by Doug Hackney
Today’s adventure was to accompany Malcolm Smith on a 30-mile trip down a section of the Baja 1000 course used in the 1970s. The route sheets said “Rideability: Medium.” What I didn’t know then was that Malcolm’s medium translates to somewhere between an A and AA enduro rider.
After a great breakfast on the beach, we joined Malcolm and others on the guided tour then headed out. After a blast down some dusty gravel we turned off on the first loop. I was the third rider behind Malcolm, and only one rider passed me on the twisting trail through the cactus and rocks. I was standing up in second gear and feeling pretty good. It was finally warm, so I had decided to ride without my Gortex ISDE jacket. The extra freedom of movement was great, but I would soon regret my decision to put on nothing but a jersey and body armor.
On the second loop, after waiting for all the riders to form up, my bike wouldn’t start. My trusty DR has always been a one or two kick bike, but it had not been starting well on this trip. Some mornings it had taken me five minutes or more to get it going, and it was acting up again now, at the worst possible moment. By the time I got it going, everyone else had disappeared, and it was just me and the two sweep riders, waiting patiently.
There is little in life I hate more than being backed up against sweep on the trail. Trying to make up time and catch the other riders I stormed off down the twisting, deep-sand, single-track trail peppered with large boulders and cactus. I did okay for the first couple of miles, but then I ran wide to avoid a boulder and brushed a cactus with my left arm. Pain shot through my left side. About a half dozen pear-sized cactus grenades stuck to parts of my left arm, shoulder, armpit and chest. I desperately tried to grab them off with my throttle hand and throw them away only to discover that they stuck to my throttle hand. I was mid-throttle in second gear, wildly shaking my right hand to rid myself of the cactus. I promptly hit another cactus on the left side then a limb about the size of a baseball bat across my left biceps.
The reasonable thing to do would have been to stop the bike, pull off the cactus grenades, get myself situated, and continue down the trail. This thought, however, did not cross my mind, as it would have violated my prime directive: to catch the riders in front of me and avoid contact with the sweep riders.
The pain was excruciating; my concentration was completely blown. It was only a matter of time before I lost momentum, plowed wide on a corner and low-sided the bike, narrowly avoiding yet another cactus. Expletives failed to levitate the bike, so I picked it up by hand and leaned against it while I tried to pluck a couple of the more painful cactus bombs out of my armpit. Of course, it was at this moment that sweep arrived. I gamely mounted the bike, but it refused to start. In no time, I had used up my energy in a flurry of frantic kicks and sat panting on the seat imagining very special ways I was going to melt if for scrap when I got it back to the states. At this point one of the sweep riders offered to give it a try, and, of course, it started on the second kick. I dog paddled down the trail desperately trying to levitate the front end of the heavy DR out of the sand, so I could get it going in second gear. Instead, I managed to low-side it again, make it another quarter mile or so and then pile it onto a large bush alongside the trail.
This time I didn’t even have time to pick it up. Sweep was right there, picked it up, started it, and handed it over. There’s nothing better and worse to a dirt rider than having sweep riders available to rescue you in the middle of nowhere…and needing it. My confidence and self esteem lay in ruins, as I duck waddled the last few hundred feet out to the road. I told Malcolm that I was bailing on the last section; I was just not up to riding it today. If there had been a plane right there, I would have gotten on it and flown home. I felt I hadn’t ridden that poorly, at such a critical moment, since I started riding in the dirt three years earlier.
I was a lost cause. I couldn’t even ride on fire roads. I was running wide, missing apexes, target fixating, in short, doing just about every possible thing wrong there was to do wrong and still keep the bike upright. Fortunately, my long morning of anguish was relieved by a fantastic lunch at San Fransisquito.
One of the world’s great hidden treasures, this spot on the Sea of Corez features a small airstrip where we fueled up, some rental cabanas, a small kitchen and an outside eating area. There we were treated to grilled lobster tails that are worth the trip down. The water was aquamarine, the beach fine white sand, and the relaxation limitless.
