“There is a young cowboy, he lives on the range,His horse and his cattle are his only companions.He works in the saddle and sleeps in the canyons, waiting for summer, his pastures to change.”
James Taylor, Sweet Baby James
Seemingly only in California can anyone imagine a cowboy and surfer comparing notes. These two iconic figures somehow flourish seamlessly together in the wide expanse of California’s coastline, desert, mountain, and ranch land. Their two cultures thrive in two environments, ocean beach and prairie canyon, all of it within the diverse borders of California.
Both lifestyles, rooted and shaped by geography, converge at the intersection of sprawling lush pasture land and the golden shores of the Pacific. It's here where the Mariana Trench and Continental Shelf helped form this divine western landscape known as California. This "bear" of a state is home to some of the world's most revered beaches and reef points along its Coastal Range. To the east, the Central Valley is literally a breadbasket to the world, while the high Sierras provide the invaluable snowpack irrigating the valleys below and feeding the ocean beyond. It is all related. In this vast mosaic of terrain, two cultures of lore exist, in some cases side by side, and confound our notions of what it actually means to be a surfer or to be a cowboy.
Across the deep purple hues of sundown in the ranch land of California’s Central Valley, the scent of sage and livestock hangs heavy in the evening air. Cowboys herding the last strays into their pens, look to rinse away the grime from their day’s work, tired but gratified. The sounds of a train echo in the distance as the moon rises over the Sierras. With sundown comes the satisfaction of another productive day on the range as small rodents and wildlife begin to emerge from the midday heat. The day started at 5am and this cowboy is ready for a good meal, a snort of whiskey and his flannel bedroll.
A hundred miles to the west, as the ocean fades from blue to black, a surfer returns through a coastal meadow to his van. The surf continues to roll in as the last rays of sunlight spark the inky night sky. Warm air from the valley swings west through the canyons, replacing cool, salty air with the scent of coastal live oak.
The van backs out from the sandstone ridge with the sound of crunching dirt under its tires. Cold and wet, the surfer reflects through his rear-view mirror on an afternoon well-spent. He dreams of days like this and smiles as the anticipation of another epic day of surf lies ahead.
An unlikely connection exists between two seemingly disparate lifestyles, that of the cowboy and that of the surfer. One is a prairie rider, the other a wave rider. One is a throwback to the early days of the 1800’s Wild West, the other an incarnation of the early Pacific peoples whose lives were defined and shaped by ocean culture. Be it San Onofre or San Joaquin, rolling water or rolling hills, what lures surfer and cowboy is the ride, the adventure, the freedom, and the pursuit for what lies ahead and beyond. Cowboys and Surfers - heroes of different centuries in the California experience - present a striking, serendipitous cultural intersection.
All in California, this utopian idea of a place attracts two such oddly, unexpectedly, related lifestyles … each the epitome of independence and utter freedom, adventure, and indelible cultural identity. Movies such as “The Endless Summer” attest to this restless spirit and insatiable thirst surfers have for waves in the most novel, exotic places. California and its golden shores hatched this ancient sport from its indigenous beginnings into a universal cultural phenomenon. At the dawn of popular culture in the 1960’s, a California hometown group, the Beach Boys, brought surfing into the collective imagination. Songs such as California Girls, Surfing USA, and Surfin’ Safari were just the allure required. While at the same time the king of cowboys, John Wayne, lived in Newport Beach, within feet of the ocean. He kept his passion for the West and its cowboy culture in art and his ranch, while living on the ocean, all of it the duality of life in California.
A horse trailer being towed east past Harris Ranch, slicing inland from Interstate 5, arrives back at its ranch in the evening heat. It is a heat that weighs like the chaps, boots, and spurs worn at the rodeo, but this does not deter a cowhand. His work is his play and it’s never done. He will unload his horse, have her stretch her legs, maybe reach for a cold beer. They have a ride the next day to round up some calves and she will need some spring in her step. Those calves and their mamas have minds of their own. This pinto mare is his gal on the trail, his quiet friend and soul mate. He can sing, chew tobacco, and swear and she will swish her tail and snort in response. The dirt, flies, and mosquitos, fence wire, nails, and buckets are small penance for the smell of a fresh morning, coffee brewed, and the promise of a new day and their “dawn patrol”.
