I had driven so far for this moment. Well, technically I’d ridden in the back seat of my parents’ Suburban. But staring out at the perfectly peeling California waves, I could forget for a second that our car’s license plates were from Nebraska. And that my deep tan and bleached hair were earned by watching over a pool full of kindergarteners in the middle of hundreds of miles of cornfields—not surfing.
Squeezing the sand under my feet with the collective angst and desire of countless Midwestern teenagers, I wanted so much to be a surfer. I barely knew nose from tail and my Rip Curl T-shirt was from the smalltown mall in Nebraska, not the surf shop down the beach. But there were waves, and I’d be damned if I didn’t get in.
Earlier that summer, my sister and I had unearthed of a copy of Bruce Brown’s Endless Summer, and subsequently caught a case of surf fever in the middle of Nebraska. From the first scene of Robert August and Mike Hynson boarding a plane in suits, surfboards in tow, we were hooked—it was the coolest thing we’d seen. Probably still one of the coolest things a lot of us have seen.
Endless Summer turns 50 this year, and my heart still flutters a little when I see the poster for the iconic film. Why is it still such a part of our American consciousness? The poster is still standard dorm room décor, and while the film feels pretty retro—and nowhere close to politically correct—it’s obviously something we still connect with as a culture.
Long before the days of jet-setting college students and gap years, Mike and Robert were American kids launching out to surf where nobody had surfed before. It was a tale of discovery, and the dream of never having to stop doing the thing you love. Maybe it’s the pre-Vietnam sense of innocence in Bruce Brown’s tone. Maybe it’s the exotic locales. Maybe it’s the image of tanned, toned, athletic youth in pure, simple play. But there’s something there we Americans gravitate toward to this day.
My sister and I were beguiled. Board shorts were ordered online. Surf magazines were passed back and forth and stared at until they fell apart. For us, surfing was symbolic of freedom and ultimate radness. A sense of intimacy with nature that we longed for. Is there anything cooler than the image of a sun-kissed surf girl diving through a blue-green wave or gliding along below the curl?
Part idyllic image of innocent paradise and part emblem of sexiness, surf lifestyle has been one of America’s staple images of cool since the Beach Boys hit the airwaves. We eat up beauty magazines’ tips about how to get “perfect beachy waves” in our hair, and are enthralled with anything Outside Magazine posts about Alana Blanchard or Laird Hamilton, even though very few of us have ever probably ridden a wave.
On family beach vacations, my sister and I would climb into ill-fitting shorty wetsuits and share a beat-up boogie board, staying out in Northern California’s chilly water as long as we could bear, spending the nights in sleeping bags on the beach until it was time to pack up and drive back across the country to our real lives.
Years later, my first surf lesson was a reality check of how difficult the sport really is. Pummeled all day, I think I maybe stood up on the board twice. I don’t know if it’s ever something I’ll be any good at, or if it will ever be a real part of my life, but it remains undeniably alluring. I think somewhere deep inside, we all secretly fancy ourselves surfers.
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