California Beach Culture

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September 9th 2011
Published: July 13th 2012
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Early redwood millEarly redwood millEarly redwood mill

Model of a redwood mill from the early days of Santa Cruz
Today, I am in one of California’s ultimate beach towns, Santa Cruz.

Cities near Los Angeles get all the publicity in this department, because they are much larger, but the much of the culture started here.

The Santa Cruz Museum of History and Art covers the story.

Santa Cruz History

Santa Cruz’s early history mirrors that of California as a whole (see The Golden State).

The first inhabitants were Native Americans.

Those who settled here were very good basket makers.

The first Spanish expedition arrived in 1592.

The area became a center of cattle ranching.

Spanish missionaries built a mission here in 1791, which gave the settlement its name.

American settlers started to appear in the early 1800s, mostly traders.

Things changed after the Americans officially took over in 1848.

Settlers in California wanted redwood wood for houses (see Big Trees).

Santa Cruz had the trees, along with a usable harbor close to San Francisco.

Loggers poured in.

The museum has a model of a lumber mill from those days.

Area businessmen also discovered the area had large deposits of limestone, a source of lime for cement.

They set up kilns in the hills and shipped the
Miss CaliforniaMiss CaliforniaMiss California

Momentoes from the early days of the Miss California pagent in Santa Cruz
lime by sea.

The character of the town changed dramatically after a railroad reached Santa Cruz in 1876.

Area businessmen expected it would be a cheaper way of shipping their products.

Instead, the railroad became a conduit TO Santa Cruz, for visitors.

San Francisco is incredibly cold and foggy in the summer (see San Francisco Modern).

Santa Cruz is sunny, warm, and close by.

Like St. Petersburg in Florida (see The City of Sunshine), tourists turned the place into a beach resort.

The promoters who came to cater to them helped create beach culture in California.

In 1885, businessman Lyman Swan had an idea for a publicity stunt that changed California forever.

While living in Hawaii, he saw locals riding waves on things they called “surf boards”.

After moving to Santa Cruz, he got the idea of bringing some of them over for a demonstration.

It worked better than he could have ever dreamed.

Surfing became a huge activity in Santa Cruz, and soon spread down the coast to Los Angeles.

California surfing culture started right here!

In 1904 Fred Swanton founded the Santa Cruz Boardwalk,
Loma Pietra EarthquakeLoma Pietra EarthquakeLoma Pietra Earthquake

Exhibit on the Loma Pietra earthquake
the oldest ocean side amusement park in California.

He based it on existing ones in Coney Island and Atlantic City.

It still exists.

Moviemakers now commonly use it as a double for its inspirations.

In 1924, Swanton borrowed another idea from Atlantic City.

Locals there held a beauty pageant every fall, to attract visitors when the water got cold.

This pageant ultimately inspired the Miss America pageant.

Swanton decided to do something similar and invite women throughout California.

After Miss America started, this contest became Miss California.

The museum has pictures of early winners, tiaras, and programs.

Santa Cruz got hit hard by the Depression and World War II.

Both dried up the tourist trade.

The war also took away young men and brought rationing.

Unlike the larger cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, Santa Cruz did not benefit from the huge influx of armaments industries to California.

Adding even more pain, the vibrant Asian community was devastated by internment of Japanese Americans at Myzanar.

The city did grow again after the war ended, but not to
Clock TowerClock TowerClock Tower

Clock tower in downtown Santa Cruz, one of the few things remaining from before the 1989 earthquake
the extent of beach communities in southern California.

If that wasn’t enough, in 1955 downtown was hit by a devastating flood.

It was probably inevitable that a community with cheap housing near a beach, not to mention a nearby university (UC Santa Cruz), would become a hippy hotbed.

Countercultural types flocked here in the 1960s, forming a larger percentage of the population than even San Francisco.

The newcomers became a force in local government.

They started a movement to preserve old buildings downtown, stopped several large developments near area beaches, and promoted the creation of local parks.

Their long legacy shows in that the city still has the reputation of a hippy hangout a full half century later.

The last part of the museum focuses on the 1989 Loma Pietra earthquake.

