fj cruiser off camber view

Baja Adventure Part 3 – So This Is Baja?

toyota fj cruiser baja mexico river bedWatch the You Tube videos of the Baja 1,000 race and you see rigs blowing out of Ensenada, screaming down dirt roads or corning on three wheels as they come into a check point.  This is not what we were seeing on this off-road adventure.

Baja is really two states, Baja California in the north and Baja California Sur in the south.  The north is filled with mountains.  Ok, compared to the Pacific Northwest these are large rugged hill reaching up a little over 4,000 feet toward the sun.  The weather in the north is clear and dry with wide temperature swings over the course of the short days.  We woke to morning temperatures in the low 4os and by noon we were basking in the warmth of the high 70s.  This is still more or less a desert with few permanent water sources.  toyota fj cruiser off road stylizedWhat rain does fall in the mountains, races to the coast (Pacific in the west or Sea of Cortez on the east) in flash floods leaving behind dry stream beds and washed out roads, continually changing the course’s terrain and making travel interesting at best.

While I’ve been to the Rubicon, the Arctic and all parts in between, Brad had never been off-road.  There is a chance that in order to convince Brad to come on this adventure, I may have miss led him a bit when I suggested the race course would keep us on old dirt roads with a few tough stretches thrown in for good measure.  But I had never imagined the complexity of the north. Not even close.stylized off road toyota fj cruiser

Water follows the path of least resistance and up here that is the road…  or what is left of the road.  Carved into the sides of the hills the roads have edges defined by rocks, loose dirt and cambers that provide passengers with first hand views of sheer drop offs into the valleys below.  Than there are the sections that are just gone.  There was a trail here once and now a long stretch of it has gone.  Just gone.  Normally off-road means off-pavement following a defined marked trail.  The Baja gives a whole new meaning to the term off-road.  No markers, no tire tracks, no anything except a path pushed aside by fast flowing water on its way fj cruiser on cliff edge

Traveling the section outside of Mike’s Sky Ranch that treks through the hills was a series 100 yard dashes.  We got out of the rig, walked along the trail, scouted the obstacles and gullies than climbed back into the rig and drove the stretch we scouted.   I would explain to Brad where I wanted him to guide my wheels and he would spot me through.  After awhile, to speed up progress, Brad simply started walking ahead while I followed in the rig. He would spot me through a tough stretch and than continue walking ahead.  Brad’s baptism into wheeling started with a plunge in the deep end.

We had the route loaded into a hand-held GPS but when the washouts pushed us down into dry stream beds that veered away, we discovered we were on our own.  In order to move forward we needed to pick our way through bushes, rocks, washouts, and hills with no markings, tire prints or GPS way-points.  Brad kept an eye on the hand-held trying to triangulate us back in the general direction of the fj cruiser baja off road

Two hours into this Brad guesstimated we had covered ten miles.  Each morning we reset the trip odometer to zero.  I glanced down at the odometer and relayed back to Brad that we had only covered 1.6 miles.

By mile four  and several hours later we found our way onto a goat trail.  Obtaining your exact location in the hills is difficult.  We decided that rather than break out the second GPS, detailed maps and compass to identify our exact position, we would follow the goat trail that appeared to have us toyota fj cruiser hill slantmoving in the same general direction of the course.  We knew we had to maintain a south east heading and could see by the hand-held the course was running parallel just over the hills to the north.

Navigation is an odd concept.  Frank Bama says the best navigators aren’t really sure where they are going until they get there.  We, had several navigation tools at our disposal.

  1. Hand-held GPS with the way-points and route loaded
  2. Baja Gazette map book
  3. Laptop with TangoGPS
  4. Laptop with Google Earth (route cached)toyota fj cruiser baja hill climb
  5. Compass
  6. iPhone with Google Maps app
  7. Moon Baja, travel guide for the Baja – Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas

Each had there use and Brad made the most of them doing an amazing job at keeping headed in the right direction.

The hand-held GPS tracked our progress against the known route and would relate our current position to the route.  If we were off course it would triangulate a path trying to get us back on course.  Of course it did not take into account mountains, valleys or impassable washouts that maybe in the fj cruiser baja trees

The Baja Gazette gave a big picture and allowed us (read Brad) to locate ourselves in relation to cities, highways and dirt roads.  More importantly it marked the location of all Pemex stations but when it came to city street details or navigate able landmarks is left something to be desired.

