The Brakes Kill. The Gas Pedal Saves.

Near-death experiences and point runners in the Baja desert.

Light / Dark

Ian Warner and I met in 1970, when my family moved next door to his house in Malibu Colony. Growing up fewer than a hundred yards from Surfrider Beach, he became one of the best Malibu surfers of my generation. At 16, he embarked on the pro tour sponsored by Hawaii’s prestigious Town and Country Surfboards. While he had some good showings, like placing in the Malibu Pro and defeating Australian Ian Cairns at Sunset Beach, his pro career was brief. After he lost his sponsor and returned home, he worked odd jobs and lived in his car or on friends’ couches.

While my old friend was struggling, I was in college, then grad school. Every year, after my spring semester, we’d take an extended trip to Baja’s fabled Rattlesnake Point, one of the best summertime rights in the world. In those days, getting there meant a serious off-road expedition, and staying for more than a few days required planning and self-sufficiency. But we got to surf a pointbreak longer and more perfect than Rincon or Malibu, with just our friends.

When I bought a new four-wheel-drive truck in 1996, I decided to go down one last time. Gringos were buying up the point, building houses, and the end of an era was near. 

I planned to go alone, but Ian must have heard that I was heading to Baja and called me out of the blue. 

“When are you leaving?” 

“Ten days.” 

“Can I go?” 

“Do you have money?” 


“Okay, but no drugs of any kind.” 

“I don’t want to see any drugs for a while.” 

“Okay, here’s the deal. Pick up the truck from Valley Dodge, take it to get new tires at Dirty Parts in Inglewood, and then pick me up at LAX—American—3 p.m. Friday. A big southern hemi is supposed to hit on Tuesday. If we hustle, we can leave early Sunday morning.”

After Ian picked me up at the airport, we spent the next day collecting tents, coolers, block ice, cots, tarps, sleeping bags, surfboards, fishing gear, car parts, and food. By 3 o’clock Sunday morning I was behind the wheel. 

The brand-new Dodge Ram 2500 drove like a Cadillac compared to my old, battered, and bent GMC Suburban. We cruised down Interstate 5 at 80 mph, breezed through the bor- der before dawn, and stopped for coffee and gas in Ensenada. The military Puestos de Control at Maneadero—where, in previous years, we’d had our truck disassembled by Mexican federales in search of armas y drogas—was not open. We zoomed past the vineyards of San Vicente and the roadside oyster-and-clam stands in San Quintín. When we stopped for gas in El Rosario, where Baja really begins, we were making record time. 

There were always Hieronymus Bosch–like images on the two-day drive to Rattlesnake Point: giant vultures gnawing on the rotten guts of some dead animal, red flames flickering through the ribs of a burning burro, a malnour- ished horse trying to walk on a broken leg. I once descended into an arroyo and found the road covered with tomatoes and partially blocked by a twisted truck and the flattened car it had just run over. Some motorists had stopped and were trying to help, but I doubt any of the vehicle’s occupants were alive. 

Until the 1970s, there was not a paved high- way past El Rosario. Although Mexico’s Carretera Transpeninsular is paved, the many crosses by the side of the road serve as a reminder of its perils. The narrow two-lane highway has no guardrails, shoulders are rare, and passing the car ahead of you can be a life-or-death decision. I’d had many close calls over the years, and even lost a side mirror when a muy macho driver passed a slow-moving vehicle and almost hit me head-on. Nothing scared me more than the Mexican truck drivers in their roaring DINA diesel semis, who had no qualms about putting their big rigs over the center line on blind curves.

Soon Ian and I were passing through the heat of Cataviña and reached the first open military checkpoint. A bored teenaged Mexican soldier with a Heckler & Koch G3 assault rifle waved us through. 

The hum of 33-inch BF Goodrich All Terrains on the blacktop lulled Ian to sleep as we crossed the 28th parallel. By 5 p.m. we were fewer than 100 miles from cold beers at Hotel La Pinta in San Ignacio. When I announced that we had just passed the turnoff to Abreojos, Ian momentarily woke up. “Easiest trip yet!” he said. 