After lunch we rode some great roads on the way to El Arco. High speed sand with nice berms allowed me to start to get back into a comfort zone. We passed through an enchanting abandoned mining town with the usual assortment of perfectly preserved skeletons of 40s, 50s and 60s autos. And we stopped in the little village of El Arco to take a break and catch a drink. From there we rode fire roads to the pavement, then on into San Ignacio and the Hotel La Pinta.
This had been the first day without rain, and thus the first day with the dusty conditions I expected from Baja. I figured it would be a good time to change the oil, filter and air filter. Imagine my surprise when I popped off the air filter chamber cover and dug out about a cup of gravel and sand. I guessed a lot of it had washed in when the bike had taken its river cruise on day one. It had been detonating terribly since then, and was way down on power. I was hoping that the clean air filter and clear air box would cure these ills. The oil looked black as tar, and I hoped that a fresh load would keep the motor together for a few more days. That morning, Wayne, one of the support riders and mechanics at Malcolm’s dealership, had stuck his ear up to my hammering motor. He asked me to put it into gear and let out the clutch slowly, loading up the engine. Wham, wham, wham, the motor responded, just like usual, although it was getting a little louder as the trip went on. Wayne took on that detached professional look that mechanics and doctors share at expensive moments like this and pronounced, “Sounds like a rod bearing. About all you can do is ride it until it goes at this point.”
After quickly cleaning up we ventured into town for some seafood. Along the way Bob and I stopped at the old Cathedral on the square and wandered inside. The choir was practicing in another section of the compound, and their hymns accompanied our meditations on all that had passed through this church: baptisms, first communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals, generation after generation. The sense of community and continuity were overwhelming. While the architecture reminded both of us of cathedrals in Europe, the culture, the paintings, the surroundings and the sounds were uniquely Mexican.
On the short ride back to the hotel through the cool night air I thought about the day and the ride. The losses were starting to mount. The rental bikes were going down left and right, and the casualties were being cannibalized to keep other bikes running. So far there had been an assortment of crushed rims, twisted shift shafts, folded bars, disintegrating shocks, smashed body work and broken levers. On the human front there was a pretty good collection of cactus victims who, like me, all looked like they’d been shot up by a nail gun. More serious injuries included Ed Mackey’s ankle, Bob’s shoulder, and, most seriously, John Rockland’s injury. Rocky, as he was known to everyone, was 72 years old and a veteran of this ride. He had flown in from Hawaii along with his son for this annual adventure. Earlier in the day he’d run wide into some rocks and hurt his shoulder and hip. It was enough to end his ride. We were all saddened, for we figured as long as Rocky was in and riding, none of the rest of us had any excuses.
As we neared the hotel, I realized the biggest challenge of the trip for me wasn’t in the riding, it was in accepting Baja for what is was, not to overlay American values and norms on it. It was a land of many contradictions: tin shacks and satellite dishes, military checkpoints and overwhelming friendliness, exotic unknown and comforting familiarity, grinding poverty and an emerging middle class. If I could just get my expectations and projections out of the way, I felt as if Baja had a story for me.
After another restless night of wild dreams, Bob and I beat the alarm clock again. At this point, we were both ready to build shrines to the glory of Gold Bond medicated powder and Cortisone creme. Malcolm and Jimmy had recommended these wonder products as ways to ward off the evils of monkey butt on this long ride. I had experienced none of the usual itching, soreness and chafing that I usually got after a simple 500 mile dual sport, and we were well over halfway down the peninsula and our 1,300 mile ride.