Google Maps on the iPhone provided great navigation in the cities and towns showing turn by turn directions to hotels, cafes and boarder crossings.   Google Maps is what got us in and out of Tijuana.  It worked great… at least in cities and towns that had cell coverage.

Moon Baja is an invaluable resource when it comes to finding accommodations in the dark.  When we would pop out onto the highway at night a quick glance through the travel guide gave us the information we needed to decide which town we would eventually stop in for the night and what motel to keep an eye out for. This travel guide never steered us wrong.two men toyota fj cruiser baja mexico

We didn’t have to dig into box of other navigational tools, but they did provided a sense of security knowing they were there if we did need them.

We paralleled the course for the better part of the day until eventually intersecting the route after passing through one of many ranches along the way.  We had driven by several “prohibido el paso” signs along the way but we always received a cheerful wave from those working the ranch and we took that to mean:  If you respect the ranch, don’t bother the livestock and close the gate behind you, you can pass.

baja 1000 trail aheadOur goal for the day was 200 miles.  At 4:00 p.m. ish, we caught back up with the trail and popped out in the town of Vicente Guerrero after logging a little more than 75 miles.  A few miles less than planned but there was a Pemex station and hotel  82 kilometers south, down in El Rosario.

For many years El Rosario was where the Baja blacktop ended and the adventures began.   Although the pavement now keeps going, the grip of adventure and the race still has a tight hold of El Rosario.  Located in this baja road through hillslittle town the Baja Cactus Motel is by far the best hotel in all of Baja. Big clean rooms, king size beds, huge showers with endless hot water, satellite TV and wireless Internet.  All at a price that can not be beat.  And if that is not enough, it is located next to a Pemex and Mama Espinosa’s Restaurant.  Step into Mama Espinosa and you are hit by the wall of signed Baja 1000 race photos, dating back several decades.  If the race stickers on the windows or history on the wall’s of Mama Espinosa doesn’t draw you in, the lobster enchiladas, chile rellenos and sopa tortilla will.  Tonight we ate like kings.

goats in the road baja mexicoFree WiFi in the room and a laptop had us Skyping our families after dinner to let them know we were alive and still on track…  More or less.  You can never have too much technology and we took advantage of all we could carry.  This evening Brad grabbed the Baja Gazette and laptop with Google Earth to add notes and highlight our path on the gazette for future reference to ensure we could jump back into the race.

baja mexico townThis may not have been our plan for the day.  Our ego had been bruised a bit by the slow progress.  My driving and Brad’s navigational skills had been tested.  But we came through it all and were back on track.  Besides after a long hot shower, phenomenal local food, Skyping the family, a little free HBO and our nightly cigar and bourbon in the courtyard; the day seemed better than most.  After all we were in the Baja and well on our way with this adventure.

stickers covered window at mikes sky rancho

Baja Adventure Part 2 – Mike’s Sky Ranch

mikes sky rancho signFor years off-road motorcycle guys have been going into the Baja and riding the desert winds. Mike’s Sky Ranch has been a main stop, providing beds, beer and camaraderie for desert explorers and racers since 1967. 14 miles from the nearest paved road the ranch’s location delivers a sense of seclusion and adventure for those willing to embark down the dirt road.

We planned to use Mike’s Sky Ranch as our jumping off point. In the dark, the dusty unimproved drive up into the mountains where the ranch is nestled, took a little over an hour. After driving past cattle, cactus, sage brush and boulders under a jet black sky with countless twinkling stars, something magical happened as we crested the last hill. Like Disney Land, the lights from ranch drew us in with the same hypnotic power the magical kingdom holds over a nine year old.

dirt road into mikes sky ranchoWe didn’t have reservations. We hadn’t called ahead. We weren’t even sure where to go as we approached the subtle blue glow hovering 50 feet above the compound. This was Mike’s Sky Ranch the ultimate laid back desert oasis. Walking up to the compound entrance we passed a trophy truck, a couple of unlimited open-wheel two-seaters, and a group of riders working on a quad by the light that was spilling out from the ranches entrance.

The grass really is greener on the other side. Crossing the threshold of the compound we stepped in from dusty, dry, sun-baked dirt on to lush green lawn, well lit covered parking for dozens of motorcycles, shimmering pool and red clay tiles leading us to the bar.

