the nothing whatever...

The Mexican Desert

There we were on the side of the road in Mexico on a clear beautiful night, in proximity of absolutely nothing. The haunting glow from the high beams of passing 18 wheelers were the only rival the stars had to contend with, and while Pete had taken the reigns from Milano and the rest of the kids and was showing them how to change a tyre, I decided I was instead going to arch my neck, think deep thoughts, and star gaze. It had been a long time since I had seen the clouds of the Milky Way and all those other dim filler stars whose names are sequences of letters and numbers that only astrologists know, the ones that you are only ever able to see when you are in a really remote location. I remembered reading that Baja was not a place you wanted to travel in after dark, with Gringo's recounting the grizzly details of drug-fueled carjackings that had occurred along this route down the peninsula. I am not one to shy away from adventure, but I always considered myself to be on the sensible side of caution, and for a while I wondered how such a sensible person could end up in a mess such as this. But I definitely wasn't worried. Oh no. For me, panic was miles and miles away, somewhere on star B-645. I felt very, very calm, possibly from all the smoke stops we had made on the ten hour journey that day. It could even have been from the numerous cerveza's that had been consumed over lunch. In fact, it wouldn't be too much of a reach to say that both of these factors had contributed to us all being in the predicament we were presently in, so to feel calm because of them was somewhat ironic.

Let me rewind a bit.

Pete needed a surfboard.

One bright sunny day, Pete, Harry and myself ventured out via collectivo to K-38 with the good intentions of finding ol' Pedro a surfboard (kilometer 38, the main thoroughfares in Mexico being marked like they were one big long odometer test). The collectivo is basically a van that behaves as a bus/taxi hybrid. It services a single route, picking up passengers at a flat rate and dropping them off when they ask to be dropped off, before turning around and going back over the same territory. It isn't hard to see that it is the local mode of transport, with Pete and myself getting some strange stares off young, curious children, while their embarrassed and apologetic mother's try teach them the politeness of using your peripherals.

At the surfboard store at K-38 we took a look at the boards on offer and found a nice little mini-mal that would suit Pete perfectly. The right width, the right height, and no obvious deal-breaking flaws. So Pete asked the shop owner, a young curly-haired kid with that classic Californian surfer dude twang, how much it would be to buy, and the kid said that they don't usually sell the boards, they just rent them. He then went on to say that the particular rental we wanted doesn't see the light of day too much, so we might be able to cut a deal on it. Pete, Harry and I walked outside as the kid made a phone call to the owner of the store, both parties acknowledging that a brief moment of privacy was needed if bartering strategies were to commence.

Pete walked back in to the shop with a price in mind, and Harry and I sat basking in the sunlight and watching the surfers taking off at the break just outside the back of the store. I really hoped that they could reach an agreement, as I was getting tired of the arduous collectivo trips out to Rosarito (the main town just North of Alisitos) where we would be crammed into the back corner of a baking van that contained at least 13 other people, then going through the same laborious trip home with nothing to show for it but a belly full of quesadilla and the experience itself. The public transport in Mexico is adequate, but it was looking like we were going to have to depend on it for our 30 hour long trip down the peninsula to Cabo. As far as I was concerned, the less time we were using it, the better.

Before long, Pete walked out of the store again with the swagger of a man with a secret.

“Did you buy it?”

“I did.”

“How much?”

“About $160 US.”

“That's not too bad!”

“That's not the half of it...”

Pete's smug grin told me that the look of intrigue on my face was the exact look he was after.

“...I also have just found us a ride to Cabo!”

The young Californian surfer dude was Milano, a Santa Barbaran student who had grown up in Tijuana and was living in Rosarito, running the K-38 surf shop and going on road trips to take pics for SURFLINE. I really don't know how much better a person could get it. With the impending “Cyclone Blanca” set to hit the peninsula in a few days, he and his buddies had organized a road trip down through Baja California to find all the best breaks and to capture some shots, eventually landing in Cabo in time for the surf contest/music festival. The issue they were facing was whether to bring one car or two, having exactly five people currently going on the trip. Milano explained to Pete that having two cars was better if they were to encounter some trouble along the way; be it flood-waters, washed away roads, corrupt Policia or Federali's, or just some other unsavory characters and potential happenings. One car would always be able to assist the other in getting out of a jam, and it also inflated the group to a perceived size that not many would want to mess with. But, obviously, it doubled fuel costs, and 4WD's are not exactly economical when it comes to guzzling gas. All Pete needed to do was ask if there were a couple of seats available and offer to help with the fuel, and Milano's mind was made up. We were now a part of the the Baja surfari convoy. The red carpet had rolled out again.

