Part XV: Baja Is Beautiful!
Life can be reduced to simple things that give us pleasure. Right now it’s one of those magical moments. I am alone in the desert under the stars and constellations that I wish I knew the names of. A tiny speck of utter insignificance in a vast universe am I. A bat just flew over my head; the fire is dying down. I am sipping on a cup of miso soup. I see the Big Dipper and the little one, I see the Polaris or The North Star and the brightest of them all Sirius, but most stars and planets to me are just sparkling lights in the sky.
Last winter down in La Ventana, at my friends Loraine and Joel’s house, Professor Tom Spradley gave us a talk on stars. He would point with a laser to single stars and groups of constellations and not one of those names can I recall staring into the sky right now. I wish I could but nevertheless, tonight is one of those nights I came to search for in Baja. A giant shooting star lights up a line halfway across the sky above me. I am tired but not exhausted from the day’s ride. I covered more than 70 miles, and the main road was smooth, and I felt safe. Whatever cars and trucks passed me were friendly and courteous.
I am glad I made the decision to skip the three-day trek, a 126-mile part of the Baja Divide that goes through the most remote part of Baja without places to resupply on water and food. Running out of water in this heat is no joke, and I was very fortunate to be helped by the guys with water who happened to pass me the other day. I regret skipping riding on the Pacific coast, but it’s the Cortez side that has my heart. My campsite is tucked away under spectacularly-shaped granite boulders, and I am surrounded by grand cardons, ocotillos, Melone de Coyote trees, Pitaya and yes, Cholla cacti that jump at you and stick to you with these nasty hooks
I gather wood for the fire and am careful picking it. This is a scorpion country, and they love to hang out in rotting dead branches. As I throw wood onto the fire, they scurry out of the burning branches back into the desert night. With the time change, it gets dark early now. I retreat to my tent at 7 pm to get away from mosquitoes and the night is peaceful. At some point, I realize that even crickets quieted down. I only hear an occasional hoot of an owl and a bat flying over the tent. Coyotes yelp in the distance throughout the night.
I am back on the road by eight, riding toward Bahia de Los Ángeles. The road stretches before me in a line straight as an arrow, lined by Cirios, many other species that thrive in this area, and many plants that are unique to this region and grow in no other part of the world. It is its own microcosm, and you can feel the energy about it. It is astonishing how after the rains, cacti of the same species all bloom at the same time even though they are separated by miles and miles. It seems they are as one organism, connected by an invisible umbilical cord. My mood parallels the aura of my surroundings, and I holler at the top of my lungs. No one but The Beast can hear me. The energy is released from every pore of my body. We reach the Bay by noon after 34.5 miles. At last, I am at the Sea of Cortez.
I have to admit that my first impression of the town is not favorable. The Bay is spectacular, don’t take me wrong, but the town is run down and looks almost deserted. Lots of dilapidated, empty buildings make up Main Street. How do we humans manage to ruin a beautiful natural environment with building crappy structures which we then let deteriorate? An area gets discovered for tourist opportunities, gets spoiled by buildings, then people find a new place to invade after they drive up real estate prices and when all fails again, the town dies. The hotel prices are high, suited for tourists and in anticipation of Baja 1000 riders and support teams. I head north about two kilometers out of town to a campground. It’s a pleasant place and, as I don’t have any other options anyway, I set up camp. I made a mistake not buying any food or water in town though. I thought there’d be a restaurant or a little convenience store out this way. There is only one other trailer parked here, and I meet Kent and Lilia, a very nice couple who are traveling from British Columbia to, guess where? La Ventana! My final destination. And suddenly the place gets a friendly makeover. I catch a ride with them back to town to get some water and food supplies, and they invite me over to a lovely dinner. Lilia is originally from Sweden and, boy, was it ever so nice to sit at the table in a spotless trailer, eat good food, drink wine, which was the only thing I could contribute to dinner, and have an interesting and intelligent conversation.
I am lulled to sleep by the gentle sound of the waves. The wind has died down, and stars are bright again on a moonless sky. It now gets light early at five in the morning. I catch the glorious moment, that time at dawn just before sunrise when the sky is bloody red, seagulls are squawking and pelicans diving for their catch of the day. And then, just to spoil the perfect morning, my stove doesn’t work. I really wanted to enjoy a hot cup of coffee with the sunrise. I start taking it apart piece by piece and manage to make it work again. By the time I am done, I lose the desire to get on the road.
