AN HOMAGE TO THE CALIFORNIA COAST
Words by Teva Todd | Photography by Teva Todd & Alex Howard
We sat stranded at 1 a.m., freezing, lost on some backroads deep in the thick of it. Ryan’s face was swelling up, the truck was stuck, and we had no way of reaching the rest of our crew. Could this be it?
Trips like this never come easy. Easy would deprive the fun, taking away the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears. Trips like this are earned, built from the ground up, and seized with no remorse.
As the truck rumbled up the coast before our seven-day excursion from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I ask Alex Howard where it all began. It certainly wasn’t some half-planned, rushed-out idea that magically happened. To get a solid crew of seven dudes, two brand-new Triumphs, six boards and copious amounts of beer took a bit of planning that all started back in 2019.
“A brothers’ moto trip up the California Coast sparked those early thoughts of ‘what if,’” Alex said.
For many, the two iconic cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles are what come to mind when California is muttered. Always Point A or Point B, but rarely what’s in between. Alex has spent years scouring the 400-plus miles of coastline between those two cities in search of waves hidden from plain sight. And on that trip in 2019, many waves were seen. If only they had boards…
And right there, the idea was born.
Picture this: two worlds colliding in a beautiful fusion of adrenaline and freedom. One world offers the thrill of the ride, the wind rushing through your hair as you navigate the open road on two wheels. The other world invites you to conquer the waves, to become one with the ocean on a board beneath your feet. Both provide a means of escape from the chaos of daily life, a way to reconnect with the world around you. It may seem simple, but the reality is far more exhilarating. It took years of planning, choosing the perfect routes, waiting for the ideal weather window, and convincing a group of seven guys to set aside a whole week for this adventure. And finally, the moment had arrived. We were ready to hit the road and embark on an unforgettable journey.
At last, here we are.
I received a phone call a couple of weeks prior. Ryan, one of the riders, was on the other end. He was going off about some moto surf trip that’s supposed to go down. They planned to document the entire trip to make a cool story and short film, but they lost their photographer. I had just moved down to Southern California and was eager to get back on the road. And as luck would have it, I was in the right place at the right time. This call was my golden ticket.
There were two riders: Ryan Stojanovich and Aaron Dorff. Both watermen at heart, with exceptional riding skills. This would be their first trip on bikes together, and bringing Aaron on board at the last minute was the perfect match-up for a good time, with his giddy personality and cheerful soul.
Though you won’t see it in the resulting film, the other crew members were just as important. Down in the thick of it. Through and through. As you might have guessed, Alex Howard was the mastermind behind the trip: directing, filming, droning, you name it. Cinematographer Johnny Harrington (John-boy) was there, too. He has worked with Alex on many projects and filmed everything on his RED while hanging out the sides and backs of trucks. Eli Lee, who composed all the music in the film, supported the crew and ensured we stayed on track. Eric Dodds served as project coordinator, gathering all the support from our sponsors on the trip.
As for me, well, I was just glad to snap a few photographs and write this piece you’re reading now.
And so, the story begins.
The alarm goes off at 4 a.m. The goal was to film the opening scene in San Francisco at sunrise. With only a few hours before first light, we had some miles to gain; it was time to hit the road.
As the sun rose over the Golden Gate Bridge, the sound of engines revving and horns blaring loomed over, signaling the city’s awakening. Eager to leave, we rushed out of there. But it was too late; the concrete jungle had already ensnared us. Traffic: a relentless reminder of the soul-crushing reality of city life. The urge to break free and hit the waves grew more potent by the second.
“Can we please leave this madness behind and find some peace in the water?” Aaron would ask over the comms.
Despite the traffic, traversing the iconic hills of San Francisco on a motorcycle was a truly exhilarating experience. Watching Aaron and Ryan weave through the bustling streets, we saw the city’s unique vibe took hold. The buildings seemed to reach the sky, and the vibrant neighborhoods were full of life and color. Descending upon Highway 1 from Fort Point, the shimmering Pacific Ocean unveiled itself. The crisp ocean air and the Pacific Coast’s beauty were so fresh and raw that it felt like we had stumbled upon a hidden gem in plain sight. The bikes roared to life as we finally hit the road south: first stop, San Francisco’s Ocean Beach.
Surfing OB is not for the faint of heart, as it’s known for its challenging and powerful waves that break in shallow water. But the rewards can be breathtaking for those brave enough to paddle out. Even though it’s a gnarly beach to surf, like every wave, it can potentially deliver moments of true revelation.
