The dust billowed up and drifted sideways in the wind. I banked the wheel of the Explorer sharply to avoid a narrow gash in the road. Photographer -Lucia Griggi sat beside me. She asked me to slow down. I smiled and complied. “Yes, Captain.” Skateboarding legends- Brian Logan and Tony Alva were in the vehicle directly in front of us as we cut through the countryside in the long grueling ride south into Baja. The clustered homes and buckled concrete of Tijuana’s gritty streets lay far behind us, where crime oozed like a contagion. Poverty was at every bend. Grim-faced men eyed us hungrily. Finessing a tangle of off ramps, we drove the toll road south. Skeletal half-completed hotels and condos grinned vacantly. The ocean was dark and looming directly west. At times, we saw fishing boats. Fog obscured the hillsides at higher elevations. The hours spun away behind us and America seemed so far away. With a sense of unreality, we sliced down through a narrow valley. Tiny shantytowns spilled over the hillsides in dirty clumps. Colorful houses of bright blue and cornflower yellow contrasted sharply with the dull and drab existence that the people seemed to share. The land and its people were in rewind. Tick tock. Clocks stopped. It seemed that despair was ubiquitous.
Giant cactus rose up from the desert floor. Sharp spines and pain were found in their arms. Defensive and strong. We pushed past. We had driven for an hour in silence. The homes and villages were left behind and the desert landscape opened up to us. We felt it growing hotter. The searing sun welcomed us in a low painful voice. “Come…” Its embrace was primitive. Desiccation. Lucia opened up a package of hummus and some crackers from the cooler. Coconut water completed our mobile snack. I was the melancholy one at times. I could always count on Lucia to keep things positive and light. She wiped a hand across her mouth. “I can’t wait to surf. It’s going to feel good to be in the water again and spend a few days just getting some waves.” I nodded and grinned as she went on to describe our ultimate destination: Scorpion Bay. “I’ve seen the place in videos and articles. It is really quite lovely. There are seven points and I’m pretty sure that all of them are mellow, peeling waves. It’ll be perfect for you to learn on.” I laughed. I was a total beginner, on my first surfing trip ever and I was heading to Scorpion Bay in Baja. At least I was in stellar company, as the three of them were accomplished surfers. It was exciting and I hoped I could get a few waves on the trip.
We slowed to a crawl. There was a narrow gorge that cut to our right and meandered precariously as far as I could see. If we weren’t paying attention, it was a long way to the valley floor. I shifted down and we inched forward. Punch. Punch. Punch. The front shocks shuddered. Stream beds — long dry — ran away from us below. Smooth river rocks sat idly in clumps awaiting the river that never came. Salt flats glimmered in the distance and vultures wheeled darkly above some grisly feast. I shook my head to remove the mental image I was forming. Force quit.
We finally limped into Guerrero Negro, a town about halfway down into Baja. Guerrero Negro is known primarily for its salt mines and took its name from an American whaling ship – ‘Black Warrior’- that ran aground in the 1850’s. Exhausted, we ate together and kept close to the small motel. Dawn came too early and coffee couldn’t drive away the misgivings we were feeling about climbing back into the four wheel, torture chambers for the long drive ahead.
We pierced the morning much in the same way we had before. Small villages, taco stands, people on horseback, trash, dilapidated cars from a bygone era and a sparse countryside spilled past our windows. Several hours south, Brian pulled into a small town. We fueled up. Brian approached. “We need to let air out of our tires. The road is completely unpaved from here on out. Get ready for a bumpy ride.” We did as he instructed. Tony Alva smiled towards us and handed us a cookie from a package he held. “You may need this…” Munching on raisins and oatmeal, I realized that he was right. One can always use a cookie.
As we wheeled slowly through the town, an imposing church lay ahead of us. It was old. Hundreds of years old. Gargoyles and gothic ornaments dripped from its roofline. Draconian. The windows were sullen and an atmosphere of unreality loomed. I pulled over and climbed the huge stone steps, leaving everyone behind. Hard wooden pews and wrought iron railings greeted my eyes. Christ hung like a promise from his lonely perch. The cross. Sacrifice for love and humanity. I saw a brown leather Bible on a wooden pulpit. There was a roadmap for living in its cabbage-colored pages. Life. The place was pregnant with antiquity and I found myself touching my forehead to the floor. Dominus Vobiscum. God go with us…
The remainder of the day was desolation. Gravel and sand led us to the pristine bay. Isolated. Perfect. We stopped above the town of San Juanico. The seven points of Scorpion Bay jutted like jagged teeth in the mouth of morning. Waves peeled back like silver zippers. Hypnotic and true. We smiled together as we watched some surfers paddle into the set waves that stacked, shimmered, then meander across the long bay towards the next point.
Camp was set. The RV canopy spread shade. Tony Alva slipped past in his black neoprene wetsuit. He grabbed an Alva Surfcraft six foot surfboard. A smile spread across his weathered face. “Did you see that last set wave?” He asked hurriedly. He didn’t bother waiting for a response as he began the climb down the rocks from the nearby bluff where we camped. In minutes, he was paddling out to the point. I smiled to Lucia and Brian. “Waste no time.” I mumbled more to myself than anyone. Brian told me that on the drive down, Tony had let him in on the fact that there was a secret skate bowl somewhere nearby. Brian stabbed a finger towards the point where Tony was waiting for a set wave and murmured, “It looks like both of you are going to get the best of both worlds. Surf and skate.”
