Baja Adventure Part 12 – In Cabo, We Rest

After 1,200 plus hard off-road miles, Cabo is a well deserved rest. Thanks to the help of my Sister-in-law we’d managed to get a room at one of the swanky resorts where the the guest are driven around the complex in little golf carts, the beach is cleaned and manicured each night, the pool cabanas scream relaxation and the fragrance of  lush, beautiful flowers fill the air.  Yes, this resort has a Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur, Mexico address but it does not feel like Baja.  In fact it feels a little like the geriatric ward.

At this resort we are the young Turks, clashing with the white belt and blue hair crowd shuffling between the pool, spa and bar.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to be said living the life style of the rich and famous.  It’s just not us on this adventure.

We grabbed a cab and headed into town, believing we would have more fun wandering the streets rather than sitting on a beach where Juan the pool boy was poised to bring fruity cocktail drinks with little umbrellas in them to any guest at the first sign of an empty glass and a tip.

Quick side note: if you are new to this blog, you may have noticed it is filled with miss spellings, incorrect word usage (their / there), and constantly changing, miss matched sentence tense.  I deeply regret if that distracts you.  But it is what you signed up for when you started going down this Jimmy Buffet, Caribbean rock and roll, mid-life crisis with us…  Dyslexic untie.

If you want to find the best places to eat, ask the locals where they eat, not where they take the tourists.  Our cab driver was a wealth of information on the places to eat and see that were off the beaten path.  Up until now breakfast had been coffee and a snack bar on our way out of town driving down the trail.  Today we were enjoying a real sit down breakfast of huevos ranchero with chorizo sausage, espresso americano  and warm, buttered tortillas.  Being off the radar of most tourists we had the place mostly to ourselves with a view of the locals heading to their shops.

These days Cabo is a major cruise ship destination.  Everything and everyone is catering to the big ships and the thousands of tourist who venture off the boat to explore the shopping district.  We walked all over, poking our heads into t-shirt stands, jewelry stores and tequila shops.

Walk into any tequila shop and you will be amazed at the varieties available.  There were bottles of ten year old sipping tequila that is smooth as a Ken doll, next to the vanilla, pomegranate  and  Jalapeño infused tequila as well as the basic slam them back and shake your head varieties of shooter tequila.  You don’t actually have to buy a $100 bottle to enjoy it.  Just ask for a taste shot.  20 minutes in the tequila shop and three shots later we were back strolling peer.

Anything you want seems to be the mantra in Cabo San Lucas.  Walking along the docks, locals would ask if we needed, weed, girls, fishing boat (apparently everyone has a cousin with a fishing boat in Cabo), Cuban cigars… Anything you want.  Just don’t pay retail.

I love negotiating and the vendors in Cabo have raised it to an art form.  Like Mexican traffic signs, prices are simply a suggested starting point.  $20 t-shirts (amigo these are the good local T’s not the cheap Chinese ones at the other shops) quickly drop to $15 and than $10 as you imply your willingness to look around at the other shops selling the exact same thing.  And if you want a plastic bag (Mexican suitcase) to put the shirt in, that will be an extra dollar.

Baja is famous for fish tacos.  Along the route down we’d stuck with more traditional chile relleno, sopa tortilla and burritos. Fully intending to grab a couple of fish tacos we aimed back to the little eateries located by our breakfast cafe.  The lobster and shrimp enchiladas smothered in cheese and guacamole won out over the fish tacos in the end.

While we watched the guy fix out dinner we talked about the day: the near death experience  at the pedicure spa (just a little blood when Brad’s toe got sliced, twice, as the woman snipped away at his cuticle), which tequila was best and if we’d gotten a good deal on the souvenirs.  We still can’t believe we made here in one piece.

Cabo’s focus on the cruise ships means you can find all the comforts from back home, including Margaritaville, the Hard Rock and Starbucks.  Hanging out at a table sipping our coffee on the street we watched the sun go down and the night clubs begin to light up.  By now the cruise ships had rolled up the gang planks with all the sun birds safely back on board.  The streets were taking on a more local flare.  Clearly this time of year Cabo is not filled with college students on spring break but you wouldn’t know it by the guys out front of the clubs shouting to everyone who walked by trying to entice them inside.  Some things are universal and the streets this night were filling up with local boys showing off their cars and girls smiling at them on their way into the clubs.

Cabo may be a tourist mecca these days but it turns out that relaxing, wandering the docks, shopping, and doing nothing all day was exactly what we needed.  We even felt a little sad that we’d be leaving in the morning.  But for now it was back to the resort in order to cap off the night with our ritualistic cigar and bourbon that has been our closing signature to a great day throughout this adventure.

Baja Adventure Part 11 – Should Have Gone That Way

Coming off the beach inspired, we were on the move and feeling free.  The wind and sun filled the cabin and we were moving fast.  This section of the course was living up to everything we’d been told about it.  But, not all the stories we’d heard about this section were good.

The locals have 300 words for sand but only one word for trouble…  “Silt”.  When the earth was still young, barren and lifeless, Satan shook his crusty dreadlocks until a super fine brown mange fell to earth, filling the cracks of Baja several feet deep.  These are the famous Baja silt beds that strike fear in the hearts and minds of the 1000 racers.  Google Baja 1000 silt beds and watch the videos that come up (go ahead, I’ll wait… ) and you will see dust flying everywhere until the sun is eclipsed by the cloud that forms as stuck 400 hp trophy trucks spin their wheel digging a hole straight down to hell.

The route up ahead had a ginger tint to it that caught my eye… and I don’t mean it in a good way.  Pulling over (ok just stopping in the middle of the trail) I walked ahead to scout the route.  30 yards and my boots started to kick up soft billowy clouds of dust with each step.  Another 30 yards and my boots were disappearing into the baby shit brown talcum powder that was everywhere.  This was clearly one of the silt fields I’d read about on the racing forums: “…my vote for worst Baja silt is down by Constitution and Santa Rita, seems you always hit it at night in the fog.  Tres Hermanos and San Felipe are childs play…”  That comment from the forum rang in my head.

You could swim in the sweat that covered my palms, stomach acids were gnawing their way toward my spleen and my heart was playing the drum solo from In A Gadda Da Vida, there was no going around this, it was time figure out what to do.  We had a couple thing going for us.  The racers are typically two wheel drive.  We were going to engage all four.  We were also going to let air out of the tires, a lot of air, to hopefully float higher.    With the transfer case in four low to drive as much power to the wheels as possible and tires at 7 PSI, the rest was going to be skinny peddle driving to keep a steady forward momentum.

