Cover Stories

North By Wild West

GT1514coverwebThousands of commuters drive by the Summit every day, but few stop to take in the full glory of Santa Cruz’s outrageous gateway

A helipad hidden in plain sight. A Mexican drug cartel outpost. Mountain lions that mate just down the hill. A series of entrepreneurs who got rich or went broke trying to lure tourists.

Those are just a few of the stories that 61,000 of us speed by every day on Highway 17. They’ve all been part of the place formally called Patchen Pass, but which locals call “the Summit.”

First-time tourists heading down to the beaches must be amazed at our border. At the Summit, you can buy bags of marijuana—or if you want to be more exotic, pot chocolate bars of varying strengths for $12-$25—on the left. On the right, you can stop for a beer or a cocktail at a restaurant that seems to change owners with the seasons.

It isn’t a natural stopping point, despite its panoramic view of the mountains and ocean. With a 50-mile-an-hour speed limit on the short flat stretch at the top of the 1,808-foot hill, it’s really tempting to fly by. But the businesses here are trying to make stopping more enticing.

“Most locals are heading somewhere and they aren’t thinking about stopping,” says Roseanne Mayclin, the 53-year-old owner of the newest Summit restaurant, the Summit House Beer Garden, which opened in June. “But at least five times a day someone walks in and says they’ve passed by for 25 years and never stopped before. They say they saw all the cars in the parking lot and decided to try it. Then I love to see their expressions as they look out the back windows and see the view. They all say they never knew this was back here.”

Joseph Weatherman, a 58-year-old former San Francisco cop, feels like he’s working in the Old West in his A-frame office with its wood-fired hot tub.

“It’s not city living,” he says. “It’s a different life up here. I feel like I’m running a stagecoach station at the top of a mountain in the 1850s. It’s an unusual place, but it works for everyone who’s up here. Ten years from now, it might be a $10 million luxury hotel.”

Shaken Up

Before the 1906 earthquake, there were lakes at the Summit and it was a popular place to fish and swim, according to Richard Beal’s book “Highway 17: The Road to Santa Cruz.” But the quake disrupted the water flow, and the lakes dried up. Patchen Pass was then ranchland.

In 1940, Highway 17 opened and gave drivers a more direct route between San Jose and the beach. Before that, cars used the old Soquel San Jose Road, and tourists took a train that ran near Highway 17’s current path, through a series of tunnels.

The tracks and tunnels were demolished because people preferred cars to mass transit at the time, even though the rail line had run for 60 years. Conspiracy theorists suspect tire and car companies were behind the effort, but traveling through a 1.2-mile tunnel filled with smoke may not have been a great tourist experience. Also, according to the website abandonedrails.com, mudslides in 1940 caused $50,000 of damage, and the passenger line was losing $30,000 a year.

There are two theories about Patchen Pass’s name, just as there are two stories for just about everything on the pass today. The spot was originally called either “Cuesta de Los Gatos” or “Wildcat Ridge” by explorer John Fremont, according to Beal. One story says it was later named for a racehorse in the 1850s named George Patchen. Another, which seems to be more popular, is that a stagecoach stopped at the Summit post office in the 1850s and there was a man outside intently sewing. A postal inspector asked him what he was doing and the man replied, “Patchin.’”

Living Legend

Like many beachgoers from over the hill, Walt Hoefler took a date to Santa Cruz and ran out of gas on the way back at the Summit, just before the county line.

It was the late 1950s, and he’d done his time in the Air Force and had a fresh degree in agricultural engineering from U.C. Davis. He pulled into the only business up there then, the Cloud 9 restaurant, and asked for help. The owner gave him a gas can and sent him on a hike to Redwood Estates to fuel up.

Hoefler already had his car there, but the owner wanted him to leave the woman he was with there too, as “collateral” for the gas can. Hoefler was angry, but half a dozen years later he had his revenge.

In 1963, he bought 20 acres of property across from Cloud 9 for $42,000, and put up his own restaurant.

“I didn’t do it to get even,” he says with a laugh, sitting at a table in the same restaurant 52 years later. “It was a good business deal. But it felt good to have some revenge, anyway.”

People at the Summit see Hoefler as a living embodiment of the old days. Not only does he manage the properties, but he also has a regiment of trucks and pavers and graders and hospital-quality generators and water tanks tucked away up there to maintain the businesses in a stretch that gets some of the worst wind and weather in the county.

“He’s kind of a throwback,” says Weatherman, the former cop. “He’s like a survivalist in the purest sense.”

