by Doug Hackney
I sat outside our room in Loreto and watched the sky brighten with the sunrise. My mood was bittersweet. I looked forward to another day of challenges, but knew that the trip was drawing to a close, and that today would be the last day of real riding, with tomorrow being a more scenery oriented cruise down the coast.
Bob’s bike was dead. Just like last night, it wouldn’t fire, not even when I applied the magic boot. We enlisted Wayne to do some quick troubleshooting. While I pulled the headlight cover off and reseated all the connectors, he traced down the wiring loom and quickly located a broken terminal on the battery cable. The serendipity of the cable failing at the exact place where we could fix it easily was typical of our luck throughout the trip.
I led us out of town and managed to miss the turnoff back out to the greasy marble fire road. It’s not a great way to start the day, losing half an hour on a bike fix and another 15 minutes on a blown turn. The road, although still slippery, was a lot more fun this morning. Being well rested made a huge difference.
We worked our way down some fire roads and trails to our first stop, the old Cathedral at the San Javier Mission. After too few minutes admiring the interior, I bounded out and we continued as always cheered on by the local kids and their pleas of “wheelie, wheelie, wheelie.”
We ran down trails to the pavement and followed Highway One to Ciudad Constitution. This was a large, industrial city with a pretty gritty feel. Bob was leading and just about out of town when we spotted the taco stand surrounded by bikes. We took this as a solid sign of where to go to enjoy the best lunch around and pulled in. We joined the queue of about 15 riders waiting patiently for a lady to cook every taco to order on a little grill measuring about 24 inches by 18 inches.
After finishing, Brian Pietak discovered that he had a flat tire. As the rest of the field pulled away, we stayed and did a quick tube swap. While Bob and Brian worked on the flat, Russell and I concentrated on trying to keep our gear safe from the most precocious, sticky fingered child we encountered on the entire trip. She had been working her way through everyone’s gear all through lunch, trying on goggles, running around with helmets, rifling through jackets, etc. Now she was alternating between unloading and scattering the contents of my tool pack and dispensing the contents of my jacket over the ground. Bob finally displayed some ingenuity and creative thinking by giving her a Powerbar to keep her occupied for a few minutes.
Aired up and free of the congestion of the city, we headed south on the highway. About 32 miles down we met up with Malcolm and the support trucks. Malcolm was leading the final group of riders down to the coast and the beach. Bob decided that his shoulder wasn’t up to another soft sand pounding, and chose discretion over valor. The rest of us headed to the coast with Malcolm. I knew there were deep sand, single track trails ahead. I knew I would have to once again weave through the cactus to get down to and up off the beach. I also knew I was a lot better rider than I had been when I’d become puncture wound poster boy. Above all else, I knew I had to redeem myself for failing to make it through with Malcolm earlier in the week.
The blast down to the coast went by quickly. We ended up down at the water’s edge. Soon we were on the Baja 1000 course, flying down the trail and banking off the berms for miles and miles. I had Brian ride behind me to give me pointers on riding in the sand. He’s spent years as a desert racer, so it was like having a private coach. For the last two miles of really tight, twisty single track deep sand I had to go pretty slow. My bike’s detonation hadn’t gotten any better, and I was fighting with the narrow rpm range that I could use and not risk blowing the head off. Watching Malcolm ride through this on his bone stock DR350, I could see how he made it look so effortless. He was instantly up on the pegs, instantly in 2nd gear, and turned the bike by rotating his hips, and little blips of throttle. Meanwhile, I was dog paddling down the trail, being limited by my confidence. As it turned out, I was able to get through the last section with no falls, and joined the others at the top of the sand cliffs above the beach.
I felt triumphant. I had made it through with no falls, and without holding up the group too much. Next, however, I knew I had to make it down the 100′ high, nearly vertical face of the sand cliff to the beach. For some reason, I feared this a lot less than the deep sand. Throttle up, back on the pegs, and it was no big deal. The only surprise was that at the bottom of the cliff you had to climb up another short ridge and then get down to the beach. I made it with no problems. Another triumph!
I celebrated my good fortune with a long run down the beach at high speeds, with periodic stops to admire the scenery and listen to the waves. This beach had small dunes running perpendicular to the water line that formed perfect jumps. The game was to see if you could jump longer than the tracks already in the sand. I did great until I let my concentration wander and was surprised by a much steeper dune than the others. I was in a full scale flying W before I knew it, but luckily came back down more or less on the bike and kept it up.
