by Doug Hackney
The alarm set by Bob Mueller, my roommate and riding partner, was superfluous. I had been awake for at least an hour, and I suspected that Bob had been, too. Months of preparation culminated in this day. There was little to do now but arise and meet the challenge of the next six days riding our Suzuki DR350 dual sport bikes the length of the Baja peninsula shimmering goal of Cabo San Lucas. As we quickly donned our riding gear, anticipation raged a battle with fear of the unknown. Bob and I were both rookies on this invitation only ride.
I pulled open the door to our room at Rancho Santa Veronica and met the muted tones of a soft dawn and a slow rain. I was surprised to find it liquid, as the night had been so cold we’d both slept in our long underwear. Our bravado and trail lust quickly vanquished any lingering uncertainties, and we set out into the great unknown.
After passing the much feared 45 pound bag weight limit and dropping our gear/clothes bags at the support trucks we quickly made our way to the restaurant for some hot breakfast. The crackling fire felt great, as we pounded down some food and said good-bye to the gracious and friendly staff. We warmed the bikes and saddled up, and the unfamiliar seat reminded me that this would be only the third time I’d been on a dirt bike in a year and a half. As we exited the compound and headed down the trails, I was sobered by Malcolm Smith’s warning at last night’s rider’s meeting that “a guy can get killed out here.”
The cold and rain weren’t bad, as I had come fully prepared for winter conditions. We wound down some nice trails, all clearly marked by small pieces of pink plastic tape or small pink flags. Jimmy Sones, whom we would soon come to regard as some sort of demigod, had made his usual solo trip into the darkness at 3 a.m. to flag the course for the day with the little pink markers of the path to glory.
About 42 miles into the 1,300 miles to Cabo San Lucas, we came to a fairly wide river, about seat deep at the deepest point. As we paused on the bank, a Husky rider set off from the near shore. The rider quickly stalled his bike in the deepest portion, about half way across. Bob set off and quickly motored to the other side, bypassing the stricken bike. Too impatient to wait for the Husky rider to get his bike going and out of the way, I rolled down into the swiftly flowing current. As I neared the Husky, the current carried me downstream directly into the stalled bike. I clutched the bike and attempted to steer around, but only managed to get mired into the deep sand next to the now soaked rider.
I’d never failed to get across any water I’d ever faced even as a rookie dirt rider a few years before, and I was determined not to be foiled by the first water of Baja. Just at that moment, the Husky fired and the rider, not even knowing I was idling near his rear waiting for him to clear, dumped the clutch and promptly ran into me, knocking me downstream, parallel with the flow of the river. At this point, I was up to the rear axle in deep, soft sand. I jumped off the bike, kept it running, and attempted to push it out of the sand and out of the river. But every time I released the clutch, I dug it in deeper. After a couple of attempts, the exhaust pipe started to disappear, and I was getting a steady “glug, glug, glug” from the submerged exhaust. Finally admitting defeat, I called to Bob to wade back out and help me. The bike died soon after his arrival, and I feared the worst, as the water was wetting the bottom of the seat and the exhaust was completely flooded. We managed to manhandle the bike out, and after a long bout of kicking, she fired up. I set off down the trail, my bike sputtering occasionally as the water worked its way out of the system.
A few miles later we came to another river with two separate water crossings. This one we got across with no drama. It looked more like the midwest, with verdant foliage and enough water to confuse anyone’s arid preconceptions of riding in Baja. It was certainly living up to Malcolm’s predictions of an incredibly varied landscape offering everything from pine forest and snow covered mountains to deserts and warm water beaches.
At mile 45.2, we again met water. As we pulled up to the river, the phrase “raging torrent” sprung to mind. Four riders, linked arm in arm, were struggling across the river to reach our near shore. Climbing out of the waist deep water they breathlessly recounted the drill: “It takes at least four guys to carry the bike across, at least four to make it back. Don’t try to get out in the water alone, you’ll be swept downstream.” We dismounted and joined in. The water was ice cold, but after a few seconds I didn’t even think about it. My mind was consumed with the task at hand. Grab a bike. Drag it across the river. Lean into the current about 45 degrees. Keep the bike and your feet out of the big rocks about half way across. Push the bike up onto shore. Link arms. Fight your way back across. Repeat. I don’t know how many trips we made, I lost count at eight.