We don’t have pictures.  They probably wouldn’t have shown anything but streaks of sunlight and clouds of dust.  We white knuckled our way for what seemed like hours but more likely only five minutes, keeping the RPMs up and our momentum as straight as possible.  You really can leave impressions in your steering wheel if you hold on tight enough, but we made it.  The air filter did not.  I swear Baja is Spanish for “dirt gets everywhere.”  Once stopped, we popped the hood to see how much air clogging dust had been caught by the filter…  it started out blue.  Now it was brown through and through. (Thank you, thank you, thank you, Beau Jaramillo for sending us off with extra Amsoil fluids and air filters) Swapping out a new filter and airing the tires back up, we had a sense of invincibility as we continued to head down the trail.

The town signs are in spanish.  But when they are faded by the sun and hidden from view it really doesn’t matter what language their written in.  We were busy taking pictures of the church, the little bodega and town square.  We should have been watching the hand held GPS.  After driving back and forth several times, turning around in and out of town, we spotted the race markers.  Sure the GPS said we were a little off course but the race markers said we were dead on.  There were even bright orange cards stapled to cactus that read “Score 1000 Race” with an arrow pointed forward.  I don’t know if it was the rush of testosterone from the silt fields still coursing through our veins or the easy soft sand trail ahead or maybe our new devil may care attitude about sweating the small stuff but for whatever reason, we put the GPS down and followed what was clearly the marked race course route.

The 40th anniversary Baja 1000 race, the route we down loaded, finished in San José del Cabo.  Most years the race runs from Ensenada De Todos Santos to La Paz on the Sea of Cortez.   About an hour in, we are still seeing lots of race markers, but we’re aimed more east than south.  The bet wasn’t if we were off our route, just how much off course we were.  We popped out onto the highway right where Brad thought we would, about 10 miles from La Paz.

We drove into La Paz victorious!  We had followed most of the Baja 1000 race course and driven terrain that we could not have imagined possible a week earlier.   Each day had felt like jumping into the deep end and learning how to swim all over again.  But this was La Paz, so we fueled up and headed back west on Mexico 19.  We were going to finish this our way, in Cabo, even if we had to drive all night.

Since we only  aired up partially after the silt beds our tires were a bit squish and highway cornering was anything but road hugging.  The low tire pressure also meant our head lights were pointed a bit high.  The portion of Mexico highway 19 between La Paz and Cabo runs  in the hills along the Pacific coast and is heavily traveled.  EVERY vehicle coming the other way was convinced we forgot to turn down our brights and retaliated by flashing theirs back at us.  I know it is not smart and could have gotten us killed but a few times I politely let the drivers who maintained their brights on us know what bright lights really were, by flashing the HIDs….  for just a second.  I know it was dumb but it felt so good at the time.

Since it was dark, we were spared the sight of missing guardrails and non-existent or cobbled shoulder that gave way to steep drop offs on the passenger’s side.  We did however catch a glimpse of several cows and the occasional donkey grazing next to the road out of the corner of our eye as we passed by.

If you’re ever driving up a twisty Mexican highway in the dark and come around a corner to find a semi-truck stopped, facing you, in your lane with its lights on…  you wont be the first.  Behind him, were two more semis facing up hill, parked in our lane.  (I’m not making this up…  We could have hurt ourselves, for your entertainment.)  I’ll grant you, that there are no shoulders to pull off too, but they were dead stopped blocking our entire lane.

Unsure if this was normal,  a stalled truck, a blockade or what and seeing no lights peeking around the corner ahead…  With a little fear and a lot of caution we proceeded into the on coming traffic’s lane.  Luckily the car coming down the highway at us, saw our headlights shining and slowed until we could pull back into our lane past the three parked semi-trucks.

Driving victoriously into Cabo , 11:00 at night, is like entering New Orleans at Mardi Gras.  Bright lights and streets filled with people, carts, dogs, taxi cabs and trucks all moving in parade like fashion toward a single point.  We had no reservation or any idea of where to stay in Cabo.  We did however have cell phone coverage and used our life line to my sister-in-law.  She had been in Cabo a few weeks earlier and had scouted the beaches and bars for us.  She of course had chosen the easy route and flew down, cabbing it between hotel bars.

As Brad talked to her, I could hear the laughter and surprise in her voice as she reconciled the truth that we were alive and in Cabo.  I also heard several derogatory comments that I can only assume were aimed at me.  After all I am her favorite brother-in-law.  I don’t recall a lot of what Brad was saying to her, except that when he asked her for recommendations I distinctly heard…  “I don’t care what it costs, I want a luxury resort, with room service, where I can rest on a soft bed, take a long hot shower without keeping my mouth shut and send out my laundry.”

Tonight we enjoyed a fine cigar and our evening’s bourbon in style, on our spacious private balcony overlooking the moon lit beach of a five star resort.

Baja Adventure Part 10 – Let’s Go This Way

Driving the Baja on an off-road adventure means everything we own is covered with dust, including us.  Mix in a little sweat, spilled drinks and dribbled hot sauce, and things can get a bit messy.  We packed light when it came to clothes.  In fact we only had a couple of shirts, cargo shorts, sweat shirt and a change of socks and underwear.  Wear everything inside, outside, forward, back and you get four days of hygienic bliss (if this is too much information, you may want to skip down a few paragraphs).  Staying in motels improved our hygiene strategy significantly.

I have one clothing rule on an adventure: Avoid cotton at all cost.  These days, it is easy to find clothes, from companies such as Columbia Sportswear for outdoor adventures, made of moisture wicking polyester with features like built in sun protection, anti-microbial treatment (stink less) and breathable weaves.  The feature I’m most fond of is quick drying.

You wont find our laundry management practice in any high school home economics class text book but it served us well:

  1. Step into the shower still wearing your shirt, shorts and socks… everything but your boots.
  2. Get good and wet, rinsing the first layer of dirt and sweat off everything. Remember keep the water out of your mouth this is Mexico after all.
  3. Soap up.  Don’t reach for the chintzy, baby sized hotel soap bar.  If you want to work up a good lather into your clothes, the itty bitty bottle of shampoo is your best bet.  (not like we need it for our balding scalps.)
  4. Pull off your soapy wet clothes, rinse them off good, and ring them out.
  5. After you finish up your shower,  hang everything thing and let it dry over night. Did I mention the quick dry feature?
  6. By morning, good as new.  Certainly clean enough for us, no sweat stains and smelling like whatever foo foo fragrant hotel shampoo you happen to have used.

We grabbed our morning coffee from a little street side cafe, deciding to sit and people watch as Ciudad Constitución came to life.  The streets there, and everywhere in Baja were filled with election signs.  We sat trying to figure out who was running for what but with our attention span, only slightly shorter than a Twitter tweeting, Facebook liking, text messaging teenage girl skipping her morning Riddlin meds, we shifted to counting fruit trucks parked on every corner, guessing why the guy across the way is sweeping the dirt alley (really it was dirt), where did I pack the my sunglasses,  you have the maps right, maybe we should get a scone, damn this is good coffee, I’ll bet he’s running for governor…  We got to go!

The route from Ciudad Constitución heads back to the Pacific.  This is the section I’d been waiting for.  According to the maps and folks in the know, this would be fast driving along the coast with amazing views.  Just watch out for the silt beds.

