If I can be honest with you, I don't really remember anything beforehand. It's like my life was a dream; one of which rapidly fades from memory as soon as my eyes open. The idea of not knowing frustrates me. What happened? Why did I "awake" here? Is there meaning?
Sitting on a patch of grass on a cliff overlooking a beautiful righthand reefbreak. My wetsuit still on, water droplets trickling from the rails of my surfboard; I was talking with friends while watching a small crew down below. The surf was a good 10 feet and solid! Chatter was how it was the best any of us had ever seen!
The elderly man and his venerable pooch dropped me off at a gas station in the historic downtown section, and with an arm out the window and fingers dropped to the base of his hand, except for his thumb and pinky, the "hang loose" was his good-bye. Nothing more needed to be said. Watching him drive away, I swore I heard hoots and hollers off in the distance. I crossed Main Street and made my way down a narrow alley that led to the edge of another blufftop. Below, more peaks. Smaller. Slightly sheltered. Filled with grommets. The scene I gazed out upon reminded me of a skatepark. I sighed, turned around and strolled back toward where I came from.
The diner was vintage. Elvis played from the ragged speakers of an ancient jukebox. 45s, baby. You can never replace that kind of sound. Ever. I ordered one of their blue plate specials, followed by a slice of hot apple pie with a hint of whipped cream on top. A few cups of coffee to wash everything down, I dug through my pockets for cash to pay the bill. The cute waitress; tall and slim with dark hair and piercing blue eyes giggled when she came back around. "Dinner's on the house hun. Your money's no good here." The sun was now setting.
A few weeks had passed in what seemed like the blink of an eye. I had finally reached my destination; a coastal ranch owned by a friend of my family. I remember as a teenager, for the longest time, I was trying to court the old man's daughter. Things change though. I went off to the Marines and wound up in Afghanistan. We lost touch. At the ranch, one of the hands told me that she was married with a couple of kids and lived with her husband in the big city.
It was a funeral that brought everyone together again.
One morning she and I drove up to the northern edge of their property and onto an old logging road that probably hadn't been used with regularity since the timber boom of the 1950s. She told me that she missed me. When I stopped writing to her after my second tour in that god-forsaken place, she assumed the war had maybe taken it's toll on my soul. For her, it was time to move on. She apologized. She said she loved me but just had a feeling she needed to let me go. In time she met a man who was good to her, they got married and now she was a mother. There would always be a place in our hearts for each other, but I knew what this drive meant.
The road drifted through golden, rolling hills of the high country before dropping down into a canyon filled with old growth redwoods. An owl flew by and I was reminded of another adventure, some years before...
The ride was a bumpy affair. That's all I knew. I was still daydreaming. When I came back to reality, I was in a ghost town. All of the buildings along this once bustling main thoroughfare were now in shambles. Yet, for some unexplained reason, every person I had ever known was here. It was as if I was the guest of honor for some kind of reunion. I couldn't make sense of it. My former flame was nowhere to be found. Maybe that was a sign that she would no longer play a part in the world that was my life.
I reminisced about old times with a bunch of buddies as we passed around a joint. We laughed! Boy did we laugh; about the silly things we did as kids and the stupid things we survived as teenagers. Yet here we all were, adulting and raising families. Shit, some of these fools were even grandfathers now. They got the worst of the heckling!
After awhile though, I had this sudden urge to find the ocean. I said my good-byes, flipped the old crew the bird, and left. A block away and the voices were gone, but I wound up running into another friend, sitting on an old tree swing. I barely recognized her. Had it really been that long?
"The pier is that way," she said, pointing to the west. "Follow the dirt road. They are waiting for you."
"Thanks, I think... but who is waiting for me? What happened here? What happened to you?" I replied, looking dumbfounded as I was still puzzled by my surroundings.
"Some things cannot be explained with mere words. We'll leave it at that. I know what you have been searching for, and it's over there. Go my friend, and don't look back."
I was even more confused, but took her advice and hiked toward the pier. I never once looked back. Quite frankly, I was too afraid of what I might see if I did.
