“Tell of the storm-tossed man, O Muse, who wandered long” — Homer, The Odyssey
“One mistek, game over” — sign on the back of a bus, seen in Nepal
After many mañanas, Chema and I rolled out of Ensenada heading down the Baja Peninsula in late March. Ensenada’s climate is mild, but travel just a few miles south and things warm up considerably. The majority of Baja is classified as ‘hot desert’. Long-time readers of this blog will recall my (lack of) fondness for crossing such climate zones in summer (see my trials in Central Asia or the Red Centre of Australia). In Ensenada, one might easily have forgotten that the rest of the peninsula was well on the way to daytime temperatures of forty degrees plus. I looked nervously to the south and muttered, “summer is coming”.
Months before, to get to Ensenada, I’d accidentally ridden part of the Baja Divide. Accidentally, because I’d already ruled out going that way. The Divide has a reputation for being tough and remote. It’s tough in terms of technical riding – it is a thoroughgoing, lightweight bikepacking route over rugged, mountainous terrain with deep sand and abundant sharp thorns. And it’s tough logistically – there’s virtually no surface water on Baja, and limited resupply points. But most pertinently for me at the time, the Divide traverses remote country, and after my recent off-season dash across the deserts of south-west USA, I wasn’t in the mood to be alone in the wilderness for several more weeks on end.
But I’m nothing if not fickle. The northern part of the Divide had been great fun and I’d just had a few months off the bike in company. Now Chema was accompanying me for the first few days, so we decided to hit the sandy tracks and keep off the busy trans-peninsular highway as much as possible. To be honest it was more than an impromptu dabble. I’d researched where the most difficult parts of the route were (the deepest sand and the most cactus thorns) and intended to give them a wide berth.
I’d been warned about the inevitability of cactus thorns and goathead seeds causing punctures, most likely too numerous to patch. Most bikepackers favour tubeless tyres with sealant inside. When a puncture occurs, the sealant reacts with the air and plugs the hole. That’s the theory. There was no easy way to convert my bike to a tubeless set-up, even if I was convinced about the suitability of tubeless for my kind of trip, which I’m not. As a compromise, under advice, I added some sealant fluid to my inner-tubes (the valve core is removed, the fluid is pushed in with a syringe and the valve replaced). Chema, our experimental control, did not.
We made short work of fifty kilometres on the Mex 1 highway to reconnect with the Divide route at Santo Tomás. From there we bumped along a decent hard-packed dirt and stone road, hoping to reach the wild Pacific coast for nightfall. After three months off the bike more or less, I felt like a novice again. Two rookie mistakes stand out in my memory of that afternoon.
First, I could have sworn there was an odd noise coming from the bike. There was a fair amount of shake and rattle from the bumpy road surface, so I ignored it. I must have spent getting on for the magic ten thousand hours on that bike by now. It is almost an extension of my body. I’m attuned to its various sounds, pressures, its momentum and centre of gravity. If something sounds off, it probably is. And so it was, but I didn’t follow my instinct and properly check it out. On a downhill, I happened to glance down just as one of the front brake shoes disintegrated. I brought the bike to a stop with back brake only and retrieved as many of the bolts, spacers and washers out of the sand and rubble as I could find, but the all important first lock nut and main spacer must have worked loose some time before and was nowhere to be seen.
Luckily I had spare brake shoes, not just the replacement pads. I’d carried them for over 50,000km unused and had almost jettisoned them in a weight-saving move before setting off on this part. I’d replaced both sets of pads in preparation for this ride; clearly I mustn’t have tightened that bolt sufficiently. In a patch of shade, Chema took a siesta while I fettled and faffed for half an hour and marvelled at my ineptitude.
