A Skitch In Time
That Dogtown stuff is all well and good, but skitch Hitchcock and friends know that OC’s own Salt Creek Beach crew has left its own mark on the skateboarding world
Skateboarders and surfers are a circle-jerking bunch.
Always talking about who did what first, who was the first to that, who was the first to be photographed doing this, doing that.
There was the 30-foot rogue wave, set off by some earthquake in Alaska that Skitch Hitchcock survived only by not actually catching the wave.
“I got scared. And I held onto the board, and I dug my feet into the wave like this,” he says, demonstrating some 40 years later in his Laguna Niguel living room. “I’m doing everything I can to not catch the wave. But I if caught it and stood up, I would have been a hero for 50 years.”
Or there was the time a cop chased him down the then-restricted Salt Creek Beach. Skitch faked remorse, then took off darting toward the ocean, struggling to pull on his wetsuit as he ran. The cop pulled out his gun and waited for three hours.
“And then he went back to eating donuts,” Skitch says, giggling.
Skitch, 57, is sitting around his living room with his brother, Garrison Hitchcock, 54, and best friend Dale Smith, 57. The house belongs to Skitch’s former sister-in-law, who has an obvious penchant for the ocean. A carved wooden sea turtle stands two feet away, bolstering an aquarium of tiny silver fish. The bathroom in the hallway has a grass skirt as a shower curtain and starfish and sand suspended in the resin toilet seat.
The trio brag and share accounts, sounding not too different from circles of old fishermen recalling that one trout they reeled in that was this-fucking-big.
Smith, Garrison and Skitch belong to an elite group of surfer/skaters who claimed Salt Creek as theirs in the 1970s. They’re just one slice of an immensely talented crew who went on to make names for themselves in the burgeoning sport of professional skateboarding, skating for the Hobie team. Skitch pushed standards to experimental levels and blazed at the forefront of the sport with tricks, ramps, trucks and boards, while Smith was the first to set skate routines to music and was the brains behind modern safety equipment as we know it, allowing for greater confidence and bigger, better tricks. Garrison had the first skate car and was among the first Signal Hill competitors—focusing on getting downhill and downhill fast.
There’s just one problem: Most people haven’t heard of a Skitch or Garrison Hitchcock, a Dale Smith, a Mike Weed, a Bob Jarvis, or many of the other bigger names hailing from Salt Creek despite their obvious accomplishments.
Instead, 1970s cutting-edge skateboarding, in the popular consciousness, belongs not to Salt Creek but to Santa Monica—Dogtown, and yes, the Z-boys, or the Zephyr skateboard team. While they boast their own impressive archive of achievements, the flamboyant, long-haired bad-boy antics of Tony Alva, Jay Adams, Stacy Peralta, Jim Muir and others are still riding on the wave of ex post facto success thanks to a $400,000-budget 2001 documentary that was subsequently followed by a full-length motion picture—starring Heath Ledger.
But that pervasive documentary left out the No. 1 skateboarding team in the world at the time: Team Hobie.
* * *
Located just between Laguna Beach and Dana Point sits a not-so-publicized stretch of fine sand along Pacific Coast Highway now overshadowed by the five-diamond monstrosity that is the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel.
“I remember the first time surfing [Salt Creek Beach], 44 years ago,” Skitch Hitchcock says. “The water was so clear, and the bottom looked like it was six inches under your board. There was nothing but garibaldi, lobsters, abalone and stingrays—it was like you were in Marineland. We were kind of spooked to see how much wildlife there was.”
It was a private beach that boasted pristine waves that didn’t welcome just anybody.
“You had to have a pass and live in Monarch Bay or up Crown Valley. We snuck in, and sheriffs and everybody would be chasing us,” Garrison says with a laugh.
Skitch even recalls surfing at the Creek prior to 1968.
“This crusty old goat herder would be there, and he had goats all over the hills,” he reminisces. “He charged a pretty steep entry fee; it was 50 cents a person, so you know, you’d drive down with a carload of four people, and he’d get two bucks. This was back in the early ’60s, when $2 was a 12-pack of beer!”
But the consistency and quality of the waves were the beach’s real attractions.
