San Diego, California – it feels like almost any other American downtown; skyscrapers, hotels, a conference center. It could be anywhere America. It’s a strange way to start an international tour, in a place that feels so American. I even started my trip with a cup of Starbucks coffee.
On a sleepy January 2nd there was a gathering of diverse bikepackers, some on handbuilt hearty steel frames, some on high tech carbon frames, some on whatever they could afford. This mixed group swapped stories, talked gear, talked past trips, future plans, all waiting to begin the Baja Divide. After a brief introduction from Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox, the Baja Divide creators, we were off.
Day one was a rolling group ride into Barret Junction, a little bar and cafe on Highway 94 heading out to Tecate. The folks at Barret Junction were kind enough to let us set up a giant group camp in the back. This was an even more formal introduction to the route as Nicholas and Lael thanked everyone for being there. The group wiled away the night drinking 32 oz IPAs and chowing down on the pub fare before rolling out in the AM.
Crossing at the Tecate border the next morning was a bizarre experience. Unlike all surrounding entries into Mexico where large cities boomed on both sides of the border, the American side was a gas station and one money exchange, but roll into Mexico and you’re hit with the happening town of Tecate. Borders like this are puzzling, as that simple imaginary line dictates the vastly different culture of Mexico from the United States. Tecate was a full-on Mexican town, sharing little vestige of it’s American neighbor to the north. Just like that we were in Mexico.
The end of día uno in Mexico my riding partner Morgan and I pushed on to Manteca Cañon, an old ranch spotted with beautiful oak trees. We set up camp wondering if we’d be joined by anyone else coming up the trail. After starting a fire and setting up camp we watched two lights bounce down the road. In the dark we waited and waited as the lights grew bigger and bigger and in the blinding light we heard “No way!” It was our Oakland buds Chris and Jessica (the only other singlespeeder from the Baja group start).
Our hometown buds joined us for camp. Morgan and I cooked up some dehydrated pasta that was rather bland, so I decided to pour some of my chile corn chips on top for flavor. A few bites in I felt something papery, I was a little confused at what it was, until it hit. My mouth was on fire. There were full dried chiles hidden between the corn chips and I put a full one into my mouth. Mexican food is generally not as spicy as I would expect, but their snacks are beyond spicy.
That wasn’t even the worst part of the night; at some point in my sleep I rolled over and felt something underneath my balaclava near my ear. It crawled upward and I immediately knew the next place it would be going. I panicked, woke up, and started screaming as the bug began it’s journey to the center of my head. I pushed my pinky in my ear as quick as I could and heard a very loud crunch, as loud as you’d think a bug being crushed in your ear would be. Morgan, hearing my wailing into the night, leapt from his tarp with flashlight and knife, but it was too late, the bug was already into the crevice of my ear. I could feel it making it’s final movements before death inside my head. Have you ever had water in your ear? Have you ever had water that can crawl in your ear? That’s about what it felt like. Thankfully my pinky saved me a trip from the hospital and the bug was crushed. The only suffering I had left to do that night was through the frosty Northern Baja night.
Thankfully, that night would be the worst camping of the trip. The North was cold at night, but the terrain during the day definitely kept it warm enough, with steep ups and downs, even along the coast after Santo Tomas. The Baja tracks were so torn and beat that it took some careful management of the ruts and berms. None of the riding would be as hard as Colonet to Rancho El Coyote. The day started with some highly enjoyable river crossings. That morning was spent laughing as the running water came up over our bottom brackets. Little did we know that we’d start climbing up a valley that would turn into a near straight up. The singlespeed didn’t have the oomph and I spent most of that day walking up the hill. So be it, that’s half the fun of singlespeeding is taking the time to take in the surroundings. It’s not like the top was much better though, as the 3,000 foot top felt alpine in nature with rolling green pastures and rocky two track. By the time we hit thirty miles at Racho El Coyote, we figured that was hard enough for a day.
