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Bernd Roediger and Kai Bates, happy and homey in Hawaii…a far cry from the dirt roads and drug dealers Bernd found his first time in Baja. Photo: Island Hopping Part 1

Epic | Bernd Roediger | Once Upon A Time In Mexico

Shotgun toting smugglers and dusty desert drug fronts—just another Baja SUP adventure

Story by Bernd Roediger
Edit by Mike Misselwitz and Shari Coble

Maui is my "home." But, after a few years of traveling, I've found that home really is where you make it…as long as there’s surf nearby.

I came to this conclusion during my first-ever surf trip—a Baja road trip in celebration of my 14th birthday and my first 'business trip' as a Naish team rider. The assignment: surf, take pictures, celebrate my birthday and bring my dad! How could I score any harder?

We needed a guide, which is where Wyatt Miller came in. He’d spent years scouring the Baja coastline and had plenty of secret spots on lock down.

Wyatt elbowed a board bag in the back and dust and cobwebs billowed off the gear, filling the musty cavity of our box-truck and revealing the outline of a man sleeping in the cargo. It was Brian Talma—my hero and possibly the most epic character in watersports!

As we drove south, I watched the world I knew give way to a world of sand…and dirt…and poverty—harsh, hopeless poverty. It was my first encounter with Tijuana, and I was taken aback by the sea of tattered tents that flapped in the dismal border-town barrio.

Hours passed as we hauled down Highway 1 with daydreams of perfect surf, and simultaneously, tacos. Little did we know—our growling stomachs would be the instruments of our doom. We drove, consumed by hunger, all except Brian who was still asleep after some four hours of driving.

Salvation came in the form of a small town with a sign that read, “Cuatro Casas”…or so we thought.

We followed the sign and crossed a massive plain. We could see the ocean! We could see discernible lines—waves! As we got closer we spotted a hotel and a restaurant with a blinking "OPEN" sign. The wind was up and the waves were weak, so we opted to forgo the immediate surf session and fill our bellies instead.

Everything inside the tiny restaurant was absurdly dusty. A man came out from the kitchen, eyed us suspiciously and whispered to a woman behind the bar. She walked over to us, poured water and handed us menus.

Wyatt looked a little displaced. He walked into the bathroom, the door swinging shut behind him. Before the door even closed, he was rushing back out.

"We need to leave, now," he said.

This is the part where everyone started realizing something was wrong. Everyone except for Brian, who was still asleep in the U-Haul. I didn't know what Wyatt had seen, but I understood we were in some kind of danger.

Wyatt fumbled with the keys. He started the car and we took off. We were covered in dust. It didn't take long for us to realize…the box-truck was open in the back.

"Where's Brian?!"

"Let's split up and look for him," Wyatt said as we nervously returned to the restaurant we’d escaped moments before.

After circling the hotel and scanning the beach, Dad walked into the restaurant and came out with Brian in tow. He'd woken up to the car parked in an empty lot. He explained: "So, I came to the bathroom…the fella in der don't look too good!"

"He was tied up," Wyatt said walking towards the car, "This isn't a normal hotel. They're fronting drug stuff here."

Into the car again.

With all hatches sealed, we made our escape…again. As we fled, an old 90s Bronco pulled out from behind the hotel and got on the dirt track behind us. My hands went cold when I noticed a shotgun sitting on a gun rack behind its seats. Rattled by all the hints of violence around us, making our U-Haul live up to its name, hauling a** down the dusty dirt road back to civilization and away from the banditos.

By the time we hit pavement again, our bumper was hanging on by a thread. We warbled along with a flat tire and an overheated engine. Still, we limped on until we were far from whatever we'd just witnessed.

When we finally approached El Rosario, a small town about two hours south of Cuatro Casas, we stopped to give the truck, and ourselves, a break. We found a garage where we could buy a replacement tire and a taco stand where we could buy replacement attitudes The four of us sat at the taco stand in silence for a long time.

After refueling and recalibrating, we found ourselves once again racing west down another dirt road in search of waves. We didn't have to drive quite as insanely this time, but we chose to anyways…the U-Haul was already trashed. When we got to the coast, a huge fog bank hung low in the autumn sky, shrouding our view of the waves. We couldn't see the surf, but we could hear it.

Then, as five o'clock rolled around and the setting sun dipped beneath the thick marine layer, it seemed to burn the fog off from underneath. All at once, the sky was clear, the horizon became a mixture of colors—and there they were. Waves!

One of the most memorable days of my life ended on a high; The ocean finally rewarded our troubled travels with an epic SUP surf session! I realized right then—thousands of miles from Maui on my first trip outside the U.S., among shotgun toting smugglers and dusty desert drug fronts—home is wherever the waves are breaking.