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SANS Rules in Baja SANS HEADED WEST - EPISODE 4

The day started like every other day of surfing we’d had since I landed in Encinitas -- wake up, make coffee and eat a SANS, stretch, start to gather the boards and wetsuits…but today our gear list has a few extra items. Tent, sleeping bags, cooler, camp stove, and oh yea -- passport.

I’ve been staying with my close friend, Chris -- a long-time brother and fellow photographer/creative. We get to see each other every few months, but my love for climbing and Chris’ love for surfing tend to put our respective home bases in different parts of the country -- my heart is in the mountains, his is with the sea. But I’m in his world now and my desire to spend more time surfing is finally being fulfilled. We spent the past few mornings at Grandview, a little Encinitas break that’s friendly enough to accommodate a mountain goat like myself as he gets his feet wet again, but today we’re going a little further.

Our friend Jay shows up with a slightly tired smile after sleeping through his alarm, but he wasn’t going to miss this adventure. Chris pours Jay a little coffee and we start to load up the trucks. We give some final double-checks and start heading South down the 5.

As we start to see signs for the Mexican border, I feel something perk up in myself. There are no nice online write-ups about these breaks -- no forecast or surfcam. Just a thin paperback book that starts by basically saying that you should expect to get lost: “The Surfer’s Guide to Baja”. “SANS rules!”, Chris jokes as we hurtle toward the checkpoint.

We cross the border and are immediately met by the sensory overload that is Tijuana. The highway landscape is primarily dominated by slums, the border wall, and billboards for sleazy “strip clubs”, but it slowly starts to taper off as we approach Rosarito. The further South we go, the more sparsely populated it gets and finally, after the most ridiculous, single-stop-sign traffic jam, we’re through Ensenada and into what seems like another world. We wind through a lush green valley of rolling hills and mountains sprinkled with a handful of small ranches as we leave the hustle and bustle behind.

Eventually we come to a small town -- the first we’d seen in a while. Chris pulls off and Jay pulls up next to us. “That was the turn back there, right?”, Chris asks. We flip around and turn onto a relatively unmarked dirt road. “This is where it gets real,” Chris says with a smirk, “YEEHAW!” We spend the next hour bouncing around on unmarked dirt roads as we make our way through the hills and West to the coast. We can’t see the ocean for quite some time, but we feel the air getting cooler -- we’re getting close.

Finally we round a corner and, far ahead, the dirt road seems to disappear into a glimmer -- the sea. We’re driving a little faster now and the scene gets a bit lost in a cloud of dust and excitement, but the next thing I know we’re standing on the edge of a 100-foot sea cliff next to a nearly deserted fishing village, the only development you can see for miles. The collective silence says it all -- we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Coming from the heavily developed coastlines of California, the scene reminds me of one of those sailboats in a bottle -- a scene from another time, immaculately constructed and protected by some invisible veil. This must have been what the Southern California coastline looked like 100 years ago.

We pull around the village and into the “campground”. There are no designated camping sites -- no fire rings or signs with the “campground rules”. Just a small smattering of tents and vans perched along the cliffs overlooking the sea.

But the wind is whipping so we take a hint from a clever camper and nestle our trucks as far up as possible against a small hill some forty feet back from the cliffs. Even with this slight reprieve, the wind still laughs at our attempts to set up our hilariously large tent, but it’s no matter. The sun is starting to get golden and surfboards are calling our names -- setting up camp can wait.

We squeeze into our wetsuits and before we take off, all share a little nip of mezcal -- a silent toast to our journey thus far. In all reality, we’re just surfing and camping, but something about this is special and we can all feel it.

We grab our boards and start our walk down to the water -- up the hill from the trucks, through the colorfully weathered homes and shacks of the fishing village, and finally down a large ramp that leads to a small beach below the cliffs. We zip up our wetsuits and fasten our leashes and just before we walk out into the water, Chris looks at Jay with serious eyes but a smile on his face and in a caveman-like voice says, “I take all wave.” We all break into laughter. “No way! I take all wave!”, Jay retorts as they run into the water heckling each other. The session is off to a great start.

As a relatively new surfer, I have to admit that surfing here was a challenge for me -- the break was unpredictable and the still ripping wind rendered many of the waves I was actually in position for useless and mushy, and oh yea, we were basically swimming in sea kelp -- a far cry from the beginner-friendly breaks that I was used to in Encinitas. But whenever I started to feel an inkling of frustration or defeat, all I had to do was look around and suddenly I didn’t care. We were the only ones in the water, floating through this impossibly untouched paradise -- somehow we’d found our way into that bottle.

It’s just about dark when we get back to the trucks, but we’re beaming with stoke. We collapse into our camp chairs, sharing our stories from the session. We decide to forego the process of setting up the tent and opt for a night in “Hotel Tacoma”, as Chris calls it -- at this point, anything but laughs and good conversation isn’t making the cut.

As we start to think about making a fire, we notice our neighbor, a middle aged elementary school teacher named Alan, already has a pretty good one going. Alan had given us a little bit of info on the area when we got there and invited us to come by to hang out later, so we walk over and take him up on it.

Shortly after settling in and getting into conversation, it becomes pretty clear that this is not Alan’s first rodeo in Baja. In fact, outside of his weekend jaunts, he makes a yearly pilgrimage to Scorpion Bay, taking a couple days to drive south from Encinitas through nearly 700 miles of Baja, stopping to surf wherever is looking good. It’s his happy place. “Even my wife knows I need this”, he jokes. We spend the rest of the night sharing stories and laughs as our little renegade fire whirrs and pops in the wind until our pile of wood is gone. We all sign off with a little stumble and crawl into the back of the trucks, happy and content with an arguably epic day. As I fall asleep I feel some gratitude that there are some “Alan’s” out there -- still in touch with the spirit of adventure.

The next morning we wake up with the sun. Chris and I crawl out of Hotel Tacoma and, without saying much, walk to the cliffs to enjoy the beautiful sunrise light. We watch a couple of surfers out enjoying the glassy dawn waves with a slight pang of jealousy, but we’re in no rush. We hear a little rustling as Alan rolls out of the back of his truck. “Damn you guys, I slept in!”, he says with a squinty-eyed smile on his face. We all know we’re missing the best conditions of the day, but we chuckle knowing that we came for so much more than the surf -- if we wanted the best waves, we could have found them a whole lot closer to Encinitas.

We finally head down to the water a couple hours after sunrise and this time the deserted little fishing village is showing signs of life. It’s Easter Sunday and a handful of houses are bustling with large families -- we exchange smiles and an occasional “hola” as we pass through. Down at the beach another family with small children play around the small shore break while a couple of men get a boat ready to go out. We set up a little homebase on the beach, wax up the boards, and put on the wetsuits. Chris runs out and I hang back to take a few photos of everyone surfing. I set up on a small jetty that protects the old fishing boats in the bay and again am overwhelmed by the landscape as I watch my buddies surf through a fairy tale.

Eventually the wind picks back up and deteriorates the conditions past the point of fun so we head back to the trucks we start to pack up. Jay has to be back at work tomorrow, but we decide to keep the adventure going for a little while longer.

We head further South, sticking to the coastal dirt roads looking for a spot for a sunset surf. The roads get significantly gnarlier, testing the limits of the trucks and their pilots, but we laugh as we narrowly avoid getting stuck, knowing that this is all just part of the fun. We spend the rest of the day exploring all the beaches, cliffs, and breaks that we come upon, each stop offering an impossibly beautiful new scene. Eventually we start getting hungry and the wind shows no signs of letting up so we grab some tacos in a small nearby town and decide that it’s time to set sights back on Encinitas.

On our drive back, as the sun sets over Baja, I start to contemplate what made this trip feel so special. What was it that we came for and what did we get? Adventure? Surfing? Tacos? What’s the point of this story and why am I sharing with you? Well, if there’s anything that my time in Baja taught me, it’s that the unplanned moments add more to an experience than the planned ones, that the unknown holds more than the known -- that the journey is richer than the destination.