The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea

CHUENQUE BAY, BAJA CALIFORNIA, MONDAY, APRIL 4

First Day

A solitary autobús no larger than a sand flea jams gears and belches smoke as it crawls up the mountain and disappears on the single road to civilization. That’s my bus I am watching vanish. There won’t be another bus for twenty-four hours, if at all. When instinct and years of conditioning tell me to cry out — cry, “Stop! Wait! I’m coming with you!” — why do I hesitate? I look around me at the strangers upon whom my survival now depends and I realize I am not the only one having second thoughts. Why don’t they cry out? The only thing worse than being a fool is knowing that you have fallen into the hands of other fools.   

Two days of hard traveling has delivered me to this remote, uninhabited, abruptly beautiful bay south of the small fishing village of Loreto and 150 miles north of La Paz. Chuenque Bay is the jumping-off place for the Southwest Outward Bound School’s thirteen-day sea kayaking course. In the morning we will load our kayaks and paddle south along the western shore of the Baja peninsula. We will camp on barren volcanic islands and sea-locked clear-water coves, wherever there is shelter or a place to land along this jagged coastline where the mountains of the great Sonoran Desert plunge into the Sea of Cortez. Except for a few tiny fishing villages accessible only by boat, nothing human has ever dented this fortress of nature. Having prepared for this trip by taking up jogging and cold turkeying alcohol and other drugs to which my hedonistic system has formed an alliance of two decades, I have wallowed now for several days in sanctimonious glory. Suddenly I feel apprehensive; I came here seeking a simple vehicle for escape, but as I behold the uneasy specter of my new companions and speculate on their motives, I experience a sinking sensation of an actor who has stumbled onto the wrong stage. 

Our chief instructor, Ernest Tapley (always called Tap), calls our attention to a phenomenon in the sky: a blinding sun that has been absolute monarch slips behind towering peaks, simultaneously illuminating a full moon that appears as dramatically as the titles on a movie screen. “Many of you may never have seen this before,” Tap says, in a sing-song voice. I study the faces of my eight fellow Outward Bound (OB) students as they bustle around the campfire, a little too ready to go. 

Until today, none of us had ever met. A big part of the trip is supposed to be learning to work with strangers against a hostile environment. The students come from Washington, California, New Mexico, Texas, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, Connecticut, New York. There are two college students, a teacher, an architect, a bank-computer expert, a nurse, a man between jobs and wives,a rich girl on the bum, and me. All have paid $450 tuition plus transportation for the opportunity of experiencing thirteen days of hardship, deprivation, and danger. The youngest is 18 and, at 42, I am the oldest. Also, according to one theory, the best. Kurt Hahn, the crusty old headmaster who founded Outward Bound in Wales in 1941, did so after observing this apparent contradiction: studies of British merchant seamen shipwrecked and cast adrift demonstrated that, contrary to popular belief, it was the older seamen who survived. Hahn concluded that the younger ones lacked a feel for wind and weather, and, more than that, a faith in their own inner resources. Hahn’s first OB course offered seamen thirty days of small-craft training, athletics, hard traveling by compass and chart, rescue training, and practical lessons in why you’d better trust your fellow man. That curriculum is not too different from the ones we’re offered. There are dozens of other OB courses we might have selected — mountaineering in Colorado, sailing off the coast of Maine, backpacking in the Big Bend or Gila Wilderness, white watering in Canada, cycling in Nova Scotia — but no doubt the reason each is here goes somewhere beyond logic. There is something in this confluence of sea and desert that transcends the visceral imperative of mere adventure. In contrast to the land, the sea is a shimmering, live storehouse, a silent world of plenty, a place to be loved and feared and finally to be dealt with. The sea is the reason we are all here. 

Mark, a small Japanese American who works for a large Midwestern bank, tells me: “I could have gone to Europe for what this is costing. But what could I do in Europe? Hang around a bunch of old museums? I’m not interested in seeing something someone else did.” This is Mark’s second OB course. Mark’s teeth chatter as he speaks; he zips his windbreaker to the neck and burns his fingers attempting to pour coffee into his tin OB-issue cup. “Maybe we’re all crazy,” says Frank, a tall, wire-haired young man who has LA written all over him and snaps his fingers when he talks. “Hey, man, you’re from Austin! All right! Where it’s at!” Four of the nine students are female and Frank has already connected with the prettiest, a student from Connecticut named Carla. Carla says she wants to prove something to the people back home. Barbi, a tall, thin nurse from Cleveland, replies that the only person she has to prove anything to is herself. Linda, a chubby twenty-year-old rich girl from Virginia, says she is here because it’s real, because she’s sick of people copping out . Ann, a large-boned blonde schoolteacher, believes that by exposing herself to the external pressures of this environment, an inner self will emerge, some being she has lived with but never met. 

Frank, Barbi, and Linda supervise the preparation of a thin, underseasoned, meatless stew (Linda doesn’t eat meat, and anyway, there’s not any), then we gather in a circle and listen as Tap outlines the

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