His alter ego, the surfer, rises early for his own “dawn patrol”. It is daybreak and the two-lane frontage road is bumpy in spots. He doesn’t care; the board is secure on the rack, the sky is hot pink, and the sign of a new swell is on the horizon. His dog hugs his shoulder for a whiff of rushing cool air and he’s got some Honk playing on the old V-Dub radio. Handy are the coffee thermos, trail mix, wetsuit, board and leash. Today is a big day because they all are big days, a part of the great adventure. Pelicans glide in formation just feet above the break and there is an electricity in the moment. There are some buddies, surveying the morning’s break, mugs of “joe” in hand. They smile, a brotherhood and sisterhood, and greet one another, “What up?” There is a stoke in the air as the new swell builds. The first challenge of the day will be in deciding which board to pick out of the quiver.
He stands in the soft sand at water’s edge, toes sinking in, and surveys the open expanse of horizon and swells. There is rhythm here, like a beating heart, that calls him … wave after wave, no two exactly alike and he will move forward, driving his board into a glide through foam and a thousand blues of ocean swirl. Then there will be the determination of readiness, of which one he’ll choose to be his warmup wave, his first rush, his moment of being one with the ocean, his launch into a fine day. It is sport and lifestyle, whether on the water or on land, and it never really begins and never really ends. The beauty and love of being out there, sun and ocean, gold on blue, and being infused with an energy so spiritual just to be there is enough. It is beyond words. A surfer’s trajectory across the face of a wave is his musical score, his living story, his signature and art in motion.
Between waves, as he sits astride the board, he floats between his thoughts and the sea life around him. The sea lifts and falls like the chest as one breathes. A pod of dolphins ride the next wave with him … like herding dogs there for the round up.
Back on the ranch, the dogs are nipping and ready for work. They pace while their cowboy, the ultimate alpha “dog”, straps on a pair of spurs, loops his ropes, and saddles Big Mare. She is shifting hoofs, spirited, and ready with the dogs for the work and sport of round up. Beyond the splintered fencing, cows still graze but begin to notice activity, dust, voices, and preparation. It is akin to the wave building and the anticipation a surfer feels. Cowboys always have a plan, they call out, whistle, and the dogs are out front, circling the herd. There is a natural choreography but it’s far from any refined beauty of the stage. It is dirty, congested, rugged, and not without danger. Spit flies and the cows scatter requiring a multi-pronged chase. Expletives and the calf is cornered, dogs undeterred, cowboys closer to getting the herd penned. Waving their Stetsons, the cowboys’ queue behind the herd and give the dogs their “Good Girls and Boys”, praise with relief, the round up is complete. The branding will be tomorrow.
That night, the guys gather at Rusty’s Bar for drinks and a recap of the day. Western music rises and blares above the crowd. The Central Valley is home to Merle Haggard and a good dose of Country, including the “Bakersfield Sound”. A few venture out on the saw-dusted dance floor for a couple “two steps” in their dress boots. This is the “let go” after a good day and it’s Country-California-style.
The life of these two riders, surfer and cowboy, seemingly miles apart, are on a parallel in so many ways. Their chosen lifestyles are defined by spirit as much as geography, and it’s not about money or financial wealth. The reward is in something less tangible, something like living life in the simplest terms, no frills, basic needs, and the adventure of it all. There is no attachment other than the freedom and love of what they do. How many people driving down the freeway, going to work in big buildings, or in suburbia, drift easily to dreams and fantasies of doing life this way. “If everybody had a notion!”
