It was Christmas break of my sophomore year in high school when Jake and I took off from Denton, Texas. We were in his parent’s VW Camper-van bound for Mexico with a stop in Douglas, Arizona en route. The plan was to meet up with a more mature person, whom I sort of knew from the summer camp where I worked, who lived in Douglas, and then the three of us would travel on down to Guaymas, Mexico. Once down near the Mexican town, we’d have some quality beach time and experience all of the “neat adventure stuff” that could be had in the area. (Note- Years later and as a parent, I’m not sure how we got our parents to agree to the plan. Although I do remember it being a good thing that we were going to be under the supervision of someone older). In the van, there was scuba gear packed away under one of the seats in cardboard boxes, places to sleep, and we must have had some food. We simply planned to beach-camp, swim, and scuba dive in the surf and enjoy some tropical weather while it was cold and windy in North Texas.
We drove to Douglas and met up with the guy, Jim, at his parent’s house. We spent a day there doing “the friends visiting from out of town” routine, which included supper that night across the border in Agua Prieta. The next day we loaded Jim and his baggage into the van, took off, crossed the border, and drove south toward the coastal city destination that we’d somehow selected.
We had no idea what Guaymas looked like, along with no clue about where we were going to camp when we got there. Sticking to that plan, we arrived in the coastal city in the late afternoon and went straight to a restaurant/bar where we had dinner. I hadn’t seen any signs for beach camping on our way into town but didn’t let that detract from my meal. We were confident that finding a good campsite was simply a matter of just asking around.
The evening wore on, but eventually, it became time to get ourselves settled in somewhere for the night. And so, we got into the van and drove north out of town and along the coast. For whatever reason, we decided that doing that would take us to the perfect camping spot. Earlier that evening, we’d asked both our waiter and one of the bartenders for directions to the campsites, but they’d been of no help in that regard.
And so, we just decided to head “that way” and look for the road signs, which would undoubtedly direct us to where we needed to be. We drove aimlessly through the city for a while but didn’t come across any camping signs. A few miles outside of town, we drove up to a locked gate covered with all sorts of signs. Given the fact that it was both dark and they were written in Spanish, I had a particularly tough time trying to decipher what any of them said. Before I could actually figure any of that out, I looked up to see an armed guard beckoning me to roll down the window. I did as he motioned, and it didn’t take him long to realize that we were Gringos.
“Ah, Americans,” he said.
He walked over to the locked gate and opened it up, motioned for us to drive on in, and told us that we could camp wherever we pleased. The place was just what we’d been looking for all along, and we’d just stumbled onto it. We drove on in as the friendly guard with the thick mustache, and big rifle tended the gate. But instead of being concerned about the gun, locked gate, rural location, etc. we just resumed drinking vodka from our half-gallon bottle. Our thought at that moment was that our plan was working out, we were mostly done with driving for the day, and that things just couldn’t get much better. As far as we were concerned, the situation was just what Mexico was all about. In our 16-year-old minds, we were in a place where everything was possible.
Once through the gate, we continued along the same road that’d gotten us there, to begin with. After a few minutes, we found ourselves driving up onto some sort of broader and more massive pavement with buildings visible in the moonlight. As far as we were concerned, we were in the middle of nowhere, and couldn’t figure out exactly what we were crossing. After a few more moments, we came to the apparent end of the tarmac and then dropped onto a dirt road. Then, we just kept following it- for some reason, assuming that it was going to where we wanted or needed it to go, wherever that was. We were pretty sure that a beautiful beach with white sands, palm trees, and no people, lay just ahead and were eager to get there.
And then, in another few minutes, we were there. We could see the surf rolling in, illuminated just enough by the moonlight to make it visible. We felt compelled to pull the camper/van right up to the edge of the water. Never mind that we had no concept of tides or any of that. Thankfully, before we could get right up to the water’s edge, by a stroke of good luck, we got bogged down and stuck in the sand and came to a forced stop. At the time, it was annoying. But I realize now that it’s a mighty good thing that it worked out that way and that getting stuck where we did, kept us from ultimately camping in the water. It wasn’t the perfect camping spot that we’d been envisioning earlier that evening. But given the fact that we had no other choice, we called it good right there and decided that we’d deal with the stuck part the following day.