About an hour out of town and we found the turn off where the route shifted back onto the Baja’s network of dirt roads and trails.

The landscape was changing again right before our eyes.  The agricultural green plots surrounding Ciudad Constitución were giving way to the low lands of southern Baja.  Less than 75 kilometers of land separates the  Pacific from the Sea of Cortez.  This morning, fog was dampening everything in between and providing desert plants with all the moisture they needed… or at least all they were going to get around here.

This time of year in south Baja has its moments of color, if you are willing to look for it.  Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking lush tropical amazonian foliage.  Think more snippets of brilliant yellows and red tucked in between the long sharp thorns, dotting gray-green brush along the trail.  After the barren high plains deserts any color other than brown was easy to spot.

It’s taken awhile but we have both finally shed the pressures of the world back home.  Neither of us are thinking about dead lines, project schedules or vendor meetings any more.  We were recalling our last adventure together when back in our youth we spent a couple weeks exploring Yellow Stone.  A lot less elk and buffalo here, but no mosquitoes or biting flies.

When ever my friends and I get together, Hula Betty likes to point out that we tend to retell the same old tired stories over and over and over.  We’ve all moved away and have our own families these days, no longer able to get together at a moments notice for a road trip to the beach or exploring hidden fishing spots.  So yes, we like retelling our old stories.  For me a big part about taking this Baja off-road adventure with Brad was to ensure we had a few new stories to tell when we get together.  We maybe growing older, but it doesn’t mean we have to grow up.

The early morning’s route was still filled with bumps and whoops that keep our progress in the low 20’s mph as we headed to toward the coast.  Soon enough though the hard-pan shifted to rut filled soft sand hinting at the approach of the Pacific.

In no time the course had us paralleling the pacific, riding up and down the dunes.  The views from the trail were as promised, amazing.  But they were from the tops of the dunes, not from down on the water.  One of the interesting parts about the Baja 1000 race is that the route is not a hard and fast rule.  Watch the  You Tube race videos and you will see motor cycles battling for position where one rider will follow the course while the other skips down along the coast hoping to find a faster line and shave off a block or two before jumping ahead at the next intersection.  Sure you have to hit all the check points, but choosing where to jump the route and sneak ahead is all part of a winning strategy.  When we came across the next washout leading to the water, we veered hard right and headed directly for the waters of the Pacific.

Coming out of the dunes onto the beach sand was unbelievable.  There are not a lot of places left in this world you can explore that feel new and fresh.  This stretch of Pacific beach is one of them.  No tracks in the sand.  No boats in the water.  Not a fishing village in site.

Even if others have been here before us, right now it was all ours, just us, the crashing waves, Pacific winds, blue sky and sunshine.  And in this illusion of an uncharted beach we stopped to take it all in.

The Pacific beats hard on the Baja cost.  The waves don’t lap at the shore like the calm Sea Of Cortez, they crash angry and loud down on the sand.  The wind is not a gentle breeze, it is a steady force of nature driving hard, throwing sand high into the dunes which pile up behind us.  The tilde shifts here are measured in city blocks erasing all evidence of man on the beach each day.  Only the line of seaweed along the dune’s edge hinted at the limits of the ocean’s reach.  The occasional shell scattered on the sand gave away the abundance of life that must call this place home, even if it is hiding from us.

Since we were going to hike around and explore awhile, we put up a few prayer flags  as our way of paying back the universe some of the good karma that had brought us to this long stretch of shoreline.  In the stiff Pacific winds, the flags were beating out their mantras, carrying prayers of compassion, peace and healing into the universe.

A theme for me when writing the stories of this adventure seems to be “it is hard”.  It has been hard.  But on the beach the words of my father came back to me: “you’ll appreciate it more if you work hard for it”.  I remember growing up thinking…  “No! If you would just give me a car, I would appreciate it.  Really I would.”  The older I get the more right my father is.

If this beach were anywhere else but here.  If we hadn’t driven over 2,000 hard miles to get here.  If we hadn’t risked life (ok maybe not life, but there were a number of very sketchy moments in the washouts up north and we do have plenty of scratches and pokes from the cactus), limb and rig to get here.  There is no way we could appreciate this place as much as we did at that moment.

We spent what seemed like hours just appreciating where we were.  Our lunch hardly did the place justice.  Not grilled Ahi resting in a light cilantro and lime butter sauce rather tuna from a pouch.  We felt tuna fish at least was more fitting for this place over the tins of stuffed egg plants or marinated rice balls wrapped in grape leafs we’d been eating for lunch on the trail the previous days. Brad still wants a little more crunch to the meal but tuna in a pouch is what we had.

We strolled down to the water line and searched for shells.  We climbed up to the top of the dunes and gazed up and down the coast looking for signs of movement.

We took our obligatory pictures.  We laughed at own dumb jokes and talked about how our paths had crossed more than 25 years ago.  We thought about what it took to bring us together here.  Damn, I hate it when my dad is right.  And it happens a lot.

We could have stayed here forever, but as we were packing up, our solitude was broken by a pair of rigs racing south, using the beach as their private highway.  Waving a hand as they drove by, we watched them disappear far down the coast line.

Ten minutes later we were following tracks left behind by the rigs along the water waterline.  We decide to head south as far as we could on the beach until we needed to jump back on the route or ran out of coast line, which ever came first.

We are close to Cabo.  In fact if all goes well, we’ll be there tonight…  If all goes well.

Baja Adventure Part 9 – No Habla Español

The people in Baja are warm and friendly.  Similar to my travels in Alaska, I found the folks down here are self reliant but count on each other if needed and they are quick to extend a helping hand to others.  When stopped on the side of the highway, if a car did drive by, there was a good chance they would slow down to ask if we were ok.

We never felt uncomfortable, out of place or unsafe.  Yes there are problems in Tijuana and other boarder towns but in Baja everyone we met was gracious and showed interested in our adventure. When we stopped for fuel, coffee or dinner we tried to get a little small talk going.  Everyone was always willing to chat with us. The problem is, we don’t speak Spanish!

Ok the phases we do know… In order of importance:

  • hola
  • gracias
  • baño
  • cerveza
  • no habla español

The rest of our communication with locals in the back country has been a combination of charades, pointing, and a reliance on their English skills which only slightly surpassed our Spanish.  Yet wherever we went we managed to work it out.

We did our best to avoid being the ugly Americans and for that we were rewarded with guidance to the best restaurants and a feeling that we were welcomed wherever went.

We brought t-shirts to trade and give away.  We gave them out to the military guys at check points, inn keepers and kids.  While everyone appreciated the shirts, what we discovered was that in Baja, the real currency is stickers.  We drove through several small towns and when the kids saw us slowly motoring through, they would start running towards us.  Like kids chasing the ice cream truck, waving their hands and yelling at the top of their lungs, stickers… stickers… stickers.   Even when we tossed a few shirts their way, we’d still hear their squeaky voices scream “any stickers”.  Every window, sign post and car in Baja has been sticker slapped by kids with race logos.

