Story by Robbins Thompsons. 2011 – Memories of a surf trip in Baja California, Mexico.
A friend and I decided to go on a little Mexico run before Christmas. The intent was to be back by Christmas Eve. Growing up in Corona Del Mar and Laguna Beach, Mexico’s where we all went to curb our budding desires for adventure. Matt was mid sized, skinny, with bushy sandy hair, brown eyes, a big smile and easy disposition. Everyone liked Matt. We didn’t know each other well but surfed the same reefs in Laguna Beach. There was a connection and finally I had gotten the nerve to talk to him. I was taller, skinnier, with curly blond hair, green eyes, and generally made people take long slow calming breaths.
Since my dad was in town I decided to ask him if it was ok for me to go. Usually my mother refused to make any decisions in regards to our punishment, behavior, or schooling when dad was around. You’d think she had just gotten a terminal fugue when dad was home. “No honey, I can’t answer your questions now. I’m dying!” “Jez mom, again?” “Yes son, this time I’m afraid it may be permanent.” “For how long?” Until your father is gone.” “ Well I just wanted to…” the hand would come up from the bag she was packing. “No son, I’m afraid it’s up to your father.” “Well as long as your sure mom. I really hate it when you’re dying. Where are you dying to this time?” “France I think. I’ll call you when I’m better.” “But you said it was permanent this time.” “Indeed I did son. And one never knows. Life is like that.” “Are you going to stock the refrigerator before you die?”
Times like this were rare in my house. If mom was feeling terminal then it was carte blanche on hitting up my dad. “Umm, Sir, Dad, umm, I was going to go to a movie with some friends…if that’s ok?” My dad was a huge man not only physically but also intellectually. He advised presidents and kings on affairs dealing with oil and was rarely home. Going in to ask him for stuff was like going before god. That massive head would come up from the ledger. “Steve my boy, what can I do for you?” “Well father, it’s Robbins actually.” “Robbins? Really? What an odd name.” “I’ve meant to ask you about that father.” “Do you know how to make a dry vodka Martini George, Steve, whatever your name is?” “Since I was eight sir.” “Excellent… Is there something else Harold?” “Well I was going to go to a movie with some friends. I was wondering if I could have some money?” He would tap his jaw with his finger as sparks flew. “Let me see. What are the appropriate questions to ask in these situations? How long will you be?” “Umm, four days.” “Long movie then?” “Yes father.” “Good.” “Is it age appropriate?” “Well there is no sex that I’m aware of, but I’m hopeful for some nudity sir.” “Entirely understandable.” “Will you be coming home afterward?” “There is every possibility father.” “Hmm, does your mother approve?” “Yes sir, anything to escape the hell of having kids.” Big sigh, “Indeed my boy. You are a boy aren’t you? All that long hair, the earrings. Are you sure you’re not my daughter?” “I believe so.” “Be decisive about these things, Donald.” “Yes father.” “Now how about that Martini?” “Certainly father. The money for the movie then?”
Don’t get me wrong, my father was awesome, maybe sometimes too awesome – and a little forgetful. But it was the rare occasion that mom let us at him without her supervising and we kids had learned to make the most of those opportunities.
So, flush with funds, I made my father a dry vodka Martini, packed my car and was ready for a great adventure. We were taking my VW Westphalia. Baja, California, is less than an hour and a half down the road from Corona Del Mar, so an easy run to a different world.
Packing in those days generally involved going by my various sponsors warehouses, grabbing clothes, boots, wetsuit, sandals, and whatever other cool stuff they had laying around.
Matt brought about fifty pounds (22 kilos) of cookies and cakes. He had a part time job at Nabisco. With clothes and food taken care of we bounced down the road as traffic wove around us. Past Salt Creek, T-street, and Trestles, then on the freeway to San Diego.