“Salt Creek has got more power than anything up north until you get to central California. Los Angeles has no waves. This wave [at Salt Creek], it jumps out of very deep, creviced water. In certain spots, the beach is 30 feet deep, so it takes the littlest ripple, and because of our natural valley, the hot air comes down and turns the wind blowing offshore into the face of the wave. A 2-foot day somewhere else will be a 4, 5 or 6 at the Creek,” Skitch says fondly.
A main highlight of the Dogtown and Z-Boys documentary was the direct link the Zephyr team made between surfing and skating, executing the cutbacks of surfer Larry Bertleman on concrete.
Skateboarding was once exclusively seen as something to do when the waves were flat—it was called sidewalk surfing for a reason. Riding styles in the ’60s and ’70s were much smoother, twisting, turning and spinning in a fluid-like motion, almost like ice dancing on a concrete surface. Because of this obvious marriage between the two sports, many argue that a geographic advantage and better waves helped paved the way for South County’s advancements in skateboarding.
“We’d skate when we didn’t surf,” explains Skitch. “Surfing is way better. And these kooks that can surf, skate and do X-Games and stuff? You can tell if they know how to surf or not. A surfer has a distinct style.”
Legendary surfer, San Clemente resident and former skateboarder Herbie Fletcher recalls witnessing the Salt Creek crew skateboarding in the ’70s.
“They’d skate everywhere around Dana Point. And they worked at it. Every sunrise, they’d be down at Salt Creek surfing. And then it’d blow out, and they’d skateboard all day—like all day,” he says and smiles. “Skitch was good. He was one of the guys leading the pack.”
When asked about the Dogtown documentary, Fletcher states, “Dogtown was a cute story. They made a great story. They were not the first ones to ride pools, and it was self-promoting—but so was everybody. They claimed a lot. And just like in surfing, there’s a lot of things going on, but it’s a movement.”
* * *
“I still watch cartoons,” Skitch explains. “I sold my comic-book collection. I had the third-biggest collection in Long Beach. After I sold that, I stopped buying them because they stink. They used to have good artists and themes—like Spider-Man; he has a continuing theme. He lost his girlfriend, she died, and when Peter Parker’s daughter got killed by the Green Goblin and his roommate had a problem with drugs and Spider-Man spun around Manhattan listening to Jethro Tull on his Walkman . . . You gotta belieeeeve, you gotta believe!”
It’s just one tangent of many throughout the afternoon’s conversation. Later, Smith (whom Skitch calls Stumpy—“because he’s stumpy”) and Weekly photographer John Gilhooley would pull out their cell phones and compare lengthy voice mails left by Skitch. (Smith’s won: In it, he spoke of passing off bits of poop as doughnut holes that were blue and pink and purple with sprinkles and everything.)
Even at 57, Skitch’s jokester reputation precedes him. Stories of his fondness for farting on the faces of sleeping friends permeate the Internet—right next to a list of his amazing feats. His friends’ faces light up as they speak of him with clear admiration, in a tone slightly reminiscent of a proud set of parents.
Skitch still has a head of long, flowing hair (now salt-and-peppered) past his shoulders, with a straight fringe cut across his forehead, which recalls a Ramone or two. He wears a brown T-shirt emblazoned with the image of skater Denis Shufelt (a.k.a. “Shuffy”), crouched down on his board, with one hand outstretched to the ground. Reader’s Digest once compared Skitch to Mick Jagger in his youth. Actually, Skitch sort of resembles present-day Roky Erickson, with his wide-set eyes, friendly face, protruding belly and—most important—a steadfast refusal to grow up.
“Skitch has always been a trip,” Garrison comments. “I call him Peter Pan, 180 IQ, genius. He can recite the Bible. He can design anything; he can innovate anything. He can draw and sketch and do blueprints.”
Skitch was born and raised in Long Beach, surfing 72nd Street with Smith when Long Beach was still surfable in the ’60s, prior to the expansion of the sea wall that stopped swells from entering. And as soon as one of them got a car—a Falcon Smith’s mechanic father had tuned up, for $25—the friends were off to Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Dana Point and Newport Beach. Four-thirty morning sessions with Smith weren’t an uncommon thing. “Sometimes, we made it to school,” jokes Skitch.
And whenever they weren’t surfing, the pair skated wherever they could, finding natural skate parks in the cityscape, much like the Z-Boys did with school grounds.