My next mistake was just plain bad riding. I’ve made it across four continents without falling off my bike. Sure, I’d had plenty of forced dismounts on the mushy tracks of Central Asia and Australia, but I’ve never actually face-planted from a moving bike. It’s something I try to avoid as much as possible. But that afternoon my clean track record came to an end. We’d been on firm dirt for an hour or two, when our route took us down a less-compacted track towards the coast. It was a fast descent and I could see the stony arroyo in the bottom and the steep climb up the other side. I wanted to preserve my momentum, so I pedalled hard in high gear to carry some speed through the gravel in the dry arroyo and save me a few metres of effort on the climb out the other side. As I approached the bottom of the dip, I noticed an empty truck parked off to the side of the road in the arroyo. I also caught a glimpse of a tan coloured dog standing nearby.
Stuff like this flashes past your peripheral vision all the time on the bike. You just filter it out. In this case there was no danger of the truck pulling out (which is what you’re always looking out for), so I ignored it and kept up the pressure on the pedals. But I had taken my eye off the road for a split second and had ended up off my line across the arroyo, into a patch where the gravel lay slightly deeper. I hit it at speed and the front wheel was sucked in and twisted out from under me. In a microsecond I went down on the right, hand out instinctively to protect my head. I thudded into the gravel knee first, then elbow then hand and came to rest chin down on the gravel. Slightly winded, I looked up and met the bemused eyes of the dog, and my humiliation was complete.
Chema arrived a few moments later, by which time I was on my feet again and checking how much skin I’d lost from knees and elbows. Luckily, the gravel was like a sandpit, and had given me a soft-ish landing, possibly saving me a broken wrist or worse. I laughed it off, a little giddy with adrenaline and cortisol, blamed the dog for distracting me (sorry dog) and off we went up the hill. We didn’t quite make it to the coast that night, instead finding a place to camp at the side of a loop off the main track, albeit with a decent view.
Just south of La Bufadora, the Pacific coast returns to its wild origins. Undeveloped and largely uninhabited, the headlands, outcrops and beaches of Baja California stand in marked contrast to the more or less continuous development northwards and throughout Alto California all the way to Santa Barbara. At our campsite, the night sky to the north glowed with light pollution from Ensenada, fifty kilometres away. To the south, only darkness.
It felt good to be camping again, but this landscape had new challenges. In the morning, seeking a suitable place to go behind the bushes, I had my first encounter with the ferocious cholla cactus. It breaks off in sections covered in barbed spines that hook into your flesh. You scarcely have to brush past them and they embed deeply, and they hide sneakily behind and beneath other plants. Under the circumstances, I count myself lucky that the spines only went in my calf. Removing them requires utmost care or you end up with spines hooked into your hand too. You hardly notice the them going in, but it’s an alarming sight when you try to pull them out and watch your own flesh refuse to give them up. Apparently a sturdy comb is the best tool for removing them, but I never had one to hand when I needed one.
The Baja Divide route follows the coast past pristine beaches and flower-fringed clifftops to Erendira village. From there it heads inland again and plunges you into a series of gullies constructed for the Baja 1000 race. The route cuts perpendicular to the drainage, so time and again we paused at the top of loose, chossy descents into one dry arroyo or other, and wondered at the seemingly vertical upslope beyond. They were challenging with a heavy bike on 2.1” tyres, but I was able to ride up all but one of them – not even the steepest, but I picked a bad line and couldn’t get started again on the slope.
I was having the time of my life swooping through a section of banked up berms and whoops. At one point, the camber was about 30 degrees, sloping down to the right. You had to maintain decent speed or you’d be off the bottom into a shallow ravine. I couldn’t see how deep the ditch was below, but I wasn’t about to go investigating either. On a slight right hand bend, the inside corner had collapsed at exactly the place where the camber increased to nearer 40 degrees. There was a strip of rideable track about a foot wide directly above the collapsed section, which was easily big enough to swallow a bicycle and rider. To pass the hole you had to ride accurately and relatively fast. If you paused to size it up, you’d probably tumble sideways down into the ravine on the steeply cambered track.
