A Santa Barbara Homecoming
Surf Photographer Donnie Hedden Boomerangs Back to His Childhood Home
Somewhere in West Texas, gazing upon the low, rolling hills of cracked dirt and dusted vegetation that extend seamlessly into the horizon, I was reminded of my upbringing as a deckhand on the family boat offshore of Santa Barbara. I thought of the long, juvenile stares into a similarly seamless horizon, a surprisingly soothing soundtrack of excited German tourists and my dad’s pirate-themed narration easing the lengthy summer days along.
I was beginning to like Texas, the people, rich in heritage, boisterous in greeting, and endlessly hospitable to us transient dirtbags. However, as my two road accomplices Jon and Kern dug their limbs deep into the engine compartment of our ’83 Vanagon for the umpteenth time, it was clear that the expansive geography, dry heat, and ever-permeating dust of this area were in opposition to our determined trek to the coast.
I was in the middle of a pilgrimage home from Tennessee, an ambitious three-month endeavor alongside two of my best Nashville buds who had recently decided surfing was their one and only pursuit. I was born and raised on the fickle sport, so I happily seized the role of tour guide, surf instructor, and documenter.
It had been nearly four years since I had been home to stay. My sea legs nearly expired, I looked up one day from a plateful of flourishing Nashville stimulation consisting of music, photography, and a quality lady amid a quality community and let my imagination smoothly execute a fade takeoff into a waist-high runner in the cove at Rincon: a light drag of the hand on the smooth, consistent curl, knees locked, my gaze panning about the bustling late-afternoon activity on the shore, that vacant house of glass reflecting the sun, and the ominous burning flame on the other side of the 101. The siren and timeless call of the sea was upon me.
I had exhausted all the cement waves and banks that Nashville had to offer, and daydreams of the ocean began to throb like migraines. I packed my camera and the memories and skills Nashville so graciously provided and hit the road west — eyes glued out the window, scouting for stories to document in celebration of this reunion with the coast. It was time to go home.
One of my richest memories of home comes in the form of an 11-year-old, toe-headed me standing in the auto bay of a gas station explaining to the attendant named Merrill about the swell that was sweeping the coastline of Santa Barbara and how I, as an avid surfer, had a responsibility to participate in the ocean’s current activity. He stood there, tall and thick, poker-faced, arms crossed, peering at me without blinking through his large, square-framed spectacles, a blue pen and tire pressure gauge in his front pocket and a red rag hanging out the back pocket of his coveralls. Fortunately, I had the better hand: My grandpa Roy Jensen owned the small but hearty station on East Valley Road in Montecito, and as an employee of the establishment, by default, Merrill’s duties included transporting the boss’s grandson to the beach in the service truck. “Did you tell your Mom where I’m dropping you off?” was always Merrill’s question as I stood on the back tire retrieving my eclectic array of secondhand surf equipment. I assured him she knew my whereabouts, and I was off, disappearing into the dust of the late-winter sun down the Hammonds trail.
Trade out the lush beach access of Montecito for the scorched earth between Dallas and Lubbock, and it dawned on me that I was making the same old scramble for the beach all over again. It was the energy of Jon and Kern, frothing on pure speculation of the sport of surfing, that pushed us through. The car fixed with some duct tape, a paper clip, and a few phone calls, we were able to make it out of that grand state.
At rest stops across the country, I led classes in surfing etiquette, history, and approach. Like the promise of gold motivating a move west, we pushed on through painted deserts and wooded highlands toward the coast of Santa Barbara. I found myself celebrating the hidden joys of surfing with two guys I would have written off as kooks if they showed up at my beach four years prior. My perspective on surfing was changing as frequently as the landscapes outside my window.
These eager and inquisitive surf foreigners questioned my inherited approach to the sport. I began to realize that growing up, I simply followed the footsteps of my friend’s brothers and a guy named Kelly Slater. It was not an entirely negative circumstance, just an unexamined selfish pursuit to catch the best waves and hack the lip off any set still standing.
Now, here I was, a new parent of sorts, transferring my interest of surfing to the livelihoods of Jon and Kern, surfing newborns who would soon enough learn how to navigate the overcrowded lineups and the seemingly necessary plethora of pricey surf crafts. It may sound dramatic, but I felt a responsibility to make sure these surf toddlers didn’t grow into troubled, fistfighting teens or speechless, ill-mannered, hooded recluses. Or adopt an unexamined hate for longboarders and stand-up paddlers. Or, perhaps worst of all, mistake the role of who is really in control of the ocean.
