#The Simplicity of Cyrus Sutton, 10:33 A.M. – 12:11 P.M., Holy Saturday

{This story was originally published in 2013 in Slide magazine.}

You may know of this subject.

He’s created four surf films, soon five. In 2006, he split an Emmy for another.

His commercial work is praised.

Korduroy.tv, which he launched in 2009 and still lords over, has produced more than 400 shows for public view.

At 18, he was a professional longboarder. At 30, he is a professional freesurfer.

He has many interests beyond surfing.

He lives in a van.

 

#Words and Van Photos By Michael Kew

#Surfing Photos Courtesy of Dylan Gordon/Terasu

 

 

#If only the yogi had surfed.

“Swami’s”—an eponym. The longhaired yogi had no clue about its fine rights. Lefts, sometimes. The lineup was bare. Tranquil. Spiritual.

For him.

‘Til death, if he’d wanted.

In 1937, the land facing Swami’s Reef in Encinitas was a prime knuckle of sandstone. Paramahansa Yogananda built a hermitage. The expat Indian lived there in serenity, gazing out over vast brown kelp beds and the blue, softly-seabreezed Pacific, so mild in that Southern California way, while he taught scientific forms of meditation, energization, and concentration, urging folks to grok an intimate rapport with God. Yogananda called it the Self-Realization Fellowship and it became a worldwide clique.

The surf below his retreat was best in winter. Nobody knew or cared. Mass surf-realization was years off. But since 1952, when Yogananda died, many thousands of people have surfed Swami’s. They still do, even today, this sunny morn before Easter, when lousy little waves dribble to shore.

Here, Yogananda was onto something. His soul was fed by nature. It bathed him. Globally, his peregrinations touched millions.

Yogananda has been dead twice the number of years Cyrus Sutton has been living.

Fullerton first. “My dad was a landscape architect and professor of landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. Fullerton was directly between his favorite local mountains, where he liked to hang out, and the surf spots of Orange County.”

Seal Beach next. “You can talk about East Coast surfers being really stoked and really pure. It’s the same in Seal Beach. The waves aren’t that good, and there isn’t as much to be jaded about. When it’s on, everybody is just frothing. I like that. I know personally that that brought that out in me when I was really aspiring for something more.”

Cardiff later—he lived in the back of Rob Machado’s house. Then La Jolla, right above Big Rock. Then back to Orange County in his van. Encinitas now. “But I’ve had enough of Southern California at this stage of my life.”

Matter-of-fact. No hint of sour.

We’re sitting atop new sub-floor plywood storage compartments in the bare rear of Sutton’s white 2003 Ford E-250. It is parked in the dusty dirt off San Elijo Avenue, overlooking a busy Coast Highway 101, Swami’s, guardrails, railroad track, kelp beds, native shrubs, and Yogananda’s iconic digs. Humanity floods the scene. The sky is vast and clear, the Pacific a rich cerulean, textured by a soft west wind. A fine day of seasonal spring hue.

We’d hoped to surf. We’d also planned to park this van in the small Swami’s lot, because Cyrus is renting a room in an old house nearby, and, because, raised in Encinitas, I’d spent my youth surfing over that reef. But all 40 spaces were taken, mostly (or all) by the joggers and dog-walkers and baby-pushers who’d left cars there.

“Southern California is based on a road-traveling infrastructure,” Sutton tells me. He’s picking at something on his arm. “Every amenity that’s necessary for man is roadside. You can get every single thing you need, the most efficient way possible, being on the road. This is the most efficient way for me to get all my work done and stay healthy and stay stoked. Stay creative.”

Sutton is wearing a plain black T-shirt and his Reef signature Cy Stripe boardshorts. On his feet are black, green-soled Reef Rodeo Flip sandals that look to be one size too big. To his right hangs a small, black-handled broom. Five times during our chat, he uses it to lightly sweep the floor around his feet. He’s not really sweeping, because the faux oak flooring looks clean. Once, he sweeps the bottoms of his Rodeo Flip sandals.

“I have a really hard time making this van dirty. Everything is wood and nothing is carpet because if I try to throw shit in here and drive, it’s gonna slide around and it’s gonna be all sketchy. So I’m constantly having to pick up after myself. I used to have open shelves that said, ‘Throw stuff in me and never come back.’ Cluttered my van. So I’ve designed it to make the most use of space and keep it self-cleaning.”

