Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Baja Unadventure

Flying in the face of convention, I'm posting "Baja Unadventure" before I've completed my "Sort of Sabbatical" series. It only seems polite to be prompt, since there were other riders involved, one of whom so graciously provided me with exceptional writing material.

I make my final departure preparations – swig some coffee, close up my house, pile on my gear, pack the remaining few items, drag my motorcycle out from the back yard – with my customary pre-tour blend of excitement and jumpiness.    I am glad the expected rain arrived and departed 12 hours early, and that I won’t be riding today’s 300 miles in the wet. It’s chilly but pretty out, and before I’ve even rolled off the sidewalk, jumpiness gives way to joy and grin so big it's barely contained by my helmet.  It’s real. I am riding to Baja!

My original plan was to spend my entire Christmas break riding to Cabo San Lucas and back, simply because the weather would be warmest if I headed south.  During the course of my research, a group contacted me and asked if I’d like to join them.  Normally I prefer to ride by myself, but with the combination of getting my feet wet riding in a foreign country, and my inexperience on substrates other than asphalt, it seemed a good compromise to travel in a pack, even if it meant starting my tour a week later and having the more modest turn around point of Bahia de Los Angeles, rather than riding the entire Baja peninsula.

December had been beyond hectic. The number of concerts I had to prepare for and perform was astounding, and there were Christmas presents and an important thank you gift to make or buy, wrap and ship.  I had two years worth of veterinary continuing education to complete and submit*, and the audacity to throw a Mayan End of the World dinner party at the same time. I had to research Mexican immigration requirements, vehicle requirements, international driving permits, Mexican auto insurance, and health coverage while riding in Mexico, and had pored over maps and ride reports in the wee hours many nights after work.  I had to figure out and test a way to carry extra fuel, decide how to best set up my SPOT GPS Messenger/emergency transponder for an international venture, weigh options for having safe drinking water, consider whether or not I wanted phone service while in Baja, make counterfeit copies of my documents for the suggested “dummy wallet,” type out volumes of information for my emergency contacts,  and prepare batches of granola, granola bars and beef jerky for the trip.  And, somewhere along the line, I decided it was imperative I make a teeny tiny gingerbread house.

After all that, the dull, mindless, straight line 300 mile leg today seems like just the thing.  I’m headed to Yuma, albeit the “long way” via Ajo, to ring in the New Year with two other riders I’ve never met. I hope we all like each other or this could be a very long week. And I truly hope they believe me when I say I can not, will not ride at night.  Even though we’ve decided to stay in hotels for the trip, my tent and sleeping bag are coming with me, just in case.

I’ve not even reached Ajo yet, and both my phone and bike run out of gas.  I hit reserve about 25 miles before I expect to, and my phone battery is dead.  There is no real issue, since I can flip a switch and be on my way, and charge my phone on the bike if need be, but the less than expected gas mileage concerns me because of the long stretches between gas stations we’ll experience when we make our way further south down the Baja peninsula. I’m glad I bought the Rotopax fuel container, but wonder if it will be enough.

I’m the first to arrive in Yuma, and already, I’m taking apart my bike. There seems to be an oil leak, and I can’t tell where it’s coming from.  The bash plate is an icky, dirty, greasy mess, most of which I tell myself is chain fling and dirt, but I know this is not the only explanation. Still, the engine oil level seems unchanged, so I hope for the best, thank myself for carrying extra, and resolve to check the level more often than not.  I refit the bash plate, after digging out some rocks that have lodged here and there (and may very well be the culprit for the leak), and heave the heavy tool kit back into my luggage. I’m glad I brought them along, too.

