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THE STATE | COLUMN ONE

Offramp Ahead for Paradise?

Trestles, the longtime surfers' haven, has seen its share of skirmishes. But the battle over a toll road route is bringing out the big kahunas.

September 16, 2006|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

Time was, surfing one of the world's most famous breaks required driving to the boondocks, bushwhacking through a reedy marsh and confronting armed men who threatened arrest.

This wasn't Baja, but northern San Diego County in 1958. That summer, Leo Hetzel was a 17-year-old Long Beach kid looking for adventure. He found it at Trestles, the breaks off a beach that seemed like wilderness despite the fact it was on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base.

"It's like a magical place for me," said Hetzel, a retired photographer who, at 65, still surfs Trestles weekly. "There are a million stories from that place. People who grew up in the '60s here in Southern California know those stories, even if they're not a surfer."

The story of Trestles and its role in the popularization of Southern California surf culture includes surfing gurus and gun-toting Marines, a nuclear power plant and protests against encroaching development. Even the Beach Boys and Richard Nixon have roles.

And now, so does a planned toll road.

The proposed extension of Orange County's Foothill tollway has generated debate within California because it would slice through San Onofre State Beach. Opponents say it would threaten wildlife habitat and the San Mateo Creek watershed.

But the six-lane roadway has garnered widespread attention outside California over concern that it could damage Trestles -- spoiling views, polluting the water and altering the hydraulics of the tapered waves that peel off its cobblestone reef.

Trestles doesn't produce the world's biggest waves, but their shape and consistency are considered among the best. It's the only mainland U.S. stop on the Assn. of Surfing Professionals' World Championship Tour, which ends today at Lower Trestles.

Trestles' fiercest protectors have dubbed it the "Yosemite of Surfing," a broad crescent of white sand backed by an estuary and bluffs where the waves roll in like lines of whipped cream. Even toll road proponents, who vigorously deny the highway would change Trestles, acknowledge they're dealing with a Southern California icon.

"It's like saying you want to do something to harm Plymouth Rock," said Meg Waters, a public relations consultant who worked several years on the project for the Irvine-based Transportation Corridor Agencies. "When you say, 'It's going to wreck Trestles,' you're going to get everybody who's ever heard something about surfing.... Trestles is in a Beach Boys song, for God's sakes!"

If everybody had an ocean across the U.S.A.

Then everybody be surfin' like Californ-i-a...

You'll catch 'em surfin' at Del Mar, Ventura County line.

Santa Cruz and Trestle ...

When "Surfin' U.S.A." hit the charts in 1963, surfing was enjoying a surge in popularity that would eventually transform it from the passionate pursuit of a few hundred self-styled rebels into a mainstream, heavily commercialized sport.

Just a few years earlier, Trestles -- named for the train tracks that cross San Mateo Creek there -- was an obscure rumor passed from one longboarder to another. The first time Steve Pezman drove from Long Beach looking for Trestles, he had to hunt.

Pezman was 18 and motivated by two things: The spot was frequented by surfing's A-list -- guys like Robert August, Dewey Weber, Phil Edwards, Mike Doyle and Miki Dora. And sneaking onto Camp Pendleton provided a patina of danger, which kept the crowds away.

"There were few surfers who were willing to thumb their nose at the law and go in there," said Pezman, 65, who publishes the Surfer's Journal from a San Clemente office park a few miles from Trestles. "It was a constant game of one-upmanship with the Marines.... They didn't know how to cope with us without actually harming us. We were all just kids. Most of the Marines were kids themselves."

Much of the battle for Trestles was waged in the "jungle," the tree-and-brush-lined watershed of San Mateo Creek, where surfers reconnoitered the "enemy" and hid their cars -- among them a 1948 Dodge painted in camouflage colors -- before sneaking down to the beach along dirt paths. Pezman and Hetzel were among a small group who had a key to the place after they attached a lock to a farm gate that offered back-door access to the beach.

When a Marine patrol came across a group in the water, they would park and wait for someone (in this era before surfboard leashes) to lose their board. That would set off a "rock dance," a race through the shoals pitting a man in swim trunks against a uniformed Marine with the prize being 9 feet of balsa wood.

When Marines came across the surfers' old beaters in the jungle, they would flatten tires and strip out sparkplug wires. Surfers returned the favor by vandalizing unattended jeeps.

A few times, tempers escalated. Hetzel recalled when a Marine shoved a visiting Hawaiian who wouldn't obey his order to leave. The Hawaiian decked him and, surrounded by a group of surfers, the Marine left.

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