“We used to skate this place called Argon Alley in Long Beach. My house was the first house that started this alley, and it was on this real steep hill,” Skitch explains in his sing-song voice. “The driveways all came down into this cement alley, and we’d drop in like that. It would bowl out because of the gradation of the thing. It had about six different waves, six different banks. It was a surfing-style skate park.”
Throughout their careers, Skitch would treat younger brother Garrison as a guinea pig of sorts for his experiments.
“Gary was Skitch’s test pilot,” Smith says with a smile. “Gary was a fearless warrior for Skitch in his pursuit to design and make stuff that nobody else was making. It really was like a space-travel kind of deal. ‘How big of a hill do you want me to go down? How big of a wave do you want to surf? What do you want me to do? I’m ready to do it. Hey, you want to put me in this car and push me down a hill? Sure!’ That’s Gary.”
A 3-year-old Garrison was pushed by Skitch down the same Long Beach hill in an orange-crate scooter with a handle. Old Chicago roller skates split with a key provided the motion.
“He got me inside, like this thing was going backward on St. Joseph between Fifth and Broadway, and he went,” an aloha shirt-clad Garrison pantomimes with his legs pumping, and then a push. “Skitch is rolling around laughing, and I had no control. I hit a parked car at about 25 mph. Wood went crashing everywhere.”
Skitch laughs with glee and nods in approval. “My brother’s eaten some really bad crap because I push him into some bad situations. But usually, we get away with it and laugh about it.” He pauses. “I am two-and-three-quarter years older, so his life started with me climbing into his crib and beating him up daily.”
Garrison scoffs and reminds his older brother of the time he finally knocked him out when he was 18. “He looked for me for three days.”
Skitch was an accomplished Olympic-level gymnast from junior high through high school. The regimented training was apparent in his skateboard and surfing style, from the strong upper body right down to his pointed toes during handstands executed while rolling on his skateboard. (And later, he would even do handstands on his surfboard. Pro surfer Christian Fletcher [son of Herbie], vividly recalls seeing Skitch perform such a feat at 38 years old. “He used to do handstands while surfing in front of three people at a time and riding all the way down the whole damn beach. Skitch did things you never dreamed of doing,” Fletcher says.)
“I was going to go to the Olympics! I was going to be a star! And get a gold medal! And then I got into acid, and it allllllll melted away.” Skitch dreamily sighs. “I was state champ. You know what? If it’s a choice between ‘eat acid and not going to school and surfing’ and ‘going to school and having your coach of eight years beat the hell out of you for five hours,’ I’d rather do the LSD and go surfing.”
Skitch shares that he used to eat acid like they were M&Ms, stating that the drugs assisted in his creativity in surfing and skateboarding, though one night he was so busy with the cavern of vortexes on his bedroom ceiling he missed the last time the Doors would play in Long Beach. And then there was the 20th-birthday party that involved two 5-gallon containers of strawberry Baskin-Robbins ice cream and a six-bottle case of Strawberry Hill wine with 40 hits of acid in each bottle.
“I sold acid from 15 years old, and because I had the best source of acid, I always had a good clientele,” he explains.
That best source of acid really was the best source of acid: Timothy Leary himself, who then owned a large mansion in Laguna Beach, though Skitch insists he wasn’t privy to the inner workings of the Brotherhood—something he insists that would probably get him killed even today (see Nick Schou’s “Lords of Acid,” July 8, 2005).
Skitch skated for Hobie from 1975 through the end of the skate company in late 1979. During that time, he was constantly innovating the sport, with unheard-of prototypes and tricks. He designed and skated on the first kicker ramp, that same little launch ramp you see all the kids in your neighborhood taking off on today. It’s the reason why he became the first world champion of skateboarding at the 1975 World Contest.
“I placed above everybody by about two points. It’s because I initiated my aerial with a ramp for the first time. Everyone had seen me get air, but no one had seen me get, like, 6 feet of air. I needed a ramp to assist me to get higher,” he explains. “It was the first time it was used in a competition. I’d have nothing but hassles using my ramp—and now all of skateboarding is ramps.”
Smith and Garrison are quick to list Skitch’s many accomplishments. “All the boards he was making at the time were innovative on a spectrum of the highest-quality ideas. He made his boards lighter and stronger so he could be the first to do an aerial maneuver. He’d just grab the board with his toes in a gorilla grip and lift off the ground and glide,” Smith explains.