Walking into the bar immediately took me back to my youth hanging out at the fraternity and it’s basement bar.  Low dull lights illuminated signed race t-shirts stapled to the ceiling, baja race posters, beer signs and pinup girl calendars taped to the wall.  Video of past races played on the TV above the bar.  Scattered about the otherwise empty linoleum tile floor, several groups of riders had arranged old short black vinyl swivel chairs in small circles. The riders toasted the day, talked of their adventures and laughed hard between tequila and black baja race buggies

Behind the bar stood a young brown skinned man reaching back and forth along the mirrored wall of liquor and flipping Tecate, Pacifico and Dos Equis beer taps open and closed. After the bar tender dispensed another round for the riders, he turned his attention to us. Over the Mexican  music streaming from the boom box we asked if there were any rooms available. The bartender gazed over to the end of the bar and pointed to a very large, old man sitting on a stool at the end of the bar and said talk to Mike. An ash tray full of smashed out cigarettes, a pack of smokes and matchbook rested on the bar to his right. A half full glass of bourbon on his left. The haze of cigarette smoke circled above his head where a ball cap sat hiding his leathery face and half closed eyes.  A spiral notebook rested on the shelf an arm’s length from his stool.motorcycle line at mikes sky rancho

The big man reached for the notebook.  Flipping through the pages he looked up at us asked how many we were and how long we’d be staying. We let him know it was just the two of us for the night. In a gruff, horse voice the big man said he had a room. It would be $60 USD a night EACH but it included dinner, breakfast and hot showers. We handed over the cash and were told a room number.  The room was on the back side of the compound up a set of concrete stairs who’s rise and run made it awkward to climb with gear under each arm and bags slung over our shoulders.pool at mikes sky rancho morning

There were no keys to the room and the windows were covered in race stickers proclaiming those who had come before us and the rich racing history of the ranch. Inside the room were three neatly made twin beds, a wall mounted propane heater, a set of clean towels in the bathroom and a single 60 watt light bulb hanging from rafters. The walls were adorned with coat hooks for hanging motorcycle leathers, coats, gear and helmets.

Wandering back down to the bar we grabbed a drink and arranged a couple of the old chairs in the corner where we could unwind and relax before dinner.  If we were going to find the truth about the conditions in Mexico and what to expect on the trail, this was it.  One of the guys who had been coming down here for 20 years was full of advice and cheep Mexican beer.  He confirmed the military were here to help and that the local police could be a hassle but if we kept our nose clean we’d be fine.  He also expressed what we found out first hand.  The locals in Baja are warm and friendly.  While he hadn’t been as far south as we were heading he was confident we would have a good time and not run into any standing Mikes sky rancho arch way

We eavesdropped on the stories of the other groups. We talked about the day, how we were feeling so far and what we were going to be taking on. We celebrated how we had managed to get through Tijuana, the immigration office, navigated the highways and that we were really at Mike’s starting our adventure. We questioned our good fortune to be here and reveled in our euphoric but so misguided belief that we understood what was in store for us. We foolishly believed going forward would simply be a long series of navigational challenges on some dusty dirt roads with one or two stretches that could slow us down for a bit. We were convinced 200 miles a day would be a comfortable pace and would easily take us into Cabo five days from now. We ordered another round as they called us all in for dinner.

man mikes sky rancho signDinner at the ranch is family style. Everyone sitting at long tables with colorful tablecloths beneath clear vinyl. Our little section of table had a large pitch of water and two salads waiting for us. There is a point at which everyone must question their bravery and decide if they will take a leap of faith or tuck their tail between their legs in retreat. For some this moment of truth is asking the head cheer leader to prom. For others it is jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. For us it was eating the salad and drink from the open pitch of  tap water. Calculating in my mind the number of Pepto Bismol tablets back in the room and the various places in the rig toilet paper was stashed I observed the other guests’ enjoying the fresh greens and cool water.  The other guests were Americans but had they been coming done here so often that they were accustomed to water?  Did they have some local drug that prevented them from getting sick?  Did they know something we didn’t about the facilities here?   In the end, I decided, in the scheme of things this was a minor risk worth taking.  Turns out the water at the ranch is drawn from the local spring creek and run through a reverse osmosis filter making it safe for even delicate digestive systems.

bikers in front of mikes sky ranchoStraight off the barbecue, the steak that followed required no thought before biting into the juicy grass (sage) feed beef with its wild but delicate flavor. Beans, rice, fresh made tortillas and salsa followed. During the salad course Brad and I made nervous conversation as we tested our manhood with the washed greens. Now not a word was spoken as we inhaled the 20oz steaks covering our plates. This meal would set the standard by which the rest would be judged throughout the Baja.