He also knows how to take on government. Hoefler says he wanted a helipad on the Summit to help all the injured motorists he was seeing, but he couldn’t get it approved by the Santa Cruz County authorities. He approached Bob Lee, the district attorney who died last year, and Lee told him to call it a patio for the restaurant, which doesn’t need a permit.

Hoefler got it done in 2006, with work and concrete donated by Joseph J. Albanese Construction in Santa Clara, which installed a plaque honoring the owner’s late son: “This life-preserving facility is dedicated to the memory of Daniel C. Albanese 1965-2006. His love of the wildlife and the mountains will always be remembered.”

Hoefler is now trying to get officials to allow him to put up orange balls on the poles near the pad to make it safer for pilots.

In any battle, he’s a guy you’d want to bet on. He started working at the age of 7 in Santa Ana selling newspapers and magazines at an Army hospital. He wanted to be a pilot, but got slammed in a cross-body block while playing football during his Air Force training and lost his hearing in one ear, disqualifying him from flying.

So Hoefler ended up studying meteorology for the Air Force in Fullerton. He was transferred in 1954 to Washington, D.C. to work for the NSA—a job working on codes he still can’t say much about. In his spare time there, he also managed a restaurant with his brother, but missed the California climate and wasn’t happy about the East Coast lifestyle. “I was going to end up drunk or dead if I stayed in D.C.,” he says.

He finished his degree in Davis, took that fateful trip to Santa Cruz, and later met and married his wife, Mary, in 1959. After working as a bank teller for $350 a month, he saw where the money was coming from—real estate development—and he began saving and buying properties.

Hoefler has hung on to the Summit despite all kinds of challenges. His first business there was a restaurant managed by his father, Phillip, called Hoefler’s Charcoal Pit, which ran successfully from 1964 to 1978. Since then, it’s been all kinds of places, including an all-you-can-eat breakfast stop, a pizza joint that didn’t get a beer license and had pizzas to take home, and several diners. The owners who ran it as the Summit Inn made enough money to buy 22 homes, he says. Others had to walk away.

“How can you sell pizza without beer?” he wonders.

Hoefler now owns 100 acres around the Summit, including the areas around the old train tunnel. He lives in Saratoga and has owned shopping centers in Minnesota and Florida, which he ended up selling because they were too far away.

He’s watching now as the former Cloud 9 property across the highway is being listed for sale at $4.9 million: “Way too much,” he says.

One of the biggest problems in Hoefler’s time at the Summit was theft of water. His monthly use shot up to 120,000 gallons for three months, before he found out that a marijuana farm below him had tapped into his pipes. County officials raided it in helicopters and found it was owned by a Mexican drug cartel. You can still see other weed-based farms down the hill.

Two Types of Plates

“It’s all downhill from here, whichever way you go,” says Penny Siler, who owns Summit House Beer Garden and Grill with her daughter, Roseanne Mayclin.

Siler, 73, has spent 50 years running restaurants, many of them in Santa Cruz. She’s owned Salsa de Portola on 17th Avenue, Callahan’s, La Salsa in Ben Lomond, Charlie O’s and Duffy’s in Scotts Valley, and the Trout Farm in Felton.

Siler thinks she can help revive the Summit, despite restrictions against putting up signs to let speeding drivers know there is good food ahead.

“Our main attraction is the restroom,” says her daughter, Roseanne, who is in charge. “People tell me I should lock it, but I wouldn’t do that. I want this to be a family place. A lot of people use the restroom, see the view and stay.”

They figure the crowd is half locals and half tourists. They have live music all summer and a staff of eight, many of them family, including Roseanne’s daughter-in-law and her ex-daughter-in-law.

The menu includes typical American fare such as hamburgers and steaks, fish and vegetarian items, but they have been known to cater to their foreign visitors, too. Last week, they made a plate of rice and vegetables at the request of a Chinese family.

There is a playground for kids at Summit House and an outdoor stage for live bands. They have karaoke Friday nights, classic rock and blues bands Saturdays from 4-7 p.m. and 10 percent off for locals on Thursdays. They also resurrected the beautiful old wooden bar from the defunct Capitola Book Café, which they bought in pieces for $200.

Summit House carries road necessities, such as oil and radiator fluid, which they sell for $5 and $10—half the price of the store across the road. Their Facebook page has a picture of Dave Rivera from the movie American Brawler when he stopped in.

“We want everyone to be comfortable here,” says Roseanne.

Next door is one of the most unlikely businesses. Tucked away in an A-frame with rolls of flypaper along the entranceway is an office run by Weatherman, the former San Francisco police officer, who teaches people to become car dealers.

