It was a cold, dark, and snowy day when I received the knock on my tiny basement apartment door. It was Johnny, my roommate and good friend from university. He invited me to Red Lobster with his parents, where he broke some exciting news.
“I’m going to Mexico!” He told us about his plan to pick up a friend in Los Angeles, then drive down the Baja Peninsula. Christmas was coming, and he wanted to make the most of his time off. He looked at me with one of his enigmatic smiles and sent me the mischievous invitation. “Dude, you should come!” Having just finished a long and important career course with the National Guard and more or less funemployed, I replied. “Sure!” I wondered if Tijuana was still on the restricted travel list, but figured I’d rather ask forgiveness than permission. My security manager could chew me out later. “When are we going?”
“Tonight!” We left Salt Lake City shortly after dinner and arrived in Los Angeles bright and early. There we picked up Landon, a stoic artist and photographer, and one of few friends even taller than me. We ate, bought some travel snacks, and made our way south to the San Ysidro border crossing.
At the border we were waived through with no need to stop and show our passports, but a large black Hummer H2 and murdered out Cadillac Escalade were stopped side-by-side, an amalgamation of badged officers and search dogs thoroughly tearing them apart. #JustNarcosTrafficantesThings. In Tijuana we were amused by all the hawkers that showed up at every red light, juggling, doing handstands, and selling various things. We went on through Ensenada, Rosarita, and into stretches of long, desert highways interspersed with small villages. At one particular overlook, we stopped for the most scenic piss of my life.
Night time crept on us as we made our way south on the main highway. Potholes and random speed bumps made driving and sleeping in the car much harder. We also passed through our first military checkpoint, several of which were interspersed throughout the desert to slow down the narcos trafficantes. We decided we’d drive throughout the night all the way to Cabo San Lucas, stopping only for fuel, which we were running low on.
“Guys, we have less than a quarter tank,” Johnny said nervously. “I don’t know where the next town will be. Do either of you have cell service?” We didn’t. We were truly in the middle of nowhere. I was surprised we didn’t have a map, either. The spontaneity of the adventure was so fast that I didn’t ensure we had all the proper supplies before leaving. I did notice a few miles back there was a primitive sign that simply read “Gasolina.” We decided to turn around rather than risk getting stuck further into the unknown. At around 3AM we found the plywood sign and were greeted by an old man. Johnny and Landon didn’t speak Spanish, and mine was rusty after studying Russian in university and Persian Farsi at DLI. But we communicated just fine. The old man filled us up with a WWII surplus gas tank and hand crank and sent us on our way.
I woke up stretched across the back seat of the decrepit old Subaru to sunny skies and warm air, a far cry from my winter wonderland home in Salt Lake City. We pulled up in Cabo smelly, tired, under-caffeinated, and ready to have a great time! After twenty one hours of driving, it felt nice to stretch our legs under the warm Mexican sun. Once we found a safe place to park, we semi-discreetly changed into our swimsuits and headed toward the beach. As we changed, Landon and I noticed that Johnny, who is Mormon, had a giant shit stain on his garments, the unflattering Mormon underwear faithful members are required to wear. Gross.
We swam at the beautiful beaches, took a boat trip through the coast, and saw various colored fish, birds, and seals lying about on the rocks. My shoulders were hella sunburned by sunset, and after a long day of exploring and partying, Johnny had an idea.
“Let’s get massages!”
I don’t particularly enjoy being touched by strangers, and massages are not my usual forte. But after twenty-one straight hours of riding in the cramped car and partying in Cabo all day, I figured it might be good for me. So we went on the prowl. At the legitimate looking massage parlors in the tourist areas, we asked for pricing and scolded at the forty dollar quotes. I unexpectedly couldn’t haggle down. The prices were set, and we didn’t want to pay that much. But further into the night and off the beaten path, three women, two of whom were very attractive, told us they’d give us massages for $20 and a tip. The women were wearing tight-fitting, all black clothing with heels in contrast to the scrubs the masseuses wore at the legitimate massage parlors. We put it together rather quickly that the women were prostitutes.
“Ask her if she can do just the massage without the happy ending,” commanded Johnny, ever faithful to his girlfriend. So I asked politely.
“Mi amigo quiere un mensaje sin finale feliz. Cuánto cuesta?
“20 dollares,” she replied.
“I’ll take it!” Johnny was led into the “parlor,” and the other attractive prostitute flirtatiously asked if I’d like one too.
“Oh, what the hell? Si.”
The petite, dark-haired prostitute led me into a ghetto looking room lit with Christmas lights. There was a small bed converted to a massage table topped with old but fresh sheets and towels. She told me to undress, watching me the whole time, giving me no privacy. Then I laid down and she covered my back in a cheap, grainy oil. I shuddered and couldn’t wait to rinse it right off in the ocean. After the weak massage, she asked me to turn around and started caressing my chest lightly. She whispered that the massage was almost over, and asked how I would like it to end. I heard a little commotion outside but thought nothing of it, and out of morbid curiosity asked how much it would cost. She told me forty dollars. And before I could tell her yes, Johnny flung the door open, surprising us both.
“Ryan! Come out, quick! Talk to her!” Landon and one of the other prostitutes, with an angry look on her face, showed up behind Johnny. I left a twenty-dollar bill on the mattress, quickly dressed, and stepped out to talk with them. I assessed and tried to de-escalate the situation. Johnny’s massage prostitute wouldn’t massage him but still wanted the twenty dollars. I told Johnny that we could just pay the woman and leave, but he stubbornly refused. Quick on his feet and realizing they didn’t speak English very well, Johnny said “They’re all wearing heels. Let’s just run.” I thought about it, then Johnny and Landon started sprinting. Full of tacos and beer, I followed close behind, two bare-footed angry hookers holding their high heels in pursuit, screaming at our backs for a quarter mile until they gave up.