We had nice roads out to the Pacific then rode 40 to 50 miles along the tidal salt flats. We were again amazed by Jimmy Sones. This area is endless tracks of flat, featureless nothing punctuated by short outcroppings, scrub brush and a million different routes, tracks and trails. Every time I was convinced I was lost forever and no one would ever even find my bones picked clean by the vultures, I’d see a pink ribbon fluttering in the breeze. By the second day we stopped calling them ribbons and simply referred to them as, “Thank-you, Jimmies.” I can’t tell you how many times I sang the words, “Thank-you, Jimmy!” down the length of Baja, but I can tell you it was a wonderful chorus, with 60 voices repeating the same lyrics over and over. Jimmy was a very popular guy among the riders and absolutely revered among the rookies. I’ll never know how he could find his way through this maze in the dark of 3 a.m.
We rode along the Baja 1000 route through this bewildering array of roads, trails, tracks and dead ends. Later I learned that they run this section of the race at night, at speeds of up to 145 mph and higher. I have no idea how they stay on course, and I’m not in a big hurry to find out.
For lunch, we rode out to Scorpion Bay Bar and Grill at Punta Pequena, a dream spot run by an expatriate named Jim who escaped San Diego about twelve years ago. It took him about four years to get the permits and several more years to build, but now he’s got a wonderful open air restaurant overlooking the Pacific and the bay. He met and married a local lady and now has a young child, and he speaks very little English now except when tourists are around. After a quick lunch of shrimp tacos and incredible views, we left Jim to his dream life and hopped down to the beach.
We rode the beach about 20 miles, frolicking in the surf, stopping for pictures and soaking up the views. We rode past vultures stripping a huge sea turtle, a shark and a small seal. When we ran out of beach we had to climb up the dunes back to the roads. The run went through a mud hole, up a steep section about 20′ high, then up another 100′ or so to the top. It was very soft, deep sand and only the very good riders in the group rode the whole way. The rest of us made it up the first steep section then walked our bikes up the rest of the way.
From there we rode to an incredible oasis valley filled with date palms. Nestled in this greenery was the little town of San Miguel de Comondu, a perfectly preserved 200-year-old town. Only those who had spent half their lives traipsing around Baja would know about this place. We stopped to take a break, and instantly some locals appeared. Although we knew no Spanish and they knew little English, we had a broken conversation about the bikes and the town. It was one of my favorite experiences of the entire trip. The casual history of the town, the openness and friendliness of the people, and the unspoiled beauty of the oasis valley all formed a microcosm of my experiences of the week.
From there we rode excellent trails and fire roads to Loreto. The last 40 miles or so were especially challenging. The roads twisted through some tight mountain canyons and featured roadside shrines to locals who had perished on the steep cliffs. It wasn’t hard to imagine some additions to the local shrine collection. The road was like riding on greased marbles and was filled with off-camber turns, hidden decreasing radius turns and enough four-wheeled traffic to keep the pucker factor high.
Loreto, with about 7,000 residents, was the first big town we stayed in. It was very different from the rural areas, and I began to long for the relatively quiet and unspoiled Northern areas of Baja. Still, it was an inviting destination, with enough retail and middle class resources to sustain mainstream gringos for a typical vacation week.
Bob and I had dinner in town then stopped by the new home of one of the riders. Cam had just completed his beautiful home on the beach just north of town, and this was his first party. When we were ready to leave, Bob’s bike refused to fire up. His electric starter had quit after his major endo on day two, so he was using the kick start that he had added to the motor a few days before the trip. After he had winded himself with 40 kicks trying to get it to turn over, I pulled a “sweep” on him and started it on the second kick. I had the distinct feeling he was tempted to kill me in my sleep for it.
As we rode back into town, the stars burning millions of holes through the black sky above us, I was beginning to feel at home. I was comfortable on the bike and was becoming comfortable with myself and with these new and friendly surroundings. Somehow the electric dreams, the desolate beauty, the physical exertion, the camaraderie, the new experiences, the fresh air, the great food, the overwhelming scenery, long periods of intense concentration and the incredible riding were combining into a powerful experience. I could feel that I was going to come out of this different than I went in, and I was confident it was going to be a positive outcome.