Ten years ago, and on the occasion of my turning a sharp, gravel-strewn corner into midlife (I hit 40), my wife sent me packing.
On a gift trip.
I guess there’s nothing particularly unusual about receiving a “milestone” birthday gesture like this. Spouses surprise spouses (and partners, partners) when the life-odometer turns over, and you become the proud owned of a new “O.”
As in 4-O. Or 5-O. Or 6-O.
But while trip-gifting (gift-tripping?) might not be so uncommon, this trip, from this particular wife, was. Because it involved motorbikes.
Now, despite our having a deep, life-long love and respect for each other, my wife (aka Liebe) and I are on opposite ends of the love/hate spectrum when it comes to motorbikes.
She hates them with the kind of vitriol usually reserved for the Nazis. To her, they’re evil, stupid death machines. Whereas to me, they’re kinda of the whole point: motorbikes are joy in motion. Mechanical play. A means to see and be out in the deliciously physical world—away from screens and ersatz experience—with every one of your faculties whirring.
Riding is almost akin to year-round downhill skiing without ever having to travel, pray for snow, or buy a lift ticket. It’s is a form of happiness-teleportation, zinging you backwards into childhood to re-experience virgin moments of freedom, balance and glee—“I’m riding…I’m RIDING…OHMYGODIMRIDING!!!”—and forcing you to feel this again and again, even as you’ve grown preoccupied with 401K balances and the frequency of your own trips to the bathroom.
Still, she hates them. [sigh.]
This hasn’t always helped us form a more perfect union or insure domestic tranquility. But her extreme discomfort with my bike-love has served as a powerful safety device, making me obsessively careful for fear of being killed by the oncoming wrath of my spouse.
So, back to the gift-trip, it was extremely unusual that she was endorsing a moto-roadtrip, which could only be explained by the unusual circumstance of “our” birthdays. Back when our parents invented us, we happened to be born just hours apart, but on either side of midnight. So technically, we’re a day apart in age. Practically speaking, we celebrate (commiserate?) together.
For this particular birthday, though, Liebe was determined that I get to do something for me, so she’d get to do something for she—which turned out to be a trip to a swanky New England spa with a couple of her girlfriends to do seaweed-wrapped tantric yoga, eat exotic roughage, and embalm time with various high-ticket emollients.
In return, she sent me on a four-day adventure here:
And not alone. With my best home-slice from college, the Brotherman, aka The Otherman, aka Jonah:
Suddenly, forty didn’t sound so bad.
This was a gift horse whose mouth was best left unexamined. So I got me to the internet to make a plan before anyone had any second thoughts. Jonah and I checked out the various Baja moto-touring outfits, and after a few phone queries decided on Tim Morton’s Baja Bound Motorcycle Adventures.
Here’s the man and legend himself, Tim:
We chose Baja Bound for several reasons. TIm’s not just a rolling atlas of Baja with more waypoints in his head than a Garmin 390; he’s also raced—and won—the Baja 500 and 1000 more than any other rider on earth.
Baja Bound was also super-accommodating. Since we’d be riding during the un-busy shoulder season as a trip for two (Baja Bound usually takes bigger groups), Tim worked out a custom itinerary for us to see the “highlights” of northern Baja over a three-day ride.
It’s worth noting that while this trip happened just ten slim years ago, technologically-speaking it was the Stone Ages. In 2004, we were only about as advanced as this:
Maya wasn’t software; it was a people. 3-D images were still being programmed with a chisel.
And just for perspective (even this shocks me now): 2004 was three years BEFORE the debut of the first iPhone. In fact, the iPhone didn’t exist until mid-2007.
In 2004 there was no Google Maps yet. And while GPS was around, we sure didn’t have it. Phone-wise, I was rocking one of these:
Oh, and there were still cavemen.
But even though we were in the pre-Twitter, proto-Facebook Dark Ages, and armed with nothing more than a clunky Olympus point-and-shoot (with a 256K SD memory card—quaint, huh?), we managed to have an epic time.