After we ran out of bikes we took a breather and listened to stories of how a couple of guys had tried to ride across. One guy had pulled up and asked, “Can you ride it?” The assembled crew had screamed, “NO, wait for help!” The rider had immediately dumped the clutch and jumped in. As soon as the bike landed in the river it was swept away. All they could see was the headlight and a helmet swiftly disappearing downstream. By running across a bend in the river they had managed to catch the rider and save the bike a few hundred feet downstream. Another intrepid sailor who thought himself immune to the laws of physics repeated the scene a little later. Both were lucky to make it out alive and would likely have been victims of their own hubris had there not been riders there to pull them out.
We later learned that Jimmy had drowned his bike in an earlier river after making five crossings looking for a good place for the rest of us to cross. He found himself with a dead bike in the middle of a raging river in the dark, utterly alone. He later said, “It was life or death,” so he physically dragged the bike to the shore, alone, using the current to help him thrust the bike toward the shore in small segments. Exhausted, drenched to the bone and freezing cold, he had spent two and a half hours beside the river, in the dark, draining his bike and getting it running. When he came upon this last torrential river, he’d had the good sense to sit and wait for some other riders to show up and help him across. Jimmy said later that this last river was usually about four feet wide and six inches deep. As it turned out, this was just the beginning for Jimmy. His day was going to get worse, before it got better.
Now hours behind, and the entire field of 60 riders nipping at his heels, Jimmy had headed down the trail at light speed, only to find a new fence, replete with new, locked gate, in a place that had been clear during the pre-run only a few weeks before. Jimmy was forced to turn around and strip the trail of markers, rounding up riders and turning them around as he went. We met Jimmy, rocketing down the road towards us about 15 miles later. It was snowing fairly heavily with a strong wind. We turned around and followed the tire tracks back down to a new road leading west. Now it was sleeting, and the wind was driving it almost horizontally. We decided it was a good time to stop and regroup.
It was 10:30 am on day one. In four hours, we had faced rain, snow and sleet. We had forded three rivers, including one so strong and deep it took at least four men to drag a bike across and return to the shore. We had been lost, found, soaked, drowned, muddied and re-routed. We looked at each other and said, “And we paid for this!” Laughing ruefully at this observation I tried in vain to wring out a pair of gloves. I’d started the day with three dry pair. In four hours I’d soaked every one.
We headed out and followed the route through the fog-shrouded pines. At our first gas stop, we were introduced to the realities of life in rural Baja. The gas, of dubious octane level, was pumped by hand from 55 gallon drums by the mother of the family. The kids carried the five gallon buckets of indeterminate origin and varying levels of rust content to the father. He poured the fuel into the bike tanks through a large funnel steadied by one of the older children. Prices were negotiated based on estimated quantity, length of the line of waiting riders and remaining gasoline supply. As the line got longer and the drums got emptier, the prices escalated. But, the bottom line was we had no choice. We’d pay four times just about any amount quoted, and all the players in the bargaining sessions knew it.
We bombed on toward our lunch stop for day one, the orphanage funded by the Six Day ride since its inception. In the three years of the ride, Malcolm and Joyce Smith have contributed over $30,000 toward the building fund. What started as the vision of a small group of dedicated people has turned into a viable complex of buildings and facilities to serve the needs of young orphans from this entire region of Baja. One of the riders had taken up a collection at the rider’s meeting the night before we had started and had raised over $1,000 from the riders for a direct contribution to the kids. In addition to the cash, riders had brought along back pack loads of toys to pass out. It was very gratifying to see our contributions making a direct impact on the kid’s lives.
