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The Baja Shuffle

My normal environment is backstage. It's busy and buzzy, and I stare into a mirror surrounded by lights. It's exactly what I saw in the movies as a child, and I never cease to be pleased by that. I have conversations with Mitch, who does my hair, and Leah, who arranges my costumes. Going onstage can be scary, but I always know how to handle what happens there.

This is not true in the wilderness, where I don't know what's going to happen, I don't fit in, and there sure isn't anyone brushing my hair. Without mirrors or makeup, I stand on a strip of beach on a tiny island in the Sea of Cortés, my hair one big dreadlocked knot, my T-shirt stiff with salt water. I got to this island in a kayak—not a taxi, not a ferry—just by paddling myself across the water.

I spend my life looking out into rooms filled with people looking back, and I feel big. Here, I am a tiny dot, barefoot in the sand, and I feel that I'm nowhere—just water, land, and sky all around me. Back home in Brooklyn, with the trucks outside my kitchen and the phone ringing and an iced coffee in my hand, such isolation seems unreal.

Years ago, I did an Outward Bound wilderness course on Hurricane Island, off the coast of Maine. It was where a Brooklyn bookaholic first met the outdoors, and the effects of that trip still linger. I spent 28 days in a febrile state of terror, trying to rock climb and sail and jump into an ocean icy with the dawn. And when it was done I begged to stay, because as Robert Louis Stevenson says, "To be afeared of a thing and yet to do it, is what makes the prettiest kind of a man."

I love the idea of a kayak—it makes no noise, disturbs nothing. Anyone can glide along in a kayak, anyone who's in fairly decent condition and isn't afraid of the water. The paddling is rhythmic, the boat itself an ancient form reinvented in Pop-colored poly. The fish, the bugs, and the birds are doing their thing, and in a kayak, I'm doing mine—I'm just one of a million creatures in nature, sliding gracefully through the water.

I want to kayak but I also want beauty, distance, difference from the everyday. I've chosen Baja California because the idea of ocean and desert and Mexican food seems too good to resist. I've also chosen Paddling South, a kayaking company run by Trudi Angell, because Trudi is a woman who, I like to say, ran off to join the circus. After kayaking during a college spring break, she paddled the entire Baja coast. Now, she runs kayak tours and raises her daughter in Loreto, a shabby, colorful town on the eastern coast of Baja.

Arriving in Loreto the night before the start of my eight-day paddling trip, I check into the Hotel Oasis, where the matchbooks say hotel oasis—right on the beach of the sea of cortez. The next morning, that's what I nervously chant to myself as I pack and repack my shorts and shirts and bandannas. This is my Bilbo Baggins moment, when I think, Why did I leave my comfy home and how do I get myself into these things?


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