These sports weren’t invented here, so how did California come to dominate surf, skate and snowboard culture?
Words by Tristan Kennedy | Lead photo by Dan Medhurst
“If you think about it, pretty much everything that made the twentieth century bearable was invented in a California garage.”
– The Sellout, Paul Beatty
The Donner Pass, which snakes its way over the high Sierras of Northern California, is a place steeped in history. It takes its name from an infamous incident in 1847, when a group of pioneers led by George Donner perished trying to make their way across the mountains. In a particularly grisly detail, the 48 survivors were forced to resort to cannibalism to stay alive. That’s not what’s brought me here 170 years later however. I’ve come in search of a different kind of history, although the same heavy snows which sealed the fate of the area’s namesake are making it difficult to find.
“It’s right there at Sugarbowl,” says snowboard photographer Bud Fawcett, when I talk to him later. “It would’ve been to the right of that parking lot. But I would imagine it’s totally filled in this winter.” He’s not wrong. California is experiencing record snowfalls, and as I stand in the Donner Pass carpark, all I can see is a sheer wall of snow.
Somewhere underneath all that white stuff is the spot we’re looking for, the Donner quarterpipe. “It’s really just a ditch,” says Bud. But it’s a ditch with a lot of significance. It was here in the winter of 1986, that Bud shot a photo (perhaps the photo) of Terry Kidwell, the man known as the “father of freestyle” – a photo that would shape the future direction of the then fledgling sport of snowboarding.
For most people this kind of history probably isn’t as interesting as gruesome tales of cannibalism, but for snowboard enthusiasts – Mpora among them – that makes this pass hallowed ground.
Snowboarding wasn’t invented in California. There’s some debate about where its origins lie, but credit is usually given to Sherman Poppen, inventor of the primitive “Snurfer” (the name combining “snow” and “surfer”) who hailed from Muskegon in Michigan State. But, like surfing and skateboarding before it, it was here in California that snowboarding really developed into the global sporting and cultural phenomenon it is today.
According to recent industry estimates, there are around 6 million active snowboarders in America. Yet at the beginning of the 80s very few people had heard of the sport in the US, let alone in the wider world. Bud Fawcett, by his own admission, was among them. “I came from the East Coast. In 1978 I lived in North Carolina, and I’d never even seen a skateboard, much less a snowboarder or a surfer,” he says.
He fell into shooting snowboarding almost by accident. “I had a job I hated in North Carolina. So I saved up $500, bought a car that got good gas mileage and thought: ‘Well I really should go and see the Pacific Ocean.’” Somewhere along the way the car broke down, and needing money to pay for repairs, he started applying for jobs. The man who eventually employed him – initially as an inventory controller – was Tom Sims, founder of the eponymous skate and snowboard brand.
Tom Sims was the archetypal California creative. He had first built a ‘ski board’ as a school project back in the 70s, and although his company still made most of its money from skate decks, he realised the potential of snowboarding early on.
At the time perhaps the only other person taking snowboarding as seriously was an East Coast entrepreneur called Jake Burton Carpenter. Jake founded the company that still bears his name in 1977. But Burton was primarily focussed on racing, building boards that could turn at speed and carve round slalom gates to compete with the ski racers who dominated the icy slopes of his home resorts in Vermont. Over in California Tom Sims was pursuing a different path, taking his cues from the state’s skateboard scene.
“Like surfing and skateboarding before it, it was here in California that snowboarding really developed into the global sporting and cultural phenomenon it is today.”
By the mid 80s Sims had signed a young team of local riders to market his boards, most of whom spent their winters up in Tahoe, where they started digging out halfpipes and trying to take the tricks they’d learned on their skateboards to the snow. Bud Fawcett, who’d learned how to handle a camera in high school, found himself documenting their antics almost by default.
“I shared a house with Chuck Barfoot [Sims’ business partner who went on to found a pioneering brand of his own] and he’s introducing me to Terry Kidwell and Keith Kimmel and Bob Klein and Mike Chantry. All these pretty famous snowboarders,” says Bud. Donner Ski Ranch, one of the plethora of resorts that surrounds the Lake Tahoe, had a manager who was in favour of snowboarding a the time, and at one point Bud could almost literally look in any direction and snap a shot of an iconic rider.