“Baja’s like the South of France compared to Cambodia,” I replied, recalling my time working on research in Southeast Asia. But Ian was asleep again, with dreams of an abalone dinner dancing in his head.

Less than 20 miles from our destination, I crested a steep hill at 60 mph and saw a red Ford Ranger pickup truck. This wouldn’t have been so alarming had it not been in my lane, flanked by the white Ford F-150 it was passing. We were 50 yards apart and closing fast. Time suddenly slowed down as my mind, in a milli-second, inventoried my options. None of them were good: To my right and left were sloping shoulders and desert filled with big rocks and cardón gigante, Mexican giant cactus. 

My lizard brain concluded that a collision was inevitable, and that my new truck was now a disposable survival tool.

I knew that if I suddenly swerved off the road to make way for the red Ford, I would probably roll. My lizard brain concluded that a collision was inevitable, and that my new truck was now a disposable survival tool. 

I steered slightly to the right to give the Ranger as much room as I could, then mashed the gas pedal to the firewall. If nothing else, in this game of truck billiards I was going to be the white ball. 

When my adversary in this desert duel heard my V8 downshift, then roar, and saw that the big Dodge was holding course at full speed, he locked up his brakes. The Ranger’s oversized tires made a loud, throaty, bellowing sound like a large wounded animal. As the violent scream of my engine and the bark of his tires built to an inevitable head-on crescendo, Ian woke from his slumber just in time to see the red truck, feet from impact. 

“Pete, LOOK!” was all he managed before we both were silenced by the deafening explo- sion of my front left tire and the simultaneous metallic snap of something large in the Dodge’s front end, only to be immediately replaced by the crystalline tympany of breaking glass. Pieces of my side mirror hit me in the face like bird shot. As I instinctively ducked to avoid the glass, the red Ford’s side mirror whizzed past my head, smashed into my cab’s back window, and landed in the back seat.

I heard the loud booms of the red Ford rolling end over end, but I had more pressing concerns. I was now driving with one less tire and what felt like a broken axle, and I was struggling to keep my remaining front tire from making the hard left that it wanted to. We half slid, half drove across the center line, then bounced and careened our way through the desert. When we finally ground to a halt, I couldn’t see. One eye was full of blood, the other full of broken glass.

The radio was still on. Over the sound of Marvin Gaye crooning, Ian asked, “Pete, Pete, are you okay?” 

“I think so. Check my cuts.” 

“Nothing too bad.” 

We both were surprised to be alive. 

“We’re going to jail,” I said, “but at some point I’ll get to make a phone call. You stay with the truck. I’ve got to go try to help the other driver.” 

The door wouldn’t open, so I climbed out the window and ran through the desert to the highway. As I sprinted toward the top of the hill, I noticed that my bumper and axle had hoed what looked like a crop row in the road. I could see the red Ford, 100 yards away, sitting in a pool of gasoline on its partially collapsed roof. I prepared to pull a body out of the truck, but, as I got closer, I saw a shimmering apparition backlit by the setting sun. 

It was the other driver, shaking the glass out of his hair. The stocky Mexican—who I would later learn was named Manuel Rousseau Rojas—wove on his feet, and I thought that he was in shock. Then I realized that he was stumbling drunk. 

The white Ford pulled up next to me and stopped. Except for some oil on the windshield and a tire track that ran from its gas cap to the top of its cracked camper shell, it was unscathed. I shuddered when I saw four children in the back of the truck. The driver jumped out and intro- duced himself as “Dr. Valenzuela,” then drove back up to the top of the hill, parked, carried down the shredded remnants of my tire, and put them on the road. “If we can make fuego to warn the cars, is better,” he said. “The other driver está muy borracho. Here’s my phone number.” 

I ran to my truck, got a tin of Coleman lantern fuel, ran back to the road, doused the tire, and flicked a match. Once it got above the tire, the fumes from the white gas ignited with an explosive poof

The next few hours were a blur as I manned the road with a flashlight and kept stoking the fire. At about 9 p.m. a Jeep Cherokee pulled up and four federales dressed in immaculate Western wear spilled out. The leader wore a satin baseball jacket and exotic cowboy boots and had a Colt .357 Python stuffed into the back of his pressed white jeans. He questioned me about the accident while the three other feds spoke with Rojas, whom they seemed to know. Later, I’d find out that he was a well-known regional baseball pitcher. 

