Surfing Baja 1979
Following is a fictional account of a surf trip to Baja written by a fictional English character named Livy Tinsley. It’s chapter fifteen of The Tradewinds, and is written journal style. Livy is a writer for the New Yorker who has been thrown in with 3 surfers and a photographer. Her editor just learned how to surf in Hawaii and now wants to run a story on surfing. The time period is Spring 1979.
Baja is a place
by Livy Tinsley
Baja, deep baja. Mestizos, indios, cactus, joshua trees, riverbeds trickling, Catholic shrines.
Before Europeans there were three tribes, the Cochimi in the north down to Loreto, the Guaycura from Loreto to La Paz and the Pericu in the Los Cabos area. They were mostly fishermen who ate the fruit of the cactus and hunted game and gathered the root of the agave or mescal. It was noted by Hernan Cortes that there were “abundant pearls” in this land that, at that time, they believed was an island. The Jesuits came in the 17th century and established seventeen missions and introduced Christianity. The effort to subdue the natives failed largely due to the harsh weather conditions. Hurricanes, torrential rains and overdressing made life for the Spanish uncomfortable and the local population was decimated by the introduction of European diseases.
In 1823 a successful rebellion resulted in the creation of Mexico. Native rock art is the only evidence of the existence of the indigenous people. Baja is a wild place that only six years ago was almost impossible to travel in the average passenger car. Mexican One, the transpeninsular highway is now paved, but solitude is still Baja’s greatest commodity.
the day marches,
we march behind, along with, and sometimes ahead
of the day.
Mexico will even things out.
green, even, cool this time of year,
but green now, moist,
hard to conjure the drymouthed days of
dust-dry days and salt-dry skin,
cool cerveza to slake the thirst.
the world’s rolled outa bed to lay in the sun,
to shed the Afghan winter.
cold, cool, warm, fog, hot then dry
sounds like I’m longing for summer,
Not sure of the day. So far we’ve traveled 700 miles. 4 days into it and first day with waves. The guys’ve been crazy for surf. They’re glowing today. Eyes alight with the ocean. Strange journey. All this way to ride a wave like others they know at home. It’s the emptiness they say, the quiet, the being away and the elemental purity of a nearly untouched land.
After a long overnight drive to a small Ejido south of Ensenada there was a day of rest. Trent and Jay struck up a game of football (soccer) with some of the local kids. The villagers went mad for ‘em. Loved the gringos and laughed at their awkwardness on the field. A couple of the kids showed up later and we traded them T-shirts for fish and in the morning we headed south for a place we’re calling Rattlesnake Gorge. It’s a beautiful setup with cliffs to either side and a sandy spot in the middle of a fifteen-year flood plain. The occasional rain has created a triple reef/sandbar break and the guys went mad for it, and having discovered a cheap outlet for Corona, we all celebrated our good fortune of surf (I surfed for the first time today) with a middle-of-nowhere no one-to-worry-about party in the wilderness. They’ve shown themselves to be gentleman and I’ve told’em about the guy in Europe. Good lads, a respectable, earthy sort. Live by a code of chivalry and sharing.
Just beyond Rattlesnake Gorge we found a rusted old school bus sinking in the sand. The wheels are gone and we’re all guessing maybe some hippies got lost on the way to Woodstock. “Summer of Love” run out of gas. Inside I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake. Remnants of parties all over; a bong inscribed with “FURTHUR” after Kesey and the gang. Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test bubbled over, desiccated in the sun. We’ve dubbed it the “Magic Bus” after the Who song.
Third day was an all-out beeline through the desert with burritos for breakfast in El Rosario. The trip seemed to start then. Remote, gone, last outpost on the Pacific behind us and nothing but pot-holed road in front of us. Huge cactus and white stones everywhere, drinking. We stopped a lot in the desert to wee in the brush. Had a margarita somewhere near Guerrero Negro and a guy gave us a tip on some camping on the Gulf side. Long road off the highway, dirt, like washboard, shook the bloody hell out of the bus, but with a beautiful sunset going on around a triple-peeked set of hills we came over a rise in the road and Tristan began to wail. In front of us, a mile or so off, was a spit of land with large swells rolling like caterpillars. I got “stoked” with all of ‘em and am feeling like I’m getting a peek at the draw of the sea. Then we got stuck in the sand. Slowed down to get a better look at the surf and sunk.
This morning we’re situated just below a sort of airfield and adjacent to a rudimentary lighthouse. The Aussies next to us were calling it 10-15 feet and said the place wasn’t holding the swell the day before. Today it’s dropped off a bit and the guys are calling it clean, better with the tide, and the word is the wind turns offshore in the afternoon and adds a crispness to the surf. This spot’s too dangerous for beginners but there are lots of beautiful shells on the beach. Tristan, Trent, and Jay came in saying the rock reef shelf is like a racetrack and “gnarly.” I saw them all get tuberides and wonder what that must be like.