I whizzed across the narrow bridge of dirt, stones loosened by my wheels skittered down into the hole. Once clear I carried on up the pump track of a gulley, pedalling a bit harder from the rush. Then I heard a cry for help from behind. In my concentration I had left Chema to take his own chances – he had already proved himself a capable rider and he was more lightly loaded than me. I turned and saw that he hadn’t carried enough speed on the safe line above the breech, and had wobbled off into the hole. I dropped my bike and ran back a hundred metres or so to help. Chema was wedged partly under his bike, dusty but apparently unhurt. But it was a precarious situation. Every time he moved, the bike started to slip closer to the edge of the rift below. I strained to lift the bike from above, then lost traction and almost came tumbling into the hole on top of everything. Bit by bit we extracted Chema from under his rig while keeping hold of it, and pulled everything back up onto safer ground. We were one apiece for pratfalls now.
The official Divide route seems to have a pathological aversion to black-top. It throws in loops and meanders that effectively double the overland distance. That’s not really my touring modus operandi, and unless the trade-off is spectacular I generally prefer to take a paved road rather than a huge detour. We fast-tracked on road past one such meander into Vicente Guerrero. I felt the telltale bounciness in the rear wheel that signalled a puncture. Right enough, I’d picked up a shard of metal wire from the broken up truck radial tyres that litter the road margins. But on inspection, I discovered that the wire hadn’t punctured the heavy duty Schwalbe tyres. It turned out that rather than fixing a puncture, the Stan’s Fluid sealant in the tube had actually caused it. The tube already had a patch, which the S(a)tan’s Fluid had oozed into, causing it to soften and peel off. The sealant made a dirty job dirtier, covering the inside of the tyre with sticky jizz. In blazing sun, I cleaned up the mess and swapped out the tube, the old one now contaminated beyond repair. In the next town the local bike shop turned their nose up at my 26” wheels and rim brakes; they carried spares for neither.
We followed the Divide route through farmland parallel to the highway. The day evolved as a series of opposite emotions. Half the time it was ‘I can’t believe what a waste of effing time this is’ moments where fences and barbed wire blocked our passage, through local rubbish dumps and polytunnel agriculture. The other half of the time we whooped and grinned through fields of daisies and whispering fields of green barley that were an absolute treat on the otherwise arid Baja.
Following someone else’s GPS track always tests my patience. By the time we emerged onto the highway at San Quintín, I’d had enough of micro-navigation for a while. I saw Chema off on the bus back to Ensenada – he had to return to work. I’d be seeing him in a few weeks when I returned to Ensenada myself. I needed a camp spot, so took one more spin of the wheel with the Baja’s tracks out towards a coastal lagoon. It was there that my bike’s weight and tyre width really told for the first time. In a lane of deep sand the tyres dug in and I had to drag the bike by the seatpost for two kilometres. Temper-fraying work. With good timing and a bit of creativity I found a campsite that repaid the effort. In the morning I was definitely done with the Divide. The hard-packed dirt of the northern hills was at an end now. Here was sandy hell. Time to crack on and get south.
At Nueva Odisea I stopped for lunch at a comedor. A friendly American joined me at my table. After pleasantries he revealed his agenda. He was a Christian missionary, visiting a nearby mission community. While I was hungrily replacing calories, he point blank told me he has made his peace with God, can I say the same? I told him I don’t believe in god but thanks for the interest and continued spooning rice and beans into my face. He didn’t get the hint. He wanted to know, if I didn’t believe in god, how can I find purpose in life? He was pissing me off now, so I gave him both barrels. I told him I don’t like to be preached to, especially not when I’m eating. But if he’s really asking then I find purpose in finding purpose. You get to choose, that’s the gift of being a sentient moral agent. I don’t care to have my purpose handed to me under threat of punishment in the ever-after. I try to live in alignment with my values, one of which happens to be respect and curiosity about the values of other people, not a need to impose my own on them. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He’d clearly not been trained to respond to serious pushback. I shot him a thin, fake smile and continued eating, finally in peace.
