When I was 11 years old, my mom moved into a house that was a 10-minute walk away from the famed Santa Cruz surf spot Steamer’s Lane, and I quickly swapped my hours on a half-pipe for time in the water. My mom was the first to support this transition, often recounting that "liquid just seemed safer than concrete." Throughout my teens, I would run across Lighthouse Field after school, jump off the cliff at the Lane, and surf until dark. During autumn, the eucalyptus trees in the field would glow orange with monarch butterflies as they slowly opened and closed their wings like clasping hands on Sunday prayer. The red brick lighthouse on the cliff's edge is iconic, and stands at attention like the Queen's Guard. Seal Rock is just outside of the breaking waves and is a cuddle puddle of fubsy creatures that grunt and roar like agitated members of a city council meeting. At night, their echoes, which make the sound, "Ar, ar, ar!" would reverberate across the field, down the street, and into my bedroom
After four months away from the ocean, I’m back on the cliffs where I spent most of my teens, and new details stand out. I had never articulated, for instance, that the various parking lots at the Lane are segregated. One is primarily occupied by people who live out of their cars. As a teenager these malodorous ghouls terrified me, but now that I live in a house on wheels myself, I greet them as brethren who simply started a road trip in 1987 and never stopped driving. The other lot is unmistakably for locals: Tacomas, tallboys, and tailgate parties. You get the idea. Since the pandemic, the city has blocked off half of this parking lot with yellow tape in a quixotic attempt to curb tourism. One salty old dog has since appointed himself as a vigilante parking attendant, removing the yellow tape to allow locals to access the extra parking spaces, then retying the makeshift fence across half of the lot, and standing guard at his post. His T-shirt reads, "My Rights Don't End Where Your Feelings Begin." He sizes me up, gives me the nod, and allows my RV, Starflyte through. Thank god.
The shape of the wave itself is an unruly little devil. Backwash jumps out of nowhere and ejects a surfer from their board in spectacular fashion. "Surprise puto!" I like to imagine that the backwash is a sassy Puerto Rican woman named Yara, which means “water lady,” so if someone asks why I fell on a wave, I can always respond, "Yara got me."
Surfing a wave with backwash is a metaphor for life, and has taught me a valuable skill that I now use in both business and relationships. Excuses.
Learning to laugh at my surfing has allowed a kind of buoyancy that likely saved my relationship with the sport. Through my teens, I was unaware of the magical powers of humor and my primary feeling while in the water was anxiety, followed by self-criticism and sobbing. I obsessed over sponsors and the idea of one day “going pro.” My style was spastic. If I did poorly in a competition I would throw a tantrum. I wish I could take my younger self by the shoulder and tell him to relax, focus on the craft, and everything will unfold exactly as it should. My childhood friend, Nat Young, took this focused approach, and by the time he was 22, his success had paid for two houses in Santa Cruz. Although I have overcome this compulsive self-reference thanks to meditation, psychedelics, and downright exhaustion, I still feel vestiges of these deadly thoughts when I stand on the cliff at the Lane.
Steamer’s Lane is known for localism. If you read this and have been victim to this rough and tough vibe, I am sorry—drink some chamomile tea and take a deep breath. Now, let me attempt to deliver a more nuanced perspective to an often misunderstood issue.
We all respect hierarchy in some environments, but not in others. A dojo’s belt system offers little room for confusion about meritocracy. Other places are murkier. If you walk onto a public basketball court in Harlem, and a few guys show up who are locals, do you have the same right to the court as they do? Before the pandemic brought my comedy career to a screeching halt, I spent a few nights a week performing at open mics, but my spot would often get bumped by comedians who had paid their dues. Open mics are technically "open," but there was a subculture of meritocracy. When I did get stage time, I would often get the light early, prompting me to leave the stage within the next minute. It turned out that the MC wasn't picking on me. I just wasn't that funny. When it comes to surfing, localism is correlated with three factors—how critical the wave is to surf, how many people a lineup can hold, and, finally, culture. The Lane has a high carrying capacity, but can also be dangerous. Waves often break feet from the side of a craggy cliff face, which has sent dozens of competent surfers to the hospital. More often than not, if a scary local gives someone a stern talking to, there was likely a reason for it. Of course, surfers aren't known for their communication skills, and conflicts can often end in splashing each other, but rarely go beyond that.
Call me childish, but I find two grown men in a splashing match to be the highest form of comedy.
Santa Cruz. By the time I graduated from high school, a few friends had already inked the words across their skin to stake ownership to the coastal paradise. But, like the cattle of Wyoming, the real function of branding is to ensure that the creature never ventures too far off the premises. Growing up, I had a vindictive attitude toward these people because I was afraid that it would happen to me. After leaving and returning, though, I can see the beauty in this gritty culture, and what I fear now is gentrification. I've been to Huntington Beach. All they have are lamp posts that play elevator music, plastic surgery centers, and a fucking Jamba Juice.
As I sit on my surfboard for the first time in four months, it hits me that one day will be my last session at the Lane, and I have no idea when that day will come. The magic that we take for granted can vanish in an instant. If it returns to us, we owe it a deep bow, lest we once again fall to the clutches of entitlement. As I catch my next wave, I make sure to enjoy it. And as I paddle back out, my hands rhythmically moving through the icy water, I choose to perceive it not as grueling drudgery, but as an ode to the ocean that shaped me.
A holy privilege to stroke the back of immensity itself.
By Kyle Thiermann
Photo By: Jeff Nissen