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On the road in "Sharemerica": San Diego

Editor’s note: Local photographer Bryan McCormick recently left Las Vegas on an open-ended journey into the nation’s “sharing culture,” which he plans to document in words, pictures and a variety of other media, along with the places he visits. These are the ongoing chronicles of his adventures. In this installment, Bryan makes his way from the Salton Sea to San Diego, where a vague notion to do a story about winter surfers begins to take shape.

Leaving Salton City was not without complications. Favy and Mikayla had trekked out from Vegas for a quick visit en route to Los Angeles and were going to drop me in Niland to pick up a bus for El Centro. From there, it would be the gray Soviet-Era bus to San Diego. That was the plan.

Slight problem. 

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Turns out the Imperial Valley Transit system shuts down from Niland on Sunday, because who would want to go anywhere on a weekend if you live in beautiful downtown Niland? Dammit, I was humped!

My new Airbnb in San Diego was already costing me a fair penny a day, and I needed to hit the ground running when I got there for the day job the next morning. Oh! I can try William! From several trips ago, William was the ride-share driver who had gotten me from Indio to Salton. Sure enough, he texted back within 10 minutes and said that he’d be happy to drop everything and drive me to San Diego. “Meet me at the International Banana Museum!” Ride secured! That may well be one of the longer ride-share rides in history, near about 165 miles. The price? Considering the circumstances, incredibly reasonable. Buttery-soft leather seats beat back-breaker-bus any day.

In San Diego, I really needed to take in the surroundings. And I had glimpsed on the way in this big body of water called an ocean. (I hadn’t been out of the desert in three years.) And now I was about 1,500 feet away from it. The 7-Eleven was right around the corner, and promised cheap and filling burritos in a hurry. This felt good!

I walked down to the waters’ edge to a magic-sounding place called Windansea. And it was magical. I’d forgotten how good it feels just being by the water. I watched the sun go down, took a few hasty pictures. It was surprisingly cold, but I stood there for an hour without realizing the temperature or time. I wasn’t the only one, either, as there was a man perched on the rocks watching the water and sun. too. But what was this shack with the wreath on it all about ? Tomorrow; it would all wait until tomorrow.

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The next day I wandered back down to Windansea beach. But there was virtually no one in the water. Conditions that day were mediocre, I would later learn, and I headed back up to La Jolla Boulevard. I had picked this neighborhood because it offered a lot in terms of food and things-walkable. After 10 days at Salton, both seemed really good ideas!

The weather was idyllic. After roaming, I stopped at what seemed like a pretty reasonable restaurant/bar. It was gimmicky on the outside, surfy and tiki and hokey. But that was okay by me. It was not next to a Maserati dealership, which meant I might be able to afford it. The Shack, as I would learn, was one of the last affordable places around in La Jolla. The staff was cool, the denizens friendly, and the food not bad at all. It quickly became a favorite.

Julie, the suds slinger par excellence at The Shack

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The locals stylishly shooting a few racks at The Shack

 

And there was an amazing little shop, La Clochette du Coin, right at the end of my street. The caramel macchiato tasted like spun honey and angel tears.

Now, I needed information. I had landed on the ground with little information or contacts for doing this story idea I had about winter surfers. And, by the way, I knew not much about surfing. I can’t even really swim.

Tasia made the experience at La Clochette du Coin even sweeter. She's recently moved on to Australia.

 

Bars, it turns out, are good spots for getting a quick feel on what’s going on around town. Unlike other places, you can wander in and strike up a conversation with pretty much anyone. After chatting up the bar staff and a few of the locals at The Shack, it seemed I was in the right spot to meet some folks for my story. And that was when I began to realize how important Windansea beach was to surfing history. Not only was it a favored local break, it was a legend both famous and, in the long-ago past, infamous. The Windansea shack itself had in its first incarnation been put up in 1946 and was later made broadly known due to Tom Wolfe’s mention of it in “The Pumphouse Gang." The site had been declared an historical landmark back in 1998*. “Just hang out in the parking lot early in the morning, before 10am. That’s usually when people will show up. They might talk to you.” That was the advice from Mitch’s Surf Shop. But I needed a lot more than that.