Somewhere along the now dusty trail, I remembered the town, the elderly man and the waves from what seemed like ages ago. Was that the adventure I recalled fondly while my old flame and I were traveling down that long and winding road? Even our time together, that brief instance along the way, the ghost town, and the prophetic words were also beginning to fade away. It struck me like a bolt of lightning! I felt chilled to the bone for a moment, and then it quickly departed.
The path now led to the top of a sand dune, and what I gazed out upon was perhaps the eeriest, yet most serene scene I had ever laid eyes on. The sun was setting and the sky was a mix of dark hues and fiery reds! The pier my friend spoke of, a decrepit memorial to a fonder time, stretched out into this wide cove. It was new voices, however, people, that drew me to the beach itself.
"Hey man, long time no see! How've you been?" A person said as he walked toward me. I had no idea who it was until the shadowy figure stood before me. My God, it was my father
Stunned, I asked, "what are you doing here?"
"I'm waiting for the ocean to clean up. You see, every afternoon..." He paused as he glanced down at the timepiece wrapped around his wrist. "Around now, actually. The winds turn offshore and the ocean gives up it's gems. I'm glad you could make it."
As I tried to pick up my jaw and shake that flabbergasted look I'm sure was really evident on my face, I found the words to reply with. "I don't understand... where are we?"
"Son, you already know the answer to that one."
The throng of foreign faces whose voices drew me here, became transparent, before disappearing into the growing sea mist. I was left alone. Alone to ponder the meaning of it all. Oh yeah, and sure enough, as if someone flipped a switch, the once northerly gale shifted and blew as calmly as a baby's breath out to sea. In the water, the once messy surf cleaned up and was now incredible!!
In a strange way, I kind of felt like Adam before he and Eve left the Garden.
Blue hour began to overtake the last of the day's glorious light. I changed into my wetsuit, paddled out and surfed for what seemed like an eternity. It was sheer bliss! I hadn't a thought in my head nor a care in the world. For the first time, I felt like I was finally home; a home in which throughout this journey, I could not quite remember. But this was it! This... was where I belonged.
As I took off on an high head left and instantly shuffled up to drop my toes over the nose of my board; by far the best wave of my life; there was one thought that briefly crossed my mind. It was the same electrifying realization that first startled me as I walked down that dusty trail toward the ocean.
By now, the moon was out and it was bright and clear. Only the most respected of stars stood out.
It felt like heaven.
After my son Arlo was born in 2012, I had put in my resignation with the Ukiah Daily Journal. After 15 years in the newspaper industry, I held onto it as long as I could. With a growing family though, my wages were not enough to sustain my household. It was time to move on.
I began a new career with the United States Postal Service as a rural carrier associate. When I reported to my post at the Ukiah hub, I was told that I could only be guaranteed 2-to-3 days per week because I was the newest substitute drive on the rural side. However, right from the get-go I found myself working 8-to-12 hours per day, six days per week. For the majority of my time with the Postal Service, I was rarely home, so I missed out on those formative years with Arlo. We never quite bonded.
That was how it remained for a good number of years.
Toward the end of 2019, Arlo and I began trekking through the streets of Willits; he on his scooter and me on my skateboard. Pretty much every weekend, this would be our routine. Adventures through Willits became fun, and the skatepark was not only our destination, but our common ground as well.
Since we were getting to know each other better, I figured it was high time to break the routine and go on a real adventure! Early one morning, I believe it was in late January of 2020, I woke him up. We dusted off some backpacks, filled them with water and snacks and stepped outside, into the great big world. It was misting when we left, and I asked him if he still wanted to do this. Arlo was excited! He still wasn't quite sure what I had in store for us though. The forecasts were calling for improving weather as the day wore on, so this was perfect! Off we went!
Once we reached the tracks of the California Western Railroad, we turned west. The real adventure had begun. He and I took our time. We had the entire day. We walked for a bit. We stopped and had a snack and then walked some more. Eventually the two of us made it to the Summit and Tunnel #2. Lunch was had on the rusted rails of the siding and then we made our way through the tunnel to the other side. After weighing the options, Arlo thought the summit was cool enough. We still had to walk back to town. It was long and arduous for him, but in the end, back at home and feasting on McDonald's, he said the day was awesome!
