June 13, 2007


By Joe Speaker © 2007

Per tradition, we always left Los Angeles at midnight. My friends and I took a yearly trip to San Felipe, Mexico, a once-sleepy fishing village on the eastern shore of Baja California that, toward the end, was blossoming with the trappings of tourism.

The start time was pragmatic. We didn't want to be traversing the Mexican desert in mid-day, especially in our unreliable cars. This way, we'd arrive shortly after dawn, being treated to a spectacular sunrise the last hundred miles or so. There are always trade-offs, though, and our schedule dictated we'd drive through the border town of Mexicali in the dead of night.

We were stopped by the federalis one year. Four gringos with a big bag of weed stashed under a rear speaker. Alone with a snarling puto on a dark and deserted street. Unaccountably, he let us go. Free of charge. That was a long five minutes, though.

Another time, we'd not even gotten out of The Valley before Enza got pulled over. The CHP officer was even less friendly than his Mexican counterpart, but he let her - and us in two other cars - go just the same, as Enza's explanation for her erratic driving was convincing: she'd dropped a muffin on the floor board and was reaching for it, causing her to swerve.

It's about a seven-hour trip, south to San Diego, east through the Cleveland National Forest and south again into the desert heart of desolate Baja. Nothing but burned out cars and lizards between Mexicali and San Felipe. In fact, the road literally ends at the village's downtown, a square block of bars and taco stands.

Not surprisingly, owing to the large college-aged clientele that converges most spring weekends, the beer stores are open early. That's the first stop and major calculations are done. Will a case apiece be enough for today? How long do you think the ice will hold? A case, only 20 beers, not 24, runs about ten bucks, three of which you get back if you return the bottles, a crucial injection of funds at the end of the weekend. It was a cheap weekend, perfect for our unimpressive wallets.

Stocked, we'd head to the campground, which abuts the beach, as does the entire city. The cost is $25 per vehicle. For the whole weekend. We never pay anyway. The "gate" is nothing but a rope that is pulled taut when the guardhouse is occupied. At that early hour, it never was. More pragmatic strategy. The only problem was getting out on Sunday.

We'd pitch our tents directly on the sand and the early arrival gives us a pick of the litter. It was already hot at that hour, not even a whiff of a breeze, and once camp is set up, we'd settle into our chairs for breakfast: oranges, beef jerky and beer.

And that's mostly what San Felipe was all about. You sit on the beach and drink. During the morning and afternoon, the sun coats you in rays as you stare eastward at the Sea of Cortez. When it passed overhead, the tide would draw away from the shore, revealing scattered sand bars, rounded islands we'd conquer with coolers and beach chairs, turning to face the sun as it traveled west. In the meantime, the beers flowed like water, the music reflected the wide range of tastes and we'd try to ward off the sales pitches en espanol from kids hawking jewelry and Mexican blankets.

We'd watch people arrive in droves and battle lines get drawn. San Felipe draws an equal mix of Spring Breakers and Weekend Warriors, with the latter infringing on peaceful and quiet alcohol consumption. A 60-foot sand dune encloses the west end of the campground and by mid-afternoon it would be peppered with quads and motorcycles and red-necked whoops of adrenaline. The goddamn RV set, folks who eschew beach livin' for reserved campsites and water hook-ups. The smell of gas and roar of engines drifted to the water's edge and the volume button would go up on the boom boxes in vain attempts to muffle the sound. By nightfall, the destruction of the hill would be exchanged for fireworks, legal south of the border, completely unsafe and insane, adding an element of danger to the serenity of the moonlit sand bars. Because the bottle rockets were aimed right at us. Salk likes to tell of the year I emerged from the shore, shrouded in the smoke of the fireworks, appearing like a Messiah, which I sorta was considering I was bringing beer.

"Don't kill Ed!" he shouted, as flaming projectiles landed all about me.

Somewhere in there we'd eat, though that act was often an afterthought. Two fish tacos for a dollar, the pescado pulled from the local waters only hours earlier. The price and delicacy forcing cries of "Dos mas!" up and down the boulevard.

In the beginning, aka 1986, the only watering hole in town was the infamous Club Bar Miramar, a spare den with all the luxury of an airplane hanger. Red naugahyde booths, a linoleum floor littered with fallen shards of Pacifico bottles. By our final year, it stood largely empty most nights, with the two multi-storied discotecas erected nearby, tacky testaments to garishness and American investment dollars. We couldn't stand to hang in those for too long, though the DJ and his broken English provided some hilarity, like his admonition when a mosh pit broke out.

"Don't slamming!" he cried.

Some nights, we never even made it into town, forgoing the mile or so trek for quiet reflection. By which I mean hallucinogens. 'Shrooms one year and the perfection of a pitch black night broken only by the moon sparkling on the water. LSD another, where we engaged in a surprisingly high-level whiffle ball game complete with diving catches and a wandering outfielder named Donny who basically left his post every time a bikini came within 15 feet of him.

By Sunday, we'd all be ready to leave, burnt by the sun and the last drops of water wrung from our dehydrated bodies. There was an excitement in leaving, for a Double Whopper and coke at the Burger King just across the border, for the long, hot shower back in L.A. But we had to get out first.

Every year but one, we had no trouble. Evading the cost of the campground was not just easy, but also some twisted badge of honor, thumbing our noses at El Hombre. But that last year, they cracked down. The rope was up and attended by menacing faces. We were asked about our pass. I said we must have lost it. Not good enough and the cost was up to $40 now since we'd flouted the fee. We didn't have the cash. On the ruse of going back to find the pass (nice bluff), we u-turned and tried to find a gap in the fence, hoping to overland it to freedom. No such luck, though I made a valiant effort to bulldoze a rickety-looking fence post with my Nissan Stanza, nearly stalling the car in the deepening sand. Left with no alternative but to suck it up beg for mercy, we chose to make a run for it anyway. We caught them unawares and darted from the campground at 45 mph, giving them no time to impede our exit. I saw them in the rearview shouting and gesticulating, then running into the guardhouse to likely phone the federalis.

The idea of a chase gave us energy we didn't know we had and I sped out of town at breakneck speed. Almost. First we had to stop and return our bottles.

We needed money for Double Whoopers.

Joe Speaker is a writer from Southern California.

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