It’s only now, with that camera and memory card long-gone (but some actual photographs preserved in a shoebox) that I’ve been able to reconstruct and document our trip. Yes kids, we used to print photos on paper back then, so we could admire them under the light of whale-oil lamps, alongside the occasional snail-mail letter. Just as Arcade Fire sings, We Used To Wait for the mail. (If you’ve never seen this trippy, haunting, interactive video, click the link and check it out).
Fortunately, I managed to save our trip log too, thanks to the original Evernote: a Bic pen and taquerîa placemat.
By cross-referencing my ancient scrawled notes with Google Maps and Google Earth, I was able to reassemble most of our itinerary, ten years after.
¡Entonces, vamanos! Our adventure began here.
I flew in from JFK, Jonah arrived from SFO, and we met up with Tim and his chase-driver sidekick (whose name I can’t remember) at the San Diego airport. They arrived in a fully-provisioned crew-cab Silverado, trailering a pair of Suzuki DRZ 400s for the two of us, and a Honda XR600R for Tim. All of the bikes were thoroughly Bajacized, with bigger tanks, upgraded suspensions, bash plates, etc.
Here’s a decade-younger me, and the only surviving photo of our Chevy chase-sherpa, at a Pemex fuel stop.
And here’s Jonah taking a selfie via side mirror. I don’ think the selfie had even been invented yet, because there were no-rear-facing cameras on our shitty cellphones. Note that Jonah was carrying a particularly slick piece of camera tech for the time—a Canon Elph. Remember those?
We piled in and trucked from San Diego across the border and down to Ensenada, which served as our launch pad for the ride.
In hindsight, I can’t say there was much to recommend Ensenada, at least the touristbomb center where we stayed. While I guess it may have improved, in 2004 it was clogged with shabby motels, Mexican sports bars catering to shot-seeking cruise-ship zombies, endless crappy t-shirt shops, strip joints, and farmacias hawking Viagra and Cialis without prescription.
If you’re a church-going, Mid-western rotarian on a bachelor party bro-trip, it might feel like a cross between Sodom and paradise. For us, it was just kinda seedy.
Without the placemat I’d have no memory of this, but we apparently stayed at the still-standing Hotel Corona, and had Coronas and some tacos at Papas & Beer, a notoriously shady tourist trap. Although here, like everywhere else we went with Tim, we felt like insiders, since everyone seemed to know Tim and he he seemed to know everyone else.
In our short stint in Ensenada, we managed to eat, drink, and sleep without getting food poisoning, which I considered a minor victory. And en la mañana, we hit the road.
A confession, as we’re about to set out to ride:
While motorized two-wheeling wasn’t entirely foreign to me (I’d owned a scooter), the morning when we saddled up to ride out of town was only the third time I’d ridden a dirt bike since I was a teenager. Literally.
When I was in high school, I’d had the temporary use of a Honda XR75 for a couple of summers (our neighbor had one, but his kids were still too small to ride it.) The only other time I’d dirt-biked was on a day trip with Jonah to Hollister Ranch in California to hoon around on a couple of borrowed YZ125s.
So riding out of Ensanada had all of the transgressive feeling usually reserved for time spent in Ensanada, except I had something different between my legs.
Happily, riding a dirt bike is, well, just like riding a bike. Clutches and shifters and throttles are remarkably unevolved, and remain in exactly the same place you left them years ago. You fire the thing up (thank you, electric starter), pull in the clutch, thunk it down into first, and away you go.
We started out on tarmac, heading east from Ensenada on Ruta 3 to Ojos Negros. When we left the road. Tim gave us some time to get our dirt legs on.
Rear brake seems to work…
Hey! This fat-ass forty year old can still pop a (lame-ass, legs-down) wheelie. Get your feet on the pegs, you punter!
After thoroughly reestablishing our adolescent over-confidence, we headed off into the high desert, riding up through the Sierra de Juarez mountains and into the Parque Nacional de Constitución,where we got our first real taste of sand-surfing.