Nearby I spent a night with genial Warmshowers host, Rodrigo, who confirmed my suspicions about the severity of the next part of the Divide. It passed through the unique biosphere of Valle de los Cirios. “So does the highway,” pointed out Rodrigo. From here on there would be very little traffic on the main road, he told me. And there are thousands of cirios trees and cardon cactuses across the central mountains. Also the Divide section is very rough, even the lightweight bikepackers push and carry up that part. With my set up it sounded like a fool’s errand.
After dawdling on dirt for days it felt great to move at pace again. Superb quiet wild camps in the desert and fast miles, punctuated only by a strange vibrating squeak from the by now badly worn rear hub. At Catavina the graunching noise from the rear wheel sounded so bad I was certain I’d have to go straight to Guerrero Negro, the only place where I might have a chance to overhaul it (I don’t have cone spanners in my tool kit). I eased a bit of paraffin lube into the thin gap where the hub rotates, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. After the debacle with my brakes a few days before, I was paranoid about ignoring this. I was a long way from assistance, so I kept stopping to check other possible causes of the noise, which increased at speed, an unpleasant distraction on paved descents. Finally, I resorted to pouring water on the hub gap. I never heard a squeak out of it again after that. What a master mechanic!
After being sure I’d have to go straight to a bike shop, at Laguna Chapala I felt the pull of adventure once more, a siren song from the Sea of Cortes. At the turnoff to Bahia de los Angeles I didn’t know which way I would turn until the last second. I veered off the main highway onto the spur out to Bahia and a return the tracks of the Divide. I estimated it would be a three day haul from Bahia back to the highway. By all accounts, there was very little by way of water and resupply on this section.
The stony, occasionally sandy track out from Bahia was in itself no problem. A little bumpy and occasional loss of traction, but nothing technical. The real problem was the sun. It beat down mercilessly and by midday I was in desperate need of shade to rest. I found a broadleaf tree where road workers or cowboys had left signs of regular use, the usual empty beer cans and trash. The morning had been a steady climb. With the heat now in the mid-thirty degrees Centigrade, it was essential to pace myself to avoid heat exhaustion. I made it my rule to take a couple of swallows of water every time I put a foot down. A passing family of tourists gave me an ice cold Powerade, which I swallowed in one go. One of the most annoying effects of heat stress and dehydration is loss of appetite. It leads to a vicious cycle of depletion and bad decisions. I much prefer cold weather to hot. Both have their challenges and require good decisions at the right time, but I find my body is just better adapted to cope in the cold.
My objective for the day was Pancho’s Beach, reported to be occupied by one or two fishermen. It was a hive of activity when I arrived, with at least twenty fishermen their families in residence. The first person I met was a huge, fat Mexican who was holidaying there. He was very curious and enthusiastic about my trip, which I explained in bad Spanish made worse by my fatigue and dehydration. The big man was happy to fill my bottles with drinking water after we’d chatted a few minutes. I pitched my tent out of the way of the boats and took a starlight swim in the shallows to cool off. The fishermen came and went as I cooked up. I swam again in the morning and was given more drinking water and allowed to use outhouse of Pancho’s family. But I never did get to meet the eponymous hero of the beach.
The next water was at Rancho Escondido, 44km away. Under normal circumstances that’s only a morning’s ride. But I was a fool to underestimate it. The road got softer almost immediately I left the beach, and climbed slightly uphill. By lunch I was off the bike pushing for ten metres, riding another hundred, then pushing again. With very little breeze, I was really feeling the heat now and desperate for shade. The best I could find was the patchy shadow of thorn bushes, better than nothing. The second half of the day had a slight downhill, but in worse sand still it was no faster than the ascent of the morning.
