The Surfer Who Came In From the Cold
Whatever happened to The Endless Summer co-star Mike Hynson? A lot, much of it bad, starting when he got mixed up with the notorious Laguna Beach drug-smuggling ring known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love
It’s 2 a.m. in New Delhi, halfway through a hot night in August 1967, and Mike Hynson is still awake and sweating in his hotel room. The pressure is on—it’s a feeling of impending doom that Hynson, a fearless surfer whose quest for the perfect wave had been captured in the 1966 cult classic The Endless Summer, has never encountered before, certainly never while simply working on a surfboard. But this is no normal surfboard-repair job.
Using a spoon he borrowed from the hotel restaurant, Hynson has carved a giant chunk of foam out of the bottom of one of the boards he’d delivered to India a few weeks earlier. He’s filled the hole with a watertight bag of hashish oil that he and a friend from Laguna Beach obtained in Kathmandu. He seals the compartment shut with carefully concealed tape and resin. But time is conspiring against Hynson. He still has two more boards to go before dawn, when he has to catch a return flight to California. The trio of hash-laden boards he’s busy preparing are supposed to arrive on a cargo flight a few days after him.
His brown wig and fake mustache—which he wore for the photograph that adorns his phony passport—await his attention. He must not forget to wear them to the airport. As Hynson hunches over his hollowed-out board, a thought keeps parading through his brain, over and over like a mantra, until he feels as if every nerve in his body is about to snap.
“Uh-oh,” says the voice in Hynson’s head. “I’m really doing this. This is really fucking real.”
* * *
Stepping inside Hynson’s garage at his house in Encinitas is like entering a strange world where Southern California surfing history, 1960s counterculture and Hynson’s renegade sense of humor all compete for surface space. There’s the red pirate flag hanging over the door with the words “Prepare to be Boarded” splashed above a skull and crossbones. Faded portraits of Hindu swamis hang above a tray of expired incense, next to a blown-up photograph of a 24-year-old Hynson with a bunch of his friends—Robert August, Bruce Brown, Hobie Alter, Corky Carroll and Phil Edwards—posing in front of a Winnebago at San Onofre State Beach with a trio of then-wives and -girlfriends.
The photo captures Hynson on the cusp of greatness, about to embark on a nationwide tour to promote the film he’d just starred in, Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer. On an opposite wall is a black-and-white Warner Brothers production still from the acid-drenched 1972 Jimi Hendrix “concert” film Rainbow Bridge, in which Hynson surfs waves in Maui and cracks open a surfboard to reveal a bag of smuggled hashish. Other photos of Hynson surfing in the early 1970s adorn the walls: molten energy captured in freeze frame, gold locks flowing in the wind, a pair of intensely focused eyes, arms spread out in a yoga-style stretch.
What’s missing from this Technicolor trip down memory lane are the past 20 or so years of his life. It’s a stretch of time Hynson doesn’t talk about much, partly because he’s not proud of it, but mostly because he doesn’t remember it well, even less so than the heady days of the late-1960s, when he was dropping acid nearly every day with his friends in the Laguna Beach-based band of smugglers known as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love (see “Lords of Acid,” July 8, 2005). Those were strange times indeed, but a lot of fun compared to what came next. In the early 1980s, life went downhill for Hynson when John Gale, one of the Brotherhood’s best surfers and Laguna Beach’s most legendary outlaws, died in a mysterious car crash, thus ruining Hynson emotionally and financially.
Gale was Hynson’s business partner in Rainbow Surfboards, which the two founded in Laguna Beach in 1969, as well as his best friend. Hynson’s drug-addled, rebellious lifestyle had already led to a divorce from wife Melinda Merryweather, a Ford Agency model, actress and art designer, but Gale’s death seemed to push him over the edge from reckless to beyond help. He descended into a depression and drug addiction that lasted decades, ruining his surfing career and alienating him from everyone but his closest friends until only a few years ago.
Now 67, Hynson is muscular and trim from long days spent shaping boards for mostly Japanese customers. He still has a full head of hair, which is pulled back over his scalp into a short Native American-style braid. He’s wearing a black T-shirt adorned with a red Chinese dragon, dusty black jeans and rugged work boots. His face is full of color and breaks easily into a self-deprecating grin. Gone are the gaunt physique and haggard expression on display in photographs taken of him just a decade ago, when People profiled him in an embarrassing article titled “The Endless Bummer.” (The story noted that just a few weeks before Endless Summer 2 was released, Hynson was serving jail time for drug possession.)