For some reason we found ourselves stopping at cemeteries a lot on this trip.  We would quietly look around and pay our respects.  The towns and landscape are three shades of brown, but the cemeteries are filled with brilliant colors.  We found beautiful marble headstones next to simple crosses.  All the graves were covered with bright plastic flowers and prayer candles, letting everyone know the person resting below the marker is missed.  There is a certain peace in these places were so many voices now rest quietly under the hot sun, surrounded by color and light.

I’ve traveled to many foreign countries where the military runs airports, check points or border crossing.  The one thing I learned is that you don’t take pictures or poke around.  So when we came up to an abandon camp, we decided to look around.

Someone had put a lot of work into arranging gardens, clearing cactus, painting rocks and making the base look nice.  The structures weren’t much more than fancy pole barns with thatch roofs but they had been kept up.

We wondered why this base had been abandon.  Is the base simply temporary, used when there is a check point close?  Is it for training cadets when there are new recruits?  Or is it just that budget cuts know no borders.

The race course uses lots of marked roads.  Sure they are beat up rock and hard-pan, but they are on the map and used to connect many of little towns with Mex #1.  The one we were on was the usual rattle your teeth, kidney punching, make you pee road.  As usual we had it to ourselves and hadn’t seen another truck on it since we climbed onto it from the marshes.  Occasionally we’d think about how the locals don’t call it the Baja race course, they just call it the only road into town.

But progress is coming to the Baja.  We came over a hill where the road bent around a corner and found out where progress was, exactly.  One of the road crews was grating and paving while the other was building a bridge over a washout.

No one seemed to mind that we were driving through all the construction and no one seem to care that we were unsure where they wanted us to go (no signs, arrows or cones).  No one even noticed that we that we had to drive through the dirt and cactus to get around their equipment sitting idle, blocking the road.  They just looked over and waved as we drove by.

Getting through all the construction rewarded us with fresh smooth asphalt laid out before us.  No lines, no markers or signs, just miles and miles of black silk ribbon as far as the eye could see.

We’d driven over some other Baja asphalt roads that were more pot hole than road.  We’d been on this road since its beginning (or ending), at the little coastal fishing village and we had not seen an other town or car, just the one miner and his little donkey.  So WHY PAVE THIS ROAD?

Whatever the reason, progress is coming to the Baja.  The next adventurers to come down here will never enjoy the same experiences we had motoring down this lazy dirt road.

The new pavement took us quickly back to the coast and a town which made its living from tourists.  Surfers, boats and beach combers dotted the sand.  We slowed down to look, but after having miles of coast line to ourselves, we didn’t need to stop.  After all it was getting into the late afternoon which meant it was time to start thinking about tonight’s accommodations.

We wanted to put a few more miles behind us before calling it a day.  Thumbing through the Moon’s Baja Traveler’s Guide did not paint the picture we were hoping.  The guide used terms like, cockroaches, shared toilets, and dirty linens to describe the better motels in Ciudad Insurgentes.  The descriptions for Ciudad Constitución were only slightly better with one exception.

Rolling in well after dark into Ciudad Constitución gave us one more new Baja experience.  Ciudad Constitución is a city with about 40,000 people who work in agriculture, light manufacturing, and transportation.  This city offers little for tourist except motels (really this is how the guide describes it).  No touristy gift shops, this is a true representation of where Mexicans work and live.

We’re not exactly looking for tourist stuff.  We loved this place.  Hiding three blocks off the main drag, the Hotel Oasis was a very nice, modern, clean, albeit spartan motel.  It also has secure parking, a big plus with all our gear strapped to the roof.

The señorita (ok la mujer is proper but it doesn’t roll off the tongue like señorita) at the desk was all smiles and little english.  With a few hand gestures, a Visa and a little back and forth we were checked in and pointed to El Taste, a restaurant that lives up to its name.

The evening was filled with sopa tortilla, authentic chili rellenos, spicy rice and beans followed by our usual fine cigar and bourbon back in the Hotel Oasis’ courtyard.  Sitting in the palm filled courtyard we relived the day’s events, laughed about the goats in the road and screamed “stickers” at the top of our lungs…  Another day in the Baja and we still have all our fingers and toes.  I’d call that success.

Baja Adventure Part 8 – Its Not A Competition

A good night’s sleep does wonders for the soul. San Ignacio is a big city by our standards these days. 4,000 people, a 24×7 Pemex, good size market (10 isles, a row of coolers and taco cart out front), baseball ball field, park and a very traditional town square. San Ignacio signified the line of demarcation between the desert and Pacific coast. This morning we left the palm tree filled oasis, driving west on our off-road adventure.

Out of San Ignacio the off-road route leads down to Scorpion Bay where surfers, naturalists and birders from all over flock…  Just not this time of year. The early morning’s dense cloud cover and fog kept the sun hidden and temperatures low as we drove the roughly 100 miles of dirt and gravel to the bay.

This section of the Baja is marked by sandy roads and salt marshes making progress easy. Even under a thick cloud cover you can’t help but be taken in by the tranquility of Scorpion Bay. With our new “it’s not a competition” mantra, we decided to stop and spend awhile taking it all in. Finding a quiet place, we could have all to ourselves was easy… We just pulled up to the water.

I love fly fishing.  Although I did not bring a rod, I found myself fascinated by watching the fishing birds in action. Maybe I’m jealous of them. Watching pelicans glide through the sky, dive into the sea and come up with a pouch full of fish is not an experience I normally get watch.  As I sat staring out over the bay, I half expected to see flying tigers doing barrel rolls, loops and stalls. This place, this adventure, life in general, is full of mystery and its getting easier and easier to get lost in the magic of Baja.

Despite the calm of the bay, the off-road route and Cabo San Lucas still called. Today, the course would keep us hugging the coast line for a good chunk of the route. Driving on the mostly dry marsh flats gave me a feeling of freedom. There were a few tracks to follow, but you could easily veer off and create your own path. Driving through the marsh flats felt good. It felt like we were the first to see this place. Of course being the first does come with its own hazards.

Anyone who explores coast lines knows they are constantly changing with the water’s ebb and flow. Mix standing water with marshy soil and you have the recipe for a catastrophe. We stopped and thought about it. The off-road course clearly went forward through the shallow water which laid out for blocks. We could probably slog through it but that seemed low on entertainment value. We’d already aired down for running in the sand. But was this the time to test our machismo? I wouldn’t call it a retreat, more like a five minute detour, back tracking a bit until we managed to find a dry path that would weave around the all the standing water.