We laughed it off on the balcony of a night club as the bass gently rattled the floor.
“What the fuck happened, man?”
“I laid down with my shirt off, and she poured oil on me from a ketchup bottle!”
“A ketchup bottle?!” asked Landon.
“Yeah. Heinz 57. Then she took off my pants. She tried to take my underwear and and I told her to stop, that I had a girlfriend. But she wouldn’t listen!” Landon and I looked at each other and began to laugh hysterically, remembering the look of disgust we gave each other when we saw Johnny’s shit stained Mormon underwear in the parking lot. We broke the dirty news to him.
“Dude, you have a giant shit stain on your undies! I’m sure she was disgusted by it, you giving her the ass right there on the table and all.” We all had a good laugh and decided where to spend the night. I wanted to spend more time in Cabo, but the other two felt like it was too much of a tourist trap, with most the people there being drunk Americans on a booze cruise. So we headed out of town late at night and found a peaceful stretch of desert to camp in half way to La Paz.
The next morning while en route to La Paz, I noticed a washed out sign that said we could swim with whale sharks. That sounded really cool, so we turned off the main highway and followed the dirt road to a small, scenic resort. We found the boat captain and paid him thirty dollars to reserve our tour, and ate fresh ceviche while waiting to depart.
What we saw out on the Sea of Cortez was incredible. First, we saw a giant manta ray surface near our boat. Then came the whale sharks, bobbing vertically in the water. Although not dangerous to humans, the behemoths were intimidating with their sheer size in the water.
After swimming with the gentle giants, we saw flying stingrays and humpback whales. It was the best thirty dollars I ever spent.
La Paz turned out to be a beautiful and friendly city with a lovely seaside bike path and shops. I wanted to spend another day there, but Johnny wanted to make it home on time for Christmas. So we drove northbound past some beautiful desert scenery to find another place to camp. After the sun set, we found a place with giant cactuses that looked like it would be fun to explore and hike in the morning, so we set up our sleeping bags and slept under the stars.
In the middle of the night, I woke up in a frigid shiver. A layer of frost covered my pillow and the outside of sleeping bag. Landon, who was sleeping next to me, was also shivering, rocking side to side, trying to stay warm. I was shocked! The weather had been so nice during the day, and the previous night was temperate. Yet there we were, on the verge of being hypothermic. I dug out my bag from the old Subaru and put on every single piece of clothing, underwear, socks, and towel that I brought. I encouraged Landon to do the same. Then we wrapped the tarp over our sleeping bags for one last layer of warmth and endured the frosty, miserable night.
We didn’t sleep well, to say the least, but we did rise to beautiful vistas of mountains, giant boulders, and enormous cactuses that looked like they belonged in a Dr. Seuss book. The cold night air completely disappeared with the sun to our grateful relief. We hiked and explored the area, delighted by the amazing views in our isolated little corner of the world. On the way out of cactus land, we approached a small town. Johnny was driving, tired, delirious, and not paying attention. Ahead I could see a speed bump. I told Johnny to slow down. Completely oblivious to the speed bump encroaching, he ignored me. “Johnny, slow down!” I caught Landon’s attention. “Slow down! Slow down! Aghhhhh!!!!!!” At approximately 70 miles per hour, Johnny hit the large speed bump. The rattled old Subaru caught some air, Dukes of Hazard style. The adrenaline-infused hang time felt like forever as we flew into the small village.
We landed with a crash and I noticed dozens of small plastic and metal pieces scatter from the car in all directions. Johnny braked and swerved the car 180 degrees into a dirt patch on the side of the road, narrowly avoiding a rollover. We survived, and exited the vehicle to assess the damage. A couple families in the distance stepped outside their homes to check out the commotion.
The car miraculously still ran. The tires seemed fine and everything else was in working order, but cosmetically, the front of the vehicle bent up like a banana. The car also rattled rather loudly while driving. While browsing through the debris, Johnny found his Subaru emblem on the road. We then scoured the nearby village for a lunch to calm our nerves. Nearby there was a cafe with a thatched roof, sandy floor, and chickens running in and out freely. It looked perfect. Inside, the cafe was charmingly decorated with relics from the area. Local men, Mexican federal police, and an American biker gang were squished into the small edifice. Chickens clucked near our feet. It felt like the wild west.
The rest of the trip was fun, full of stunning desert vistas, canyons, unspoiled coasts, and great memories. When we approached the San Ysidro border crossing, I felt the post-travel blues begin to hit prematurely. To console myself, I would have bought a puppy from one of the hawkers selling them to the long lines of cars waiting to cross the border. But Johnny said no. The method of travel, road tripping with cool guys over such an untamed and soft-traveled foreign land, differed so much from my previous backpacking exploits. Each of us spent around two hundred dollars on fuel and food rendering it my cheapest international adventure thus far. Further, the last-minute nature of the trip limited my time to research and plan. Going completely into the unknown added a level of mystery and adventure that really made this trip stand out from the others. I returned still sunburned to my cold little apartment in Salt Lake City just in time for Christmas Eve, full of new memories, gratitude, holiday cheer, and wanderlust for my return trip to the Mexican Baja.