In the Shade of the Tall Rocks
Days 45-47 – Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico to Bahia de los Angeles – 9,278 km
‘Bean, I’ve really made a mess of your birthday!’ I said.
She was sitting on a rock in the small shade made from the taller rocks and the low afternoon sun. She had gone down twice today already – both times in sandy patches – and there was still at least 20 more hard kilometers of rock-strew dirt road before we would reconnect with Carretera 1. The first time she had gone down was about 15 km in from where the tarmac ended at Puertecitos and where we had camped at Gonzaga the night before.
I was riding up ahead and she was riding slowly and carefully behind me until I next glanced in my rearview mirror and saw her pinned under her bike. I pulled off to the side carefully so that we wouldn’t have two downed riders and then I hurried back to where she was. When I got there she had freed herself from under the bike and was walking to meet me.
‘Are you ok?’ I said when I reached her.
‘I think a rock bruised my thigh but it’s ok,’ she said. ‘What about my bike?’
Moxie Thumper was splayed completely on her side and with the weight of the side cases and the top-heavy weight of the large duffle across the seat, we struggled to right her during our first two attempts. As we worked, a rider on a light, unloaded KTM pulled alongside and helped us to get the bike right side up. The rider was gone, blazing down the dirt road, just as soon as we thanked him. Reviewing the bike, I found that one of the brackets on the right pannier was broken and this made the case unsteady on the rack but we didn’t worry about it because we had dealt with this after Jess’s first fall back in Utah at Capital Reef National Park.
‘Don’t bother with it now,’ she said a little disheartened from the fall but still mostly in good spirits. ‘I’ll probably just fall and break it again.’
After that fall she had continued on cautiously for another 8 km or so until she hit another sandy patch that got the better of her and she went down again, this time on the left side. This time there was no rider who magically appeared to help us but we used our legs more than our arms and we got Moxie back on her two wheels and kickstand. This time the left pannier had been damaged. The force of the fall had knocked the internal slider off its track so that the expanded cased hand crushed down to a retracted position. As I opened the case and began to replace the slider onto its track, a four-wheel ATV racer sped by at high speed and kicked up an enormous cloud of dust.
‘The Baja 1000 race begins next week so you might see some of them with their support vehicles practicing the course,’ the English-speaking man who owned the petrol station near Gonzaga had explained earlier that morning. ‘They are tearing up the middle of the road but you should be fine if you stay to the sides.’
I easily popped the slider of the plastic side case back onto its track and, despite the new scratches, the pannier was as good as ever before. But now with this second fall and still some 40 km or more to cover at what was proving a snail’s pace, Jess’s was beginning to look defeated.
‘The next time you see a truck I want to put my bike in the back until we get to the tarmac,’ she said.
I rode her bike out of the sandy patch and up a sandy rise past where I had parked my bike and until where the ground was firmer. There she remounted and we continued to press forward. Both of us were running road tires, which made the many sandy patches extremely difficult so that we were both quite stumped by it. I had several very close calls but managed to keep Penelope upright through each of them and kept both of us from dumping into the sand.
I rode ahead at between 20 and 30 km/h and Jess trudged slowly behind in first gear at about half that speed or less. For her, the slow speed made the distance interminable, while for me it was the short burst of forward progress followed by the waiting for her to catch up and worrying that she not go down again. We had left the coast after the first few kilometers and now we were riding inland through the heat and rocky, sandy wastes of the Parque Natural Del Desierto Central De Baja California.
About 20 km in the road undulated into alternating dips and rises. Now and then a truck or an ATV racer would scream past us and we would shut our helmet visors and hold our breaths until our lungs would burst and the dust began to settle. We took breaks at intervals of 10-15 kilometers and it was at one of these breaks about 40 km in that Jessica sat on the rock in the shade of the tall rocks and the low afternoon sun.
‘Greg, this water is terrible,’ she said. ‘From now on I’m buying bottled water!’