One suggestion from the folks at The Shack turned out to be key, and changed everything. That was being referred to a showroom a mere 100 feet away, which belonged to board-shaper, artist and surfer Tim Bessell. The boards inside looked like shiny, candy artworks. This was no ordinary board shop. Cool! (Much more about Tim later.)

One of Tim Bessell's works on the outside shop wall promised a very different experience of the surfing world inside.

 

The place I was staying was ideal for my needs, a humble cottage that was about 1,500 feet from the water. But one thing you learn about California in the winters is that in general, insulation and heating aren’t always big priorities here. And it was unusually cold overnight in those weeks around Christmas 2015. There was a wood-burning stove, but I had no wood. I contacted my Airbnb host.

The next day a car pulled into the drive and a fellow got out lugging logs. That man was Mike DeRyckere, and he was my salvation. It turned out Mike had grown up surfing in San Diego and knew a lot of people and a lot about the local breaks. He told me if I was interested, he had a list of folk as long as my arm to go meet. But that one place we needed to start, today, was talking to Harry Jr. at Harry’s Coffee Shop.

This would never have happened if I had just been in a random hotel.

Mike DeRyckere doing a layback on the mural wall at Duke's

 

Harry’s Coffee Shop is a legend in La Jolla. It has been a family-run business since 1960, when Harry’s parents started it. The place was busy when we got there, and in my later visits it was always full. John, Harry’s brother, said that there are probably three T-shirts you’ll see on nearly every tourist in La Jolla: Harry’s Coffee Shop, Mitch’s Surf Shop and El Pescador Fish Market.

But why was this diner important for surfing? Because the legends of surfing have been coming here practically since the place opened, and still do today. Many of the locals eat and hang out here either before or after surfing. It is the center of local news and feels like it’s never changed, coming down to us from the 1960s largely intact. There is a photo gallery at the back, filled with pictures from the early days of Southern California’s surf culture.

This loose notion of a winter surfing story was becoming a real thing. The small story on local surfers braving the waters in winter was going to get big, and I was out of my depth. Fortunately, the people I met were patient and generous with their time, even after telling the same tales they’d told so many times to so many others.

Harry himself surfs recreationally and is a pro golfer to boot. Each local break, Harry told me, can be “tuned” by pairing up a specific fin or fins and board shape. I had no idea of course, thinking it’s a plank with a fin on it that you get on and fall off of a lot. As is so often the case, what looks simple on the surface is very deep beneath.

Harry Rudolph III with one of his favorite photos, showing surfing legends Butch Van Artsdalen and Skip Frye with long boards in the 1960s.

 

Harry explained that you have to commit to your wave or you’re probably not going to do well. You have to learn to read weather and conditions. Patience, he said, was key. Being out on the water for a couple of hours might only result in five or six rides that are very often less than a couple of minutes each. You want to choose well. But as he emphasized, the waiting is part of the lifestyle — being out in nature and in the company of your friends. Surfers see everything around them and are taking all that in. That’s a big reason to be out there in the first place. When all of the conditions line up right, if they do, that’s when you ride.

I could have spent all day with Harry, but he had already been super generous with his time. I headed back down to Windansea again, looking for a surfer or two. Surely people had to be out? Maybe it was the holidays coming up? Did I just have lousy timing? But the sun was headed down.

And then there he was. The very first surfer I saw close up, popping up right at the edge of the rocks, seemingly out of nowhere. How did he even get down there? Remember that feeling you got when you were a kid seeing something for the very first time? Whatever this new world was all about, it had me tight. Any thought about this winter surfing story being a minor side trip got tossed right then and there. More to come, as much as I can learn and dish.

Lone surfer at Windansea as the sun sets

 

*Note: On the morning of December 24th 2015 the Windansea shack was flattened by a surge during high tide. The community will at some point come together to rebuild it as they have each time a storm hit it.