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Shangri-la. Or in Spanish, "La Shangri."

Shangri-la. Or in Spanish, “La Shangri.”


The Inertia

“How fast do you think we were going?” Brendan asked me over his shoulder, giving a final shake. A puddle of piss soaked into the dirt beneath his feet, a hard blue sky above him. It was a blue with depth; looking up at it was like looking down at the ocean from the airplane I had been on an hour before. Now we stood on a lonely stretch of road somewhere in Baja, his GSXR 1000 perched on its kickstand beside us. Cactuses sprung from the dusty earth, all manner of plastic detritus clinging to their swollen arms, blown there by the unrelenting afternoon winds coursing through the desert. The whole earth seemed dusty orange, banging off the stark blue of the Mexican sky.

“Not sure,” I answered through my borrowed helmet, wiping the sweat from my forehead. “110?” Brendan laughed, zipping up his dusty pants. “No, man. 185.” Brendan has driven his motorcycle from Vancouver Island up to the Arctic Circle, then all the way south to where we stood now. He is very good to drink beer and talk story with, because he has thousands of them. He started the motorcycle again and I climbed on behind him, clinging to his jacket, wishing I could wrap my arms around his waist without offending both of our senses of masculinity. “You know what this is called?” he laughed back at me. “Mexican homobiling!” Then, with a slight twist of his wrist, we tore off down the road again, Mexico flying by on either side. It is beautiful countryside, I’m sure, if one is going slow enough to see it.

From the Arctic Circle to pissing in the Mexican dirt, Brendan has driven this motorcycle much farther than he probably should have.

From the Arctic Circle to pissing in the Mexican dirt, Brendan has driven this motorcycle much farther than he probably should have.

It was my first time this far south in Baja. In the months prior to my arrival, the friends I was meeting had stopped at my place in North County LA (Malibu, if I’m feeling pretentious), an almost-overloaded camper sagging the rear springs on their vehicle. They had south glittering in their eyes, a beautiful Redbone Coonhound named Otis at their feet, and a rack full of surfboards. They spent a few weeks there on my porch, playing cards and finishing up some last minute things before the last leg of their journey. Each year, Ryland and Alayne, a couple that work in Northern British Columbia for part of the year, point themselves towards Mexico and a small stretch of beach paradise that fronts a perfect right-hand point break.

When one thinks of the perfect surf destination, this place is surely near the top of the list: backed by a dusty arroyo, a boulder-strewn cliff drops sharply into the sea at the northern end. To the south, a rocky point gives way to a long, curved stretch of sand, littered with tents and old campers, their occupants squatting around fires at night and stretched out in hammocks strung up beneath shades during the heat of the afternoon. In the late mornings, after the offshores back off a bit, a long, playful right fires for what seems like forever. A shorter, barreling left sucks off the rocks near the point every now and then, leaving a tiny escape before closing out. Like many places, the wind generally switches onshore in the afternoons, but by that time, everyone is too surfed out to continue, anyway. Dogs play and fight on the beach, filling their eyes with sand, a rollicking canine party that starts at dawn and goes until the sun hits the scorching point in the sky–then, of course, the dogs lie panting in whatever shade they can find, seemingly mindless of whose camp they’re in.

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Otis does fiestas right.

Otis does fiestas right.

The idea of surf travel is a funny one. It’s still steeped in the optimistic search of yesteryear, created by Bruce Brown along with a few generations of traveling misfits. It’s an idea that’s been absorbed and sold to the highest bidder by surf companies around the world. As The Search is sold in pairs of trunks, bars of wax, and cheap t-shirts, the idea they’re selling is becoming harder and harder to find. The global village is no longer full of far flung places–nearly everything on earth is within a few days’ travel, and crowds inundate even the most secluded surf breaks. But still we search, pushed on by both the hope that we might find ourselves on one of those empty, perfect waves, and by the simple act of looking. It’s not about the destination, as they say, it’s about the journey. Despite Big Surf’s best attempts at selling a lifestyle, there are still those perfect places where your camping neighbors are friendly, the lineup is sparse, and the living is easy… and I found one. I’m not telling where it is. Chances are, if you’ve been there, you’ll know where I’m talking about.

