FORCES OF FATE AND COINCIDENCE AND BIG WHEELS TURNING IN THE BAJA DESERT
By Josh Kimball
To put it mildly, John Peck’s existence has been filled with many … how shall I say? … rather extraordinary experiences. He’s sprinted away on a silver thread of light through the cosmos, each stride becoming exponentially larger on his way to the infinite reaches of space; he’s escaped through the steel bars in a jail cell via cultivated yogic power; he’s watched an approaching FBI agent mysteriously drop dead milliseconds before his armed attempt on Peck’s life; he’s surfed macking Sunset Beach on a leash-less longboard . . . while soaring on LSD. Yet, mysteriously enough, once the following tale is added to his canon of oddity, the incidents just mentioned (and perhaps all those in Peck’s life) will come across as not too bizarre after all.
So for good measure, here’s another: Around the time these incredible events were transpiring, while he was in the prime of his life as a grown man and surfing superstar, he was also a small child growing up somewhere in San Diego. That’s right. At the selfsame moment Peck was a psychedelic ranger, he was simultaneously a toddler probing the boundaries of his sponge-brained, empty-slated infancy.
Flash forward some 25 years, and the John Peck experience has arrived fully formed in the year 2006. John regularly loses himself and his 62-year-old persona, leather-skinned and longbearded, deep in the Baja peninsula … or off to Europe to act as a spiritual guide for a certain seeker … or wherever he wants and wishes and feels appropriate. Yet it’s important to recognize that he’s also a 25-year-old surf-stoked resident of Encinitas, California, regularly surfing Swamis and Cardiff Reef just as he did some 30 years in the past.
John Peck emerged into the earthly realm somewhere in Southern California on July 19, 1944, a day on which the world accepted a rather different sort of soul, a being truly unique in its perspective. Yet many of the more incredible experiences, the stuff from which legend has been derived, wouldn’t begin to emerge for some two decades.
Born the son of a Navy serviceman, Peck bounced around to various locales due to his father’s occupational requirements. While lacking spatial stability, the youngster caught the surf bug early, and the infection relentlessly followed him throughout his family’s transient state. By the time he was a senior in high school, Peck had already become a surfing legend, as his skills at Hawaii’s infamous Pipeline rapidly garnered international fame and praise.
On November 26, 1980, another John Peck emerged into the earthly realm in Connecticut, some 3,000 miles from the corporeal beginnings of his future counterpart. As with the elder Peck, the family uprooted while John was a mere five years old. Oddly enough, they would soon be residents of Carmel Valley, California, not far from where Peck Senior began his quest.
Some years would pass before an initial meeting of the two. During this time, the elder Peck’s existence ran the gamut from tranquility to madness, from sobriety to excess. Always on the search for meaning in a mysterious universe, Peck’s years were filled to the brim with techniques for realizing spiritual maturation, some tried and true, others more unconventional. And Peck Junior simply dealt with the questions plaguing a fresh spirit, mainly those of the ‘what’s this whole show about?’ variety. Like Peck Senior in his youth, Peck Junior possessed an insatiable desire for the higher ground, for knowledge of those things spiritual and, perhaps most importantly, for the ocean and its keyhole into the surfing experience. It would be this latter piece of the puzzle that would lead to a most bizarre encounter in San Diego, where two unrelated men with the same name, who acted, spoke, thought, surfed, and (hair-styles notwithstanding) even looked alike, were about to intersect on a random cosmic plane.
“It was at Cardiff Reef,” says the elder Peck (who will be referred to from here simply as Senior). “I had seen him a couple of times at Cardiff Reef. Joel Tudor introduced us one day. We ended up out in the water together, and everybody commented on how much his style was like my style, only he was a little bit smoother maybe,” Senior laughs.
“I remember something about seeing him, and knowing he had the same name. It was just very strange,” recalls the younger Peck (who we’ll call Junior). “Then I saw him surfing … and it was sort of surreal. I had seen video of myself, but to see the similarities, and the way we both go about it … just being true to that natural line of energy, and flying through the wave. So when people started to figure out that I had the same name, they started to wonder if I was his son. I was getting all these crazy questions, you know? People would tell me I surfed like him. But it was never a conscious thing. I can honestly tell you I watched maybe three minutes of (Senior) surfing on tape before all this.”
“Then I saw him surfing … and it was sort of surreal. I had seen video of myself, but to see the similarities, and the way we both go about it … just being true to that natural line of energy, and flying through the wave.”
After the two logged a fair amount of water time together, their friendship naturally progressed, eventually uncovering similarities of a more metaphysical variety. “We found … lucid awareness of what was going on with each other,” says Senior. “Some telepathy. Interesting things. We just ended up having a lot of fun together. He’s kind of like a spiritual son.