While the boys hadn't taken the journey before either, Milano's father had several years earlier, and had given Milano a book that would be our bible for the next week or so - “The Surfer's Guide to Baja”. It contained sets of directions that were less oriented around street names as they were landmarks and checkpoints, so getting to the spots was more like orienteering than it was actual navigation. On the first night, while driving a corrugated dirt sliver between two barbed wire fences, Pete and I had to take a moment and laugh at how naïve it would have been for he and I to hire a car and go about finding these places on our own. Once you get off the main central highway and start heading coastal you face nothing but raw unmaintained dirt roads that split off into fork after fork after fork until you eventually go insane with the stress of decision making.

For the first day or so, Pete and I were content to play our role as tag-alongs. We had both subliminally acknowledged that this was not our trip to hijack, and as we were both the elders of the group (they were all ranging from 20 to 22, with Milano's 26 year old cousin, Shane, being the outlier) it would be pretty easy to kill the buzz by playing the experience card at every juncture. So, we sat in the back seat and were happy to be nothing but passengers for a while, sipping on a few beers and playing the “getting to know you” game with the rest of the crew. After a couple of days of mostly desert driving, we set up camp at a nice little right-hander that Milano's old man had surfed 30 years earlier, and had told stories of the drainpipe barrels that would fire just in front of the rocks. It wasn't quite working while we were there as it was only about 2-3ft and didn't have enough sand to break a safe distance from the point, but we still surfed it anyway. I got a little too cocky and ploughed into an exposed rock, doing some significant damage to my 6'6, damage that needed to be fixed before I could use it again. Its fair to say that board is not new anymore.

With Cyclone Blanca fast approaching the Mexican border and with Milano getting a constant stream of weather updates from his old man, the mood of the camp was interesting, a cross between excitement and straight up apprehension. Reports were coming in that the Cyclone would be a Category 2 or 3, and pictures were being passed around of the swell that was making its way through Cabo, guys standing completely upright in double overhead barrels. Even though the prospect of surfing such waves was enough to make us jittery, a bigger concern was that we weren't going to be able to make it through in time. The previous year, Baja had been hit with a devastating cyclone that it still hadn't really recovered from, and if this were to be a repeat there was no guarantee that the roads would be accessible, with flash flooding being a real danger in Mexico's arid desert environment. When we were driving through the desert the first few days, past the hundreds of types of cacti that are something out of a Dr Seuss book and past the rubble-like rocks that look like they were once part of a single enormous boulder dropped from a great height, I had noticed these vast canyons that would have been created by the periods of excessive downpour, the far-reaching memory of the landscape. I had also noticed that there were points in the highway that we descended down the hills and crossed the dusty riverbeds at the based of the canyons. If the weather was as cruel as it could be, there was a significant chance we would be stranded on the North side of the peninsula without a way to get down.

We camped at the break for two days, keeping an eye on the weather coming in from the South. On the third day we were woken early in the morning by the howling wind that was the precursor to the storm. We packed our things as quickly as possible and high-tailed it to the nearest main town, Santa Rosalia, were we could park ourselves in and attempt to ride it out. By the time we arrived the rain had set in and the town was in lock down mode, its residents and its businesses knowing exactly what mother nature was capable of having seen her at her devastating worst the year before. Since we had skipped breakfast that morning we were all starving, and after checking-in to a motel we were forced to drive around for upwards of an hour looking for a sign of life. We found it in a fried chicken place, and it was us and a few select locals chowing down on delicious “Pollo Frito” while the rain pelted the windows and the streets outside became ankle deep rivers of brown. As it turned out, the storm was nowhere near as severe as we were expecting, and much of the ill after effects could only really be attributed to inadequate infrastructure. The motel that we had checked-in to earlier had flooded, and the main thoroughfare to our room had become one long stagnant stretch of rainwater and sewage. I had a cut on my foot that required extra special care for the following two days.