It was more skatepark treks for a few before Arlo and I switched things up and starting riding our bicycles around the valley. Again it was backpacks full of water and snacks and giving him what I believed to be authentic American experiences.
The Pandemic struck, and our adventures ceased. On occasion he would bring up how he couldn't wait for this to be over so we could resume our fun-filled trips away from home. As we would all come to realize was that COVID-19 wasn't going to just magically disappear, and a year would come to pass before life resembled a fractured shade of normal.
My secret New Year's resolution for 2021 was to enter phase two of my adventures with Arlo. Now I had a car and was in a place where I could take him to the farthest reaches of Mendocino County. With a host of trails that have sprung up in the past ten years, plus little out-of-the-way places I loved when I was younger, there were more than enough opportunities to get him out in the world.
These places I wanted to take him, and things I wanted to do with him, were the same things my mother did with me at that age. Through those experiences I found photography, a love for the outdoors and a passion for roadtrips. Who knows what these trips could do for Arlo?
At the beginning of January, a giant swell was rumbling through the Pacific Ocean and ready to plow into the north coast with all it's might! During the lockdown, Arlo was talking about wanting to learn to surf. Before getting in the water though, I wanted him to have a healthy dose of respect for the sea. What better way to convey that than by getting him up before dawn, venturing over to the coast and then down to where the big waves live, right? I gave him a camera to use too.
After the success of that initial coastal foray, it was on! I was excited to show him so much of what the coast, as well as the rest of Mendocino County, had to offer. I took him to places which held fond memories for me when I was younger. We explored places that were new to the both of us. We saw cool critters (including his first bald eagle), met and hung out with cool people and took a slew of good photos! We learned an awful lot about each other, as well as about ourselves too. These trips bonded us as father and son like nothing else could.
Ironically it was the only New Year's resolution I was ever able to keep.
2021 is now winding down. There are still a few trips left in us before we bid adieu to one hell of a year! Don't fret though, this is not the end of our adventures. There is a rumor that Santa Claus is sending a Nikon D70s to Arlo, and frankly, even with as much adventuring as the two of us have done in the past 365 days, it's really but a small fraction of what's still out there to explore and document.
In fact, it's truly only the beginning.
My mother married on August 17th, 1986. It was an elopement in Reno. Her new husband was a roofer, had a son, and lived out in Pneumonia Gulch. I was 10.
As we all got to know each other more as a new family, I learned that he served in the Army during Vietnam. It didn't mean that much to me at the time. I didn't really know about the war and it's consequences. However, for my step-father, the war was still very fresh. He'd talk about some of the things he did on occasion, but it was the downtime experiences only.
We saw Platoon in the theater and that's when the gravity of the war hit home a little. He began to tear up almost immediately and held it together as best he could. When we got home, he lost it. He and my mom stayed in their bedroom with the door closed as he sobbed and sobbed. That was heavy.
The older I got, the more my dad (because quite frankly, he'd become more of a father to me that my own blood) began to open up a little more about Vietnam. Of course, I was at a point in my own life where I was reading up on history and had become a bit more fascinated by the wars of the 20th Century. Yet, there was a lot he kept suppressed.
When my dad was 17, he had a bit of a wild streak about him and one incident landed him in court I guess. The judge had given him a choice: jail, or the military. He chose the Army and a ticket to Southeast Asia.
Two tours in Vietnam. Was there during the TET offensive. Came back to the world as a bronze star recipient. The world wasn't quite ready to welcome these veterans though. Like so many others, he was called a baby killer, was spit on and was forced to flee from mounting hostilities.
He lived in San Francisco after his time in service and eventually wound up here in Willits.
I believe it was close to 12 years ago that he started going to the VA a lot. A tough old warrior, his body was beginning to fail him and numerous surgeries were called for. And I guess as part of the VA experience, he met with a psychiatrist who eventually cracked the suppressed memories of the war. From what I was told, his experiences over there were incredibly heroic as well as terribly traumatic; more so than anyone should ever have had to deal with, especially as a kid.