Some of the trails up in the park were deep sand, which requires a real leap of riding faith, and finesse. Plenty of throttle, weight back, and a looser grip on the bars. You sorta have to float the front wheel and steer it more like a snowmobile than a bike. Bury the front wheel, and you’ll quickly follow suit.
Tim led us up through the forest trails to Ramona’s, aka The Sawmill, a ramshackle gas-and-taco stop in the middle of the high pine forest, Gas is served from plastic drums, beer and soda from a chained-up cooler, and tacos by the ancient abuelita Ramona herself, for whom the oasis is named. I was sad to see that Ramona died a few years ago, but I’m happy we had a chance to meet and eat with the legend.
Here’s a pic of Ramona’s, courtesy of Larry (GalacticGS) a rider who also posts on ADVRider. (More on why I lost this and many other pictures in a bit…)
After Ramona’s, we headed down through the pine forest to a tiny desert town called Héroes de La Independencia, where we picked up Ruta 3 and some on-pavement speed. Six miles or so later, we veered off into the desert again, this time for a fast, flat, high desert run towards Mike’s Sky Ranch.
As I was Googling around for some details about where we were riding, I stumbled across an alarming incident that happened to another group at this exact location: three riders were robbed at gunpoint on their way up to Mike’s.
Fortunately, we didn’t encounter any banditos. But as we hit the sand, we had a different adventure in store for us…
They sky was pretty ominous, if not gun-toting. Still, we turned off, and hammered it.
Not long into our desert run, the skies grew ever more threatening. And even with throttles pegged, there was something deeply unsettling—even panic-inducing—about being the tallest objects for miles. We rode all-out through the low scrub, nervously watching the sky coalesce, and feeling like three mobile lightning rods on our way to Mike’s.
At one point, we passed a jackrabbit running for cover. He apparently had a hole to run to; we had nowhere to run for but the hills. When the sky finally unleashed—pelting rain, branch lightning, the works—we rode café-racer-style, lying across our tanks in a pathetic attempt to somehow make ourselves shorter.
But nothing to do but to ride out the storm.
We managed to get to the hills without getting electrocuted, but we did get soaked. When we paused before our climb up to Mike’s to empty our boots and squeegee our goggles, I did experience a mini electrical event of sorts when I tried turning on my dripping camera, and it crapped out with a sizzling little “pffvvvvvt!”. Thus, no more pics from me—only those from the Brotherman’s Elph.
We got to Mike’s Sky Rancho, 125 miles into our day-one ride, with monkey hands in full effect. I’ve also seen this phenomenon described as “arm pump” or chronic exertional compartment syndrome. Whatever you call it, it hurts. As a result of death-gripping handlebars for the better part of a day, your hands seize spasmodically, curling into claws that can’t be unfurled. This makes it almost impossible to handle anything, unzip your pants to pee, or even grasp a beer can. Thakfully, you can manage to grip a long-neck Presidente (about the same diameter as a dirtbike handgrip) which came in handy as we settled in at the famous bar, recounting the adventures of the day. We enjoyed a steak dinner cooked over steel drums, and crashed shortly thereafter, which worked well, since Mike’s has electricity from just 6 pm until 9:30, and then it’s—literally—lights out.
The next day (as far as I can decipher 11-year old napkin notes), we rode up to the observatory, and then down to the Pacific. Here’s our intrepid leader, Tim.
And here’s me and Tim. He must’ve been feeling like he was towing a couple of sand-anchors on this trip. His speed, skill and stamina was the diametric opposite of mine. “Can’t we stop and get a Mexican Coke somewhere? I’m kinda hungry…”
The Brothermen, on the descent. FWIW Jonah’s a way better rider—and in superior shape. That’s why you’ll always see him standing and me sitting for pics.