Now having spent a bit of time together, Pete and I were a bit more comfortable with voicing our opinions, no longer feeling that we may be unduly influencing the outcome of their trip. It was a funny little dynamic, though, as often it felt as though we were solely there for research purposes, bearing witness to the early-twenties decision making process and making observations as to the baffling way the early-twenties mind works. It is an enigma at times, rooted in naïve, irrational assumptions about the world and spawning mutated ideas that can only be related to by other enigmas.

“We should totally just ditch the main road to Cabo and go down the coast. There is bound to be so many surf spots through there!”

“Is there even a way to get to Cabo through there?”

“There has to be!”

“OK! Let's do it then!”

“There has to be.” Infallible logic. Rather than attack an idea directly, I found it more effective to be tactful, to provide subtle inputs that would sway the group to a sensible conclusion, nuturing ideas to safety like scooping bees out of a pool. And even then, sometimes I found it easier to just put the headphones on and accept that whatever the kids ended up deciding, it was bound to be an adventure.

Scorpion Bay was our next legitimate stop, home of the longest right-hand wave on the Baja coast. But, of course, there were several illegitimate stops to be made on the journey there. True to the form of Californian surfer dudes, weed needed to be smoked every couple of hours, or else the terrifying grips of reality would begin to curtail the blissful placidity of select individuals within the group.

“Yo, we should totally drive up there and smoke that spliff man. You can see everything from up there, that shit will be the bomb!”

So we would make a quick detour and would be passing around a joint as the indigo and the turquoise and the rich reddish orange finishes of the Mexican sunset reflected off glazed eyes, then we would hop back in the car slightly buzzed and continue on.

Having left the sewer of a motel that morning and skipping breakfast again to get a head start on the route to Scorpion Bay, we were famished as a result, and decided to stop in at some tiny dusty middle-of-nowhere town for a bite of late lunch. We entered a hole-in-the-wall establishment and an elderly lady greeted us with a beaming smile, indicating that we sit and having a conversation with Milano in Spanish. Milano relayed what she recommended, and the group went with the recommendation, everybody about ready to eat their own arm off. The lady disappeared into the back, and Pete and I wandered about a block down the road to buy a couple of 8 packs of beer, just to tire the boys over till food arrived.

An hour and a half later and somebody had to go and check if the little elderly lady hadn't keeled over, which was a merited concern. Finally our meals arrived, but the fallout of such a long wait was that we hadn't stopped the flow of beer after the first round, and had been through about three rounds of two beers each. With cerveza's having a moderately low ABV it usually wouldn't be too much of an issue, except that everybody had empty stomachs at the time of consumption, and now, with food in front of us, of course a couple more cerveza's were needed to stave off the scorching heat. It was approaching sunset by the time our feast was finished, and, when the sky became purple, it wasn't long before the boys called for a joint break. This break was a bit different though. A lot sillier. We were drunk, but unless we were willing to camp under a bridge for the night and wait for trouble to find us, there was nothing we could really do but keep moving towards our destination.

Shane took over the driver's position after Milano's third near head-on, this time with a semi-trailer. I knew Milano was in trouble when he was rubbing the windscreen with a towel and repeatedly asking if Shane could clean it for him, Shane's only response being - “It looks crystal clear to me man, I don't think it's the windshield”. Pete and I gave each other a few querying looks and double checked that our belts were done up properly. Light was rapidly fading, and with the road to Scorpion Bay being another one of those arbitrary dirt trails that just as much could be a driveway, orienteering the way was becoming a progressively more difficult feat, not to mention that our navman had the Purple Haze to contend with.

Pretty soon, it was dark. Pitch black. Finding the road was like looking for a needle in a haystack, which, in a brief moment of clarity, Milano found.

“There it is, we just passed it!”