Our stop was painfully brief, thanks to the relentless westerly winds that destroyed any hopes of paddling out. As every surfer understands, finding the perfect conditions on a surf trip is akin to a miracle. The winds, tide, swell and weather all must align in your favor, or else you’re left feeling disappointed and defeated. And if just one of these elements is off, you’re likely to have a less-than-stellar experience – if you even get to catch a wave at all.
We continued our efforts farther south toward Santa Cruz as the cloudbursts brewed.
After spending hours scouring the stormy 80-mile stretch of coast, coming up empty-handed at every turn, frustration and disappointment weighed heavily on our shoulders. But we refused to give up hope. As we rolled into Santa Cruz, the birthplace of cold-water surfing and home to legendary wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill, we held on to the glimmer of possibility that conditions might finally shift in our favor. Fortuitously, everything aligned just as the sun descended toward the horizon. The winds calmed, the rains slowed, the water surface grew cleaner, and the swell from the previous storm lingered, beckoning us into its grasp.
Suited up, Aaron and Ryan paddled out. Carving up lines on the waves as the sun emerged from behind the clouds, a painted sky unveiled with a stunning rainbow backdrop. This was a moment of pure bliss, washing away any frustration they had felt from the day’s earlier failures – a blessed opener to a legendary trip.
The boys were just now getting out of the water as the sun went down. Food waited alongside a few ice-cold beers, and it was well-earned – nothing like scarfing down calories after a deficit and cracking a cold one. Alex was on the phone with Eli; he said a warm bunker awaited our arrival. It was time to hunker in for the night, add more members to our crew, and map out our route for the day ahead.
Eli’s compound is a true hidden gem, nestled among the trees of Santa Cruz. The property boasts a charming home that hugs the creek, along with a vintage barn that he has converted into his personal workshop and at-home recording studio.
Music has been a constant companion for Eli since he first picked up an instrument at the age of nine. Even after spending over a decade working as an environmental scientist, music remained a vital tool for him to process and make sense of the world around him. And now, he’s traded in his lab coat for a guitar, making his debut as a scientist-turned-musician with his first written, recorded and produced album featured in the film we are making. It’s a testament to his incredible talent and passion, and a true reflection of the man behind the music.
Meanwhile, the bikes thundered into Eli’s barn, and with a hiss, more beers cracked open. The whole crew was finally together. We caught up over a roasting fire while Eli played music into the night. It was then that we all felt it, a sense of triumph and gratitude that welled up inside us. All the years, effort and planning had finally paid off. The trip we had once thought a dream was now a reality. Emotions ran high that night, full of deep appreciation for what it took to get there. As the stars swirled overhead and the fire crackled, our thoughts drifted to the coming days and what lay ahead.
The following morning, the crew was raring to go, fueled by the promise of endless waves and boundless fun. Our destination for the night would be a cabin outpost our buddy Steve Page, aka Scuba, Steve had been building deep within Big Sur’s mountains. There were 200 miles and five hours of riding ahead that would cover some of Earth’s most pristine coastal views. Smokestacks materialized as we sped past Moss Landing and into Monterey Bay. The unique coastline revealed cunning panoramas of redwoods, dunes and rocky cliffs reaching out towards the bay. At the south end, the iconic 17-Mile Drive tempted us with its breathtaking views, but the boys wanted only one thing: waves.
Just as Aaron and Ryan were thinking that they might not find any surf-worthy spots, we turned and saw it: crystal-clear blue waters, a shifting sandbar and offshore winds. The perfect mix for epic barrels. Pulling up to those crowdless waves was something special – it’s not every day you get to score barreling waves in an empty lineup, let alone be able to share it with friends. Again, everything had to align for this to happen, and for a few precious hours, they experienced pure perfection before the winds changed direction, and it all faded into a dream.
Finally, the boys came running out of the water, but something seemed wrong; Ryan was holding his face. With a rueful expression, he recounted how he took a “Tyson-sized left hook” from his board after getting tossed while pulling into a barrel – probably the most challenging and dangerous maneuver in surfing, especially when six-foot waves are breaking in knee-high water carrying enough force to shatter your spine. But, in a testament to Ryan’s unwavering love of the ocean, it sure didn’t seem to dampen his spirit.
Not 10 minutes went by, though, before yet another problem. Aaron’s bike wouldn’t start. Great, a dead battery. The boys spent the next 20 minutes racing up and down the street, trying to push-jump the bike to no avail. What now? Luckily a friendly neighbor noticed the two struggling and the loud laughter from the rest of us as we watched this unfold. He came out with jumper cables. Problem solved. We thank the universe for sending us some good karma, or maybe it was just the universe’s way of keeping us on our toes. Either way, it was time to get back on the road.