On an adventure everyone deserves one decadent, self indulgence. For me that was a nice cigar enjoyed under the stars. Brad had decided his indulgence would be a shot of Makers Mark. Sitting poolside after dinner we started what would become our evening ritual throughout the adventure. Good friends, smooth bourbon and a fine cigar at Mike’s in the Baja. This is living.

man packy baja buggyThe ranch shuts down at 10 pm. and so does everything else as the generator is spun down abruptly.  Stumbling through the dark courtyard, up the awkward stairs and to our room we grabbed a headlamp and searched for matches to light the bedside candle.  By candle light we rummaged through bags in search of a tooth brush, Pepto and a clean pair of shorts.  A few minutes later we turned in for night.

The leftover steak from the night before became the morning’s huevos rancheros.  More beans, salsa and fresh made tortillas with coffee made it difficult to think of leaving this place.  For a brief moment both of us silently considered staying here and just telling everyone we drove to Cabo.  But the sun was warming away the morning chill, other guests we packing up their bikes and our GPS beacon would eventually betray our position.

fj cruiser mikes sky rancho parking lotThe morning rig inspection took on serious tone for me now.  If something broke out on the course there was no one to help with the field repair.  It was just going to be me and that burden was weighing heavy on my shoulders this morning.  I knew I’d prepared the rig the best I could for this adventure but the Baja is not forgiving of mistakes and we had 900 some more miles remaining in our adventure.

But listening to the rumble of the buggy’s big V8’s as I aired down the tires and sipped the last of the morning’s coffee brought a smile to my face.  Sure this was serious business;  we were taking on the Baja, mano a mano, which is exactly what we came down he for.

tijuana mexico

Baja Adventure Part 1 – Tijuana to Ensenada

usa mexico border stationThe busiest border crossing between Mexico and the USA is only 20 miles from San Diego and within moments of crossing into Tijuana we knew we were worlds away from home.

Driving in Tijuana is a full contact sport.  Traffic lanes are arbitrary.  Trucks, cars, bikes, carts, people and dogs all occupy space on the road.  Lane changes occur without notice.  Alto signs signify slow to a rolling stop and judge the intent of the cars coming the other directions.  Drivers honk to announce their  presence with authority and like a black hole, round-abouts refuse to release you from their grip once you are drawn in.  Through it all we managed to find the immigration office.tijauna woman walking by brick wall

If you will be traveling south of Ensenada, you first visit the immigration office.  Around the corner, hidden down a back alley and obscured by taco carts we managed to find the entrance into the walled off parking lot of the border inspection station where apparently, stupid tourist was tattooed across our forehead, at least according to the oficial de inmigración.  How else could we not know that the third office door on the back side courtyard of the compound was our destination.  After all it did say inmigración in the general vicinity of the door.

toll road to ensenadaObtaining a visa is an interesting activity.  You go into a small spartan office where a large official looking man rests behind a desk with small old chairs in front, reminiscent of a visit to the junior high principle’s office.  You hand over your passport, explain where you are going and how long you will be in the country. The large man fills our some paper work then tells you to sign the form and directs you to the other end of the compound, authoritatively telling you to return when you are done.

At the other office, after waiting in line, you work your way up to a polite skinny young man sitting behind bullet proof glass with a small sliding box in the counter which allows you to pass your paper work  to him.  Without a word, he officially punches information into a computer, opens and closes binders, walks to and from a back room.  At this point he announces some large number (we later learned was $21) through small slits in the two inch thick acrylic.  You place your money into the box which he draws back and disappears again into a back room.  Returning moments latter the skinny young man stamps a couple of pieces of paper which are placed back into the box and slid your way with the change that it now in Pesos.ensenada coast view from car

At this point you trek back to the original office, take a seat in one of two wobbly, vinyl covered 60’s diner chairs and politely slide your paper work and passport across the desk back to the large official looking man who withdraws from his desk draw an ink pad and stamp that is then pressed into your passport and visa.  He slides your now completed tourist visa and passport back halfway across the desk, forcing you to reach forward for you paperwork as you thank him and exit the small office avoiding the fan which continues to hum as it oscillates back and forth by the door.  You are now officially allowed to wonder Mexico for next 180 days.ensenada jesus statue