“I can remember going to Donner Ski Ranch when Tahoe had so much snow that the Interstate was closed. We were the only people there. I was standing in one spot and I shot three photos. I turned to my left and I shot a picture of Shaun Palmer, who’s a regular footer, coming off a rock, and then to my right I shot a picture of Kidwell, who’s a goofy footer, coming off another little cliff. And in front of that rock Tom Sims carved down the face.”
If all of Sims’ team riders were talented (Palmer would later go on to win countless X Games and World Championship medals before shaking up the worlds of motocross and mountain biking) in those early days there was one who stood out above the rest. “Kidwell was the best freestyler, in terms of getting air and doing things that were unheard of on a snowboard,” is how Bud puts it.
Kidwell had the first ever pro-model snowboard (a Sims, naturally). He was the first to come up with the idea of putting a kicktail on it, so he could ride it switch and do skate style tricks. He was the first to land a McTwist, and the first to win the US Open halfpipe event. As Tom Sims told our sister title Whitelines in 2011, shortly before he passed away: “[Kidwell] pioneered so many of the early tricks, he was the reason we built a freestyle snowboard.”
But although his natural abilities were well-known in California, it took Bud Fawcett to spread the word to the wider world. He’d started contributing regularly to International Snowboard Magazine, the world’s first snowboard title. Snowboarding photos weren’t easy to come by in those early days (“the pages of ISM were populated with whatever we could pay very little for, or what we shot ourselves”, says Bud). But in that single session at Donner Pass quarterpipe in 1986, Bud bagged a whole host of iconic shots of Kidwell which, when they were published, caused a sensation.
“The moment that magazine hit the newsstands, the idea that snowboarding would be all about racing, skin suits and speed was dead in the water.”
Here was a snowboarder styling out methods. Here was a snowboarder doing handplants. Here was a snowboarder doing all the best skateboard tricks, on a skate-style board, and making them look cool. The moment that issue hit the newsstands, the idea that snowboarding would be all about racing, skin suits and speed was dead in the water.
Terry Kidwell, Tom Sims and Bud Fawcett were undoubtedly instrumental in snowboarding taking a freestyle direction. They came from different backgrounds and had different skillsets, but they had two important things in common. The first was Tahoe, and the north shore scene that brought them together. The second was skateboarding. The reason Tom built that kicktail board, the reason Terry pulled those tricks, and the reason Bud shot it as he did was because all three of them looked at that “ditch” in the snow and saw a skate ramp.
California is not short of scenic drives, but the route south from Lake Tahoe must be among the most stunning. Following US-50 from just across the Nevada border our route hugs the eastern shore of the lake before dropping down through the Eldorado National Forest. To the west, directly in front of us, the sun is setting, and as we wind our way down through the foothills of the Sierras, golden light spills through the gaps in the trees. It’s not hard to see how the place got its name.
If snowboarding history was made in this incredible natural environment, skateboarding’s historic monuments are typically found in less salubrious surroundings. It’s dark when we pull off the Ronald Reagan Freeway to the north of the city and park up outside an unremarkable-looking warehouse in a suburban retail park. Inside, a neon sign tells us, is Skatelab – a skatepark that’s also home to the Skateboarding Hall of Fame & Museum.
Since it opened in 1997, this building has provided a home for the unparalleled collection of vintage decks and memorabilia assembled by Todd Huber. Old, rare and valuable boards line every available surface, many of them signed by the pros who rode them. There are original “Sidewalk Surfers”, there are Humcos (sketchy looking planks dating back to the 1950s with ceramic wheels and spring-loaded trucks) and there are several Z-Flex models, the boards ridden by the legendary Z-Boys of Dogtown in the 1970s (of whom more later).
A back room houses the Hall of Fame, to which Huber and a nominating committee of pros have been inducting influential skaters every year since 2009. Steve Alba, Tony Hawk, Christian Hosoi… the walls now read like a who’s who of the skaters who shaped the sport. Next to Patti McGee’s picture is a signed copy of the famous 1965 edition of Life magazine, featuring her doing a handstand on the cover.
