Come find perfection!
All your arguments about keeping Hollister Ranch private make you sound like elitist assholes. There. I said it. I said that whole thing in my outside voice. I will probably get punched in the face at the coffee shop tomorrow. Live dangerously, is a thing I always say.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will know that Hollister Ranch is slated to open to public access in April 2022. Last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law legislation that directs an assortment of land management agencies, both state and local, to develop a plan to ensure public access. Anyone who impedes this public access will be subject to fines up to $10,000.
The new law leaves open the question of what form access will take. Over the next two years, you can expect a succession of shouty meetings here in Santa Barbara County, as the relevant agencies try to resolve this question.
While the Coastal Commission, one of the principal agencies involved, has far-reaching powers in California, there are limits to what they can achieve. If you’re imagining that you’re going to be able to drive your Toyota Tacoma straight into Cojo, you’re almost certainly going to be disappointed.
That’s because, on the ground, the situation is more complicated than it looks. There are a number fabulous homes with eye-candy views, yes. The Ranch has this element in common with Malibu. And as you have certainly heard, there are the divided and subdivided parcels owned for the specific purpose of securing access for people who want to surf there.
But the Ranch also includes working cattle ranches and tracts of unfenced range land. In this respect, the area is not too different from the properties that it borders. This range land is the open space that is so often pictured when conversation turns to the Ranch: rolling hills, dotted with California live oaks, turning abruptly into tawny sandstone cliffs that drop to sandy beaches and tidy hidden reefs.
Then there’s the old Bixby Ranch, which adds one more piece to the intricate Ranch puzzle. This vast property stretches from the boundary of the county park at Jalama down to the mythical point at Cojo, and runs eastward along the coast. The area spans 24,000 acres and includes a mix of (mostly) untouched wilderness, cattle range, and Chumash sacred sites.
A look at the Bixby’s recent history offers a brief tour of California land use. During the early 20th century, it was intended to be a steel mill. That never happened, and in 1912 Fred Bixby purchased the land and the adjacent Jalama Ranch. Bixby ran cattle. Between 1972 and 2003, an oil processing facility perched on the bluffs above Cojo — and pipelines ran through the property. Beginning in 2007, a Boston-based hedge fund owned the Bixby Ranch and hoped to build a resort hotel there.
Now called the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve, the former Bixby Ranch is managed by the Nature Conservancy. This same organization also owns and manages lands on Santa Cruz island. In the two years since the property changed hands, there has been little talk of public access. Reportedly, it might eventually be opened for limited science and research. But you’re not going to be able to drive your Tacoma from Jalama to Cojo.
Put simply, it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to run buck-wild around the Ranch, like you own the joint (unless of course you do own the joint, then go crazy.) What is likely, is that access will amount to a single trail, hugging the coast as much as possible, and accessible by foot or by bike.
A 1972 law set it as a priority for the state to develop a recreational trail that would run along the coast from Mexico to Oregon. Subsequent legislation set out a process of securing easements to complete the project — which remains in bits and pieces to this day.
In western Santa Barbara County, sections of trail around the state park at El Capitan have recently been built. Over the past few years, there have been ongoing — and sometimes acrimonious — efforts to establish easements across private ranch lands in the area to build a recreational trail along the bluffs in eastern Gaviota. It’s not hard to imagine that public access to Hollister Ranch would look a lot like the access the County is already working to secure on the private properties nearby.
Property owners at Hollister Ranch like to claim that they are the best stewards of this idyllic land, but the area’s land use history muddies this argument significantly. And present-day behavior isn’t always exactly what you’d called environmentally conscious. Just last spring, the Coastal Commission had to tell the fabulous environmental stewards at Hollister Ranch to stop driving their cars on the beach.
It’s the last bastion against Los Angeles! You know shit’s getting real in California, when we summon up the bogeyman of Los Angeles. The Ranch will become another Trestles! Or Rincon! Filled with kooks!
Just listen to yourselves. Omg! Other surfers like me might surf where I want to surf! I mean, I hate the kooks as much as you do, but really, you are losing your minds here.
The idea of Hollister Ranch as some kind of Eden persists, but is by now, largely imagined. The best-known spots on good swells buzz with jetskis, zodiacs, and floating machines of all shapes and sizes. Anyone with a boat or a friend with a boat can go there. And we all know by now what happened to Eden.
Still, the Ranch has a unique hold on surfing’s imagination. I think it’s because we need to believe that a place like the Ranch exists in the world — even if the reality is nothing like our imaginings, and even if we never actually go there ourselves.
For most of us, the reality of surfing is driving to our nearest beach, finding a parking space in a sea of Sprinter vans, shimmying into our suits, and paddling out with the Wavestorms. But we hold on to the fantasy that there is something more. There has to be something more to this strange pastime that we can’t quite quit, no matter how absurd and pointless it sometimes feels.
We need to believe that John Severson wasn’t wrong when he said that a surfer could still in a crowded world, find the perfect wave, “and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.” Of course, there was already a lie in it. The lone surfer in Severson’s image wasn’t truly alone. Severson was there on the beach with a camera to record it all. But it remains our talisman, passed from each generation to the next.
Surf long enough, travel far enough, check that fickle local spot often enough, and yes, you can still find what Severson seemed to promise. Even in California, even here. Opening the Ranch won’t change that, not really. It might make it more difficult, sure.
But there are no sure things in surfing, no matter how many secret gates you can unlock.
And that one magic day, when you walk down the trail — wherever you may be — and you see perfect, backlit, green walls, offshores kissing the lip, and no one there to see it, no one but you, that day will make a lifetime of chasing and imagining and dreaming worth it. It just has to.
But I sometimes wonder if the true joy isn’t in the finding at all. I wonder if the true joy of this ridiculous pastime that’s seduced us all is in the dream of perfection, rather than the perfection itself — and in the endless, frequently futile, and very often stupid things we do in pursuit of it.