People focused on the huge damage in San Francisco and Oakland, but Santa Cruz was actually closest to the epicenter.

Literally every building in town was damaged, and most had to be torn down.

The display has a famous photo of the Charles Ford clothing store with a crack straight down the middle.

It also
Santa Cruz BeachSanta Cruz BeachSanta Cruz Beach

The main sands of Santa Cruz Beach
has a series of diaries written by elementary school children during the weeks afterward.

These are haunting to read.

Wood Sculpture

The art potion of the museum held a show on wood sculpture.

I tend to dislike this type of show because they focus on furniture and other decorative arts.

This one was different.

Mixed in with the furniture was true sculptures that happened to be made of wood.

A good example is a wall collage made from many types of wood by Matthew Werner, each of which has a different color and tree ring pattern.

The pieces are precisely cut and laid together to create a picture of a bird in flight.

The most stunning sculptures are the wood burl vases by Gary Stevens.

Wood burls are huge knots found on trees, such as the ones on the coastal trees in the Olympics (see Entering the Forest Kingdom).

Artists cut large ones from dead trees, hollow them out, and then carve them into amazing vases.

After the vase is polished, the tree rings form amazing patterns, remarkably similar to Dave Chihuly’s seashell glass sculptures.

Santa Cruz BoardwalkSanta Cruz BoardwalkSanta Cruz Boardwalk

The refurbished Coconut Grove building at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, the oldest beach amusement park in California

Every art show has a warning to not touch anything, because oil from people’s hands will degrade the work.

This show has the best version I have ever seen: “We know the works in our museum look delicious, but licking artwork is just plain silly”.

Except for the fact that Burning Man artwork promotes interaction, this sign belongs in Black Rock City!

I spent some time in downtown Santa Cruz after seeing the museum.

It has a high concentration of organic coffee shops, and a really good bookstore.

Most of the buildings are new, since downtown was basically destroyed by the Loma Pietra earthquake in 1989.

The northern end holds a Spanish style clock tower, which was built in the 1930s.

The post office also dates from this era, designed to look like a Spanish mission, with some pretty murals in the lobby.

Santa Cruz Beach

Since Santa Cruz the city existed long before the beach resort, downtown is nearly a mile from the beach.

The road reaches a rotary in front of a small ridge.

Climbing over the ridge reveals the famous beach.
A straight up mysteryA straight up mysteryA straight up mystery

Our guide demonstates one of the strange happenings in the Mystery Spot (with a bad pun for free!)

Finding parking other than expensive beachfront lots is pretty tough.

The beach itself curves away from a long pier, with mountains in the distance.

One of Santa Cruz’s ironies is that this most established of California beach resorts does not see sunsets over the water, because the beach faces east!

I wandered around on the sands for a while.

One part contains an astonishing number of beach volleyball nets.

Volleyball competes with surfing as the beach sport of California.

Another part near the road holds the Boardwalk amusement park.

Unfortunately, the park closes during the week once school starts, so I couldn’t visit.

Santa Cruz Mystery Spot

Since I had time available, I went to Santa Cruz’s strangest roadside attraction.

It’s famous enough locally that it was featured in an issue of Life Magazine in the 1950s.

Calling it ‘roadside’ though is a bit of a stretch; it’s far from the major highways.

I had to get directions from the visitor center to find the place.

I went to the Mystery Spot.

The sign pointed to a one lane dirt road through redwood
The Road to the PinnaclesThe Road to the PinnaclesThe Road to the Pinnacles

Its just what it looks like, one lane wide!

These are all second growth, and considerably smaller than those in Humboldt.

It finally ended at a large dirt parking lot next to a hillside.

The hillside contains the actual Spot.

The area must be seen with a guide.

The guide demonstrates all the strange things that supposedly happen here.

The Mystery Spot is one of several areas in the country where gravity and other natural laws (and possibly sanity) take a vacation.

Balls roll up hill.

People change heights.

Visitors climb the walls without support.

Pendulums swing in odd directions.

Buildings look slanted and skewed.

The guide accompanies all this with some truly atrocious puns.