I had been insistent that the least we could do to lessen our carbon footprint on this trip was to avoid buying bottled water. Instead we had brought a SteriPen, which emits UV light from a bulb that is dipped into the water to kill any pathogens. I had used it previously while backpacking and when living in Africa. It works quite well for its intended purpose but it does nothing to improve the taste and we were only now discovering just how horrendously potable drinking water can taste.
‘That’s fine, Bean. We tried but you’re right – this water tastes truly awful,’ I said after reluctantly swigging a dry mouthful.
She was silent for a time and I sat quietly beside her.
‘This is not what I wanted for my birthday,’ she said suddenly.
‘I know, Bean. I really made a mess of it,’ I said.
‘Sure, Bean,’ I said. ‘We’ll stay in a nice resorty place and we’ll get you a nice massage.’
Since we had sorted our vehicle permit issue three days before in Tijuana, we had traveled south down to Ensenada where we left Carretera 1 and began to traverse the peninsula on the 3. We covered about half of this distance that day and then halted for the night in Valle de la Trinidad where we stayed at a cute little hotel and ate excellent tacos at the neighboring restaurant. In the morning I went running through the dirt roads of the town and then out amongst the lanes along the farms. This began a ritual of morning runs lasting between 30 and 45 minutes that have given me a wonderful way to see a bit of where we are and keep myself in form.
That day we covered the rest of the distance across the peninsula until we reached Carretera 5, which we took it south to San Felipe. San Felipe is a pleasant seaside town that looks all set to host several cruise ships of tourists but is only missing the tourists. Here we sat on a bench on the boardwalk and ate a snack while we talked to a couple who had traveled down two up on a Harley.
From San Felipe we followed the highway south, stopping only for fish tacos at a restaurant beside the highway, shortly before the tarmac ended at Puertecitos. It was late in the afternoon when we stopped for lunch and the owner of the restaurant suggested a nice place for camping at Gonzaga, just a few off tarmac kilometers past Puertecitos. The short stretch of off road was an exhilarating way to end a fine day of riding and our second since resolving the issue with our vehicle permits. At Gonzaga we paid 150 pesos – about USD 15 – for a palapa, which is little more than a hut roof held up by a large central pole. We pulled our bikes under one side of the palapa and pitched our tent opposite them under the roof. It was high tide and the sound of the waves was very soothing and we were the only people to be seen for at least a couple kilometers.
‘Happy birthday eve, Bean,’ I said. ‘I feel very bad that I don’t have a big surprise gift for you but it has been nearly impossible to get away from you long enough to search out something!’
‘It’s fine and this is a wonderful place to spend my birthday eve,’ she said.
That night we walked the couple kilometers inland beside the airstrip to the general store and taco stand beside the dirt road that continued from where the highway had ended. We bought a bottle of red Chilean wine and when that was finished we drank Mexican beers until we were rather well lit. Then we ate tacos to fill our stomachs and drank more beer to wash it down. Jess practiced her Spanish and local men came from the road and stopped for dinner and then went and some stayed a while to watch television in the courtyard. It was a very late eight o’clock when we staggered back along the airstrip a couple kilometers and then another kilometer up the beach to our camp.
‘I’m so cold that I have tunnel vision and I’m not even paying attention for coyotes,’ I said as we walked because we had seen what we thought was a pack of three coyotes earlier on our walk to the general store.
‘Greg, I don’t want to be eaten on my birthday,’ she said.
We fell asleep to the sound of the waves and the breeze against the reed roofs of the palapas. In the morning I laid the solar camp shower in the sun and then I went for a run along the airstrip. When I came back, I hung the solar shower from a nail on the palapa and Jess took the first shower. Although there were no other people to be seen, we were showering in the open so Jess modestly wore her bikini. But I was not so modest and I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of standing naked under the trickle of water that remained in the shower bag when it was my turn.
‘I didn’t even condition my hair,’ she said when she realized that she had left me so little of the four liters that had been in the polyurethane bag before her shower.