Late in the afternoon I saw the sign to the ranch that I’d been so looking forward to. Maybe I was stupid with the heat, but that sign was placed very ambiguously. The ranch wasn’t marked on my map, but from the brief route description I knew it was off-route somewhere nearby. The sign was at a four-way crossroad, placed between the hard right, which looked like the main route, and a minor sandy lane that went ahead. The sign pointed left, possibly indicating hard left, but also pointing at the road straight ahead. I thought about it and decided if the ranch was hard left, anyone with half a brain would place the sign to the left of the middle road, to avoid ambiguity. Therefore it must be straight on. I also notice fat bike tyre tracks going into the lane ahead.
The lane quickly turned into a sandy trough between tightly-packed cholla and cardon cactuses. It was slightly downhill, so I could just about keep pedalling, but every time I lost traction the bike almost sloughed straight into the cactuses. It was better to push. After about twenty minutes I emerged onto a more major sand road. There was no sign of any ranch. There was no sign of anything. I was down to my last couple of mouthfuls of water. I hadn’t seen a vehicle on the road since leaving the beach eight hours before. My heart sank, and I realised I had to make the right choice, or things were going to get unpleasant. Left, right or back the way I came? There was nothing to be said for left or right. Sure, that road had more evidence of traffic, but it was silent as a tomb right then and there was nothing to say where that road went (again, it was not marked on OpenStreetMap, the offline map system I use). Needless to say I hadn’t had a cell signal for days.
My heat-stupefied brain strained to think logically. Go back to the last place where you knew where you were. I reluctantly dragged the bike back up the sandy trough of a lane to the ambiguous sign for the ranch that had led me down there. Taking the original hard left option, I cycled what felt like three kilometres when I came to another major junction with no sign mentioning the ranch. Shit! At that moment a truck came up the side road and slowed to ask if I was okay. “Estoy poco perdido! Cual rumbo a Rancho Escondido?” The driver told me I was on the right road, half a kilometre more that’s all.
Th ranch was quiet, save for the usual dogs who came out to greet me. I shouted hallo the house and found the elderly dueño tending to his horses in a paddock. He took me to an enormous concrete water tank and we climbed up a rickety ladder to a tap above a hatch. Water came out of the tap like a firehose and I splashed it over me and cupped a few handfuls into my mouth. I filled my water bag and we went over to the main ranch. Arturo apologised there was no food available, but I was welcome to camp and take a shower. He seemed a little lonesome and keen to chat, so I drank a beer with him and asked about the ranch. He was there alone he said, there was no cook and his family had gone to Guerrero Negro. Business is down this year he said.
One of Arturo’s dogs had taken a shine to me and took it upon itself to guard me during the night. It did this by lying on the end of my tent causing my Thermarest to bounce every few minutes. When it wasn’t trying to rock me to sleep, it was circling my tent barking madly every time a coyote breathed or a cricket farted in the vicinity. Which was all night. At breakfast I glared at it over my coffee mug, but it just cocked its head to the side and looked pleadingly at me. Arturo asked me how I slept and I told him about the dog. He laughed like a drain, but was good enough to offer to drop the camping fee to 50 pesos.
Road conditions gradually improved and I made it to the next resupply point at Rancho Piedra Blanca for lunch, where the woman gouged me 150 pesos for three quesadillas and a spoonful of frijoles (more than double the correct price). Her henpecked husband just kept asking me, are there more cyclists coming? I got a better reception at the mining village of El Arco. Operations have all but ceased in the area. Now rusting corrugated steel siding flapped on the abandoned buildings that littered the dirt roadside as I sought a place to obtain water. I found an occupied street and approached a house where I heard music through an open window. A woman came out and told me the mining offices across the road would give me water, just wait a moment and the jefe will be with me. Ramón came out and sat me down for a chat over a cup of coffee. He knew all about the Divide and asked how I was coping in the desert. He wanted to hook me up to the office wifi and before I left gifted me a couple of pieces of fruit and a packet of biscuits.