“Really? Are you sure?”

“Yep, that's the one. I know it. Turn around.”

“OK, turning...”

We veer off to the side of the road and BANG!!!

“What the fuck was that?”

I knew what it was, from my seat on the back passengers side I had seen a gush of compressed air shoot out of the wheel, like immediately evaporating water. I knew we were fucked.

We all pulled over and examined the hazardous steel stake that was the culprit, and with everybody slightly inebriated and unable to grasp the full might of their intellect, much to the relief of myself and the rest of the group, Pete played the experience card and fell into the role of the trip's mechanic.

And that about gets you up to speed with the opening paragraph.

The tyre now changed and midnight clocking over, we looped around, and without many other options, took the dirt track that Milano had pointed out, knowing that a group of Gringo's sleeping on the side of a Mexican highway in the middle of the night with a roof full of surfboards was just asking for drama. After about 40 minutes or so of driving into the desert's blackness, with the lights of the highway gradually setting over the horizon behind us, we pulled over, and the other car came into alignment with ours. The windows wound down.

“Dude, where are we?”

“I don't know, but I think we are on Private Property here.”

“Should we keep going?”

At this point I decided I was going to switch off my headphones, break my image of idle indifference and pipe up.

“Fuck it, we can't even see where we are going! All we are going to do is waste fuel driving around in circles if we keep going in this light. Its nearly 2AM, let's just set up camp have a sleep, and get moving when it gets light. We'll reach Scorpion Bay for a glassy morning session and things will be great.”

This seemed to be enough to convince everyone to sleep on a stranger's property in the hot, hot desert, and in as much time as it takes a group of drunk people to set up tents in the dark, silence had invaded the camp.

At first light we began disassembling our tents with a muted acknowledgment of the horrible sleep we all just had, and then we were back on the dusty trail, this time with our bearings somewhat gathered. We drove on what was some of the most unstable, jagged and jarring road that I have ever been on in a vehicle (mind you, with only one spare tyre between us) for a solid 3 hours, before reaching a nice smooth paved road that looked like it could be the way to Scorpion Bay. Another hour on the smooth road and, whether it was the salt in the air, the rolling dunes, or the subtle change in flora, we all began to sense we were close. Then, just as the excitement of the group was reaching its crescendo, we turned a corner and stopped. There was a big blank gap where the road used to be, replaced with a rapidly flowing river. A dead end. The road had been washed away in the storm. Utter heartbreak.

There were a few other cars parked alongside the road and their owners were standing with hands on hips and furrowed brows, cogs turning in their heads. It didn't take a genius to guess that these were probably locals who lived on the other side of the river.

We all climbed out of the cars and silently sidled up next to them.

“Dude, I reckon we just go for it. Like, seriously, what's the worst that could happen?”

“The car doesn't make it, it gets washed downstream with all our stuff in it, and the driver doesn't get out in time and drowns.”

A bit more silence.

“I am going to check how deep it is.”

If the locals were not gambling the crossing to reach their homes and their families, there was no way we were going to gamble it for what was potentially 2ft onshore slop. I am a goofy footer, I don't even like rights! Pete, Shane and I all wandered back to the car, already resigned to the fact that we weren't going to be reaching Scorpion Bay that day. A few of the boys waded around in the knee deep rapids for a while, stumbling and slipping over the gnarled spikes of steel reinforcing and the chunks of bitumen and gravel that used to pave the way to Scorpion Bay, before reaching the same conclusion.

We were in the car and on our way back to the main road. Only, it wasn't that simple. It is NEVER that simple. We were now running desperately low on fuel, and because we had done so much of the desert journey in the dark the previous night, the route to get back was completely foreign to us. Somehow, in defiance of all physical laws, we kept finding ourselves at the same three pronged intersection over and over and over again. Just when we thought we had uncovered an uncharted part of the map, suddenly we would be back at the intersection, staring a three equally unfavorable options while some sadistic cosmic intelligence laughed its arse off at us. It was like a Kafkaesque nightmare, a desert-based purgatory that we had fumbled our way into. As the sun began to burn down on us from the West and the shadows grew slightly longer, it wasn't looking good for our heroes. The expression on everyone's faces went from mere frustration to genuine concern as the prospect of spending another night lost in the desert loomed larger and larger.