When my two riding companions arrive, I quickly see that they are traveling in style.  Adrian is riding a 2009 Versys 650 that I quickly take an eye to.  It’s fitted with rugged locking Pelican cases and roomy top box, GPS, a mount for his SPOT tracker, and who knows what else.  It’s a beautiful metallic green and silver, and in showroom condition, as far as I can tell . Phil has an enormous, spotless touring BMW – the K1200RT - again with locking BMW luggage, GPS, blue tooth, and satellite radio, among, no doubt, many other things.  My XT (“Li’l Burro”) looks, by comparison, dull, small, and tired, with its worn down tires, taped up seat, oil leak, inexpensive canvas luggage, small orange top box with cheap plastic locks, and its tiny, 225 cc sized engine.  Even so, I don’t care one bit. It’s my motorcycle, it’s got two wheels, and I adore it. Plus, of the three vehicles, it’s probably the most appropriate for parts of our trip.  The other riders accept my little XT - indeed it has its own strong points - and we get to know each other a bit over drinks and dinner.  I'm grateful and relieved that it seems I'll be in good and competent company on this trip.  I can tell it's going to be a good fit.

Our plan is to cross the border in the morning and then get away from it. All reports say three things: don’t ride at night (fine with me), look out for unexpected and vicious “topes” (speedbumps), and cross the border early and immediately proceed south, since much of the crime tourists are concerned about involves illegal smuggling, and happens in the border zones.  So launching from the Lettuce Capital of the World is a good plan.  We ride by fields and fields of cauliflowers and lettuces -  "Yuma Grown Romaine Hearts," "Yuma Grown Iceberg," the signs declare - before we reach the border community of San Luis.  Our crossing is uneventful, as is the necessary immigration paperwork, and I am surprised that my Spanish is coming back to me as easily as it is.  It’s been a few years since I left the US, and I am instantly reminded how much I love to do so.  Everything is different here! I love the unusual-to-my-eye look of things, the colorful pesos, deciphering the hand painted signs everywhere, the hustle-bustle of unusual vehicles and traffic, and communicating in a language that seems to bring out a new aspect of my own personality.  How fitting to begin the New Year by crossing into a new country!

We clumsily manage our first international gas stop (I am worried I might inadvertently put diesel in the tank, since the PeMex regular unleaded pump handle is colored US Diesel Green), fumble a toll booth or two (I need to find a more convenient way to get at my cash),  and head south on Mex 5 toward San Felipe, our planned stopping point for the day.  The road has the feel of a highway – it’s straight, flat, and, I have to admit, aside from the military check point, where our bags are cursorily searched by bored young men wielding machine guns, a little dull. So far this trip is feeling very tame and I find myself hoping the road gets more interesting than what I’ve seen so far.

XT Arrives San Felipe Baja
San Felipe arrival.

Taco Factory San Felipe
Taco Trimmings

Taco Factory San Felipe Ceviche
The ceviche at The Taco Factory was a hit, as was the Shrimp and Chipotle Taco (not shown).

Our little trio is still getting to know each other, so we’re awkward about agreeing upon a hotel. We are all simply too polite to be effective decision makers. “This one is fine with me, but I’m happy to look at the other if you like,” is about as far as we get for a bit, but finally settle upon “El Capitán” for the night.  It’s quite humble and inexpensive, my portion would cost me less than what I paid to camp in CA this past summer, but perfectly serviceable, with wireless internet and hair dryer, even!  It’s also a short walk to the Malecón (boardwalk), restaurants, and “La Taza Express,” the only real coffee shop I will see our entire trip.  We enjoy a stroll around town, but we are not here at the time of year to see what I think would probably be the most interesting aspects, the San Felipe 250, and the San Felipe Shrimp Festival.

San Felipe Malecon Area (1)

San Felipe Malecon Area (2)

San Felipe Malecon Area (3)

San Felipe Malecon Area

Our room has two beds, and we are three, but I happily volunteer to nest up in my cozy, familiar, and warm camping gear.  It’s comforting to me in some way, perhaps because this is how I always sleep when touring.  As I snuggle down for the night, I again find myself thinking that while I am enjoying myself, so far this trip is feeling decidedly unadventurous.**  Maybe the month of December has sapped me of energy and creativity, but I have no real words to write in my little spiral bound notebook.  We’ve only just started our journey, of course, but so far I am referring to this trip as “The Baja Unadventure.”  We shall see what tomorrow brings.

As I sleep, I am haunted by dreams of someone I have not seen for over 20 years, and when dawn breaks, I struggle to remain in the warm and loving space gifted to me by those visions.

San Felipe Av Mar de Cortez (1)

San Felipe Av Mar de Cortez
... and more curiosities.