Skateboarding has come a long way since that issue – with its warning of “the craze and the menace of skateboards” – was published. A 2009 report estimated that the skateboard industry was worth US$4.8 billion a year, and there are reckoned to be 11 million active skaters in the world. Last year it was announced that the sport would be included in the next summer Olympics. But although you can find now find skateboarders everywhere from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, its spiritual home is still here – in the seemingly endless suburban sprawl around Los Angeles.
Looking back now Life magazine’s characterisation of skateboarding as a “craze” seems laughable, but in the years following its publication that coverline appeared strangely prescient. After an initial explosion of interest which even saw the launch of Skateboarder, a magazine dedicated entirely to the the new sport, it died away almost as quickly as it began. “Skateboarder was originally published in 1965, but they only printed four issues,” explains the photographer Jim Goodrich, who worked for the magazine in a later incarnation. “Skateboarding was too rough back then. The equipment wasn’t there and there was no industry support.”
His friend Stacey Peralta, part of the famous Dogtown crew, agrees: “There was essentially nothing for skateboarding; no skateboard manufacturers, no skateboard shops, no place to purchase skateboards because no one made them, no skateboard contests, no skate parks. Skateboarding as its own thing really didn’t exist.”
“All skateboarders back then were surfers,” says Stacey Peralta, “and when we skated we were really imagining ourselves [riding waves].”
It wasn’t until a North Virginian named Frank Nasworthy moved to California in 1971 that things began to change. Back on the East Coast Nasworthy had seen a friend’s father try to market wheels made out of polyurethane to roller skaters without much success. Roller skating mostly took place on wooden rinks, where traditional clay wheels were faster. But when Frank tried them out on his primitive skateboard, he was amazed. Polyurethane provided a smoother ride than the existing clay wheels, but even more importantly it gave skateboards grip, so you could turn at speed without skidding sideways.
By 1973 he’d set up Cadillac Wheels in Huntington Beach, and begun selling the first few models to surf shops up and down the coast. They caught on like wildfire. By 1975 hundreds of other companies had jumped on the bandwagon, and Nasworthy was shifting 300,000 pairs a year.
Stacey Peralta and the Z-Boys were among the first to realise the new wheels’ true potential. Hailing Santa Monica, a rundown beachfront suburb known as Dogtown, the crew were surfers who took their name from the local surf shop Zephyr, which sponsored them. “Skateboarding was something all of us did to enhance our surfing,” Peralta explains, and with their added grip, the new wheels made skating feel more like surfing than ever.
“All skateboarders back then were surfers, and when we skated we were really imagining ourselves [riding waves].” With polyurethane underfoot, they could carve down hills at speed, or do surf-style cutbacks on concrete banks. But it was when the Zephyr skate team discovered that empty swimming pools could be ridden like waves that things really took off.
Jumping over fences and breaking into backyards, the Dogtown boys invented a whole raft of new surf-inspired tricks. With Peralta, the mercurial Tony Alva and the tragically-doomed prodigy Jay Adams as ring leaders, they rocked up at the 1975 Skateboard World Championships and blew it apart. Up until that point skateboarding had been practised by clean cut, gymnastic types. Suddenly here were a group of long-haired surfer kids with a penchant for breaking and entering performing aggressive, surf-style moves. And they had the attitude to match.
Their arrival was perfectly timed. Polyurethane wheels were reigniting the general public’s interest in skateboarding and by September 1975, Sports Illustrated was claiming that “America is in the grip of a Great Skateboard Revival”. As the industry began to grow again, Skateboarder magazine was relaunched. Except that instead of featuring mainstream-friendly figures like the blonde, blue-eyed Patti McGee, the new incarnation focussed on grimey images of illegal pool skating. With influential editor Warren Bolster at the helm, this was a different beast to the magazine that come before – one that would help drag the sport in a whole new direction.
Jim Goodrich was just one of the thousands of people who came to skateboarding as this second wave began to gather momentum, but as a budding photographer native to southern California he soon found himself at the centre of things. “I started skating at La Costa in San Diego county, which was like a Mecca,” he says. “Then during my first year in skating I fell and broke my arm, and while [it] was in a cast I bought a cheap little camera. I was just shooting for fun but I happened to be shooting top guys who were in the magazines.” One thing led to another and almost before he knew what he was doing, Warren Bolster had offered him a job. “At that point I thought: ‘Oh gosh, now I really have to learn how to shoot,’” he laughs.