The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and thriving in Tijuana.  The road from Tijuana to Ensenada begins by condensing six lanes of traffic from every direction, down to just two.  The congestion is further slowed by the men who are wondering from car to car splashing your windshield with water and dragging a squeegee across, followed by asking you for a few pesos to feed their small children.  You can hold fast and return no’s to the volleys  of “please something for my children” or cave, hand over your change and immediately draw the attention of everyone else in the pueblo.  This gauntlet of small businesses includes women and children selling trinkets, snacks and bottled water as well as beggars with a hand out or and old plastic cup.commercial streets of ensenada

We began the long climb as the traffic’s pace picked up following Mex 1 out of town to Ensenada.  We opted for the toll road more out of that was the lane we were in rather than design.  However, the 27 pesos allowed us to zip along at 90 km/hr on a nearly empty four lane highway.  That was until we reached the first military check point.

pemex station ensenada mexicoThe check points are run by the military, by small teams who are only 18 year old kids sporting automatic weapons and don’t speak much English, but they are polite and doing their best to reduce the drug traffic.  The military is your friend in Mexico.  There are real problems with drugs, killings and smuggling in Mexico.  We did not see a single issue in Baja and we were traveling all over it.  Going south the check points were simply rolling up to the stop and having the young man in fatigues and dark sunglasses flag us on as the two other solders peered at us from behind sandbags on either side of the rig.  We were courteous and respectful of the difficult job they were doing and they showed us the same.

Ensenada gave us the first glimpse of the Pacific, Mexico’s religious ties and NAFTA’s long reach (large Costco warehouses and Home Depot centers). It was also our introduction to Pemex, the government owned and only official gas stations.  Most of the Pemex stations sell both regular (magna) and premium gas but they don’t take US dollars or Visa.  The rig’s thirst for gas and Pemex’s minimal payment options would govern our peso country side of ensenada mexicomanagement throughout the trip.  Wherever we stayed, wherever we ate, whatever we bought outside of fuel, we tried to get them to accept Visa or USD.  Even if it meant paying a little more.  We knew in a pinch gas could be found through the not so official channels (you can always find gas if you know where to look) and that USD would be welcomed, but it would be our last resort.  And while cars and gas stations may be the domain of men in the USA, Pemex’s were most likely to have young girls working the pumps who spoke a little english and found Hula Betty intriguing.

reflection of man taking picture fj cruiser mirrorEnsenada marked the end of city life, at least for a while, and the beginning of our GPS route that would take us out into the country side which soon became very familiar with its free roaming cattle, watchful buzzards and minimal traffic.  While we may have been 105 km south of the Mexican border, Ensenada was where our adventure officially began.

man resting against fj cruiser door mexico

Small World… Big Adventure (note on the road)

Man walking baja dirt road I am always amazed how small the world is and the further you travel on an off-road adventure the smaller it seems to get.  Hula Betty’s family is from a little town called Drewsey in Easter Oregon.  When I say little town, I mean the town consists of an all in one post office gas station mini-mart store which is across from the bar.  That is it.  The population is 609 men, 571 women and more live stock than you can shake a stick at.  This town is so small

  • both city limit signs are on the same post
  • the phone book is only one page
  • second street is in the next town over
  • a night on the town only takes 10 minutes
  • the other side of the tracks is a county away.

You get it…  The town is small.

Well today in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico nearly 2,500 miles south of Eastern Oregon I met the nicest couple who were from there and knew Hula Betty’s family.  They were a great couple traveling with a friends and exploring South Baja a little.  We had a great chat, talking about our travels and telling them of our adventures.

These folks reminded me that we are all connected to each other and that what separates a good adventure from a great one is the people you and the friends you make along the way.  This is definitely shaping up to be a great adventure.

rusted old truck cab

Hola Desde El Sur De La Frontera (note on the road)

fj cruiser prayer flags mexico beachLike an old truck rusting away in the sun… we are in no hurry.  So you probably have noticed there has not been a lot of movement on the map for a bit.  After coming off the course in La Paz (that’s another story to come) and winding up at our destination, Cabo San Lucas, we’ve been recuperating and wondering the streets of Cabo.

Evidently we are the only ones here who just drove down for the weekend.  I guess most folks spend more time in Cabo than getting to Cabo.

The Internet connection is woefully lacking at the hotel, which is by far the most expensive (although not the nicest) we’ve stayed at, forcing us to post mostly on Face Book with the cell phone.

But to hold you over until we can catch up, here are a few pictures.