We awoke sometime just after sun-up, intent on getting the most out of our few days of beach time. Our first move was to walk out into the spectacular looking surf. The water was a bit colder than we’d anticipated. But we weren’t about to let that minor detail bother us or affect our plans. After all, we were down in the warm country, and we’d heard that the air temperature was supposed to be in the 70’s later that day. I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised by the water temperature. After all, it was the Gulf of California, which ultimately means the Pacific Ocean—a body of water not known to be particularly warm. But we were young, adventurous, and not prone to considering such things.
Mountains rose up just inland from where we were stuck. A mile or so of rolling flatland between them and the coast created something of a basin, separating the two. There was a scattering of sandy beach, but much of the shoreline was rocky and craggy. The vegetation was mostly scrub of some sort. There were no visible signs of people or development anywhere, other than the dirt road that had led us there in the first place.
To us, it was a beach Shangri-La with the added bonus of the mountains. It was spectacularly beautiful, and we could see that the terrain afforded an almost endless assortment of adventure opportunities. While we were pleased with where we were, the realization that we only had few days to be there, cast something of a dark cloud over it all. Our list of potential activities included scuba diving, ocean swimming, camping out, hiking around, sunbathing, eating out, mountain climbing, and just being in Mexico. And we were determined to do it all.
After getting the van unstuck that first morning, Jake opened up his box of scuba gear, and we headed for the water. A nearby jetty protected the surrounding area from the constant pounding of the wind. From a high point on a rock near the ocean, we saw a car parked further on down the coastline and realized we weren’t alone. Then, out in the water about halfway between us and the car, we saw a lone swimmer snorkeling slowly through the rocks along the shoreline. We walked on down to the water’s edge, and the swimmer saw us and swam over. He raised his head, said hello, walked with his flippers over to where we stood, and we immediately began launching questions at him.
He was from a college in California and was there doing some sort of ocean research. The property was owned by an American. The buildings/pavement that we’d seen and driven on were the set for movie Catch 22. He was camping for another day or two. And the water was not all that good for diving or snorkeling.
He was pleasant and full of information.
After a bit, he walked back into the deeper water and then just snorkeled off down along the shoreline. He obviously had work to do. At that point, Jake began filling me in on the basics of scuba, and after about the third description of what not to do or you could die, I decided that I would just snorkel. He geared himself up and went on out into the water. Jim just hung out on a rock, catching some rays, watching it all unfold and undoubtedly, lifeguarding. I put on a mask, snorkel, and fins, and acted as though I was enjoying the water which, as mentioned and as the research guy had confirmed, was not all that warm or clear. I did my best to enjoy it but found my thoughts turning from snorkeling and being in the water to mountain climbing, camping, and vodka drinking. Since there wasn’t much enjoyable about being in the water, I soon just got out and would’ve dried off, had there been a towel. I should note that this was all before the movie, Jaws, so I was at least able to snorkel without worrying about getting eaten by a Great White.
That first beach day was spent getting the van unstuck, organizing, and scuba diving/snorkeling/pondering, but our attention turned inland for the second. Since it was our day for dryland exploration, we headed to the mountains to explore. Since they were almost a mile away and because we were eager to get a look at the movie set in the daylight, we opted to drive.
The set was comprised of several large burned-out buildings and a long runway. Once we knew what it was and with the advantage of having the light of day, it all made some kind of sense. At the far end of the runway, a different dirt road veered off directly toward where we’d decided that we wanted to go, and we followed it. Within a few minutes, we were a few hundred yards from a line of dry and rocky hills (or mountains as we called them) that rose perhaps 200 vertical feet above the scrub-covered basin. We parked and began walking toward them, intent and confident that we were going to climb to their summit.