Then, just like that, we were out.

The relief was obvious. We were tooting and hollering and banging the roof and driving side-by-side, billowing brown desert dust out behind us as we peppered ourselves away from Scorpion Bay and back into civilization. We fucking did it! Pete made a joke about how it was such a typical American thing to do to, getting caught up in a catastrophe in the middle of the desert and then somehow finding a reason to celebrate it.

Even the Americans had to laugh at that one.

Against all odds and against the universe itself, we made it to Cabo alive and well, and with Cabo being the hectic party town that it is, left a little bit less so on both counts. I have to admit that with all we had been through on the trip we had become a pretty tightly knit unit, and partying with the group was an absolute riot. The American's were in their element in the Cabo clubs, and even though they weren't really the scene for Pete and I and we could only stand them in small doses, hanging out with them was like hanging out with kids around Christmas. Their enthusiasm for it all was infectious. We stayed a total of four nights in Cabo, two in Cabo San Lucas and two in San Jose Del Cabo, before it was time to hit the road again.

But not without one last adventure.

Just before the group was set to split up, with Milano, Shane, Pete and myself heading up to La Paz (where Pete and I would be catching the ferry to the mainland), we decided that, on account of having minimal surf time during the trip down Baja, we would do one final camp out at a place called “Shipwrecks”. The plan was to arrive there in the afternoon, get set up, maybe go for a cheeky afternoon surf, and then sleep the night and get first dibs on the glassy waves in the morning. As was the theme of the trip, we found ourselves bouncing down a dust-covered road in the darkness, looking to eventually set up camp at about ten or eleven at night. We drove up onto the beach at Shipwrecks, had a look around at the driftwood and seaweed that would mark high tide, and while the others dicked about with hammocks and the position of their cars, Pete and I had set up and were asleep.

“Pete, Benno, you guys awake? Wake up!”

It was 3AM. Milano was banging on our tent. I sat up conscious but not yet awake, the marbles in my head rolling around to find their appropriate sockets, before I finally regained use the functions that allowed me to respond.

“Yeah, what is it, are you OK?”

“Yeah. The cops just rolled up and told us that there are some meth-heads loose in the area, stealing shit and causing trouble. They caught one of them, he was in the back of their car, but there are still two out there. The cops said that if we come across them we shouldn't be afraid to kill them, so if you hear any noise going on out here make sure you come out with a weapon or something...”

Now, the pre-twenty-five year old brain and the post-twenty-five year old brain have a completely different response when they hear a snippet of information such as this. The pre-twenty-five year old brain obviously thinks the most appropriate course of action is to resume your sleep, but to brandish a weapon, like you were some sort of bounty hunter in an early 1900's Western. The post-twenty-five year old brain thinks that if a death were to occur during the night, regardless of who it was, that would make the night less than a success, and should probably be avoided if at all possible.

Pete and Shane had begun to pack up the stuff while I argued about what we were going to do.

“Let's just pack up, drive out of the area we are in, and then we can drive back here in the daylight. If the cops are telling us to kill them without thinking much of it, then they are probably the kind of people who would do the same to us.”

“Dude, there are seven of us. There are two of them. We can take them. Let's do this.”

“Yes, there are seven of us, but only one of us needs to die in order for our trip to be ruined. With seven of us, the odds of that happening are in their favor.”

“They are unarmed dude. What is an unarmed meth-head gonna do?”

“They aren't unarmed mate, they just don't have guns.”

“Still, they are gonna look at us and think...'shit, there is a fuck-load of guys over there, maybe I shouldn't fuck with them'.”

“Or they are gonna look at us and think....'hmmm, meth'...because that's all a meth-head cares about! These are not regular, sane, logical people!”

