All my ex’s live in Texas is the way the song goes. I’m not in Texas, I’m in Baja California, Mexico. But I am with some ex’s – the ex-speedway Champion of the World – Bruce Penhall, the ex-husband Of Julia Roberts – Lyle Lovett and my Dos Equis (double X to you) Mexican beer.
Keep the rubber side down – have a safe ride and good time…”With this toast, Chris Haines, our guide for the next three days and five hundred unpaved miles, and his partner Don Ogilvy, bless our embarkation. In a land where the sun shines 347 days a year at a cozy 24 degrees Celsius, a good time, from the inky blue Pacific across the mountains and deserts to the Sea of Cortez, is guaranteed. And with these two ramrodding our outfit, the safe ride through the arroyos and the canyons and pine forests of Baja California, Mexico is assured.
Chris, former motocross racer and Team Honda mechanic, finished six Baja 1000 mile races and won the class 30. He’s the good guy in the white hat, operating the Baja Off Road Tours. Don’s a famous biker too. He made the news in his hometown. The Sacramento river flooded in 1950. Don, unruffled by the raging waters, decided to cross it to get to work. About half way across and axle deep, he was forced to turn back. The paper later reported that spectators heard the sound of a motorcycle engine coming from the train bridge. Looking up, they saw Don as he motored across the tracks over the river. Don’s been riding rough trails ever since. He was the best man to have been watching over our butts because he’d seen it all. His son’s a Baja 1000 champion and OL’ Don has won his share of races down here too.
For $1300, Chris and Don will pick you up in a shiny new Ford 4×4 at the San Diego airport and will whisk you away to a glamorous beachside hotel in Ensenada, where you’ll be presented with a brand new Kawasaki off-road motorcycle in your choice of capacity and 2 or 4-stroke flavors.
On the road, a chase truck, loaded with gas and goodies, meets you for morning refreshments, lunch and afternoon teas (if you desire tea). Hotels and meals are covered too. Just show with you gear.
Off-road remains the only way to see Baja -t here aren’t very many roads…real roads. A lot of two track exists – and even more one track. Most of the trails were carved by the missionaries in the 16th Century. Two hundred years before the fathers, the Conquistadors came, thinking Baja was an island – an island of gold. If you look at a satellite map of North America, Baja is an island in a sea of cloud cover.
Motorcycles make the best off-road vehicles for Baja because they only have two wheels. They can get you into some very skinny places without using too much gas. Pardon the pun and with apologies to Mexican cuisine, but the gas down here is not that great. Think about it. Chris supplies American gas, as we all did after the frijoles for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
On a motorcycle in Baja, you get to smell only the sage and the sea and the burning mesquite fires started by the lighting. You can forget your real world worries and drift along daydreaming, or race yourself against the rocks and the sand.
In Ensenada, we take the first day to get acquainted, get oriented to the ride, get the rules of the road and get laid…just kidding. The Pleasure Island days of boys growing donkey’s ears at the Blue Fox are just about over in the border towns of Mexico…The old red light district in Tijuana got abandoned to history by the new Century City-like development, complete with monuments and traffic circles to confuse the Indians. Any dictator worth his kickback would love to lead a victory march through these tree-lined boulevards.
Spanish is spoken in Baja, but it’s not necessary to be fluent. English brings the coin of the realm. Families with money mean business to border towns now. We were ‘lucky’ to find three old-style and old professional level Olympic drinking companions from North America in one last hellhole bar of Christmas lights and Pinesol in downtown Ensenada. As they left carrying drunk number three out, he puked on them. ‘Damn it, Doc’, they cursed. I guess they had to get him home so he could operate in the morning.
Don’t get me wrong. Partying isn’t over in Mexico. Just some of the Ugly American kind is passing into history. That holds true for riding down there. Don’t go there to trash. Go to enjoy. And don’t go alone. It’s easy to have a good time. It’s a must to do it safely. That’s why when you ride in Chris’ group, Chris always leads. He’s led for seven years plus. Don brings up the rear – he’s rear-ended for forty years plus.
