Adios, My Friends
This is my 100th column for this paper, and a fitting time for a pen drop. It’s been a blast.
I stumbled upon Laguna 20 years ago the same way so many of you did—through kismet and serendipity. I was living in LA but had recently taken a job in Irvine. I couldn’t fathom moving behind the “Orange Curtain,” so I lived in executive housing during the week, commuting home on weekends. But one November day at lunchtime I looked at a map, saw Laguna sitting alone by itself, and decided to explore. It was one of those perfect windless autumn days, and I was bedazzled.
I went back that night, walked the streets, and ended up at Taco Loco, listening to a drunk regale me with stories of ribald Laguna, with its cast of eccentrics, artists and reprobates. I was home. Soon after I ditched my place in LA and found a rental at Fisherman’s Cove, about the last place in Laguna with a cluster of rentals on the beach. Which made for a great cast of rotating characters.
Within minutes I met Pat Dallas, an elderly woman who exhibited at the Sawdust and happened to be the first female staff photographer at Playgirl magazine back in the 70s. She showed me the infamous cave where she photographed so many of “her boys,” naked as the surf washed over them. The next day she dropped off her memoir, suitably titled “Dallas in Wonderland,” describing the many male models she bedded down, right here in town.
I also started kayaking daily, and this afflicted me with a particular aversion to work. So I quit my day job and, with the blessing of then Marine Safety Chief Mark Klosterman, started bringing others with me. As the Chief said, “Everyone should have a chance to get out and experience this pristine coastline, but not everyone can surf.”
It was the best career advice ever. I started La Vida Laguna as an homage to living here. And because it was alliterative. The money was lousy. But hey, life’s too short and I indulged my passion, shared it with others, and witnessed joy on a daily basis.
I got to hire some extraordinary guides, too. People with advanced degrees and wide ranging talents, but united in their deep connection to the sea. We delivered the magic of Laguna to multi-generational families, couples, corporate groups, schoolchildren, Tibetan monks, and wounded veterans. There’s nothing quite like seeing the joy of inner-city, at-risk kids experience the ocean for the first time. Or veterans of war with PTSD supporting each other while learning to surf.
It was quickly evident that, despite the breathtaking surroundings they worked in, our guides provided the real experience. None better than my partner and stranger from another angel, Doug Oyen. He has made everything I started better. I couldn’t ask for a more decent, caring human being as the steward of the brand. And then there’s 75 year-old bike guide Mick Danoff—our secret terrestrial weapon. I’m sure he’s pissed reading these words because he shuns the spotlight and blushes when I brag of his exploits, like riding cross country solo on his 70th birthday to raise money for cancer. But it’s not his physical feats that distinguish him. It’s his infectious, boyish enthusiasm and passion for life. Same with our drum circle facilitator Marcus Tucker, who started the first drum circle in Laguna. Tomorrow, he will be inducted into the schoolteachers Hall of Fame. That kind of guy. They’ve all enriched my life.
I’ve met so many interesting Laguna iconoclasts outside of work, too, in part because I have a little radio show. People like artist Dion Wright, an exhibitor at the Sawdust since day one, and the most interesting explicator of 60s Laguna and the Brotherhood, likely because he’s the only one who remembers it. He introduced me to Bud Hedrick, an octogenarian waterman who cut his teeth surfing and diving in Laguna and became a commercial abalone diver who moonlighted in the off-season as a bullfighter in Spain. You can’t make this stuff up. I’ve also met supernova athletes, artists, musicians, writers, poets, politicians, death doulas, “goat ladies,” greeters, healers, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, activists, philanthropists, scientists and environmentalists. Huell Houser once remarked, “Drop me anywhere and I guarantee you in a 5-mile radius I’ll have enough stories to tell in a lifetime.” But drop him in Laguna, and he’ll need two or three more lives to capture it all.
Laguna gave me an endless well of material, and I’m grateful for the community I found here. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll probably chime in from time to time on matters of urgency or ennui. And I’m still doing radio. But pivoting to other projects. This column has been a lot of labor—and a lot of love. I hope that regardless of whether you liked or loathed me, I nonetheless engaged and entertained you.
Pen drop. Fade out.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on KX93.5 and can be reached at [email protected]