It was during one of Hynson’s numerous jail stints, at some point in the 1980s—he’s not sure what year or why he was in jail—that somebody suggested he use his free time to write, a suggestion that, two decades later, led to Transcendental Memories of a Surf Rebel, an autobiography Hynson co-wrote with Donna Klaasen that was released this month by the Dana Point-based Endless Dreams Publishing. Among other things, the book divulges that Hynson, who has never spoken publicly about the Brotherhood, wasn’t just pals with them, but actually instructed them in the art of using surfboards to smuggle drugs.
“The last time I’d been in jail, I’d started reading for the first time in my life,” Hynson recalls of his autobiographical efforts. “And on this stretch, I just got obsessed with writing.” By the mid-1990s, Hynson had cranked out hundreds of pages of handwritten memoirs, all of it scrawled in pencil on jailhouse paper, which he eventually shared with a few friends at the surf shop down the street from where he now lives, a half-mile from the beach in Encinitas. “A couple of people looked at it and said, ‘Michael, I know you can understand this, but I look at it and I can’t understand a word,’” he says.
Hynson remembers glancing down at the first draft of his autobiography. For the first time, he realized that, after the first few pages, his magnum opus consisted of nothing but incomprehensible chicken-scratch scrawl, less a series of words and punctuation marks than a never-ending pattern of zigzag lines, like heart-monitor readings. “It was just so dysfunctional,” he says, chuckling.
* * *
Unlike the blurry events of the past few decades, the highlights of Hynson’s early life are still very vivid in his mind. Michael Lear Hynson was born in the Northern California coastal town of Crescent City in 1942, a Navy brat whose father survived kamikaze attacks as a radioman in World War II. Mike grew up in San Diego and Hawaii, never staying in one place long enough to make friends. His thrill-seeking lifestyle began while living with his mother at a trailer park when he was just 2 years old.
One morning, he crawled out the door while his mother wasn’t looking and discovered that the trailer next door had moved. He grabbed a 250-volt electrical plug that was lying on the ground and stuck it in his mouth. According to Hynson, the shock split his tongue and made it hard for him to learn how to speak. “I developed my own unique way of talking, and sometimes, I mumble and stumble,” he says. “Then, when I was 5, I was climbing these stairs at Imperial Beach, and this friend of mine had a hammer in his hand. My mother said something behind us, and he turned, and the claw of the hammer went right into the temple of my head.”
The next thing Hynson knew, he was being flown by helicopter to San Diego’s nearby naval base. He remembers floating above himself, looking down at his body surrounded by doctors, all of whom left the room. “I remember being really comfortable and just tripping, you know,” he says, “and then my mother turned around to leave the room, and I screamed into my body, ‘Where are you going?’ And my mother goes, ‘He’s alive!’ and the doctors came back in, and they got me back.” Hynson says he likes to joke that the hammer incident explains why he often seems to lose his train of thought nowadays. “Everybody who knows me knows that I go off on tangents,” he says. “But I’m just making an excuse for myself.”
Hynson spent most of his elementary-school years in Honolulu, where, he says, he never picked up a surfboard. It wasn’t until he was in junior-high school in San Diego that he took up surfing with some older kids who surfed at Pacific Beach, called themselves the Sultans and wore matching purple-nylon jackets. After watching the older kids a few times, he borrowed a board. Hynson recalls standing up on his first wave, not realizing how fast he was moving until he looked at the nearby pier and saw wooden posts rushing by in a blur. “I’ll never forget it,” he says. “It was so far out. I couldn’t sleep, and I just got into it, borrowing boards and stealing them and everything.”
Stealing surfboards is how Hynson met the man who would give him his first big break in the world of surfboard shaping, Hobie Alter, an early surf pioneer and inventor of the Hobie Cat, which is now the world’s top-selling small catamaran. “I first met Mike when he stole some of my boards,” Alter says. “The cops wanted to press charges, but Linda Benson, one of the finest surfer gals, called me and said Mike wasn’t that bad.” Alter agreed to drop the charges if Hynson would return the boards and later gave him a job as a shaper.
Hynson’s first board was an 11-foot plank of balsa wood that he spotted while collecting weeds in the front yard of a house in Mission Beach. The board’s owner told him he could have the board if he wanted it, so Hynson and a friend lugged it to the friend’s garage, where Hynson began whittling away. “I had no idea what I was doing, and his parents were getting angry because of all this dust and resin and mess, but it turned out to be a 7-foot-11-inch board. It was a hot little board, and everyone loved it who rode it.”
