Orange County is often stereotyped. Just south of L.A., it’s known for its manicured golf courses and immaculate gated communities. But spend a few minutes with local artist Brian Bent and you suspect that the O.C. has perhaps been unfairly pigeonholed.
I’m waiting for Brian at Zebra House, a coffee shop in southern Orange County, and I hear him before I see him. A black Studebaker soon growls into the parking lot, the words “Hot Rod Church For Sinners” hand-painted across the door. I’ll soon learn this is a real church that Brian founded more than a decade ago—an effort to find some sanity after revving a bit too hard in the punk scene.
Exiting in ripped jeans and a hand-painte” shirt with ripped sleeves, Brian is still punk rock. He plays in a band with his 19-year-old daughter. He roller-skates in empty pools. He surfs in a striped wetsuit. But for more than a decade, Brian has been punk without the alcohol and anxiety. “I still go fast, but slow too,” he says after ordering his usual: a double latte with two pumps of caramel.
I like this. It fits the mission of my two-day road trip between L.A. and San Diego: to find a slow (or at least slower) Southern California.
Local artist Brian Bent has swapped punk rock for a slower pace of life in the OC—if you can call roller-skating, surfing, and playing in a rock band “slower”.
For the last few years, I’ve only come to L.A. for film writing. The result has been that the whole southern coast started living up to many of its stereotypes: everyone has two cell phones and only has time if you happen to know a famous director. But I have childhood memories of Southern California that are different. I remember this coast as weird and dreamy—at once ahead of its time and stuck in a James Dean photo. I’d really like to see if that still exists.
To help the cause, I’m driving a truck as easy-going as Brian is. Mine is a Mazda rotary-engined pickup circa 1975, one of just two years that Mazda put one of their legendary rotary engines into a truck. “Radical!” Brian shouts when he sees the ROTARY POWER stamp on the tailgate. “My dad had a Ford Courier with the Mazda engine. It had a roll bar and we took it off and built a skate ramp with it.”
“WHEN BRIAN RECOMMENDS HEADING TO HIS LOCAL BREAK, SAN ONOFRE, I DON’T EVEN CHECK THE SURF REPORT”
This leads to stream-of-consciousness banter about surf, cars, and life that lasts longer than any of my L.A. production meetings ever have. Clearly, I’m tuned into the right channel. So when Brian recommends heading to his local break, San Onofre, I don’t even check the surf report. As surfers like to say, I’m out there.
Any waterman with ambition knows that when you’re in San Clemente, you surf Trestles. This is where you’ll find the radical waves, the cameras. Kelly Slater often shows up.
San Onofre, by contrast, hosts a break called Old Man’s. It is not where the cool kids are hanging out. But that’s also the point. And I’ve purposefully brought a Las Olas singlefin—a board designed in a style older than the truck—to keep me surfing on Moondoggie pace.
Rolling down the Pacific Coast Highway, it does take some effort to unstick my eyes from the peeling lines at Trestles. But as I turn off on the dirt road to Old Man’s—parking next to a dusty line of pickups, station wagons, and campers—I’m very glad I did.
“My uncle had one of these,” says Pete, a stand-up paddleboarder who beelines for the truck while I’m waxing up. “He’d take me catfish fishing at the end of a dirt road. All I remember is hitting my head on the roof a lot.” Mike, a long-haired mechanic, soon meanders up with his dog. Unprovoked, he begins teaching us how rotary engines work.
The waves may be righteous at Trestles, but the vibe at Old Man’s is just right. And out in the water, it’s equally laid back: a crew of teenage girls giggle with their leather-skinned dads, and some boys learn to surf on soft-tops, sitting in the same pack with the expert longboarders who seem to dance across the rollers like pelagic ballerinas. Slowcoast L.A. may still exist—at least at the end of dirt roads.
Sticking with the slow-cool theme, I’ve booked a beach shack in Oceanside, about 20 miles south of here. Being a military town, Oceanside is charmingly stuck in 1992. So instead of ten coffee shops per block, you still have divey burger joints, donut shops, and wonderful taquerias like Diego’s, which will serve you French fries with cheese and rolled tacos at 10:30 in the morning for $3.75.
Crashing in Oceanside turns out to pay off surfwise too. Unlike just about anywhere between Ventura County and Mexico, paddling out at the crack of dawn can still mean surfing alone (at least until about 7:15 a.m. when I’m joined by three friendly marines).
After surfing the pier all morning, I meet up with my friend Shelby Stanger at Haggo’s Organic Tacos in Encinitas, San Diego County’s new-wave, yet pleasantly tasteful, hippie town.
Here, under posters of Wes Anderson flicks, we feast on vegetarian tacos, sip kombucha, and talk about how surfing has changed. “I miss the rough-around-the-edges town I grew up in sometimes,” says Shelby. “But it’s also rad here. People care about their health, but they still like to be weird. Last night at midnight, I surfed under a full moon with 20 other girls, and there were people juggling flaming hula-hoops on the beach. I was thinking, wow, this just wouldn’t happen anywhere else.”
True. And Encinitas is still a place where crowded doesn’t have to mean hectic.
After tacos, Shelby and I head down for a surf at Swamis—a spot that got its name from the yoga ashram that overlooks the waves. The reef break is as crowded as West Hollywood at rush hour. But sharing waves and stories with Shelby, I don’t feel cramped. After a wonderfully slow two days on the road, I feel back in tune with the Southern California of my youth—the one that can’t be powered with lithium ion batteries and doesn’t fit into a production schedule.
This Southern California is thankfully still about a sunset surf with a friend. And a ride home in a super-cool, classic ‘70s truck.
THE MAZDA ROTARY PICKUP
The Mazda Rotary Pickup (REPU) was built between 1974 and 1977 with just over 15,000 examples produced for the U.S. and Canada. With a four-port 1.3-liter 13B four-barrel carbureted engine, flared fenders, and distinctive round taillights, the REPU was the world’s first—and only—rotary-engined pickup truck.
On the REPU’s launch, Road & Track magazine commented on its “smooth, quiet power” and “nice” interior. To this day, you’ll find most examples of these extremely rare trucks living on the U.S. West Coast, where they continue to be cared for, and sought out, by a small band of extremely devoted enthusiasts. As is so often the case with Mazda rotary-powered vehicles, the REPU enjoyed a distinguished racing career, its most notable finish being an overall victory at the 1975 SCCA Mojave 24 Hour Rally.