Next Chapter: Launching on a new wave

For decades they built a business. Now they’re returning to a life they once knew.
Kevin and Jocelyne Naughton

Photograph by Kyle Monk

Kevin Naughton is no stranger to risk. He was arrested in Costa Rica for being a surfer, and he once used a woman’s stocking as a stand-in for a broken fan belt on a VW bug in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. In 1978, he was nearly sucked into a scheme orchestrated by surf enigma Miki Dora that involved a green Mercedes van and five European countries. Dora held no grudges, and later introduced Naughton to a shy French friend of his, Jocelyne. Kevin and Jocelyne married in 1989, and as you’re reading this, they’re doing something they haven’t done much in 30 years—taking a vacation together. And they’re doing something we all dream about: leaving their commitments in order to travel the world … again.

Naughton spent the 1970s and early ’80s finding the best places to surf and writing about his adventures on location for Surfer magazine. Then he leased a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house on Laguna Canyon Road that had an abandoned nursery on the property. He decided to try that business for a year, and he and Jocelyne started Laguna Gardens Nursery in 1985. The nursery grew, as did their family. “We could see the children all the time,” Jocelyne says. “As soon as we closed the gates at 5, the children were running around here.”

As the kids got older, the couple purchased a bigger house. You might recognize this narrative so far. They loved being around plants and loved the business. “Nursery customers are usually in a good mood,” Kevin says. But they worked seven days a week, all year, for 30 years. Even holidays? “The nursery is closed, but someone still has to water the plants,” Jocelyne says.

Kevin recalls the era when they sold Christmas trees. Customers would bang desperately on their door on Christmas Eve, begging “Please help me, I promised I’d get a tree today!” Kevin laughs at the memory, then adds that they stopped selling the trees about 18 years ago. “You don’t own the business,” he says, “the business owns you.”

They found ways to travel, but rarely as a family. They can recall two exceptions—Bali for her 40th birthday and a family trip to France in 2000. Otherwise one of them stayed behind while the other took the kids to various locales.

A few years ago, they decided to do something different. “Thirty years is long enough to do anything!” they agree. Most people in their business get “buried with the petunias,” Kevin says. They wanted a change. “We’re committed to it 100 percent, stepping away from the nursery business and stepping in a new direction.”

“And we just hope for the best,” Jocelyne says.

“We’ll plunge ahead. That’s what we’ve always done,” says Kevin, laughing.

They closed the nursery in December to travel. “While we’re still young and healthy enough to do it,” says Kevin, still sturdy at 62. A yogi at the retreat up the road from their nursery told Jocelyne, 64, that she’s in better shape than students who have been with him for years. So there are no concerns about health insurance? “I don’t worry about something happening to me,” says Jocelyne, a French citizen. “If anything happens, I’m 100 percent covered for it in France.”

He has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Ireland, which might explain the unique perspective. It also makes packing easier, as he owns a cottage in Ireland “that gives us a base.” He keeps two sets of golf clubs there and five surfboards, plus winter clothes. So it’s a bit of a cheat when they say they travel light and will limit their luggage to one piece each. “All you need is a passport and money. Everything else can be bought,” Jocelyne says. Having family in France and your gear in Europe helps, too.

But what of all the stuff? The tokens of travel, the trinkets that accumulate in our lives. “We have slowly been shedding anything we feel is not absolutely necessary,” Kevin says. Jocelyne advises, “If something doesn’t make you happy or is not useful, you give it away.” Really? Get rid of kids’ drawings and family artifacts, things to pass on? “You have to take a hard stance,” Kevin insists.

Jocelyne scoffs. “We still have all that; it’s in the box!”

The sign alerting customers to the nursery’s closure said “Gone Surfing.” For Kevin, surfing is constant. He just self-published his second book, “Search for the Perfect Wave” with Craig Peterson, his longtime surf buddy and former photographer for Surfer. They are planning a T-shirt line called Dirtbag Traveler to coincide with the book release and emphasize the lifestyle. “We have the authenticity to do it,” he boasts. He’ll continue his landscaping business but be more selective with the jobs he accepts. They’ll keep their home in Laguna Beach but not be tied to it. Their daughter will probably inherit the cat while they’re away.

Kevin is empathetic toward those who might hold back from making big changes. “People always find excuses—and a lot are very legitimate—but that shouldn’t be the ultimate deciding factor.”

Their customers’ reaction was near universal: We’ll miss you. “That was a bit of a surprise to us,” Kevin says. “It makes us feel really good that a lot of people from the community appreciated us being here.”

The sentiment doesn’t surprise their neighbor, Stephanie Nelson. “They were a real nursery. They weren’t for show,” she says. “This change was a real natural progression for them.” She witnessed shifts in the fragile business over the decades. “After that last flood—their entire nursery washed to the ocean—that just took the wind out of their sails.
“Events like that build a community. They had really good relations with the town, because they were part of the town.”

The Naughtons say they’ll miss the people, but mostly they’re excited. Nervous, but a good nervous. Like a first date? Kevin smiles. “Yeah, just like that.”

So their nursery business ended the way it began three decades earlier—just the two of them. Their employees moved on to other chapters, too. Perhaps just being near this pair and their “devil may care” perspective is a tonic, an example of the courage many of us need to make a change. Kevin has simple advice for those contemplating a shift: Unless you really love what you do and can’t see yourself doing anything else, then “don’t always do the same thing.”

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