All along the coast are fishing villages, little towns dotting the shore line. The families making up these small communities work hard to eke a living. On the roof of each house sat a large black plastic barrel that acted as the solar based hot water tank. Fishing nets stretched across poles in the yard waiting to be mended and rusted truck beds sat half buried in the sand next to each shack. A propane cylinder was held up by the fitting pipe that protruded from the wall. Back in the states this would be a vacation, fishing camp for getting away from it all. Down here it was daily life.  Sketchy electrical service. Running water, maybe.  No Pemex stations.

Fishing boats, pickup trucks, pumps… all run on fuel, but we are a hundred plus miles from a town with a gas station. And even if the gas prices are lower in Mexico, it is hard for a family to justify a 200 mile round trip into town to fill up the family pickup. In Baja there are two sources for fuel; official Pemex stations and the not so official other guys.

In each of these little villages, we drove by a guy with a pickup full of plastic barrels and jugs as well as a siphon hose. There is no octane rating or posted price but these towns survive because of these enterprising black market gas stations.

Add a lift, big tires, wind blocking lights and enough gear to support a small army to a rig with the aerodynamics of a billboard in a wind tunnel and you are lucky to get 10 miles to the gallon when traveling over the back roads. Unsure of the gas’ purity off the back of these trucks we had brought our own extra. We kept 20 gallons on the roof just for emergencies. The low fuel light screaming at me from the dash and 40 miles before the next town with a Pemex meant we were going to tap into our rooftop reserves for the first time.

The soft sand and course carried us out of the marshes heading back into the heart of the Baja. This is the section of the course where the trophy trucks grow wings. While we may not have been carried on the back of Mercury, we did hit 55 mph for the first time making this section of the course one of our favorites. We were making great time.

One thing about driving in the middle of no where is that when you want to stop… you stop. We stopped wherever and whenever we wanted. We didn’t have to pull off or worry about what might come down the dirt trail. When we had to pee, we just stopped. When we needed to air up or air down we just stopped. When we came across the world’s largest cactus standing tall among the barren sand and tumble weeds. We just stopped.

There is no problem finding solitude on this adventure. We would go hours without seeing any sign of civilization. I’m not sure you would count a lone man and his donkey  (turns out our lone man is Mike Younghusband who is hiking the length of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.  He started back on Oct. 1st.) walking down the path with his donkey and dog as civilization but seeing him reminded us that how fast you go through life is all relative. No we don’t have a trophy truck with 32 inches of suspension and a 400 hp V8, capable of 100+mph speeds, but we are also not wearing a hole in our boots.  We all have a pace that is our own.

We were making good time, having fun, stopping when we want, where we want. We are dos amigos some where in the middle of Baja. Not a bad way to spend the day.

Baja Adventure Part 7 – Coming To Blows

Leaving Bahía de los Ángeles was bitter sweet.  Behind the peace and tranquility of the sea.  Ahead, our continued progress through Dante’s divine comedy.

The route headed south, running along the mountains  for dozens of miles before dipping back down to give us one last look at the Sea of Cortez before turning west.  We would spend the rest of the day trekking back across the peninsula which, with each pass, was becoming less hospitable to carbon based life (I wont debate the other forms of life which may flourish down here but lets just say Mulder and Sculley may have been right).

Back in the states; friends, family and everyone we mentioned our adventure to, wished us well and said; “be safe”.  Everyone had read the papers, seen the news reports and watched Locked Up Abroad.  It was hard to miss, You Tube videos showing road blocks on the edge of towns where bandidos ambushed motorists, beheadings in Acapulco, drug cartels killing each other and gangs running towns.  But  no, this is not what kept me up at night worrying.

The drug cartel trouble has been on the rise since Mr. Clintion took office.  Montezuma has been reeking havoc on tourists since the Spanish conquistadors first marched on the Aztec nation.   Montezuma’s revenge (not the video game) that quaint colloquialism for traveler’s trots, the squirts, colon blows, galloping splatters, hershey squirts, the runs, green apple nasties, ass sneezing or travelers’ diarrhea (TD) is what had me worried.

We’d been playing Russian roulette for several days, eating in local restaurants where we were the only diners with USA passports.  We tried to keep our mouths closed in the showers as water washed over our faces but it is hard to keep water out of the one orifice that was designed to let water in .  Each morning we even dared to stick a toe in the waters with espresso americanos from little corner cafes.

But we’d stuck with bottled water and been on a daily regiment of two Pepto Bismol tablets every day since crossing the border.  No amount of coffee it seemed was able to undo the affects these little pink chalky tablets.  Even to the point of worrying us a little after the first few days.  Having our pipes blocked up though seemed so much better than the alternatives, especially since the roll of toilet paper was buried somewhere in the back of the rig under the spare tire and the only vegetation on the trail had thorns. We took our Pepto…  And all was good.

I have known Brad since my days at University.  Back then, professors wrote on cave walls and the science department was running an experiment trying to invent fire.

As long as I can remember Brad was the responsible one.  When we would get together to cram for finals, he brought books, class notes, past test and study guides.  I brought beer.  When I would try to turn a trip to the store into a drive to the beach, it was Brad who would remind us our term papers were due in the morning.  And when I would celebrate Cinco De Mayo, slamming tequila shots to the point of believing I could speak fluent Spanish and perform that Mexican hat dance on the bar tables, it was Brad who made sure I slept it off on the floor of a bedroom rather than a cell at county.

We have seen each other through job changes, ex-wives, new kids coming into our lives and old friends departing this life.  I count Brad among a few people in the world who I would kill or die for, if he asked.

Brad took on this adventure not really knowing what he was stepping into.  He just wanted to get away, relax a little and step out of his comfort zone doing something different.

There are two seats in the rig.  The driver’s seat and the bitch seat.  As the name implies, the drivers seat is responsible for keeping the rig moving forward and getting everyone from point “A” to point “B”, and back, safely.  The bitch is responsible for EVERYTHING ELSE.

Brad is navigator, camera man,  crew chief, spotter and head gopher.  He embraced his roll with all the gusto of a wide eyed, eager,  young college intern racing to copy, collate and render in 3D the big presentation due out to the boardroom in 15 minutes.  Brad was taking on his job as if was a job. There was nothing he wouldn’t do in order for us to make our goals.  But it was taking it’s toll and starting to show.

We stayed on course today but came up well short of our mileage goal, again!  This evening, instead of relaxing, Brad poured over the maps, studied the route, measured progress and considered the realities of our schedule.  At this rate we would never make Cabo San Lucas, and he let me know it.

Looking back, it was unfair of me to placed him in an impossible position, somewhere between the realities of limited vacation days and a commitment to my Peter Pan, Baja adventure, dream.   I piled task after task on Brad, exploiting his best qualities.  I knew he would do what I could not.  I knew he would be the responsible one.

Brad had wanted to get away, relax and step out of his comfort zone.  I had taken him 2,200 miles away from work and the big project which has been his life for the last two years.

