West As All Hell

Dave Parmenter resurveys the “frontiers” of California. Excerpted from the new issue of TSJ.

Light / Dark

It was only after living in the Hawaiian Islands for nearly two decades that I came to see my home state of California as being part of the West. Even being a third-generation, native Californian, swaddled at the foot of the Sierra Madre mountains and baptized on its seacoast, it took the vantage point offered from a tiny island anchored in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to see beyond the potted palms of Hollywood backlots and realize that my home was not at all a sneering, Easterner’s dude ranch for Lotus Eaters.

It was the West, the real West, more fantastic and improbable than any Hollywood myth. And it was true West not merely because it was the edge of the most violent and otherworldly continent on the planet, but because of California’s boundless space. And also because it was peopled by a frontier stock, who upon reaching their golden Eden gloated, “The cowards never started, and the weaklings died by the way.”


“Make no mistake, stranger: San Francisco is West as all hell.” —Bernard DeVoto


A tropical island paradise tends to be claustrophobic, no matter how many coco palms and white-fringed reefs there are. And after a number of years I pined for the openness and vivid, cloudless light of California. This craving was less for my boyhood surf haunts and more for the state’s empty places. I missed, certainly, the foggy, sea-battered fastness of Big Sur, but more and more my thoughts drifted inland to the deserts, mountains, and endless rural highways. The PTSD of my former California life subsided—all the trauma of the reeking, honking 405 and townhouse sprawl. Even Dora’s grim utterances had lost their terror: “To be splattered across a California freeway is not my idea of a rewarding end,” he once said. “I’ll never rot in one of those jam-packed, clammy cemeteries.”

Valley fever seemed, from across the 2,000 miles of Pacific Ocean, more authentically Western than smog lung. Must there not be, I reasoned, more bleached horse skulls in the Mojave than hubcaps stranded on the median of the Harbor Freeway? Visions of oil-well rocker-pumps and enormous almond groves, along with the drought-bleached Mojave, banished from my mind the garish specter of the Starbucks/PacSun vulgarity along the gentrified littoral. By being away, in exile, I had seen my home for the first time.


“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood…back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame…back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” —Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again


In the Golden State you can go home again, but you’ll get mired in traffic like those prehistoric sloths stuck in the La Brea Tarpits. And when the gridlock finally breaks, look in the rearview mirror and there will be a black Mercedes on your ass, as frantic and rushed in sleepy San Luis Obispo as on Jamboree Boulevard in Irvine. The Orange County disease: they don’t want to just drive fast; they want to drive faster than you.

I worked in a surf shop across the street from a vacant lot. The land itself was only a generation or two removed from its Western past: serving as an arena in which bulls and bears were forced into mortal combat. Today, soaring over this grave of the wild and barbaric West, there is a Pottery Barn.

At Makaha, where I lived on Oahu’s west shore, the locals say, “Here, no one moves out—they just move over.” In my own home, where I went to school and hiked and surfed the once empty places, would people move over and make room? Turns out it works like the Fury Road freeways in California—you have to force the merge. You can go home again, but there’s change. Man, is there change. San Luis Obispo, my hometown, is no longer a poky cowtown that gets an annual jolt of youth and energy from its college, Cal Poly. Oprah herself anointed the town as the Happiest Place In America. T-shirts have been printed. The Boomers and wine tasters and nervous, empty-nest dog-walkers have discovered it.

On the north coast the ramshackle little beach town of Cayucos where I spent most of my teen years is as unrecognizable to me as Lorne is for Wayne Lynch. In 1975, when my family rented a small cracker-box house a block from the ocean in Cayucos, the owner from the Central Valley offered to sell it for $50,000. Today the average home price there is $1.1 million.


“What’s the use kickin? I got non coming. When I came west I got the cream let the come latleys have the skim milk.” —Western painter Charles Russell in a letter to a friend 1926


In California nothing transforms the landscape and robs us of our memories like gentrification and overdevelopment. Earthquakes, floods, wildfires, drought—in California these are just as likely to be metaphoric as metamorphic forces. Few things, for me, better show how gentrification can so compactly stratify the fossil layers of history in California than the empty dirt lot that existed on Monterey Street in San Luis Obispo in the 1970s.

I worked in a surf shop across the street from that vacant lot. And since most of our customers parked there, it provided we sales clerks a welcome preview of imminent patrons (were they cool, or grumpy Trogs?). On that lot, the ancient Obispo Theater had burned down a few years earlier. But the land itself was only a generation or two removed from its Western past: serving as an arena in which bulls and bears were forced into mortal combat. Today, in Oprah’s Happiest Place in America, soaring over this grave of the wild and barbaric West, there is a Pottery Barn and Abercrombie & Fitch, built in that It’s-A-Small-Small-World architecture that appears to have been airlifted in sections from South Coast Plaza.


“I have never resisted change, even when it has been called progress, and yet I felt resentment towards the strangers swamping what I thought of as my country with noise and clutter and inevitable rings of junk. And of course these new people will resent the newer people.” —John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley


Despite the traffic, despite the sprawl, despite the militant-NIMBY-dog-walking Boomers, surfing in California seems better off than it was two decades ago. In fact, it could be argued that the culture, the sport, the industry even, is in a happier place than anytime since the late 1960s. There is something of the frontier spirit of the Old West in how California surf folkways have veered from the abyss of irrelevance into a vibrant and viable sub-culture, one not of dime-novel anarchy but rather of the much-less mythologized cooperation that really tamed the West.

Today, there appears to exist in the Golden State a climate of Gallic laissez faire in acceptance of every type of surf craft, from handboards to enormous paddle-gliders. Once, not long ago, one was condemned to vilified-stereotypes based on one’s preferred surfboard design (in much the same way an Englishman was once consigned to a social class according to his accent or dropped ’aitches). The scourge of localism—inflicted like Original Sin by surfing’s dark prophet, Miki Dora, into the soulscape of California surfers—that once wrought a Dark Age upon the state’s surfing progression has been contained and fought back to a handful of recalcitrant abscesses. Fresher, younger, more mild-mannered generations are on the ascendant: the possessive, old, grumpy buttheads have died off or withdrawn to slash tires at the golf courses or nursing homes.

And if surfing on the coast tends to the neurotic, the narcissistic, the quixotic—certainly the ultimate selfie sport—at least it has evolved to resemble the civilization-building West of John Ford rather than the misanthropic violence of Sam Peckinpah. Now, if the prairie schooners are circled against attack, California surfers are no longer leveling our carbines Us against Us. It is Us against Them now—Them being the implacable and rapacious forces arrayed against the surfers’ desire to return to a simpler, purer, hand-built co-existence with the thousand-or-so miles of shoreline unmatched in variety and grandeur anywhere in the world…