Jimmy appeared at lunch to draw out a map to the gas stop in town and a route to the chase truck road. Due to the unforeseen problems with the rivers that morning and the delays in rerouting the entire ride, it was so late that the planned route via Mike’s Sky Ranch was dumped for a direct route to the coast via the chase truck road. But first, we had to get gas in town. This gas stop featured more 55 gallon drums, more hand filled tanks, and equally dubious octane. However, the wait in line was made more bearable by the variety of cast-off vehicles around the lot to examine. My favorite was a Peugeot 504 sedan silently parked around the fringe of the lot.
By this time the rain had passed, and we were finally receiving enough sun to warm up. I unzipped the vents in my jacket and we headed west on the long run towards Highway 1. About 30 miles down the road my ignition suddenly packed up. The bike started to cut out, and refused to run above about 1,500 rpm. At first I assumed it was bad gas, but I began to doubt this diagnosis when I discovered the bike would idle fine and pull hard as long as I kept the revs down. I sent Bob on ahead to enjoy the fire roads and putted along pleasantly at whatever gear the bike would pull, usually fourth, sometimes fifth. I capitalized on the chance to enjoy the scenery instead of burning brain cells by running hard and avoiding the deep chasms slicing into the road caused by the El Nino driven erosion. It was during this section that I noticed the entire desert, in fact the entire peninsula, was in bloom. Valleys of cactus were sprouting flowers, and every corner offered new vistas of wide varieties of flowering plants.
We made it to Highway 1, and I stopped to troubleshoot my bike. While I was swapping plugs with a spare that Bob had, a Honda Civic pulled up with a couple of kids from San Francisco. They were anxious to make it to the Bay of Cortez side, and were wondering if the road we had just come down would take them there. We eyed the low ground clearance of the car, and compared it with the boulder strewn river bottom we’d rode through a few miles back. We told the kids they’d better prepare for the long trip back North and around on the pavement, lest they be stranded as vulture bait somewhere in the interior.
After replacing the spark plug, on a whim, I lay down and looked up at the coil tucked under the gas tank. There was a wire dangling off of it. It looked like a connector had come loose somewhere along the trail. I reconnected the wire, kicked the bike, and presto-chango, bike-o!
We rode the pavement down to our night’s stop at the Old Mill Resort, hard along a bay on the Pacific. No destination had ever looked sweeter as we pulled into the lot. After our end of day maintenance chores, we celebrated our good fortune of surviving day one with a cold beer and a long, Technicolor sunset.
As the riders trickled in off the trail, boots were drained and soaked socks, pants, gloves and jerseys appeared outside of each room, silent offerings to the evaporation gods. The vets conferred with knowing nods and murmured chuckles of shared moments and rueful predictions of more challenges to come. The rookies looked furtively at these grizzled veterans and exchanged looks of trepidation. If there were five more days of this…
At exactly 4:30 a.m. my eyes popped open. A few seconds later I heard the rooster crow again. Deciding it was a waste of time to try to fight it, Bob and I got up and started to get ready for the day. As I walked outside, the sky was just beginning to lighten in the East. The moon shone brightly overhead, casting a blue light on the fluttering bats in the hotel courtyard. We joined a couple of other early risers waiting outside the restaurant and spent our time admiring the mirror-smooth bay at low tide.
At breakfast we met Russell Ogilvie, a real estate developer from Shreveport, Louisiana. He was also a rookie, and we shared adventure stories from day one. The rivers were already getting deeper and wider less than 24 hours later. We gobbled down a quick breakfast and headed South.
Our first stop was the scenic overlook at Seal Cave Point. There were beautiful views of the Pacific and migrating whales just offshore. From here we connected with a long route up a river wash, including daunting deep sand with boulders. We climbed up out of the valley on a nice fire road and stopped to admire the view back down the valley.
I led this stage and was really starting to feel good on the bike for the first time. This trail was a treat, riding the ridges of the high desert with nice high speed berms and a perfectly twisting route through the cactus. After about 20 minutes I stopped to take a short break and wait for Bob. It was about 10 a.m., 21 miles since gas, it was raining again, and Bob wasn’t there. I waited about ten long minutes before any riders came along. I asked each one passing, but they didn’t report anybody down, having trouble or changing a flat. This was more troubling than hearing that he was fixing something. Broken in Baja is bad but livable when there are chase trucks, sweep riders and radios. AWOL in Baja is just plain bad.