Matt and I had been kind of quiet, not really knowing each other. But getting into the adventure of a road trip we endeavored to remedy that. “So Matt, what do you do for fun?” “Uh same thing you do I guess.” I glanced over at him. “I mean, I know you surf all the time but what else do you like to do?” “I play the guitar and you know, the usual things.” What about you Robbins, what do you like to do other than surf?” I glanced over at Matt. “Well I guess I masturbate as a second hobby. I wake up and generally hit my bong, then masturbate. Have breakfast, sometimes masturbate while I’m eating. Generally, if I’m not eating or surfing, I’m masturbating or thinking about it.” “Umm, I didn’t say that out loud did I?” “Which part?” “The part about masturbating?” “You masturbate?” “Me? Of course not! Only Fags do that.” “Right?” “Right!” “So you into sports?” “Nah hate them.” “Ya me too.”
We thought about stopping in San Diego for a surf but I was a bit anxious to get below Tijuana, Mexico. I’d had problems there in the past and though I had grown up a bit I was a worried about being recognized. I realize you change between 14 and 17 but I didn’t see any reason to push my luck.
We crossed the border with no problems and within fifteen minutes I say, “I know exactly where we are”, as we drove by a mortuary that I was very familiar with. “The key here is to turn left instead of right at the next turn.” Two hours later we finally got past the mortuary and were driving towards Rosarito. I still drive by this mortuary to this day, though the police station has since changed locations since the little incident with the fire. Funny the things that can make you nostalgic.
Once past Rosarito things started to get really rural. We pulled off the road just past a small village called Primo Tapia that is tucked away on the coast and stopped at a restaurant/bar called The Half Way House. The Half Way House is reputed to be halfway between Ensenada and Tijuana. It’s kind of like a crossroad in time. It has a weird vibe like it’s been there since the dawn of time. It has a big bar, big dance floor, small restaurant, and large patio. It sits on a cliff above a small crescent shaped beach that on occasion has fun waves. It’s the kind of bar you enter and you’re the only one there. By the time you leave, it’s a new day, you’re hung over and your memories of the night before are a blur.
This was to be the first bar I ever ordered a drink from. Probably the first time I got truly drunk. We parked feeling very much like adventurers on a great journey that afternoon. In those days, many would have been quite impressed with this couple of 17 year olds. But, at this point-that would all change.
We swaggered in feeling like quite the men. Brushing road dust off our clothes and asking for a cold soda. There was nowhere to really sit except for the bar, so hesitantly we climbed on to our first bar stools. I was fascinated by the colorful collection of bottles, as well as the rather massive collection of panties that festooned the ceiling. There was also a model ship made of tongue depressors behind the bar along with velvet Elvis. They are to this day still decorating the walls.
It was our intention to just have a soda that lonely afternoon at the Half Way House. But somehow we ended up being introduced to Mescal, a rather hallucinogenic version of Tequila, which generally involves eating a worm. My memories of that day/night are best represented by the snap shots that decorated the walls of this esteemed palace of inebriation for many years. Matt and I having our first Margarita. Matt and I doing a shot of Mescal. Matt and I eating a worm. Matt throwing up on the table. Me dancing with some rather large Mexican farm girls looking a bit frantic.
It is the next morning that I actually remember. I woke up in the van feeling very uncomfortable. For some reason, I was wearing a t-shirt as a pair of pants, my legs through the arms and a rope holding it around my waist. I have no recollection of how I achieved this get up but it was surely cutting off my circulation. As to the rest of my clothes? Well, a lesson I learned well that morning was that some thing’s are best left to your imagination. As bad as that may seem, sometimes the truth is much worse.
Lying on the floor of the van, I quietly opened the sliding door, squinting into the bright early morning sun. I expected the scene of a massacre, but in that I was disappointed. It was a warm, bright, December morning. A couple of dogs were playing in the dirt parking lot. A woman was mopping the front of the motel and Matt lay naked but for his boxers, outside the sliding door. His hand clenched as though he had been hammering against the side of the van when he passed out. I helped him into the van where he crawled under the sleeping bag and without a word he was fast asleep within seconds.
Once I was able to counter the horizontal pull of post intoxication, I assessed that the best option here was simply to drive away – which I did, upside down shirt and all. It is an odd reality of being young and very intoxicated that you invariably end up half naked. In the best of scenarios, it is because you have gotten lucky or at least pleasant with someone. In the worst case, your butt hurts and there’s penicillin involved. In this case, quiet retreat seemed the best option. I drove for a half hour and finally pulled off at a quiet spot where I crawled back into the bunk with Matt and slept the morning away.