For the most part, my dad is still a tough old warrior. He's slow down a bit, yet still makes the best of the life that's been given to him. It is something I respect and admire about him.
Today is Veterans Day. It's a good time to thank those who served. Let them know they are appreciated. Because quite frankly, despite we civilian's opinions on war and service, what these men and woman have done, the sacrifices they've made (not for their country so much as for their brothers and sisters they served with); we can never truly understand and comprehend. Acknowledging this is the least we can do to honor them.
So to my friends and family who've given a piece of themselves in defense of this nation, thank you.
It began with a shipwreck. It led to the discovery of giant trees; green gold in an era when the Bay Area was booming. Saw mills sprung up in every cove and rivermouth. Rails replaced oxen and deeper into the Redwood forests companies went. For over a hundred years timber defined this area. In fact, it was dubbed the "Redwood Empire" for that very reason.
North of San Francisco was mysterious. It was extremely rugged. It was often stormy, or foggy, or just generally shitty. The people who lived and worked here were a reflection of their environment: blue collar, rough-and-tumble and able to thrive in adversity. This life defined California's north coast.
I cannot tell you exactly when the first surfers paddled out up here. Rumor has it that some intrepid individuals were riding waves as far back as the 1930s. After the war and into the '50s, a few surf clubs were established by Fort Bragg and Mendocino locals. From what I have been told, by the time the '60s rolled around, the Mendo scene resembled that of their Southern California counterparts. Did we have our own Gidget? It wouldn't surprise me. I read somewhere that the 1970s found some enlisted personnel riding one of the better waves in the area, and I guess they were always looking for folks to paddle out with them.
Over time since, a thin gray line developed beyond the Golden Gate Bridge; more so north of the Russian River. Many surfers, having grown tired of the escalating crowds down south, followed the back-to-the-land movement and ventured up here. At some spots, localism became a very real thing. The surf media was frowned upon and incredible stories circulated about how imperfect the waves were, how bad the storms were, how gnarly the locals were; both in and out of the water. Oh yeah, and did we mention the size of our sharks?
This, of course, was all before my introduction to surfing.
You see, I was an inland child; living an hour away from the mighty North Pacific with my mother who was a single parent. From my earliest memories though, I was drawn to the sea. I cherished every opportunity to put my feet in the sand, and was often saddened when it was time to leave.
I learned to bodysurf by accident when I was eight-years-old. It was an overcast day and the ocean was as smooth as glass. Playful little swells turned into equally playful little waves over a summertime sandbar. I happened to be playing too close to the water's edge and got soaked. Much to my mother's dismay, I jumped in the water. There was no current and I was a fairly bold swimmer, so my mom, ever watchful, let me play in the surf.
With coast trips being a bit of a luxury for my mom and I, a few years would pass before I got to play in the water again. My friend's parents invited me to go camping on the coast with them. Never one to pass up a chance to visit the sea, I asked my mom and she said yes. I remember on our first afternoon at Wages Creek, after exploring the entire campground and the creek itself, one of my friends had the idea to go bodysurfing. The rest of us were game, so we all ran to the ocean and jumped in. The water was cold but we didn't care! And if I recall, the four of us spent nearly half an hour riding waves before, one by one, we made our way back to shore. I think I might have been the last to come in. I was damn cold, that's for sure, but never felt more alive than at that moment!
Around that time, I found skateboarding and fully involved myself in it. By the time I was 13, my family moved to a neighborhood on the east side of Willits. Across the street from us, there was a kid who skated. His step-father was a carpenter, so the kid and his friends were always building ramps, and from that point on, I fell into that scene as well.
Surfing itself was a relatively foreign concept to me. I had seen Bud Surf Tour competitions on television, but as far as I knew, nobody surfed up here in these waters; at least I'd never paid attention to such things. One day I was home sick from school, half passed out on the couch when the cult classic "North Shore" began playing on KTVU's afternoon matinee. As hokey as it sounds, because of that film, a switch flipped inside my head. All of a sudden surfing was the most fascinating thing on the planet. I wanted to try it. I HAD to try it! This was my sophomore year.