I camped happily amongst the giant cardons again and pushed out the last 20km of corrugated road to the paved highway. With tyres pumped up hard now and the wind at my back, by dark I was 150km further south in the mission town of San Ignacio. The casa de ciclistas was in reality camping in a dusty, rather noisy yard on the edge of town. But the owners were a friendly family and there was a decent shower and bathroom. No other cyclists though. In the morning after chores, errands and updates I strolled the town in the slanting afternoon sun. I sat at a pavement cafe on the plaza and drank a beer. Two American women, Ruth and Lisa, took an interest in my bike and struck up conversation. They were regular visitors to Mexico and we chatted for half an hour before they had to leave to look after Ruth’s daughter, Lily. As they were paying the bill Ruth mentioned the lack of cell service and wifi in town, so I gave her the password for the hotel Wi-Fi I’d used that afternoon, and a card with my website and contact details.
Next day the tailwind had abandoned me, making the miles drag on a wind-blasted, dusty descent to the mining-scarred coast north of Santa Rosalía. I found shade at a filling station and switched off airplane mode on my phone, thinking there might well be a signal as I approached the town. As well as messages from friends, I had a Whatsapp message from a stranger. The profile pic showed a young woman with a blonde undercut, maybe Danish from the look of her. She signed herself Tamra. Her message said she’d met two women who had told her about me and my trip and given her my contact details. Did I want to join her and her friends camping on a beach near Mulegé?
At that point my intention was to follow the advice of other Baja riders and try to persuade a fishing boat to take me across Bahia Concepcion to continue on a remote track along the beach for a few days. But on the other hand, which was the more adventurous path? I decided to sleep on it rather than reply straight away. I found a hideaway on a secluded beach for a skinny dip and drifted off to the sound of waves lapping a few metres from my tent door.
Maybe if I’d stuck to the plan and found a fishing boat to take me to the safety of a snake-infested, waterless headland I might have avoided a heap of trouble. But as I watched the morning sun sparkle on the waves like cut diamonds, it seemed to me that I’d been alone in the wilderness for long enough, that it would be nice to meet people and socialise for a while. I could ride sandy mush and camp in solitude for the rest of the year if I liked. But when the universe sends an attractive stranger your way, who reaches out and invites you to visit, you better go with the flow or hang up your adventure boots right then and there, old chap.
I restocked in Mulegé and cycled to my appointment with destiny, whatever that turned out to be. At the beach described in Tamra’s message, I walked the bike down a steep, boulder track and found three vans. I was greeted by Dutchman, Matty, travelling in a VW Westfalia. Our conversation drew the attention of the occupants of the biggest campervan, actually a converted school bus, from which soon emerged my mystery contact. Tamra was not Danish, but from Memphis, USA. She went barefoot, and wore a knife on a homemade hipbelt. She had a warm smile and a talkative manner. I liked her immediately. She welcomed me into her van to meet the rest of her crew: Cami, Tamra’s friend and driver of the third van on the beach; Desi, Matty’s girlfriend from Aruba; and Jessica, who was staying with boyfriend Jamie in a van at the official camp-ground on the neighbouring beach. They were having a sewing circle, the only available seat was an child’s tiny camping chair. I fit my backside in it and joined the conversation as best I could.
I freshened up with a swim and had a beer with Matty, then returned to Tam’s bus, which was the main place to hang out. Tam told me a little of her own nomad lifestyle and work in teaching primitive skills and wilderness therapy, and showed me a bow and arrow she’d made. She claimed to be forty-one, but didn’t look it. She busied herself pulling together a meal for the five of us on this beach. Everyone came back aboard Tam’s bus for dinner and then we played cards for an hour jammed in round the small table and facing bus seat banquettes. I liked this crowd. There was no cliquey-ness, no pressure and no posturing. After cards, I put up my tent at the end of the beach and congratulated myself on a good decision accepting the invitation.