We meet Jim almost exactly forty years after his fateful bone break on a gorgeous sunny evening in Long Beach. He’s still at it, shooting photos with a group of young skaters. Despite his legendary reputation he’s very approachable, full of encouragement for his subjects and happy to chat. Once the sun dips below the horizon, bringing the golden hour and the session to an end, we retire to a nearby Mexican restaurant to pick his brains.
Why was it that skateboarding, previously an all-American sport, exploded here in LA rather than anywhere else? I ask as the burritos arrive. “Well the weather is key. We had a drought back in the 70s so a lot of swimming pools were empty, and ditches were dry,” Jim explains, “but the other part of it was that this was where Skateboarder magazine was. It’s like Hollywood. Hollywood became Hollywood because the studios opened here.”
The importance of the mag in spreading the word (and it was the magazine at the time, Thrasher wasn’t founded until 1981) certainly can’t be overstated. In Warren Bolster’s LA Times obituary Tony Hawk is quoted as saying: “If it weren’t for Skateboarder, I would have never realized what was really possible on my four-wheeled plank”. And years before Peralta’s excellent documentary Dogtown & Z-Boys made them famous outside of skateboarding, the Dogtowners reputation was made by a series of groundbreaking articles by the writer Craig Stecyk. As Stacey puts it: “Where most skate journalists wrote about skateboarding as a sport, Craig wrote about it as a renegade subculture.”
This, of course, was a fundamental part of the appeal of this second wave of skating. Riding pools for the most part involved trespassing. “We were really outlaws, the cops hated us,” says Jim Goodrich. “I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been arrested.” Alva, Adams and Peralta were great skaters, but as the pictures of them spread it was the attitude they conveyed as much as the moves they were pulling that got kids into it.
“There’s this famous shot of Tony Alva doing a carve in Gonzales bowl, which is like my most iconic shot,” says Jim. “On the nose of his board he has a sticker, which says: ‘If you value your life as much as I value my board, don’t fuck with it.’ I just love it, it was so Tony.”
It wasn’t just the weather, the attitude or the presence of Skateboarder that made the LA scene special however. It was the architecture of the city itself, and the suburban bungalow backyards that formed its fabric. “The swimming pools in the Los Angeles basin at that time were like nothing else in the world. There actually weren’t ridable swimming pools in many other states” says Peralta. “They were all modelled after the famous movie star pools of the 40s and 50s – these big voluptuous shapes that were made popular by Hollywood. Those sensuous shapes, the kind of pools we needed, with the big bowls and the great transitions, were almost indigenous to Los Angeles. They hardly existed anywhere else other than in Southern California.”
The prevalence of these perfect concrete playgrounds, the re-invention of the wheel by Frank Nasworthy, and the attitude of the disaffected young surfers from Dogtown combined to create the perfect storm. California not only brought skateboarding back, it exported its particular take on the sport to the world. Skateparks, vert ramps, the X Games, even the sport’s upcoming Olympic debut – none of this would have happened were it not for what went down in this southern corner of the state in the 70s.
“It continues to blow my mind where skateboarding has gone in my lifetime,” says Peralta. But perhaps he shouldn’t be surprised. After all, it wasn’t the first time the state had remade the world’s youth culture in its own image.
In 2017, the strip of coastline to the south of Los Angeles is among the most desirable real estate in the world. As we drive south from Long Beach the houses begin to thin out and the back yards get bigger, so by the time we get to Huntington Beach, just 15 miles south of where we left Jim and the skaters, we find ourselves in a world of massive gardens, plush hotels and beachside condos.
Of course it wasn’t always like this. A century ago the entire population of the state could have fitted into the area around Sacramento, and Huntington Beach was an underdeveloped swamp. All that changed when the industrialist and railroad magnate Henry Huntington extended his Pacific Electric Railroad south of Los Angeles and started aggressively marketing the area, both as a holiday destination and an attractive place to live.