He designed this new interior using Adobe Illustrator and employed skilled friends to help bang it all out. Tomorrow he’s going to spraypaint the van’s exterior for a more grounded look. Something greeny. Or brownish. Maybe both. Camo?

“I had to get rid of a bunch of my stuff.”

Liberating, eh?

“Super liberating.” He shakes his head. “The biggest challenge we all have is getting rid of shit. Our belongings consume us. The more shit you have? Spiritually and mentally, you’re slower. I’m obsessed with simplicity. Simplifying my life.”

 

“Every tomorrow is determined by every today.” Paramahansa Yogananda

 

#The E-250 once belonged to an overworked electrician.

“I got it when it was a couple of years old. I was at a point where I didn’t want to live with my parents in Seal Beach, but I couldn’t afford rent. I made my first surf film, ‘Riding Waves,’ and that made me quite a bit of money. I took off around the world, bought 16mm gear, and shot a bunch of stuff. Spent all my money. I came back and was back at my parents’ and I thought: ‘This sucks.’ So I moved into the van, put a bed in the back—just a really simple piece of wood—and since then, I’ve transitioned into living down here more. It’s been about six years now.”

Flanked by the highway and railroad tracks on one side, San Elijo Avenue on the other, our setting is loud—constant cars, flatulent Harleys, chatty walkers, horn-blaring trains—so the van’s sliding door is left just slightly ajar. It’s too warm. I sweat. A perfect beach day out there. But in here, Sutton and his 5’6” John Wesley TwinFinPin—the one board he brought today—will stay dry.

“That board is insane,” Sutton says, pointing to where it’s stashed behind the clear Plexiglas panel of the van’s portside sub-floor space. The top of the compartment is used as a guest sleeping area, a counter space, and a cook space for his red camping stove. Behind the driver’s seat, the end of the compartment contains a trash can and a five-gallon propane tank. Two white onions lie at the bottom of an orange mesh basket that hangs above the other end, left of Sutton’s head. No other foodstuffs are visible. Soon, the compartments will be stocked.

“Sleeping on wheels has always felt like home. The funnest times of my life were spent sleeping in the back of my dad’s Volkswagen bus, driving up to the Sierras and smelling the sage when you drive into the high desert.

“There’s something about getting out off this thing we live in in Southern California. I think we can all feel it. It’s just this, like, HOO-WO-HA. [arms move from his head out and down, like compression] Being a pretty driven person, I get affected [jabs fingers together] by all the energy. I get excited [raises and pumps fists] but it also binds me in a lot of ways. Going out and hiking and not being around cell phone signals and all that stuff. And that’s true, man. There are cosmic people out there who are afraid that we’re getting bombarded with ozone radiation all the time, or whatever. I’m not on that end of the spectrum, but I know if I go down to Mexico for a surf trip, if I’ve been working on a lot of projects here, the first four or five days that I’m down there, I will sleep 13 to 14 hours a day. It’s because there’s no energy going through my body. I get to sleep. I come back here and I can’t sleep. I’m just wired. Maybe I have nothing on my plate that week. But there is a current running through the city that affects us. This (van) just allows me to get outside of it and to do it really efficiently.”

Next weekend, Sutton will fly to Tahiti for a Reef team shoot. After that, he will spend two or three months in the E-250, absorbing and capturing the fabric of his surroundings, wherever they be, his movements fueled by…fuel. The result will be distilled and packaged as “Compass_ing,” freely viewable to you online.

Got a loose itinerary, Cy?

“Nah. Wherever. I’ll look at the swell forecasts and just go. I haven’t really decided. That’s what I’m excited about.”

And from there?

“I have certain aims of living in a society or a community that, based on resources and geographics, may or may not be based in Southern California. [loud motorcycle passes by] The end goal for me is to be more connected with the local things that are going on and all of that is purpose-built. Recently I read ‘Imagined Communities,’ a book which postulates that anything other than your local town—any belonging that you have to other people other than people you deal with on a day-to-day basis for your survival—is imaginary. [waves a hand in the air] The whole Internet is fuckin’ imaginary. [becomes animated, puts left hand on chest] ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag,’ all this hoopla that they pound [pounds fists together] into us because, based on human nature, we don’t have that loyalty to that big of a place. On a very basic level, we just have loyalty to those around us who we need, who we rely on to eat every day and to procreate. That’s about it. Just getting back and letting go of all these imaginary ideas of ourselves and popularity on this grand scale, trying to get thousands of….”