My tent is still very wet as are the shorts I washed yesterday. Everything is saturated with dew. The decision to stay comes pretty quickly, and I am content by it. Kent and Lilian came to pick me up with their truck, and we spend a pleasant day on Gringa beach and estuary, swimming and snorkeling and watching seagulls fight for fish. Meanwhile, a stately and elegant blue herring, ever so watchful, looks at its own reflection in waters slightly rippled by an easterly breeze.
I almost forget how to just be still, but my body and my mind are grateful. Lilian packed up peanut butter sandwiches and cold water and watermelon. I feel like a kid that was adopted by the kindest of foster parents.
Upon return to the campground, we plan to take a quick shower and head to town for supper. I get to my tent and have to fix some stakes that were pulled out. I wonder how that happened? I crawl into the tent to get my clothes and to my horror notice big slashes and holes in the mesh wall of my tent! It looks like the curiosity got the better of Tuna, a very friendly pit bull puppy that roams around freely. Oh, I wasn’t happy! Not happy at all! What do I say to the owners of the dog who own the campground? Do I say anything? What do I do about the tent? This is bugs and mosquitoes land. Luckily I have a sewing kit, so I get to work and finish sewing the gaps just in time before dark. I go tell the owner of the camp about the damage. She didn’t seem fazed much, but I also did not pay for the second night of camping. We head to town for dinner, but unfortunately, there was no time for me to take a shower which is a luxury I so crave these days.
In the morning I am ready for an early start at six. My stove is on strike yet again. I give up on it and decide to just cook on the fire whenever I can. While walking to the bathroom, I see another van parked a few sites down from me. The guys ask me if I need anything and I said a cup of coffee would be nice. I explain my stove failure. It just so happens that Simon, who is head of the outdoor program at UCSD, knows a few things about camp stoves. As a matter of fact, just last week he taught a class on maintenance and repair for Whisperlight. Yet another lucky coincidence for me. Well then, let’s do it! He takes it apart explaining everything about each piece as he goes. He puts it back together, it works for a bit then dies again. We repeat the cleaning process several times, and then another young couple Dusty and his girlfriend come over. Dusty just took his own stove apart last week, so he teaches me to pull the cable out to clean CO2 debris that is clogging the flow of the fuel. I feel I am now intimately connected with each little piece of this finicky device. Two hours later, I am finally on the road. It is a late start, but I am grateful for all the new information I now have. I hope the stove and I can start a brand new relationship.
A washboard road takes me south out of Bahía de Los Ángeles, gently climbing through a beautiful cardon forest. 106 F, says my Garmin computer. 106 is all you need to know, and I have to cover 46 miles to my next stop in San Rafael Bay. The desert is lush and road lined by paloverde trees. At the halfway point, I find a nice big one to cool in its shade and have a snack of rice pudding and some water. Rice pudding tastes really good in spite of mold around the edges. A gentle breeze is cooling the air just enough that it would be pleasant if it were not for buzzing flies, mosquitoes, and bobos. It’s time to keep on moving. Darkness comes early these days. It comes way before I reach the next bay. Before I drop back down towards the ocean, the silhouettes of the mountains are etched into the blood-orange skyline. I try to stop to take a photo, but I get covered by a cloud of mosquitoes, so I keep moving. I hear the sounds of motorcycle engine coming toward me. I quickly scramble off the dirt road and hide behind the giant cactus. Three dirt bike riders pass by and continue in the opposite direction of my travel. I feel a little silly hiding, but in the darkness, one never knows. I wait for a while for their lights to disappear before I get back on the road. Just when I thought I’d be reaching the Bay, the trail climbs for another mile before it drops me down to the water’s edge in pitch darkness.
I start talking to a fisherman by the hut, when a soldier in full attire, including a gun, walks up. At first sight, its a bit of a shock but I greet him in a friendly way and ask him where is a good place to camp. He points me down to the beach and with a sweeping motion of the hand exclaims:” It’s all yours!” An army group is camped up on a hill for the night. It makes me feel safe, and they are really nice. After I set up my tent next to a panga (fishing boat), a sergeant comes down with two soldiers to check on me and to chat. They see me struggle with the stove since yes, it is on strike again! I was looking forward to the hot soup for dinner. I already mixed a package into cold water to be heated up. It’s dark, and the mosquitoes are incredibly persistent, so I retreat into the tent, chew on some cold flour tortillas, a banana and some dried fruit and surrender to the waves that lull me to sleep way too early. I pay the price as I am awake at 3 am. I just lay there hoping for the sleep that never comes.