That November I convinced two of my buddies to join me in a wave riding experience. Since all three of us skated, the idea behind riding waves seemed relatively simple to grasp. I called Subsurface Progression to check on rental prices, we set a date and immediately began to hype ourselves up. The more it was discussed, the easier surfing sounded, and by the end of the day we were sure that we'd be rippers in no time!
It was a chilly December morning. The skies were clear and there was excitement in the air. I picked up my friends early and we headed off over Highway 20, rambling on and on about surfing.
"Where are we going to go?"
"Is it really as easy as it looks?"
"I'm going to take off on the biggest goddamn wave I can find!"
The dive shop's surfboard rentals were relics; boards from the '80s that had seen better days. We did find two that were in relatively water-tight shape though. The wetsuits didn't fare much better. After scavenging through the pile, the best we could come up with were a pair of mismatched booties and two tattered suits that would somehow have to fit three people of varying sizes and shapes.
It didn't matter though. We were going surfing!
Had we done a little more research, or even asked some questions at the dive shop, the three of us may have wound up driving south to a sheltered cove where we could learn how to surf the proper way. With the mindset that surfing was like skateboarding on water, we chose to go north instead.
As we drove past the old railroad trestle at Pudding Creek, the three of us caught our first glimpse of the ocean. There was surf! It was messy, but at least there was surf. We kept going. There might be something better up the road. Upon the northern edge of the great sand dunes we stopped. Something had caught our eye!
But was it worth a desert trek to the sea?
The dunes were a picturesque stretch of sand that extended from the edge of state park lands in the south to the mouth of a lazy, serene river up north. During tourist season, the entire beach is a popular destination for beachcombers, birdwatchers and equestrians. Yet, those winter days left the only footprints in the sand our own.
There were telltale signs of civilization all around; the remnants of a weathered old logging road, wind-sculpted fences and houses that dotted the blufftops to the north. Back from which we came, smoke poured skyward and out to sea from a large sawmill. Occasionally, the engine brake of a logging truck echoed through the dunes. Otherwise, it was a quiet and somewhat eerie place that gave us the feeling like we could be the last people on earth.
And this is where we chose to surf.
What none of us realized back then was that what appeared to be playful from the road was actually a bit treacherous upon closer inspection. Looking back, I'd have to say that it was easily 8-to-10 feet on the outer sandbars and just going ballistic! It was intimidating, to say the least. There was silence on the sand as our eyes bugged out, and knees trembled. Someone cracked a joke. It snapped us back to reality.
We drew blades of dune grass to see which two would be going out first. After suiting up, two of us walked down to the water's edge, gave each other a nervous grin, and began to paddle out.
All in all, it didn't seem that hard; that is, until the two of us realized that we weren't making much headway, but instead were drifting south with a fast-moving current. In hindsight, that longshore current probably saved our lives.
None of us made it out to where the big surf roamed. We chased reforming waves over the inner sandbars, got mowed down by mounds of crumbling white-water a lot and for brief moments, were able to get to our feet and rode things resembling waves for a couple of seconds. Despite the amplified noise of the crashing surf all around us, hoots and hollers could still be heard! After five hours of mind-numbing fun, all three of us were exhausted, but stoked, and decided to call it a day.
The hike back through the dunes was long. The drive back toward the dive shop was quiet. I think each one of us were recollecting about the few rides we managed to get. As we passed by a spot that I now know pretty well, a couple of surfers were standing along the edge of the highway, waiting to cross. One of them noticed the boards in my car and smiled. A "hang loose" hand gesture was made. We replied in kind. Someone piped up that it felt like we'd just been initiated into a brotherhood. Laughter broke out and we continued on.
The three of us never surfed together again. Our circle of friends and activities changed as our time in high school passed by. I don't believe either one of them actually ever surfed again. For me though, I was hooked! The fascination had become a passion, which in turn, became an obsession. I convinced my mom to let me go on independent study and I found a full-time job. I saved up enough money for a board and wetsuit, and continued with the pursuit of getting better.
