It was Christmas break of my sophomore year in high school when Jake and I took off from Denton, Texas 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 who lived in Douglas and then travel from there down to Guaymas, Mexico. Once down in 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- I’m not entirely sure how the parental permission thing was worked out, since we were only 16, although I remember that it was 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 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 that I knew, Jim, at his parent’s house. We spent a day doing “the friends visiting from out of town” routine which included supper that night across the border in Nogales. The next day we loaded Jim and his stuff 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 idea 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 remember not letting 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, and eventually, it became time to get ourselves settled in somewhere for the night. To that end, we got into the van and began heading north out of town and up the coast, theoretically towards all of the beach campsites. 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 north for some unknown reason and came across no signs directing us toward what we needed. We figured that we were just not seeing what was actually there. Even though we weren’t finding what we were looking for, we just kept driving in anticipation. Before long, we drove out of the city and soon found ourselves driving along a smaller paved road which, we were relieved to note, was at least still headed in the assumed right direction. After a few miles, we came to a halt at a locked gate that was covered with all sorts of signs. Given the fact that it was both dark and that 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 and through the driver’s window 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 in broken English.
He walked over to the locked gate and opened it up, motioned for us to drive on in, and told us that we could just camp wherever we pleased. The place was just what we’d been looking for all along, and we’d somehow just stumbled into it. I remember thinking a simple, huh! We drove on in as the friendly guard with the thick mustache and big rifle tended the gate and instead of being concerned about the gun, locked gate, rural location, etc. just began drinking vodka from our half-gallon bottle, in earnest. Our thought at that moment was that life was good, we were mostly done with driving for the day, and that things just couldn’t get much better. This was what Mexico was all about. The land where everything was possible.
We drove on in, essentially continuing along the same dirt road that’d gotten us to there. After only a few minutes, we found ourselves driving up onto pavement with buildings visible in the moonlight. As far as we were concerned, we were in the middle of nowhere, and we couldn’t figure out exactly what we were crossing. After a few more moments, we came to the apparent far end of the tarmac and then dropped off of it and back onto a dirt road. We just kept following that,-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 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 to deal with the stuck part of it 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 since 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 worrying about 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.
All in all, to us it was something of a beach Shangri-La with the added bonus of the mountains. It was spectacularly beautiful, and 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. There was something of a jetty sticking out into the water, which protected the area around it from the constant wind. From a high point on a rock near the ocean we saw some sort of car parked further on down the coastline. We realized that 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 movie set for Catch 22; he was camping for another day or two; and the water was not fantastic for diving. It wasn’t a tremendous amount of information but was mostly all that we really needed to get oriented.
He soon walked back into the deeper water and then snorkeled off down along the shoreline. 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 was nothing all that pleasant 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.
Our first day was spent getting the van unstuck, organizing, and scuba diving/snorkeling/pondering, but our attention turned inland for the second day. Since that 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. Once at the far end of what turned out to be the runway, a different dirt road from the one that would take us back to the entrance 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 climb 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 we began our climb, 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. I could see large rocks up at the top and relished the moment when we’d be up there, before Jake, and looking 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 was a bit crusty, probably from 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 began putting his hands under my feet to create a sort of foothold. Initially, our thought was that we just 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. My options dwindled. Suddenly, our thoughts went from the summit to just getting back to the van alive. A fist-sized rock stuck out from the face a few inches to my left and appeared to be solid. I slowly and deliberately reached for it, and somehow, nothing crumbled, and the rock provided a solid handhold that allowed me to make a stable move in that direction.
Jim was just low enough that he stayed on more solid terrain and shifted over to the left as I did. From my new location, I was able to step down onto a solid slab of rock. The two of us took a deep breath. We were apparently home free. Just then, Jake peered down over a rock from above and yelled 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 on solid 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, Jake arrived, and the three of us were in our seats and ready to drive. Before 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 just a slab, a few inches thick and 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. It was a bit unexpected. She was apparently camping with the researcher, and while I know it’s logical that she was just out bathing, it did create one of those situations in life that kind of defies mere words. A bit in shock, he’d done what seemed like the right thing to do— and said hello and then just kept walking. Even today, I find myself pondering the event and have yet to grasp it fully.
We had a few more days of living the good Mexican beach and mountain camping life, but 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 and came to realize that the odds of there being a second naked girl up in the mountains under a waterfall were remote. 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. 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 came to understand that there just might be true adventure lurking around every corner.