Now that I am an expert on stove repair, I take it apart in the morning and have soup which was meant for last night’s dinner, for breakfast. The sergeant comes back for a visit with two soldiers, and they admire my bike. They are also interested in my Garmin navigation and Mini Inreach satellite device. They take photos of it and discuss possibilities for the army to purchase them. I also take photos with the sergeant and my bike. I pack up slowly, go for a refreshing dip in the ocean and reluctantly get back on the bike. I have a short day today, only 25 miles ride up to Rancho Escondido that has rooms for rent, food and cold beer. I look forward to a shorter day.
There is an intricate balance between life and death in the desert. Fragility and ruggedness walk closely hand in hand. Water is the crucial source of life and nowhere is that more apparent than here. Recent rains have painted the desert in vivid greens, bright reds, eye-blinding yellows, and soft purples. I have yet to identify the source of the opulent sweet smells, but I suppose that doesn’t really matter. If I were passing through here in a closed air-conditioned car, I wouldn’t have smelled anything. Riding at my own pace, I feel the caress of sweet air on my sweaty body.
My mind often goes blank, and I peddle on autopilot. On a gentle downslope, I enjoy the effortless movement, and without warning, as I am not paying attention, a long rattlesnake is stretched from one side of the trail to the other, blocking my path. I run over the poor sucker who is unsuspecting and just lazily warming up in the sun. It coils up quickly into ready to strike pose and The Beast and I, loaded on adrenaline, speed away from it as fast as we can. I apologize to the snake a million times as I ride full speed ahead. I am sure I didn’t hurt it, but I interrupted it’s lounging in the sun.
After several miles of pleasant road that leaves the bay of San Rafael, a climb up and over the pass finds me on a granite boulder plateau. It is densely populated by a variety of cacti, trees, and blooming flowers. I wish I had room to carry a book by which I could identify them all. I stop for a water break as the temperature rises to over 100 degrees again. I am not saving water today. I only have about five miles to go. I indulge my senses by listening to a variety of birdsong. The highlight however, is that not far from me, a red tail fox trots along the road for a while. As soon as it senses me, it scurries into the forest of the high desert.
I came to an intersection with signs pointing to Rancho Escondido. When I follow the sign on the road I was traveling, it becomes very confusing as my Garmin starts beeping, telling me I am off course. I keep turning around and then get back on track on a smaller, more rugged road through thick growth. This must be the road to the ranch, I think. I can already see myself sitting at the table eating good food and drinking cold beer. But then, I am suddenly back on the wider dirt road. It looks like I’ve taken a shortcut. I must be almost there! The road is soft and sandy and it’s going uphill, so I am making painfully slow progress. My spirits are dampened as I thought I’d be there already. Something is rotten in the land of Baja. I send Jim a message via satellite. “Can you tell on the map if I have passed the ranch?” Luckily he is home, and he confirms my suspicions. I passed the ranch by a couple of miles when I took the cutoff, so I turn around and slog back through soft sand.
I am just about there when a car comes towards me. I flag it down just to double check I am heading in the right direction of Rancho Escondido. Let’s just call him Angel, as I forgot his actual name. He says: “Yes, but there is no one there. The Ranch is closed. The owners went to Ensenada!” Oh, that’s not good! I am down to one bottle of water and hardly any food. I’ve only had soup this morning for breakfast and some nuts along the way. I’ve been counting on food and water at the ranch. I am down to a couple of emergency bars and a can of tuna which is enough food, but I have less than a bottle of water left. The next place is 18.5 miles up the hill, climbing over the pass on the road covered with deep sand. It is 3 pm, which means there are only two hours of light left. There is no way I can make that. Angel offers me a ride to Rancho Piedra Blanco. I gladly accept, and he even has a cold-ish beer for me. Angel lives on a ranch in San Franciscito. He’s traveling to Guerrero Negro to visit his father and get supplies for the ranch. The back of his car is packed full, and he has a large barrel for fuel. Somehow we make enough room to stuff the Beast into the back of an SUV after I took off the front wheel.
You can call it divine intervention. I’ll just say I got my ass saved again today by an Angel. At Piedra Blanca ranch I buy Angel a case of beer and the lady of the ranch gets a ride with him to Guerrero Negro just after she fixes me a plate of four small burritos. The ranchers live miles and miles apart, but they all know each other and are all connected and interdependent. It’s incredible! Most of the time, they have family connections.
However, even in these remote areas, localism is slowly disappearing and with it, its unique character. I’ve passed and stayed in places where bathrooms have no running water, trash is littered everywhere, yet kids are running around with I Phones and I Pads.
For now, I will enjoy a cold beer, some simple food, a hot shower, and a bed. Life is good again!