Wonderland Travel Guide; Trippin’ Through Santa Cruz
Cut into the foot of the redwoods along a picturesque coastline an hour south of San Fransisco lies the Wonderland of Santa Cruz where the hippies hate free-speech and the warriors grow grass, and a place I’ve called home since 2016. It’s an iconic town full of nitro & glycerin, and every now and then it explodes onto the national consciousness in one way or another.
Accessible by either the iconic Pacific Coast Highway or through the great winding toboggan run that is Highway 17, Santa Cruz has a thriving veteran community and almost every alternative therapy solution you can think of while also featuring some of the best surfing this side of Baler Beach.
Just visiting is a real trip.
Some come to be healed by the sea, some by the mountains, some come for school, some for dope, and others arrive seeking enlightenment & peace. Known affectionately as “Hawaii Light,” Santa Cruz is the kind of place where employees pretend time doesn’t exist and politicians pretend they are motivated by anything other than reelection and money.
With access to holistic experts and facilities, this is one of the best places in the world to free yourself from pharmacology. In addition to a cornucopia of eastern physical medicine schools, the county boasts two float tank companies, though I have not had the chance to try either, or any float therapy for that matter that doesn’t involve the imminent threat of sharks or shore.
Speaking of surfing, some of the best in the world is here; between Santa Cruz and Monterey, you can find a beach facing any direction on the compass meaning you will rarely get skunked. Surfing with the sunrise and sunset behind you in the same town is a local luxury worthy of experiencing once before you die.
We are also at the tip of The Red Triangle, so our waters host a population of some of the largest white sharks in the world. Pro tip: never surf alone and always with someone you could beat in a sprint to maximize your limb retention ratio.
There is a budding community, recently formed by Sean Meyer, called the Veterans Surf Alliance that brings people together in fellowship once a month to learn-to-surf and progress. The VSA is one of many surf groups forming around the country providing access to a healthy outdoor lifestyle. The vet surf movement is amping up, and there’s plenty of room for everybody on this party wave!
A couple of years back a buddy who got blown up a few times in Fallujah, turned me on to surf therapy. Actually, if it wasn’t for him and Grifter’s Long Division in 2014, I would have punched out long ago. But more on how surfing saved my life another time.
The breaks have cleaned up since the ’90s, but there are still surfing tuffs that fancy themselves proper Droogs. They aren’t once you take them a few feet below the surface though; at least in my experience.
If you’re the jiu jitsu type, or into Muay Thai, make sure to hit up Freefall MMA. Mike Roberts is the kind of instructor people write books about, his passion for metal music and conspiracies are only outshone by his teaching prowess.
Santa Cruz is a weird place where you can say anything, as long as no one gets hurt in any real or imagined way. A real idealistic and unsustainable approach to social discourse built on peacocking and painting murals, not affecting meaningful social change. The housing crisis has already boiled over here; nearby Watsonville is already feeling the pressure from gentrification. That's not to say there aren’t amazing people all over the place here, you just have to find them.
But damn if it isn’t a fun place to get high.
My whole Navy career I was known as the ultra-liberal guy who did all the drugs then walked out on Hollywood to piss in a cup and sweep p-ways for a living. Here, I am labeled a deep red conservative who believes in radical ideals like the right to bear arms and personal privacy. The sand bars aren’t the only shifty thing in this town. My positions haven’t changed, but the waterline sure has passed me by.
When I first came to town, if you could afford to stay this was an open and accepting place where you could let your freak flag fly. In many ways it still is, just your flag has to not offend anyone for any reason, or be an American one… unless it’s upside down.
“That flag is a symbol of oppression and hate, not acceptance and love,” I was informed by a guy wearing a Che Guevara shirt and mini-skirt during a visit downtown a year ago. You would expect people to do even the most cursory level of research into the icons they adorn themselves with in the era of google-in-your-pocket. Sometimes I am surprised UCSC professors don’t wear Pol Pot jerseys to hear the way some of their students talk.
The first time I went into downtown Santa Cruz it reminded me of Berkeley in all the best ways, now it looks more Deadwood. Gone are the drum circles, protest of the day, and unbathed street folk replaced by padlocks, dusty storefronts, ‘for lease’ signs, and unbathed street folk.
