Though 800 miles or so from the nearest ocean, the mountains and valleys around Durango have been the unlikely home for more than two decades to a pioneer in surfing history.
Jim Graham, 75, recently made the trip back to the Pacific Coast, accepting his place in the Hermosa Beach Surfer’s Walk of Fame, an annual award to honor the town’s strong surfing history and those who championed the sport.
“It’s not too bad when they honor you for something you enjoy doing,” Graham said at his Durango home, the walls of which are decorated with memorabilia of surfing’s early days.
Surfing’s origins date to the ancient Polynesians, more than three thousand years ago, when fishermen used boards to ride waves as a quick way of getting back to shore from fishing ventures.
But surfing as it’s known today evolved primarily in Hawaii, Australia and on the laid back beaches where Graham was given free range to roam as a child in southern California.
Graham, born in 1942, was raised in Hermosa Beach, one of the three “Beach Cities” – alongside Manhattan and Redondo – on the South Bay, about 20 miles southwest of the heart of Los Angeles.
Graham and his childhood friends spent long, summer days on the beach, making up games and playing in the water, chasing girls and generally just living wild and carefree. Every day culminated, he said, with the group of friends watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.
He knows people cringe in envy when they hear that.
“I was blessed growing up, not realizing that we were living a life that people have come to fantasize about,” he said.
Graham likes to say he caught his first wave hanging on his father’s back at age three or four. But Graham, who looked up to the older surfers and lifeguards, finally picked up a surfboard when he was 10 years old, and never looked back.
“I’ve had a year-round love affair with the ocean since day one,” he said.
Those first years of surfing in the early 1950s Graham recalls fondly. He estimated there were only a handful of known surf spots, and a small, tightknit fraternity of surfers up and down the coast. Everyone knew everyone, he said.
And then came “Gidget,” a 1959 film that idolized California surf culture.
“That movie changed everything,” Graham said. “It exposed this kind of bohemian, underground sport, and put it on the face of the world.”
As a result of “Gidget,” as well as similar spin-off movies and the rise of surf rock bands such as The Beach Boys, the scene underwent a dramatic transformation. All of a sudden, there were more surfers vying for waves, resulting in some previously favorite surf spots being closed.
One upshot was that Graham and his fellow surfers were suddenly able to make a living off the sport. Within just a few years, surf teams were formed, competitions were held, companies were started and, as an added bonus, you could travel all over the world.
Graham was a significant promoter and organizer of surfing, which he said ultimately landed him in the Walk of Fame. He was most known in surfing circles for his charismatic ability to announce competitions.
As surfing exploded in popularity, so did Graham’s opportunities. He was an associate producer and co-host for “Surf’s Up,” a nationally syndicated television show, and held countless jobs in lifeguarding, beach volleyball and of course, surfing.
So how, after an entire life spent as a beach bum, did Graham come to spend the last 20-plus years landlocked in Southwest Colorado?
“The culture in the mountains is not real different than the culture at the beach,” he said.
Graham moved to Durango in 1994, with his now former wife and two daughters, a year after he retired as the Redondo Beach Harbor Department director of marketing and promotions, having visited the small mountain town in previous travels.
Here, he has continued his love affair with the water, becoming a raft guide for Mountain Waters Rafting and picking up a stand-up paddleboard.
He returns to southern California, or any surfable ocean, on a relatively regular basis, as the pull of the ocean calls him.
“I certainly miss surfing, especially in the summer,” he said. “But Durango is unique. The people here are outdoorsy and commune with nature. They embrace this life style.”
“And,” he continued, “they’re willing to work one, two and sometimes three jobs to stay here.”