California Dreaming

To Santa Cruz to Relive Days of Surf with Old Friend


September 17 – 22, 2009




Part I:  Flights from Memphis to Sacramento

Part 5: Santa Cruz

Part 2: Sutter Lawn Swim Team Reunion

Part 6: Monterey and Pacific Grove

Part 3: East Sacto Neighborhood and Cemetery

Part 7: To Sacramento and Flights Home

Part 4: Lodi-Clements for Sac State Fraternity Reunion

Link to 2005 Sig Bust Reunion


Updated Oct. 23, 2009


About 85 photos mainly taken during the trip by Betty Nolan are posted at in five separate albums under member name of Lewis “Buzz” Nolan’s email address. Email for instructions on how to access. The 20 photos taken by Betty Nolan at Santa Cruz are in an album labeled “2009 – Santa Cruz.”




SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – Sept. 20, 2009, Sunday   – Return after long absence to Santa Cruz


Betty and I arose at 7 a.m. and had a good breakfast of eggs scrambled with cheese and ham and a bit of fruit at the very nice Hampton Inn at Lodi. We hit the road to Santa Cruz by 9 a.m.


We wasted 15 minutes when I misread the map and didn’t turn onto U.S. Highway 99 at the proper point. Being Sunday and due to the popularity of California’s beaches at this time of year, the west bound traffic on sections of Interstates 205, 580 and 680 to San Jose and beyond was heavy. As I remembered from my days in the 1960s when I would make the drive with my old friend and fraternity brother, Pete Siller, California Highway 17 through the Coastal Range Mountains was rather twisty, fairly steep and only four lanes wide, with 55 being the maximum speed limit rarely honored. But at least most of the route we took was on roadways 8 or 10 lanes wide. The vehicle density had multiplied many times in the last 50 years.


But in an annoying and odd pattern and unlike other states we’ve driven through, California no longer operates rest stops along its highways. It must be for economic reasons and the crush of resident and tourist traffic year-round. Predictably, that results in extra pressure on bathrooms at service station facilities.


It took about three hours to get into Santa Cruz, where we were delayed by more than 1,200 runners competing in a major triathlon that had started with a long swim off the Municipal Pier adjacent to our hotel. The cycling and running segments of the race meandered and blocked traffic along West Cliff Drive and adjacent the coast and hills. The area is frequented by fitness enthusiasts who hoped to raise $50,000 from the event to benefit local groups.


Our Memphis travel agent, Erin de Padilla of Gullivers Travel, had booked us a room at the Dream Inn, a fabulously located hotel right on one of the major surfing beaches that is adjacent to a Municipal Wharf. It has a distant view of the fabled Steamer Lane, with winter surf as big as 14 feet high that draws expert surfers from through the state and beyond. Its address is 175 West Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, CA 95060. Telephone is 831-426-4330. Website is at


My former swimming pool management partner, Bob Reid, and I had stayed at the Dream Inn to celebrate the end of the season at Sacramento’s Sutter Lawn Tennis Club where we worked back in the early 1960s. I had understood some millions of dollars had been spent fairly recently to completely remodel the hotel. But it wasn’t until Betty and I checked in that our unease about the quality of the lodgings disappeared. We have long enjoyed travel, but no longer seek to do it on the cheap and were prepared to walk away from our reservations if the Dream Inn wasn’t up to our par.


Our large room on the 3rd of 10 floors was ultra modern but comfortable, with a kingsize bed, fancy TV, walk-in shower and a small balcony overlooking the Cowell’s Beach beneath. Betty passed on lunch but I had a salad with a few, fresh shrimp at the hotel’s Aquarius Restaurant. After three hotel employees had used nearly identical language to gush recommendations for the restaurant, I should have been alerted to the probability of them being trained to build business. I understood the need for the staff push when charged $17 for a mediocre, smallish salad.


Looking out at a few swimmers (most wearing wet suits because of the chilly water (61 degrees according to a blackboard on the wharf) that flows down from Alaska with the Humboldt Current), half-century-old  memories came back to me. I recalled one time when I was body surfing just off the beach (right below our room this trip)  when a 4 or 5-foot wave dumped me on the beach of hard sand. I was rolled by the power of the breaking surf out-of-control for what seemed like a life-threatening distance. That happened when I was 19 or 20, but the fright still lingers. It shows that even an intercollegiate swimming team member like me at the time doesn’t have much of a chance against the fearsome power of the ocean.


Betty and I walked a short distance from the hotel to the Municipal Wharf (not “pier”), which now has a paved lanes for cars and metered parking spaces. About the only commercial business I can remember that is still there is Stagnaro’s fresh fish market. Pete and I didn’t have the money to eat in restaurants back then so we would each buy a fresh-caught and cracked Dungeness crab. We’d go to a nearby beach with big rocks and pick out and eat the crab meat, split a loaf of sourdough bread and drink however much beer we could afford. The crab shells and other picnic debris would be tossed into the surf.


