Michael Summers: 1969–2021

Mike Summers had only been gone for a few days, and he already appeared to have commandeered the control room upstairs. While rivers of tears still flowed among his extensive family of friends in Santa Barbara, they stopped to marvel at a weather anomaly unlike any they had ever witnessed. Amid intermittent rain, the sky was suddenly transformed into an impressionist painting — cascading with pink and purple clouds, a glowing orange orb, a breathtaking lightning show, and a few rainbows for good measure. They coined it “Tropical Storm Summers,” and it was easy to imagine him cackling with glee as he pushed all the buttons.

Summers couldn’t have been a more appropriate name for such a man. It always felt like summer when you were in his orbit. Anyone in his voluminous network would agree that he was the sun in our solar system. Whenever he greeted a friend, he bellowed their name with gusto and then wrapped them up in an enormous bear hug. There was never a doubt as to how much he cared about you. The sincerity in all his actions was as steadfast as the tides.

Mike would have found it poetic that he died on September 30 — the birthday of one of his musical heroes, Trey Anastasio. He was 52 years young when he suffered a heart attack while vacationing in Colorado with his partner of almost 10 years, Heather Smith. The two were getting away to process the grief of losing their dog, Ziggy. Mike was a huge dog person who had a particular affection for chocolate Labs. He is survived by Rhythm and joins his longtime companion, Max.

A few days before his passing, he enjoyed the best fishing trip of his life on the Colorado River. He had become an avid fly-fisherman in recent years and gotten very good at it. “He gave everything 110 percent,” his longtime friend Ian Zellet attested. “Whether it was throwing a party, going on an adventure in nature, or just being with his friends, he was all in.” He was both notoriously outgoing and soulfully introspective. He was a big kid at heart who owned a marshmallow crossbow launcher and once signed off an email to his team at work, “Check ya later!”

Michael Shawn Summers was born in Canoga Park and later moved to the Bay Area. According to his mother, Lynda, his affinity for music began at the age of 4, when he picked up a Casio keyboard on a trip to Hong Kong. He was a self-taught guitarist with a beautiful voice. There was nothing better than sitting around a campfire and listening to Mike go into human jukebox mode. He took great joy in playing for his family on trips to the Bay Area, where he cherished being an uncle to the four daughters of his brother John and fiancée Renee.

Following a family tradition, Mike enlisted in the Navy straight out of high school and served four years as an electronics technician. From there, he went to UCSB in a move that would shape the course of the rest of his life. When James Studarus met him there, Summers was a rock-climbing vegan who’d ascended Yosemite’s crown jewel, El Capitan. “He always had the deepest care for people, the environment, and community. That was a thread that ran through his entire life,” Studarus reflected. “He was a dreamer. He had grand visions. He didn’t like hearing ‘no’ for an answer. He wanted to go big with everything he did.”

While Mike was working in sales for Patagonia, the two cofounded the Conception Coast Project. They collaborated for seven years on this endeavor, seeking protection for an extensive network of landscapes. According to Jeff Kuyper — executive director of Los Padres Forest Watch — “Mike Summers was an icon in the local wilderness conservation movement, working for nearly two decades to protect pristine landscapes across California’s Central Coast region.” His efforts culminated in what is now the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act. On the verge of passing through the Senate, the bill envisions wilderness protection for more than 250,000 acres of land and 180 miles of streams and rivers. “Mike’s enduring legacy is stamped into the bedrock of local, grassroots wilderness preservation.”

No matter how busy Mike became as the senior sales manager at Inogen, he and Heather always found the time to immerse in nature. They gravitated to the annual wildflower bloom on the Carrizo Plain. They prioritized getaways with the dogs to places like the Kern River or Bishop, where they sought out petroglyphs and waterfalls. She remembered, “He could tell me what kind of tree it was, what kind of bird it was, how this mountain got folded beneath the other one millions of years ago. He was so excited about the future, getting a Sprinter van and doing remote work while we explored every facet of nature.”

Sailing was another pursuit Mike was extremely passionate about. Having earned his captain’s license, he once sailed a group of friends to the Channel Islands, where they swam in bioluminescence under a meteor shower. He intended to sail to Hawai‘i within the next year.

Mike was a unicorn. He was equally comfortable directing his team of 60 employees, leading the way in environmentalist think tanks, or producing music festivals — as he did in 2016 and 2018 — at the Live Oak Campground in Santa Ynez. He was a romantic intellectual — a voracious reader on subjects of quantum physics and cosmology. He was a cooking enthusiast who had recently tapped in to the secrets of authentic paella and drew praise for his smoked brisket. He loved sharing inspiring quotes in his daily work emails and for years included a favorite Jack Kerouac quote in emails to friends. Ultimately though, he didn’t even need to try. The man effortlessly embodied inspiration just by being unabashedly who he was.

A Mike Summers memoriam wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the legendary parties he used to throw at his former West Camino Cielo residence — “The Mountain House.” People still talk about the New Year’s Eve celebration in 2005 with music until dawn by Santa Barbara’s favorite sons, ALO. The celebration was coined “The Divine Ball,” and Mike shimmered the brightest as a sun god, decked head-to-toe in golden sequins. He was never accused of holding back when it came to dressing for a special occasion. On that night and many others, he treated the crowd to what became his signature song, “Loving Cup” by the Rolling Stones. He was and will always be “the man from the mountain.”

His longtime housemate Sean Marnane summed him up: “If he was a comic book villain, his name would have been ‘Superlator.’ His whole life was based on superlatives. Everything was the best — the best show, the best party, or the best camping trip.” Over the past year, his favorite song was “The Luckiest Man” by the Wood Brothers. He had become obsessed with the lyrics and the message behind them. Heather recalled, “He would belt it out in the car like he was performing on stage.” Mike’s existence encapsulated that song title, and those of us who loved him will carry the gratitude for his friendship into the wild blue yonder.

A memorial for Mike Summers will be held at SOhO from noon-5 p.m. on Saturday, December 11. Tickets available at sohosb.com.


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