I nodded and turned my eyes toward the distant fishing village. Old trucks. Old fashioned values. Older ideals. The houses were thatch and stucco. Everywhere I turned, I looked on a simpler way of life. Gone was the hurry of my modern world. The ocean spread out before it all. Majestic and uncaring. I watched Tony Alva paddle into his first set wave. He dropped down the green face and tore through a bottom turn. His board balanced at the top and dove deep again. Style and presence.
The ocean shimmered and moved into us all… its time, its rhythm. Those first few days were silver and green. All life was colors. The ocean ruled our thoughts. It had a mandate all its own. We had an RV and two tents. A fire pit completed the camp. There were several small encampments and RV’s on the black bluffs nearby. Sun-split rocks sprouted from the barren shore and the ocean licked eagerly at them. We surfed several times a day and became friends with the varied people that made the long journey to this desolate place. School teachers, attorneys, surf shapers, skateboarders, antique dealers… the backgrounds and origins were astonishing. It really didn’t matter though, where someone was from or exactly what they did. In the water, they were all the same.
A fire sparked between the tents and the RV. A star fell and I watched it burn its way briefly across the sky. Hopes and wishes were being hung on it. We were having a get together with some of our new-found friends. Tony Alva sat nearby, a dreadlocked sillhouette. He played acoustic bass as people talked around the warm flames. Glen and his wife were Baja regulars. They’d been coming to the area to surf for decades. Glen was talking with Redondo Beach attorney David about the predicted upcoming swell that was to arrive here. “The swell has already hit Tahiti and should be here by Saturday. The seven points here are all fairly close. A few are surfed regularly. If a big swell comes in, people can actually connect from point to point.” He saw my questioning look and looked toward the darkness below. The ocean murmured against the stones as if listening. He continued, “Sometimes, a person can ride from one point and carry straight through… the surfer can actually ride the same wave past several points, making for one long ride.” Tony Alva stopped strumming and interjected, “I’d love to connect. It is one of the things I’ve always dreamed of doing.” Others nodded in agreement. It certainly sounded exciting. The evening was spent in good conversation. Libations were poured. Friendships cemented. Good people. The stars glittered and sleep soon took everyone away to their beds.
The next afternoon found us on a dusty road. Brian stopped the truck. “I know that it has to be close… it has to be right near here.” He turned the wheel and started down a narrow lane. We were looking for the hand build private skate bowl that one of the Baja surfers had fashioned. The local surfer that built it told Tony that he made it to strengthen his legs and help his surfing. It increased his stamina for those times when the swells came in. “It helps me connect…” We saw palm trees to our right. An enclosed yard. A noted landmark. Tony and Brian stopped to look.
Peering through the fence, they saw the bowl. A figure eight, peanut-shaped bowl spread out in the yard. It was assembled painstakingly in concrete pie slices. Each pie slice was formed and molded. The entire thing was amazing and was an obvious labor of love. Stacks of old car tires walled off the sides of the abandoned property. A ramshackle wooden house sat rotting in the sun. Roof beams sagged in the heat. Trash and refuse were everywhere. It smelled of neglect. We saw a few locals and spoke to them. We were allowed a session. Tony flew about the place with style and power. With each turn, he proved why he is one of the greatest pioneers that skateboarding has ever known. I took a few runs and the local skaters dripped surf style. Lines were drawn. Carving and speed were of paramount importance. The session could not have been any better.
We returned to the bluff overlooking the bay. Brian Logan paddled out and pulled some extraordinarily long rides across the bay. After three days of struggling, I paddled and stood one up for the long ride in. Elation. It was late afternoon. The sky was the color of candy. Pink and purple. A huge bird winged across the rocks. Its cry went unanswered. We watched surfers paddle into set waves and take the long ride towards land. The ocean pushed and pulled like some giant who’s vision is so tall and far above us, that it’s unaware of our pathetic scrambling and nonsense. It can trample us and never know or care. We are its guests. Someone nearby remarked that the waves seemed to be increasing in size. I peered toward the horizon and saw long black lines of waves darkening. Could this be the much anticipated swell?
I sit in a small camp chair and watch. Time has ceased to exist. Sunrise, ocean, waves, sun, waves, food and sunset. All this blends into one long, silky thread as day follows day. Peace reigns. There are no worries. Strife and conflict were left behind. The tyranny of the human face has disappeared. Unburdened. We are in the rhythm of the sea. The swell is indeed arriving. Excitement lends a commotion and bustle previously unnoticed. A group gathers as larger sets peel and rumble across the bay. Surfers paddle out and smiles are seen all around.
We took the long road south to get to this place. We took our burdens and left them behind. There is a long toll road that was installed in north Baja. It makes the drive easier. Is easier better? Sometimes we need to travel the difficult road to find out exactly what we’re made of. In this land of isolation and unfinished business, perhaps we must move further away from those nearest to us, to become closer to ourselves. Discovery. The good in all things. Local Baja legend Mama Espinoza stated that, “Good roads bring all people and bad roads bring good people.” I think she was on to something. Thank you to Brian Logan, Tony Alva and Lucia Griggi. – Ozzie