Written by: Julia Sinn
Co-owner/manager, Crossfit West
Founder, Adventure Out
Google Cliff Hodges and you’ll find pictures of a muscular guy (in some instances, covered in mud) shooting a bow and arrow, carving a breaking wave, standing on top of a snowy mountain, and building a fire with his bare hands.
Hodges describes himself as a “product of Santa Cruz”—something more than just “born-and-raised.”
“I kind of blame Santa Cruz for why I do what I do,” Hodges said in his Event Santa Cruz talk last October. Always an outdoorsman and an environmental activist, Hodges is growing into one of the most powerful young change-makers in environmental advocacy, fitness, and business leadership in Santa Cruz.
Hodges is the founder of Adventure Out, California’s largest outdoor school and wilderness guide service. Cliff and his team teach surfing, backpacking, rock climbing, and wilderness survival skills all over the state. He also co-owns and manages CrossFit Wastonville and CrossFit West, which is the largest CrossFit facility in the Bay Area and Central Coast.
Ten years ago, Hodges returned to Santa Cruz with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from MIT and snagged an office job in the Valley. All it took was a few months for Hodges to know there was no future in it for him. “It was oppressively boring. I was not being challenged.”
A life without challenge is not something that interests Cliff Hodges. Unlike the rest of us, Hodges doesn’t care to make his life less tough and more easy-breezy. He actively seeks out challenge.
“I enjoy things that are hard. Anything you can’t just pick up and do,” Hodges says. “I like surfing and calculus.”
So, less than a year out of graduate school, he started a wilderness adventure guide company. His business office was his childhood bedroom in his parents’ Santa Cruz home. Adventure Out’s vision, which is also his personal mission statement, he recites: “We help people fall back in love with nature.”
“In high school and college, I was aggressively liberal,” Hodges says. Burnt out on belligerence and Green Peace-style activism, Hodges considered how he might convince people to care about environmental preservation in a bigger way.
“You can’t come at conservation by telling people what they should believe. You have to be benevolently manipulative, so that they believe it was their own idea.
When people realize how much they love being outdoors, smelling redwoods, climbing Castle Rock, bathing in rivers, and following deer tracks, they want to invest in and take care of the land. They might even want to donate to keep State Parks open.
And when people build relationship with their bodies, their strength, and their fellow CrossFitters, they become more invested in health and community. Hodges learned about building bonds at MIT, one of the most notoriously grueling schools in the world; he calls it “community suffering.”
“We create powerful advocates and stakeholders”—advocates for the environment, for community, for their own health and happiness.
As it turns out, building shelters in the wilderness and running a business in Santa Cruz are equally challenging. With a business foundationally defined by dedication and discipline, Hodges struggles with Santa Cruz’s notorious fear of commitment.
“There are some challenges in Santa Cruz, but I keep doing it,” Hodges says. “It’s exciting.”
“Santa Cruz has a spark and style you don’t necessarily see a lot of places. I love that people here are open to new ideas.” He intimately knows the side of Santa Cruz that is incredibly hardworking, dependable, and industrious.
“There is an entrepreneurial spirit in Santa Cruz now that I didn’t see here 10 years ago.” He cites the birth of co-working spaces like Cruzio and NextSpace and the welcoming attitude he sees in the business community. He gets a little starry-eyed talking about being a business leader in the town where he grew up. “It’s an amazing feeling. I’m really proud to be from Santa Cruz.”
Cliff will be a speaker at the Next Event Santa Cruz April 16th, 7:00 at The Nick. More info at: https://www.eventsantacruz.com/next-event/