After about twenty minutes I gave up. That backwards pre-twenty-five year old way of thinking was stoking imaginations, stripping all sense of consequence, glossing over the thoughts of an unnecessary death with the idea of being Mexico's Gringo vigilante heroes. By then most of Pete and I's stuff had been loaded into the car. We weren't going anywhere, but sleeping in the car felt safer than sleeping with a millimeter of nylon separating us from the compromised surrounding environment.

As we hopped into the back seats and prepared for another atrocious night's sleep, the boys could be heard rummaging around in the boot of the other car, and through the window we saw one of them reach his arm in deep and extract a long steel spear-gun. Pete, who had already assumed the position, lifted one eyelid, and said “if any of us are going to die tonight, its going to be at the hands of that fucking thing.”

I am going to get the disappointment out of the way and tell you that nobody died that night. But it got pretty hairy for a moment there, literally the tensing of a finger away.

I hadn't been able to get to sleep. In fact, I think I was more awake than I usually am at stages during the daytime, and sitting upright in a sweltering car with two other men contributing to the aggregate heat level was just not doing it for me. But, as my bladder was full, I thought that it might be contributing to the problem, so I ever-so-gently opened the car door as not to wake the other two, who were probably awake anyway. I slithered myself out, tapped the door closed, and made my way around the back of the car, when suddenly a figure in the dark sprung to its feet in front of me with impressive speed.

“Ugh...ugh ugh ugh...”

No words, just indecipherable aggressive grunts. My pupils dilated just enough to see that I had a fully loaded and cocked spear-gun pointed at my chest, and that the figure had one hand on the barrel and their other elbow high up in the air, ready to fire if necessary.

“It's me! It's me! Take it easy, for fuck's sake, it's me!”

The gun lowered and the tension left the figure's body, allowing me to recognize it for who it was.

“Shit dude, you scared the shit outta me!”

“What the fuck is going on?”

“It's my shift bro. We decided we should take shifts.”

The figure went and sat back down against the wheel of the car, still noticeably wired from the adrenaline, and I trudged off into the night, patting the front of my pants, unsure if I still needed to piss or not.

Under the spooky glow of the moonlight I went about my business, all the while softly laughing to myself about how mental the entire situation was and how stupid we all would have looked if the trigger had have been pulled. I had visions of people back home waking up and flipping through the morning paper to read about the tragic death of an Australian in Mexico at the hands of Mexico's most dangerous threat of all...Americans. It would be something I would read and just think “natural selection hard at work”, and I had a brief internal debate about whether the hypothetical article would have justified Darwin's theories or contradicted them, finding that even with a significant amount of bias, I couldn't really conclusively say it was one way or the other. When I returned to the car I decided that I was going to get the air mattress out of the trunk and sleep outside, if only to avoid a repeat incident. With only a couple hours left before the sun came up, a quality night's sleep had become worth dying for.

Morning rolled around and the others all went and got wet while I caught up on some desperately needed sleep. I had a niggle in my throat that was an indication I might be getting sick, and I had decided to listen to my body and allow it time to rest and recuperate, rather than ignore it like I had been for the past five or six days. Satisfied with the surf, they returned to shore and we all packed up at a leisurely pace, before it was time to say an emotional goodbye to the boys we were leaving behind.

I couldn't express my gratitude deeply enough, and telling them that it was something that we would remember for the rest of our lives carried with it too much cliché to do justice to how I was feeling about it. They had all really grown on me, and even though the trip had been fraught with moments of adversity and conflict, it was as the saying goes...the hotter the fire that forges the sword, the stronger the bonds of the blade.

Despite all the chaos and the calamity and the complete hands-in-the-air illogicality that came out of traveling with the kids, Pete and I had to acknowledge that if it wasn't for their exact simple unworried philosophy, it is highly possible that we wouldn't have been accepted as part of their convoy, and you wouldn't be reading about any sort of adventure. I guess, sometimes, there is an argument for stepping a foot or two over the boundary between sensibility and stupidity when traveling. If Pete and I hadn't have crossed it, instead you may have been reading about how bored we were for 30 plus hours, gazing out the window of an air-conditioned bus, nestled snug and safe within our comfort zones, forever wondering what was at the end of those dry and dusty coastal-bound trails that stretch out and out and disappear into the orange abyss.