We were glad that was all we did. Through the rest of the day riders would slowly trickle in, many of which became riders we’d continually pass throughout the rest of our trip. We shared more stories with these people about their experience on the rough track into the ranch. The poor woman running the ranch had her work cut out for her as we sold her out of her food, sodas, and the single beer we had left. For these ranches this is the slow time of year as Baja 1000 and the summer bring American tourists to motor tour.
Cataviña; a resupply marker on our maps. A hotel, a market, and a restaurant were the markers. That’s all there was in Cataviã. After a few nights in the bush we were pleased by another quiet hotel in the lull of it’s off season. Cold beers and the company of fellow bikepackers carried us through the night. We were beyond the noisy commercial sections of MEX1 in San Quintin. We had already rolled through the first long backcountry section and were ready to hit what was expected to be a highlight of the trip along the desolate coast near San Jose del Faro. It turned out to be one of those unforgettable sections; but maybe not for the right reasons.
Loaded up with three days worth of food and two days worth of water, we headed west from Cataviña towards the desolate Pacific coast. As we left the rocky arid center of the peninsula toward the coast, the biomass grew and grew until we were surrounded by towering cacti and low crawling brush covered most of the dark red soil. The more we approached the coast the darker the skies got. What was once just clouds that kept the day cool were starting to potentially be clouds that could rain on our parade, literally.
After a brief encounter involving dogs that bite and trucks doing donuts on the beach with the locals at San Jose Del Faro, we began our climb toward the series of beaches that dotted the coastline to Santa Rosalillita. The climb was not a problem, the problem was that the clouds had finally given way, as they looked like they were going to. We pushed up the climb, as riding was now impossible on the dampening clay. It was nearing dark at the late hour of 5 PM. Now we were caught in trying to find a place that was blocked from the wind, which had the potential to howl, and a place flat enough to pitch our tarps. We rolled through one valley; then the next; and it took one more. Morgan and Chris began to roll away and I hollered, “HEY! WHAT ABOUT THERE!” There was a spot right off the road going in the wrong direction. It wasn’t perfect, but we had to make it work.
We pitched the Hypterlite tarp, which was big enough for Morgan and I, plus room for Chris to cook in before he laid out his bivvy. We were dry. We were comfortable. For now.
The rain started and stopped throughout the night. At one point the rain was thunderous, as big drops hammered the side of the tarp. The rain never made it inside, but we already knew that was not going to be a problem. The problem was that the rain was turning our roads into gum.
After breakfast we rolled over the next hilltop to find Holly, Richard, Adam and Tim all huddled on a flat spot right off the trail. Their tents were all packed away but they were just sitting there kicking the dirt. They were not even in the mood to attempt to ride, only Holly made it out, “I went about 2K up the road and my bike completely stopped. I don’t think it’s passable.” We all sat and pondered our options.
“Well, we’re fifty miles back to Cataviña or seventy forward to Santa Rosalillita. We’re halfway between. We’re in the middle of nowhere. It makes sense to push on, which is what I think we’re gonna do,” that was our plan. It was going to suck, but we had to do it.
We pushed up one hill. Thankfully there were no clouds, just sun that we hoped would bake out the mud. It never really did. Instead the day was knowing the difference between “tough mud” and “impassable mud”. Sure there were occasions of hard-packed salt flats, but for the most part it was avoiding deep red soil that clogged all bits of the bike. How we didn’t break any chains or Chris didn’t break his derailleur (neither Morgan nor I had one) is beyond me. The rhythm of the day ended up becoming something like this; roll for twenty minutes; stop and clean the bike; roll for twenty; stop and clean the bike. This was the rhythm of our day. We spoke little. The noise of the day was the wind off the ocean and grunts at the struggles of pushing the bike. All we did was move forward. We didn’t stop for lunch or much for picture taking. We had no choice.
Right before one of the final passes of the day, as the sun was approaching the horizon, the red clay disappeared in lieu of dark brown mud laced with low vines that only exacerbated our problems. Now with nearly nine hours of moving forward we hit more struggle. The vines would climb up the bike and stick to the mud. Pushing it all out was tougher as the vines would get caught every which way. The day felt like it would never end.