I had gotten him out of his comfort zone.  He was wheeling for the first time and wheeling hard.  We had walked four miles through town, after dark, along the highway, across from teenagers making out under flickering street lights and past emaciated, mange covered, barking dogs tethered to a rusted out truck in front a windowless shack, to a little bodega so I could get bubble water and crunchy snacks.  He was eating spicy authentic local dishes and sipping coffee curbside as locals walked by staring at us.  He was out of his comfort zone…  way out of his comfort zone.

But he was not relaxed.  He hadn’t shed the mental calendar in his head.  He was worried we’d get off course.  He was worried that he’d have us miss a Pemex station and we’d run out of fuel.  He was worried about letting me down.  It was my fault he was angry and frustrated.  We can fix that.

We decided drop the leg that ran across the peninsula to Loreto and back.  We’d still run the course along the Pacific and into Cabo as originally planned. We would spend an extra night in Cabo doing absolutely nothing (drinking and site seeing counts as nothing right).  Brad would extend his vacation from by an extra day.

I would drive like hell to have us in Cobo within two days, out of Mexico in five days and home in seven.  I would also take on more responsibilities.  Well I would try.

Brad agreed, to let go.   His new mantra: It’s not a race, change is ok, this is about having fun.  Something will still probably go wrong but we will deal with it and be fine.  No matter what happens we’ve already accomplished more than either of us could have dreamed.

Nothing, absolutely nothing on this adventure is more important than our friendship.  A week confined in a rig driving through hell before we got to this point.  That’s pretty good for us.  We drank to it.

Baja Adventure Part 6 – Camp Bahía de los Ángeles

When I first started planning this Baja off-road adventure I imagined camping in the desert wilderness, enjoying gourmet meals cooked on a little green two burner Coleman stove, sipping coffee from a tin cup, warming myself by the fire, sleeping under the stars and listening to the undeniable sound of silence.

We’ve been staying in little motels!  I’m not complaining mind you.  A clean room, soft beds and hot showers after a long hard day on the trail is an undeniable luxury.  Motels have made our progress possible.  We drive past dark and hit the road early.  We don’t have to set up camp, tear down, cook or look for fire wood.  We’ve been driving hard on an extremely tough course and I appreciate the comforts.  But dammit, I want to camp.

On the west, the pacific hurls waves and wind at the shore, stirring up surf and sand as it works to reshape the coastline.  On the eastern side of Baja, the Sea of Cortez’s blue water quietly laps away the coyote tracks in the sand as it strains to follow the rhythmic song of the moon’s pull.  Bahía de los Ángeles is the end of the road, a large, island filled lagoon, a third of the way down the coast of the Sea of Cortez.  Tonight, we camp!

We made good time driving today managing to stay on course. We’d reached our destination for the night with the sun still above the mountains to the west.  After refueling at the last Pemex we’d see for another 200 miles, we left the asphalt heading down to the end of the bay.  It didn’t take long to drive the dirt road through this little fishing village.  In less than two city blocks the fruit stand, fishing boats, torn nets, market, tar paper shacks and sleepy dogs were behind us.

As we drove past the last shack we started looking for a trail or opening through the brush that would lead us down to the water.  At the end of the bay we spotted our opening and turned the rig toward the sea.  Serpentining our way through the low dunes put us onto the dried mud flats that opened to the shore.  We could see we where going to be alone tonight and had our choice of where to set camp.  It’s not like there are assigned spots, THIS is Baja.   And tonight, this is our beach.  Unsure of the tides here, we picked the top of a little dune at the waters edge.

We went about quickly setting camp.  Even though we still had light, in the Baja night comes quickly.  Unpacking the rig, pitching our tent (well three sides of a tent), assembling cots, camp chairs,   getting the kitchen prepped, reviewing tomorrows route, and raising the prayer flags.

Buddhist prayer flags are used throughout Tibet, India and Napal to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. Unlike Christian prayers, the flags do not carry prayers to gods; rather, the prayers (mantras) are intended to be whisked by the wind, spreading good will and compassion throughout the world.

There is a belief that once the prayers of the flags are caught by the wind they become a permanent part of the universe combating fear, hatred and pain.  For many, raising prayer flags symbolizes a welcoming of life’s changes and an acceptance that all beings are part of a greater ongoing cycle.

While I’m not Buddhist, I do like the idea of adding peace and compassion to the karmic soup we all swim in.  It also reminds me that whatever this adventure, or life, throws at me, I’m a luck man.

I don’t know whether it was the still night air, the prayer flags, the distant coyote howls or that my blood sugar was crashing from not eating all day but a wave of melancholiness began to wash over me.  I’ve been given a life filled with amazing family and friends.  I’ve traveled the world and seen many of its riches as well as its poverty.  I’ve worked with brilliant business execs, watched great artists create beauty and listened to scholars without intellectual equals debate.  And in the Baja, I pondered “why”.  Why me.

Not why poor me…  But why have I been so lucky.  Why weren’t the struggling fishermen up the beach given the same opportunities?  Why is their famine, plague and sorrow?  If it is all just luck, will it run out some day?  Why can’t I release this need to control my luck…

I wont bother to drag you into the traumatic melodrama that played out in my head as I continued about camp duties.   But I will say, in the end I accepted that I’m lucky, that change is constant and while I’m afforded opportunities I’ll try to share them with others.

Three weeks before, when planning the meals for this adventure (remember, I intended to camp every night) Brad mocked me when I asked if he enjoyed Indian cuisine? Apparently Brad, his family, my family and all our other friends thought it was funny that we would be in Baja, Mexico and I was planning to cook Indian.  Tonight I served  a kettle of Indian black tea, chicken tikka masala, aloo palak and brown rich, followed by coffee, biscotti di Prato and our usual fine cigar and glass of bourbon (ok tin cup of bourbon).  Who’s laughing now!

As we turned in for the night, we realized we hadn’t been using our headlamps.  The moon was full, dazzling bright and close enough to touch.  The bright moon didn’t leave much room for stars but bathed everything a soft light, giving the bay a freshly washed look; brightly visible without the reflective glare of the sun.  In this strange light the hills to east and west of us appeared within easy reach, if we could just raise our tired, old bones from our cots and gravity’s grip.

On a still night, when you remove the white noise of civilization, the whispers of nature become crisp and clear, filling the voids left behind.  Laying on our cots, we were 30 yards from the sea and a good 20 feet above it.  Yet, it was all I could do not to keep checking if tide had crept up on our camp.  The soft waves of the sea sounded as if they were lapping at our feet, submerging everything we owned.  The solitary seal’s occasional barks would temporarily brake the round robin of coyote howls as they talked to each other from the hills around us.    Even the distant splashes from out at sea seemed to join this jazz session of nature which filled our hearts as we drifted off to sleep, bundled in our bags trying to repel the 40 degree desert chill.

Brad is a morning person.  Me not so much.

Camp mornings are magical and the cries of gulls, howling coyotes and barking seals ensured the sun’s warm rays would draw me out early this morning.