Trust me; they are just part of the mystery (spot) of it all.

Careful study shows that everything is actually done with optical illusions.

The illusions are incredibly effective.

The Mystery Spot is one of the great roadside attractions that used to line American highways before the interstates came along.

The obvious corniness is what makes it such fun.

Like the best of the type, they have bumper stickers, which we got

One section of the Pinnacles
for free at the end of the tour.

After the Mystery Spot, I drove south.

The first part was along the coast.

The highway then veered away into a narrow valley between two mountain ridges.

The floor was absolutely covered in produce farms.

Large trucks filled with vegetable crates rumble by on occasion.

This is the Salinas Valley, where orchards are so productive local promoters gave it the name “The Salad Bowl of the World” almost a century ago.

About halfway along the valley, I turned onto a road into the surrounding mountains.

I have dealt with roads that were tricky to drive before (see Sacred Peaks) but this one made those look easy.

It may be the most difficult paved road in California.

For starters, it’s just wide enough for two cars to pass each other.

The road goes over lots of little hills as it winds its way into a ravine, Shirttail Canyon.

A sign then appears warning of a one lane road ahead.

Unbelievably, the road then becomes exactly that, one single lane.

To pass, people must pull onto the dirt
Balconies TrailBalconies TrailBalconies Trail

The Balconies trail, heading for the ravine

The one lane road then passes through the ravine, with lots of curves and other spots where the view ahead is rather short.

It finally climbs out of the ravine into the surrounding hills, with long distance views of rolling mountains.

These mountains have virtually no trees.

The road remains one lane.

It finally reaches a sign marking a National Monument, and returns to two lanes.

This is the longest stretch of one lane road (but two way traffic) I have ever driven, and I needed every bit of my trip experience to do it safely.

Pinnacles National Monument

So what could possibly be worth that drive?

The road ends at Pinnacles National Monument.

The area was once a volcano.

This volcano sat close to the San Andreas Fault, and earthquakes broke it apart.

The same glaciers that carved the surrounding hills split the remains even more.

The final result was a series of thin rocky spires called the Pinnacles.

The Balconies Trail in the monument provides a hike unique in California.

It goes through a talus cave.

As the spires split, narrow canyons
Balconies RavineBalconies RavineBalconies Ravine

Belive it or not, this is the easy part
formed between them.

Rocks fell off the pinnacles into these canyons.

Two of them (in different parts of the monument) have large enough gaps between the rocks to climb through.

For obvious reasons, check the weather forecast before taking this trail.

The trail first loops around the main area of spires and into a narrow ravine.

The ravine is dry but lined with cottonwood trees.

In several places it goes by large cliffs, which are favorite spots for rock climbers.

The ravine starts to fill with rocks, but they all sit on the sides.

It then reaches the real canyon, a narrow groove between two big cliffs.

A few huge boulders got trapped in this canyon, and the trail scrambles underneath them.

If this feels frightening, turn around because it gets much worse.

The canyon reaches a huge pile of rocks with a gap.

The gap marks the beginning of the talus cave.

Hikers require a headlamp to go any further.

Inside, the cave is large gaps between even larger rocks, all around.

The trail climbs a
Balconies Talus CaveBalconies Talus CaveBalconies Talus Cave

The exit to the Balconies talus cave
big pile of rocks, all underneath other rocks.

It reaches daylight on top of the boulders.

The view shows a pair of cliff walls rising a long way above, the source of all these rocks.

From there, the trail drops back into the boulder pile.

The climb just drops and drops.

Every time I thought it was over, arrows pointed yet deeper into the rocks.

This climb requires skillful rock scrambling, with no light but the headlamp.

Finally, a narrow dagger of light appears, the exit between two boulders.

This deposited me into another boulder choked canyon.

Pushing through finally revealed a wider ravine.

I can rock scramble, so I enjoyed this hike.

I enjoyed it so much I turned around at the wider ravine and did it twice!

The scramble is harder going back, because the initial climb is longer.

I reached my car near sunset, and watched the moon rise over the pinnacles.

The drive out was actually slightly easier than going in, because I could look for headlights to see approaching cars.


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