The Baja David (pronounced in Spanish)
I decided to shorten my run at the Baja Divide after trump was elected--getting the hell out of Mexico before the inauguration. I wasn't as much worried about being the lone gringo during an anti-U.S. protest-turned-riot, although I was worried about that. I was more cringing about the thought of trump saying some kind of awful, racist, anti-Mexican bullshit on the very first day and I'd have to be like, "SORRY ALL OF MEXICO!" I also didn't have enough money for the full trip, turns out.
So January 19th was my exit date. 18 days of riding.
Nicholas Carmen and Lael Wilcox, the ride's founders and organizers, warned that we wouldn't be able to cover much more than 50 miles a day, but I assumed that was just for the slower people.
"60 miles a day, average, times 18? That's 1,080 miles. Good enough to get to Loreto if I cheat and ride the highway a little," I thought, so I bought a one-way plane ticket from Loreto to Los Angeles on January 19th.
I never made it to Loreto, never got on my plane, didn't even get close.
The Baja Divide
The Baja Divide route is like a longer version of the Baja 1000, but going 7mph on bikes with 3" tires and about 0.2 horsepower. It's 1,700 miles from San Diego to San Jose del Cabo, with a loop at the bottom that brings you back to Baja Sur's capital La Paz. The route avoids the big cities of Tijuana and Ensenada, going inland for 40 miles to cross at the very chill Tecate border crossing.
Maps, resupply info and everything else you could ever need to know about the route is available at BajaDivide.com.
- The Baja peninsula is the second-longest peninsula on Earth--775 miles long.
- Baja's Pacific coastline is slightly longer than the U.S. state of California's coast.
- Baja's highest mountain, Picacho del Diablo, is 10,157 ft in elevation.
- The Baja peninsula is 25 miles wide at its narrowest point.
- Almost 75% of the combined population of Baja Norte and Baja Sur lives within miles of the U.S. border, mostly in the Tijuana and Mexicali areas. The actual peninsula is sparsely populated.
I came to ride the Baja Divide (or as much as I could) with Rafael Cletero, my former roommate from 400 Smith in Fort Collins, Colorado. Rafa is largely responsible for turning 400 Smith from a punk house to a bike house after he started a bike coop called Bike Against in the garage.
Rafa and I were committed to the idea of riding as far as possible during my 18-day timeframe with the logic being that Rafa would have more time to relax and party in the more-tropical Baja Sur sections of the course later on.
Part I: 82 Bikepackers Ride to an Off-Season Campground Outside Tecate and Learn That They Aren't Supposed to Flush Their Toilet Paper
8 a.m. at Ruocco Park on the San Diego harbor was insane!
New people who you coulda sworn you'd met but know you haven't and that you probably just saw them in Instagram kept rolling in every minute—bizarro versions of myself and people I know from all over the country.
Some of them were famous (in bike terms) and attracted a circle of acquaintances. Some were totally anonymous and showed up without knowing a soul.
I'm an extrovert of the unhealthiest variety, so I can turn into a super-weirdo-kook inside my head amidst a crowd of popular/cool bike peers. Who's looking at me? Who's talking to who? Who's cooler than me? I had an instinct to hide out at Dunkin' Donuts until the ride started.
But I pushed through, introduced myself to some people I didn't know and said hi to the people I knew.
"Are you David?" ride organizer Nicholas Carman asked me. "I know everyone by their bike."
"Yep!!!!" I already knew who Nick was. "Thanks for organizing this!"
I hung around with Alex Dunn (also from Fort Collins), Rafael, and Alex's friend's dad Jan. We did eventually go to Dunkin' Donuts.
Not long after 8, Nick climbed onto a rock and made an impromptu speech, then announced it was time to go. We streamed out of the park, over a hundred of us, including several friends and well-wishers, and pedaled our huge bikes toward the suburbs and the border through a fun route devised by a San Diego local.
There's not much to say about the first day's ride, except for two things:
1: It included the biggest single climb on the entire route.
2: It felt exciting at the time, but seems completely unremarkable in retrospect.
More memorable was the group campout that night at Barrett Junction, 7 miles from the Mexican border. The purpose of the BJ campout was to get everyone together in one place to meet, hang out, hand out swag, and eat a big dinner together.
