Surfpacking: A Stupid Dream

In this enthralling tale of camaraderie and adventure, Evan Christenson returns to the dusty roads and cold waters of Baja California in search of elusive waves that have called out to him for years. Find a sprawling gallery of film photos and Evan’s story of reinvigorating an old friendship while sharing his passion for combining bikes and boards here…

This is dumb. Worthless suffering. Pointless. The truck is just down the road, and whether it’s here or there, it’ll rust anyway. And the money we save on gas, we’ll just spend on extra tortillas, sunscreen, and ding repair. The boards are clunky and heavy, the bikes are slow and dramatic, hard to load and harder to move. The wetsuits are gross, and the wet sand is forever, infuriatingly, utterly, inescapable. The bikes squeal and groan under the weight of the boards, the trailer, and all the water we need to haul out to the wave.

  • Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California

We load up six gallons and tie down the boards for the first time. All in, with wetsuits and towels and food and chairs and books and a tent, the bikes are easily pushing a hundred pounds. Ben can barely pick his up off the ground. I need help holding mine as I lash the board to the trailer. We ferry things out of the truck, handing them off, laying them all out, unsure of what we’ll all need, having never really done this before. Leaving this truck behind, this perfectly good base—our old home with our signatures still smudged under the bed—behind for a surf trip feels absurd as we start rolling.

Surfpacking Baja California

The two of us leave the pavement and set out, immediately pushing the bikes up a steep and loose climb, dusty and rocky, with the blistering sun pounding overhead, buzzards soaring on the accelerating currents, the canyon walls arching overhead. From the road, I can see my truck disappear down below. “We can still turn around,” I chuckle and groan, asking for help picking up the trailer and bike after it all slips out from under me. But we push further on into the dry, rolling hills of northern Baja California. I’ve thought of this moment for years, and with it finally materializing, that longtime dream prods us along.

For however long I’ve surfed and bikepacked, the endless desire to combine these two things has haunted me. It’s a fool’s nightmare with its silly logistics and my incessant hashing. How to carry the boards? What swells? When could we try this? Where would it even make sense? In college, I would sit under cold fluorescent lights and stare out from the frosted windows at the distant soft blue and think about this pairing, this bottomless daydream, and how someday Ben and I would finally get to the end of the world on our bikes, so far from the classroom that the integrals and proofs couldn’t find us. I thought of how we would finally be free and everything would be perfect.

  • Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California

Scheming surfpacking routes was my escape. The professor would ramble, my eyes would glaze over, and I would imagine myself there, peering over the edge, legs thrown over my bike, my tent in front and my surfboard in back, with my best friend, good swell, freshly caught fish, a light on-shore breeze, a striking sunset, a small metal flask, and dark, strong rum. We would be happy in my dreams. There would be no tests and no theory. Just application. Blissful, explosive application. Our lips would be chapped and our faces sore from smiling.

Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California

But the thing about dreams—beyond the fact that they often never come true—is that sometimes they just don’t make any sense. I’ve long had the problem of dreaming too much. I’ll waste so much of today’s valuable daylight dreaming of tomorrow’s. I dream of a softly lit cabin in the Alps with a vegetable garden, slate counters and wood paneling, a reading room, a spiral staircase, and a view. I dream of what I’ll say in my acceptance speech when I win big awards. I dream of riding around the world, hitching freighters from continent to continent, a pannier of exposed film, leather-bound journals crammed with witty one-liners, and a book on the other side. I even dream about sailing around the world, despite the small fact that I’ve never even sailed.

So, I’ve gladly let myself return to this familiar cave, this gentle darkness, the land of shut eyes and strong rum in my ethereal, calloused hands. My eyes glaze over, and I dream of bikepacking out to this little place stuck firmly in the front of my mind. A small fishing village in Baja sits quietly over a rocky point break, a wave far from anything else, 45 kilometers from pavement, from any market with cold, pre-wrapped tortillas. Only one way in, only one way back out. It’s a pilgrimage for surfers. They park their motley of vans on the cliffs above and surf until the waves or the water runs out, returning with a dusty hangover to their old crowded beaches back home.

  • Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California

After a few trips there, I’d wondered what riding to the place would be like, then connecting back with the Baja Divide route and pushing south into another town, maybe even further, with a few more waves to surf along the way. It’s the only relatively close place I know with long dirt roads connecting quality, quiet waves. So, with this dream still knocking around in my mind and a heavy south swell roaring out of the South Pacific and into the cold northern waters of Mexico, we load up the bikes, the boards, a trailer, and a rack, and we get on the road to do the thing some of us are so fortunate to be able to do: we finally scratch this festering itch and chase our fantastic dreams, however stupid they may be.