Brendan and I were flying through the desert, passing chugging jalopies and shiny, pearl white Cadillac SUVs with Sinaloa plates when the ocean first came into view. At the crest of a hill that was blocking the view, it reared its glittering head, seeming to rise up more than the hill fell away.  It was through a break in two hills–just a glimpse, but in that half second, I saw one perfect wave, feathering slightly as the same breeze buffeting us blew gently up the face, with more ruler straight lines marching in from the horizon behind it. Then, in a flash, it was gone behind the hill again, and we were motoring over that brown earth, eating up the kilometers while endless parades of cactuses streamed by. That wave, though, stuck in my head for the rest of the trip–an omen of what was to come. If I were a God-fearing man, I’d swear it was providence saying bienvenido. I smiled into Brendan’s back and hung on a little tighter to his pockets, feeling very much like a child. Soon, we pulled off the main road and onto a washboarded track covered in sand that wound its way towards the beach. With the back tire slipping occasionally, we picked our way through reaching branches and around the largest of the potholes. It was getting late in the afternoon, and the sky was going from the hard blue of the desert afternoon to a softer, greyer shade. Otis, Ryland and Alayne’s coonhound, knew the sound of the motorcycle and came flopping out to meet us, his ears moving at odds to his joyful gait, his giant paws so close to tripping his clumsy legs, his dark, drooping eyes looking so sad but belying his happiness to see us. I love Otis very much, even though he relentlessly licks his dick and thinks the most obvious place for his tongue to go next is inside your ear.

Alayne, Otis, Ryland, and fish.

Alayne, Otis, Ryland, and fish.

Ryland and Alayne are very inventive people. Their camp was beautiful. In the six weeks since they left my place, they created what came to be known as The Parachute Camp. Ryland is a smoke jumper in the summers, a goofy-footed fishing nut with a maniacal glint in his eye when the waves get big. He’s solidly built and deceptively flexible, and has a blue-collar working man’s mentality about him that either makes people want to work with him or let him do all the work. Alayne is a geologist with an environmental company, spending her summers hiking through some of the loneliest, most beautiful territory on earth, fishing in streams and sleeping under the stars. She’s got a crescent-shaped scar above her right eye from a rifle scope that carved a slab off her face, and a smile that never seems to go away. They used an outdated army green parachute as shade from the sun. Their camper sat on blocks behind it, while small, raked pathways snaked through the scrub that grew over the sand. A volleyball net was set up to the north, and a solar shower complete with a floor in the sand built from found paving stones. Alayne (with a bit of help from Ryland) worked tirelessly throughout the days before I got there, raking and building walls from stones and sticks, building what was much more than a campsite–it was a home. Two hammocks swung in the breeze, and in the background, that perfect point tripped up endless waves, pushing them gently towards the beach. 

The days passed slowly; waking with the dawn and falling asleep at 9 pm–or Baja midnight, as it’s known. We surfed for hours in the mornings, played cards in the afternoons, then ate fresh fish and laughed into our beers around a fire at night, while Andrew, a perpetually sunburned, mandolin playing Nol’s instructor, played requests in an off key voice that suited the setting better than any professional musician’s. Somewhere in those days that ran together, the waves turned up the volume, cracking onto the cliff in the middle of the night. I awoke to that cracking, staring at a sky absolutely blanketed in stars, a thick carpet of velvet covered in sparkling points of light with a brightness unlike any I’ve ever seen. As the sun rose, it was evident that a real swell had made its way to our little piece of earth: perfect, peeling waves,12-15 feet, ran down the point, moving incredibly fast. Sets poured through, thundering onto the rocks at the edge of the sand, the period hovering somewhere around 18 seconds. It stayed like that for two days, then wound down to a steady chest-to-head high, punchy enough to be exciting, mellow enough to keep the edge off.

Ryland picking a line on a decent-sized day.

Ryland picking a line on a decent-sized day. Photo: Alayne Hamilton

As the days ran towards my end date, I tried not to think about leaving this place. It seems, at least right now, to be another world, one far from real life, and at the same time much more real; much more simple. The business of our daily routines chains us to a weird sense of jittery expectation that if we just work harder, we’ll find that we’re happy. I think, though, that the more complicated things are, the more we try and create happiness, the farther we move away from it. That strange urge to go forth and find things is inherent in most surfers, and as more and more people start surfing, finding what we’re looking for becomes harder and harder. It’s still there, though… and I hope you find it, too. Just don’t tell anyone where it is.



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