A man who calls himself Ismael came by this morning to check on all of the campers. Nice sort, salt of the earth, or the sea in this case. Says he’ll have lobster later, a dozen for $10.00. There’s a mellow break further up to the point and Jay took me up there for a surf. I stood up on nearly every wave and Jay was hooting. Feel like I’m a natural to this.
I am possessed by a primal energy,
a tribal tension,
the residue of millenia
elemental simplicity fueled by
an adrenal stream and
pumped by an infant heart
Woke up with “The Ballad of John and Yoko” in my head this morning. Thinking of the guy in Portugal, dreamed about him, maybe someday we’ll do that. I’m different now and so to must he be. Success as a writer can only go so far to carry one on. Someone to share it with seems a better place. I know someday I’ll see him.
Three flat tires, a busted gas tank, and three days later we’re sitting at a long left-hand point a couple of hundred miles north of Cabo San Lucas. A steel-framed lighthouse and a plywod shack are the only “Civilization.” Should’ve been to Cabo by now but the ocean gave us another incredible swell. I’m what they call a “goofy-foot” which means I surf with my right foot forward. Here I can ride with my body facing the wave. Nice little waves on the inside cove here and I’m riding a 9’6” longboard and’ve begun being able to turn and ride down the line.
Note: The people here are extremely friendly and accommodating. Two fisherman drove all the way out into the middle of the desert, pulled our gas tank off and patched it with marine tar. Charged us five dollars then bought us beers with the money they made. One of their wives made us a drink called horchata from condensed milk with cinnamon and sugar added. They say it keeps you cool. I’d drink gallons of it in the summer.
Fish for dinner tonight. We traded a couple of beers for fish the size of small white sharks. Should mention the wonderful snorkeling on the gulf side. Stopped there a couple of days ago and paddled into the Bahia Concepcion (Bay of Conception). The water there is quite warm and the contrast between the watery world of the gulf and the outlying land seems an optical illusion. Jagged, dry and rocky peaks sweeping into a calm sea. Sand fleas are a nightmare there but Trent filled an empty can with stove fuel, lit it, and they all started to jump in and away from us.
Discord among the ranks. Went something like this:
“Livy’s mine man,” said Trent.
“Yours,” said Tristan.
“I mean my responsibility.”
“I was just trying to help her.”
“Look there’s a brother out there who’s waiting for her.”
“She’s not you’re goddamn fire hydrant man.”
“Just keeping an eye on her.”
“Well ease up. No one’s trying to move in.”
Chivalry, knights, none shining here, but desperate to help a damsel. Got pretty heated and Trent just about split. A few cervezas involved, good thing the Tequila’s gone, firewater.
They want to know what I know about the way women are. I told them all I know is what I know of myself really and that it was understandable to me why women would confuse them. Most women don’t know what they want. The fuzzy line between being the woman that my mother was and what it is to be a woman now plays a part in it. I think most women still want, or still think they want, to be taken care of. Part of the problem is that with modern medicine and health we’re living an awfully long life compared with our ancestors and the prospect of a marriage lasting fifty or more years seems a bit daunting to most of us. When we weren’t expected to live past forty there must’ve been an intensity and imminence to procreation and child rearing. People had children and died a short while after their children were old enough to have children. All this living has confused the issue and the rhythm. I told them to just hang out with women who were fun and didn’t expect much.
The guys keep saying “classic.” Has special meaning for them. If you look through early surf publications, California Surfriders 1946, early Surfer Magazine and they had me watch “Endless Summer” before the trip, you’ll start to get the idea. There’s a thread of simplicity that runs through all of them. Good surf, sun, a few friends and later, some good food and beer. Windansea and San Onofre were a couple of the early meccas. Thatched huts in the Hawaiian style, cars pulled right up on the beach, fish caught from the sea and maybe a lobster from a submerged reef, guitars and ukuleles. And more good surf, clean water, purity.
It’s still here in the Mexico of 1979. Gone by the wayside for the most part in California since the 60s. Pockets of it here and there. But it’s everywhere in Mexico, a brotherhood and sisterhood of pura vida.
I envy the red ant of Baja,
though it cannot surf,
it doesn’t get stepped on
as much as I do,
in the city.
Trent’s poem. He’s a bit of a soft touch really. Needs a girlfriend but they’re all on the road so much, just got back from Australia by way of Hawaii. Surf contests and spreading the ambassadorial goodwill of their sponsors. If it weren’t for that guy in Portugal and my knowing, he’d make a good partner, terrible poet, but that could be helped.
Rob the photographer has a way of making things sour, bad attitude, sort of snobbish. Otherwise, the crew is good, the surfers. Traveled 1400 miles with them now, 150 to go for Cabo, then back again. Too much here that can’t be written, only experienced. Baja is a place.
Woke up around two this morning, killer headache, dehydrated. Unseasonably hot, close to 100 degrees. First time out in the water I dry-docked my board. We’re in tropical waters now, urchins everywhere. I didn’t want to get off my board so when the waves receded I stayed on. Guys were good about it and they have resin and stuff for patching. After that I cooked up two gnarly batches of fried potatoes and everyone was pretty stoked. Cooked some killer fish on the grill last night as well, bloody radical.
