We were fifteen when Smitty’s dad took us on our first Baja trip. For weeks leading up to it, Smitty, Joey, and I jabbered about what to expect. None of us had a clue. As the trip approached, our initial mumblings morphed into brazen predictions about perfect empty waves and adoring packs of senoritas flush with beachside backrubs. We were from the suburbs.
There wasn’t much excitement.
We crossed the border itching to surf. But Smitty’s dad had his own agenda. He detoured to an orphanage outside Tijuana.
“Be grateful for what you have,” he told us as he shoved boxes full of clothes and toys into our hands. “Because some people have nothing.”
All morning we schlepped boxes up flights of stairs. We grumbled the whole time. It’s not that we didn’t want to help the orphans. We just figured they could wait a few days for their stuff. Tide, wind, and swell couldn’t.
It was a physics thing.
At dusk, we finally reached our campsite. We stood on the bluff watching waves break into a giant bay. The swell looked pretty solid. A surf would cleanse our desert grime, ease our travel funk. But with darkness near, it was too late to paddle out.
We cursed the orphans and ridiculed Smitty’s dad behind his back.
We ate dinner at a shabby restaurant in a nearby fishing village. Smitty’s dad warned us off the carne asada and suggested fish tacos instead, but we wanted carne. Mostly we wanted to defy Smitty’s dad.
Bad call. Within two hours we were all throwing up outside our tent. Except Smitty’s dad.
He’d eaten the fish tacos.
When we woke the next morning, the swell had dropped. Still surfable, but not the perfection we’d expected. Didn’t look much different than the crap we surfed back home. But the waves were empty and the place felt exotic and we fancied ourselves surf explorers.
As we scrambled for our wetsuits, Smitty’s dad told us to hold off. It was Sunday and he wanted to talk a little God.
See, Smitty’s dad used to run with a wild crew back in the day. Rumor was he’d logged a bit of hoosegow time and found religion in a big way. None of us begrudged his beliefs but we came to surf. We glanced impatiently over his shoulder at the empty waves while the sermon dragged on.
And it dragged. I don’t remember what he said but I do remember one thing: he kept holding up a pen in one hand, dropping it, and catching it with the other hand. Each time he did this, he locked eyes with one of us. Full-on death stare. Then he turned to the next guy and repeated the process. This went on for awhile. Seriously. It felt a little creepy. I didn’t get the point at all. Something about gravity?
To this day I have no idea what the hell he was talking about.
When he finally finished and allowed us to surf, the wind had started stirring. And worse, a pack of surfers arrived and paddled into the bay. Our bay. We’d gotten there first. We moaned and griped, but Smitty’s dad chastised us.
“Look around you,” he said, gesturing to the desert and ocean. “Enjoy what you have in this moment. Because it won’t last.”
It didn’t stop the griping. We were pissed at Smitty’s dad.
We finally got in the water, but the crowd and wind killed the fun. I watched Smitty’s dad grab his board and scramble down the bluff. Supposedly he ruled his local beach back in his youth. Some kind of C-list pro surfer. He went on to run a small empire of fast food restaurants, had done well for himself, was living the suburban dream.
As I watched him paddle out, I felt this weird anticipation. Maybe it was hope. I wanted to see Smitty’s dad kick ass in the ocean like he used to. Somehow I needed it. Needed to believe in the world ahead.
But he never even made it out: within seconds of paddling, he got sucked into the rocks, lost his board, and ended up on the beach.
I didn’t know what to make of Smitty’s dad.
A few minutes later he waved us in. Turned out he’d broken his leg on the rocks. We had to drag him up the bluff, stuff him in the car, and head straight home. Smitty drove the whole way back. Pretty cool for him, but the trip was ruined. So much for perfect waves and back-rubbing senoritas.
But Smitty’s dad was philosophical through the pain.
“It’s part of the experience,” he grimaced. “You’ll appreciate the next trip even more because of this.”
By this point none of us were listening to a word he said.
Now, thirty years on, Smitty’s dad was dead. Cancer, I think. He died a few weeks before I took my son and his friends on their first Baja trip. I tried to teach them about the culture and wildlife but they just stared at me blankly.
The waves at the bay had been ruined by a marina, complete devastation. We surfed a different stretch of coast. Not nearly as scenic. I caught the first five waves of the trip—paddled circles around the boys, just schooled them—but on the sixth I floundered like a kook and blew out my knee.
I sat on the bluff drinking beer and watching them surf. The waves were good. The boys had it all to themselves. When they came in, I overheard them ridiculing me behind my back.
I still don’t know what to make of Smitty’s dad.