Departing from the intensity of the Las Vegas High Rollers rally was a familiar pang of loss. My intermittent scooter family had gone home to real families (puh-leeze), and I was off for a night of camping alone in Joshua Tree National Forest. As with so much of life, I longed for the solitude and ached for the loneliness in the same breath.
The next day, I would cross the border into Mexico. It wasn’t originally part of my plan, but Ruckus Mike had many good words about the experience. I would be near the border anyhow, plus it’s warmer…let’s do this!
Apparently, I stumbled upon something called Sunrise Highway up through Julian. From the desert floor, I suddenly found the road twisting and climbing steeply, with an increasing wind. Snow made an appearance, along with a spectacular view.
Julian, CA was an unexpected town of gift shops and bakeries, quaint and comfortable. A handful of leather-clad motorcyclists dotted the cafes, marking this a popular local riding spot. Before departing for south of the border, I found a bit of warmth a slice of Americana: apple pie. Also, it was enormous, which I would be thankful for later.
Fear and thrill simultaneously welled up in my belly as I approached the border. I’ve traveled internationally by plane innumerable times throughout Asia growing up, ventured into Canada from the US often enough as an adult by car or bus, and made a single quest by scooter to an Ottawa rally (okay there was that unique border crossing to Angle Inlet too)… but Mexico was uncharted territory for me, by any vehicle. The raised metal speed bumps into Tecate raised chills up my spine as well, as I bottomed out across them. I was waiting for some sort of security to question my belonging in this foreign territory. Also, I swear, as soon as I crossed the line, chickens were roaming the streets and a car came up a one way the wrong way. We certainly weren’t in Kansas anymore (or ever really, for me).
I parked the bike and eventually ambled into the right building to get my tourist visa (I think it was $10 that you have to walk to a different building, the bank, to pay). A couple adventure bikes pulled up who were new to this as well. We established that we were, sort of, going in the right direction. And hey, I might even catch up with them later, I thought offhandedly walking into the immigration booth.
In a room that reminded of highschool, an immigration officer asked, “Sola? By yourself?”
I nodded yes.
He handed me the appropriate documents and continued, “Ah…No partner, no friends?” He asked in a manner that suggested that, had his English been better, it would have been preceded by, “Pardon, I don’t mean to pry, but I must inquire…” It struck a bit of a nerve, but I simply nodded again.
When I returned the finished paperwork, he asked carefully, “Why do you travel one person?”
“Well, it’s hard to find others who can take this kind of time off.”
He nodded, though I felt the entirety of my meaning go splat against the language barrier. How could I express to him the sense of freedom, the satisfaction of self-reliance, all the things you could learn about yourself and the world when you abandon societal norms, all the… Oh, what the hell.
“Do not travel at night. Here is your permit, I put 30 days.”
Honestly, I feel my fears were the standard that come with facing uncertainty. And they were mostly unfounded – only my noobness was to slow me down. Roads are roads, and wine country rolled out before me. Speed limits were mere suggestions, perhaps a little more so around here. I’m not bothered at all pulling into the wide shoulders to let cars blast by.
So, now back to misadventure. Remember that bottle of oil sitting on my topcase back in Joshua Tree? I had tried to change my oil, figuring it would be a good time to do so before riding 1000+ miles in the Baja desert landscape. Unfortunately, back in San Francisco Tom had put the oil filter and drain bolt on much tighter than I usually do, and in spite of Twentynine Palms Autozone’s staff’s best efforts, it was time to close and I couldn’t budge that bolt. I’d mangled the filter, so I just replaced that and kept rolling. Bonus, night fell around me as I worked, and I realized that my headlamp bulb had burnt out. I rode back to my campsite on my highbeams only.
No matter, I planned to reach a hostel Mike had recommended the next day. However, when I rolled into Ensenada, I quickly realized A) traffic laws are not like the US and B) I had the address for Coyote Cal’s hostel wrong. I should have double-checked on their website.
As was the case, I rolled into the chaotic streets of Ensenada around dusk, dodged buses to find wifi at a salad restaurant (did you know that most restaurants have wifi, and it’s partly because the cell network is unreliable? The kind folks at 7-11 told me this), and realized I had another 70 miles or so to ride to get to the correct location of the hostel. My headlamp was fried and I had been warned not to ride at night. Based on my most recent experience, it had less to do with banditos and more to do with road conditions.
Sunlight was scarce and the kind host, (Alfredo?) suggested I store my ride down their narrow alley into their courtyard. I was worn out from riding through winter and summer in one day. I figured I’d figure out how to extract my scoot from a narrow ramp through a narrow locked gate the next morning… that’s future Steph’s problem. The only other guest in the dorm, Susanne, suggested I double up on blankets (much appreciated advice!) but I mostly didn’t socialize – I crashed in bed and slept the deepest sleep.
I can’t tell you how thrilling this all was for me. For the more well-traveled, this crossing into a safe part of a contiguous nation is no big deal. For me, I hoped it was the first step towards something bigger.
Turns out in daylight there’s plenty of room, I just picked up those benches and did a 35 point turn.
The next morning, I hit up the auto shop across the way and they brought out a wrench half as long as my scooter to break the drain bolt. I finished my oil change into a cut-out gallon orange juice carton, thanks to those guys. In the meantime, I chatted with Susanne, solo cyclist extraordinaire from Switzerland. She would be in Ensenada for a couple weeks for an intensive Spanish program. What a cool lady!
Oil changed and things packed, I was ready to keep pressing inland. I said my goodbyes and continued along, roughly following Mike’s advice.
