By Joseph Tsidulko
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By David Futch
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By Jill Stewart
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It would seem easy to chase the campers and surfers away, to another park and another beach elsewhere on the coast, until you spend some time at the San Mateo campground, walk the trail to the beach, hang around its most famous spot, “Trestles” — the birthplace, it is said, of modern surfing. Seen from the trailhead at San Mateo, the land rises indolently toward the Cleveland Mountains, off in the east, forming a vista of solitude — a Cooper’s hawk’s hunting ground. Out to the west, as the land falls away, the Pacific bends with the curvature of the Earth, and solitude gives way to amplitude. On the trail, the scrub comes to life with rustling birds, lizards and cottontail rabbits. Flocks of goldfinches, yellow as the flowering mustard grass that lines the trail, forage the branches of the willows and the twigs of the sage. A couple in their late 50s stop to compare notes. They believe they encountered a “gopher snake, out by marker 7,” the woman says. “I stood still, and the snake saw us watching him, and then he turned back into the brush.” After consulting the snake display, she revised her judgment. It was a garter snake, a harmless slitherer.
“We’ve seen bobcats, and early one morning we saw a mountain lion,” the man explains. “He vaulted a 7-foot-high fence with that wire strung across,” he says, gesturing with his hands to depict a gymnast topping a pommel horse made of concertina wire. “Up and over. It was like nothing . . .”
Passing under the I-5, the trail enters a different terrain. Known among surfers as “the jungle,” the path cuts through a tangle of sycamores and willows. The asphalt walkway is marred by graffiti. Faded, but still legible, one comment reads, “IF YOU DON’T LIVE HERE DON’T SURF HERE TURN BACK NOW.” The proprietary, and somewhat ominous, warning hasn’t scared anybody off. Nor has the official-looking adviso “Submerged Rocks, Uneven Rocks, Rip Current, No Lifeguard.”
Surfers made San Onofre beach. They named Trestles for the railroad bridge that crosses the lagoon, and they divided the rest of the surf breaks into Upper, Lower, Church, Cotton’s and San Onofre. They also transformed the sport, forever, at Trestles. According to Steve Pezman, the publisher of Surfer’s Journal and lifelong Trestles habituĂ©, in the summer of 1951, two kids broke from a pack of older surfers at ’Nofre, and set out for a white-water point a mile north. They carried “their 40-pound balsa chips on their heads [and] . . . conducted a sort of impromptu, mano-a-mano, radical duel maneuver to constantly top each other in the snappy curls at Lowers. The two youngsters invented most of what is done on a modern surfboard during that summer.”
Throughout the late 1950s, Marine MPs in jeeps patrolled the sands, playing cat-and-mouse with trespassing surfers. “There are legendary stories of the surfers and Marines fighting, having rock fights. Surfers would drive in, hide their cars in the bush, go out and surf, then sneak the car back out. The Marines would take their surfboards. There are rumors of a whole warehouse of surfboards sitting there,” Mark Cousineau, the local head of the Surfrider Foundation, says.
The legend of Trestles is alive in the pilgrimage surfers still make to the shores of the last Southern California beach intact from the earliest days of putting sticks in the water. There are just two ways to Trestles, by foot and by bike. The very act of walking in, toting a board, or of riding in, surfboard clasped in one hand, handlebars guided by the other, in that slow weave that reflects the precarious balance of board and rider, where the bike looks as if it can’t stay upright and the front wheel is on the verge of hairpinning inward, is “the San Onofre experience,” says Cousineau. The closest parking to the beach is a half-mile away. “There is no parking lot, there are no cars. The beach is not a mall. The mall is inland. Not to slam my friends in Huntington Beach, but if you want to just park your car and go to surf with 20,000 other people, fine. But that’s not what San Onofre is,” he says.
The feeling of surfer at one with wave, and beachcomber at one with sand and sun — even with the nuclear reactor in sight — arises from the clear topaz water of the lagoon and the unimpeded view of the Cleveland Mountains, straight up the valley. The landscape is able to speak for itself, to present its own picture, and this permits one to indulge the surroundings as if they were a work of art — colors and sounds and shapes and movements that require no mediation, only the senses. And, so, as if right on cue, an Australian man, carrying his surfboard, walking in the direction of the official Trestles break, turns his long, narrow face, fixes an almost pirate-mad smile, showing his crooked teeth, and pronounces, “G’day. No worries,” and walks on. That, too, is the San Onofre experience. No worries. Just lost in this place and time.