After packing up, we continue down Mex 5, setting Bahia de los Angeles as our goal for the day, and in the following days, we will cross to the Pacific side and explore this way and that, as we zig zag lazily back north.  I am looking ahead to this New Year with more optimism and hope than I have in over a decade, but, for whatever reason, there is some emotional hairball I need to cough up first, and suddenly I am crying and riding, not just a few tears, but great, heaving, sobs.  I don't try to figure it out - it’s inexplicable -  instead just letting them take their course, and as suddenly as they came, they are gone.   Finally words come to me. Words, words, and words. I will have things to write in my little notebook tonight.

Just a few miles south of the populated area, things take a decidedly different feel.  The road is narrow, with gentle dips and turns, and an Irish mist of sand blows across the asphalt, not at all unlike the dry-ice mist that floats into the orchestra pit during certain opera scenes.  There are crumpled mountains to my right – cocoa colored, cinnamon, bricky red, some striated with yellows and browns. The sand flats bristle with ocotillo, creosote and the world's largest cacti, cousin to my familiar saguaro, the Cardón.  The landscape is a cross between Death Valley and the Sonoran Desert, but with the surreal juxtaposition of, on my right - oh my!- the glimmering aqua of the Sea of Cortez. For 50 miles we ride, and I quietly consider the remarkable and strange world around me.  I simply do not know how I will capture the beauty, the desolation, the stark contrast of desert next to sparkling sea with my camera.

We stop for gas in the tiny area of Puertecitos, and the attendant tells us that the next station (in Gonzaga Bay) is closed on Wednesdays.  Yes, he’s closed on Tuesdays, and he’s pretty sure she’s closed on Wednesdays.  Hm.  Even with my Rotopax, I’m not positive I’ll comfortably make the distance from here to Bahia de los Angeles, but Adrian has a few spare liters which he will not need, and the math pans out, even if it is tight, and at our relaxed pace I’m getting better mileage than my first day, so we continue riding south, riding past the blue sea, through small mountain passes, further on into this peculiar and breathtaking land.

It’s not long before I snap out of the landscape induced hypnotic state and realize I need to stop ogling and start photographing.  Adrian is able to grab a few while riding and I am mentally kicking myself for not buying the clever camera harness that would allow me to do the same before this trip.  With surprising timing, there is a small scenic view point and we pull over.  I snap a few preliminary photos, but we are discussing lunch, and it seems to make more sense to concentrate on one thing at a time.  We think there’s a restaurant down the hill on the beach right where we’ve stopped.  Adrian points out that now it’s my turn to shine, since the road down the hill is not paved. I pat Li’l Burro smugly, but am quick to point out that his assessment is likely a generous one. Although the XT is definitely the tool for the job, my off-road skills are still in their infancy. 

But the road is not challenging – it’s well packed, and the rocks are easily avoided or ridden over.  When I’m not busy thinking it’s something even I could handle with a street bike if pressed, I’m distracted by my new Tusk fender pack, kindly donated to me by Adrian that morning, since it doesn’t fit his new Versys.  On the bumpier sections of the road, it’s making a startling commotion and rattle, bouncing the front fender violently, and I wonder if the fender will survive such treatment and if it’s making contact with my front tire.  My remaining thought capacity is on Phil behind me, and I am impressed he’s willing to take his huge touring BMW down this road.  I shouldn’t have been surprised, since we were headed down to the beach, after all, but the hard packed road surface changes abruptly, and before I can stand up on the pegs and say to myself “I can do this,” – baf! – Li’l Burro and I are on our side in the deep, soft Baja sand.

XT 225 Naps on Playa La Costilla
Li’l Burro reclines lazily, enjoying the sun, sand and surf at Playa La Costilla.

I’m quite sure both the motorcycle and I are no worse for the wear, but as I lay there quietly assessing the situation, I do immediately realize I am really rather stuck beneath the XT.  Unless my proprioception has been inadvertently disconnected, my foot does seem to be facing, for the most part, the anatomically correct direction, a point for which I am extraordinarily grateful.  (Everyone is not always so lucky.) I can, after a bit of work, use my arms to drag myself out from under my laden motorcycle and as soon as I do so, I leap up, fists in air, and cry “Vittoria!” in a voice an opera singer would surely envy. For 16 months I’ve been trying to drop this bike. Mission accomplished!

