The outset of Peninsula Holding Company was something like the outset of proto-conceptual art. Design was privileged over the sacredness of the planer, and aesthetics paid less attention to provincial traditions and rather to Edwards’ own taste. And that was because he saw a lot of those traditions as stuck, dated, or uninteresting. Edwards drafted up gliders, mid-lengths, winged quads, and mini Simmons. In other words, he turned to things just not found in the surf here.

Edwards started marbling fabric and screen printing on rice paper, intricately weaving photographs into compositions beneath a hot coat. His shaping was less concerned with upholding age-old adages as it was with moving towards something inventive and unlikely, something that mirrored the place he was from as he understood it. At times, it can be hard to distinguish whether the boards are high art or functional tools. Maybe it’s difficult because many of us are so accustomed to the status quo that it becomes challenging to think that those two things can exist concurrently. That seems to be the space Edwards is most comfortable in—the place where his shapes began, the place he is trying to draw attention to.

*

At the time I pass through town, Edwards hasn’t finished a board in almost a year. The missed calls have become insurmountable. He isn’t sure when he will finish the next one, but he knows it will happen soon. Or so he promises.

Three years ago, death came prowling. Edwards’ dad fell ill with what they thought was food poisoning. When it hung around for a few days, he went to see a doctor. The doctor ordered a scan. The scan showed a mass. After a biopsy, the mass was deemed small cell lung cancer.

The first round of chemo passed, followed by partial brain radiation. The cancer spread. Then they moved to full brain radiation and a second round of chemo. But things continued to fall apart and they started looking for alternatives, feeling hopeless with the treatment available locally. 

The Edwards family found out about an experimental trial in Tampa, and they made their way west for the immunotherapy trial. The awful mysteries of what could and would happen squelched whatever hope remained. Soon, Gerald Edwards couldn’t walk. The cancer crept into his spinal fluid. And then, inexorably, it enveloped his brain. Together, the family decided to do a week of physical therapy before returning home to face the inevitable. The thought of what life would be like without him hung over them in those days.

At 10:30 one night, Edwards’ mother woke him. His father’s breathing had slowed. “She felt like it was happening,” Edwards remembers. 

“His breathing just slowed and slowed and slowed,” he says. “You could feel his body was getting colder. He just stopped breathing and was gone. That was it.”

A pall of silence comes over us as I search for the right words. I, too, know that sting. It has haunted me for years, since my own father’s breathing stopped. 

“It’s the worst,” Edwards says. “But it’s also the most honest thing you could be a part of. All I know is that I just feel lucky. I don’t know how it could have been any better. I guess he could have lived another 20 years, and I could have had a kid, and we would have done that shit. But I don’t know how it could have been any better for a couple of hippies.” 

That sense of two periods of time touching, where one spills into the other, seems so clear in this moment as Edwards looks back and forward, down and up. He thought about that moment when he was faced with taking over their canvas business before college, the leaving and the returning, how he is following a path uncannily similar to theirs now. “As a result,” he says, “I moved to New York, went through that whole cycle, and came back here. I didn’t fall into it, but something in myself led me back to exactly the same thing.”

*

Drawing concentric circles between Ponce and Daytona, Edwards and I drive from place to place: his childhood home, the house where his parents later moved, friends’ homes, his parents’ former shop (now a bookstore), the boatyard where his father worked, among others. At each place, we take one step back in time, talking about previous generations and eras and times that Edwards is inextricably tied to. Daytona, which has come to occupy a certain space in the American imagination, is in some ways chasing its own ghost, the promise of the past now sealed under pavement. 

It’s why he loves it: the coastal haunts alongside the history of car racing, retirees and immigrants, good old boys and pseudo-federalist architecture. “It’s a distillation of everything Americana,” Edwards says. “It’s the ultimate cross section.” 

It’s a town that has just enough cultural cache to register when mentioned, whether that connotation is wet t-shirt contests or Jeff Gordon, Florida Man or Aaron “Gorkin” Cormican. “There’s just enough scent left,” Edwards explains.

As we creep up one vein of asphalt downtown, he pulls over and points to a dive bar along the road, a fleet of motorcycles parked outside with stoic men in leather staring watchfully. “That’s it,” he says, staring back towards them. “That’s what I like.” 

On the other side of us, sabal palms and red cedars crawl across a historic cemetery where three generations of his family are buried. “You have this beautiful historic cemetery that gets filled with homeless and drunk bike guys,” he says. “And then my mom comes and cleans the palm fronds out. There’s something about the tension that keeps me going here.”

And it’s that tension, or rather that set of contradictions, that’s bound up in his bones. It seems evident in the boards he makes and in the town he returned to. In many ways, that frequency is the thing you can’t quite put your finger on when you see his boards, his house, or his hometown. Over the course of the day it becomes increasingly clear that the past belongs in the present for Edwards, especially when we pass the part of the cemetery where his family’s graves are. 

On our way back south from Daytona to Ponce, drawing a line down U.S. Route 1 towards home, Edwards wends through another serpentine story, and as we climb up the bridge from Port Orange to Daytona Beach Shores, I ask, “Why do you like living here?”

After a brief pause, he asks, “Who said I like living here?” 

I think for a moment, staring off into the span of the Halifax River, the Atlantic looking mean with a tropical storm further east. I realize then that every answer only generates another question, questions I don’t intend to ask. Rather than press him, I decide to let the mystery be, but before I can, he tells me how much he loves this peninsula. “It feels in-between,” Edwards says, “but it also feels like home.”