There we were, a good portion of my extended family, just about ready to indulge the perennial Humboldt itch to get someplace sunny and warm, at least for a couple of weeks, at least every other year. And though I didn’t have any real illusions going in, I would say that the moment that illustrated everything for me, the moment that foreshadowed our next 12 days, was the moment the plane started to turbulently descend.
As we bounced up and down in the air on the way to touchdown, our fellow passengers, most of whom seemed to hail from the U.S.A., started to hang loose, getting into the spirit of their upcoming vacation, the week they had been anticipating for months. The celebration started with little party yells, some yip-yip-yips and yee-haws at every sudden 100-foot lurch in elevation. The excitement burbled up and down the aisle. The general view seemed to be that we had all been unexpectedly treated to something like free roller coaster passes at a dodgy Mexican amusement park. It heralded great things for vacation week, and the only response known to the collective mind of my countrymen was to loudly share the thrill.
The party was on! The plane shuddered and trembled, and it was like spring break all over again. Half the passengers danced up from their seats, stripping off clothing piece by piece and tossing it down the aisle, while the other half whistled and roared. Finally, as the wings separated from the plane and the fuselage snapped in two, there let loose a whoop of tequila-drenched ecstasy: “CA-BO!”
For the first few days, we stayed at the millionaires’ resort. This was a few miles out of town, on a secluded cove. It would be the location of Rosie and David’s wedding, which was the primary factor in our choice of destination and which we were honored and delighted to attend. It was a serene place. There were only two causes for discomfort. One: the mortifying obsequity of the staff, and the impossibility of giving people a tip that would match the ones George Clooney and Jennifer Aniston gave them. Two: the ever-present terror of accidentally ordering something that would be charged to the room.
After the wedding, we moved closer to town and rejoined the party from our plane. We could gauge the shift in circumstances from the windows of our taxi as we pulled up. Bikini-clad babes roamed the lobby, while the beefcake, shirtless, held forth with crooked elbow its ubiquitous plastic mug of beer. Upon checking in, we found that there were signs all over every wall, forbidding this and that. Everywhere we turned, people tried to sell us a “gold card” that would entitle us to various discounts. We learned that there were theme nights in the hotel restaurant, a different one for every day of the week, and that they would feature Broadway-style singing and dancing. “Mucho tequila!” one teased. And when we first went to town, it was all much the same — booze, disco, hawkers, chain stores and crowds of revelers eating it all up.
We had need to visit a local doctor, who had an office at our resort. And if there’s one thing that I can pin down to succinctly describe the kind of place we were staying, this is it. In his office in a remote part of town, the doctor had plastered all over his walls numerous citations from national and international organizations recognizing his dedication and service, and commemorating his time as an instructor of medicine at the University of Guadalajara. On a side table, sitting behind photos of his family, there was a framed and autographed picture of Brad Pitt, thanking the doctor for his services during the filming of Troy. But at his consultancy in the resort, there was only the photo of Pitt, and it hit you front and center the moment you walked in.
And that, in a paragraph, is how America is correctly imagined in the places it vacations.
On a road trip to the art town of Todos Santos, an hour outside the pleasure zone, my eye landed on a familiar type sitting alone at a lunch spot: male, mid-to-late 40s, faded Hawaiian shirt, shaggy blond hair and beard, vacant stare, face like corrugated cardboard. Here, I felt, was a kindred spirit, despite his probable flaws. Here was someone from the U.S.A. but not of it, someone who sought refuge from the carnival of vapidity in tiny places near the fringe. You could, at that moment, find clones of this fellow, in various stages of intoxication, littering cheap beach villages all over the globe.
Or you could find them in just about equal number scattered like seed throughout the hills and towns of Humboldt County. The only difference would be the first-string choice of intoxicant, and perhaps warmer clothing. Afterward I mused over whether I should have slipped the guy a note: “Brother, they’ve built a place for you. It’s called Redway. Get on a bus, go home. Your skin and your liver will thank you.”
But would this have been a better life? I tried to gaze three, five, 10 years into the future. Here is our man, at least looking much healthier. The underground economy, the only economy he is suited for, has provided for him. He has money, a car, a place to live. He has associates. But is he happy? Has he grown something to fill the hole at the center of himself? Did he find anything to care about? Something worth a struggle, a risk?
I doubted it. Maybe such a transformation would have been possible in the ’70s, but not today. In 2008, all we’d really have to offer such a newcomer is an invitation to the creaky old circle of paranoia and impotence into which our particular counterculture has sunk. Maybe that says something about him, maybe it says something about us. Was he better off on the beach?
Once we made our peace with it, we had a good time in Cabo San Lucas. We got to live in shorts and flip-flops for two weeks this year, a vacation in itself. My wife and I watched our older son learn to dogpaddle in the pool. My sister-in-law and I hiked cross-country across a patch of desert to buy groceries at Wal-Mart, hauling back two five-gallon jugs of water in the noonday sun. We found the back streets, away from the downtown tourist zone, and they had in them all the charm of Mexican daily life — street vendors, combi buses, young couples on parade. At night, I rocked my younger son to sleep standing over five miles of unbroken beach, as storm waves pounded the shore and the sounds of an ersatz danza dinner show wafted over from the other side of the hotel.
But we drove home like demons through hours and hours of smoke-choked air and 100-plus degree weather, six in the car, sketchy air conditioning. A stop in Hopland nearly killed us all. This was the poisonous climate in which they all lived, all those Americans, and guess what? It’s only going to get worse, and worse. We got our final revenge a few hours later, just south of Scotia, where you make that big blissful drop into the fog.