Of Surf and Ceramic Monkeys III

| posted on March 05, 2012

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

The recent act of turning down a dirt road brought back memories of Baja. Memories of surf, but of other things too. Of campfires, washboard ruts, Federales, questionable taco stands, close calls, tarantula hawks, trippy-looking cacti, blistering heat, watery feces, fly swarms, flat tires, sandy tents, hospitable locals, lobster for trade, rain squalls, bribe strategies, panga rides, and ceramic monkeys.

Like warm urine in a fresh wetsuit, it all came flooding back.

The welcome delight of these peripheral, non-surf memories made me realize that for a California surfer, going to Baja is less about finding waves than I thought. It’s more about finding an alternate universe. About the possibility of getting into a vehicle and driving yourself and your friends from one world to a very, very different one.

Further down the road, I picked up a whiff of something. I couldn’t quite identify it, but then I realized why: it was a combo smell of some sort. Maybe boat gas and burning trash and tamales. Maybe not. But it was definitely a Baja smell, an odorous reminder of things past: tequila chased, scorpions blowtorched, mahi panfried, Bullfrog smeared, beans digested, carburetors flushed.

The dirt road ended, and only a 50-yard sand berm stood between myself and the ocean. I couldn’t see the surf, so I turned off the engine and listened. The air was punctuated with the roar of a new swell, but there were other sounds too: seabirds, wax scraping on boards, music emanating from rent-a-cars and aging 4-Runners, and the excited chatter of anxious surfers.

I locked the car and ran.

It is with sensory driven nostalgia that I recently dug through my files and selected some lesser and non-published photos to post on this blog. Maybe not the best photographs, but treasured moments just the same.

Shocker toss-up: I don’t what’s weirder looking, nobody out at Zippers, or zero development on the bluff. Photo: Gilley, circa 1983

Central Baja makes you earn it. Photo: Gilley

Roadside attraction: The late Anthony Cappa makes a new friend in Southern Baja. Photo: Gilley

Baja imperative: Either know how to walk a log, or have your small-wave shortboard act down. Scott Blake. Photo: Gilley

No bueno: Experienced Baja travelers know that summer thunderstorms should be met with trepidation. Photo: Gilley

Sometimes the strongest memories are just fleeting glimpses. Mike Parsons, Todos Santos. Photo: Gilley

  • tony (ty) carson

    Wow, Baja, rolled my VW van on a trip back from the tip, had guns pulled on me twice, was on my way to jail several times, till we bribed the federalies, the miles and miles of dirt roads, federalie check points, I could go on and on, and I wouldn’t trade a thing for those memories, and the memories of the waves we scored, Campo Lopez, (K55), 3 Ms, in our early days, then trips deeper into Baja, (to spots better left un- named), the hospitality and kindness of the real local people are still a part of me 40 years later. May God always bless Baja.

  • tony (ty) carson

    Wow, Baja, rolled my VW van on a trip back from the tip, had guns pulled on me twice, was on my way to jail several times, until we bribed the federales, the miles and miles of dirt roads, federale check points, I could go on and on, and I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything, and the memories of scoring waves at Campo Lopez, (K55), and 3Ms in our early days, and later, trips deeper into Baja, ( to spots better left un-named), the hospitality and kindness of the real local people, are a part of me 40 years later. May God always bless Baja.

  • zeno malan

    @ tony

    copy that

  • Matthew Gillenberg

    Zippers doesn’t break anymore. Sand has filled in the reef. Most likely due to the new marina. In the first photo, you can see the mirador just below gringo hill. I live in the condos facing la roca. It was a different world here in 2004, let alone 1983. Forget your log or shortboard, SUP is the evolution of surfing. Just ask the local SUP dealer.

  • tom gudauskas


    Beautifully constructed memory bank. I love the synthesis of smell, sight and sound. We have not been back to Baja since things appeared to get dicy in the last 10 years. For my wife’s birthday we leave on Saturday for San Ignacio Lagoon. Not to surf, but to be a part of an experience in being with the whales and their calves. As I have grown older I hope to meet the same beautiful Mexican people with a smile and love for their space. Thank you for your inspiration!

    Mahalo Amigo!


  • Mike Shand

    Love seeing your consistently artistic pictures and reading your regularly inspiring writing, Rob. If that top picture IS 1983, it is likely you took it on a trip you made to Baja w/ me, Alex Bravo, John Builderback & others from the UCSD Surf Club. Fond memories of more pristine times….But though very much changed, Baja is still a treasure trove of adventure and discovery.