Skitch takes this moment to mock the bunny hops Z-Boy Jay Adams did at the 1975 Del Mar Nationals, crouching to the ground, pulling his bent knees to his chest and jumping ever so slightly off the ground. He cracks up. “You just do it over and over again. Boink-boink-boink-boink. It looks stupid, and it was stupid. It wasn’t anything you do on a wave, and you’d look stupid doing it on a wave if you could. It has no function whatsoever, and it was their biggest move. I was doing aerials at the time, in ’74, ’75. He was getting 4 to 5 inches, and I was getting 4 to 5 feet.”
Mike Weed, now 50 and a Maui resident, was another local hero of Salt Creek; he learned to skateboard at age 6 on a Makaha board from his father. Weed was also a star skateboarder for Hobie, winning the 1978 World Championship.
“Skateboarding went from absolutely nothing in ’72—nobody had done a kickturn, nothing. Like the wheel hadn’t been invented yet! And in way less than a decade, they were doing 3-foot airs and Skitch was doing the gorilla grip, getting air and 30 360s and kickflips,” Weed remarks. “When I first skated in ’74, nobody would think you could just do a kickflip—what was that? How’d you come up with that? That era invited all that stuff.”
Weed recalls watching Dogtown for the first time.
“The film was definitely well-done. But they left out the fact that there were tons of great skaters in Southern California. [Hobie was] basically their rival. I went to so many sessions where I was a rival with Tony Alva. I’m not going to say I was better, but I definitely held my own. I could run circles around him on freestyle,” says Weed. “He wasn’t a freestyler; he wasn’t even invited. [Dogtown] couldn’t do demos. People now say freestyle wasn’t cool, but freestyle is basically what street was back then. Nobody was all up on curbs, but it was tricks! Tricks were the future of skateboarding, and we were the ones to bring the tricks to vert. I was in the first eight contests on vert, whereas you didn’t see Jay Adams. He never showed up. Tony Alva came to one contest. Stacy never came. And the reason they didn’t come was because they were going to get blown away.”
Skitch does admit the documentary did amazing things for the sport of skateboarding. “It got the bills paid and allowed us to skateboard,” he says. “If people are interested in it and it all comes under the heading of skateboarding, then it benefited an entire industry.”
* * *
In 1975, Skitch built out of fiberglass the first wave ramp with a compound curve—what he claims to be the first vertical ramp. He made boards with a foam core, designing boards to flex in a certain way to help his style. He would practice handstands on self-made and self-designed fiberglass hand skateboards—complete with thumb brakes. He designed a live axle and even the world’s first closed skate car for Garrison, something that everyone from car designers to aerospace engineers would soon emulate.
“Skitch was the mad professor of skateboarding. He was designing and coming up with the future of skateboarding,” Smith boasts.
Skitch was even the first to skate a full loop in 1977, like a toy car speeding on a Hot Wheels track, which he pulled off during a touring show called Skateboard Mania, as the stuntman stand-in for Tony Jetton. The show’s plot involved aliens coming to Earth to show the earthlings how to skate. The 22-foot loop would be daunting even today—and an accomplishment Tony Hawk and Bob Burnquist only recently achieved.
Skitch toured the world doing demos for Hobie, who in turn took care of their skaters. While the Z-Boys famously rode on the roofs of cars looking for pools, he remembers Hobie renting a $200-per-afternoon Cessna during the 1976 California drought. Skitch—along with Weed, Bob Jarvis and Tim Carew—could search for empty Inland Empire pools to skate in, taking a Marshall Guide up in the air and marking Xs as they went. Skitch came home only to enter contests, design skate parks in Riverside and Argentina in 1979, and, eventually, plaster houses in 1984. Old skateboard injuries (he had broken his hands alone 12 times) began to take a toll, leaving him in constant pain.
“I caused my own demise. It’s nothing that I can blame on anyone else. I’ve been in pain since I was 28, the kind of pain where you wish you wouldn’t live anymore,” Skitch says. “It’s serious every day, every minute of the day, every second of the minute excruciating pain. And the only way I knew how to get out of it was to drink. So I did that pretty well—well enough to ruin my health.”
A disastrous marriage that resulted in two children, now 21 and 16, who weren’t biologically his caused Skitch to gravitate even more to the bottle.
