Summer Special #3: Beaches, Bonfires, Oil and Surfing

What’s more Californian than the beach?  Actually there are a number of things, but I’ll let you live the fantasy for now.

Being a former Floridian, I’m well acquainted with the beach lifestyle.  I grew up visiting Gulf Breeze Beach (the world’s whitest beaches – as I was always told).  It also has the civil war fort, Fort Pickens.  The only southern located one to be held by the North throughout the entire war.

But there is something alluring about the famous California coast.  Many then might find it strange that it took me almost 5 years before I actually saw it and felt the waters of the Pacific Ocean against my legs.  Life gets in the way, but some things are worth the wait.

This was one of them.

Bolsa Chica Aug. 2013

Bolsa Chica Aug. 2013

Beaches and Bonfires

I was invited to a beach day / bonfire at Bolsa Chica State Beach hosted by a group of students from my university.  It was to be the last one for the season, before school started again.  I only knew one person there, but that is what events like this are good for.  Meeting new people, seeing the Pacific Ocean from a view other than through an airplane window and taking photos.  Lots and lots of gorgeous photos.

As I get out of the car I’m greeted by the salt air.  It brings back a thousand memories of my childhood.  It makes me want to throw off my shoes and dig my feet deep into the sand.  I can almost hear the squeaking sound my footsteps made when I ran through the sand at Gulf Breeze.  The sand here doesn’t comply, but the feel of it is the same.

And the wind!  Despite the famous Santa Ana winds, where I live and go to school is severely lacking in strong wind.  Not at the beach though.  The winds chill the summer heat quickly.  I’m glad I brought a jacket.  I wish I’d brought two.  I want to race right into the waves and feel the water suck away the sand beneath my feet so that I feel like I’m going to fall over.  But there are people to meet and food to eat.  I never pass up free food.

The bonfire is already lit.  It doesn’t compare to the beauty of the sun as it slowly falls away behind the mountains.  I’m more distracted by the man gilding across the water, the couple playing the guitar and my group standing around the bonfire, watching them interact with each other.  The photographer in me is in heaven.  Suffice to say I spend the majority of the time snapping photos from as many angles as possible.  I curse myself for not having a better camera, but they’re out of my price range.

As the night comes though, I stick closer to the bonfire.  Taking pictures of it as I also try to keep warm.  I listen to others’ conversations and the sound of breaking waves.  I can see lights from the harbors off in the distance and a massive orange moon rising in the opposite direction.  Is it too cliché to say it was a magical night?  Well, it was.

An Oil Past

These beaches though weren’t always so beautiful.  The history of Orange County beaches, of many beaches along the SoCal coast used to be dominated by the drilling of oil.

According to the city guide of Huntington Beach:

“… a forest of derricks lining the beaches led to the nickname “Oil City,”  The mass of debris that collected along the beach caused the locals to nickname it “Tin Can Beach”.   “The kids would end up with cuts all over their feet from all the tin can lids buried in the sand…” said Ed Sweeny a resident during the 1940’s and 1950’s.  This changed in 1961 when the state finally cleaned up the beach and turned it into Bolsa Chica State Beach.

Surf History

This history of oil along beaches was also mentioned by surfers, authors and professors Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul in a lecture they gave at my university this month.  The remnants of oil drilling were scattered along the beach and in the ocean, which occasionally got the authors cut up when they surfed.  Their book, “The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing” discusses the origins of surfing in Hawaii to the commercialization of it today.

Inventor of the wetsuit, Hugh Bradner.  Image from

Inventor of the wetsuit, Hugh Bradner. Image from

They address the social aspect of surfing but also go beyond it and talk about how technology and the military played a significant part in creating better, lightweight boards and wetsuits among other things.  Better boards allowed all types of people, specifically women to be able to surf.  (Think Gidget).  There is also a section on the environmental aspect of how surfers use and change beaches.

Even though surfing is “so Californian,” it has a history that stretches from the once isolated coast of Hawaii to the oceanless Midwest, where one of the Peters mentioned how surf-style clothing (Hawaiian shirts/swim trunks) can be found in the shopping malls.

So when you think about beaches in relation to California and anywhere else, realize that there is far more to them than just a good time standing next to bonfires and watching sunsets.  There is a deep geographical history shaping them and how you interact with them.

Here’s a link to the article on the surfing lecture by a Daily 49er writer (my campus paper).


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