When we somehow got the bikes clean enough we got up and over the last pass. We were now on a well-graded hard-packed road. The sun was gone. The mud had destroyed what little life my dynamo hub had left. Luckily I had my Light & Motion to guide me in that final hour to El Cordon. No one spoke, we just listened to the ocean breaking in the distance and looked out at the specks of lights of fishing boats. In all the fury of that day, rolling in the darkness into El Cordon was peaceful. Chalk it up to exhaustion or something else, but that last ten miles was fairly enjoyable.
We camped out in the village of Cordon, not the suggested beach camp. An error we would regret later as we’d find out that Rich camped there and was fed beers and meals from American surfers vacationing on the beach. Instead we noticed our food supplies and knew we had to ride on, as much as we feared more mud ahead.
Crossing a few passes we hit a straight well-graded section. We had left the desolation to what seems a fairly popular route for surfers off MEX1 to these secluded beaches. Morgan and Chris were rolling up ahead when I heard a swear word yelled at the clear sky. As I caught up Morgan explained his situation; he had stopped earlier in the AM to clean off his bike and left his Sea to Summit stuffable backpack about eight miles back. He threw his gear in a ditch and headed backwards on trail. Chris and I decided to layout in the morning sun. As Chris was nose-deep in his Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel I watched the clouds moving in the distance. “Hey, does that big black cloud look like it’s coming this way?”
Chris looked up, “I can’t really tell.” He turned back to his book.
I kept watching it. It was hard to say where it was going. “I’m not going to risk another yesterday. I’m riding. Morgan can fend for himself.”
As a parting gift I left him the remainder of our tequila and headed toward Santa Rosalillita. Over the next hill, our nicely graded hard-packed road turned back into the red clay of doom. In frustration I jammed the pedals. I didn’t care about the bike anymore. I let mud rub along the ballooned out sidewall of my Chupacabra tires. I let mud and pebbles ding all over my drivetrain. I let my dynamo plug get covered over with mud. It didn’t matter. The quick 25 miles I was hoping for would no longer be quick.
Gazing ahead trying to pick the line I heard a yell behind me, “YAHOOOOO!!!” I stopped, put my foot down and looked back to find the source. A little red pickup with Morgan standing up in the back of the cab screaming at me was coming up the road. Morgan had caught a ride with a truck along with Tim and Adam because earlier in the day Tim snapped his derailleur. With no room left to take me Morgan regifted the tequila, which I promptly finished. With that tequila buzz I was able to push on through the last of the mud into Santa Rosalillita.
150 miles, 100 of which were a brutal mud slog. It’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was definitely up there. At the sight of civilization I downed at least a dozen quesadillas and half that number in beers.
After the difficulty of slogging in the rain and mud, the rest of the trip was a blessing. A rough 130 miles into Vizcaino from some stomach issues was the worst it got. After Vizcaino the northern desert was no more, we were in Baja Sur now and the desert was clear of the towering cirios, the deep rich red soil that was common in the north was now flat cracked white earth. In between this desert we spotted an oasis. These oasis were where the Spanish Missions of the 17th and 18th century set up. These bits of Baja history were a welcome change to the long desolation of the northern wilderness. Unfortunately, we connected from San Ignacio to Mulege and that was all the time we had. Just as the days were getting longer, the temps were getting higher, and the towns getting more interesting, we were due back to the States.
Even with the difficulty of pushing through the mud, the Baja Peninsula was a beautiful and amazing trip. Some of the highlights include the descent down into Vizcaino, one of the few technical bits; riding the beach at night from San Quintin, something a lot of people missed due to rising tides; all the stunning sunsets and starscapes; eating tacos on the European style San Ignacio plaza; and of course the people, who were all so inviting to us bikepackers. If you have ever wanted to do an international bikepacking trip but aren’t sure where to start, the Baja Divide is an incredible place to start. You can find more resources at www.bajadivide.com.