Rolling in the Baja Mud
Posted on February 27, 2012
Sitting in the middle of what was essentially a giant mud puddle halfway down the Baja peninsula I was utterly exhausted, and now quite muddy. This was my second day riding in Baja and my crash course in off-road riding was beginning to take a toll on my morale. Every time I’d crashed this day I’d cursed myself for not being more careful. I was in the middle of the desert, I hadn’t seen a soul in a day and a half, and I had never ridden a motorcycle in the dirt, let alone one fully loaded down with gear, tools, water, and extra gas. It seemed to be wishful thinking that anyone would happen along anytime close to a moment that I might happen to get myself into a spot and need some help.
The Baja peninsula of Mexico was my first experience leaving home for a different country in pursuit of uncrowded waves to ride. I’ve been here many times since those trips just out of high school, nearly always to the groomed point breaks on the Northern half of the peninsula. Baja has provided heaving tubes, dead flat surf for weeks on end, howling winds, barren landscapes to disappear into, holes in oil pans, unlikely friends, and unforgettable times. It felt like time for a fresh take on the region that’s become somewhat familiar. Tales of difficult road conditions to the north of our usual destinations that we approach from the south on a relatively good road were common, and since we were quite happy with the waves and camping that we’d found in the past, we’d only ever ventured so far north along the coast. On a bike, I figured, the dirt tracks should be a piece of cake. So, a plan was hatched to ride from San Diego to just South of El Rosario, leaving the highway to ride approximately 200 miles on dirt tracks along the coast. My motosurf compadre Steve couldn’t make the trip, so I was to ride solo to meet my friends Mike and Jeremy at the south end of the off-road section.
It was nearly dark by the time I started riding out to Punta Canoas from the highway. I motored off into dark, with very little idea where I was going and even less idea how to ride a motorcycle off road. Coyote flashed across the road from one direction and then from the other along with jack rabbits and field mice illuminated in my headlight. Becoming a bit apprehensive about this whole situation, I managed to get this idea in my head that the coyote were flanking me and maneuvering to pounce. My GPS unit was just about useless, as I didn’t have data loaded to show any of the tracks that I was on. The feeling of moisture in the air on my face was the first indication that I was near the coast.
I was terribly disoriented, and couldn’t tell my position relative to the coastline. Then, I thought that I saw campfires in the distance and headed that direction. I appeared to be way out on a different headland than these fires were, so I found a flat spot and made camp. The wind was so fierce that I could barely manage to get my tent up and I cursed loudly at the air. I surely wouldn’t have managed it without my bike and spare gas can to tie the tent off at either end. I was exhausted and very happy to crawl into my secured tent after eating just few bits of veggie jerky for dinner.
When I awoke in the morning I discovered why I was so exposed to the wind: I had motored right out onto the top of the point rather than staying on the lee side with some protection from the northerly winds. Punta San Carlos was to the north of me and Punta Canoas was directly below me. The terrain here is extremely rugged, sedimentary cliffs at least 40 meters high, topped by a thick layer of unconsolidated sediments, creating an erosive badland terrains with slot canyons down to the beach. Mighty rivers flowed across the space that I now stood upon 50 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch, depositing material that would later be uplifted and eroded by wind and water. While looking at the map at home, it wasn’t clear to me why there was no route from Punta San Carlos to the north to Punta Canoas anywhere near the coast, but now it was quite clear. The Mesa San Carlos was made of the same sediments upon which I stood, but was capped with a layer of volcanic rock that had flowed out over the surface, preventing erosion from above. It dominated the landscape to the north creating a very convincing barrier to passage.
Rather than picking the correct canyon to get down to the beach on Canoas I ended up motoring out onto the adjacent headland and from there I could see the narrow slot canyon that headed down to the tiny beach. The waves were small at Canoas and the wind was picking up, so I motored south.
As I motored along, there were constantly roads to choose from. Often roads that looked like they stuck nearby the coast would just dead end at the beach with no way continuing south, so I would backtrack inland some.
