It’s Not a Baja Overlanding Trip Until You Mess Something Up

Fall is classic Baja, California, surf trip season. As the leaves turn, our minds turn to this 2018 essay from online editor Justin Housman about the typically dumb things that happen on Baja trips, that inevitably are spiked with a little moment of terror. – Ed.

I took my first road trip to Baja in 1998 or 1999. Headed for the Seven Sisters, a cluster of quality surf breaks in the barren desert about 50 miles north of the border separating Baja Norte from Baja Sur. It was me, two friends, and one of my friend’s middle-aged father. This was long before Google Maps, of course, and the only maps we had were ‘zine-like surf guides that listed the surf spots and gave vague directions on how to find them. To get to the coast in that part of Baja requires leaving the terrifyingly dangerous Highway One and rattling over three hours of poor dirt roads to the beach, hoping you’re on the right one. Just to get to the turnoff meant a seven-to-ten-hour hell drive from the California border. It’s way, way down there.

We were in a mid-80s, 2WD Ford van. It was stuffed with food, beer, liquor, and water for ten days, camping equipment, surfboards, and plenty of fishing gear. We got to our intended break with no problems, scored pretty good surf, ate plenty of fresh-caught fish, and got drunk around campfires. I’m amazed now to think of turning down a random dirt road, probably based on directions that read something like “5 miles past the burned-out gas station you’ll see a three-armed cactus with a spare tire at the base—turn right at the first two-tracked road you see.” We did it though, without thinking twice.

When it was time to go home, we carefully packed up the van and starting ambling slowly down the rutted dirt/sand road back to the highway. Almost immediately, our vehicle struck a boulder roughly amidships, ripping the van’s sliding door open, and, seemingly impossibly, off the van entirely. We spent a couple hours trying to rig the door back on, but eventually surrendered the door to the desert and drove on, one entire side of the van exposed for all the world to see.

As we approached the U.S. border, we feared that the American border guards would take one look at us—four sunburnt, grizzled dudes in a battered van full of surfboards, missing the sliding door altogether— and strip the whole rig looking for drugs. We inched forward slowly in a long line of cars and were waved through without incident, the border guard smirking at me sitting in the backseat, shirtless, empty beer cans rolling around my feet.

Some years later, I returned to the same area, this time with one of the friends from the first trip, and another surfer buddy who we reluctantly brought with us mostly because we figured a third guy would keep us from killing each other, and also to help reduce gas and food costs.

We took an early 1990s Toyota 4Runner, 4WD this time. Growing bored with the surf at the first break we’d camped next to, we decided to see what was further north along the coast. That whole stretch of desert is crisscrossed with dirt roads and you just sort of pick and choose your little two-track path and hope it leads where you want to go.

At one point, we stopped the truck at the top of a cliff to look at a likely looking point break below. As the three of us approached the edge of the cliff, we peered down and watched a perfect wave peel distressingly close to a snarl of rocks, whitewater exploding up toward us. For a few minutes, we debated whether it was a surfable wave, being that a minor slip up would land toss you up onto the undoubtedly barnacle-encrusted boulders. We decided it was too risky and pressed further north.

After two days of surfing a mediocre wave up the coast, we again stopped at the alluring little wave we’d spotted from the cliff on our way back to the highway. Again, we parked above the wave, walked to the edge of the cliff, and looked down to see another perfect wave break in front of the rocks, pitching into a beautiful tube that reeled off for a good thirty yards. But this time, a surfer streaked out of the tube just as it petered out, trailed by a fine mist of spit. It was a shocking vision and we immediately drove down a winding, rutted road to get a better look.

We arrived to see a gleaming 4WD Sportsmobile van, with a beautiful woman sunbathing topless on the beach, and a model-quality handsome surfer stepping out of the water with his board. He waved us over, and explained to us that he’d arrived two days before with his wife, saw the perfect, empty waves, set up camp, and proceeded to get barreled out of his mind all by himself for two days straight. He was leaving, though, which meant we’d have the place all to ourselves.

Just as we finished setting up our tents and were waxing our boards before a surf, the handsome surfer came jogging over toward our camp and produced a small baggie of psychedelic mushrooms. He was heading back to the States and didn’t want to cross the border with them—did we want them, he wondered? My teetotaling friends—drug-wise, at least—told him thanks but no thanks. I stopped him as he walked away and explained it would be a shame to waste them, and sure, I’d give them a good home. I stashed the baggie of shrooms in the truck and went surfing.

That evening, we really got into the tequila we’d brought, celebrating our unbelievable fortune to get to surf this wave alone, even after we’d nearly given up on the place. We got so into the tequila that I forgot all about the mushrooms. I continued to forget about them until two days later when we were approaching the U.S. border. Laughing, I reminded my buddy about the time a few years earlier when we’d crossed the border in the doorless van, and suddenly I remembered the mushrooms underneath my seat, just as we approached the border guard. Ashen-faced, I stared straight ahead. The guard peered around the inside of the truck, paused for a moment, and motioned for us to drive on.

Photo by Jon DeJong

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