“John and I just know that we have a deep, intuitive, natural connection,” continues Senior. “We can understand what we’re thinking and feeling, even from a distance. When I was coming into town, he could feel me coming into town, and I’m the same. If something’s going on with him I get a feeling about it, like I know what’s going on. So it’s really very interesting.”
“There is a certain amount of telepathy between us,” concurs Junior. “Something. A weird connection … ” He speaks with a similar style of speech, tone, and the excited, eager long-windedness of his elder namesake. “John spends a lot of time in Baja. I won’t talk to him for a month or so while he’s down there, but the second he crosses the border I get an urge to call him. Or say there’s a troubling situation in either of our lives, something triggers in our heads to call one another, automatically. And other stuff. We’ll be sitting there talking, and he’ll just finish my sentences, or I’ll finish his. We’re just really in tune with one another is the best way to say it.”
Over the years, Senior has developed a reputation (among others in his fascinating existence) as something of a Baja surf guru. Dozens of trips there throughout the years have allowed Senior to develop a keen sense of where to be, when to be there, and what equipment to take along the way. Many a swell has shared its combing peelers with the man.
Inevitably, some time after the two Pecks met, the topic of a joint Baja trip surfaced. An opportunity to embark presented itself shortly thereafter, as the tropical waters off mainland Mexico began brewing something fierce, threatening to bombard the arid desert peninsula.
“There was a big hurricane down there, and he really wanted to go surf Scorpion Bay,” recalls Senior. “The hurricane met us right at the turn off to the north road.”
“We knew a hurricane was coming,” Junior says, “but we thought it was just going to go out and head west, towards Hawaii. It didn’t. It cut right up the center of Baja. It had kind of been raining on and off all day as we had been driving through all the arms of the hurricane. All of a sudden it just started going crazy. It was a full-on hurricane.”
The pair made it to the town of San Ignacio, a sort of desert oasis in the middle of the normally arid peninsula. Thoughts of carrying on were soon thwarted by the tempest raging outside. With options dwindling, torrential rains pouring down, and camping totally out of the question, the duo had no choice but to seek shelter, and quick.
“We found a hotel just down the way,” Junior recalls. “The guy behind the desk is wearing a miner’s hat with a light on. He was like, ‘I’m leaving. The restaurant is closed. The hotel is closed. But here’s a key to a room.’ We grabbed some stuff from the van and ran into the room, made a little dinner. We’re sitting around talking, and John’s telling us this story about when he was on the North Shore one time and had an encounter with Satan … which is pretty heavy,” Junior chuckles. “He’s telling me this story, and there’s this hurricane raging outside. Then we went outside to the pool area, but the whole courtyard’s the pool at that point.”
“I woke up the next morning, and the building was in the middle of a river,” says Senior. “Just rushing rapids, y’know … through the trees. I looked out front, and the water was just below the window sills.”
“It looked like something out of the Weather Channel,” concurs Junior. “We went out to the van, and it was halfway under water. We were planning on being down there a long time, but all our supplies were basically ruined.”
After a little regrouping, they waded over what was normally a street into the town center. “There was crying all around, people were anguished,” recalls Junior. “The whole town’s ruined. We walked around and helped put stray horses back in their pens … just sort of helped people in the town.”
After a few days of being stranded there with no serviceable roads leading in any direction, the rains subsided and the flood waters finally began to recede. One day, the duo found themselves atop a nearby hillside, debating what to do: head home or keep on with the mission.
“This raven flew down and landed right in front of John and I,” recalls Junior. “So John says, ‘Well, let’s let the Great Spirit decide what to do.’ So we closed our eyes for a while, said a prayer, then we opened them, and the raven flew off … south towards the tip of Baja … and we said, ‘Well, that’s the way we’re gonna go.”
As they passed huge swaths of highway torn asunder by the recently departed mega-storm, their voyage slowed to a crawl at times, but their conversation train kept on rolling at a brisk pace … and would soon conjure up a special sort of departed relative.
“The whole time, John and I were having these crazy conversations on the way to Cabo,” shares Junior. “I started to ask him about Miki Dora, and every time we would talk about Dora the car would shut off. It wouldn’t overheat or anything, it would just shut off. Finally I said, ‘You know what? This happens every time we talk about Dora.’ As soon as we were done talking about Dora, the car never did it again. It was like a couple weeks after he had died. Something was going on there.”
After they were done with the bad roads and channeling the spirits of eccentric surfing visionaries, things settled into a level of relative tranquility and peacefulness. It was a stark contrast to their recent encounters. They set up camp alongside an endless range of towering cacti one night under the myriad pinholes of light in the sky.