Hynson suddenly found his board-shaping skills very much in demand. He became a top shaper for Gordon and Smith Surfboards in San Diego, where he designed and produced his trademark “RedFin” boards. He also began hanging out with all the best surfers in Southern California, including Corky Carroll, Phil Edwards, Nat Young and Robert August. “As a surfer, Mike was very good,” recalls Carroll, now TheOrange County Register’s surfing columnist. “He was not a guy that you had to worry about beating you in a contest, but he knew how to ride a wave. He also had a kind of charisma about him that seemed to attract ‘followers,’ so to speak.”
One person who began following Hynson’s surf career was Bruce Brown, a film director who, by the early 1960s, was filming all the big surf contests in Southern California and Hawaii. According to Hynson, Brown was getting tired of the fact that all the surf movies being made showed the same group of surfers on the same group of waves. “There was no story to any of these movies,” Hynson says. Brown came up with the concept of taking two surfers—one blond and right-footed (Hynson) and one dark-haired goofy-footer—August fit the part—and following them around the world, from California to Europe and Africa, in search of the perfect wave.
The details of their epic quest, which culminates with Hynson surfing a beautiful right-breaking wave at Cape St. Francis in South Africa, are familiar to anyone who has seen The Endless Summer, which remains iconic more than 40 years later. The film not only exposed the sport to a nationwide audience, helping export the industry beyond California and Hawaii, but it also helped shift the sport itself from a handful of well-known beaches to a constant quest for pristine waves in exotic locales. Hynson recalls the trip as one of the most fun adventures in his life, although part of the sense of adventure was the fact that he smuggled an ounce of pot with him as he flew around the world.
“I was young, stupid and loaded,” Hynson says. “I smoked pot everywhere. I had a roll of bennies, which I took with me also, so when we had to drive somewhere, guess who stayed up all night?”
Before the movie was released theatrically in 1966, Hynson accompanied Brown and August, as well as several other surf legends, including Carroll, on a nationwide road trip to promote the film. “We’d go into towns, and every time we’d stop for gas, Corky and I would jump out and go skateboarding,” Hynson says. “We really caused a scene because skateboarding hadn’t reached the inner part of the States yet.” As the trip wore on, the audiences were growing larger, and before Hynson realized it, the movie had become a hit. (At latest count, The Endless Summer has grossed $30 million.) Hynson claims that Brown had promised him and August that if the movie did well, everyone would share in the good fortune.
“It wasn’t until I grabbed Robert and went to LA and talked to a lawyer that I realized this guy was fucking me left and right,” Hynson says. In fact, Hynson had only become suspicious after his then-girlfriend Merryweather, whom he had just met at San Diego’s Windansea beach, asked him about his allowing Brown to use his likeness on film. “He’d never signed a release,” says Merryweather, now a civic activist in La Jolla. Merryweather’s father, Hubert, was the president of Arizona’s state senate; Barry Goldwater was her godfather. “I told Mike my father knew a great lawyer up in Hollywood, and let’s go up and see him.”
Hynson brought August with him to see the attorney, who insisted they each deserved a third of the profit from The Endless Summer. Hynson claims Brown refused to do that, instead offering each surfer $5,000, a new car and help getting set up in business. While August accepted the deal, Hynson says, he refused. (Neither Brown nor August responded to written requests for comment for this story, but Alter says Brown gave Hynson the gift of fame he still enjoys. “Nobody knew who Mike was back then,” he says. “Bruce took all the risk, and I’ve never met anybody more forthright and honest.”) The dispute ended Hynson’s friendships with Brown and, eventually, August. Enraged by what he felt was Brown’s betrayal, Hynson dropped out for a while, leaving California with Merryweather to spend half a year surfing big waves on Oahu’s North Shore.
* * *
One of the surfers Hynson got to know in Hawaii was Chuck Mundell, a high-school dropout from Huntington Beach. Mundell admired Hynson and wanted him to meet a good friend of his named John Griggs, who was living with a bunch of friends in a stone building in Orange County’s Modjeska Canyon. Griggs and his friends, most of whom were former boozers, brawlers and heroin addicts from Anaheim, had begun experimenting with a new drug that Griggs had stolen at gunpoint from a Hollywood film producer: lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Until October 1966, acid was legal in California, and Griggs and his group, who called themselves the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, believed that just as it had cured them of their addictions and violent behavior, it could also transform American society into a glorious utopia. They were heavily influenced by Harvard professor Timothy Leary, he of the famous exhortation “Turn on, tune in, drop out”—and who would later describe Griggs as the “holiest person who has ever lived in this country.”