We scrounged another half liter or so from our water bottles and Jess held the spigot so that we could conserve every last drop as I soaped and mostly rinsed off before the water ran out.
After showering and packing up our bikes, we stopped at the roadside general store to fill our bottles from the tap and then sterilize the water with the UV pen. By then it was around 10 o’clock and we took to the dirt road that our map showed would reach Carretera 1 after about 60 kilometers.
‘Are you sure you want to do the off road?’ I asked before we set off and then again several more times before we were too far in to turn back.
‘We’re not going all the way back to San Felipe and then to Ensenada just to come back down again!’ Jess said.
Then after a pause she said, ‘We’ll see if I’m still saying this a few kilometers in.’
A few kilometers further on after we had drunk the foul tasting water and rested in the shade of the tall rocks and the low afternoon sun, we reached Coco’s Corner. Coco is an old Mexican with no legs and a few words of English mixed into his sentences. He seems to spend most of his time strapped onto an ATV, which he uses to get around. His – Coco’s – Corner is a flat expanse that is like a junkyard of old vehicles and other sundry odds and ends. Here they sell cold beer, sodas, and water to those who pass through and want a rest and cold drink.
‘Ask him how the road is up ahead,’ Jess said as she rested slumped on a plastic chair and drank from a glass Coca Cola bottle.
‘Quedan 20 kilometros but la terrecería no es like antes. It’s más duro,’ Coco said in his mix of Spanish and English. ‘There remains 20 kilometers but it’s not dirt like before. It’s more difficult.’
I began to explain what he said to Jess but she had understood him.
‘Is the road sandy?’ she asked.
‘No, son big piedras and boulders,’ he said. ‘El camino rises y baja por las mountains.’
‘The rocks are better than the sand,’ Jess said.
‘Bastante peligroso, señorita,’ Coco said in a very serious tone. ‘Quite dangerous, young lady.’
After we finished our drinks, I bought two more cold waters to go and we struck back out onto the road. It was as Coco had said. The road was not sandy but it quickly began to rise and dip and wind through the dry desert hill country. Rocks and broken boulders were strewn across the road so that, not only did you have to avoid the loose stuff, but you also had to navigate the biggest and sharpest of those boulders or you might puncture a tire or take a nasty fall. Also, through most of it’s meandering through the hills, the road seemed to cling precariously to the slopes so that missing a turn or going down on the wrong side could mean a steep tumble.
Jess continued to plod along slowly but steadily and without any further mishaps. Seeing fewer sandy patches, I worried less about her safety, except on those particularly precipitous turns where even her good, cautious riding might not be enough. Also, now I worried less about her resilience because she had the experience and success of covering more than 40 km. I knew that if she was going to give up it would have been in the very beginning. Now, despite the treacherous final kilometers, I knew that the road would have to defeat her to stop her because she would keep going so long as the bike and the daylight held out.
We covered the final 20 km more quickly and adeptly than we had the first 20 and at least I was beginning to very much enjoy the experience of riding off tarmac and using my motorcycle for what it was made for. After the mountains, the land flattened and the road straightened and a few kilometers later almost without realizing it we were suddenly off the dirt and back onto the tarmac. At the junction we pulled off where there was a llantera, tire repair shop, and we used the portable electric pump to re-inflate our tires after we had spent the day on low pressure tires for better stability off the tarmac.
Now the off road adventure was over but it was late in the afternoon and the sun was already near setting. With our tires re-inflated for the tarmac and our chains greased to clean off the dust and gravel, we considered our options. The owner of the petrol station in Gonzaga had told us there were few towns and possibly no hotels for a good distance Guerrero Negro and at Coco’s Corner a local traveler had suggested that Bahia de los Angeles was a good place to spend the night back on the gulf side of the peninsula.
‘Happy birthday, Bean,’ I said as we lay in bed collapsed from fatigue.
There was no answer. She was fast asleep.