“It was a moonless night, and after that storm it was really clear,” recalls Senior. “And just horizon to horizon, billions and billions and billions of stars. The Milky Way was just this huge bright cloud, the like of which John had never seen before. Just billions of stars. More than you ever see. It feels like your head’s just totally out there in space. Totally quiet. A lack of sound pollution … a lack of light pollution, too. The only sign of civilization is that every once in awhile you can hear a truck going down the highway.”
“Any of those experiences that I was given,” he says, referring partly to his experiments with then-legal LSD, “are available to anybody, and they don’t need to bang their head against the wall like I did a lot of times to get better experiences.”
“He tried to lay down and go to sleep,” Senior continues, “but he kept waking up with a sense of how quiet and different the vibration of awareness and consciousness was, how much more aware the consciousness was. He ended up going outside and laying on the ground looking at the sky for a long time, merging with the universe, just feeling the big wheels turn.”
Later, Senior led Junior on a tour into what the former considers a very sacred part of the Baja desert – but not the sort of tour us average mortals might immediately guess.
“We hiked into the desert,” recalls Junior, “and John taught me how to talk to crows and ravens and the animals of the desert.” Then after a pause: “It wasn’t talking as much as it was just listening to what they were doing. There are creatures in nature that are very, very connected to their environment. Way more than we are because … we use so many of our receptors to take in all the information coming at us that we lose touch with a lot of the natural things going on around us. So it was this experience where I kind of learned to just listen to the environment, to be quiet. Which is something that I think people don’t really understand anymore.”
Suffice to say that Junior’s book of memories was rapidly being stuffed with all-timers, facilitated by one of surfing’s legendary figures. Yet for all the mystical, miraculous, and mortifying experiences they’d encountered thus far, plentiful goods of a more mundane variety were awaiting just down the road. Senior decided to spend a couple weeks with his lady friend in a sleepy coastal village some two hours north of the tip. But for Junior and a friend of his from the States named Caleb, it was Cabo San Lucas or bust.
Upon arriving, Junior and Caleb sauntered on down to Cabo and paddled out at a user-friendly reefbreak. “We were surfing Old Man’s,” says Junior, “and we ran into Izzy Paskowitz, who had a surf camp down there. That day Izzy had sent home a couple instructors for some crazy behavior. When we told Izzy our story – how we had no money or supplies – he asked if we’d be interested in staying for a while to teach surfing and said that he’d pay for our room and board.” The two friends jumped at the opportunity, which would only become infinitely more incredible in just a few short days.
Junior recalls: “Maybe the fourth night we were there, we came in from surfing, and out by the pool are these Playboy Playmates. We bought some beers and went over and started hanging out with them. They were staying there for like a week and a half. So every day we’d take them out surfing on tandem boards and hang out with them. We went out at night with them. We drank with them. It was just so weird because we went from having nothing to being, like, kings!” Junior laughs. “It was just like, ‘All right, you guys went through this huge ordeal, now here’s your reward.’”
Months after the Baja adventure came to an end, the two Pecks continued to find their collective trip growing stronger – more insight doled out from one to the other, more lessons learned and shared. Through this, Junior began to ponder surfing’s ultimate meaning.
“I’ve always had a weird understanding of there being something greater than us,” he reflects, “something that’s guiding us. I remember that whenever I talk to John; it connects that aspect of my life to surfing. He really gave me a new perspective of looking at surfing and saying, ‘Hey, there’s something greater than us out there that’s creating this thing, and we’re participating in this act that is very pure in finding that greater being, and letting it guide you.’”
The surfing experience is “a spiritual journey,” says Junior. “Something where you discover something about yourself, but also where you discover something about the world. There’s this thing out there that’s just giving you this energy, and you can use it! You can really tap into it. John made surfing acceptable to me. Growing up with religion, my parents weren’t surfers,” he explains. “So I kind of felt bad sometimes when I went to surf on a Sunday. I was always telling my parents that I was going to spend time in the ocean, which is like the greatest church of all. It’s a meeting with God, really. When I started hanging out with John, he was able to give me an explanation to what I was thinking.” But it’s never transmitted in a preachy, one-sided conversion, he says.
While Senior has found Christ to be his guiding light in a mysterious universe, it’s certainly not the be-all and end-all for everyone. “This thing about ‘you have to know Jesus and you have to take him as your personal savior to be saved’ is total hogwash,” Senior states in another moment of candor. “Jesus never taught that. He said those that believe in my name will be saved, but he never said that those who don’t, won’t. There’s only one organism in the universe, and that’s God’s body. And we’re all little parts of it. Microscopic parts of it. And we’re all spiritually and mentally connected.”