Before Griggs invited Leary to join his group, which in early 1967 moved south to Laguna Canyon, to a neighborhood Griggs would christen “Dodge City” because of the constant skirmishes with the local forces of law and order, Hynson was Griggs’ most famous disciple. “Griggs had gold flashing out of his eyes and tongue, these words; he was just a magical little guy,” Hynson says. Accompanied by Merryweather, Hynson dropped his first acid with Griggs and several other Brotherhood members at Black’s Beach near La Jolla.
The experience brought him back to the hospital room where he’d nearly died as a child. It took Hynson a few trips to get beyond that near-death experience, but when that happened, he felt reborn with a new sense of spiritual purpose. “Those guys turned me on,” he says. “Things were happening. I remember Johnny and I walking down Haight-Ashbury [in San Francisco], and he got some acid from somebody, and the whole street was loaded with people doing their own hippie thing. It was really going on.”
Griggs had a plan: open a psychedelic spiritual and cultural center in Laguna Beach that would turn the town into a Southern California version of Haight-Ashbury. To finance the construction of Mystic Arts World, the store that would serve as that center, Griggs relied on cash from the Brotherhood’s burgeoning marijuana-smuggling operation.
“One day, I walked into this warehouse with Johnny and saw 50 tons of pot,” Hynson says. “I wasn’t supposed to see it, but I was there. I remember thinking, ‘It’s not going to get any better than this, and it’s not going to get any worse.’”
But Hynson had another idea for how Griggs could raise money: Why not use surfboards to smuggle hash from the Middle East or India? After all, nobody knew anything about surfing in India, so customs wouldn’t know if, for example, a surfboard weighed 20 or 30 pounds more than it should. Hynson suggested the idea to Griggs’ friend Dave Hall, who promptly borrowed a board and set off for Nepal, returning a few weeks later with the board—and the best hash anyone in Laguna Beach had ever smoked.
On his next trip, Hall invited Hynson to come along, which is how Hynson found himself struggling to fill three surfboards with hash oil late one night in New Delhi. The trip was a success, and the cash raised helped make Griggs’ dream a reality. “I wasn’t going to sell it or anything,” Hynson says. “I just gave it to those guys, and it bankrolled Mystic Arts. It was an honor, you know.”
* * *
During the next several years, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love established itself as both America’s top hashish-smuggling ring—with up to a dozen hash-stuffed Volkswagen buses and Land Rovers being shipped back from Afghanistan at any given moment—and the country’s top LSD-distribution ring. Leary moved to Laguna Beach and later accompanied Griggs to a mountain commune in Idyllwild, where Griggs died of an overdose of crystallized psilocybin in August 1969. Hynson stayed away from Dodge City as much as possible because Leary and the Brotherhood attracted too much heat.
He let his guard down once, however, when he and Merryweather sped through Laguna Canyon smoking a joint. A cop pulled them over, smelled the weed and arrested them both. At the station, the officer rifled through Merryweather’s belongings. “In my purse, I had a little Buddha, a prayer book and beads, some patchouli oil and incense, and a Murine bottle full of LSD,” Merryweather recalls. “The cop ingested it through his fingers and never got around to booking us.” In the morning, another officer arrived at the station, slack-jawed at the sight of his colleague, who reeked of patchouli, sitting with glazed eyes in front of a Buddha. “They let us the hell out of there right away,” Hynson says.
Not surprisingly, much of the late 1960s is a blur to Hynson. “It’s a fog,” he says. “There are a few years when I know I was there, but I don’t know what happened.” Although Griggs’ untimely death saddened Hynson, he’d already become best friends with a talented young surfer who also happened to be Dodge City’s biggest drug dealer, John Gale. In 1969, the two opened their own company, Rainbow Surfboards. Theirs were among the first truly shredding shortboards to hit the waves in Southern California and Hawaii. “Mike was one of the surfboard shapers in the 1960s who could make boards that worked,” recalls Carroll. “There were better craftsmen around, guys who could make ‘perfect boards,’ but Mike had the gift to make ones that just rode great.’”
Rainbow Surfboards got an unexpected publicity boost from Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Wein, a member of Andy Warhol’s so-called Factory whom Merryweather had befriended while working as a model in New York. In 1972, while Hynson and Merryweather were living in Maui—where most of the Brotherhood had relocated after Laguna Beach became too hot—Merryweather suggested to Wein that he direct a Jimi Hendrix concert movie in Maui and even introduced him to Hendrix’s manager, Michael Jefferey.