Covid has devastated the main downtown area, forcing chain businesses out and leaving the lingering local industry to rot on the vine devoid of foot traffic. That means in a couple of years this could be a real groovy place full of artists, musicians, and love again... If Big Tech executives don’t come and choke us all out first with the rising cost of housing. Apple and Google have been sending fancy tour buses over the hill from Silicon Valley to transport staff for years—we are all praying they don’t decide to Walbridge our asses.
Skip downtown SC altogether, at least until the world opens again. Stick to the near-by small towns of Capitola and Aptos to find food; live off breakfast burritos from Pleasure Point Market, slices from Pleasure Pizza, and everything else from Taqueria Vallarta. Never expect good service, it’s just not a thing here. Remember what I said about time seeming to not exist in this vacuum?
The community has everything it needs to keep clear lines of division between the haves and have-nots and one of those things is this; it boasts an overfunded university and an underfunded community college. If you end up staying after a well-intentioned visit, save your money and hit up Cabrillo College, the classes are smaller than UC Santa Cruz and they have the best Veterans Information Center in the region. A real safe haven in this tempest in a tea-pot. Taking a 1 credit journalism class is what propelled me to be writing to you now, so take that for what it’s worth.
Highkey, if you do online classes at West Valley College instead, you make over twice as much as either school in BAH.
You could journey around for months here and never see all this place has to offer. Santa Cruz has the world’s first skatepark along with countless little art exhibits, world-class mountain biking, the largest underwater preserve in the lower 48, the Mystery Spot, the woods they made Return Of The Jedi in, the iconic Beach Boardwalk, and plenty of places to pay $12 for a ‘handcrafted” drip coffee. Even our fearless editor-in-chief knows where to find a local burlesque troupe, although he was less willing to reveal whether he had previously been a member or just a patron. More on that later.
Best to come with a plan, though. It’s far too easy to take a wrong turn and see the real Santa Cruz, warts and all. We have one of the largest homeless encampments in the country hidden away from the public path. The cops tried breaking up the settlement, but Covid and community pressure ended up just pushing the problem out of view.
That’s not to say you won’t see some friends sleeping in the street or people arguing with the wind, because you will. Often.
You see, people get stuck here. Guests can get attached, or addicted, to the lifestyle. Stay here long enough and you’ll realize it’s a recursive world.
Santa Cruz is the kind of place you can lose yourself with breathtaking vistas around every turn and almost every drug you can think of has seemingly been decriminalized. Cannabis and mushrooms are readily available; think of this as ‘the wine country of weird.’ When the world shut down, cannabis dispensaries were deemed ‘essential business,’ it doesn’t get more Santa Cruz than that. Many of the strains made famous by musicians around the world got their genetic start right here from the OG Skunks. Ever dabbled with Blue Dream?
Definitely join the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance during your visit. Bring a copy of your DD-214 and your in like Flynn. They have been donating free weed to veterans for medicinal purposes through their Compassion Program since 2011. Led by a tripod of GWOT U alumni, the SCVA has stood as a beacon of strength and information in the alternative health world. SCVA facilitates vets getting into various aid and care programs through education and advocacy. A few years back they worked with the VA and Stanford University in a pioneering study to show the medicinal benefits of cannabis. It didn’t change the world, but it’s a vital step towards making the VA provide a cannabis treatment option like they do in Canada.
SCVA also has the best prices on some of the highest testing bud in town, so if you’re not a square, man, check it out. Super Sour Diesel is a personal fav, make sure to tell ‘em Schep sent you.
Vets have also started banding together to form focused groups utilizing psychedelics, hiking, art therapy, massage, acupuncture, surfing, and meditation to soothe their aching war wounds. Sadly, demand far exceeds availability. Everybody is itching to get into nature to start the healing.
As much as I want to tell you to be wary of who you work with here, the reality is that if you want to heal the right person seems to find you. Groovy, right?
Up in the mountains people have been hooting and hollering through Endor for decades; tripping their tits off beneath trees older than Christendom. It’s a magical place with a temperate climate that has become a Mecca of sorts for those of us that went unfixed by conventional methods.
Just be prepared to journey through the looking glass and to accept that we’re all mad here.
Written By G.P. Scheppler