Last summer when his wife Barbara was out of town, Encinitas resident Jack Ross embarked on an epic journey he had his eye on for years: a border-to-border bike ride from Canada to Mexico down the coast.
“It was one of those things that was like, if not now, when?” he said. “I flew up to Vancouver with my bike, put it together at the airport and started going south.”
After 38 days, Ross made it to the Mexican border. He was 71 years old and it was merely his latest adventure in a life full of them.
Rewind 52 years. It’s 1965 and Ross, then 19, was finishing his freshman year at San Diego State University when he caught wind about a new program the city of Del Mar was launching.
“They were starting a lifeguard department and I applied since I needed a summer job,” Ross recalled. “They were going to hire five people and I came in seventh in the swim, but my first aide and oral tests knocked me up to fifth place.”
From there, Ross became a member of Del Mar’s inaugural crew of lifeguards, patrolling the beaches during a very different time in the community’s evolution. It was also a homecoming of sorts for Ross, who was partly raised in a converted surplus house from the former Camp Callan on Ninth Street in 1946, soon bouncing around from Virginia to Japan thanks to the travel demands of his naval officer father.
While attending the U.S. military’s Nile C. Kinnick High School in Yokosuka, Japan, Ross first worked as a pool lifeguard, a gig that set him up perfectly to transition to the North County ocean during college. “It was a great summer job for me,” says Ross, never realizing at the time he was making an indelible mark in Del Mar history. “The second year of the program, nobody came back but me. We had to hire a whole new crew and I became second-in-charge at 20 years old. It was a challenging and interesting time in my life.”
Working under then-Captain Gardner Stevens, Ross and his crew originally operated out of former silos, which lacked insulation and were teeming with mice.
“There weren't a lot of people on the beach back then and sometimes there’d be nobody,” says Ross. “You’d watch nothing but seagulls and we’d mostly have to worry about drunks, or cars who’d drive onto the beach thinking it was fine.”
However, as Del Mar’s beach culture began to flourish, so did the action on its shores.
“Eventually there were rescues all the time; sometimes seven or eight people getting sucked out on a rip with all five lifeguards out there at once. You’d get pretty whipped some days.”
To kick back, Ross and his cohorts would frequent haunts like The Parlay Room (a former watering hole known for pool and bowling that’s the current home of Jimmy O’s) and The Fire Pit (which featured nightly entertainment and is now The Poseidon).
“There were some years I considered being a full-time lifeguard, but I chose instead to get into teaching, which allowed me to lifeguard in the summer,” says Ross who didn’t hang up his red shorts until 1985 after exactly 20 years of involvement with the department. In the interim, Ross transitioned from teaching to rocket science, literally, scoring a job upon graduation at the Anaheim-based Autonetics, where he worked on missile technology.
Ross had a wake-up call in 1971, quitting his job and taking an epic trip that opened his eyes to the wonder of travel.
“I took a year off and backpacked around South America,” said Ross, who was living off $7 a day while exploring the continent. “At one point, natives built us a balsam raft and we sailed down the Amazon. From there, I got the bug.”
Making travel a habit, Ross soon embarked on an extended odyssey the world over, from Ireland to Nepal, Bali to Australia, many trips for months a time. Back home in California, he founded a company that produced science education videos for classrooms and later marketed microscopes, which he sold upon retirement in 2005.
When Ross completed his ride from Canada to Mexico after 1,880 long miles, his brother-in-law greeted him at the U.S. border.
“He had a bottle of champagne and we toasted, it was a really good feeling.”
Cheers to another item off the bucket list, and another adventure that speaks to Ross’s main philosophy: If not now, when?
Keep up with Ross's adventures on the web: www.surfingtandem.com