Weatherman says he runs 40 “AutoGodfather” car-related blogs from the building and gives private lessons for people who want to get their license to deal cars. It’s called “Got Plates.” He also runs a dealership in San Francisco called Tristar Motors. It was previously run by three former cops—“Tristar” referred to their badges. Now he’s the only one left.

Weatherman operates his classes in 39 locations and has a dozen teachers working for him. He charges $200 for the course and has 7,000 clients. He also does investigations of shady car dealers who sell on the Internet pretending to be regular people to avoid licensing and safety requirements.

Weatherman used to run the business from Aptos, but moved up the hill when the rent doubled there. He’s got a handful of shiny newer cars parked nearby, and one $120,000 armored van, which he plans to sell to a police agency.

Weatherman’s service with San Francisco Police Department was checkered. He won 200 commendations and 12 medals of valor, but he was sued six times for brutality, and disciplined with a 60-day suspension by the department in one case for hitting a helpless man in jail.

“I was a policeman in a very different era,” Weatherman says. “Our job was to go out and stir up shit and let them know who the police were. We didn’t care what the public thought. I worked the worst neighborhoods and my job was to stop crime. I’d probably be a dinosaur in today’s department.”

Mexican Radio

Daniel “Tony” Hwang, 65, who owns the Casa del 17 convenience store on the other side of the highway, is just as colorful. He bought the place in 1991 after moving here from South Korea and buying convenience stores around the tough King and Story neighborhood in San Jose. He’s decorated the front of Casa del 17 with old-time signs and wooden bear statues and leaves the old Cloud 9 fixings and dining room empty in the back.

Hwang plays Mexican music on the radio, even though he doesn’t speak Spanish, because he finds it romantic.

On one recent afternoon, Hwang is sound asleep behind a locked office door with a glass window. It takes several minutes of customers beating on the door to wake him, but they don’t want to do business—they want to buy marijuana from the store next to his, which he used to own.

“I carried two guns on me all the time,” Hwang says of his time in San Jose. Up here, he has 32 security cameras and has used them to bust someone illegally dumping trash. He won’t disclose what he paid for the property, but says he makes $30,000 a month doing Internet consulting and owns the store with a business group.

Business for his $5.95 hot dogs, $9.95 hamburgers and assorted sundries has slowed to a trickle from the $2,000-$3,000 per day it once was, he says, because of the newer Silicon Valley immigrants.

“Americans and Mexicans stopped here,” he says. “But Indians and Asians shop at Costco and get what they need for the beach.”

Hwang clearly missed the memo on political correctness, and at times makes Rush Limbaugh sound liberal. He doesn’t think the U.S. should have killed Osama bin Laden, since they originally funded him.

Actually, it’s sort of surprising he doesn’t have a show on the local talk radio stations. “I have a lot of strong opinions,” he says. “Too strong for a lot of people.”

Hwang has been written up in the Korean Times and New America Media for a sign he had posted outside the business supporting Korea’s right to Dokdo Island, which was taken by Japan after World War II. The sign was vandalized and is now inside the burger stand.

When Hwang opened the marijuana dispensary, he had big signs promoting it, but was ordered to take them down. He even had someone outside waving a sign.

A 2012 article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel recounts a discussion between Hwang and County Supervisor John Leopold.

“I don’t want to bother anybody,” Hwang said. “They said five people complained. That’s not a complaint. A hundred or 100,000, that’s a complaint.”

He ended up taking the signs down.

TIDBITS FROM THE MOUNTAIN TOP

  • The section of Highway 17 to Santa Cruz is named for California Highway Patrol Lt. Michael Walker, who was struck and killed by a driver on New Year’s Eve 2005 when he was setting road flares near Glenwood Road to direct cars around an accident.
  • The downward slope heading northbound after Patchen Pass is called the “Valley Surprise” because so many cars hit the median.
  • On the south side of Patchen Pass is the only billboard in Santa Cruz County and on Highway 17. It’s owned by John Prentice, who used to be co-owner of Ocean Honda and now owns several car-racing companies. He only rents it to people who also buy sponsorships with his racing team and he donates the space to charities. “It’s the best advertising you can buy,” he says. “You can’t TIVO past it; you can’t look away.” It’s already booked up through 2016.
  • Some say there is a ghost—a weeping woman—at the Summit, according to John Weatherman. He’s never seen her.
  • Weatherman says he was told by UCSC researchers that mountain lions breed along the slopes west of the Summit, just behind his business. They want to build a culvert across Highway 17 to protect them.
  • Supervisor John Leopold says there has long been talk of building a transit stop that would include a bridge between the two sides of 17 at the Summit, but it would be a multimillion-dollar project.
  • Walt Hoefel had a permit to put a gas station at the Summit, but was denied permission to build a service station with it, so he declined.
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