Weaving Romance with Reality on the Road to Baja

There are many ways to identify the one of the thousands of occupied camper vans stealthily squatting in parking lots across America. Most camper vans, not built for the clandestine life, are easily exposed by a roof vent spewing steam from a stove or the tell-tale plaid curtains draped across the front dash. However, some vans, like the low-profile camperized work van which faithfully drove Claire and I 5000 kilometres round trip from Canada to Mexico, can provide a home on the road that will fly under almost any radar. However, on this particular day, in a Starbucks parking lot some 30 miles south of Portland, Oregon, the dense steam from our boiling pasta collided with the exterior sub-zero temperatures resulting in a thick layer of condensation on our wind-shield, a dead giveaway that we were quietly hunkering down in the van for the long haul.

Claire and I were two days into our so-called California Surf Safari, and it would be another five days before we even dipped a toe in the Pacific Ocean. A sudden storm had enshrouded us in a winter wonderland, pummelling the highways of Oregon and Northern California with alternating layers of snow and freezing rain and reducing visibility to a few feet. Shortly after leaving Portland early one morning, we made the decision to pull off the highway as soon as the snow began to accumulate. Covered in blankets and shivering in the van, we cooked a late breakfast, followed by a hearty lunch, while we stewed over how to proceed through the snow. By nightfall the flurries had subsided and my impatience had gotten the better of me. After spending thirty minutes in a nearby Walmart, trying to select the correct size snow chains, we skidded back onto the highway and began the slow crawl southbound on the unlit highway, dotted with smashed cars rolled in the ditch and draped in caution tape.

The rhythms of nature and adventure writers Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, along with an unhealthy dose of Instagram influence, helped me paint an excessively romantic picture of what our road trip would look like.

The journey of driving down the pacific coast had pervaded my daydreams since I was a young teenager. When Claire and I bought our camper van eight months prior to leaving, my daydreams finally took the shape of concrete plans. The rhythms of nature and adventure writers Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, along with an unhealthy dose of Instagram influence, helped me paint an excessively romantic picture of what our road trip would look like. Reading Christian Beamish’s Voyage of the Cormorant, a short memoir of his solo surf explorations in his homemade 18-foot open boat, helped me realize that I had to tether the romantic road trip of my dreams to something more realistic. I tried hard to account for the misfortunes and harsh realities that inevitably sneak their way into any road trip. But as we packed up the van and poured over maps, charting where we would surf and camp along the way, I couldn’t help but imagine our trip as a long string of consecutive peak experiences achieved while surfing the world’s most shapely waves and living a quiet, distraction-free life.

By the time we pulled on our wetsuits for the first time on the whole trip, I was already relating back to Beamish’s surfing memoir and realizing that some of the bitter misfortunes which plagued his voyage were beginning to show their ugly heads in ours. When the relentless blankets of snow finally transformed into ceaseless sheets of rain, Claire and I traded waves on a small windy day at Pacifica, just outside of San Francisco. It was the first time that either of us had surfed waves other than Vancouver Island’s characteristically mushy cheese-wedge waves. With twice the power and four times the crowd, each set brought uneasiness and a steep learning curve which persisted throughout the trip. Usually I try hard to keep a good mental record of my best waves from any given session, giving me something to cherish on days when the ocean is flat or I’m back sitting at a desk. However, from that rainy day at Pacifica, I don’t remember any single wave in particular, only the sweeping feeling of relief after finally getting our feet wet and finding harmony with the local crowd.

The surfing subculture has always held the quintessential road trip close to heart as a journey representing the divorce from routine and the freedom to roam the coast, to be there when the waves are breaking. Rather than roaming for waves, the first week of our surf safari was spent scavenging for a locale without rain or snow, hoping for a brilliant sun around each sharp turn in the road. We overlooked the classic California surf towns that we had planned on visiting, driving by in the soaking-wet fast lane, not even stopping to check the surf or the local scene. We drove well into the second week of the trip, when even Orange County failed to deliver on dry weather. Far from feeling liberated and fulfilled, breaking free from the routine was taking us to an unexpected place where we struggled to appreciate how far we had come and the exciting places that lay ahead.

In Encinitas, for the first time on the trip, we finally looked up to find sunbaked shores. Instead of waking up and driving to a new place every morning, we settled into a routine revolving around tacos, coffee, and waves. We surfed before the sun was up most mornings and stayed in the water until the onshore winds started around noon. The afternoons and evenings we spent walking around looking for different coffee shops and taquerias where we would read, write, and reflect. We camped at the same spot for several nights, and forgot about the usual fatiguing decisions enforced by the perpetual change of the open road. We learned the winds and watched for the pattern in the tides. After a week in Encinitas, the shop owners and even a few friendly faces in the waves began to recognize us. Finally feeling comfortable, I began to question our original motivation for seeking the uncertainty of the open road. Although I wouldn’t admit it at the time, I wanted to remain in Encinitas—or some place like it—where we began to feel the farthest reaching tentacles of something we loosely called community.

Against our better judgement, we left our newfound sense of community behind and headed south of the border. Much like the quintessential road trip, the desolate shores of Baja California hold an alluring title in the annals of surfing, and we couldn’t fathom driving all the way to San Diego from Vancouver Island without seeing the Baja shores for ourselves. Two hours south of the border, the ocean was stormy and showed no signs of the clean, rideable swells I was hoping for, so we settled for roaming the bustling streets of Ensenada. We trudged through the swaths of cruise-ship tourists and the heckling vendors catering to them, through deep puddles and over tall, crumbling sidewalks.

Far outside of my comfort zone, at an unknown taco stand in a country where I did not speak the language, I found a few unexpected minutes of tranquility which made all of the driving worth while.

We followed our noses to the busiest tortilleria—or tortilla bakery—in town and bought a kilogram of oven-fresh tortillas for the equivalent of 75 cents. On the next street over, we found a shabby taco stand on a corner where a young man carved tacos al pastor from the spit and a stately woman with a dark face, leathery from the test of time, combined fried fish and fresh cabbage in warm, soft tortillas. From two street-side bar stools I stumbled through broken Spanish and managed to order two servings of fish tacos, which we promptly devoured and doubled down. The streets at our backs were cool and dust-free from the rain, the air fresh and moist but not too humid. Far outside of my comfort zone, at an unknown taco stand in a country where I did not speak the language, I found a few unexpected minutes of tranquility which made all of the driving worth while. A peak experience emerged from the forest of toil and tedium of the weeks of travel that had bought us here.

We ventured further south and toward the ocean with no illusions about finding the ideal wave. I simply wanted to experience a place which, outside of the circles of surfers who have fetishized it for it’s wave potential, seemed to have been largely forgotten. After braving deserted roads for which the van was certainly ill-equipped, we caught a glimpse of a raging, silver sea at the base of desert slopes and crumbling paths, green and moist from the winter rains. We gave up on the idea of surfing and embraced the quiet and the solitude. When darkness fell, from our campsite on a rise in the land, I poked my head out the van doors and stood up on the back step to get a view of the wide open landscape. The darkness of the overcast, moonless night was broken only by a few porch lanterns hanging on the ranch homes inland. If it weren’t for the waves crashing on the shore, I wouldn’t have known in which direction the ocean churned. I opened my eyes wide and urged my pupils to adjust, to allow more light in, but I couldn’t parse a single shape in the black abyss before me. I tried to savour the feeling of solitude and tranquility, but I felt only a deep longing to be back among a tribe, to feel safety in numbers. It was here, at the furthest point from home that we would ever reach on our trip, that I first felt the need to turn it all around and find my own tribe, to build my own community, in a place I could permanently call my home.