Henry E. Huntington hailed from a family of great industrialists, but he wasn’t afraid of making a splash. After the death of his uncle and benefactor in the early 1900s he scandalised polite San Francisco society by marrying his widowed aunt. His approach to marketing his new real estate interests were similarly unorthodox.
On a holiday to Hawaii, Huntington had watched the locals practising the ancient custom of wave riding on wooden boards. Seeing the potential for press coverage, he flew one of the most talented of the young “surfers”, a half-Hawaiian half-Irishman named George Freeth, to California to give demonstrations.
“After his uncle died, Henry Huntington scandalised polite society by marrying his aunt.”
Freeth arrived in Huntington Beach in 1914 billed as “The Man Who Can Walk on Water” and was watched by thousands as he gave his “surf riding” demonstration to celebrate the opening of Henry’s new pier. But if Freeth was the first to surf off Huntington Beach, the man who followed him arguably played a greater part in spreading the word around the world.
Stand at the junction of main street and the Pacific Coast Highway, with the Huntington Beach pier at your back and you can’t fail to see him, standing with his surfboard, surrounded by the handprints of the countless legends of the sport who’ve come here to pay tribute – Kelly Slater, Tom Curren, Andy Irons, Occy, Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, and most recently Mick Fanning and Bethany Hamilton… all have made the pilgrimage to leave their mark on the pavement outside the Huntington Surf Sport shop. In the middle of this Surfer’s Walk of Fame stands a statue of the man who inspired them all – Duke Kahanamoku.
Like Freeth, Kahanamoku first surfed off Huntington Beach as a guest of the town’s farsighted founder. But unlike his fellow Hawaiian “The Duke” was already a well-known figure, having won several Olympic medals (including a gold) as a swimmer. His celebrity meant that news of this strange new sport spread even further afield and when he and some surfing buddies dramatically saved 12 shipwrecked sailors in 1925 the story was front page news, cementing Kahanamokou’s status as an American icon and surfing’s nascent place in the national consciousness.
Surfing had existed in Hawaii for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until a couple of young practitioners came to California, where they could tap into Hollywood’s putative celebrity culture and harness the power of the press, that it really started to grow. And while Hawaii might still be the spiritual home of surfing, it was the 31st state of the union, not the 50th, that made it go global in the early 60s.
A couple of blocks inland from the Duke Kahanamokou statue is the International Surfing Museum, containing various artefacts from this explosion in popularity. You can’t miss it, there’s a 42-foot long surfboard in the carpark outside. The biggest ever built, it was used to break the record for the most people surfing on a single board, an event organised to celebrate the centenary of George Freeth’s first forays into water here.
Inside the exhibits are arranged in a somewhat haphazard fashion, but they tell the story of how surfing was transformed from a niche pursuit in the 50s into one of California’s biggest cultural exports by the end of the following decade. Chief amongst these is a film poster for Gidget, the 1959 teen-flick credited with kickstarting an explosion of interest.
Blessed with previously unimaginable levels of disposable income and leisure time, the baby boomer generation latched onto surfing and its happy go lucky beach-based lifestyle as they came of age. Suddenly the sport was everywhere – with music, films and even comic book superheros jumping in on the action.
Alongside posters for the “beach party films” which Hollywood churned out in the wake of Gidget’s success, the International Surf Museum has a life-sized model of the Silver Surfer (introduced by Marvel Comics in 1966) and a copy of Surf City, the first surf song to top the singles charts in 1963.
Sung by Jan & Dean, it was co-written by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys using a formula he’d already perfected on three of his own albums – Surfin’ Safari, Surfin’ USA and Surfer Girl. Add a sprinkling of surf references to anything at the time and it seemed it would sell. It didn’t even matter that only one of the Beach Boys, Brian’s brother Dennis, could actually surf.
But if Hollywood and the LA-based music scene were responsible for the naked commercialisation of surfing in this period, then California was also home to its backlash. In 1960, surf-obsessed filmmaker and graphic artist John Severson published a pamphlet to promote his latest release, Surf Fever.
Initially called The Surfer it quickly morphed into a regular publication, designed to counter what Severson saw as the “cheap, honky look at surfing” portrayed by Gidget and co. “Surfers hated those Hollywood surf films and I could see that Surfer could create a truer image of the sport”, he wrote in his 2014 book John Severson’s Surf.