Jim and I decided to follow a mythical route that went straight up the face. Jake looked around and opted for another option that didn’t involve any dead vertical. He soon disappeared around a corner, and the two of us began our climb. We were confident that we’d be up on top first since we were taking the obviously more direct line.
For some reason, we decided that I would lead the climb, and Jim would follow. I’m not sure exactly why it worked out that way because Jim had once talked about having rock climbed, and he was from Arizona, and I could claim neither. We had no actual rock climbing equipment, which in retrospect was good because we wouldn’t have known what to do with it anyway, and it probably would’ve just gotten in the way. So, we just went with what we had.
I saw what looked to be a good way to go and began climbing. Large rocks loomed up at the top, and I relished the moment when we’d be up there, before Jake, and sitting on them and gazing out at the ocean. The rock face that we were going up was a bit loose, or chossy as I would later learn real rock climbers say. It was a mix of dirt, sand, and smallish rocks and a bit crusty, probably from a recent rain. I was able to move up 10 feet or so, and then everything I started holding onto or stepping on began coming loose. Knowing just what to do, Jim put his hands under my feet to create a sort of foothold. Initially, my thought was that I needed to look and feel around a bit to find the good stuff. It quickly got to the point where every time I shifted or moved in a different direction, the surface would crumble even more. My options dwindled. Suddenly, our thoughts went from the summit to just getting back to the van alive. Thankfully, just when things were really becoming dire, I noticed a fist-sized rock that stuck out from the face a few inches to my left and looked to be solid. I slowly and deliberately reached for and grabbed it, and somehow, nothing crumbled. Thankfully, it was the solid handhold I needed to help me move closer to the bottom. And so, I did.
Just then, Jake peered down from above and yelled down to us. Earlier on, I would’ve taken that as a defeat, but by this time, I was just glad that he’d made it to the top and that Jim and I were almost back on stable terrain.
Jake yelled that he’d come down and around and meet us back at the van. We got back there first, and then, after an hour or so, he arrived, and the three of us were soon in our seats and ready to drive. Before actually cranking up the engine and driving off, Jake recounted two interesting things that he’d encountered along his way. First, there was a line of big rocks along the top. He’d crawled out to the edge of one to look around and holler at us, and once out there realized that it was only a slab, a few inches thick, and was sticking out into the air all by itself. Secondly, he’d ultimately descended down the backside of the mountain via a drainage and trail of sorts. After a few minutes of hiking, he’d rounded a corner and walked right up on a beautiful Gringo naked girl washing off under a waterfall. To a teenage boy, it was especially unexpected. She was apparently camping with the researcher. And while it’s logical that she was just out bathing, at the time, it created an intriguing situation. A bit flabbergasted, he’d done what seemed like the right thing to do— and said hello and then just kept walking.
We had a few more days of living the good Mexican beach and mountain camping life, but as far as we were concerned, nothing happened during that time to trump Jake’s naked girl experience. The water had simply not been ideal for scuba/snorkeling, we’d been too spread out and in disarray for going into town, and the vodka ultimately lost its allure. Also, we realized that we needed a pick of some sort if we were going to rock climb anymore. So, we just occupied our days with sand, periodic nonsense, and conjecture about whether or not there were naked girls under most waterfalls. Whatever the case, our beach time in Guaymas eventually ended, and we drove back north. We pulled into Denton well after dark, but with plenty of time still left to get ourselves organized for the next day’s return to school. Our parents were glad to see us, but I got the feeling that they weren’t all that interested in the details of what we’d seen and done.
As in any adventure, there were lessons learned. During this one, I developed a deeper appreciation for the technicalities of scuba diving, a better understanding of climbing surfaces, and a realization that all seawater is not crystal clear and warm. But most importantly, I arrived at the conclusion that adventure is lurking around every corner.