It was a bit awkward waking up in the tight bunk of a van. “Umm hi.” “Hi.” “Heck of a night?” “Indeed!” “Can I have my shirt back?” “Your shirt? I don’t have your shirt?” “The one you’re wearing as a diaper” “Is this yours? Hmm I wondered. “It’s a bit tight on my legs. You haven’t by any chance seen my clothes?” “Well, you did that striptease for the lobster and five gallon bottle of Tequila, so I gave you my shirt.” “Ahh that would explain it.” I looked around, “I don’t see the Tequila?” “Tied to the roof.” “Lobster?” “I’m not sure but you brought it out to the van last night.” “So you’re telling me there is a stuffed Lobster in the car somewhere?” “No, I’m pretty sure it was alive.” “Ha-ha Funny.” “No, I’m serious! You did a striptease for a lobster.” “How is it you remember this so clearly?” “Well, I didn’t do as many shots as you.” “Shots?” “Yes, shots of Tequila and Mescal.” “I guess that would explain the loss of motor function.” “You were acting quite silly so I quit early.” I sat up on an elbow looking down on Matt, studying his bare chest while trying to puzzle my way through the collection of images from the previous evening. “Ok, so I have two questions then…” “Shoot!” “Why were you naked outside the door of the van this morning and where is this lobster?” “I wasn’t, and I don’t know where the lobster is.” “Perhaps best if we leave it at that then?” “Indubitably!”
We slowly got up feeling a bit awkward. I reached for a pile of clothes on the floor and something moved. “Gaaaaa”, I screamed, hitting notes I thought myself incapable of anymore. “I think I found your pants Matt.” “Oh good, will you pass them to me?” “Well, there seems to be a rather large lobster wearing them at the moment.” “So that’s where they went.” He got up and, quite unembarrassed, shook out the lobster and skinned his pants on over pale legs. I quite forgot about the lobster until it crawled on my foot. I screamed again, a painfully high note that had my testicles retracting.
With neither of us having much experience with lobsters, other than the kind that came with a side of butter, it took us a few minutes to work him into the cooler where he barely fit. Then of course we wanted sodas that were under our new pet, affectionately called Larry the lobster. It took the two of us to extricate the drinks. We figured anything that ugly had to either bite or sting, and as we didn’t know which end to be cautious of we assumed both to be dangerous.
It was a hung over and befuddled pair of boys that continued on down the road. We stopped at San Miguel for a quick surf. The waves were about six foot and very good. The crowd was minimal, mostly locals, but they didn’t bother us. After an hour or so of long peeling walls we were both feeling much better. We ate a couple of pounds of cookies then loaded back into the van for the final push to our final destination. We were going to a place called Punta San Jose’. San Jose’ is a small point below Ensenada with a fishing village at the lighthouse. There are a variety of waves on this kelpy and isolated coast of Baja. A right hand reef that can break with long slow walls. It has an inside wave that is a little faster, and further inside a little slab-type set up which can get very hollow. Further south there are more reefs and beachies. Some are very good, with access being the only problem as the coastline is a long winding cliff.
To get there you must go through Ensenada, into the back hills along Highway 1 that runs the length of the Baja Peninsula. It’s a 50-minute drive to the tiny hillside village of Santo Thomas, where you turn off on to a dusty, pothole filled, dirt road and climb a steep, twisty, route into the hills. If you can make the first climb out of Santo Thomas you’ll probably make the rest of the 40-mile trek. As long as you drive slow and watch out for boulders, cows, washed out sections and any of a dozen potential hazards. You will pass through several farms in this productive and very pretty part of Baja.