All too soon we ran out of navigable beach and headed back up to the Baja 1000 course. We rode this for many more pleasurable miles until we found ourselves on fire roads back to the chase trucks and Highway One. We topped off with fuel and drinks, and I headed on in to LaPaz.
Just outside of town I passed through a Federales check point. We’d gone through at least one a day all through the trip. Some of them were out in the toolies in the middle of nowhere. I felt sorry for the troops at those stations, with no shade, no diversions, no nothing but scrub desert and mind numbing traffic checks. At one checkpoint earlier in the week, there was a lone soldier, apparently the one who drew the short straw, checking traffic, while everybody else played soccer. At today’s checkpoint, the officer was more interested in checking out my bike than my passport. He quickly waved me through and I proceeded on into town.
I spoke with Malcolm quite a bit during breaks while we were out on the trail and later in the compound with the bikes. He was great about sharing riding tips out on the trail and helping me to become better in the deep sand. Once, when we pulled up and regrouped I commented on how easy he made it look, and how he and the other good riders didn’t work that hard. He replied, “you know, I haven’t sweated once on this whole ride.”
“When you swing your leg over the seat on day five or six, that’s when you find out if you really like riding dirt bikes.” Russell’s words from a few days ago rang in my ears as I saddled up for day six and the scenic cruise to Cabo San Lucas. The hotel compound was already teeming with riders as we kicked our bikes to life for the final time. As I warmed up the thumper, its big single piston providing a reassuring pulse to my thoughts, I was taken by how strange the next days would be without the rhythm that we had fallen into: pull in, oil the chain while the bike is still running to turn the wheel, check the oil before it drains into the crankcase, check and change the air filter, check and tighten the spokes, pick up the gear bag from the trailer, check in, shower, change into civilian clothes, toast to the days ride, swap lies, hit the sack early, rise with the chickens (literally), put on the gear, watch the sunrise, eat breakfast, ride, repeat.
I knew I would miss this daily routine and the direct connection I had with my bike. I was torn between wishing I could start over, and feeling like this was the right time to end this adventure, celebrate it, and move on. I must have been pondering this pretty heavily as I led the group out of town since I blew past our turn and ended up way out of town. Once again I had managed to waste 20 minutes just getting us started in the morning.
We found our way back onto the route and headed south along the coast road. This day had been billed as one filled with spectacular scenery and it did not disappoint. We were soon on a narrow dirt road clinging to the cliffs along the Sea of Cortez. You had two choices: go fast, enjoy playing with the dirt and miss the view, or go slow, spend a lot of time gawking and still risk your life running off a cliff while you stare into the crystal clear aquamarine water. I tended toward the latter and let Russell and Bob run off and play fire road racer.
About 50 miles in we took a little side road down onto a short beach run. On the Pacific side the sand is hard packed and easy to ride on, on the Sea of Cortez side, where we were, the sand is almost universally soft and deep, as was this short one or two mile section.
As soon as we dropped into the sand, I stopped to take a couple of pictures while the others rode on ahead. As I put my camera back into the fanny pack and looked down the beach I saw a huge cloud of white smoke. My mind tried desperately to fit this unusual site into its entire range of previous experience. The best I could come up with was “maybe someone’s boiling some fish.” I fired up the bike and plowed on through the sand to the far end of the beach. At the exit I saw a bunch of riders looking at a broken bike. Aha! I thought, this must be the source of the white cloud. As I got closer, I realized it was Bob’s bike they were examining.
The engine was entirely covered in oil, along with the gas tank, the seat, and everything back of the oil cooler. One of the guys had a long nylon strap and had scouted out an easy path to get the bike out to the chase road just off the beach. Bob had to eat sand from the XR600 as it dragged him out, but it was a lot easier than pushing it. Again, serendipity shone on Bob’s DR. We could have been in the absolute middle of nowhere with a 35 mile tow staring us in the face and my measly eight foot tow straps. Instead we had a 300 yard tug with a luxurious 35 foot strap and a 600 to do it with.
After a quick examination, I suspected a split oil cooler line or a cracked oil line fitting. (An actual post mortem revealed that the breather tube fitting had simply been blown off by the crankcase pressure. A zip tie would have prevented it, the factory wire clamp proving inadequate for the modified motor. Had we known what to look for, we could have fixed it in 30 seconds.) Bob insisted he was fine waiting for the chase truck alone, so we left him with plenty of water and Powerbars and set off down the road.