Second paddle out was good and I won’t tell where we are, you’ll just have to find it for yourself. Trent and I were on the inside cove. Five-foot lefts, nice water color. Then we packed up and headed for La Paz. Picked up another tire on the way. Homemade tires can be a bit iffy. La Paz is a strange mix of the new and old. Sometimes it seems that Mexican architects took a bullet train through California and got a blurry view of the place. Shopped there and hung out in a bar. Signage around town was a bit dodgy so we had a hard time getting back on the main highway, Mexican One, a grey pearl snaking its way like a sidewinder.
“with a little luck... we can make this whole damn thing work out.” - Wings
Sitting now just outside of Todos Santos. It’s about 10 p.m. The bus has broken down again, tie rod or something. Sitting on a dirt road without the means to get it off the ground. Trent’s pulled out the cooler for refreshments.
Three days later:
Past three days’ve been quite involved. Slept in the dirt road the night of the great tie rod. After a couple of beers I figured out how to fix it. How’s that then? The next morning we split for the tip and hit Cabo around 9 a.m. Surf was flat so we shopped in a touristy section of town. All the trinkets and bobbles, kind of stuff grandma would send you if she were here. Sent postcards home then decided to head for San Jose Del Cabo. No potential for surf there either, at least not that day. Found a cheap motel room ($5) and took our first hot shower in nine or ten days. Ate tacos and drank beer like it was the last supper or maybe the first.
San Jose Del Cabo is a beautiful town and it makes me wonder why it doesn’t get the same press as Cabo San Lucas. They are complete opposites. Cabo is run down and funky, nostalgic for some maybe but San Jose has all the romance of the Age of Exploration and “Western” films combined. The architecture in the square was designed with great care and attention to detail. One feels a part of something next to spiritual. We ate a pizza there.
There are some low-lifes in the next room to us. They come from Santa Cruz and are apparently running from the law. Tried to sell us drugs and told us of how their baby ate a peyote button off the dashboard. They laughed as they told it and Tristan was the only who managed to express our collective repulsion. The pair showed up the next morning to look at a board of ours but we decided against selling it to them, bad karma.
There’s a dirt road alongside town that leads to surf spots and a place called Shipwrecks. Here we’ve come across the Australians again, Timbo, Twiggy and Taj. Stopped for a big party in the middle of the desert. Still close to ninety-five degrees. When we couldn’t drink anymore we headed back to town for supplies and ordered twenty-one tacos and at least as many beers. Exchanged cash at the El Presidente Hotel and got back to “Shipwrecks,” (there really isn’t one), around 6 p.m. and lucked into some small but fun surf. Another sort of rock reef/point break, this place has great potential, probably much better in the summer. 4 cases of beer and 2 bottles of Tequila later, Twiggy was dancing around with a box of “Zucaritas” (Fruit Loops) on his head and was dubbed King Zucarita. He then fell down the cliffside and rolled down to the beach.
It’s amazing how quickly you come to know people on the road. The Aussies are three of the coolest people any of us have ever met. Even Rob has warmed to them. They have an uncanny ability to stay in the moment. All of them left their jobs before coming here and haven’t a worry about what lies ahead. They’re here for two months and reside within each minute of the day as if it were made for them. Next to them we, Americans and Britons, seem like worrisome old ladies.
This morning a tram showed up with pampered surf enthusiasts from the El Presidente Hotel. Mind you I haven’t called them surfers as I’ve come to understand that you can surf but there’s more than that to being a surfer. Surfers know tides and wind direction, swell direction and seasons; they feel these things instinctively and are much like captains of the old sailing ships. They have saltwater in their veins and grow uncomfortable with the smell of the land. Brine and a seawind is their morning coffee. These folks from the El Presidente are and have, well, none of this. At the risk of sounding elitist, it would be nice if neophytes, or better, wannabes knew their place in the hierarchy. Deckhands don’t expect the comforts the First Mate enjoys. While it’s not, perhaps, entirely democratic, there’s an understanding within the greater surf tribe that newcomers are expected to show respect for the elders and allow themselves time to advance to a point to where they’re not a hazard to others around them. Most surfing areas have unspoken boundaries within which it is understood that you do not move on to the advanced section of a surf break until you can do it with grace, style and a proper command of your surfboard.
Days End At Land’s End
Went down on the beach after the tram left and hung with Twiggy for a bit. He gave me a “Coronita.” Coronitas are miniature bottles of Corona and Twiggy said to hang on to it, souvenir from a good time. Jay came up and told us it was time to do the wine thing. We decided the night before to bury a bottle of wine in the sand and promise we’d all come back some time and dig it up. So with very little ceremony we walked about fifty feet off the trail, dug a hole, and buried it. Someday we’ll go back.
We headed back toward San Jose and on a particular rise in the road we could see Lands End.
See: Salty Zen Clothing