Part XVII: I Did It.
Saturday, November 17th
What goes down, has to come up again. Just as the road steeply descends into this lush oasis, it now steeply climbs out of it. My breakfast wants to come up as well, and long, loud burps compete with the sounds of the birds keeping me company on this fine Saturday morning. I wish I could stay for the wine festivities which the town is getting ready for this morning as I ride through. People are arriving from near and far. But I don’t want to overstay a kind invitation and impose on Rosalva and Omar. Plus, my heart wants to keep going. I need to finish. I think the hardest part of this trip for me is knowing how much Jim, my kids, and the rest of my family worry about me.
As I move through town, I wonder how the first explorers of Baja managed to discover this place in 1684, tucked so far away in the mountains. I wonder what possessed the Jesuits to build such a large Mission in this valley back in 1708. To colonize the area, Spain was awarded the land by the Catholic Church. The Jesuits started to build the outposts and introduced European livestock, fruits, and vegetables to be self-supporting as they were in such remote parts. The water of course was the key to existence, but so was labor to cultivate crops and tend livestock. Several indigenous nomadic native tribes like Monqui, Cochimi, and Guayacura lived in this area for thousands of years before the Spanish explorers and Jesuits arrived. Unaccustomed to live in permanent locations, they often ran away to escape forced labor and efforts of conversion to strict religious practices of Catholic Church. Their numbers were soon drastically reduced as they succumbed to foreign diseases like small pocks and measles. There are many locations in Baja, several that I passed along the way, that contain large cave and rock paintings. Powdered rock pigments that have resisted time, preserved at least some of the story in often elaborate and abstract expressions of the native peoples of this land.
A rough road meanders up and down, passing several more goat ranches. As I descend into another drainage, at exactly 11:11, I round the corner and before me looms a sheer wall with a steep road carved into it, zig-zagging back and forth. “Well, Beast, what choice do we have! Let’s put on a brave face and grind this one out. We’ve done it before many times, we can do it again. We have water, we have time, we are well fed, and have an extra reserve of love from two strangers who, in a short time, became my new friends.
This morning, over coffee sweetened by delicious local honey, Rosalva and I discussed the secret to her happy, loving marriage. She married Omar when she was 16 and he 26. Love, of course, but what is love? In her words, love is taking care of her husband, taking care of their four daughters when they were growing up in La Paz; love is keeping the home nice and tidy, and stress-free for her husband. Love is mutual respect, tolerance, patience, and avoiding quick judgment. Love is singing and dancing together. And they do. Their favorite song comes on, which they have danced to for nearly 50 years in their long life together. They dance in their kitchen at breakfast right in front of me. I hope you have tears in your eyes because I do. I have them now writing it, and I had them when I witnessed these two lovely people in love after so many years. You don’t see that very often. It is something I will cherish for the rest of my life. All I want is to get home into my husband’s embrace so we can dance our own dance.
I get back on my bike and immediately lose control. We crash for the first time the whole trip. It takes me a while to untangle myself from underneath the weight of The Beast. I check my bruises and, apart from my pride, nothing is broken. I limp along for a while and then get back on the bike to slowly push my way to the top of the climb.
When I finally climb out of the canyon, I have to fix my water bottle holders which broke when I fell. I lay the bike down in the middle of the road. No cars pass by here, but wouldn’t you know it! Just as I am in the middle of my repairs, a car comes along, and I have to drag The Beast and all my scattered stuff off the narrow road. An older gentleman is traveling from Loreto to San Juan de Comondú to the wine festival. We chat for a bit, and we exchange information as to what conditions are ahead on the road. He takes off, and I get back to fixing the bike when yet another vehicle comes from the other direction. What timing! It’s a small world; this time, one of the passengers is from Tahoe, and we know some of the same people. He even knows I have a house in La Ventana. Talk about five degrees of separation.