I breakfasted early as usual, and took a swim. It was a beautiful spot, looking out across Bahia Concepcion. But it was not a place to linger from a cycle-touring, tent camping point of view, since it lacked both shade and wind-cover. By 10am it was too hot to remain in my tent and I needed water, so returned to Tam’s bus where I found her at the door. Conversation continued easily for several hours and I found myself responding to her confidences with stories of my own that I would never have thought to share with so new an acquaintance. Several times Tam casually mentioned a boyfriend, who I later understood was on his way to join the group on the beach in a week or two.
The local event that afternoon was ‘Taco Tuesday’ at a restaurant on nearby Buenaventura beach. By various means we all got ourselves down there for fish tacos and beers. It was a strange afternoon, surrounded by some more of Tam and Cami’s entourage from the main camp-ground. As things looked like they were winding down, Jamie, Jessica’s boyfriend and van-life YouTuber, invited Matty and me to join him to go and visit a guy he knew a short walk away. Things got even stranger once we found the fellow. Sid (let’s call him that) was a sight to behold, strutting around in budgie-smugglers with his enormous belly hanging out, sunburnt head to toe redder than a lobster, topped off with a straggly white Peter Stringfellow mullet. He and his three American friends were just back from a fishing trip, more a drinking party in a boat. It seemed he and Jamie were barely acquainted, but Sid immediately invited us to join his group for more drinks. If his appearance was alarming, Sid’s speech was unbelievable. “If anyone gets in my way in life, I fight ’em. I mean fight ’em with my fists and feet”. He swaggered around fizzing with manic energy like a Tasmanian devil in (almost) human form. He was hilarious and we got quite drunk trying to keep up with him.
I sobered up quickly on the bike ride back over the hill. Back at the beach I found everyone sitting talking at the waterline. Matty and I made a campfire from driftwood and Cami took charge of cooking on the fire. We sat several hours round the fire, eating, telling stories, watching the sparks shoot up to join the millions of stars in the sky. We splashed in the shallows to excite the bioluminescent plankton that swirled round our legs. Tam sang us a song, a country-gospel number that sent chills up my spine and stayed with me a long time after. It was a beautiful night. I went to my tent and dreamt, amongst other things, that I was bound by ropes to my bicycle frame, which then turned into a ship captained by a horned red devil in Speedos and a white mullet.
In the morning there were no signs of life from the three vans so I had coffee and breakfast and pondered what to do. I saw the morning was likely to unfold as yesterday. I’d go over to Tam’s bus for water, we’d end up talking, I’d end up falling further under the spell of this happy little gathering on what I was privately calling ‘The Beach of the Lotus Eaters’. And where would that end? There was a roaring northerly wind blowing through camp. That is to say a tailwind. I listened to a few songs on shuffle on my phone. I kid you not, the very first song was The Clash, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’. I love the Clash, but that song always struck me as a false quandary. “If I go there will be trouble,” they sing. “And if I stay it will be double.” Then you should go, duh.
I packed up the tent without disturbing the others. I didn’t want to get deflected. When my bike was loaded, I went over to say my goodbyes. Tam in particular seemed sorry to say goodbye, but then I thought she just had a migraine. For a second my resolve wavered. I lamely gestured at the colossal tailwind and said you have to take that as a sign from the universe. I had felt real community with these people, I was sad to leave. But I was pretty sure I was saving myself a lot of trouble by going. The Clash seemed to think so anyway.
The wind carried me effortlessly to Loreto, where I turned up into the sierra to visit the mission town of San Javier. I bowled along merrily for several days, at first on sandy washboard, then the arrow straight paved highway. Well into Baja Sur in early April now, the days were stiflingly hot. But the blessed northerly took the edge off and propelled me onwards to La Paz, the state capital and my end point for this part of my trip. I’d more or less decided to make a bid for La Paz the next day when I met two bikepackers coming north. Søren and Kamilla were Danish and had suffered in the heat worse than me. A few days recently had been in the mid forties centigrade. We swapped notes and they told me about a section of the Divide near the Sea of Cortes, which they’d just come from. It sounded great, and they told me southbound riders they’d met in La Paz had rated it their favourite section of the whole Divide.