Besides his expert route-guidance, this is the other reason riding with Tim was a godsend…
We probably had a half-dozen of them over the course of our ride. Had we been solo, changing a rear flat like this would have taken us amateurs about two hours. Tim dispatched the task the same way he races: with brutal efficiency and speed. I’m not exaggerating when I say that between pinchflat and riding, it was maybe a 10-minute diversion, using the contents of a fender pouch and these humble field tools. Impressive.
On a separate note, I really appreciated the fuel gauges on these bikes. Clear and easy to read.
We rode down to Camalu, where Tim met a guy named Raul Zepeda, selling him an XR650 (I think Tim planned on turning over his bike after our trip).
Then some some fish tacos for the bellies, another pinchflat for Jonah’s bike (working hard, Brotherman, working hard)…
And then down to the Pacific.
Riding through the hordes of seagulls, pelicans and other shorebirds created some interesting “helmet art.” The shit-splattering was as artful as it was awful. But beyond the bird poop, just getting down to the cooler salt air was a treat.
We came across the beached wreck of an old tugboat named “The Glory.” At this point, she looked more like “Former Glory.”
Hey look! It’s a Baja-riding East Coast advertising pussy acting like a cross between a Star Wars Stormtrooper, Cap’n Morgan, and the Marlboro Man!
I Googled around trying to see if The Glory was still there on the beach today, but apparently she succombed to the sands of time. This is what’s left of her hull, from a 2007 ride report I found online…
From tug to sand-rug in just a few short years, abetted I’m sure by some storms and scrap metal hunters. Nevertheless, imagine what’s happening to your arteries or knees over the same span. Tempus omnia perdit.
We did a little more beach-combing and discovered a few more shells of the larger variety.
And then we found out where all that schmantzy supermarket Organic Sea Salt comes from. If you find a little fleck of black in yours, it’s not pepper. Probably a piece of a Dunlop knobbie.
Baja Salt Farms…
From the Pacific beaches, Tim then took us to one of his favorite Baja amusement parks: this well-ridden sand hill.
Tim farts and he’s up it. Jonah gets there with a little struggle, but he gets up clean.
Now it’s Mr. Lard Ass’s turn. Note the artfully flailing legs.
Dude, you’re embarassing yourself.
Oh, for Chrissake…
But wait. This is not even the final ignominy…it gets better (or worse).
“Can I hold your hand and help you up, honey?”
With that humiliation eternally scorched into my soul, we continued.
Though here’s where the photographic record gets migh-tee-thin. I know (thanks to this taco mat) that we hit San Quintín and Colonet on our way along the coastal ride up to Santo Tomás. We rode along the Pacific, occasionally close enough to spy a secret surf spot or two (bringing boards with the bikes would have been the ultimate, but that would be getting greedy!)
Then, rendezvous with chase truck; load up the bikes; cross the border back into the US of A; and deposit us in San Diego to shower (and scrub Baja grit out of every nook, cranny, orifice and pore), change into civvies, and hit the town before a flight home early the next morning.
And that, to the best of my recollection, was that.
All in all, we covered maybe 275 miles in three full days in the saddle. Other than monkey death grip, some sore asses, and a bruised ego from that hillclimb, we survived unscathed. Neither of us even got the runs despite subsisting on roadside tacos cooked over oildrums, with nary a sink or refrigerator in site. No narco-terrorism, no banditos, no scorpions or rattlesnakes. Nada. On a trip like this, me likey nada.
And so adios, Baja. Thank you, Tim Morton. It took over a decade to write this ride report. But the act of just getting it all down makes it feel just like yesterday (cue slo-mo ride into the sunset)…
Now, it’s a decade later. I’m fatter and on the road to 51. But last month, during an intense period of work/kids/life-obligations, Liebe stepped up once again and said “J-man, why don’t you and Jonah go on one of your stupid riding trips?”
Good woman, that Liebe. So I got on the horn to Jonah. Got to the web to look for a destination.
And now, guess which two knuckleheads are heading to Utah in July to tackle a good part of the UtahBDR?