The air hadn’t warmed up much this morning.  Everything had a cool, crispness about it and the smell of a new day filled my lungs.  The glow of the lagoon this morning was just as spectacular as the long shadows had been the evening before.  All around the camp were the fresh prints of the coyotes who had visited in the night.

But none of this interested me now.  I wanted caffeine; hot coffee and lots of it.

As the caffeine kicked in, I was overwhelmed as the raw beauty of this lagoon washed over me.  I can’t begin to describe, pictures don’t capture and video is too small for the blues of the water, the browns of the hills, the stillness of the air and the soft textures of the sand beneath my boots.  2,000 miles away from when we first started planning our crazy adventure, this morning was everything I had dreamed of.

The hardest thing for me is to break camp.  It’s not particularly difficult or time consuming but it signifies the end of a lazy morning.  As Brad began to tear down camp I went through my morning rig inspection routine.  After the river bed episode yesterday (as it later became known as), this mornings inspection involved paying a little more attention to the ball joints and front suspension.  The rig still seemed strong and just to make sure everything articulated freely, I gave a few sprays of grease to the suspension’s moving parts as Brad finish packing up our lives.

Before leaving we took one last look around, drawing it all in as we started down the route.  No longer assuming we had any idea of what the Baja would throw at us we embarked down the course welcoming whatever change the day held in store.

Baja Adventure Part 5 – Continuing To The Bay

The sadistic, serpent worshiping, demonic bastards who layout the Baja race course have a bad sense of humor. Rather go over the mountains, they steered the off-road course down a river bed that meandered its way through the narrow valley, walled in by the rugged hills.

Living and wheeling in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve forded my share of streams and creeks. I’ve driven in flooded trails that washed clean the undercarriage of the rig. In the northwest the ground beneath the water is firm with rocks and tree roots to give stability and traction.  In the Northwest streams are lined with numerous trees which provide an abundance of anchor point to winch against if you do get stuck.

Getting out to scout the water here we were immediately over powered by the smell of oxygen deprived water backed up from satan’s septic tank. This was shallow stagnant water resting atop soft mucky silt that seemed to go down as far you could push a shovel. Withdrawing a shovel from the muck was akin to a tug-of-war at a company picnic where scrawny pencil pushers compete to pull a line of burly dock workers across an imaginary line in the corporate sand. And as far as an anchor point for a winch was concerned, barren hills with only small scrub bushes lined the marshy river bed.

I told myself, if I stay to left and keep one wheel close to solid ground, momentum should carry us through. Brad told himself and me, that he would get out, wait on the other side and see what happened.

 

I  set the transfer case to four wheel low, engaged the rear locker and proceeded, passing through the muck, not stopping until the wheels reached terra firma 20 yards or so down stream where I waited for Brad to catch up. Looking around I could see a way out, a trail that led back up into the hills on the opposite side. But the hand-held GPS indicated the course remained in the river bed wind through the hills. So we pressed on down stream.

Dry river bed is a bit misleading. Yes there were parts that were dry. Sections of dry gravel, sections of soft dry sand and sections of what can only be described as humpy lumpy vegetation. The river bed oscillated between wide open areas stretching 50 yards across to narrow sections which measured  less than 10 yards, hemmed in by vertical walls the water had carved from the hills. In the wide sections you could see three or four different paths the racers had carved out as they opened up their throttles. Each path was separated by walls of vegetation and boulder piles. It didn’t matter which path you picked but once you started down one, you were committed until they all converged again at the next narrow point. Picking the easiest path was a matter of luck since you couldn’t see where any of the paths went as they spread through the vegetation.

We decided to choose based on width at the opening. This didn’t mean it would remain the widest path but it was as good a way to choose as any. While the river bed was dry we drove fast. With tires aired down to 27 psi we floated on the sand and gravel keeping high on the soft terrain and giving us a land yacht like ride. Most of the major ruts and woops created by the 400 horse powered racers had been smooth out by the last flash flood that had swept through making this an ideal section for our little rig.

And than there were the sections of wet. The runoff was down to a thin trickle with low areas where two foot wide mucky trenches held a rancid soup of stagnant water and long stringy bright green moss. These sections demanded slow deliberate driving.

Progress through the mucky channels meant drop the transfer case into four low, put one set of wheels on the high dry ground with the other dredging through the primordial soup. We drove slow but deliberate, keeping forward momentum to avoid getting stuck. The channels invariably serpentine across the trail creating little moments of terror as rig shifted camber dipping both sides of the rig into muck as I scrambled to find dry ground and place at least two wheels on the vegetation above the water line.

But as with everything in the Baja, things change and after an hour of confinement in the river bed, the course turned towards an old two track running away from the far bank. Once again the course placed us on the familiar desert soil.

If you drive your rig long enough you know everything about it. Sounds, quirky mechanical habits and little handling oddities gives each rig its unique personality. It wasn’t long before I recognized the blue bunny was making a new sound. Sort of like the squealing of a school girl who’s knuckles are smacked with a brittle wooden ruler in the principles office by Sister Mary Knucklebuster.

Stopping dead on the trail, we hoped out to take a inventory and investigate. The first thing we spotted were numerous hitchhikers clinging to the sidewalls of our tires. Pulling out the hunks of cactus embedded into the rubber was no easy matter. You risk painful wounds if you try to grab the ball of densely packed three inch spikes. Rather than donate blood I found a long stick to pry the tires free from the cactus’ grip. Although I couldn’t remember where we had run across cactus in the river bed, we pulled several of these spiny bundles from tires.

Listening and checking for leaks we cautiously waited to see if any of the long throngs had punctured through our Toyo’s side walls.  For this off-road adventure we carried a spare on the outside of the rig and another inside lashed down in the back.  Also tucked away in the back of the rig, a tire repair kit.

We were prepared tire trouble, but that didn’t mean we felt a need to test our tire management skills.  So we waited and checked to see if any of the tires were loosing air.

While waiting we went about trying to determine the cause what had originally grabbed my attention, that metal on metal squealing.  We pushed and pulled on suspension components, tugged on the gas cans up top, we waggled the high lift jack and rocked the rig back and forth trying to recreate the sound.

The high lift seemed like a good candidate.  All the jarring of the day had loosened the mount holding it in place and it made an angry squeal when wiggled.  We tightened down the mounts, added some Velcro strips to further lash it down and sprayed a little dry grease to remove any doubt as to it being the source of the screams.

The tires seemed to be holding air and the high lift was secure so we climbed back in rig and continued toward the east.  A few hundred yards and again the hairs on the back of my neck were standing at attention.  (Yes, I still have hair on the back of my neck…  just not the top of my head.)  The metal cries were back. Had we bent something in the river bed?  Had grit worked it’s way into a the places it shouldn’t?  Was something loose and about to let go or fall apart?