While Senior is a wealth of stories and insights from his very full six-plus decades on this planet, he’s also managed to incorporate some of Junior’s lessons into his being. “John’s a really delightful, talented, healthy, smart, cool little guy,” he says, clearly viewing Junior as nothing short of an “evolutionary upgrade” of himself. “As far as responsibility and intelligence and character,” he explains, “he’s a lot smarter than I was at his age. He seems to have a natural tendency to go for the higher, cleaner, stronger path, on all levels. And he surfs really, really good. It’s amazing. He’s one of those true soul surfers.”
Senior’s wild times during the ’60s and ‘70s give him much reason to embellish on Junior’s relative enlightenment. “Any of those experiences that I was given,” he says, referring partly to (but never in promotion of) his experiments with then-legal LSD, “are available to anybody, and they don’t need to bang their head against the wall like I did a lot of times to get better experiences. Luckily, us pioneers of what modern surfing is today, did a lot of the grunt work, whatever you call it. We found most of the potholes and traps, and we can let you know where they are and help you not have to go through them.”
“John kind of let me skip ahead in a way,” Junior frankly admits of his elder’s help and advice. “When he stepped in, he sort of let me skip ahead of that part. He showed me potential. It took him a certain amount of time because he didn’t have anyone to show him. But for me, he was able to step in and say, ‘Start right here. Skip ahead to here. I’m here, and you can be right here.”
Yet Junior makes the point that his experienced counterpart, who’s been completely sober for 20 years and counting, never told him to do or not to do anything. “He never said ‘don’t’,” he states. “He said, ‘Do it with a reason. Don’t take it too far.’ He told me all about the trips, and his experiences. He just allowed me to jump ahead.”
“I could have ended up anywhere, but the weirdest thing is that we’ve ended up together. It’s just a really strange thing. It’s going to sound weird to anyone ... ”
For the younger Peck, the importance of all the events that brought them together, and of those experiences they’ve had a chance to share, isn’t lost on him. “I almost look at it like it’s a passing of the torch kind of thing. I feel like I’m his apprentice or something,” Junior says. “I’ve just learned so much from the guy. It’s kind of transpired that, as an apprentice, he’s teaching me a certain aspect and a certain way of honing your mind … and really honing your potential. It goes beyond surfing. It goes into my work … it goes into everything. John taught me everything, basically.”
For Junior, meeting with this older surfer, with all their uncanny similarities, is indeed unique. He “trips” on the fact that one tiny, random corner of the world has come to host them both. “I could have ended up anywhere, but the weirdest thing is that we’ve ended up together. It’s just a really strange thing. It’s going to sound weird to anyone …”
Yet for Senior, a man rich in experience of the most unusual, cosmic variety, all the bizarre similarities they share are no more fantastic than anything else. “The universe is unfathomable,” says Senior. “I’ve experienced so many socalled supernatural, mystical, magical things in my life that it’s not extremely unusual to me. John feels it strong. It’s kind of new to him, but it’s outstanding and exceptional and unusual to him, according to what he’s told me.”
And telepathy, one of the duo’s viable forms of communicating, is a gift as normal as walking or breathing. “I’ve experienced it with quite a number of people, actually.” Senior laughs. “Telepathy’s normal to me. Everyone has it, but they’re taught when they’re young not to rely on it. They see angels. They see other vibrational-plane existences. Their parents tell them it’s their imagination. They’re taught to think it isn’t real. That’s kind of the long and short of it right there. There’s infinite – and I emphasize the word infinite – levels of vibrational coexistence going on all the time … in the same space even!” Senior concludes with a giggle.
Metaphysics and speculation on interesting coincidences aside, Senior strongly feels a desire – a concrete purpose – to convey what he knows, his valuable life lessons. And they’re for anyone, not just those bearing bizarre similarities to himself. It’s his calling, his purpose, while on this transitory universal plane.
“I’m happy to share at any point the gifts I’ve been granted,” says Senior. “The whole point of it to me is to help people to realize that they have infinite possibilities available to them … If we all search our hearts and souls, and discover for ourselves our gifts, and look for how we can give and share them, and if others do the same, then it makes for a real synchronistic, complimentary, functioning whole.
“Open your mind, open your heart,” he continues. “Treat others how you’d like to be treated … and keep on surfing! Surf through your whole life!”
Based in Central California, Josh Kimball has managed to balance his life as a surfer, writer, and photographer with an interest in the sociological aspects of religion. His words and photos on South America, Baja, and Hawaii have appeared in recent issues of The Surfer’s Path.