Pushing past the sleepy beach town of Carmel, we eagerly embarked on one of the most awe-inspiring stretches of the California Coast: Big Sur. With each twist and turn of the road, we were met with breathtaking views of rugged, untamed coastline stretching as far as the eye could see. The salty tang of the sea air filled the boys’ lungs as they roared down the road on their motorcycles, eagerly anticipating the journey ahead. The winding highway carried us past iconic landmarks like the Bixby Bridge, its arches soaring high above the waves crashing below. The sun was setting, casting a warm golden glow over the rugged landscape, urging us to push on despite the dwindling light. The urgency of our mission was palpable – we needed to reach camp before nightfall enveloped us completely.
We managed a choppy last-second phone call to Alex and Eric, who went on ahead, determined to meet up with Steve and pave the way for the rest of us. Directions were vague, but we journeyed on, nonetheless. No comms, no real sense of directions other than a few remarks like, “turn left at this fork, go another five minutes down the road, make a right,” etc. It got late, and the temperature dropped fast. It was 32 degrees out but felt more like 25 from the blaring wind chills. We had been navigating through the dark for almost an hour. We should have been there by then. Where the fuck were we?
As frustration arose, hunger set in, and the boys’ hands neared freezing, Johnny’s front wheel plunged into a riverbed hole carved out by the recent storms and came to a jarring stop. Great. If Johnny’s truck was stuck, we would be screwed. We didn’t have a support rig big enough to haul his heavy-loaded Ram out of the rut. Ten minutes turned into another hour, and everyone’s tensions rose.
Meanwhile, Ryan’s face was beginning to swell even more. We needed to find ice, but wouldn’t be able to if we didn’t get the truck free. We kept cool. When you’re in a big enough pickle, sometimes the only way through is out the other side. We jammed a few sticks in the rut, giving Johnny’s tire something to grab onto, and then we floored it. The truck lunged forward, capitalizing on its minimal traction, and blasted out of there. With more good karma, we made it out. Fatigued, we pressed on in the dark. After a few more wrong turns and some backtracking, we finally spotted camp. What a night.
Scuba Steve wasn’t there upon our arrival, but another good friend, Marco Mazza, welcomed us with steaks and more beers (which Ryan used to ice his face). Grateful. The boys started a fire to defrost their cold, quivering hands, and we gathered around to hear more about the project Steve and Marco have been helping with along the California’s coastline.
Overpopulation of sea urchins is causing the kelp forest to disappear at an alarming rate, with sea star wasting disease adding to the problem by leaving the forest without predators to keep the urchins in check. “The kelp forests along the California Coast are the crux of the aquatic ecosystem,” Marco explained, adding that they provide a vital habitat for numerous marine species and produce up to 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe.
The ramifications of this loss, which has been unfolding since 2013, are catastrophic, with the entire oceanic ecosystem in peril. Without the kelp forest, fish and other species will have no place to call home, leading to a ripple effect throughout the entire food chain. This disaster could devastate California’s coast, with widespread implications for the rest of the world’s oceans. Thankfully, organizations like Steve and Marco’s “The Last Forests Project” are working to spread awareness and restore the kelp canopy.
We woke up the following day with frozen bikes and frosted tents – the coldest night of the trip. Now, with daylight reigning over the landscape, we all got to appreciate camp for what it was. Any bitterness from our treacherous trek the previous night was certainly washed away. It was a new day, the southern section of Big Sur was on the agenda, and more waves were to be had. We rode out.
Last we had checked, road closure would not permit us to camp in Big Sur, but we ventured out anyway. We made our way along the famous coastal highway, greeted with open roads and no one in sight, a rare treat. On a typical day, these roads are packed with tourists backing up traffic for hours. But not today. Today, we rode in the wind with bluebird skies and sunny weather. It was a surreal moment, and it only improved once we found waves. That’s the magic of surfing in Big Sur: Where mountains meet the ocean, there’s nothing else quite like it. The boys scored heavily in that session, swapping turn after turn and painting lines down the face. The last wave was bittersweet, but it was time to find camp. We refueled at a small gas station, restocked on beers, and off we went. The best was yet to come.
With adrenaline pumping through our veins, we ventured up a series of fire-service roads, hoping the closures we’d read about were from an outdated site. Gradually ascending high above the majestic ocean, we reached the ridgeline, and to our surprise, the roads were open.
