″Give it gas!″
Jeff Johnson is bouncing on the rear bumper of our van in his beach slippers, having appeared out of nowhere. We're spinning our wheels in place, on the verge of careening over the edge of Jeff′s driveway and onto the street below. Locked in reverse, we pump the accelerator, as we′re told.
A moment before, our team had pulled up and immediately realized we had gotten ourselves into a tricky situation. With six of us packed into a van with tons of photo and video gear, our weight was no match for this driveway, which was starting to feel nearly vertical the longer we tried to reverse our way up to the top.
Just as panic took over, Jeff fearlessly threw himself onto the back bumper to give the van a nudge. One more pump on the gas pedal, and the tires finally caught the cement. The van reversed easily up the driveway.
Jeff hopped off at the top. ″Just needed a little weight,″ he smiled matter-of-factly, as if nothing had happened that was out of the ordinary. We, on the othe hand, had to take a minute to cool off.
This encounter sums up our impression of Jeff — a man whose life makes you rethink the bounds of what's possible. He's a superhero of sorts, doing everything you said you would do as a kid, as an adult. He's managed to turn his hobbies into his superpowers: He skates, surfs, climbs, takes (really good) pictures, and writes. And there's his fortress — a beautiful 1970s A-frame house that sits on a rock, which he climbs for fun.
Jeff′s life is what we imagined ours to be. And, after spending a weekend with him in Santa Barbara, we learned the formula is simple: Never grow up.
HILL CITY: From the outside, you seem to have crafted the ultimate life of adventure - going with the flow, living where you play. Where did that mentality come from?
JEFF JOHNSON: It all started with skateboarding. There weren′t a lot of skate parks, so we were always looking for new terrain. That meant thumbing rides to different towns and exploring all over, which kind of started this travel bug with me from a really young age. I was like 12 or 13. As soon as I graduated high school, I moved to Hawaii. I kind of branched out from there. I never really had a plan. I still don′t. I just knew I wanted to move to Hawaii; I wanted to surf. I′ve never done anything for money. It′s always been because I loved it. I never thought I′d get married, have a kid, and make enough money to support a family. I′ve been fortunate to be able to follow my heart and have it work out.
HC: You′re an accomplished photographer and author. What influenced you to take that route?
JJ: I was a horrible student - really bad in school. I got kicked out, ran away from home a few times… was into drugs. The whole ′80s punk skate rock scene was pretty gnarly - super fun, but pretty heavy, you know? I got sober. After I graduated, this teacher sent me all these books - ones I was supposed to read in her class. She turned me on to Bukowski, Steinbeck, Kerouac, and all the Beat authors. She sent me my first journal. I always had a point-and-shoot [camera] with me, so I′d take pictures and write. She was a real inspiration.
HC: Not many people know that you grew up in the punk rock skate scene in the Bay Area. How did that influence you?
JJ: We all wanted to look like the Ramones and have ″pegged″ jeans. That′s what we called them—not ″skinny″ jeans. But no one sold them like that. You had to do it yourself. Not only was it a cool style, it was functional, too; you didn′t want all this fabric waving around. Also, there was this ethic that went along with punk rock and that was: honesty. People would call you out if you weren′t being real - if you weren′t being you. It was all about authenticity. That has really affected the decisions I′ve made and the people who I′ve gravitated towards.
HC: What about your parents? Are they also adventurers?
JJ: My father is a huge influence. He got me skiing when I was four or five years old. He would wake me up at four in the morning, carry me out to the truck, and drive to Tahoe. We skied all day. We skied down heavy stuff. I did the Chute 75, one of the hardest runs at Squaw Valley, when I was five years old.
HC: You also climb and surf. Is there a connection between the two?
JJ: With the normal ball sports, it′s really obvious what′s going on. You catch the ball. You score a goal - whatever. I played all those sports. But seeing surfing is so much more ethereal. There′s movement happening. The wave rolls… the guy kicks out and he′s gone. It′s just so much more interesting. Same with rock climbing: It′s this big open adventure with no rules, no guidelines, and no out-of-bounds. Skating was like that, too - totally free. You′re just competing with yourself, if anything. You′re making the rules up as you go along. You′re working with nature, not against it. No one can conquer nature.
HC: How does having a family factor into your climbs?
JJ: I don′t want [my daughter] to look at me and see me doing things out of fear or not doing things out of fear. Maybe that′s irresponsible. Having a child definitely has made me think about things twice. My wife worries about me more. One of the last things I want to do is die and have my little girl raised without a father. Yeah, climbing is inherently risky, but good climbers climb safe. You don′t want to take chances. Like, you don′t just flip a coin and go for it. There are calculated risks and you play on that edge. I always tell my wife that driving into Yosemite is a lot more dangerous than the climb is going to be.
HC: How would you define success?
JJ: I remember my buddy was going through some hard times and he goes, ″I′m working hard and I′m being honest. I can′t do anything more than that.″ That′s all you can do. I was like, ″Cool, that′s all you have to do: You have to be honest and work hard.″ If you do that, you′re going to feel good. That′s success.
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