Phil had wisely decided to stop before reaching the sand, not having the appropriate vehicle for such antics, and we learn that the restaurant is closed anyway, so we get ourselves turned around and continue south on the main road, seeking nourishment.  We come across the plywood shack in the Cinco Islas area that is "Imelda's Mexican Food."

One of these friendly dogs would soon prove to be our undoing.

Imelda (I presume) serves up some mean huevos rancheros. I have extremely high tortillas standards, and hers met the test.  We ordered by answering the question, "Well, what would you like?"

Imelda's son (again I presume) peels potatoes after we place our order.  That's fresh.  So is his reading material, which you can see in the corner of the photo.

Lunch has been fun, but we’re burning daylight, and we’re soon to run out of pavement.  It’s time to get moving. Adrian takes the lead, as he has been, but the chase gene in one of those friendly dogs acts up. She’s after Adrian and the Versys, running hard, and won’t let up.  I can read Adrian’s mind as he drifts to the right of his lane. He has no interest in getting bit by a likely unvaccinated dog in the middle of nowhere, Baja.  But by the time he hits the throttle to escape, he’s nearly on the shoulder of the road, which happens to be covered in full layer gravel.  Before I can finish rolling my eyes and thinking that I’ll be the next target for this stupid dog, Adrian goes down.  Hard.

This, my friends, is Not A Drill.

Phil and I act quickly, but rationally, assessing and securing the scene.  While the Versys, except for one torn off Pelican case, is nearly untouched, Adrian, even though conscious and moving, is clearly hurt.   The first order of business is to get everyone and everything off the road.

Adrian, despite his severe pain, wants to get moving.  Phil appeases him by putting a new lock on the Pelican case and reattaching it to the Versys, which gives me time to watch Adrian closely.  I have a stethoscope at home – why, oh why didn't I toss it in my topbox?  It seems so obvious, now, when it becomes clear that the main area in question is his chest.  I’m no doctor, and I can’t think nearly as quickly or completely as a paramedic, nor do I presume to be qualified in any way***, but abnormal lung sounds are the same in a dog or a human, and if there’s any fluid accumulating in his thoracic cavity, I want to know about it.

Adrian is hurting significantly, but he doesn’t look shocky, his color is good, he’s speaking and moving under his own power, his pupils are normal, his pulse and breathing are normal, if painful.  We have, if nothing else, the freedom of a moment or two decide on what our next actions should be.  He’s reluctant to use his SPOT device, for fear of alarming his family, and we are not able to use it to send a message to any of my  own contacts. Phone service is out, not surprisingly.  He wants to ride north before he starts hurting more.  While there is a certain logic to this – injuries always seem to hurt more the next day – I don’t like it. Making judgments under the influence of adrenalin probably won’t serve him right now, and I point out that there are other ways to get both him and his motorcycle to safety, aside from having him ride. He has purchased insurance policies for just this very sort of event, and even without the limited assistance we may or may not gain from either of our SPOT devices****, we have options, but he will have none of it.  He wants to get up and go, and get both himself and his bike to the border, STAT.  I don’t know him well enough to judge his reactions to all of this, and I can't say I blame him, but I really want to put my foot down and call a veto on the whole idea.  But somehow he’s on his bike, and the best I can do is to convince him to try to push the grips before he starts rolling, rather than find out he can’t after he’s moving. He’s going to give it a try, and before I can attempt talk him out of it, he’s off and not stopping.  Phil and I have got to follow.

This is no longer the Baja Unadventure.

I am glad, at least, to take note that Adrian is riding normally. He’s obviously uncomfortable, sporting a funny posture, but he’s cornering as he was before, and making all the right moment by moment riding “decisions.”  And although he’s riding at a reasonable pace given the situation, it’s a challenging one for my little XT225. What’s more, there’s a brisk headwind and Li’l Burro is carrying more weight in luggage than ever before.  It doesn’t matter, we’ve got to keep up, and there’s no time to run out of gas, figure out how to operate the eco-friendly spout on my as of yet unused Rotopax fuel container, or even stop to fumble with my reserve switch.  We’ve simply got to make it.