We rolled down the trail slowly with the windows down listening carefully.  We paid attention to what the rig was doing when the cries came and were they seemed to be loudest.  We stopped again and this time armed with a spray can of dry grease I hit the most likely places.  A mental process of elimination pointed to the ball joints. The upper and lower control arms of the front suspension are connected to the knuckle with ball joints.  They were the most vulnerable to the grit and grim of the river beds muck.  A peek behind the tires showed a film of slimy green algae clinging to them.  After checking the suspension for any binding and giving the ball joints a spray of grease we crossed our fingers and once more climbed back into the rig.

Of course we were going to continue.  We had too.  No tow truck was going to come out here.  Besides, what is an adventure without a little drama.  100 yard, 200 yard, a quarter mile and no squealing.  We had found the source.  This also meant we would need to pay close attention to these ball joints during our daily rig inspection to make sure they didn’t get worse or start to show any wear.

We had been driving today for nearly eight hours under a spectacular sunny blue sky and we were still on schedule even with all the brakes we took to hydrate, pee and hydrate some more.  We were also on course.

The hand held GPS showed us on the route, but with all the tracks running parallel and crisscrossing in front of us it was the old fashion race ribbons that ensured we didn’t mistakenly follow a track off course and into a rat hole.  It became a game of find the race ribbon that kept our competitive juices flowing throughout the day.

By late afternoon the course once again dumped us onto a section of highway.  This section of smooth fresh asphalt leads to Bahía de los Ángeles (Bay of Los Angeles).

Bahía de los Ángeles sits at the end of the road forcing many travelers to turn around and head back the way they came.  Overlooked by most tourists this small fishing village only recently received electricity.  Cell phone coverage was still in the planning stages.   Originally the little village was established by Jesuit priests to provide a faster sea route to supply their San Francisco de Borja Mission, which had been located on the top of a mountain 35 kilometers from the bay.

This is one of the most beautiful, little secluded bays on the Sea of Cortez.  The only visitors in this oasis are sports fishermen, divers, explorers and Baja racers. For us Bahía de los Ángeles held fuel, a meal, a place to stay and well deserved rest making it the most beautiful spot anywhere on earth.

Baja Adventure Part 4 – Run To The East

The night before we had come from the east, out of the northern mountains and down to the Pacific.  This morning we were setting out, back across the Baja into the rising sun and the hills a few hundred kilometers to the south of where we were two days ago.

The landscape is changing, moving away from rugged brush covered mountains into the high plains desert.  Cactus is becoming as common as the scraggly scrub brush replacing the green shrubs and trees of the north.  The terrain is taking on the brown tones of a tanned land bathed in a sun which rises and sets in a cloudless blue ski.

This is not a land for the old and weak. The vultures circle above searching for death. Crows announce it’s presence when they encounter a loser in the battle for life.  The land is harsh and death is everywhere.  A mistake out here can cost more than a tow truck ride back into town.

Not more than five minutes out and we came across a carcass that testified to the dangers of driving at night when livestock grazes or rests along the roadside.  “When do cattle learn not to rest on the road?” “Right before they are hit by the truck!”

When we first saw the decaying horse it was covered by vultures, its severed leg and crushed spine attested to its loosing battle with a truck.  The vultures were hunkered down on the body, defending their place on its bones.  Their featherless, brilliant red heads darting up and down as they pick at the edges of the torn leather searching for scraps of flesh.

Everything has thorns and actively defends itself.  A walk on either side of the trail is a exercise in caution to avoid the stickers which seem to reach out and grab anything that walks by.

And yet in the harsh, arid landscape there is tremendous beauty.  Though the land is dry the cactus appears succulent and full, opening a pallet of green painted against the browns and grays of the land.  Thorns that can pierce flesh and cut through a tin can faster than a ginsu knife glow an amazingly vibrant red in the morning sun.

Silhouetted against the brilliant blues of the clear desert sky, even a small splash of color jumps out filling the imagination of tropical plants and vines.

The juxtaposition of death and beauty reminded me of how fragile life is, how every moment holds a wealth of emotion.  Whether we see joy or sorrow depends on our perspective and what we choose to see.

The road would change texture many times today.  Going from tarmac, to gravel to sand and back again.  What didn’t seem to change is that course was always going straight, forever.  The race course uses stretches of Mex #1, the main highway through the Baja, to connect the off-road sections.  This morning took us on a long stretch of empty highway allowing us to make good time.  Brad checked the hand-held GPS which showed us running directly on the course.  This highway section would take us some 80 kilometers to a gravel turn off  and back into the mountains.

Cruising with our windows down, cool morning breezes blowing in and the iPod blasting, we were dos Estadounidenses running free.  This is a feeling that can only come from from a mix of equal parts friendship, solitude, challenge and accomplishment.  At this moment we were Kings of Baja.

The GPS signaled our departure from the tarmac as we approach one of the many Pacifico shakes that dot the highways and act rest areas.  Turning off onto a long straight away of gravel we stopped to stretch and take in the course before us.

Sitting on the cusp between dirt, gravel and asphalt the rig was ready for the course ahead.  We took this time to hydrate and snack on Dora-Yaki, a carbohydrate sugar buzz made from sweet red bean paste slathered between two pancakes.  As we stood outside the rig drinking, eating and enjoying the warmth of the morning sun, two motorcycles came slowly down from the trail before us.  Nodding as they slowly passed, their worn bags strapped to the back and dust covered leathers hinted to what lay in store for us.

This was more inline with what we expected.  The washboard road stretched out before us.  At ten miles an hour the ruts put the rig into a kidney punishing ride that had everything inside chattering as the bumps loosened the tie-downs.  At 35 miles per hour the rig achieved a harmonic balance in which everything sat in a zen like trance, slightly shaking but without rattles or bangs.  Sure the racers shoot down this stretch at 110, but for us 35 mph was a new course record.

If there is one true statement about the Baja, it is that nothing stays the same.  If you don’t like the terrain, just keep driving.  The conditions will change, whether you want it too or not.

Driving out over the first set of hills placed us on a high, flat, desert plateau where before us, across miles of flat land, stood the taller mountains we would traverse once again to the Sea Of Cortez.  The course too was changing before us.  The washboard gravel, that in retrospect, looked like a wonderfully maintained cobble stone path gave way to sandy washes and mixes of hard rocky stretches.

Driving now became a exercise in find a harmonic balance on the hard pan, punctuated by slamming on the brakes to reduce our speed to a crawl at the first sign of sandy washes.  This method of driving was discovered by accident of course.  Our first attempt to maintain speed through a sandy washout section transformed the rig into a bucking bronco which appeared to go on well beyond the eight second ride time.

Buddhist doctrine discusses change and how we must learn to adapt.   Stand in the way of change and you will be run over by it.  Flow with it like droplets of water and you will be move swiftly to the sea of tranquility.  We adapted, after all by now surely we’d seen all the different terrains the Baja had in store for us.

At the end of the plateau, approaching the mountains, we assumed we would be climbing back over on the same rock encrusted gnarly paths that we had encountered the day before.  We all know what assume means.