It was Christmas break of my sophomore year in high school when Jake and I took off from Denton. We were geared up and driving his parent’s VW Camper/van (with their permission), bound for Mexico with a stop in Douglas, Arizona en route. The plan was to meet up in Douglas with an older, more mature person named Jim, whom I knew from the summer camp where I had worked the previous summer. The three of us would then travel from there down to Guaymas, Mexico, where we’d camp, have some quality beach time, and experience a bunch of “neat adventure stuff.” (Note- years later, and as a father, 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 there must have been some food in there, somewhere.
Jake and I drove to Douglas, where we met up with Jim, at his parent’s house. We spent a day there doing “the friends visiting from out of town” routine, which included supper across the border in Agua Prieta. The next day we loaded Jim’s baggage into the van and took off across the border toward the coastal city we had randomly chosen as our destination.
We had no idea what Guaymas looked like and no clue about where we were going to camp when we got there. We arrived in the coastal city according to plan in the late afternoon and went straight to a restaurant to eat dinner. We hadn’t seen any signs for beach camping on our way into town but didn’t let that detract from our meal. We were confident that finding a good campsite was simply a matter of just asking around.
As the evening wore on, it finally became time to get ourselves settled-in somewhere for the night. Neither the bartender nor any of the restaurant patrons had any camping recommendations, so we just left and drove north along the coast. We knew we would somehow find the perfect camping spot, just as we had known Guaymas was the perfect destination.
A few miles outside of town, we drove up on a locked gate covered with an abundance of signs, one of which had the word “Camping” on it. We decided it must be what we were looking for and stopped to take a closer look. It was dark, and as I squinted to decipher the Spanish, an armed guard with a thick mustache walked up and beckoned me to roll down the window. Peering into the van, 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 in broken English that we could camp wherever we pleased.
The place was just what we’d been looking for, and we’d just stumbled onto it. We drove in as the friendly guard tended the gate. We could have been concerned about the guard’s gun, the locked gate, and the remoteness of the location, but we just started drinking vodka from our half-gallon bottle. Our thoughts at that moment were that our plan was working out, there was no more 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 teenage minds, we were in a place where everything was possible.
Once through the gate, we continued along a gravel road. After a few minutes, we drove up onto a massive concrete surface of some sort with buildings visible in the moonlight. We had thought we were in the middle of nowhere and couldn’t figure out what we were seeing. After a few minutes, we came to the apparent end of the pavement and dropped back onto what we figured was the same gravel road. At that point, we assumed we were getting closer by the minute to a beautiful beach with white sands, palm trees, and no people.
We drove on the gravel for a few minutes, but then, abruptly, the surface changed to pure sand. Off in the near-distance, we saw the surf rolling in, illuminated just enough by the moonlight to make it visible. We were giddy at the thought of how close we were getting to the water. We wanted to drive right up to the edge and set up our camp there. But thankfully, by a stroke of good luck, we got bogged down, sank the rear-end down to the axle, and came to a forced stop. We were annoyed at having to stop where we did. But I realize now that getting stuck where we did kept us from camping in where there would be water when the tide came in. It wasn’t the perfect camping spot that we’d envisioned, but given 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.
Shortly after sun-up, we awoke 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 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 warm. But we were young, adventurous, and not prone to considering such things.
Mountains rose just inland from where we were still stuck. A flat basin, a mile or so wide, separated the mountains from the coastline. 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 gravel road that had led us to this place.
To us, it was a beach Shangri-La with the 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 the surroundings, the realization that we only had a few days to do everything we had planned made us anxious. 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, 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 that we weren’t alone. Then, out in the water about halfway between us and the car, we saw a lone swimmer snorkeling toward us slowly 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 a friendly young man with long hair and mutton-chop sideburns and had a lot of info to offer. He was from a college in California. He was there doing some sort of ocean research. An American owned the property. The buildings we had seen and the pavement were the set for the movie Catch 22. He was camping for another day or two. The water was not all that good for diving or snorkeling.
After a bit, he turned and walked back into the deeper water and just continued snorkeling. 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 we had been told, 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 got out of the ocean and would’ve dried off, had there been a towel.
We spent our first beach day getting the van unstuck, organizing, and scuba diving/snorkeling/pondering, but on the second day, our attention turned inland. We headed to the mountains. Since they were almost a mile away and because we were eager to take a look at the movie set in the daylight, we opted to drive.
The set consisted 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 gravel road veered off toward the mountains, and we followed it. Within a few minutes, we were a few hundred yards from the line of dry and rocky hills (or mountains as we called them) that rose perhaps 100 vertical feet above the scrub-covered basin. We parked and began walking toward them, intent on climbing to a summit.
Jim and I decided to follow a theoretical 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 a 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 a good thing, 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 boulders loomed above us at the top, and I relished the moment when we’d be up there, before Jake, and sitting on them while gazing out at the ocean. The rock face that we were going up was a bit loose, or “chossy” as experienced rock climbers would have called it. It was a mix of dirt, sand, and smallish rocks and a bit crusty, probably from a recent rain. I moved up 10 feet or so from the bottom before everything I started grabbing 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; the surface would crumble even more. I realized that my options were disintegrating. Suddenly, my thoughts went from the summit to just getting back to the van alive. Just as the situation became 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 it, and somehow, nothing crumbled. Thankfully, it was the solid handhold I needed to help me move closer to the bottom. And so, the retreat continued.
Just then, Jake peered over the edge and hollered down to us. Earlier, I would’ve taken that as a defeat, but now I was just glad that he’d made it to the top and that Jim and I were almost back on stable terrain.
He yelled that he’d meet us back at the van in an hour or so and then disappeared. Jim and I finally got down off the rock and were soon back at the VW, happy to be in familiar surroundings. After an hour or so, Jake arrived. The three of us got into our seats and were soon ready to drive. But before we even cranked up the engine, 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 yell down, but once out there realized that it was only a slab, just a few inches thick, and was jutting out into the air all by itself. Second, he’d ultimately descended 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 naked gringa washing off under a waterfall. To a teenage boy, it was especially unexpected. As it turns out, she was 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— said hello and kept walking.
We had a few more days of living the good Mexican beach, mountain, and camping life, but as far as we were concerned, nothing happened during that time to trump Jake’s naked girl experience. The water had 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.
Our beach time in Guaymas eventually ended, and we drove back north. We pulled into Denton well after dark, but with plenty of time 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 an 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 concluded that adventure lurks around every corner.