I’m trying to give Li’l Burro every advantage I can think of.  Every single part of my body, but for my forehead and right elbow is glued to the surface of this little motorbike, and I’ve got the throttle jammed as far as it will go.  With this headwind and heavy load, we’re probably barely cracking 65mph, but it feels like 150. Without my usual headphones or earplugs, and with my head on the tank, I can hear the lone cylinder thumping, bumping, braying loudly, every horse hoof pounding and clattering.  We ride and ride, right on past the little gas station in Puertecitos,  and ride some more  – nearly 100 miles in all - and in what feels like a fishes and loaves miracle, the Li’l Burro takes me, at a dead run, all the way back to San Felipe without asking me for fuel. We stop at the first gas station we see, and Adrian declares he is done with being on the bike.  I am grateful he doesn’t want to continue on to the border today.  Medical attention in town is in order, and I’m not sure we’d make Mexicali by nightfall.

There is a small clinic in San Felipe, and Doctor Abasolo examines Adrian.  While all he has at his disposal is simple palpation and auscultation, he thinks that Adrian’s ribs and lungs are intact.  He gives him one injection of dexamethasone, (a strong anti-inflammatory) and another of some sort of NSAID, (a Mexican brand name that I don’t recognize), and emphasizes that rest is of utmost importance.  If his severe pain continues tomorrow, he should seek radiographs.  Unfortunately, it turns out that the doctor who performs them in San Felipe is currently out of the area.

In the morning, again we discuss the multiple ways that we can get both the Versys and Adrian to the US border, but again he wants to get up and go under his own power.  I understand his instinctive desire to make progress, to get back the US as soon as possible, but I still don’t like the idea of him riding in this condition.  Like yesterday, all we can do is follow.

For every cc it lacks in engine displacement, Li’l Burro makes up for tenfold in heart and toughness and again we are racing -  sides lathered, neck stretched out, nostrils flared - racing across the Baja desert, past great expanses of sand unpunctuated by even the slightest trace of plant life, around mountains, past the salty Colorado River Delta and towards the US.  For 100 miles we go, and I am reminded that for motorcyclists, our bikes are not simply machines, but beloved pets, the most trusted of companions and confidantes, and perhaps even, at times, extensions of our very selves.  It’s crazy, I know, but right now I feel toward this machine the same gratitude an owner might feel towards his dog, after it pulls him out of a house fire. We stop for gas – Adrian stays on his bike, Phil pumps, and I pay – and we go again, nearly 100 miles more to the border.  We punch through immigration and – pow! – we are in the Land of the Free, Adrian’s family is there, and Adrian is admitted to the hospital in Yuma, sporting 5 ribs with multiple fractures and one punctured lung.

Li’l Burro***** and I rest.  300 miles to go tomorrow, and we’ll be home.

*It’s been years since I’ve practiced as a Certified Veterinary Technician, but I do the leg work to keep my credentials. And yes, I left it all to the last minute.
**Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
***I keep toying with the idea of getting my EMT.  This may push the thought into reality.
****It's not magic, folks.  Don't delude yourself into thinking otherwise.
*****He deserves a Kentucky Derby Garland of Roses, if you ask me.  And Adrian should at least get an ADV sticker, don't you think? 


B0B said...

What an adventure. Thanks for sharing!

I'm digging your blog. I've got some catching up to do.

Eating On Two Wheels said...

Thanks! And so do I! (Still writing up my 6,000 mile summer ride...)

VegasHotWheeler said...

Great read!
And a big thank you for helping Adrian when he needed it.
Now to get him in shape so I can ride with him next spring!

VegasHotWheeler said...

Great read!
And Thanks for keeping an eye on my riding buddies!

Eating On Two Wheels said...

Thanks to Adrian for providing the writing material! Now sure if I really did much to help, but I'm glad he's home and recovering. We'll have to try it again another time.

Ken said...

Well written! I felt like I was there. :)
You and Phil are my heros.
Someday I hope to meet Lil Burro.

Eating On Two Wheels said...

Yes, both Li'l Burro and I would like to give it another go...