Tomorrow we hit the road again and head north.  This time avoiding the dirt, rocks, whoops from hell, marshes, silt (brown talcum powder which fell from Satan’s arm pit), cactus and hopefully cows.

We’ll be on the move and post more soon.

dirt road through dry river bed baja mexico

The Route is Hard! (note on the road)

vulture onto baja catusThe off-road adventure route is hard…  Really hard.

We drive southwest, reach the Pacific, turn and head southeast, reach the Sea of Cortez and than go back to the southwest. Ok there is a little more to it than that, just ask Brad who has been keeping us on schedule but the course is taking us back and forth across the baja peninsula as we work our way south.  In reaching the water’s edge we cross mountains, valleys and desert.  To get to this point we have driven over pavement, gravel, dirt, river beds, swamps and cactus.

We have gone through five military check points and lost count of the cattle that have crossed our path on the road.  Occasionally we drive 35 mph.  Most of the time the needle doesn’t move past 15 and we are always searching for trail markers in a maze of crossing dirt roads and goat trails. This is hard driving.cactus stuck in toyo open country tire

The days start out amazing.  They are cool, blue sky, sunshine working up to 81 degrees and dry.  We couldn’t ask for better weather but the days are short. Sun down is around 5:00 pm and we have to drive non-stop just to bang out the 170 – 200 miles a day we’d planned.   We get up early, pack up and hit the road .  We don’t stop for lunch, grabbing a snack bar during a quick 10 minute rest and we still barely make 200 miles.  So we’ve taken a few liberties with the course to make the schedule and it’s still a hard route.

As I write this post I find it difficult to describe what we are experiencing on this adventure.  There is a sense of accomplishment for how far we have come.  There is also the exhaustion that is setting in and the thought that tomorrow we will get up and do it all cruiser dirt road baja mexico mountains

We accomplished my goal the day we crossed the boarder.  We got out of our comfort zone.  Way out of our comfort zone.  We started an adventure lots of folks think about but few attempt.  Friends and family told us we where nuts.  They asked why go down to Mexico?  Why go alone without other rigs or a guide?  Why take the hard way to Cabo?  Why would you want to do this?men peeing side of dirt road next to fj cruiser

Maybe everyone is right, not a lot of people attempt this adventure. We seldom see any other travelers once we leave what ever little town we stop for fuel in and never on the back dirt roads.

I’m still not sure I can fully answer their questions but I know each day I’m getting a little closer to knowing what it is about the Baja that called to me and keeps me driving.baja mexico road through dry river bed

The route is hard! Really Hard!!

Before I forget, Not only is Brad in charge of navigation, many of the great photos we post here, on Facebook and over on Flicker are the thanks to his keen eye.

Lots of Baja pictures on flicker

fj cruiser dried river bed baja mexico

Baja Mexico Taking It At Our Pace (note on the road)

USA Mexico border crossingWe must be on Mexico time.  No matter how hard we try to get started…  We are just late!

Have I mentioned Joe, a reporter from the AP?  He gave us a call a while back and did a little interview.  Joe also gave his buddies a call who know the Baja and passed on some insights that have really helped with our route finding (or lack of finding and some dumb luck).  He also warned us about washouts in the north, more on that in a minute and explained ranch protocol in the south.  Joe shared a couple of phone numbers with us in case we run into trouble as well which hopefully we wont need.tijuana mexico

It’s amazing how on all of our adventures we keep running into great people like Joe who offer a helping hand.  The world is filled with great folks if you just look.

Crossing the boarder is a simple affair.  You get in line, drive through and head out.  But don’t forget to stop at the immigration office to get your visa if you will be going south past Ensenada.  road side bull baja mexicoDriving in Tijuana is a full contact sport where the weak are pushed out by the taxis, buses and locals.  Focusing on defending our space in traffic, trying to read the street signs, dodging stray dogs and maneuvering through the five car wide round abouts where the concept of lanes is ambiguous at best had us halfway out of town before realizing we didn’t pick up our tourist visas.  An hour and half later, through a couple of back alleys and again through the round abouts from hell had us at the official office to get our visas approved.

mikes sky ranch signGovernment workers the world around seem to have one thing in common, They seem to find joy in hassling the foreigners.  But after an hour or so of pointing out just how stupid we were, we left holding our newly stamped visas and heading for Ensenada.