Pete’s affluent family owned a vacation home a block or two from one of the nearby beaches. We’d stay there during our several trips a year. It was an idyllic life for a couple of young guys who hadn’t yet been introduced to the cruelty and meanness of the real world. 


Pete’s big surfboard and a couple of spares used by his two younger brothers and guests were stored in the vacation home. Pete, a natural athlete who was proficient at surfing, transferred from Sacramento State to the University of Hawaii in search of big surf available around the year. About the same time I transferred from Sac State to the University of Mississippi, known as Ole Miss, land of Southern lovelies and great football.


As noted earlier, both of us entered the U.S. Marine Corps after college graduation. Pete was killed in Vietnam after serving just a few weeks as an infantry officer. I was lucky enough to learn a lot about newspapering while serving as editor of the base newspaper at Quantico, VA. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had the good fortune of incurring a broken ankle while unloading a truck, meaning I stayed stateside and survived rather than shipping out to Southeast Asia.


Today, the Italian immigrant family of the Stagnaro Brothers operates not only the family fish market but also a popular seafood restaurant. It is located near the end of the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, which juts out into the Pacific Ocean about one-half mile. There are several other restaurants and quick-service food outlets on the Wharf today, with a scattering of souvenir and beach shops as well as the town’s central lifeguard headquarters and a place to rent small boats.


A tourism brochure claimed that the permanent population of Santa Cruz is now over 51,000, with total population in the county of over 266,000. The once-popular nickname of “Surf City” (lost in a trademark fight with another California beach town) and its surfing popularity date to a 1912 visit by Olympian swimmer and legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku. I wish we had visited the city’s Surfing Museum, but just didn’t have time to allow that outing.


A short walk down the beach from the Municipal Wharf is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a collection of carnival rides including a decent roller coaster and any number of carnival-style games and fast-food stands. It is the West Coast’s oldest seaside amusement park and is home to two National Historic Landmarks. The combination of that attraction and excellent surfing locations provides a magnet for “surfing bums.” Some of the young bums are aquatic hoodlums without any visible means of support who are reputedly handicapped by lack of education and a persistent dependence on drugs and booze.


The “Left Coast” approach to the problem of drugs was evident in a front page story in the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper of Sept. 22, 2009, under the headline of “Procedural foul-up means no toking at pot fest.” The story told about how leaders of the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana had failed to get on the City Council agenda to ask for their annual exemption to the city’s no-smoking rules for WAMMfest. The event is “the groups autumn celebration of the medicinal herb. . .” Consequently, the newspaper warned, the group “will not be allowed to erect the two smoking tents the group planned for Saturday.”


That day’s edition had a half-page of weather information for the area’s outdoor enthusiasts. Its Surf Forecast predicted waves 1-to-3 feet high with a swell at 10 seconds and water temperature of 61 degrees. The newspaper feature also listed the disgusting level of fecal coliform CFUs per 100 ml. for popular swimming beaches and surfing spots of Natural Bridges, Cowell Beach, Twin Lakes, Main Beach, Capitola Beach, Seacliff Beach, Rio del Mar and Pajaro Dunes.


Marc Rush, one of my standout swim team members I coached at Sutter Lawn in the early 1960s, lived with his very intelligent wife, Susan, in Santa Cruz for some years. But they sold their home and relocated three years ago to the idyllic community of Pacific Grove. Their new home is less than an hour’s drive away. They are happy to be free of  the heavy traffic and tidal wave of surfing bums attracted to Santa Cruz. They are both dedicated long-distance runners who take advantage of the town’s excellent system of running-cycling trails.


Betty and I had an excellent meal at Stagnaro’s that evening of fresh, cooked crab for me and for Betty fresh, very large shrimp (called Prawns on the West Coast) breaded with coconut and deep fried. The meal was heavenly. It was ably served by a mature waitress named Pam, who told us she had been either visiting or working in Santa Cruz since the age of 6. She confirmed my memory that one of the early Dirty Harry movies starring Clint Eastwood had been filmed around Santa Cruz and had shots of the famous Stagnaro’s.


It was dark and foggy at Santa Cruz by 8 p.m. We walked from our hotel down to the end of the wharf. We looked down several fenced openings in the wharf to see huge sea lions beneath, snoozing on the flat, cross timbers that connected the pilings. They were safely beyond the bite of sharks because the timbers they rested on were about 3 feet or more above the water level. We were told a herd of sea lions stays beneath the wharf when not out swimming and catching fish.


We were also told that despite the temporary protection, local residents sometimes find the half-eaten carcasses of sea lions washed up on the beach. We could hear the animals – that used to give me a fright when they’d appear in the same wave I was trying to catch - barking at times like big dogs during the night.  


Continue with Part 6, Pacific Grove and Monterey Bay Aquarium  /  Return to Nolan Travels