Sometime in the summer of 1991 – between my junior and senior years of college – I joined a group of friends on a quick trip to Ensenada, about 75 miles down Highway One on the Baja peninsula. This was not a sight-seeing tour. Rather, it was an excuse to drink beer in a lax regulatory environment. We were all 21, I think, but hadn’t been for long; benign lawlessness was the order of the day.
Speaking of lawlessness, this crowd had coalesced in late high school around the Grateful Dead. This was the Touch of Gray era; the band wasn’t at its musical peak, but Jerry had survived his coma and there was energy around a top-ten hit and a video featuring dancing skeletons. I was initially drawn to the Garcia/Hunter songbook, but stayed for the parking lot scene, which bristled with freedom. Those road trips to various arenas, amphitheaters, and speedways in California produced some of the lasting memories of my late teens and early 20s.
The Ensenada trip was cut from the same cloth as the Dead adventures, except we drove South and there was no music at the end of the line. There was also no itinerary, and no place to stay; I don’t think we even had a tentative lodging plan. Literally, we parked our two cars, walked toward the center of town, and started eating street food and drinking beer. I remember a rudimentary quesadilla stall on the outskirts of town, and maybe a fish taco operation. After that, we drank in a succession of cervecerias and interacted naively with bar employees whose function it was to make you drink more. We made their jobs easy!
Eventually, the group splintered and pursued independent objectives. My branch landed in a windowless basement bar as day turned to night. That doesn’t mean it was dark when we emerged; the tourist thoroughfare was incandescent with festive decorations and vendor stalls. Consequently, some adjustment was required, and I began the next phase of the evening in a daze.
Still, I was pretty sure I saw my friend drive by in a police car. There were officers in the front seat of the official vehicle that slowly passed me by. No red flags! But then there was a civilian in the back seat, pounding the window with his fists, face plastered against the glass. I couldn’t hear the words or the pounding, but got the message: HELP!!!
Don’t try this in America, but we chased the car around the corner, flagged it down, and negotiated the prisoner’s release for $40 U.S. which – to this day – has not been repaid. Who knows what happened next, but eventually a subset of the group lost interest in the whole affair and drove back to San Diego. That’s right, we drove from Ensenada to San Diego in the middle of the night: a couple of hours on a winding coastal road in a foreign country after hours of drinking. But we made it! Those who stayed behind slept in a jeep and woke painfully to the sound of a marching band with a massive horn section.