We cruised through Ensenada, stopping at the fish market to grab some fish tacos, then a tamale stand, then a fruit stand and in this manner made a surprisingly uneventful trip through town. The van puttered along and our pet lobster, Larry, seemed to have calmed down in the cold waters of the cooler. We were both excited. The events of the last evening were slowly fading. Matt and I talked about surfing, and the other complex issues of being a teenager- food, surfing, parents, siblings, food, school, girls, boys and food. This was now becoming the adventure we both had dreamed of. Driving out of civilization into the unknown territories of deepest Baja. Once we reached Santo Thomas we decided to fill up with fuel. We worked out the exchange rate with the bored kid manning the pump at the Pemex station. I figured maybe I should put oil in the car. I opened the rear hood of the engine and studied it.
It was probably the first time I had ever looked at the engine of a car as more than a collection of metal and rubber. The Mexican kid started to fill the gas tank and Matt came out of the restroom. We both stood and stared at the engine. “So Matt, you know anything about engines?” “Well not really.” I squatted down and took a closer look and found a top that said oil. “Ahh, say, can you get me those cans of oil in the cabinet? Matt got them and I opened the oil top. “Umm looks pretty low.” So I proceeded to fill it up. Once I was done we had put in about three liters. “I guess it needed some oil.” “Well it’s filled now so we shouldn’t have to worry about it until we get back.” I said, giving it a critical look. Then turned to the Mexican kid. He smiled, said something in Spanish and gave me thumbs up. What I assumed he said was “Great job! You’re all set for the treacherous road ahead of you.” Big smile, thumbs up.
What he more probably said was “You idiot gringo road virgins are going to die.” But at the time, rapped in the “Ode de Adventure” as we were, he could have been speaking Obama English and all we would have heard was “You guys are fucking awesome. I’m naming my first born after you.” So with both our gas and oil topped off we headed up the steep dirt road into the unknown.
Back then this was a rarely surfed spot. Even now you can go there and see no one for weeks. There are lots of spots to surf and no locals, so it really spreads the surfers out. As well, there are many more accessible spots than San Jose, though not many with the aura that this place has. It was a rough climb in the VW up the steep grade leaving the main road but once in the hills…it was beautiful. The road winds through deep valleys and pastures, past little ponds and through streams. It smells of fresh sown dirt and flowers. For Baja, one of the driest places on the planet, this is a rarity.
Well along the dirt road the van started to smoke and we stopped to open the engine compartment. Heavy grey smoke poured out. “Hmmm do you think that’s a problem, Robbins?” “Nah, just burning off some of the oil I spilled.” “What about all the oil coming out the bottom?” “Oh probably just from all the jiggling we’ve been doing on this road. How’s Larry doing?” “Resting, I think. He seems to like the ice water.” “Great! Well it can’t be much further.” Back we jumped into the van and drove on. We made it to the top of a hill where we could just see the ocean before the van crapped out completely. “Well I must say if there was ever a spot for the van to crap out this wasn’t it.” I said reflectively. Matt walked up a hill a bit and sat next to a clump of cactus. After contemplating the engine for a few minutes and coming to the realization that it could be a space ship for all I knew about it, I joined Matt on the hillside. We sat listening to the wind as it rustled through the cactus and scrub brush. We looked out over the ocean and talked quietly. You tend to talk softly in the deserts of Baja. A whisper can carry for a mile. After a bit we saw a tractor coming slowly our way from the direction we had been traveling. We went back to the van and waited.
The man who pulled up on the tractor seemed terribly old to us at the time. But having known him now for many years he was probably only in his late forties. He owned all the land around us, even Punta San Jose. He is a very prosperous man now. But then, he was a simple farmer, and a good man. Carlos, as we came to know him, was short and stout with a graying beard, balding head, and kind eyes set in a broad intelligent face.
As he pulled up, I decided to take the lead and try out my Spanish. “Hello good sir, do you have many pants?” He gave me a puzzled look. “I think you asked about his pants, Robbins” “No I asked about his health.” “No, I’m pretty sure Pantelones is pants. I think health is Gusto.” For his part, the farmer simply got down and walked around the van inspecting it. He looked under the engine shook his head, then opened up the engine compartment, and audibly sucked in a breath. Oil seemed to be gurgling out of every orifice.