I continue riding some rough roads, and the scenery is truly spectacular. I am surrounded by huge mountains and ride through amazing canyons which lead me to San Javier, yet another beautiful Mission town. I run into a family that is renting a couple of small, primitive cabanas they built in their backyard. I meet the whole family from grandma to cousins, sisters, sisters-in-law, husbands, grandpa, and the youngest member of the family, a precocious four-year-old granddaughter. Sunday morning, the whole family starts gathering early to start preparations for a traditional meal. The main meal consists of a goat head slowly steamed underground. While singing and dancing, the women chop vegetables that will steam with the goat head. The guys prepare the fire, but they mostly sit around and wait for the women to serve them coffee. I go for a walk by the Mission through olive trees, a citrus grove, and through grape vines. Several original olive trees are more than 400 years old. The original trees and grapevines were planted by Jesuits who first arrived and cultivated the land back in the 18th century. Fertile ground and fresh water provide a beautiful setting. This Mission location was the first where grapes were grown and wine produced in Californias. The freshwater spring, which is a kilometer away, is connected to the gardens by a stone aqueduct. An elaborate watering system is still visible and has been greatly preserved.
I’d love to stay for a one o’clock mass, but I have to keep moving. I am out of money, and I barely have enough to pay for the night’s stay and some food for breakfast of which half I save for lunch.
Today’s ride meanders along the San Javier river. I pass beautiful working ranches through picturesque canyons and cross the river many times. The Beast receives a much-needed bath as we ride through water a couple of feet deep several times. He is quite dusty, and I actually have to stop to lube its chain. Riding through water and sand dried it up, and it hasn’t received the treatment in a couple of days. Although there isn’t that much climbing involved, the progress is slow on a river rock road, and many sections are very sandy. The scenery is quite spectacular; vegetation is lush, the cardon forests beautiful. I pass a vaquero on a beautiful horse, and I feel bad that I spooked him so. In the heat of the day, I take a dip in a clear, refreshing pool of water which is surrounded by smooth white granite boulders. It is so reviving. I swim fully clothed so I can keep cool for a while riding in wet clothes. As I cross the river bed with running water for the last time, a rancher passes me in an old beat-up pickup truck. He stops, and we talk for a while. He is on his way back from visiting his brother at Rancho Escondido. He owns a ranch called Agua Bonita. And it really is a beautiful place. Water is ever present and is of a deep emerald green color. All of the ranches have family connections. He is also admiring my bike and is curious how much it costs. I feel safe though, yet I still don’t disclose the actual value of the Beast and all the gear on it. He’s a genuinely nice man, and he wishes me a very safe journey when he pulls away.
Just before the sun sets, I find a perfect camp spot by a dry river bed. The ground is covered in fine, soft sand and there is plenty of dry wood to build a nice fire. As I am setting up the tent, a curious hummingbird dances around me. He lands on a branch and just sits there watching me for a long time. His colors are a brilliant rainbow of green and scarlet. Crickets commence their evening prayer song, and the wind sings in the tops of the trees all around me. The moon behind me is enshrouded in a thin layer of clouds, and all is peaceful and quiet. There is something extraordinary about being alone in the desert, by the fire surrounded by all this magic. It’s a bit of a shame that the stars are hiding tonight behind the clouds, but then, you can’t wish for what’s not there. So often we long for what we don’t have, and we fail to fully engage with and enjoy what is here, right in front of us, right now at this very moment in time. This moment is precious, and it will never repeat itself again. I enjoy it completely, and I am at peace. I sip on hot chocolate and realize that this is the first night camping that I am not being eaten alive by mosquitoes. A few bugs fly around attracted by the fire, but I can safely say:
Today was a perfect day followed by a beautiful evening and hopefully, will be a good night to rest.
It the morning I am pretty rested, but my stomach troubles from the previous day return. I had to go to the bathroom several times during the night, and I have intense cramps. I am worried. I’ve been losing not just weight, but muscle mass and my skin and clothes hang loosely on my boney body. I bet I don’t weigh more than a hundred pounds. I take some meds Dr. Ganong prescribed before I left on the trip and pray they work.
I muster the last of my energy to ride 27 miles on sandy and rocky, but flat, roads. The road is quiet, the scenery is unremarkable. Or maybe I just don’t see the beauty in it any longer. I am too preoccupied with how I feel. The decision has been made for me. I arrive at Insurgentes exhausted and catch a bus to La Paz. The food and water resupply on the last section of the route from Ciudad Constitucion is extremely limited, and if my condition worsens, I could get myself into serious trouble. I will recover overnight in La Paz and ride the last leg of the trip to La Ventana tomorrow. I have no regrets.
At first, the bus driver says there is no way he can take the bike. The luggage compartments are full. And they are. I give him a pleading look and take the front wheel off, and I just stand by the bus hoping for mercy. The driver’s young assistant opens the third compartment which holds the bus’s spare tire. The Beast fits in perfectly. And I’m on my way to La Paz.