They imagine either and both: gliding out, skimming over the shore water to meet the first wave, or getting in the saddle and nudging pretty mare into a canter as they head out on a plateau. Human psyche is drawn to this visceral connection to nature, rising early, heading into the elements. Surfers wear trunks, rolled-up chinos, slaps and a hoodie, while cowboys wear denim jeans, plaid shirts, a canvas jacket, and dust kicker boots. Utility and comfort dictate and a crazy fun color “talks”. The gear matters, whether it be any day or a day at the surf meet or rodeo. Surfers have much to do with the advent of “sport utility vehicles”, although the classic VW van is most associated with their lifestyle. Their rigs are compact, earthy, and practical. Cowboys and trucks go hand in hand and the truck better have a hitch! These vehicles are capable, all terrain, utilitarian, and serve as campers when the need arises. Versatility is the bottom line. Both savor sleeping under the stars and rising to a spectacular red-hued sunrise, near the embers from last night’s campfire, and still whistling the song played on guitars and mouth harps after dark. There is nothing better than a gathering of like-minded seekers ready to tell some tales, grill garden greens and local fish or steaks for dinner while sharing some worthy beers. “The claim we hold is good as gold, Bonanza!”
How many words and names in our lexicon are inspired by both? Surfers tend to identify favorite beach breaks by names that evoke the vibe or even degree of danger: “Tarantulas”, “Maverick’s”, “Rincon” (meaning “corner”), or “Hazards”. So many names along the California coast are best in the original Spanish: “San Onofre”, “Pacifica”, “Redondo”. “Malibu” is derived from the native Chumash word, “humaliwo” which aptly means “the surf sounds loudly”! The word “Malibu” now refers to a lightweight surfboard, but ultimately it evokes the resort-like stretch of beach north of Santa Monica where Hollywood stars retreat. Cowboys go with names that align with the specific surroundings and association with fauna: “Camelback Ridge”, “Snake Spit Creek”, or “Jackrabbit Trail”. Their ranches often bear a chosen branding symbol and either name of family or association with a familiar landmark, like “Circle Bar B Ranch.” Remote places become a “home away from home”, places to pitch a tent, build a campfire, gather with fellow riders and escape in rougher, wilder elements.
The Cowboy, whose connection to land reflects the history of his predecessors. The pioneers, trailblazers and rebels who headed West to this new gateway of opportunity and promise that is California. Their culture, and even the word “Cowboy”, was shaped by the “Vaqueros” (Vaca meaning cow in Spanish), those Mexican Cowboys who roamed the region on horseback, herding cattle while demonstrating new roping and horsemanship techniques.
The Surfer, whose connection to the coast comes from the early "Wayfinders" out of eastern Asia some 3,000 years ago. They sailed double-hulled canoes in open waters to Melanesia, Micronesia and ultimately the Polynesian Islands, including Hawaii. They may have reached the New World even before any Europeans. The kids of these explorers invented surfing for fun, first in Samoa and New Guinea in the 18th century, then up to Tahiti where adults joined in. Surfing then made its way to Hawaii, where it became much more than just an activity or sport. It became an integral part of Hawaiian culture.
Early accounts dating back to 1835 tell the story of Hawaiians surfing the Santa Barbara shore break. In 1885, three Hawaiian princes visiting Santa Cruz rode the San Lorenzo river mouth on boards shaped from local redwoods.
Whether Cowboy or Surfer, each lifestyle rides on this. Both have been passed down from one generation to the next, preserving the spirit of the West as it once was, honoring history, tradition, culture and geography.
On a clear starry night, a cowboy in the Central Valley walks down a dusty lane to check his herd. He stops to look up at the Milky Way. Crickets surround him, a music to his ears, and the far-off call of a coyote reminds him he is home. At this same moment, the surfer is leaning on the hood of his van near shore. Under the moon and stars he listens as each wave forms, builds, and breaks. He imagines the ancient peoples of this place who also knew this sound. This is his favorite version of “Night Life”. It may not be for everyone but the California spirit is imbued with images of these classic vagabond heroes, the cowboy and surfer, those two true Icons of the West.
Words by Kate McInerny