I dug deep into the vaults of my earliest encounters with surfing: the experiences that reeled me in and hooked me for life. I vividly remember the stiff neon green and blue wet suit forming my limbs into a power stance. I started already standing up on an old Yater spoon, my dad pushing me throughout the lineup, waiting for a gap in the traffic to send his young child down the line. I glided in — no pop-up necessary — eyes fixed on the freeway, legs and arms braced for the survival of the most thrilling experience my 6-year-old self could ever dream up.
Jump three years ahead, and I find myself amid a carnival of groms, hometown hero Davey Smith behind the wheel of the car. Our bearings set for an empty beach break near Goleta, a mixed bag of skills and boards with a glowingly consistent thread of smiles weaving together our mutual fervor for the sport. Over peanut butter sandwiches and tandem shenanigans I learned that surfing is supposed to be enjoyed like a school playground with your best and worst pals.
Now, huddled around our cooking meal, dodging the winds behind the large boulders of Joshua Tree, we’re a day out from the coast — the sea breeze nearly in reach, those warm northeast winds that parade the backlit crests to the beach almost recognizable in the desert air. The book closed that night on my transformative years in the South, a culture that could not exist any farther away from the environmentally inclined, yoga-mat-toting, surf-crazed residents who define the sliver of coast that is Santa Barbara.
I’d like to think I guided my two seafaring friends safely through the peaks and valleys, trials and tribulations of surfing over the next three months, but in reality, it was the coastal community that took care of them. I simply took a seat right next to them, taking notes and making space both mentally and on my hard drives for a radically revolutionized appreciation for what the people and landscapes of this place have to offer.
That collision of cultures and my assimilation back to the perfect Mediterranean climate of this coastline happened exactly a year ago. Since then I’ve been happily working my way back to a front-row seat to the concert of surfing talent performed by the band of invested and eclectic watermen and women who both traverse and steward the sought-after and ever-rare swells that march to these beaches. And what a show it is.
There are the spontaneous lines of Travers Adler, navigating the crowds with rogue limb shakes and high fives, contributing to the richness of the lineup in and out of the water with his virtuoso musical offerings. Then there’s the journey of area groms like Lakey Peterson — a once spastic 10-year-old putting me to shame on the mini-ramp now grown into a fearless female role model, exuding powerful currents of positivity in both the industry and her signature carving cutbacks. I note the wild hoots and hollers of Troy Mothershead, a man with a priority for fun and the sporadic hanging of heels.
I’m enthralled by the relationships of area shapers and surfers, the catering of minute concaves and outlines in blocks of foam to complement the unique styles of wave sliding, slicing water tension, and the art of maintaining buoyancy all the while. The relationship of shaper Ryan Lovelace and surfer Trevor Gordon comes to mind; however, the list goes on and back through the generations to the original architects that laid these fiberglass foundations of our storied surfing community.
Everybody has to leave their home and come back so they can love it again for all new reasons. I’d heard the old line thousands of times, even from trusted sources, but never did I take it seriously until it was upon me: the post-session nasal drains, the colorful gatekeepers of the local lineup, the simple joy of racing a section, the sun firing its light through a thin sliver in the stormy winter horizon — a laundry list of unparalleled phenomenon to be introduced to all over again.
From the bone-chilling, eerie winter waters of North County to the playful and balmy rare rollers of summer, it’s been a celebratory reunion with this coast, a rekindling of subject matter through the vantage point of my camera lens. I revisited Stearns Wharf and the maintenance workers who were my second family growing up on the family boat business based off that infamously flammable pier. I rediscovered the landscapes of the historic cattle ranches that my mother would drag me along to as she transposed those golden hills onto canvas, and sure enough their western edge still beams with surf.
Today I sit blissfully wearing a smile, shoulder to shoulder, in the floating waiting room at Rincon, considering all the alternative waiting rooms I could be occupying. And the second my blood starts to boil when an unidentified wave crook cuts in line, I quickly remind myself of the peanut butter sandwiches and tandem shenanigans that brought me back here: the mop-headed harbor rat with the oversize secondhand booties who grew a beard, your son’s best friend who convinced you to drive to Oxnard Shores too early on that Saturday morning and finally grew up and got a job. The ingredients of my story aren’t exclusive — everyone else in the Rincon rat race shares a similar lineage of pubescent stoke. It is a unifying truth that I try to remember amid the daily saltwater hustle.
Scraping just enough funds off the fruits of my labor with the camera, I’m making this comeback story work. Within the onset of this already promising and always exclusive season for surf, I carry the cultural souvenirs of Nashville with me — that sweet and slow pace of Tennessee, the holding of an open door for a stranger. These lingering scents of the South seem to draw out my bottom turns, prolong the blissful trims just a little bit longer, and open my eyes to the shimmering and surging saltwater dance floor ringing with its feverish winter buzz outside my window — outside all of our windows. It is good to be home.