Ejido Erendira is a quite coastal town, removed from the main traffic of Mex-1. It’s where Rick and Ta have made their home, and a home for adventure and motocross fans, and other random travelers (ie. myself) on their journeys. In a way, it was the easiest transition into Baja.
Rick mentioned in his 51 years in Mexico, he’s never seen a Vespa here. They must be in other parts of Mexico.
I didn’t think I had expectations, but somehow Cal’s was not what I expected. In the two nights I spent there, it became apparent that moto-tourists were everyday, and Cal’s was walking a fine line between an atmosphere that could be both partylike and also accommodating to the quiet oddball traveler like myself.
Now, on the threat of losing rider cred, I’m hesitant to admit I don’t actually know much about the Baja 1000, or any other number that follows ‘Baja’. My intel was entirely from a Ruckus rider who had positive things to say. It became apparent quickly that alongside a longstanding native culture in Baja, there was a riding culture I was equally unfamiliar with. Now that I could observe them in their natural environment, I gathered notes… They roll in late, require large amounts of food and beverage, roll out early the next day for more beatings, rinse and repeat for a solid week or so. Needless to say, I liked this crowd… but I don’t have the ability to keep up with them in many aspects.
I mean, the dirt road was so rough for my bike and I was so tired, there was no way I was going back into town until I was leaving it. Between the hustle and bustle of everyone gearing up in the morning and the muddy but triumphant evening arrivals, the hostel was eerily quiet. Sometimes surfers would set up camp on the lawn, but mostly I drew in the common room, sent emails from a tiny cubby, hung out with the chickens or injured riders left behind, or took a walk along the coast. When I got hungry, I slowly depleted that enormous slice of apple pie from Julian, CA, and my yogurt supply. I felt a bit trapped, but needed the rest. Thankfully Rick and Ta, and the wonderfully kind motocross travelers were generous enough to keep me from going hungry so I wouldn’t have to bear that road again just yet. Happily, some of that included tequila.
Oh right, I met Chilly White and his tour group. He did a quick photoshoot while his team geared up. I heard this appeared on the internet somewhere, but couldn’t find it.
Okay, so I might have gone a little crazy taking photos of the coast.
What struck me the most was how untouched all of this was. There were no railings or signs, just the occasional stray dog. There were sparse developments further up the hill, but many of them seemed partially built and then abandoned. It was mostly just me and the harbor seals.
Having eaten through my supplies and perhaps my welcome, it was time to move south.
Oil: Changed. Headlight: Replaced. The remaining issue with my bike was a small hole I noticed in the muffler – a parting gift from two New England winters and not enough (or any) wire brush attention. Pete stuck some JB Weld on it back in San Francisco, but it wasn’t going to last. I was told it shouldn’t cost more than $7 at a roadside welder.
Many folks had already warned me that there would be a stretch with no gas stations in the national park…except for these guys selling gas out of barrels in their trucks in Cataviña. I had my spare gas, but I figured I’d save that for later (glad I did). The desert rate was an extra dollar per gallon.
At the turn off for Bahia de Los Angeles, I paused for some shade and water. A boy peered at me from around a corner, full of curiosity. I tried to say, “Hola,” but my voice cracked, as if they’d absorbed the quality of the rocks in the landscape knocking against each other. It was only one day, but the desert and sand permeated everything. In the heat, it all seemed endless.
See that steep, winding, gravel road leading off the nice smooth one? At the bottom there’s a sign pointing to the hostel, making it clear this was indeed the hill I’d have to surmount for my overnight accommodations. I took a deep breath and began the ascent, Just don’t come to a stop. My rear tire bounced and slid, probably in time with my own arrhythmic heartbeat. The weight on the back made steering extra susceptible to all but the smallest rocks. I wobbled towards whichever wheel well looked least problematic, trying not to look at the hill dropping down steeply to my left. About halfway up the steepest part, an errant rock threw the scoot a little farther left than I liked…and I skidded to a stop.
My unfortunate, overloaded beast was stuck. There was no purchase for my side stand, and perhaps barely more for my street tires (they would spin in the sand). I had to either get the scooter going again without tumbling off the hillside, or waddle it backwards to a less steep grade to try again.
Much to my relief, I backed up slightly, goosed the throttle just right, and with moderate fishtailing, kicked off some rocks and managed to arrive shiny side up (ok, sort of shiny). Later that night, Mauro admitted they were watching me approach, taking bets on whether I’d make it unassisted.
At the top, Alessandro, Mauro, and Patty greeted me warmly, and gave me a tour of this incredible place they call home.
I had a shower in their outdoor restroom, and passed time chatting with Maxine-Rose and chickens. As the sun began to set, I walked and climbed around the property. Everything that was built had a story, and was was handmade to blend with nature; sometimes Patty would fill in a bit here or there with history. The sky and land turned colors as one, reminiscent of gasoline on water but unpolluted, unspoiled.
Nate and Kerny (I think those were their names, I’m so sorry!) were the other two biker guests. Earlier that day they dug up clams and caught fish, which Giuseppe was cleaning in the kitchen when I arrived. They invited me to share with them. The fish went into a delicious ceviche, and the mussels paired with pasta. We talked routes and bikes and travel into the evening, and told bad jokes with the kids. When dinner and conversation petered down, we walked outside to look at stars. The moon wouldn’t rise until later, which meant the night sky showed exceptional depth. Maxine-Rose mentioned they only installed power lines to the town a year or two ago. Before that, generators would be shut off by 10pm and the bay was completely dark…except to starlight and moonlight. I can only imagine.
I am the happiest, luckiest person alive to have just walked into this.