If anyone has a problem or gets into trouble – the entire group works together to deal with it, no mavericks wanted in this outfit. It costs $20,000 to get the injured airlifted out of here. So, keeping that rubber side down is priority numero uno. In seven years and well over a million Baja miles, no one, expert or novice, has ever been hurt on one of Chris’ rides. No one.
Chris’ trip to Cabo covers 250 miles a day for six days and on that ride you get a couple of break days in between the top and bottom of Baja to fish, swim or do nothing in the middle of this beautiful nowhere. You don’t even have to ride back from Cabo; you can fly home while the taste of fresh swordfish with cilantro and the smell of sage lingers still fresh in your little head… Chris sends the bikes back by trailer.
A passport is not necessary here, but bring some ID. An American driver’s license works fine.
Chris has taken the likes of Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan and first time lady riders from Japan through Baja. He doesn’t take anyone else’s motorcycle, though; he knows his are maintained and safe.
‘Bad roads bring good people.’ SN Anita Espinoza, Dowager Queen of Northern Baja
Sunrise is early and I take a warm-up swim in the double Olympic-size hotel pool to loosen up any rusty joints for the ride. We gear up for breakfast and in all of our nylon, plastic and day-glo, we could easily be mistaken for the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers on vacation.
After our morning carbo-load, we hop on the conveniently warmed-up bikes and leave the plastic litter, smoking air and third world order of populated Mexico and enter into the benefit zone of no 911.
Mexicans leave their garbage anywhere there’s a road. Puffy plastic diapers full of runny green crap. Pop bottles, broken glass. If their cars stop running, they leave those too. Upside down, though. All abandoned cars in Mexico are left upside down.
When someone gets killed in a car accident, they leave the car. Do they leave the bodies? They have little shrines every where there’s been a fatal accident. Is the body under that little cross with the plastic flowers? Is it upside down too?
We American leave our garbage all over the place as well. We just call them malls and urban developments. Urban blight. In Baja it doesn’t take too long to get away from the border.
There are four of us riding and one driving the chase truck. Personally, I hate people, but I love these gruo deals. You are thrown into an Agatha Christie melange of characters, without a clue about each other. Familiarity breeds respect, but too often these gatherings can get nasty if they have time to get old. Fortunately, here in Baja, it’s too much work having fun to ever get to the “Lord of the Flies” stage. Everyone gets along, everyone looks out for each other – the experienced looking out for the neophytes.
Chris leads off like John Wayne at the front of the 7th Cav. Following like good ducks are Bruce, Lyle and me. Lyle looks like lchabod Crane and rides like Pecos Bill – yelling ‘Yahoo!’ as he bounces off a rock and flies by my head at 50mph. I found out Vince hates riding in the sands as much as I do…
‘Shit, I thought when we hit the hard stuff we were done’, he confesses, after we both lost about five pounds wrestling the bikes through an endless sand wash as the fifteen foot tall Cardon cacti laughed at us’ ‘Silly Gringos’
‘When in doubt, gas it!’ yells Penhall as he wheelies past us…ha, ha, ha…’Up yours, Senior Bruce.’
Other people is one of the reasons I go to Baja… I like to get away from them.’ – Joe Parkhurst.
There are no McDonalds and no phones when the pavement ends. There aren’t very many people either. Finally on our own, we motor West. The first taste of damp Pacific Ocean air pushes the last of the old smog out of my helmet. Ceremoniously, we cross a stream under an open gateway of over-hanging trees and enter into the real Baja. The big Blue spreads out before us. No condos, no billboards, and no freeways block the view. The only living creature we see along the ice-plant covered cliffs, is a sea lion. His head bobs up and down in the surf and he watches us ride the rocky path South.
A long white beach stretches below the cactus for two miles or more, inviting us to take a free ride on the sand. Lyle, Bruce and Chris wheelie and spin donuts, daring the waves to splash them. Too soon, the beach party is over. We turn East and head across a land that time forgot, to beat the sunset to Mike’s Sky Rancho. Mike’s Sky Rancho – there is no better know destination for the Baja traveler than Mike’s.
