Growing up listening to my late-father’s tales of psychedelic surf exploits during the mid-70s post-shortboard revolution, California, especially Southern California, always held a mythical place in my imagination. For a Florida kid, Southern California—with its temperate climate, waves, and counterculture surf-heritage—sounded exotic.

My first visit to the West Coast, however, was not to SoCal. My family went to visit my uncle in Willits, a Northern California enclave of Mendocino County with a population of maybe 4,000 and no surf scene to speak of.

We did manage to make it out to the coast, though. After meandering down a winding, Redwood-lined two-lane highway, we were deposited into one of several former logging towns flanking that section of the Pacific Coast Highway. And while Rincon it was not, the Northern California coastline has its own distinct beauty.    

We parked the car and then hiked down a steep headland that jutted out into the ocean, before pausing to take inventory of a quaint, corner pocket cove. While my brother and I were more interested in finding the appropriate projectile among the pebble-rimmed shoreline, I remember my father stoically frozen, staring west toward the expanse of azure Pacific Ocean. There must have been something majestic in the vast, ruggedness of that untamed swath of open ocean because the sight pushed my father—someone who rarely exhibited anything, but the grit-your-teeth-and-bare-it masculinity typical of his generation—to tears.

That moment has been seared into my brain for nearly two decades since. When I lived in San Francisco many years later, I would periodically drive north to surf. I looked for that cove from time to time. I saw many a nook and cranny. I saw dozens of striking vistas. Nothing moved me quite the way I’d seen my father moved.

It’s a kind of unimpeachable beauty capable of inspiring us and, when we least expect it, stopping us in our tracks.

But a couple of years ago on a bluebird spring day, I took the St. Johns River ferry over to Talbot Island for the first time in maybe a decade. I crossed the bridge over the Ft. George Inlet, where I was compelled to pull off the side of the road. There I sat and watched the blue Atlantic Ocean as it flooded through the estuary where it would eventually overtake portions of the lush, verdant wetlands. It’s a scene I’d passively taken in dozens of times as a kid growing up in the area. But this day it halted me. It was really the first time I’d consciously acknowledged its dramatic, inspirational, arresting beauty.

A mythical spot. And it had been right under my nose the whole time.

Photo: Lance Asper

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This iteration of our annual Outdoors Issue features a collection of stories highlighting feats of mental and physical strength, endurance, and resilience. From local surfer Justin Quintal roaming the right coast through the night to find the inside of shifty, nearly frozen cylinders (“All Day, All Night, All Right (Coast)”) to Jax Beach’s Christian Griffith trekking across the entirety of the continental U.S. to raise awareness for survivors of sexual abuse (“One More Step,” by Josué Cruz), to the folks battling to save a pristine parcel of the Guana from development (“Ninety-Nine Acres of Land,” by Michael Adno), it’s an eclectic medley of highly motivated individuals, to be sure, each person driven by something, which few of us could grasp, or empathize with. Among the many truths unearthed by our contributors, it became clear that whatever corporeal penance the individuals profiled were willing to pay for their cause, their motivations were often fueled, or at least augmented by a deep connection to the natural world.

Christian Griffith from the feature story “Just One More Step,” by Josué Cruz on page 26 of the Outdoor Issue. Photo: Adam Warwinsky

This issue is a reminder that Northeast Florida is up to its neck in uniquely pristine, mythically alluring natural beauty. It’s a kind of unimpeachable beauty capable of inspiring us and, when we least expect it, stopping us in our tracks. However it strikes you, thanks for picking up this issue and taking it all in.

Cheers,
Matt