True Romance DVD Cover

In the final few moments of Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993) Alabama, accompanied by an injured Clarence, drives past a sign that reads “Last U.S. Exit, Mexican Border 5 miles.” It’s at this very moment that the music shifts from the ominous strains that accompanied the chaotic final shootout in the Beverly Ambassador, to the light and playful leitmotif that has been present throughout the rest of the film. The film’s score was written by Hans Zimmer and the familiar theme was drawn from an original composition by Carl Orff, who was most famous for composing another film score favorite, the Carmina Burana.

Once Clarence and Alabama have reached their final destination a sandy beach in Baja, the end credits roll, accompanied by Chris Isaak’s “Two Hearts” from his 1993 album San Francisco Days. It’s a song that’s reminiscent of the works of Elvis Presley, who serves as an imaginary mentor for Clarence during his criminal escapades. For the longest time I thought that it was Elvis Presley himself singing “Two Hearts,” and once I learned otherwise, I still continued to assume that it had originally been recorded by the King until just moments ago.

The Film: True Romance

The Song: “Two Hearts”

The Artist: Chris Isaak

There’s a separate version of “Two Hearts” that was recorded as part of Chris Isaak’s 1996 acoustic album, Baja Sessions. Chris Isaak is an avid surfer, having spent countless hours paddling around in the frigid waters around San Francisco after picking up the hobby in his thirties. He’s even paddled out into the monstrous waves of Mavericks, though he doesn’t claim to have actually ridden any of the giants the relatively recently popularized spot is known for. As a surfer, Isaak will never be in the same league as Jack Johnson, but his dedication to the sport is genuine, and Baja Sessions is as much of a surfer’s album as Brushfire Fairytales or Ben Harper’s Burn to Shine.

In the time that I’ve lived in Southern California, I’ve been into Baja plenty of times, but I’ve only actually surfed on two of those trips. I’ve always been a princess about dipping into cold water, and my time in South Africa has only spoiled me even further. You’d think that heading south would lead to warmer waters, but in Baja it turns out to be the opposite. Due to the upwelling action of underwater canyons, the water in the northern half of Baja is actually colder than it is in Los Angeles and San Diego. You have to go farther south, below the elbow, before the water is more representative of the equatorial Pacific.

My first ever foray into Baja was during Spring Break of my freshman year in college. My friend Tristan invited his roommate Doug and me down to enjoy the wonders of San Diego, a trip that featured adventures at UCSD and SDSU, hot tubbing in the hills above Jamul, a beach bonfire, and an all-you-can-drink night at a club in Tijuana. It still makes me smile to think of the infinite patience of our designated driver Lisa, who shepherded us across the border and drove us home while the three of us sat in the backseat, improvising techno music a cappella. I had a blast, but once you turn twenty-one, there’s really little point in spending time in Tijuana, surrounded by (as Jeff once put it) “filthy neckless fratboys.” You can do that at home in a safer, cleaner environment.

Since then I’ve learned that Baja is much nicer when you go further south, past Rosarito Beach and Ensenada. The further you go, the nicer it gets. The beaches are all public, and it’s easy to find an isolated stretch of sand if you’re willing to strike out off the single main highway onto the barely blazed trails that lead across the deserted coastline. My second trip into Mexico was again during spring break, this time my senior year of college. It’s hard to imagine a more poorly planned trip, but it was probably the most memorable vacation I’ve taken in my life.

I was traveling with my friends Cory and Amy. After parking at the border, we hopped on a bus in Tijuana with a basic plan of heading to Guerrero Negro and taking a whale-watching tour. We reached Guerrero Negro and decided the tours were too expensive, so instead we spent the next few days hitchhiking around, eventually making it as far as San Ignacio before heading back home. Along the way we spent an afternoon with the family of an abalone poacher, drank three-dollar tequila from a plastic bottle chased with Pepsi while sitting around a campfire, and took mushrooms while camping in a date palm grove on the edge of an oasis. A year later, plagued by drug problems and personal issues, Cory had disappeared, presumably into the same part of Mexico. Nobody has heard from him since.

Radiohead – “How to Disappear Completely (and Never Be Found)”

The first time I actually surfed in Mexico was on a trip to Salsipuedes, which translates to “leave if you can.” The break at Salsipuedes is a deep reef (or possibly just one big rock, considering how consistently the wave breaks at the exact same spot) with a slow, rolling right. I was still very much a novice, riding a 6’7” in an ocean full of kelp and longboards, and I only managed to catch a single wave that day, a seemingly endless ride that was actually caught on video. That night, the bioluminescent algae were blooming, so I went swimming. The ocean lights up as you pull through it, creating balls of fluorescent fire around your hands, and it glitters on your skin when you emerge from the water.

The second time I surfed in Mexico was a week-long camping trip I took by myself shortly after leaving my job and beginning my extended travels that took me to South Africa. I drove all the way down to a place called Punta Abreojos (“open your eyes”), a series of five jagged points just south of a small town below Baja’s elbow. It was in March, and the waves were pretty weak, which suited me just fine. It was my first time surfing a point break, and your first experience surfing so close to rocks can be a pretty harrowing experience. When I arrived at the beach, the Radiohead song “Motion Picture Soundtrack” was playing on my car stereo. To this day I can’t hear the song without thinking of how two solid days of driving, the final fifty miles over a teeth-rattling hardpan road, came to an end as I parked atop a sand dune and first witnessed the utter peacefulness of that isolated beach.

Radiohead – “Motion Picture Soundtrack”

I promptly got my pickup truck stuck in the sand, and had to spend almost two hours burying debris underneath the wheels to obtain enough traction to escape. Those days on the beach were a very unique experience, because I was entirely alone for most of the time (another group of surfers and a few fisherman appeared, but neither spent the night). I’d spend the morning surfing, and by afternoon a sideshore wind would be roaring and the ocean would be an unmanageable mess. When it got dark there was little to do but sit and think and wait for sleep to overtake me. It was during this time that I began writing a play, originally titled “The Wait” and later renamed “Groundswell” that I produced while I was living in Johannesburg. My trip came to an end when I ran out of water. On my way through the desert back to the highway I picked up a hitchhiker who later brandished a gun – and then showed me his police badge. At the border the agents took one look at my dust-covered truck and unshaven face and decided it would be far too audacious for someone so scruffy-looking to smuggle drugs, so they waved me through without an inspection.

Watching surf videos like Litmus and Fanning the Fire has been enough encouragement to get me back into the water now that winter is over, though the waves in LA have been disappointing thus far this spring. My boss has recently suggested I take a vacation, so I’ve been giving some thought to heading all the way down to Scorpion Bay. It’s a long way down – 800+ miles – but the descriptions I’ve heard make it sound pretty irresistible. Who knows, though. Maybe I’ll run into Cory while I’m down there.

Chris Isaak: “Two Hearts” (from Baja Sessions)