And so it went that I broke my promise to myself to be in a real bed with clean sheets and a cool shower and clean clothes and nice food the next night. Forswearing comfort, I answered the siren call of the Sea of Cortes for the god knows what-th time. I turned my back on the silky smooth black-top at Las Pocitas and headed up into the Sierra de la Giganta as night fell. To rejoin the Divide I had full day on corrugated sandy tracks plied by louts in Baja 1000-style dune buggies. I say louts, they were doing their thing, I was doing mine. It’s just that their thing is at 120 decibels and raises a cloud of choking dust and sand that made me an invisible target for the next car that skidded barely in control round corners and over bumps. Only one car out of twenty slowed for me, every other one I had to dive off the road taking my chances with cactus thorns.
In the late afternoon I came to the remote village of La Soledad where I was able to beg water. The villagers were wary at first, but in my best Spanish I explained my mission and they happily filled my water bag. I’d only asked for half, but they gave me the full 10 litres. It made the bike incredibly heavy just at the hardest part of the day. For an hour I had to walk it down steep declines and through bouldery sections. The ground above and below the track was steep, lumpy with rocks and covered in cholla. It did not look at all good for camping. I investigated and rejected a few sites, then doggedly pressed on, able to ride a little with caution.
I came to an area where the cactuses were more widely spaced. Scouting on foot I found a tarantula, expired, and then came to an area with several flat open spaces. I moved the bike in and sacrificed a litre of water for a bottle wash (at that time I still thought I had more water than I’d need for run into La Paz). Next day was another sizzler and the trail continued to be rough and slow going. I added ORS salts to my water and paced myself on the climb to the watershed. At the top the view to the Sea of Cortes was jaw-dropping. The bluebird sky met a kingfisher sea – an iridescent blue that you have to see to believe. In the middle distance the exposed rock strata were green, purple and red. The road dropped down precipitously, paved with concrete slabs in places, stones and dirt in others. It was far too steep to be taken safely on a loaded bike with V-brakes. Even walking the bike down took effort to control its momentum.
I was down to my last litre and a half of water, and drinking about a litre an hour. For some reason I felt lucky, and gambled on finding water on route rather than making the eight kilometre out and back detour to the fishing village of San Evaristo. The gamble paid off. I met a family out for an Easter Sunday picnic who gave me a chilled 1.5 litres, enough to get me to a place to restock for the night. In the intense heat of the tropical sun the road plunged back inland and up two steep paved climbs. Sweat boiled off me and the sere white ground both radiated and reflected heat. I took the first opportunity to walk straight into the sea fully clothed and floated on my back for ten minutes cooldown. Back on the bike my clothes were dry again in half an hour. I found water from a fishing shack and a campsite in a broad sandy arroyo as the sun disappeared behind the cordillera for my last camp on Baja.
An easy 90km on pavement along the coast brought me to La Paz, where all good things awaited. At the hostel I was pleased to finally meet other cyclists. Apart from a quick chat with a couple of pairs going in the opposite direction in the last week, I hadn’t seen other tourers since northern California, many months before. Don and Jo from England heading to Peru, Josh from USA heading home and Hollie on her way round the world were all good company during four days off the bike in La Paz. I ate my own bodyweight in fish tacos from the stupendously good food cart outside the hostel’s front door. I wandered the streets with my camera and had a few beers with Hollie. I filmed and edited videos while tiny mosquitoes drove me crazy.
But there was no putting it off any longer. After four days enjoying La Paz, I bit the bullet and bought a ticket for the bus back to Ensenada, departing that night. So far my plan, conceived a month before, was on track. The first part, to ride to La Paz via some of the Baja Divide, had been a great success. Memories of camping and swimming on the peninsula will go down among the all time highlights of my world trip. Now for phase two of my plan: return to Ensenada for two months to study and write, before looping back into USA to wrap up the Great Divide. The reality proved somewhat different.
Videos from this part of my trip: