Mexico's Pacific Coast:
Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Life, Love, and Catching the Perfect Wave
In the summer of 2007, Peter Heller, an award winning adventure writer who lives in Denver, decided to drop everything, pick up a surfboard, and see if, at age 46, he could learn to surf a big hollow wave in six months. He found an ‘85 Vanagon, invited his girlfriend Kim, and drove down the coast of Mexico, learning from every expert he could find. The couple got married on the trip and the book won the 2010 National Outdoor Book Award.
Excerpt from Kook:
The metal sign for Punta Conejo is hard to read. The black letters are faded and almost obscured with surf stickers. We turned off the highway. The guidebook said the dirt road was rough and 12 miles long. It cut off through the acacia scrub and paloverdes. The highway was quiet enough, not much traffic. This track was—who knew how often anyone came down here. When we turned onto it we were committing ourselves in a way we hadn’t yet.
“Our first remote camp in Baja, huh Ting?”
“It’s kind of scary.”
“Road’s good.” It was. Sand, deep in spots, and pretty smooth. I downshifted into a garrulous second gear and we trundled up the road nice and slow. I stopped once and Kim got out and cleared a branch covered in thorns. We swooped down around a right bend, climbed steeply and topped out with a broad view of the sea. The coast curved in a shallow arc to the north and that, below, us, must be the point of the rabbit. We stopped the Beast, got out and looked. An onshore wind shredded through the thorny scrub and I thought I heard the beat of surf beneath it. I was excited. The way you are when you double up a hundred dollars on eleven and say “Hit me.”
This was what we came for. All this way. To camp down by the Baja sea and catch waves few other people would come so far to ride. Wasn’t it? When I was a little nervous I did my best not to infect Kim. So I sang Little Joe the Wrangler, which is a cheerful song about a kid who goes out on a cattle drive and gets run over by about a thousand stampeding cattle. Pop taught it to me. I sang it now because I was nervous, more than anything about bringing Kim into this harsh world of desert and backbreaking surf and wayward souls.
It was harsh and it was real, and it was no joke. If I were a pro surfer, or a desert survival expert, or some former Navy Seal, like George Heyduke, it would be a different story. But in truth, Kim knew just about as much as me about any of this. We would have to protect each other. So I started to sing. And Kim, who had been looking at the passing scrub out her window, turned and said, “You a little nervous?”
I laughed nervously. “Yeah.”
She didn’t offer any Everything is going to be fine, any lie. Because how could she know. She was in this with me all the way and she was my best friend.
A Curving Beach
Heller's campsite on the beach where he spent six months learning to surf.
The washboard road ended at a navigation light on a steel tower commanding a low bluff. On the north side was a curving beach, empty, and on the south was a dry sand wash banked on the far side by a high dune. A handful of fishermen’s shacks huddled against a hill above the beach. No people that we could see. Just below, barnacle covered rocks tumbled into a seething rip. A dry wind came flat off the water and tore at a wave that shattered on the reef.
Not the benign scene I’d imagined. A forlorn whitewashed ranch house sat back under the scraggly shade of an old tamarindo tree, away from the beach and the brunt of the wind. We stood beneath the steel tower.
“There’s the left,” I said.
“Huh,” Kim said.
It did not look easy. There was a man on it. Only one. Below us, on the near side of the arroyo, was a big pick up with a cabover camper. Out in the middle of the wash was a green Volvo wagon. The hatch was up and a pink umbrella was planted in the sand, and a man sat on a low camp chair beneath it. On the far side, on the top of a dune, was a giant pop up trailer, kind of a canvas mansion. That was it.
I swallowed. Conejo! Up the track from the ranch house came a lone figure. He came slowly, stopping often. He held something to his chest. He wore a red shirt, white cowboy hat. We watched, fascinated, the way we would watch the slow progression of a snake. He crossed the arroyo and came up out of the brush. He was a blade-faced scrawny man in a bright red snap shirt who walked stiffly, cradling his sharpened machete like a dead child.
He moved a few feet at a time, then paused, looked out at the sea under his fraying hat. The ocean was still foaming with whitecaps. It hadn’t changed since a few steps before. He wore narrow wrap around sunglasses. His skin was taut over his cheekbones, burnished there like wood. When he grimaced he showed a few teeth. A few steps, stop, a few more steps. He ended up fifteen feet from where we stood, still without a word, and looked out at the sea.
This close, his shirt was stained. He didn’t say anything, just let the wind play with the loose straws of his hat. It occurred to me that he moved exactly like a predator. Kind of circling in. So slowly that its prey didn’t notice the growing proximity.
I called out. Introduced myself. The head turned.
“Victor.” Pause. “Todo,” he waved an arm, “este rancho es miyo.” All this land was his. “No problema, no problema. Muy tranquillo. No banditos.” He patted his machete, spread his mouth into an unsettling rictus. Then he waited. Didn’t move closer or away, waited with the stillness of a wolf.
“Ahh,” I said finally. “Quanto por un noche de encampamento?”
“No problema” Victor said. “Trenta pesos, no problema.”
I gave him 100. “Quatro noches, falta beinte.”
“Okay okay, no problema. Muy tranquillo.” He must have been half drunk. His face, even in the impenetrable glasses, was at once sharp and blurry.
El rancho. There were no cattle, no fields. Not many surfers. Kim and I walked down to the pick up. Two lawn chairs, a stone fire ring, a fishing rod corded to the side of the camper, a board rack above it holding two shortish boards. This guy was here for a while. His name was Jamie. He came out of the camper blinking from his nap. He was in his early fifties, a master electrician from San Clemente. He had been here six weeks. He did it every summer. Cleared his schedule of jobs, drove down here, camped, and surfed every day, with the wave mostly to himself. He was built like Tarzan, had curly blonde hair down over his collar, eyes mineral blue. Deliberate and kind.
“Yeah, Victor,” he told us, pulling another chair out, opening it for Kim. “He’s harmless. Collects the camping fee. A remittance man, I guess. His family didn’t know what to do with him so they sent him out here. Strange cat, but he won’t bother you.” Jamie’s speech came to a halt and he looked out at the sun dazzled water.
I realized that he didn’t carry on many conversations out here and wasn’t in the habit of keeping one rolling. No need. There was plenty of time to communicate anything that needed saying. I laughed. Couldn’t help it. Everyone out here seemed to be on stop and go time. It was a little like the pacing in a dream. Jamie turned his leonine, handsome head. Misinterpreted my laugh, smiled, said, “Victor keeps the bandidos away with his machete.” Jamie took a neoprene shirt off a short clothesline and folded it, put it on the step on the camper. He had the fastidiousness of people who live alone for long periods of time. “Do you all want a coke? Or a beer? It’s cold.”
I saw that the man out in the middle of the sandy arroyo under the umbrella was Asian. “That’s Eddie,” Jamie said. “They’re camped on that dune way to the north. That’s his cousin Freddie out on the wave. No kidding” The man was reading a book. Occasionally he looked up to remark his cousin’s progress. Jamie was watching the surfer too. So was I. So was Kim.
He was the only thing, really, to look at. Compact, also Asian, tearing it up on the fast overhead left in a full wetsuit and booties. “He’s been surfing for four hours. A little too windy for me.”
I’ll say. Felt like a gale. The wave, though, jacked up hard against the point and was strong enough to hold its shape even with the wind pressing on its back like a hand.
“How long have they been here?” I asked.
“Almost a month.”
I looked at the man reading his book in the wind-shivered pool of shadow in the middle of the dry arroyo at the edge of an empty ranch in the remote Baja desert. The lone surfer. Jaime and his truck. The wind. Victor the remittance man collecting the fees. Only something as crazy as surfing would have brought them all together.
The half -dozen meager fishermen’s shacks up against the dune to the north must have been temporary. Not much more than some planks and scraps of corrugated metal for a roof. It was all a bit surreal.
"Put On Something"
The couple surfs for four days, has some close calls and some triumpsh in the water. Then:
What woke us up beneath the lighthouse on the windy night must have been the sound of motors, of boats. We came awake and instantly the canvas sides of the pop-top were rinsed in red light. A flare. Then another.
“Put on something,” I said. “Get down.”
I had heard a rumor just before we left about a couple along the Baja coast who had witnessed a drug deal and been killed and buried in their car. I didn’t know if it was true and I didn’t know if Kim had heard it. I didn’t want to be that couple. We clambered down fast, slid open the sliding door quietly and stepped out barefoot onto the cold dust of the ground. Gingerly, we tiptoed over broken shells and peered around the front of the van. Another flare. It arced from the high dune on the south side of the arroyo that ran right down into the water. That’s where the friendly, clean cut couple from San Diego was camped.
It must have been late because the wind had backed around and was coming from the land. We stood close to the Beast and peered across. A crimson streak arced over the water and crumbled into the darkness. A moment later a halogen spotlight cut down to the arroyo and swiveled south in jerks. From the top of the dune. Our little yuppie friends were having a serious rendezvous party. Respondez-vous s’il vous plait. Whoever was RSVPing was doing it on the other side of the hill and the point, beyond our sight. The light dropped down to that side, to where a long beach curved away. I was glad. You can’t be a witness if you don’t see anything.
The beast--a 1988 VW Vanagon that took Peter and Kim all the way to Mexico and back.
The next morning I was pulling my board out from under the lean-to tarp on the back side of the Beast, when lo and behold, Barbie and Ken swung up from the arroyo in their fancy pickup. They rolled down the window, grinned, said they were going to Cabo for a few days for some R&R. I thought this was R&R, but I didn’t say anything. They looked wholesome and happy, expectant, like a couple off on their honeymoon. I guess the prospect of stacks of crisp greenbacks might do that to a couple.
He told me to take off at a hard angle on waves like these. He said, “You’re doing great. I saw you catch a couple of honkers yesterday.” He smiled his white even teeth and I wished them well. I did wish them well. I can never separate my personal warmth for someone—the guy had been really encouraging to me out on the wave—with my indignation at this same person’s politics or career choice or moral deficiencies.
An hour later Kim squatted with our breakfast dishes down on the barnacle covered rocks in the little flushing tidal pool at water’s edge, when I heard the throb of a diesel engine. An armored amphibious boat charged around the point. Must have been doing 30 knots. It was army green, heavily plated, shaped like an angular beetle. Two 50 caliber machine guns were mounted forward and aft, and helmeted, very serious soldiers trained them on the shore.
The boat went past us, north, until it was in line with the fishermen’s shacks, made a tight turn, threw up a wave, then chopped back across its own wake as it skimmed just off the beach and the rocks. They seemed to be aiming their guns at Kim. I yelled to her. “Come up here! Hey, get up here, now!” I was doing a lot of urgent yelling lately. Kim, who is Chinese American, was wearing her big straw hat, which made her look more South Asian. I was from that sad era, and I couldn’t help an unwanted association with Vietnam and her villagers.
A Gunboat Approaches
She gathered up the pans and hustled up to the light tower and the van. The patrol made one more pass. What could they be looking for that hadn’t already vanished in the night? I could see the mothership offshore, a large gunboat, just a shadow, about five miles out.
We left. Enough of rabbits and remitance men. Kim couldn’t surf here anyway. We packed up in half an hour. We left the van untended and walked down to say good bye to Jamie. (He said he would stay another two weeks, he was stuck to this spot like a limpet.) We were gone from the Beast for five minutes. We rattled up the road.
It wasn’t until we got to La Paz a couple of hours later that we realized that in that time someone had stolen my fancy altimeter watch (hanging from the metal push-up bar of the pop top), a leatherman multi-tool and a nice folding knife (kitchen drawer), Kim’s sunglasses (between front seats). Target theft. Either one of the fishermen, who had just passed with a sack of mussels, or Victor, who was lingering around up there. I’ll be damned. Violated.
It was almost more disturbing that the thief didn’t take anything else. There was plenty of other stuff. He knew just what he was after and just where it was. It gave me the creeps. Where we had parked, our open side door faced the shacks. Every afternoon I took off my watch and hung it up on the bar. I opened the drawer, took out the tool and the knife. Somebody must have had binoculars. Must have been watching us. That was unsettling, more than the theft. To be so scrutinized.
Peter and Kim, in Mexico.
In half an hour of washboard road we turned the Beast back onto the smooth central highway and aimed for La Paz. A city of softspoken, almost unreal beauty. I was relieved and happy.
“Want to take a few days off?” I said over the glad roar of the Beast.
“We could go snorkeling. That place I told you about, with the sea lions.”
She was in a Yes frame of mind.
“We could get married.”
I beamed. She beamed. La Paz doesn’t have any waves and I wasn’t sure if she was so pleased by the prospect of a few days without the labor of surfing or a lifetime of marriage to me. I figured both.
“Tomorrow is the full lunar eclipse,” she said. “I think that’s auspicious. Let’s get married tomorrow.”
I was happy. The Chinese are always concerned about being auspicious. Better, I thought, to have an auspicious bride than a—an inauspicious one. I knew that Kim would get online tonight at the hotel and check the astrology of the eclipse and the numerology of the date. If the numbers added up to four, eclipse or no, I knew we would not get married tomorrow. In Chinese, four is the number owned by death.
Buy this book on Amazon: Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave
Peter Heller lives and writes in Denver, Colorado. His first novel, The Dog Stars, will be published in August 2012. Visit his author website.
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