Exactly eleven miles later we came around the last tight curve of the coast road to find a collection of 20 or so riders. We quickly learned that a rider on an XR400 had run off the cliff on the outside of the corner and broken his hand. Everybody there had the same thoughts: 1. Better day six than day one. 2. Better him than me. 3. The bike is rideable. “Just put me back on my bike” being the official tag line of the event, we briefly considered strapping him back on with duct tape, but thought better of it when we saw the unique orientation of the bones in the back of his hand.
Fortunately an American passerby knew of a vacationing American orthopedic surgeon. They drove the stricken rider to the doc and drove them both to the hospital where the doc persuaded the locals to let him work. He promptly rearranged the broken bones and wrapped up the stricken rider. Life is so cool sometimes.
By this time we were already at lunch at Calafias in Boca del Alamo and Bob had been picked up by the chase truck. When the chase truck arrived at the now lonely XR400 some very simple math solved Bob’s problem. His stricken DR continued on, lashed to the bed of the chase truck, while the XR became the subject of some impromptu competitive product evaluation. Bob was back in the swing of things, and happy to get the chance to finish out the ride on two wheels.
Over lunch we discussed the mysteries of the day. We had all passed a guy walking barefoot through the gravel along the coast road, carefully carrying a pair of cowboy boots. On the run into town we’d passed a bunch of guys blocking the road with a car they were pushing back and forth across the lanes. One of them was standing in his underwear in the left lane with his pants down to his ankles waving a white t-shirt around his head. I was desperately curious to find out what the story was, but lacked the suicidal tendencies to stop and ask.
After we’d filled our bellies with one last load of spectacular fresh seafood lunch, we headed south on the coast road. We spent the next few hours marveling at the clarity and clearness of the water, the whiteness of the sand and the beautiful expanses of the Sea of Cortez. Once we got into civilization, Bob and Russell stopped to get a cold soda to cut the dust. I decided to soldier onward. I was anxious to get to the hotel and see my wife, who had come down to enjoy the fruits of Cabo while we masochists were off testing our mettle in the wilds of Baja. I also felt bored by the increasing levels of civilization, and just wanted to get it over with. I wasn’t physically worn out, or even tired, but the comparatively crowded surroundings left me a little depressed. I missed the rugged beauty and desolation of the unpopulated North.
After finding my way through Cabo San Juan it was only a short hop down the four lane to our hotel, the Los Missiones Del Cabo. Jimmy was there sweating away while loading bikes along with some other early arrivals. I was happy to see I was among the first ones home, but also anxious to get my gear off and find my wife and a cold beer.
I located both in short order, the beer in the fridge of our condo and my wife hanging at the pool with some of the other wives. Gabrielle, the wife of one of the Arizona gang, deadpanned “is this one yours?” as I plodded up in my boots and gear, road weary and covered with a fine patina of Baja dust. My wife tipped up her hat and smiled. “Yes, that one’s mine” The first kiss was great, the second one much better.
After a long, hot, lingering shower we joined the awards banquet at the stunning Di Giorgios restaurant just down the hill from the hotel. As the sun slowly set on this last day of our adventure, we all shared in the glory of a successful finish, embellished each others lies, and provided sober testimony as to the veracity of our partners stories of boiling rivers 75 feet wide and 14 feet deep.
We had all made it. 1,370 miles down the length of Baja California. 1,370 miles of dirt, rocks, water, snow, mud, beach, low octane, Powerbars, fresh seafood, crowing roosters, glowing sunsets, cold cervezas, Federale checkpoints, high speed berms, raging rivers, Thank You Jimmies, get offs, low sides, high sides, endos, flying Ws, bruises, emergency welds, scavenged parts, smiles, laughs, Powerbars, camel backs, vultures, shared adventures, cliffs, friendly locals, stunning views, deep sand, cactus, hard starts, sudden stops, tin shacks, rouge semis, white beaches, satellite phones, timeless desert, cactus forests, grilled lobster tails, borrowed bikes and deep satisfaction. All of us shared a common bond, and even as we said our good-byes the next morning, we knew that no one could ever re-create this unique time, or ever take it away.