The view took our breath away. It was a grand vista, spanning 180 degrees and revealing the majestic expanse of the Pacific Ocean as far as the eye could see. Rolling hills dotted with willow trees stretched out in all directions, while the sparkling waters of the ocean shimmered in the sun’s last rays. We found the perfect camping spot, perched 3,000 feet above sea level. As we set up camp and settled in, we couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe and wonder at the sheer beauty of the landscape around us. The boys couldn’t resist the allure of the nearby trails and opted to trade their boards for some much-needed trail riding. With a hearty “braaap,” they zoomed off into the setting sun, leaving behind clouds of dust in their wake.
Riding bikes on the ridge of Big Sur was like entering moto heaven. With the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop and endless rolling hills, it’s a picturesque playground for adrenaline junkies. The terrain varies from hardpacked dirt to loose gravel, keeping riders on their toes. We laughed and cheered as Aaron and Ryan leaned hard into turns, feeling the adrenaline rush as they ripped through the hills at breakneck speeds. But the real draw was feeling the power of the machines while navigating the rugged terrain and soaking up the stunning scenery.
The boys rolled back into camp like a pack of wild stallions. The energy was electric; we knew this night would be one for the books. We raised our glasses for “proper English” cheers, toasting to the memories we had made thus far and the ones yet to come. As the fire crackled, we regaled each other with tales of adventures past. It was a night of camaraderie, laughter and lifelong memories.
The morning air was clear and relaxed as we woke up. The sounds of rustling leaves and distant waves crashing against the rocky shoreline below filled our ears, while the aroma of freshly brewed coffee mingled with the scent of pine trees and briny ocean air. As we stepped outside our tents, the sun began to peek over the mountain range, casting a warm golden glow on the undulating peaks. We couldn’t help but take a moment to soak it all in, grateful for this serenity amid our adventure. With San Luis Obispo beckoning us, we packed our gear and set off for the 60-mile stretch south.
Unfortunately, the charts indicated that the swell was dwindling and showed little sign of reaching our intended stops south of SLO County. So, we made the hasty decision to extend our stay in SLO and enjoy the rest of what the swell had to offer there.
Those last three days felt like an endless summer. As we rolled in, Morro Rock sprang into view. The grand cathedral stood tall, towering 300 feet above the water. The waves were pumping, and we watched in amazement as some of the best surf of the trip unfolded before our eyes. Aaron and Ryan were hooked and opted for two more sessions of pure ecstasy.
The excitement continued. With Oceano Beach just a short ride farther south, the sand was calling, and the boys leaned in for another rip on their bikes. Seeing them glide across the surface along the only drivable beach in California was poetic. Making turns and spitting up sand, it resembled the way they both surf. Ryan, a more confident, aggressive surfer, now gripped the bike, making hard turns in the sand. Aaron, a lighter and more graceful surfer, now flowed, making turns look so effortless on his bike. Their ride continued for hours as they mobbed up and down the beach. The crew even placed a few bets on who could race down the beach the fastest. No winner was ever announced – although the boys would tell you otherwise. We enjoyed watching them as the sun set and their silhouettes faded into the distance. That last bit of swell was no disappointment and a great end to an epic trip. We had made the right choice to stay. Still, it didn’t stop us from hoping some magic would still be left in the water as we packed up for long journey home. Ventura was on the way: Maybe one last surf?
Despite our collective reluctance, all good things must come to an end. As we passed by iconic breaks, the ocean was lifeless, and any sign of that blessed swell was no more. That’s sort of the beauty of it: Nothing is ever certain, and in the theme of unpredictability, you learn to love both the good and the bad.
The final scene of our trip was a rush of emotions as we hurried to capture the perfect shot we had been envisioning for so long. As the camera rolled, and with just two minutes left, we caught the boys pulling into L.A. County as the sun set over the Pacific. A bittersweet nostalgia washed over us as we knew this was it: our last ride and the final sunset of our adventure.
With heavy hearts, it was time to bid farewell to the carefree days of adventure and camaraderie. The memories of our journey were still fresh in our minds, and the thought of returning to the grind of daily life was daunting. We reflected on the experiences we’d had, the challenges we had overcome, and the bonds we had forged. Nonetheless, we were grateful for this unforgettable experience and the opportunity to capture it on film, immortalizing our journey forever.
Those once-thought ideas of “what if” now had become a reality. This trip had meant many things for many of us, proving what could happen if we banded together. San Francisco-to-Los Angeles will remain a staple route engraved in our memories forever. But it doesn’t stop there: This trip is just the beginning – a prelude, if you will. A remote surf mecca deep in the Baja Peninsula calls our names: Scorpion Bay. The ride continues.