Back in 1967, a teenage Frosty Hesson spent his summer alternating between listening to bands in Golden Gate Park and surfing the cold waters of neighbouring Ocean Beach. A few years later, along with many other young San Franciscans, he had drifted down to Santa Cruz, a classic Californian beach town to the south of the Bay Area. ‘You had hippies, students and surfers all mixing together, a bunch of non-conformists finding away of life they enjoyed,’ recalls Frosty, standing on the dramatic headland at Steamer Lane, a renowned surfing spot. ‘There’s still a lot of radical thinking around here. Perhaps there’s something in the water,’ he says, as a classic campervan pulls up next to him, with a ‘Keep Santa Cruz weird’ sticker brandished on its bumper.
In the ocean below, a pod of younger surfers look like seals in their sleek wetsuits. Not far beyond them, an otter plays in the forest of kelp. A pelican swoops past and the barks of sea lions reverberate out from underneath the town wharf – signs that the decades-long clean-water campaign here is working to good effect. A short stroll away, the sandy sweep of Cowell Beach and vintage fairground rides on the boardwalk are beginning to fill with holidaymakers. At Steamer Lane, Frosty is soon joined by other silver-haired surfing legends who’ve been in town since the ’60s. One of them, Jane McKenzie, arrives on her bicycle carrying her long board. ‘You see those waves and feel humbled by an entity greater than you. It’s a certain kind of person who’s drawn here,’ she says, looking out at the growing swell.
By late afternoon, the engorged tide is too enticing to resist. The old-timers slip into the water. On the cliff above, a circle has formed around a guitar player. Nearby a group of students are hula-hooping, their neon rings glinting in the setting sun. Here, at least, it seems summer might last forever.