It is a long drive from Lake Tahoe to the southern tip of Baja, but the cost of gas and the time it takes are minor details when it comes to realizing a vision. There is a world to see, damn-it, and nothing is going to get in the way! Well, maybe except for a few wild horses, 18-year olds wielding machine guns at intermittent check points, and a spitter, sputtering VW van that would have looked better at a Grateful Dead concert, as opposed to whining down desert roads in the middle of nowhere.
And that’s just for starters.
The trip started off rather well, actually. Not a care in the world as we made our way south past countless uncrowded surf spots and rugged landscape cut only by the occasional dirt road, cacti forest, and ancient lava path. There are so many odd sights that oscillate between the unholy edge of the forgotten universe and the final frontier. Dilapidated structures, skeletons of expired cars, and people nonchalantly pushing refuse from open car doors is juxtaposed to the life of the sea, the escape of the open desert, and the fervent land that marks the southern end of the Sierra Nevada range.
Once we cut across the peninsula we slept in palapas, snorkeled from sea kayaks, and ate fresh seafood. All the while the Sea of Cortez shimmered bright blue against the backdrop of Jesuit palms and volcanic isles. It was satiating and well worth the many miles of driving. It was not until we turned to go home that things went awry.
Who Needs Money?
The first hint of disaster started with an invitation to go out in the boat with a stranger. He was fine, really, a good man, and we had fun water skiing and cruising about. But we left many of our possessions locked in the van while out on the water. Upon return, we discovered that our cash and valuables were gone, unwillingly donated to the local population. Packing our remaining belongings was bittersweet, but we shrugged it off and shelved it as a lesson learned.
Baja Beach Diet
The trip back was uneventful until minor grumbles turned to a painful roar. We were sick. Was it the fruit in the fish tacos, the ice in the margaritas? Either way, it was time to sequester ourselves in a hotel equipped with proper facilities until we weathered the storm. The next morning we were weak, but we climbed into the van once more. Moods lightened as we moved north and came closer and closer to the border. Then something strange happened.
A white Ford Explorer with California plates purposely moved past us and positioned itself directly in front of us. Next, a Honda pushed up and paired itself right alongside the other car. Then they began to slow. We respectfully moved into the left lane and tried to pass but neither car budged. After a while traffic built up, and the Honda innocently allowed the other cars to go on. We attempted to join them, but they quickly resumed their previous position and blocked us from passing.
It went on like this for some time until we eventually came across an exit and took it. We waited for a few minutes and then made our way back on the road. There they were waiting for us. They menacingly moved back into their positions in front. Frustration turned to fear.
Not long after we came to a toll. Fortunately, our line progressed faster, and we sped out in front of the two other cars. Despite our advance, the VW engine was no match, and the Ford and Honda quickly caught up to us to continue their harassment.
Finally, we slowed down to 20 in a 60mph zone and held fast. The two cars kept motioning us to come forward, wielding what looked like a flare or gun, but we stayed firm. Eventually they grew tired of our lack of engagement and sped off towards Tijuana, the city marking the border we were now craving with renewed intensity.
The Dividing Line
At the border the traffic often stacks up in long lines as officials check for illegal items and individuals. For whatever reason our line crept forward faster than the others. As if it had been scripted, our would-be assailants quickly came in to view in the adjoining line.
We told each other not to look over. Don’t engage them, we reasoned, and they will surely do the same. After all, there are border officials and countless people around. But it was not long after we passed them that trouble presented itself at the driver-side window.
I looked over and young girl was wrapping on the window saying, “you almost killed my friend…you almost killed my friend!” The window was roughly a third of the way down, so I purposefully rolled it up and tried to ignore her. Moments later a large figure filled the pane and began beating the glass with a stick and shouting in Spanish. He was joined by a smaller accomplice, and together they were an ominous threat. I motioned that I had no idea what they were saying.
The brutish fellow opted to hand the stick to his counterpart, and he reached back and effortlessly pushed his fist through the window. Shards of glass went everywhere. All I could think of was to get myself out of the seat belt. The problem, however, was that the latch was in the shadow of the fist-wielding man crusher and his stick-swinging sidekick. The girls were tugging upon me and screaming.
As soon as it had started it was over. I was bleeding from various places due to the glass, as well as a sharp gash from the stick. That was about it though, and I felt fortunate it had not been worse. Police soon arrived, but the perpetrators had pushed their way out of traffic and sped away into the concealing streets of Tijuana. Filing a police report felt like the most futile thing I have ever done in my life.
We shook ourselves off, moved back into line, and made our way back into the States. I was sitting in the rear of the van collecting myself, running through scenes from Reservoir Dogs, when suddenly a loud pop shocked our already frayed nerves.
As the two assailants made their escape, one of them left a parting gift consisting of a small hole in the long horizontal window in the rear of the van. Caught up in the shock of random violence, we had not noticed the damage. When we got up to speed the inward wind pressure completed the job, and showered glass throughout the interior of the vehicle.
Baja Builds Character?
We earned our Baja badges: cardboard duct-taped to where the windows once were, a wild look in our eyes, and a very strong desire to get back home. Despite everything that happened, I am extremely happy it was not worse. Thoughts of the van’s engine bursting into flames, being caught by treacherous characters at an impromptu camp spot, or worse have all occupied my mind at one time or another. Something tells me that two girls in a VW van will not be the means in which I return to this unforgiving land.