The leader wore a satin baseball jacket and exotic cowboy boots and had a Colt .357 Python stuffed into the back of his pressed white jeans.

The federales vanished as quickly as they had come. After two more hours of directing traffic, a police black-and-white and a tow truck appeared. I had never imagined welcoming the sight of Mexican cops, but I did. “We take you to the station in Santa Rosalia now,” one of the cops said as Ian and I climbed into the back seat. 

“No, you’re taking us to La Pinta Hotel in San Ignacio,” I said. “I’m going to bed. It’s been a long night.” 

“We go to the station—paperwork.” 

“No, we go to the hotel.” In the end, the police drove us to the hotel, but told us to report to the station in Santa Rosalia the next morning at 10. By the time Ian and I were given the key to our room, it was 1 a.m. I took a shower and tried to get the broken glass out of my ears and hair. Finally, I fell into a deep sleep. 

Early the next morning, I walked past the town’s small lake to the wrecking yard and stared at my destroyed truck. I told the owner that I needed someone to drive us and our gear to the police station. He took me to a small house, and a big middle-aged man came out. Raul was a tour guide who owned a van and spoke some English. I agreed to pay for his fuel and give him my Hi-Lift jack, oil, coolant, and spare parts if he would drive us to the station. A half hour later, Ian and I met him at the yard and began to transfer our gear to his Ford Econoline. 

“It’s sad,” Raul said, looking at our truck, as I strapped our last boards to his van and took a final glance at my totaled Dodge. As we headed down the steep switchbacks into the sweltering, stale, windless heat of the Sea of Cortez, I steeled myself for a long, tiring day with the Mexican po- lice. When I walked into the station, I saw Rojas, smiling and cracking jokes with the cops. “This is no good,” Raul said. My doubts grew when I learned that my Mexican insurance company’s adjustor was also the police station’s secretary. 

A fat, mustached cop came into the room and handed me an accident report written in Spanish. “Sign,” he said. There were only two cars on the report, and the key witness, Dr. Valenzuela, wasn’t mentioned. I asked Raul to tell the police that I needed to call my insurance company, and that we would return after lunch. They reluctantly let us go, and Raul drove us to a store so I could make an international call. I called my father, who hunted with some of Baja’s prominent business and political leaders. When my dad picked up, it dawned on me for the first time that I easily could have been killed. The words came hard, and I gulped for air inside the hot little phone box. My dad told me to give him an hour “to make some calls.” 

When I got off the phone, I asked Raul to take us to Iglesia de Santa Bárbara, a pre- fabricated iron church that was designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame. A mining company had shipped it from Europe to Baja and reassembled it in Santa Rosalía in 1897.

Although I am an agnostic, that day I wasn’t. I entered the spartan church, knelt on the velvet-covered board at the foot of the pew, and thanked everyone I could think of. After I walked out, Ian entered and gave his thanks, then Raul drove us back to the station. 

In the two hours that we’d been gone, the cops obviously had gotten their cage rattled. The police jefe, who’d acted like he didn’t speak English, greeted me with a big, fake, gold-toothed grin. “My friend,” he said. “There are no problems. Why you make problems?” Then he presented me with a new accident report that now included Dr. Valenzuela. Raul reviewed it and said, “This one is better.” 

I signed the paper and we all shook hands. When we walked out of the station, I turned to Ian. “We’re still going to Snakes,” I said. “I already talked to Raul. He’ll take us. The swell doesn’t hit until tomorrow.” 

When we stopped for gas in Mulegé, we bought a case of beer, put it in one of our coolers, buried it in ice, and placed it on the floor between us in the van. Later, I fished out two ice-cold Tecates. 

We camped at Rattlesnakes for the next six weeks and scored. Ian began referring to me as “Headless Pete in the driver’s seat” and said that when he saw my bloody face after the accident, he was sure that half of my head was missing and “all that education was splattered against the side of the truck.”

[Pulled from TSJ 33.2. Click here for the full 138-page issue]