Eventually I began subscribing to some of the major surf publications of the time, because I wanted to relate more to the lifestyle and progression that I saw in those pages every month. I couldn't relate to the "grumpy old dudes" in the water at my local spots. I wanted to rip and eventually get sponsored and travel the world. The idea of recluse society up here was a foreign concept for me. What can I say though, I was extremely naive.
As I grew older, I really dedicated myself to the coast. I learned enough about meteorology to understand what weather and wind conditions worked best for where. I found perfect waves where none should have been. I tested my limits in big surf. And eventually, I found my preference, built a quiver of boards specific to how and where I liked to surf and it became my life.
One of the biggest gifts surfing had given me was photography. Even though I had been making photographs since I was a kid, and at one point was even a photojournalist for a local newspaper, I was always nothing more than a hobbyist. It took surfing all of the time in the mid-2000s and the desire to document these adventures for posterity that pushed me into being equally as passionate about photography as I was with surfing.
In the Digital Age, access to easy-to-understand surf forecasts, websites and social media have changed the dynamics of surfing along the north coast. What was once left up to one's imagination is now pretty open. To the mainstream, spot names and roadmaps aren't really taboo; even though for locals, the old etiquette remains steadfast. Localism is still pretty real in some places. Cameras are still frowned upon. There is a reason for this.
As SURFER Magazine founder John Severson once coined, “In this crowded world, the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.
You can still find that up here.
Or can you?
Mum's the word.
I was born in Willits, a rural community along the 101 corridor, deep within the heart of California's rugged north coast, in late 1975. It was a blue collar community; smack dab in the middle of the Redwood Empire. Timber still put food on tables. In a sense, fishing did too. It was also an important rail hub for the Northwestern Pacific and California Western. And even though there was a pretty big migration of back-to-the-land folk, moving out of the concrete confines of the San Francisco Bay Area, Mendocino County and the north coast still had plenty of wide open spaces.
My history with this land actually extends a lot further back than the year of my birth. The family lineage can be traced to 1844, when Fernando Feliz moved into the Sanel Valley with a herd of livestock to establish Rancho Sanel. He would remain in Hopland until his passing, but by that point, most of his land had been partitioned out. From stories I'd been told as a child, some of the remaining Feliz clan moved south into Sonoma County.
Aletha Feliz, my grandmother, married Douglas Rowley when they both lived in the Bay Area during the war years. After moving north to Healdsburg, they had my mother and in 1952, moved further up the 101 corridor to Willits, where they planted roots. And that's where I came into the picture.
Growing up in Mendocino County was enchanting. Children of my generation were very outdoorsy. We fished the rivers, hunted in the mountains and played in areas steeped in history. Though my mother was a single parent and worked hard to provide, we also had many adventures in the county and beyond. By the time I was ten, I knew every country road around here like the back of my hand. And it was through her that I developed a keen sense of creativity behind the lens of a camera and a strong desire to explore and document my home. It would serve me well after I got my license at 16.
Mendocino County has changed so much since then. We now live in the ashes of the Redwood Empire. Timber has made a bit of a comeback, yet it does not sustain us like it used to. These days, when you think “Mendo,” you think of tourism, wine grapes and cannabis. Though the landscape is still as rugged as ever, life north of the Golden Gate is a bit softer.
My aim as a photographer up here has always been quite simple. I document. Time and changes that come through it's passage absolutely fascinates me. I don't sugarcoat my work, and make no attempts to portray this area from an almost fantasy-like point of view. There are plenty of very talented photographers who do fine art quite well. My work is real. They are snapshots of life in the every day.
What's cool about living up here and doing what I do, is that I have been able to share all of it with my son. Our own adventurous nature has bonded us, as it did with my mother and I when I was that age. It's been awesome to see how he views Mendocino County from behind the lens, and in turn, that inspires me to keep creating and pushing my own levels in photography!
Our family's legacy with California's north coast continues.