“I’m in end-phase liver disease. I was supposed to be dead a year and a half ago,” Skitch says now. He shows off his different daily medications: soma, Xanax, methadone, liquid potassium, lactulose, the latter of which he downs, resulting in teary eyes.
“I knew Skitch was going to make it,” Smith explains with a faint smile, “when I went to the bathroom in his hospital room, and Skitch got up and put a chair in front of the door so I couldn’t get out. That’s when I knew.”
Smith promised a bedridden Skitch he’d make a skateboard model for him if he survived. Royalties and proceeds from the model now go toward Skitch’s medical expenses.
* * *
Of course, the history of skateboarding, like all mostly oral histories, differs from storyteller to storyteller, from decade to decade and generation to generation, morphing its focus to vertical in the ’80s and then to street skating soon after.
In December, Huntington Beach-based Quiksilver hosted an All ’80s All Day Vert Challenge, inviting the biggest names in the industry—from Christian Hosoi and Tony Hawk to Steve Caballero and Andy Macdonald—to perform all the ’80s tricks on ’80s boards.
“If you listen in on conversations today, it’s going to be all about, like, who did what when and nostalgia,” says Macdonald, one of the biggest vert skateboarders of today—and a fan of Smith Safety Gear. “The only written history are the magazines, but even then, it was like so-and-so was at the park when this guy started doing it, then the next day, a different guy shot the photo and this guy named it!”
Macdonald believes things have definitely changed, even from the ’80s to now: “For the first time in skateboarding history, we have fans of skateboarding that aren’t necessarily skateboarders. They’re people who know the pros, play the video games, but haven’t actually stepped on a board in their lives—and love skateboarding.”
When asked, Hawk, in a half-shaven ’80s cut and a neon shirt, takes note of Orange County’s role in skateboard history.
“Orange County was especially important in the formative years of skateboarding because so many of the companies and the pioneers were from around here. Some of the first backyard vert ramps I went to were up here. There were definitely some skate parks in the ’70s, but I didn’t manage to get here because my dad wouldn’t drive me that far,” he says and laughs. “There were ramps and scenes here that were very progressive, and most of the skate industry is based ?here now.”
Hosoi, a current Huntington Beach resident, says, “There was a big part coming from Orange County. I was here in Orange County—Big O Skatepark, you know. Everyone has a big influence, but there are roots that come from somewhere. The reason why skating is, is because of surfing.”
Skateboarding’s resident punk and current U.S. Bombs singer Duane Peters was briefly coached by Smith and raised in Costa Mesa. He remembers firsthand OC’s lack of recognition while growing up in the ’70s.
“[Orange County] really got no love. It was always the Badlanders, the South Bay guys, Redondo, and then you had Dogtown. Orange County was always just kind of in between; we never really got a lot of love from the magazines,” a near-toothless, tattooed Peters grunts. “Whenever you said someone was from Orange County, it kind of just went in one ear and out the other. And now, half the industry is in Costa Mesa—that’s amazing. There were a lot of skaters from here, but everybody peeled off as it got gnarlier and gnarlier in the early pool-pioneering days. It was all about just staying in there. And then Orange County got put on the map. We had a time where it was like, ‘Where was ours?’ It was like fighting for territory.”
One thing was for sure: The day wasn’t really about the contest, or whether or not Hosoi would be still able to pull off his signature move in Spandex and a long wig. The day was a celebration of skateboarding and where it was today.
“There’s just a handful of us who have stuck with it for so long,” says Eddie Reategui, former Long Beach resident, pro skater and current owner of Daggers Skates, as he scans the room filled with his colleagues, peers and heroes. “We gave our lives. And it’s just great to see where we’re at now.”
* * *
Over the telephone, Skitch says he’s doing well now, living long past what was predicted by his doctors not too long ago. “It’s pretty serious, but I don’t take it that seriously. I’m still surfing and skating and having fun.”
He mentions that his turning point in life was finding God and speaks highly of his kids.
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Skitch, along with Garrison and with the help of Smith, has a new project: producing even more equipment under the Hitchcock name. He hopes to land an investor soon. He says that Vans will add him to the skateboarding hall of fame next month.
Skitch proudly displays his new dual-dragons deck design. Japanese script along the bottom reads, “A coward dies many lives, a courageous man only once.”
“That’s the way it is,” Skitch says matter-of-factly. “No balls, no blue chips.”