“Chuck wanted to make a movie that was going to have surfing, healers, vegetarians, New Age people, even a space woman,” Merryweather says. “Jimi was going to play the music because he was at the top of his game, and Michael was going to surf because he was at the top of his game.” The result, 1972’s Rainbow Bridge, was billed as a Hendrix concert film because the concert Hendrix played in Maui provides the ending of the movie, much of which actually features surfing by Hynson and his friends, goofy-foot hotshot Dave Nuuhiwa and Leslie Potts. “Gale refused to be in the movie, because he didn’t want to have his face on camera,” Hynson recalls.
The film’s most notorious scene features Hynson and Potts ripping open a Rainbow Surfboard to reveal a stash of hash, a stunt that takes place under a Richard Nixon poster that reads, “Would You Buy a Used Car From This Man?” When the film opened in Laguna Beach, Hynson gave Gale all the tickets as a birthday present. Half of the audience was rumored to be narcs. “The room smoked up so much you couldn’t see the stage,” Hynson says. “We had all these Rainbow Surfboards up on the stage, and when the movie showed the board being opened up, it got the police crazy. They were constantly on our ass. Anybody who had a Rainbow Surfboard got pulled over.”
* * *
A few months after Rainbow Bridge came out, a multi-agency task force arrested dozens of members of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love in California, Oregon and Maui, including Gale, who spent the next several months in prison. “He wasn’t in for long,” Hynson says. “He was like a rabbit.” But thanks in part to the Brotherhood’s legendary secrecy, the police never knew Hynson’s role in the group. Once Gale got out of prison, the two continued to sell surfboards and market the Rainbow brand by opening a Rainbow Juice bar in La Jolla with help from Merryweather. But the business folded after just a few years. “We didn’t shortchange anything,” Merryweather says. “We got an accounting firm and figured out we were paying people 25 cents to eat the avocado sandwiches.”
Meanwhile, Gale had become the biggest cocaine broker in California. Hynson says he didn’t know the full extent of Gale’s business dealings, but he does recall visiting his friend’s house one time when Gale suddenly remembered that a truck full of Colombian marijuana was on its way from Florida. He also recalls that whenever he rode in Gale’s car, someone always seemed to be following them. “Not for long, though,” Hynson says. “Gale didn’t stick around long enough for anyone to chase him.”
On June 2, 1982, Gale perished when the car he was driving, Hynson’s Mercedes, went off the road in Dana Point. Hynson remains convinced someone—either the cops or rival criminals—was chasing his friend. The tragedy ended Rainbow Surfboards (it’s recently been reincarnated under new ownership) and left Hynson financially strapped. “If you ever had a business project and you’re wondering whatever happened to it, it’s probably because the other guy is dead,” Hynson jokes.
Gale’s death devastated Hynson, says Merryweather. “I wasn’t with him at the time, but people told me they’d never seen Michael take anything so bad. He just really went sideways.”
Hynson spent the next two decades broke, strung out on coke and crystal methamphetamine, bouncing between jail and sleeping in alleys and garages in San Diego. “I got tripped up on my probation, you see,” he says, his voice trailing off as it often does when he attempts to make sense out of what happened to his life. “You know, it just snowballed. I hit rock-bottom, and then stayed there for a while.”
Hynson isn’t exactly sure how he finally managed to pull himself out of the downward spiral, although he credits ex-wife Merryweather and current girlfriend Carol Hannigan with being “angels” in his life. “It’s just been a gradual process of coming back to reality, and I haven’t stopped since,” he says. “One day, I realized I had a driver’s license with my own address and a telephone number. I even had a bank account. That’s when I realized I was back in society again.”
Thanks to the booming market for American-designed surfboards in Japan, Hynson is doing brisk business there. “There’s really no money in surfboards,” he says. “But thank God for the Japanese.” Meanwhile, Hynson hopes to sell the first 1,000 signed copies of his book for $350 each, which would raise enough cash to print many thousands of additional copies. Eventually, he wants to help publish art books by local artists such as Lance Jost and Bill Ogden, whom he’s known since his Laguna Beach days. “The more books we sell, the more the price goes down,” he says. “I don’t have any money right now, but I’m taking every cent I have, and we are just going to snowball this thing. If I can just get some juice, I’m going to have some fun.”
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Nick Schou’s book Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World, is scheduled for release in March 2010 by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.