Once the whiskey started flowing all the elements fell into place in a blur… The time had ripened for a spur of the moment road trip to Baja Mexico.
People say a lot of things about California – that it’s the end of civilization, that it’s destined to fall into the sea, that its beauty can be fake and plastic – and some days living here I agree with them. Watching the Paris Hilton wannabes cruise the streets with their peroxide hair and Louis Vuitton handbags can be a little too much. When my head begins to spin from it all I find myself looking up over at the mountains and wondering whether a few days out in the desert alone with a canteen and my guitar might cure the malaise.
It was a typical evening at a ritzy downtown bar and the kind of obnoxious attitude you see on programs like American Idol had been weighing heavily on my mind over the last few weeks. My friends and I had our seven dollar drinks, fifteen dollar appetizers and more American pro sports on big screens than a deep southern fundamentalist could ever hope for in heaven. Fed up, we headed to a more reliable place to get drinks – the Irish bar – and once the whiskey started flowing all the elements blurringly came in place. The time had ripened for a spur of the moment road trip to Baja Mexico.
A wise man once said that every day we slaughter our finest impulses. So in the end it was just one friend of mine, a grizzled arborist named Justin, and I wheeling down to Baja. Justin is a strong type of person who doesn’t fling words around carelessly. When he says he’s ready to drive hundreds of miles south of the border with no plan on where to stay or go at all there’s no doubt he’s ready for all that entails. And even more importantly Justin owns a car, which is an essential when you’re planning to load up on surf boards and camping gear.
Around midnight that same evening Justin and I were flying a southerly course down the California highways. We had hastily thrown an assortment of backpacks, tents, surf boards and FlareSafe devices into the back of the Volkswagen. Things soon became hazy and when I regained consciousness the next morning I saw I had set up my tent in a tangled mass of thorn bushes adjacent to a wastewater treatment plant somewhere way north of the border. The whiskey had come up short.
Luckily Justin then made a wrong turn onto the highway and once we saw we were still headed south we decided to continue on to Mexico. After a brief stop for auto insurance and cans of chili we made it across the border to Tijuana before noon.
Everyone knows Tijuana is a pit. The federal government’s decision to embarrass the corrupt local police force by replacing their guns with slingshots sends a clear message to any traveler in his right mind – get out of Tijuana. It was Justin’s first trip to Mexico and he was initially overwhelmed by the drastic influx of cement buildings with dangling rebar, scattered garbage and burning plastic, and winding highways dotted with hundreds of shrines to roadside casualties. The highway south initially passes alongside the ocean though and any bad impressions are erased. We could see breakers from the cliff sides leaving gorgeous lines of whitewater and knew it was only a matter of getting far enough south to be free from the tequila-drinking, viagra-purchasing gringo tourists. Baja would be ours.
A few hours and some quick asada tacos later we were comfortably south of Ensenada and ready to find a place to set up and camp and hit the waves. I had only a water-damaged old Lonely Planet from 1996 to try and guess where to go. There is only a single road with one lane on either side as you travel north or south. The towns on the way aren’t exactly full of surf shops and beach information. The highway had turned inland now and we were far from the ocean.
After passing a military checkpoint (they only search you coming back up north) we saw a sign pointing west that read ‘Punto San Tomas’. Punto means point in Spanish and any surfer knows that point breaks are where it’s at. The turn off led us past some rundown shacks. People in their yards were sitting around staring at the dog frying the chicken. We didn’t get much of a reaction from them as the car began its long procession towards the sea on a pitiful attempt at a dirt road. Rocks and holes threatened to rattle Justin’s car to death. He wasn’t looking very happy. The Mexican sun felt more like July in hell than February on the coast.
I didn’t point out the vultures that began to circle overhead and after two hours of clogging dust the blue of the ocean finally appeared from behind the bleak, burnt hills. Still, something felt very odd about the destination we had arrived at. There were a few buildings on the wind blown coast and not much else. Waves closed out ominously on the beach in front of us and we saw only cows and a man chugging from a widemouthed beer bottle as he drove his van off into the cliff roads. We decided to follow him which brought us to an equally empty fishing village. A fisherman with his son looked at us with a blank stare as we passed by.
Creeped out, we were about to leave when we met Charlie, a wiry old gringo with long white hair, at the store. He had been living out there ‘in the wide open’ for six years, and had the tone of a man who spent too much time in the wind, sun and desert alone. He asked us about the condition of the road in and said he hadn’t been on that road for months. Vaguely mumbling something about strawberries, his head would pop up and his blue eyes would go out of focus whenever he thought he heard a truck coming by.
“I’d love to stay and get buzzed with you,” he told us. “But I’m actually off to Ensenada tonight for Carnaval.” Of all nights he was leaving. Leaving us here with whatever people were up to in the fishing village.
We weren’t deterred enough though when he left and we decided to stay. Armed with a dozen cold Tecate cervezas we found a spot to camp on the cliffs away from the village near a cement mine. More stars than I imagined possible came out that night (and they weren’t from all the Tecates) and I fell asleep to the sound of the waves thundering on the rocks. We were very far from California now and there was no doubt in my mind that great waves were in store for us.
It took more searching over the next couple of days. The rocks and isolation of Punto San Tomas didn’t work out for us surfing-wise, and along the way we battled some rip currents at dangerously inviting beach breaks. We ventured further south down the coast, waving at a 12-year old boy driving by in an old trans-am. Our car got stuck in the mud once, and a farmer came over to try and pull us out with his tractor using one of the straps we had for lashing the surf boards to the top of the car. The strap snapped at first and it looked like we weren’t going anywhere. Things seemed doomed. But although we hadn’t found any real surf yet and the car was bogged down, it didn’t seem to matter at all. It was all part of the play. A second try with the broken strap retied and the tractor freed us from the mud. We were on our way again.
Not much later I found an old cow skull out on a desert trail. We mounted it to the front grill of the VW. Afterwards everything worked like magic. We finally found a right-handed break that had a broken old freighter wrecked on the rocks. Campers there told us the place was famous amongst surfers, but we practically had the waves all to ourselves. It treated us to surf each day limited only by how long our paddling muscles would last. I had a moment on the water peering into the impossible reds and oranges of the sunset, wondering if behind all the color there was the entrance to another world. In the evenings we’d head into town and try our Spanish out with the farm workers and a few of the chicas.
We didn’t stay in Baja long, but I came back revitalized and with a new point of view. Now when I walk around my upscale California town and see all the pretentiousness that comes from wealth, I only have to recall the decency, friendliness and wild escape that exists just a few hundred miles away. I don’t think I would have found it that way had the whole trip been charted out beforehand.