In the early 70s, my family used to go camping in Mexico with a group of my mother’s graduate school friends. Our 1973 blue Dodge station wagon joined the caravan down to Puerto Penasco, Rocky Point, on the Sea of Cortez, only 100 miles from the border. Back then, it was a tiny town with a wide, clean, sandy beach. We always stopped for lunch in a town called Ajo, Arizona, which in our collective opinion had the best A&W hot dogs in the world.
Camping trips meant special food, stuff we never got at any other time – orange and grape Tang, instant powdered lemonade, breakfast bars, and astronaut space sticks — the peanut butter ones were my favorite; they tasted like a combination of Elmer’s Glue and those chewy peanut-butter candies whose name eludes me now, but I can still remember their sweet, fake-nutty greatness.
The town had an old colonial hotel with a wide, deep colonnade and an inner courtyard with a fountain. We had late-afternoon lunches there. The grownups drank bottles of beer with limes; we got Shirley Temples. We ate shrimp with garlic over yellow rice, grilled fish, chicken enchiladas in green sauce. There was Mexican music playing, and an ocean breeze blew in through the tall open windows.
We sat around big driftwood bonfires at night. My sisters and mother and I slept in our big green and orange canvas cabin tent. The beach was quiet and dark except for the intermittent headlights and putt-putt-putts of beach buggies going by. I did my best to whip my little sisters into a frenzy of fear so that I wouldn’t be alone in my own anxiety about being crushed under those big rubber wheels in my sleep. In the mornings, miraculously still alive, we emerged from the tent’s zippered door, already in our bathing suits, into sunlight and wind, hungry for space sticks.
One day, my mother’s friend Claire, who was young and pretty, announced that she and her boyfriend, Keith, were going to take a walk down the beach. Everyone but me apparently grasped the significance of this.
“Can I come?” I asked instantly. It sounded like the most fun thing in the world. I’d been playing on the beach all day and was getting a little bored. Claire and Keith were so cool. It would be an adventure to take a walk with them.
They looked at each other. “We’re going to take off our clothes,” Claire said.
“Let them go,” I’m sure my mother must have told me if she’d overheard this.
“Please?” I said. “I don’t care if you take off your clothes. That’s okay.”
They didn’t say no, so the three of us walked for a glorious mile or so along the hot, breezy beach. I couldn’t believe my luck. I felt it was my duty to entertain them in return for letting me come, so I kept up a stream of information about myself – books I liked to read, gossip about people at my school. I offered the best shells I found to Claire. I ran ahead of them and back again to show them how fast I could go. I interrogated them: where did they grow up? What were they like when they were little?
They were so nice. They listened to me and answered my questions and praised my sprinting. Eventually, we stopped walking and picked a spot on the sand as our base of operations for the afternoon. When they got naked and went out swimming together, I stayed on the beach for a while and guarded their clothes from nonexistent thieves and looked away, down the beach, to give them privacy. I dug in the sand with a big abalone shell and watched seagulls land and take off in the waves. I peeked – just once – and saw their heads close together, far out in the water, bobbing up and down.
On the walk back to camp, I was quiet and shy, having finally realized, too late, that they had really wanted to be by themselves. I couldn’t figure out how to apologize to them for foisting myself into their private afternoon without making it more awkward than it already was, so I didn’t say anything, but inwardly I was seething with embarrassment and regret.
When it was time to drive back to Tempe, our mother let the caravan drive on without us, and we spent the day in town. We got to walk around the streets, peering into open doorways, seeing the romantic way they lived there, with hammocks and crucifixes and TVs in their front rooms, and smelling their exotic, delicious cooking smells. (Our mother was as shamelessly nosy as we were.)
We got to have lunch at the hotel, just us. Afterwards, our mother told us that we could choose one thing, anything we wanted, from the curio shop. We were all instantly in an agony of indecision, sure that if we chose the wrong thing, we would regret it forever. I had never heard the word “curio” before, but suddenly it struck me as the most glamorous, fantastic word in the world, and I couldn’t stop using it as I walked around the little shop, inspecting all the curios. I fell in love with a round little turquoise ring, but then I saw a mermaid made of shells glued together and painted beautiful colors. I could only have one; I wanted both, desperately. I chose the ring and yearned for the mermaid all the way to the A&W in Ajo, where I drowned my sorrows in a root beer.
Beach Camping Sandwich
Between two pieces of whole wheat bread, put 2 pieces of baloney and a slather of mayonnaise and several unintentional grains of sand.