The first rule of Baja…  Never drive after dark.  Our late start, detours and lack of Spanish linguistic skills had us taking the turn off to Mike’s Sky Ranch just as the sun dipped below the mountains.  The dirt road to the ranch is 22 miles climbing up into the hills.  In the dark it is 22 miles of dodging cattle and low flying bats as you come around the corners not knowing where it drops off.  With no reservations, we just showed up and hoped for a bed and hot meal.  We drank, ate northern baja 1000 traildinner and chatted about the day with the other 30 or so guests calling Mike’s home for the weekend.  After a dinner of what was most likely one of the cows we had just driven past, Brad and I sat pool side contemplating life, the adventure ahead of us and searching the night skies for intelligent life.

At the ranch you head to bed at 10:00 because that is when they turn off the generator and you hope you remembered to stick you head lamp in your pocket.

Navigation maps and GPSThe course leaves the ranch and heads west through the hills.  This part of the Baja 1,000 race course can only have been planned by Satin and made worse by Mother Nature who over the years washed away chunks of the road.  Two hours of driving and we were less than tree miles from where we began the day.  The course may have once been over a “road” but with the rains exposing large chucks of rock and removing entire sections of the course, we were driving 100 yards, getting out to scout ahead, driving another section, backing up to find a way around a washout and spotting trough the boulders that collect in the stream beds.

fj cruiser washed out roadMaking our way through this section was mostly hold on tight and hope the shoulder will hold the weight of the truck as we crawled tentatively over and through the gullies.  Somewhere around mile eight, we climbed back onto terra firma that would take us the rest of the way.   At least if we could keep finding the route.  And although the road no longer disappear from under us, it still managed to be filled with endless ruts and gouges.

Second rule of Baja… Hydrate, pee, hydrate some more.  While back home they are stuck in 40 degrees, overcast and rainy, we are enjoying 78 degree days, blue skies and light breeze.  And since we did not see speeds over 30 km/h we have plenty of time to count the cows and sheep as we crisscrossed the ranches.  We wonder what the ranchers think of us as we drive by.

fj cruiser hydration break in mexicoOur plan to approach this adventure may not have been full proof and we are getting by with the aid of some dumb luck.  The International AT&T plan Brad set up on his phone is not letting him call or send text but we are able to get face book posts out and Google Maps is working when we can find a cell signal.  Visa in their infinite wisdom decided someone must have stolen my credit card and shut it off until I was able to reach out to them and explain we really were in Mexico.  Unfortunately the little Pemex stations we are using in the middle of nowhere don’t take credit cards.  And when it comes to route finding, we have managed to get turned around, a lot.  But all the dirt roads seem to lead back to the course and our GPS keeps pointing us down the right road which miraculously comes out right next to a Pemex station.  I guess the prayer flags we put out last night are paying fj cruiser side of Baja mexico dirt road

Check the last great road trip face book page.  We are putting updates there when we can but were are never sure where the signal will come in….  But when it does, Brad’s phone starts lighting up like Día de los Muertos.

LA traffic day and night

Drive All The Way To LA (note from the road)

man hat closeup baja off road adventure navigatorHow do I start to tell you about this epic off-road adventure through the Baja?  Two days into the adventure and we haven’t left the blacktop or even the country yet.

We left Portland several hours later than planned.  We always leave later than planned, but we still managed to make it down to Sacramento, 580 miles and 10 hours later.  I would like to describe to you the beautiful Willamette valley, Mt. Shasta’s majestic snow capped peaks, wooded lakes, and star filled clear skies.  I would like to describe these to you with the clarity of a diamond flashing in the sunlight.  But the truth is that it rained buckets the entire way with fog and cloud cover that limited our views to 10 feet either side of the white line that droned in front of us mile after mile.  After dragging our bags into the hotel room and settling in, sleep took us before the lights even dimmed from flicking off the switch.

Our late starts continued into day two after confusing PM & AM when setting the alarm at three in the morning the night before.  Sacramento to Carlsbad is 475 miles straight down I5 and I do mean straight!  The drive from Sacrament to LA put the majority down the majority of the miles.  Driving from LA to Carlsbad, a mire 88 miles, took about same amount of time.  Crossing into LA at 4:00 PM on a Friday managed to embed us in traffic that we slogged threw for the next four hours.  But out of the ashes of city grid lock our spirits were raised as we were welcomed into Bernie and Tammy’s casa.