He looked at us and said something in Spanish. I smiled. He pointed at the engine and said something else. I continued to smile, looking, I’m sure, rather foolish. Matt and I looked at each other and then at him. “What do we do?” Matt asked. I thought about it for a moment. “Well, I usually just call my mother. You?” “Dad.” The man shook his head and walked back to his tractor waving us to follow. He hooked a chain up to the front of the van and gestured for us to get back in the van. Then he began to pull us. “Maybe you ought to take the break off, Robbins?” “Oh, good idea!”
We lurched along behind the tractor as it pulled us down the dirt road to his farm. The farm sat in a little cleft in the gently curving terrain of the coastal hills. All around were plowed fields. A stream ran beside the house and we drove through it to a gate that a young boy opened for us. The house was a fairly large ramshackle affair. The main part brick and concrete with some added on sections of plywood. There was a large barn and several corrals set behind it. Cars and farm equipment in various states of repair were distributed haphazardly about. Sheep, goats and dogs lazed about while cows and horse were confined to pens or gated fields.
It was a beautiful afternoon, crisp and clear. A slight breeze blew across the green and brown rolling fields. Beyond that we could see the ocean, a sparkling blue contrasting against the gentle colors of earth. “This place is awesome.” Matt said. I could only agree. Several boys and girls of various ages came out of a barn and studied us while Carlos issued brusque instructions. The boys came over and helped push the van up near the barn.
One boy spoke a bit of English and so translated for the father. “It seems that someone played a terribly trick on you.” Said the boy. “Really?” I asked. “Yes they completely filled your oil reserve up.” “Oh that’s bad?” “Yes, it has fouled up your engine. You see, if oil gets into your hyper drive you will not be able to reach warp speed and will never break free of the sun’s gravitational field.” At least that is what I heard. I knew more about how the Enterprise on Start Trek worked than I did about a car.
“So I shook my head in a small circle and dared Matt to laugh. “Umm, well umm, can your dad fix it? Umm, we can pay! I have Tequila and a large lobster, though the lobster is more of a pet than anything.”
The father came over and the boy and he talked. “My father says he will see what he can do. But he will need to send my brother to town for some parts. He says you can stay here. It will be a few days. It was Christmas eve. Matt and I looked at each other and shrugged. Not much we could do about it. “Well, we were trying to get home for Christmas.” The boy shrugged and translated for the dad. “My father say it will take a few days and that you can have Christmas with us.” We thanked him and asked if there was a phone we could use? “Only one is in the town.”, said the boy. We made arrangements to have a call made to Matt’s parents and gave Carlos what money we had and the five gallons of Tequila on the roof. He was suitably impressed. Some baby lambs milled around our feet and Matt became quite enamored with them. We asked about surf and if there was a way to the beach from here. The boy pointed across a field and said there was a rope we could use to climb down the cliff.
Since there was little to do we grabbed our boards and wetsuits, then walked across the fields. The cliff to the beach was very steep but there were multiple reef breaks below. We worked our way down to the rock and shell strewn beach and found a little right hander that was breaking about three feet. It was peeling ruler edged along a reef. With all the kelp outside it was glassy and what little wind there was refracted and hit the wave side offshore. We surfed most of the afternoon, laughing as we shared waves, with not another soul in sight on this rocky stretch of coast.
Later, surfed-out we walked back to the farm and found a cold clear little waterfall to rinse off under and got changed.
As the sun set, we hiked up the hill and watched effervescent sprays of yellow, red and blue as they marked the end of a long day. Below us the little farm sat, smoke curling from the chimney, and the only sound the occasional yap of a dog and a child’s laughter drifting up to us.
The father waved for us to join him. That night we shared dinner with this little Mexican family, Carlos, his eight kids, mom, and the grandfolks. No one really spoke any English but after a while it didn’t seem to matter. We made gifts of the stuff we had brought with us and smiled with the family as the little kids dug into the cookies. This humble little family shared their meal with us and we laughed along as they chattered and played with the simple presents they had received. It was the first time I think I understood the joy of giving, and rarely have I been as content as I was that Christmas. Later, Matt and I lay huddled together in the van buried under a pile of blankets against the cold; very full as we stared out the window at all the stars. “Wow, Christmas. Pretty cool huh?” said Matt. I smiled to myself, “Ya, pretty cool!”