‘Likes’ and views?

“I didn’t say that. [laughs] Because, for me, that’s a means to an end. That’s part of my career right now. That’s part of the reason I get a paycheck. That’s not what I’m about, though. That’s not really what I want.”

What do you want?

“I want enough ‘likes’ and views to support myself and my family, so maybe 20? That’s all we need. I don’t think we need more than 20 ‘likes’ and views.

During our chat, the E-250 is photographed by an outside passerby, who posts the image to Instagram and Facebook.

Have you seen Cyrus? @cyrussutton #cyrussighting @korduroytv

Minutes later, Sutton sees it on his phone. He smirks.

“That’s funny.”

The photo receives 42 ‘likes’ and no comments. On Facebook, 13 people ‘like’ it. One comment: “No but if i see that hillbilly creeper van in my hood i'm callin the cops!” This comment is ‘liked’ by one person.

Sutton and I have 403 mutual Facebook friends. Which moves me to ask: What has all this friending and hashtagging and blogging done to surf culture?

[Long pause. Stares straight ahead, loose-jawed, absent-mindedly fidgets with the top rung of the onion basket] “People who refine a viewpoint and have a story to tell are always going to rise to the top. I have a lot of sympathy for artists who are trying to make it now. I always tell any person who is struggling with the media side of surfing, or the global web side that I’m involved in, to just get more local. What is it about yourself that makes you feel that you need to be a part of the big global scene? Why not just spend more time with the farmers in your local community, or figure out something that you can make and trade? Be more rooted in your local scene, because as someone like me, who has been embraced by the global community, I can tell you that it’s no more fulfilling. I’m there. I’m in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and I’m rolling around in the gold coins, and I’m telling you that the gold ain’t real. I can’t eat the gold.”

 

“Remain calm, serene, always in command of yourself. You will then find out how easy it is to get along.”  P.Y.

 

#What’s fun about Cyrus Sutton? He’s silent for 12 seconds after I ask. It’s a strange question since, to you, his life rotates around all that’s fun.

Drinking beer?

“Beer’s fun.”

But, ultimately, Sutton dislikes beer. That’s not fun at all, is it?

He doesn’t drink much.

Smartly fun, sometimes, though he does like tequila. “I drank probably a bottle of tequila a week while I was working on this van. Alcohol can be a real fuel. It allows you to be outside and work and stay warm and have this constant energy to do stuff on a real mellow level. I’ll take a sip of tequila and hold it in my mouth for a while, letting it get warm. I’m not pounding it to inebriate myself so I can go talk to some girl and it’s less awkward.”

Vaguely fun.

He likes to fish. “I grew up fly-fishing in small creeks in the Eastern Sierras. It’s like hunting, because with creeks, you have to learn how to read the different currents, and if your line gets caught in the wrong place, you’re going to have drag in your fly and the fish will be able to see it and you won’t outsmart it and it’s not going to go for your fly. You move up the stream and every bend is a new challenge. And every bend changes, depending on the time of year and how much water is flowing through it, so it’s kind of like surfing in that nothing’s ever the same, but you’re traversing territory, trying to ultimately get a fish.”

Categorically fun.

He likes to get scared. “Getting out there to the point where you get outside of your safety net—you break down somewhere, anything that happens—there’s this thrill of being alive that we’ve always felt as humans. It makes me feel grateful about my life.”

Not particularly fun, but true.

Is media fun?

“You can’t eat media. You can’t grow media. [sweeps broom a little to the right] It’s fake, basically. All media is artistic expression. What blew my mind was looking up the word ‘aesthetics.’ [hangs broom back on hook] Basically, it’s the creation of physical objects which evoke an emotional or spiritual response. So it’s art. But aesthetics were treated very gingerly by most ancient cultures because they realized that it was not directly contributory to the sustainment of that culture. It’s not growing food, it’s not building infrastructure, it’s not feeding cattle, [talks faster] the basic shit that everybody used to have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. The people who were able to create art—whether it was literature or paintings or whatever—they either had to be immersed in a religion and do it in a mastical context, or they had to be sort of an older, wiser person, considered wise within their tribe or community or city-state, or whatever it was, to be able to practice it. Otherwise, the society simply didn’t support it.