There are no two people more wonderful in the world.  With nothing more than a phone call to Bernie that we would be in the area soon, they opened up their house, killed the fatted calf and cracked open the good stuff.  Over an amazing meal that Bernie prepared for us we chatted until the 1,000 plus miles of the last two days were washed off.  We talked about Mexico, family, how boys grow up to be men and the influences of Italian cathedral architecture on garden gates.  Tammy and Bernie brought us into their home and gave us a glimpse of how true friendship was meant to be expressed.

42 miles from Mexico to Carlsbad and still a world away.  Tomorrow we’ll cross the boarder and find the desert solitude we seek.  But tonight we were rewarded with company that will forever fill the endless empty spaces.

man driving fj cruiser on highway

Baja Adventure The Start (note on the road)

The outside temperature in Seattle read 29 degrees.  The temperature reading in Cabo San Lucas was 67 degrees.  We are definitely headed the right direction.

The plan for the first day was simple enough…  Take the ferry into Seattle, grab the sat phone, head to Portland and stop by Metal Tech.

The day didn’t get off to the best start.  Arriving at the ferry terminal I handed over my pre-paid trip pass to get scanned.  She was polite and very sympathetic but that didn’t take the sting out when the woman in the booth said “your pass has expired” and I still had two unused trips that were no longer valid.  Big breath, count to ten and hand over $14.95.  After all this is the first hour of the first day of the Baja off-road adventure.  It’s going to be great.

The satellite phone guys require you to set a time with them when you’re going to pick up your rental phone.  Its not like the cable company where you tell them some time between 9:00 am and noon.  No, they want to know exactly when you will be there.  Evidently that doesn’t mean they will be there…   We agreed on 9:30 a.m.  I was there waiting since 9:10.  At 9:45…  Apparently my call to the sat phone guy woke him from a deep, restful sleep.  He was sincerely apologetic and agreed to ship it over night to Portland where I was headed.  Strike two.

The warm greeting I received when arriving at Metal Tech washed away all the bad  karma of the morning.  They were set to help me swap out a half shaft that had a leaky boot.  They also let me use their bay to finish up last minute adjustments on the rig.  I think I died and went to heaven.  heated, well lit, dry space out of the elements to work on my rig.  What a treat.  LT and I swapped out the half shaft.  I re-torqued the bead locks and wheel lugs, topped off the diff oil, Ian laid down a few tack welds to secure the winch from would-be thieves and I took a final look over everything.  The day was definitely improving.

Today may not have been the epic beginning and tomorrow looks like a little last minute shopping for me, as my copilot, Brad tries to wind up things at work.

baja cactus fj cruiser

Baja Off-Road Adventure… Finally

baja mexico off road adventure posterWe’ve been trying to get down to “The” Baja for two years now… Our Baja off-road adventure has started, stumbled, been shut down, picked back up and now it looks like it is a reality.

When I was growing up the Baja 1000 was the place where legends were made and any one could give it a try. Guys like James Garner (Mr. Rockford Files himself), Steve McQueen, Ted Nugent, and Paul Newman raced the Baja in buggies competing against Average Joe who’s kids doubled as pit crew with friends helping out. No multimillion dollar sponsors, just back yard mechanics who could build a solid buggy or bike. This was the peoples’ race… at least for people crazy enough to endure 1,000 plus miles of desert hell and non-stop driving for 48 hours over what has to be the harshest course in the world. It always struck me that at the finish line all the racers said it was the most amazing experience… ever! Our goal isn’t to win any race (that was back in November) but to follow the course more or less (after all we need to sneak off to get a little beach time along way) from Ensenada down to Cabo San Lucas.

Sitting here the night before we leave, my mind is racing. Did I pack enough? Did I pack too much? What haven’t I check and double checked on the rig? Was the clutch feeling a little loose or was that my imagination? Did I let the folks who helped us get here like Metal Tech, Discount Tire and Beau Jaramillo from Amsoil know how grateful we are?  Why didn’t I learn to speak more Spanish? Where are the maps, I want to look at them one more time. What happens if we run into trouble, it is just us. No support team, no caravan of rigs, no chase vehicles are going to follow up to tow us back. It’s just us! But, that is the adventure.  We don’t want to sit on the sidelines and watch.  We want to experience life.

I know tonight I wont sleep much, even if the first leg of this off-road adventure is only 250 miles from Seattle to Portland straight down I5. Tomorrow we start what I’ve been waiting a life time to experience. The Baja! I can’t wait.