Soon the magazine was selling more than 100,000 copies an issue, and throughout the sixties and seventies it laid the foundations of surfing culture. “Before John Severson, there was no ‘surf media,’ no ‘surf industry’ and no ‘surf culture’ – at least not in the way we understand it today,” was the way one surf writer put it. And although Severson sadly passed away earlier this year, the magazine he founded lives on, published in the industry hotbed that is Carlsbad, just a short drive south from Huntington Beach.
Of course, no visit to the place that bills itself as “Surf City USA” would be complete without getting into the water. The waves are unfortunately unusually flat during our visit, but on our last evening we do get treated to a final, epic, Pacific sunset. In the distance, against the silhouette of the historic pier, a group of surfers whose abilities far outstrip our own are making the most of the minimal swell, performing stylish slashes and cutbacks on the very same breaks that George Freeth and Duke Kahanmokou rode all those years ago.
What is it about this state, this sliver of territory sandwiched between the Sierra Mountains and the Pacific Ocean that made it the perfect cradle for these pastimes? Why is it that although they weren’t invented here, surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding developed here rather than anywhere else?
Well, watching those surfers at sunset provides some of the answers. Waves, warm weather and favourable geography have certainly played a big part it. As has the fact that the early magazines (Surfer, Skateboarder and ISM) were all founded here, with photographers and editors like Bud Fawcett, Jim Goodrich, John Severson, Warren Bolster and Craig Stycek drawing on Hollywood’s ability to self-mythologise, as they literally created the culture around their sports.
But a week spent touring the sacred sites of boardsports’ history and meeting some of these key players suggests to me that there’s more to it than just a fortuitous meeting of meteorological and demographic factors with the added presence of some expert storytellers.
California is a state that has always rewarded innovation – Silicon valley being only the most recent example. The likes of Henry Huntington, Frank Nasworthy and Tom Sims have all encapsulated the spirit of the state motto, “Eureka”. But the Golden state also prides itself on its individualism. It’s no coincidence that there’s a burgeoning California independence movement, (which, locals will tell you, has been given a significant boost by the election of Trump) or that it was here that hippies came to find themselves. Even the Donner Party, though they’re chiefly known for their grisly end, were part of an independence movement, seeking a freer existence on the western side of the Sierras.
This corner of the country has always attracted people who wanted the chance to live their own lives on their own terms, so it’s hardly a surprise that snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing developed here. Because if there’s one thing that skaters, snowboarders and surfers agree on it’s that their sports are all about individual expression.
“I had a Brazilian film crew ask me this recently,” Jim Goodrich says towards the end of our evening with him. “They asked: ‘’What does skateboarding mean to you in one word?’ And the funny thing is I thought ‘I can describe it forever, but in one word it’s impossible.’ But the word freedom came to my mind.”
“It’s feeling the sun in your face, the wind in your hair, the wind against your body, the sensation of movement… and the sense of freedom. I felt stupid when I said it, I thought that was a lame answer. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought: ‘Yeah.’”
Do It Yourself:
Norwegian (norwegian.com) fly from London Gatwick to Oakland from £139 one way, and to LAX from £149 one way.
In North Tahoe we stayed at the Cedar Glenn Lodge (tahoecedarglen.com) in Tahoe Vista.
In Huntington Beach we stayed at the Best Western Surf City (bestwestern.co.uk).
Eating & Drinking:
Try the West Shore Cafe & Inn in Homewood (westshorecafe.com) North Lake Tahoe for good beer and tasty food.
Dogtown Coffee (dogtowncoffee.com) sits on the site of the former Zephyr Surf Shop in Santa Monica.
In Huntington Beach try Duke’s (dukeshuntington.com) right next to the historic pier, or the excellent The American Dream (theamericandreamhb.com) which has an unparalleled selection of craft beers and great burgers.
SkateLab (skatelab.com) which houses the Skateboarding Museum and Hall of Fame (skateboardinghalloffame.org) is well worth a visit. The park is open for sessions 7 days a week and the Museum & Hall of Fame are free to explore.
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