“Nowadays, most of the ways that we gain support for doing media is through commercial endeavors, so we’re participating in marketing. The marketing is the creation of ideas and, at the base level of everything, we’re trying to create visual and auditory expressions which evoke a love response. The love response is an interesting response because when people fall in love with anything, dopamine is released into their brains, and the ability for cognitive reason goes down—it becomes suppressed—because, on an evolutionary level, we want to procreate. That’s what all commercials and marketing are based on—evoking love—so you can then associate some kind of product or something that you probably really don’t need and probably isn’t really going to last very long. [removes broom from hook]

 “It would be awesome if everybody got famous, if everybody on Instagram got their 15 minutes of fame, and then we all got over it. We didn’t hold anybody on a pedestal because of what we saw in a magazine or in a movie. We treated each other normally. When you treat someone specially because of what you’ve seen, it’s kind of a pain in the ass to treat them specially, and then the person who’s treated specially, it doesn’t feel good to be treated specially for no reason either. [Almost frowns. Shakes head briefly] It doesn’t really feel that good, so why do we do it? Let’s just not do it. Let’s just figure out stuff we can do together.”

 

#Together, commissioned by some Basque folks in Spain, he’s crafted a short flick about the Basque diaspora. It may be titled “Homeland.” To aid the research, he flew to Spain with Ryan Burch (“He’s the pure surfer we all want to be.”) and fellow van-dweller Foster Huntington. Together, they surfed large Mundaka. Sutton is making a short film about that, too.

In the past six years, he’s worked with his cousin to make a rock-climbing doco, together tracing families that live in Yosemite Valley, balancing an inherently dangerous activity with the responsibilities of being family members. “The mountain culture—people who are climbers or hikers or camping in general—is pretty straight. There’s such a reverence for the outdoors. There doesn’t need to be this whole ‘Look at me, I’m into myself and what I’m wearing and what I’m drawing and what I’m listening to’ kind of vibe. This ‘hip’ vibe, this ‘scene’ vibe.”

What do you mean?

“People who hang out together and they feed on the collective vibe of who they are. They get positive reinforcement by a momentum that they’re creating, which is great, because a lot of the momentum they’re creating is because of hard work they’ve done—creativity and passion and talent. [gets more animated; grips broom] If I do a web edit and it’s really something I’m proud of, and I feel like I did it to the best of my ability and it conveys what I want to convey, nine times out of 10, I will not then go down the street and hang out for a week in my hometown and talk to people and wait for them to tell me that they saw it, or talk about it. I will, nine times out of 10, go to the mountains by myself and go hiking.

“It’s like ‘The Crying Game’ every time after I make something that I was really passionate about. I have to take a cold shower, in a way. Hiking is that cold shower, or going on long paddles and not talking to people and just feeling the elements of nature. Because a lot of media is marketing, and that’s what we’re all participating in. (hangs broom back up)

Is that good, then?

 “You need to really get in touch with yourself and be egocentric when you make art, and the hiking thing and being away from people brings me back to reality and brings me into a space where I can create something that isn’t about the result. Good art is not about the result and the response that you get. It’s about doing the act itself. That’s what the scene bleeds me from. It’s all about the laurels and the results and reinforcement for people. I would rather save my time and energy to be a part of something that is a community of people based in function instead of fashion.”

 

“Live quietly in the moment and see the beauty of all before you. The future will take care of itself.” P.Y.

 

#There is no real set route, no end, no mash of the gas pedal toward the proverbial sunset. With his current and previous work, Sutton has proven himself.

To himself.

He thinks so.

“All my other projects have literally changed who I am to birth that project. Now I have the values down that I really enjoy and appreciate, and I’m going to continue to carry on in that direction and be productive. [starts sweeping the van floor while still sitting]

“There are always certain people who do something in their lives, and then the greater scene thinks that that’s cool, and they’re able to make a little money from that coolness for a short amount of time until they’re not considered cool again. I guess I would be put in that realm. The realm of, ‘This is who I am and this is what I’ve done.’ It’s been really embraced as being really cool, and I’m able to surf more and not have to work as much because of that. So I’m very grateful.”