I came across point after point with little windblown waves peeling along.
I finally motored out onto one point that was a bit more protected from the wind that was so pretty I had to go for a surf.
One of the best parts about being aboard a bike in terrain like this was that I could just ride up to whatever struck my interest – way out onto points that I would hesitate to drive onto in a truck for fear of getting stuck. In my truck driving on tracks like this would quickly loose its novelty and become an arduous task, feeling as though my truck was being systematically disassembled as every bolt rattled loose. On the bike, getting out to any of the points that I saw in the distance became just as much fun as getting to see the what the waves were like there.
It really was fun to go fast on these tracks (fast for me being quite slow by experienced rider’s standards), but I told myself to slow it down. I had already crashed once as I hit some loose rocks and panicked a bit when the front wheel started dancing around all over the place and I failed to unfix my gaze from the gnarled, pointy cactus along the sides of the track. I had to remind myself that injury to body or bike in a crash would not be the best of situations.
Riding on the beach was a different story. The hardpack sand at low tide felt like a freeway and I could speed along at least 50% faster than I did on the dirt tracks. It was just so cool to be able to blast so quickly from one end of a long beach to another – it reminded my of when I used to have dreams about being able to fly as a kid.
After 6 hours of riding on the second day I was sweaty and exhausted. Luckily, I came upon a little point with some slightly windblown waves just peeling along and waiting for me to ride. I still don’t even know what the name of the place was or if it even had one.
I motored on into the evening and again screwed up and ended up riding in the dark, exhausted and desperate to find a good spot to camp. My dilemma was quickly resolved as I motored into the lee of another idyllic looking point to pitch my tent, cook my dinner, and collapse for the night.
The next morning I found the moon dust. I’d heard about this stuff – silt as fine as talcum powder that could swallow a bike whole if you run into it at speed.
I was finally gaining some confidence on the bike and feeling more comfortable, with the words of faceless internet forum moto-gurus echoing in my brain: stand on the pegs, steer with your feet, use the throttle for traction control, look where you want to go. I’m aware that that riding into the middle of nowhere alone and channeling the words of ‘mxrob’ et. al. is an absolutely ridiculous way to learn to ride a motorcycle. Like trying to learn to play the the clarinet by having a very detailed understanding of what a clarinet smells like. But here I was none the less, ripping through the baja desert on my bike! My confidence didn’t last long.
Lying face down in the mud for the first time sufficiently deflated my growing ego. Perhaps I wasn’t quite fit to run the Dakar rally just yet. The second and third crashes in the mud helped with that too.
Mud was a whole new deal – slicker than snot. It just looked like nice smooth dirt and I hit it at speed. I was sliding sideways on both wheels for long enough to think about how I might like to crash. I knew I was coming off and it was just a matter of exactly when and how: lay down with the thing, jump off now, jump off in a second, there seemed lots of options, none of which were particularly good.
After a third day of riding, I covered in mud and happy to reunite with my friends (and cold beer). We posted up for another 4 days at our favorite spot sharing great waves and memorable times.
The ride back to San Diego was a 15 hour affair that tested my endurance before I reached the border.
Getting through Tijuana to the border is usually confusing enough, and this time there was a monkey wrench in the works. The ramp to get into the border line had a few bits or jagged concrete and a barely-still-yellow used piece of caution tape strung across it. This apparently was the notification to thousand of motorists that the border was closed. I ended up lost, nearly out of gas and driving around on Tijuana back roads. Sometimes when you say you’re off to Mexico, comments like ‘Isn’t that dangerous right now?’ follow. I say ‘Well, we don’t hang about he big towns and we don’t drive at night, so the danger is really minimized”. I was now doing exactly those things. On a motorcycle. Brilliant job. After going in circles a few times, I found my way out of Tijuana and to the border crossing 8 miles to the east. It was absolutely awesome to ride straight to the font of the line – just the morale boost I needed to push me onward and home.