The place I like to camp is on an isolated stretch of beach south of San Felipe, Baja California, on the deserted, ruggedly spectacular coast of the Gulf of California. Three hours southeast of Ensenada, San Felipe is a combination fishing village and tourist playground. But 10 miles away, on the rough road south to Puertecitos, the coastline is transformed into authentic backcountry Baja, and the beach is dotted with nothing more civilized than rough-hewn campos.
Here we can pull up to a patch of beach, throw up our Costco mansion and call it home, with no indignant oceanfront homeowners to shoo us away.
Crossing the border drains the tension of 21st century norteamericano existence from my body as if just the right plug has been pulled. The toll road from Tijuana down the Pacific coast feels like flying, banking from cloud to blue to cloud, the surf exploding on the rocks hundreds of feet down.
Ensenada is a jumble after the toll road's Euclidean logic. From there, the run across the spine of Baja is an experiment in time travel — this was California before we paved it. The road winds up above Ensenada, dances around the mountains of the Sierra Juárez, hums through fertile Valle Trinidad and then drops, now on the hot, dry side of the peninsula.
From the scorching desert we plunge into the funk and street life of San Felipe. We're four hours, and 80 years, away from San Diego.
The restaurants and street-side stands hawk their catch: shrimp sautéed in pungent garlic butter, broiled spiny langosta, and the delicacy that made San Felipe famous: fish tacos.
The sun subsiding, we migrate south, searching for our own private seaside nirvana. The RV dwellers and dirt bikers tend to stay near the town, but there are more than 40 campos stretched along the coast, each at the end of its own dusty, rutted road. After about 10 miles we pick one with an appropriately battered sign and bound slowly toward the beach.
TJ stirs from her road-hum-induced slumber, wide-eyed now as the van crawls, like a newborn sea turtle, for the shore. It's a lovely little private playa.
TJ, who speaks better Spanish than I do, does the translating as we negotiate with the sun-etched campo attendant.
Five bucks buys a campsite anywhere along the beach. We walk out into the dusk, dragging our gear, and fumble to assemble the Summer Home, TJ and I rolling and laughing in the jumble of fiberglass poles and nylon.
TJ 's mom is not an enthusiastic camper, but I have hopes that I can set the camping hook in TJ before she disappears into the lipstick-and-eye-shadow world of adolescence.
TJ escapes the drudgery of logistics and flees down the beach, chasing the gray gaviotas, her orange pigtails glowing in the rusty light. She collects shells, rocks and feathers while I grill steak fajitas on the Coleman stove. We wash them down with Gatorade for her and sweating Cerveza Pacífico Clara for me.
I can see the lighthouse at Bahía Santa María, a few miles to the north, reporting for work, guiding the last shrimp boats into port.
The stars pop out like holes punched in a velvet tent. I drag our inflatable Orange Torpedo kayak from the van and set to filling it, the hand pump wheezing like my lungs after a hard mountain-bike climb. TJ looks on in curiosity — what is her strange dad going to do with a kayak in the middle of the night?
As the Milky Way swims into view above us, I lie down in the kayak and unsheath my best binoculars. The kayak is a perfect stargazing platform, supporting my head at the bow, its fat round gunwales steadying my elbows.
TJ comes and lies with me, and I give her an impromptu tour of the stars and planets, the cool breeze off the sea defeated under my unzipped sleeping bag. There's Jupiter, with its four tiny pinpoint moons arrayed in a line across its equator, one on the left and three on the right. There's Saturn, a yellowish oval smudge. There are the Pleiades, a splash of diamonds flung into the sky. And the Orion Nebula, a puff of light below the three-star slash of Orion's belt.
I tell TJ that the light we are seeing tonight started its journey before she was born — and much of it before I was born.
TJ falls asleep on top of me, her head on my chest, her feet crusted with sand like sugar doughnuts. I carry her into the tent and slide her into her sleeping bag, deciding it will be easier to shake sand out of the sleeping bag tomorrow than to rub it off her feet tonight.
I fall asleep to the faint smell of distant campfires and the sounds of the sea deserting the beach with the tide, its burble and slish sliding away with my waning consciousness.
The sunrise hits our tent and lights it up like a Chinese lantern. We try to stay in our sleeping bags, but the insistent heat drives us out. My hair is greasy, and my naked feet pick up TJ 's sand from the tent floor.
She stretches and unzips the front door, and we're blinded by the shimmer of sun, blazing off the sea like polished aluminum. The only sounds are the faint slap of salt water and the needling gaviotas, picking over our dinner scraps.
In five years, TJ will be embroiled in the whirl of being a SoCal teenager. In 10 years she'll probably be off to college. But here and now it's just her and me, messing around on the Baja beach, more silly friends of different ages than father and daughter.