After about 20 minutes Bob finally came down the trail and rolled gingerly to a stop. He related that he’d gotten a little out of shape, had run wide on a corner, T-boned a cactus and done a classic endo over the bars. Once he picked himself up, he walked off the distance and measured it at 35 feet from the bike and crushed cactus to the impact point where he’d come down on his shoulder. He felt like something was broken, but he had full range of movement, so we ruled out a collarbone. He felt like he could still ride. Bob was really smooth and fast on fire roads, and it wasn’t long before he was cruising pretty well. I pronounced his chances of living good and his chances of making the end of the day reasonable, so I settled in to enjoy the trail and the scenery.
When we reached the next gas stop, a pair of riders pulled in behind us. Bob noticed that one of the riders had a rip in his brand new Gortex pack-jack. Upon further inspection, we discovered that every piece of fabric on both rider’s bodies was torn, scraped or shredded. The pair, Jack and Darton Zink, father and son from Oklahoma, had just been run off the road by a semi they were passing. Just as they had gotten alongside, the truck had moved over into the oncoming lane to avoid some of the ubiquitous crater-sized potholes. Darton braked and swerved and ran into his dad who was to his left and outside. Both went down at about 65 mph, and both miraculously got up and walked away. The truck stopped, but as soon as the driver saw they were ambulatory, he sped away. Amazingly, Darton’s helmet was unscathed, he had simply slid along the pavement until coming to a stop.
From gas we moved on to the lunch stop–self serve sandwiches from the back of one of the chase trucks. It was there we learned that the crashing Zinks were none other than the owners of the Zink ranch in Oklahoma, hosts of the 1994 ISDE (International Six Days Enduro) and that Jack Zink was the owner of the Indy winning Zink specials from the old roadster days at the speedway.
After lunch we rode high speed gravel for a few miles then cut off for a 30 mile run up a beautiful river canyon, winding back and forth through the stream with the sounds of the bikes echoing off the canyon walls. We climbed out of the canyon onto some deep sand trails that led us back out to the highway. It was on this stretch that I stood up in sand for the first time in my riding career. Up to then, I’d been a confirmed “back on the seat” rider in deep stuff, but I found the “up on the pegs” approach much easier, especially at high speeds. I had a blast chasing Bob, who has the luxury of living in Southern California and practicing in this kitty litter all the time.
Once we reached the pavement we had a choice. We could either bail onto the road for the ride to the hotel or ride another long section of deep sand whoops ending in a long rock section. Bob was in quite a bit of pain, so we elected to slab it in. The road down into the Bay of Los Angeles was beautiful, especially the overlook just outside the city. It offered stunning views of the bay and the many islands that host an array of sea life.
While parking the bikes and unloading our bags at the Costa del Sol hotel we met three sport bike riders from San Diego. They knew one of the guys on our ride and had arranged their annual week long ride through Baja to intersect with us at this stop. Remembering some of the beautiful twisties we had been down, I felt a momentary pang of longing for one of their sport bikes, but then I remembered the rugged mountain trails, the desolate beauty of the interior, the entire desert in bloom, and decided that I had the better mode of two-wheeled transport for the peninsula.
After dinner at Guillermos we rode the bikes back to the hotel, and I reflected on the first couple of days. I had often wondered what the real Mexico was like, having only been exposed to Cancun. The interior of Baja gave me a dose of reality. I found the people warm and friendly, the scenery overwhelming and the riding full of endless challenges and rewards. There was a discovery around every corner. I looked forward to learning more about the land, the people, and the other riders. Up to now, it had been an experience centered around my struggles trying to get back up to speed after a long layoff, my mutual experiences with Bob, and a few peripheral meetings and greetings with other riders. I was intrigued to see what the rest of the trip would bring in the way of personal discovery and social interaction.
Part 2 of Malcolm Smith’s 1998 Six Days of Baja will appear in the next issue of M.M.M.