It had seemed like such a good idea at the time.
I’d been knocking around a hostel in Ocean Beach, San Diego for a few weeks, keeping busy by alternating between various beds, bars and the beach, when I’d hooked up with Dave and Louise. Tired of the frozen margarita and Taco Bell cliché of Mexi-Cal borderlands, we decided to undertake an epic road trip down into the dusty desert heartland of the Baja, to experience authentic local life and hunt out empty beaches with perfect waves to surf.
Two days later, we’d sourced a car and we were off. Recall if you will, the vinyl roofed sedan from Live and Let Die that Roger Moore describes as a “pimpmobile” after the occupants try to run him off the road. This was identical, or would have been if it was still the 70s. Unfortunately, this was the mid-90s; the black exterior vinyl of the roof hung ragged over the exposed and rusting bare metal. Inside, the cloth upholstery blew around like so many tattered curtains, whilst the numerous dents and scratches in the battered white paintwork told their own story of its previous life in Detroit.
The car’s sagging gait bore testament to its mileage, as did the quirk that necessitated having the heating on full at all times to draw the heat away from the regularly backfiring engine. With surfboards strapped to the roof and sleeping bags piled in the trunk, we were surely more than ready for a trip through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet.
The scrutiny the US border guards subjected us and the car to suggested that the crossing back might not be so easy. It seemed to be only the fact that we were heading into Mexico rather than coming out that persuaded them to let us through with a minimum of fuss, beyond pulling us all out of the vehicle, having dogs run around the insides and poking sneering through our meagre bags. I swear one of the guards looked at us with something like pity from behind his mirrored aviators as he realised that no, we weren’t international smugglers double bluffing with a wrecked sedan for cover, but just dumb kids, ill prepared for a trip south of the border.
By contrast, at the Mexican side they just waved us through into the strident, sun soaked cacophony of piÃ±ata, puppy and pot dealers that thronged the south side of the crossing. As our car crept through the crowds, it was harder to tell whether more heat was bouncing up from the dry sunbaked road or out through our open windows. The same could be said of the dusty stench, it appeared to rise from outside, but our heater pulled it in where it mingled with our sweat and the curious scents of the stained upholstery, before pushing it back out. Either way, after an initial flurry of interest, the grubby hands proffering gaudy goods ceased and we could at last pick up some speed after the long hot queue at the border.
Reasoning that essentials like beer, canned tuna and toilet paper would be cheaper in Mexico than the US, we’d planned to stop and provision once we’d crossed over. That had led us to this large supermarket, not unlike one of its US counterparts, apart from, perhaps due to its location of central Tijuana, a proliferation of menacing/colourful characters wandering around the car park. Could we really leave our car here untended? So it was that Louise and I emerged blinking into the dazzling sunlight with a trolley full of Corona and food some twenty minutes later to be met by a smiling and relaxed Dave.
“Er, no trouble then?” I asked in somewhat unbelieving tones, watching a pair of Mexican teenagers sizing up another parked car out the corner of my eye.
“No, all fine,” smiled Dave. Perhaps the car would be a blessing; it was such a wreck no one would bother us.
Soon the suburbs of Tijuana were a distant memory as we snaked along increasingly narrow roads bounded by desert scrub and distant mountains, trailing the occasional puff of acrid black smoke to hang in the shimmering air behind us, and fill the car’s interior. I hung my head out the window like a dog, delighting in the biting hot desert wind on my face, the dust in my nostrils. This was what adventure was all about.
Who would have thought a police car would be parked around a blind bend in the middle of nowhere? Skidding to screeching the car let out one of its abrupt barks from the exhausts and the policemen flinched, nervous hands flicking towards holsters. It wasn’t the best of starts. We’d been warned back in the US not to carry guns, drugs or porn, which seemed easy, but as we warily climbed out of the car Dave had started sweating more than usual, his tongue flicking across his lips as he eyed the policemen nearing the car.
“Papers!” barked one, as another started peering into the car. His nose wrinkled in disgust. We fished out our passports and handed them over. The man studied them in silence. “English? No Yankee?”
We shook our heads, “No Yankee, England.” The, man nodded and passed the documents back barking in Spanish to his colleague who looked relieved not to have to go further into the car.
“You can go,” the office said without a trace of emotion, then as we turned to get into the car, he put a hand on Dave’s shoulder, “be careful.” He stated, staring into Dave’s eyes then abruptly turning on his heel and marching back the cruiser.
Our engine coughed into life and we gingerly crept past the police car, watching them watching us in the rear view. We rounded a bend and Dave’s shoulders slumped.
“Phew!” he exclaimed.
“What are you worried about anyway?” asked Louise. Dave looked sheepish, “Dave…” she began with a warning tone in her voice.
“look, I thought it would be okay, while you guys were in the supermarket some kids came round selling some dope, I just, you know, for the journey…” Dave didn’t get to finish on expanding how dope was going to help him with the driving because Louise was punching him in the arm and the car was bounding along the verge spewing up sand and rocks into the interior making us all cough.
We pressed on in a frosty silence, punctuated only by the sarcastic wounding barbs of Louise’s ripostes to Dave’s attempts at atonement. We trundled through ramshackle villages scattering scraggy chickens and dogs in crumbling villages gradually leaving the signs of civilisation behind, as the road became little more than a track. As the sun started to dip, we turned off the road, towards the sea, bouncing down a dirt track to who knew where, rueing the decision not to have brought a map. All we could do was guess at the direction of the sea, but we had gas, water, beer and food, how much could go wrong?
Well, you could get stuck and have to dig the car out with your bare hands in the failing light, watch all kinds of warning lights flash on the dashboard like a disco display, then find that only one headlight works intermittently. Eventually though, tired, dusty and emotional, we found it. As the sun slipped toward the darkening horizon we gazed out over a perfect sliver of silvery sand, stretching as far as the eye could see, curving round on either side, framed by far away mountains, and in front of it, perfect peeling waves as the blue Pacific broke on the deserted shore.
We gathered driftwood casting long shadows in hues of pink and orange as the night fell swiftly. Soon we had a roaring blaze, our sleeping bags laid out around it, the only light for miles save for the multitude of twinkling stars in the cloudless black sky. We ate, drank, and watched the shooting stars and satellites high above until sleep took us.
Louise’s scream woke me with a jolt. It was either that, or the snarling dog gnawing at my foot through the sleeping bag. Low growling shapes flicked around us menacingly in the darkness. We sprung to our feet with shouts and yells, driving the feral shapes back into the desert. The first grey fingers of light creeping over the mountains bought home the full devastation as we huddled together in the freezing morning cold. At some point in the night a pack of wild dogs had stumbled through the camp. What was left of our food was strewn all around us, along with our clothes.
We salvaged some cereal bars and looked glumly at the now cold and uninviting sea in silence, each of our thoughts turning to the comparative luxury of the hostel bunks we’d left behind. Our trip was effectively over, but we would not be beaten, we would surf before we headed home.
Bobbing around in the perfect dark expanse, even the shivers of cold couldn’t wipe the grins from our faces. We watched the desert come alight from the sea, catching mellow green waves with whoops of delight, felt the first warming rays of the sun spread across our backs.
I smiled, life was good. Of course, if I’d know then about the trip back I don’t think I would have smiled quite so much, but that’s a different story…