Mike’s really isn’t a rancho. It’s a bar. With rooms. They don’t take reservations. You just show up. If the rooms are all taken, you can sleep on the pool table… It’s been done. Mike’s makes the best Margarita in the middle of any nowhere if their best Margarita maker isn’t in jail.
For beauty and location, Mike’s doesn’t disappoint. Called the Sky Rancho because it has an airstrip, its landing field is carved out of the blue boulders in the shady river valley surrounded by mountains. Real Sky King stuff, painted by Maxfield Parrish.
We’re off to the Sea of Cortez where the water temperature is 24C all year long and the evaporation of the sea creates a tropical oasis at San Felipe…our destination.
You could call San Felipe a lazy fishing village. If you used colorful surf language, you’d call it bitchin’.
Today’s ride is going to be the Big One – the Disneyland E ticket. We roll out of the shade of Mike’s sleepy mountains and hit the sand wash at speed to see if my body will break blasting across the whoop-ee-doos… these moguls in the sand are called that because whoop-ee-doo is what you are yelling as you traverse them.
All whoops end at a dry lake. I’m talking an entire real dry world here. It can’t be a lake; I don’t see any end to it. We ride and ride as though the motorcycles are airborne high above this ghostly world made
of dust. Yesterday was sand day – sit back and ‘when in doubt – gas it – Yahoo!’, yells Penhall, blasting past me, bouncing off rocks, with a cartoon smoke ring trail chasing him.
Day two’s lesson? Rocks. ‘Stand up and gas it!’ To show me how it’s done by the big boys, Chris blasted past me from behind, skipping over a path of bowling ball rocks, while standing up at 70mph.
I was all alone just trying to reach Nirvana by my motor droning when, ‘Beep, beep’. A hand on my leg. It’s Chris. Like the Road-runner, he came completely full circle and grabbed me as I poked along.
Today’s ride is a voyage to Mars; yesterday’s trip to Mike’s was a trip through Fantasia – burnt umber Elysian fields of rolling hills, roads bordered by conical evergreens – moonscape of house sized rocks, blue seas of mesquite cut by white ribbon paths of talcum powder sand. And the infamous back road to Mike’s.
All day yesterday, Chris had been telling what fun the back road to Mike’s would be. “Take that big 4-stroke’, says Mel…
‘Why the hell did Don give you that bike to ride here ‘, says Chris, looking down at me flat on my back in that rocky road to Mike’s.
‘Aim for your destination. Look down the road and that way you’ll avoid the rocks and ruts and concentrate only on your tire, you will hit them’, were Chris’s last words to me before the fall.
Picking the 4-stroke bike up off my butt, he continued: ‘Going down hill; keep the gas on to keep the wheels spinning. If they aren’t spinning, you’ll slide and you’ll fall.’ I get it – go downhill on bowling ball-sized rocks and give it throttle to go faster.
What, I’ll fall on my face faster?
‘The backroad to Mike’s is the toughest part of the Baja 500 – right here.’ We’ll met if face to face yesterday.
Besides riding lessons, Chris gives each rider in his parties a fanny pack. In it you find everything you will need to survive Baja if you should get lost – from snakebite remedy, to a solar blanket. There’s a handy signal mirror there to get a goat’s attention or share a snort with a snake.
Just kidding. This is a warning. Mexican law is based on the Napoleonic Code. That means you are guilty until proven innocent. Don’t fool around.
The good news is, no one has ever gotten lost on a Haines outing. But this is Baja and remember there ain’t no 911. There ain’t no water either. The temperature can be over 100 in the daytime shade and drop to below freezing at night.
‘Be careful out there.’
‘You have one day to live without water.’ Chris warns.
‘Bodies of dead Chinese boat people have been found out here.’
That’s Chris’s ‘Father Knows Best’ line for the day. As our leader, good advice is his job.
My job was to keep focussed on my line as I tried once again to get down this road to Mike’s. Like a pregnant yuppie, I pick out a focus point. My destination point is a rather large twelve foot tall bottle glows and radiates in the rocky grotto where the trail turns to Mike’s. I saw it there. Really saw it.
Staring at this spectre of Mexican refreshment – ‘the old cerveza trick’ – I never fell down again on that bad back road to Mike’s.