The journey is coming to an end and will never repeat itself by me nor anyone else. It is my journey alone, in this particular time and space, the way only I can experience it. Even if you traveled with me at exactly the same moment and space, it would have been a completely different kind of trip for you. It would have been perceived through your eyes only. It would have been your own experience. And even if I turned around right now and started the ride all over again, I would have a completely different experience as well. On that note, I cannot advise for it or against it. You have to find your own journey. We all do! Whatever that journey is, may you travel well and safe. There are good people out there; there are beautiful places to be seen. My faith in humanity has been restored and that my friends, has been the most important part of this trip. Now go and get out there and find out for yourself!
Riding on a bus across an incredibly long flat stretch between Ciudad Constitucion and La Paz looks boring and horribly long. I dread just thinking about having to ride across here sick with diarrhea, cramping and dehydrated, not knowing where I’d sleep and if I’d have enough water. It was better I skipped this part. For now.
The bus arrived in the city in the dark. John Steinbeck would be rolling in his grave if he saw the sprawling city of La Paz today. Long gone are the days of rowing in dugout canoes by native Indian Pericú and Guaycura tribes who once lived on the shores of this beautiful bay.
I’ve been coming to La Paz for over 20 years, and it has grown exponentially in the past years. It is a vibrant city for sure, and I’ve never just sat on Malacon and watched life go by at night. I soak it in, not quite believing that I am here. I celebrate with a dinner and a margarita at Hotel La Perla restaurant. It’s been fun for a night, but I am not a big fan of any city. It is bright, and it is loud. The city dehumanizes us. I feel lonelier than when I was all alone out camping in the desert surrounded by mountains, days away from everyone and everything. I feel more scared as well, even though I am surrounded by so many people. I am nervous when I am at the bank getting cash out of my account. I am scared when I walk back to the cockroach motel on a narrow, dim lit street. I feel suffocated in a cinder block room without a window to allow fresh air. The bathroom smells like a raw sewer. I’d rather be smelling cow poop. I finally discover that the room has a fan that runs on five speeds. I turn it to number one, the slowest right? The room wants to take off like a jet-powered helicopter. I turn it “down” to five. And now I can breathe. I hope the cockroach that I killed in the bathroom doesn’t have a wife and kids looking for him!
I get out my sleeping bag and inflate my pillow and hope for some sleep. I also hope the meds work and my night is peaceful enough to ride home to La Ventana tomorrow.
I take off at eight in the morning and ride down to Malacon, the main street that runs along the bay. The road is closed off, and I ask two policemen what is going on. “Well, today is November 20th, and it is Mexican Independencia day. We are preparing for a parade." And what a parade it is! Groups of kids from all different schools are dressed up in matching outfits and perform the dance routines they undoubtedly practiced for months. They are followed by sports teams and at the end by a young army, police, and fire cadets. What a way to finish the trip. Such a joyous and colorful occasion! I am led out of town by loud music and many high fives by kids of all ages.
The road out of La Paz gently climbs for 25 km over a pass. I reach km 22, and I am suddenly overwhelmed by a flood of emotions. I cry all the way until the road begins its descent to La Ventana Bay. I pull over to gather my senses and take in the views. I am not there yet, and I tell myself: “Pay attention now, Alenka! You are on the road with cars going by. You’ve come too far to do something stupid right now! Don’t let your guard down until it is over!”
At the bottom of a 7-km downhill road turns left for another 11 km. I can taste it now! I ride against the wind, and when I arrive at La Ventana, the first person I run into is our friend Jerry from Tahoe. We hug, and we are both filled with emotion.
I ride a few more kilometers to my house, and there I am greeted by our friend Liz and her daughter Kat. And this is it! Just like that, I am HOME. It’s over! I’ve done it! I am overwhelmed, and I just stand there leaning on my bike sobbing.
It’s bittersweet coming to the end of the trip. I am glad I did it, and I am glad it’s over. What an epic journey in all respects. I thank all of you dear friends, for the loving support while following along. I couldn’t have done it without you! You fed my soul and gave me strength when I needed it most.
For the end, I will leave you with a quote by Mr. John Steinbeck. It is from his book The Log from the Sea of Cortez written in 1941:
“For the paradoxes are becoming so great that leaders of people must be less and less intelligent to stand their own leadership.”