Surfpacking Baja California

The truck rumbles and coughs as it gets to speed. In my 47-year-old Toyota, mountain passes terrify us, and as we fly down the pass from Mammoth, my sister and her cat in the back, Ben and I in the front, the music loud, the old songs we used to sing together raging again in the wind, Ben looks over and clenches his fists, pumping them with excitement. “SCHOOL’S OUT!” he yells above the shameless mess of noise and activity. The truck wobbles as it hits 70, and I downshift and hold on.

  • Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California

Ben pulls a tube of super glue from his pocket and starts gluing his cracking fingers back together. He points at the Sierra peaks as we drive by them, naming them one by one, noting which ones he’s just skied off of. “Oh, that one’s Mt Williamson. That’s the second-highest peak in California! I skied off that one last week. There’s a huge couloir on the backside.” He goes on, and I understand none of it. He’s now several years immersed in this new lexicon, and high alpine climbing is an alien world to me. Ben is my hostage as we keep the truck pointed squarely toward Mexico. The taquerias of Ensenada are my mountains to climb.

Origins

The two of us first met in the cycling club at UCLA, back when we were undergrads, and our weekends together were often filled with spontaneous camping trips and wacky bike rides. We first came to this wave together while studying four years ago, when a less powerful south swell was on its way, and we had three days without plans. We did homework on the cliff between sessions, surfed empty waves until our arms went numb, then took turns sleeping in the car on the drive back north, just making it to a punk show before class resumed on Monday.

We surfed sunrises and rode bikes at midnight in LA, drove north to chase quiet waves, and drove east to climb mountains, always desperately clinging to any pockets of time together we could find. Ben was my accomplice in fun, a research scientist in the art of stoke, and we saw many new things back then. After returning to California, everything felt enchanting, and our friendship grew quickly in the golden sun and fertile soil of Southern California. But that wave, that place, would always linger in my mind.

Ben and I both graduated, miraculous as it was, into the chaos of the pandemic. I stayed with him and his family for a few weeks while we rebuilt the Craigslist special Toyota I lucked into. And once it was rolling, we headed north, surfing cold, ghostly beach breaks in Oregon and Washington, bikepacking on the weekends, and climbing mountains whenever they presented themselves. We drove to Montana and climbed everything we could find, including the tallest peak in the Bob Marshall range, just two days before Ben had to leave.

Our summer was full of new things, new places, new ideas. We stopped by protests and returned to the mountains and talked and read and got kicked out of camp spots and laughed about it all. We were thunder and lightning—Ben the bullet and me the barrel—and we aimed our hurricane of chaos into the mountains and rode it out there together. Our brains were powder kegs, primed by decades of school, and finally lit by the open road and the overwhelming excitement of everything new around it.

Ben rented a car and drove home, slated to start a graduate program the following week back at UCLA. I went grocery shopping alone for the first time in months that day and cried in the cereal aisle. The poor lady bagging my food looked down despondently, uncomfortably, as she asked me how I was, and I sobbed once more. The rollercoaster of a summer had slammed to a halt. The best part of my life was over. We would never live like that again.

Ben finished his master’s in mechanical engineering and got a job at a big firm in San Diego. We hung out as much as we could, surfing small waves and crowded waves, going for shorter bike rides, and planning out the future. With time, I got used to the creaks and lumps while sleeping on his couch. But nothing was the same. Ben grumbled over his new corporate job. We talked a lot about those months on the road. It hung over our friendship like a great mountain shadow. Ben would even later say it annoyed him how much we talked about it. And I started saying that it scared me how much I had already forgotten.

The simple truth was we would probably never get that feeling again. Raging excitement, endless fun, big, wild, new things every single unplanned, chaotic, and exhausting day. We were both addicted to the feeling and battling withdrawal. Ben quit his corporate job and went to work as a ski patroller. I went to Europe. We didn’t see each other for a year, maybe more. We moved on, and the waves kept breaking. Our boards got dusty.

Chasing Waves

Back in the present, our racks jitter over the washboard. My board rattles against the trailer. Ben’s rack falls off. We both fall over. The pushing is hard. The ground offers no resistance as we dig our cleats into its soft silt and rock-strewn underlayers, kicking and floundering. We groan and swear. We laugh and chit-chat. We mostly just fist bump when the conversation lulls and we rejoin, aware of just how good it feels to scratch this itch. Ben is faster with the rack, and my trailer full of plastic gallons of water cuts into the silt and drags like an anchor. The waves are crashing somewhere far away. The swell was set to arrive that morning, but with the waves calling and this outlandish dream prodding still, progress is slow.

  • Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California

We ride the 45 kilometers to our surf spot in seven hours. But as the dirt road tapers down to the point, the lighthouse finally cuts through the afternoon haze, and the air cools off with a tinge of salt, we feel close. I feel lighter, almost relieved, to have just gotten this close after all these years. When we first see the ocean, we shout, jump, and hug. “This was all worth it!” I enthusiastically lie, mostly meaning it in the rush of the moment. We’re still an hour, maybe two, from the wave, and until the thrill of a drop in and a solid bottom turn fills up my empty legs. I gladly lie some more.

“We’re almost there!”

Since we spent those few electrifying months living together in my truck, I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico. I’ve ridden the Baja Divide twice, I’ve trundled the mainland, I’ve spent a fifth of those three years down here. So, riding with Ben through Baja, showing him my old spots, hanging out with friends, even running into them on the road, feels like my version of Ben’s show-and-tell pointing out the peaks he’s summited in the Sierra. I feel indoctrinated into the community of expats who have barreled south, fascinated by Baja’s worlds of complexities, eager to learn the culture, something more familiar now, but still absorbed into its overwhelming difference.

Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California

I now understand the twenty-something living in his mom’s old minivan collecting rocks near Tres Virgenes I met a few years ago. Or the countless surfers living in beat-up trucks who rattle off the names of waves like auctioneers. Casa’s, ‘wrecks, K38, 181! Anyone got a place in Scorpion Bay I can stash a board? Baja is a web of loyalists, each digging for their own patch of sand to clutch on to and claim it as the best, as something new, something important.

Have you read this thing? Been to that spot? Do you know this guy? Go here… I promise you. In surfing, localism is crippling. Back home, people fight others off their waves, yelling and splashing, threatening legal action, flexing with their constant heavy side-eyeing and one-upmanship. But Baja has the most undeveloped coastline in the Northern Hemisphere, and waves break endlessly, hidden, often unridden, in the large swaths of land in between growing cities. We aim our bikes and our boards there. Surfing empty waves, just a friend to high-five on the other side of a long ride, is the best feeling in the world. It’s a feeling that’s increasingly disappearing in this world of mainstream surfing, of hyper-fast and cheap travel, of surfing magazines and internet guides and Instagram and geotags. We pedal on for hours and hours, hoping and praying it’s empty at the end of the dirt road that seems to go on forever.

Surfpacking Baja California

We finally get there just as the sun begins to set and the wind finally begins to calm. A haunting stillness surrounds us as we high-five and fist pump, cheer and yell, and stare at the treasure billowing on the other side of our long dirt road. We stand atop the seaside cliffs alone, no surfers in sight, our prayers answered. We fall into a trance of awe and watch heavy, dark sets roll into our arms. Head-high waves spit into the wind, lined up and breaking off the point. Three, four, five-deep sets cresting and peeling off the reef and down the line.

In the fading light, we watch the waves roll in and rumble the rocks beneath, pointing at the sections reverently, aghast, too excited for words. For four years, I’ve thought of this moment, and it’s more beautiful than my dreams would allow. It’s the best I’ve ever seen this spot. We vibrate with the idea of riding these waves in the morning. We pitch the tent and toss on the ground excited all night. We dream of waves. Of course, we dream of waves.

Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California

We set the alarm early, crawl out of the tent, and check the surf at first light. It’s pathetic, the swell seems to have died off, and the tide is way too low. Kelp dredges the shallows, and reef boils on the surface. Small wooden pangas buzz, and fishermen cast nets along the shore. A woman hangs laundry. The pelicans fly by. I go back to bed and sleep for hours, and we slowly lumber around camp all day, waiting for the waves to pick up again, sure that they must.

Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California

We duck out of the wind and into the fishing village and eat lunch with some fishermen. Antonio, the lead guy, fries us a rockfish they caught earlier in the morning, and we sit around and talk. They call surfers cuervos, crows, because we show up in black and bring bad luck. When the surfers show up, it means waves are showing up too, making fishing difficult, even dangerous. Antonio shows us photos of the huge sharks they’ve caught out there. I’ve heard a lot lately that when you buy a fish taco in Baja, chances are it’s actually shark rather than fish. Later, when we tell Antonio we rode out here on bicycles, he laughs and shakes his head and says, “How sad.”

  • Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California

So much of surfing, of the deep obsession some surfers battle their whole lives, is entrenched in the hunt. Chasing new waves, empty waves, better waves than the stuff at home. For a two-week surf trip, we’ll probably spend less than ten minutes on top of our boards actually surfing. The rest—waiting for the swells to line up, the tides and the winds to match what the spot likes, even the ducking under heavy sets, paddling against the currents, moving around in the lineup, studying the waves as they shift along the reef and break down the line—all adds up and makes those brief moments so special. And by making the trip out to the wave even more difficult, slower, and more labored, by riding those heavy bikes and stretching out this glamorous hunt, it makes the first push off the crest and turn down the line that evening even better.

Surfpacking Baja California

The tide comes up, and the swell builds into the afternoon, and we finally dive into the ocean near sunset. And as I sit in the water and see our bikes lying on their sides above, our meager tent flapping helplessly in the wind, the waves at our back, and the long empty stretch of coastline to our east, it all feels so overwhelming. Sets roll in and crash on my head as I stare around in a trance. Pelicans soar along the troughs, and seals flip in the water. The sky glows a soft pink as the sun goes away. The stars poke through. We sit there alone. I’m almost too happy to surf.

Almost.

Ben and I surf into the night until the ink-black water rolls into the ink-black sky and reading the mounds approaching is guesswork. But we surf screaming rights, and I take some of the best rides of my life this first night. I yell out to Ben, 200 yards away after a long ride into shore, throwing my arms around to try and share this intense abundance of excitement.

Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California

Surfing folklore talks a lot about keeping your cool in the water, not “claiming” waves by shouting or being excited. The best surfers show the least emotion in the water. But I think that’s bullshit. I’m still too awestruck by the incredible nature of this sport, the randomness of it all, of just being here in this blip of the great ocean and on a pulse of energy from 3,000 miles away, flying through the air on a tablet of foam, fins cutting through a hidden underworld, the baffling wind, the euphoria of anticipation meeting elation, my brain exploding, my bones soaking. All of it is too much to contain, too much to maintain any semblance of calm. I sprint paddle back to Ben and roll into the water, and with no other release, I pound my fists and scream into the sky, “AND WE RODE OUR BIKES OUT HERE!”

  • Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California

Ben and I surf for a few more days, finding a rhythm. Sleeping in, surfing for an hour in the mid-morning, hanging out with the fishermen in the afternoon, reading incessantly through the late afternoon, then surfing into the night when the conditions really line up. I brought along what we call The Bible, my heavily read copy of Barbarian Days, the Pulitzer Prize-winning surfing memoir from Bill Finnegan, who travels the world looking for quiet waves with his best friend in their twenties, then later becomes a war correspondent and celebrated journalist. It’s the book that has most changed the way I look at the world, at adventure, at companionship, at the point of it all. I’ll read it while the pounding surf rumbles the cliff walls and stare off at the ocean, flickering around the edges of the fluttering pages, wondering how much more is out there, wondering how far south these bikes and these boards could take us.

Surfpacking Baja California

After a few days at the wave, surfing with some other guys who show up for the upcoming weekend, Ben and I pack up the bikes and leave. Lawyer Dave stocks us up on water, and we ride out, the waves now calmly crashing at our backs. It’s small, and we’ll use the day as a transfer before more swell arrives in time for the weekend. It feels routine now, getting back on a loaded bike, but with sopping wetsuits and heavy board bags, tired shoulders, and the buzz from last night’s long session still ringing in our salty ears, we ride on in a giddy daze.

  • Surfpacking Baja California
  • Surfpacking Baja California

These are the moments I’ve felt captive to while dreaming of endlessly for years now. It’s quiet on the bikes, the wind at our back, the ocean off to our right, the washboard gently hammering through my spine. We’ll go and surf a few more waves on our way south. We’ll pull mussels off the rocks and boil them in the pot, eating the tender meat with abandon after a long day of pedaling. We’ll shoot photos on those iconic switchbacks, we’ll surf, we’ll read, we’ll talk into the night, we’ll surf again, we’ll ride, and we’ll eat our hearts out when we get back to the truck. But first, we need to ride back to where we came from.

Surfpacking Baja California

“So, is this better than rolling out in a truck?” I ask Ben. My body groans up the first climb. I feel a mess of dust and sand and salt. My skin smells like neoprene. My cleats are rusty, and the saddle sores that have somehow grown while in the water scream. I’m exhausted, but I’m desperate for him to say yes. After all that time spent dreaming of this trip, I need him to say yes. Ben is a serial hedonist, utilitarian, and direct in his assessment. He smiles once more. Our cheeks are sore. Our lips are chapped.

“Of course it’s better. Because now we’re on bikes.”

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