Many thousands of people love what you do. Does this translate into being a pillar of the greater scene?

“I’m not really part of the scene. I touch the scene sometimes and I think,Oh, that doesn’t feel very good,’ so I go back to just doing my own thing. [holding broom brush-end up, picks at it] The interesting thing about when I’ve been around scenes, and people who are in scenes, is there’s a lot of collective energy created that is socially based: ‘I’m hanging with this person, who is this and that, and it makes me feel good about myself and what I’m doing. It gives me reason and it gives me purpose instead of trying to find it on my own.’ That’s always been problematic for me in the long term because I was brought up by teachers and people who challenged me from a young age: ‘Okay, but don’t be indulgent here,’ they’d say. ‘You can think and say certain things, but what’s it’s greater purpose? What’s your contribution going to be to something larger than yourself, based on your experience and your feelings right now?’

“Nobody in the scenes that I’ve dipped into and out of have ever really been coming up with ideas and things that really changing the culture. It’s more just this self-adoration of themselves. Some scenes aren’t like that. Revolutionary Russia was a scene of people in town squares talking about communism, and they changed things. They changed the world for better or worse. The Occupy movement, for better or worse, did affect culture a lot. But surfing scenes are kind of…what is there to really talk about anymore? We like to hang out. We like the sun. We like to surf.

“I’m not going to grow as a person by being in Southern California and being in scenes. I’ve found that, as I get marketed as being somebody who is ‘cool,’ and more people are attracted to me and want to hang out and want to include me in their scene and all of these things, that I looked at it and I’ve partaken in the scene for a day or two, and it always ends up being: ‘Okay, this is great, and I really respect and am thankful that you are including me in your scene, but it’s not my path.’ My path is to change myself.”

Regressing Forward is his new personal blog. A Tumblr. On it, Sutton’s bio: “A student of ‘the good life.’”

Why the name?

“Because that’s what I’m doing. At the end of the day, what do we really want? I want to be content and I want to be happy. When I was 19, I saw the purest expression of contentment and happiness in what some would consider absolute squalor in Samoa, and therefore, to a lot of people, that’s regressing. A regression of civilization and being civilized, yet I feel like they’re moving forward and they’re ahead of the game. Regressing forward means going back to the basics to go forward. I feel like we’ve reached a point where a lot of the ‘progress’ is leading into dead ends, so you need to regress. You need to do a U-turn to go forward. Back up a little bit. Take a survey of the scene. Say, ‘Okay, I’m walking into a wall here, but right next to the wall is an open path, and I need to walk back a little bit to see it.’ It’s nothing revolutionary. It’s an excuse for me to take photos.”

What about Korduroy?

“We’re starting to shape more of what we’re doing into a unified message. We’ve always been about functionality over fashion, but you can take people on a journey within that more instead of scrambling every week, or twice a week, to pump out something new for the sake of having something new. I want to make everything we do to have a purpose behind it.

“This is my own life, you know? [smiles] I want to scramble less and have more of a purpose.”

 

#It is time to go. My afternoon will be spent drinking ale at Green Flash Brewing Company, 16 miles south. Sutton might head east for a hike, maybe somewhere out in Poway. Healthy and mind-cleansing. But first: a photo.

He slips across the street and uses his phone to snap an image identical to the one the bypasser had Instagrammed. Sutton somehow adds three color squares below the image and uploads it to @cyrus_sutton, where 9,740 people “follow” him.

It needs new paint. Found spray paint in these colors. Which one?

On Instagram, the photo receives 409 ‘likes’ and 110 comments. On Facebook: 83 ‘likes’ and 54 comments.

Then, after two half-days and 12 cans of paint, it is done. Camo with black wheels and base. The E-250 looks military-issue. It looks great. Sutton posts a new photo—this one with iPhone contrast and vignetting—from our same location on San Elijo Avenue. Instagram: 600 ‘likes’ and 39 comments. Facebook: 162 ‘likes’, 17 comments, one ‘share.’

Swami’s remains flat. Paramahansa Yogananda remains dead.