It become apparent to all by the end of day one that Nick Carmen is the dude. He knows everything so he's immediately trustworthy. He's humble, but he'll take charge if necessary. He got us all a bunch of cool free shit, including an extremely useful Revelate Designs peso purse and more Gu products than we really knew what to do with (I seriously saw people still eating Gu stroopwafel and drinking watermelon Gu hydration tabs two weeks in). After most people had drank their last beer and gone to bed, Nick was still up in the dining room loading base maps onto hapless garmin eTrex first-time users, including myself. Thanks for everything, Nick!
I didn't take any pictures at BJ for some reason, but see Lael's blog post for a nice pic of everyone at the group dinner.
Rafael and I crammed into his tent in the back yard area of BJ, slotted between Sue from New Zealand and Adam/Mel from Durango/Austin, to pay the ol' "I've been sleeping in a bed" tax of a restless first night in the sleeping bag. Everything was wet with dew when we awoke.
There was no hurry to ride the 7 road miles to Mexico on day 2, yet I felt as impatient as ever. The tent couldn't dry fast enough, Rafael couldn't get his biked in time, and everybody couldn't shut up with their conversations quick enough.
But first there was a wonderful breakfast in the dining hall complete with gallons of coffee.
Finally we left and hit the shoulder of a smallish highway for the short ride to the border.
Our group dynamic was funny, always with some new person joining and another dropping off like a tumbling glob of wax inside a lava lamp. But Rafael and I were committed to sticking together as we looked for an ATM to check that our cards worked (they did, but our temporary compadre Jase found out he left his in America). We got pretty damn good tacos and were excited to be eating Mexican food in Mexico. Then, funny enough, we went to a nice-by-Tecate-standards coffee shop called Cafe Paris where they made us rose-flavored lattes and demanded that we go back in to watch as they poured the latte art.
Not much else is notable except that we left town with Alex who has stories from last year about getting chased by dogs and seeing a dude riding a junker mountain bike on a busy street loaded down with two kids. I guess the shocking thing for me as a middle-class American gringo from suburban Colorado Springs was the surprise that street life (people riding bikes junker mountain bikes loaded with kids. Dogs all over the streets) appears so different just a few miles from America. That the border actually works to separate people and laws and customs. Not a big surprise intellectually, but always a shock to experience.
We camped at a broken-down campground that looks like it's very busy with families during the summer, but it was just really cold and dewy on this particular day in the winter. Almost no Mexicans were there, but literally every American bikepacking person you've ever seen on Instagram was there—hanging around various fires. The DFL crew gathered around a long picnic table, got drunk and sang loudly to a selection of pop hits from the 80s and 90s. Like a row of D batteries you just can't ignore, the crew's magnetism attracted new people with the right charge, while others like myself were strongly pushed away by their unabashed drunkenness and attention-seeking. Despite my concerns after the loudest shrieked, "haha, I think everyone else is asleep!," they shut up about the time we actually wanted to go to bed anyway.
We shivered through the night under a cabana, getting up many times to make trips to the baño, then spent the morning drying out our wet sleeping bags. Rafael again talked to people long into the morning as I packed up and waited impatiently to get the fuck away from everybody.
Part II: Finally! Baja Backcountry!
I was rearing and ready to go and passive-aggressively sweated Rafael about his packing about 10 a.m. But we did finally leave and rode the couple of highway miles to the Oxxo where we drank coffee, ate a couple bad Hostess-style pastries, and hit the dirt!
Day 3 includes the highest point on the Baja Divide route—about 4,500 feet. So we slowly up-downed our way mostly up on amazing roads reminiscent vaguely (for me, givin my limited experience of Earth) of Joshua Tree. I felt like a massive weight had been lifted and I could climb forever. Finally I was were doing what I came here to do: crush some sandy desert miles and take a lot of pictures of rustic barbed-wire fences!
Unfortunately we dropped Jase (sorry Jase).
We leapfrogged with the three Alaskan girls a few times, made it to the high sagebrush desert that resembled Central Oregon, and cut through a melting sunset landscape on mostly-downhill dirt through pine forests.
Alex recounted a tale about a tiny village where his crew last year stumbled into someone's house that doubled as a restaurant where a nice abuela invited them in and served them pozole. We agreed that we wanted to try to relive this experience, even with the risk of failing and ending up in town with no food and nowhere good to camp.
We ran into Cait and Carp from Alaska at what we later realized was the best campsite before the big drop back into civilization. They had a roaring fire going, their tent set up, and their sleeping bags hanging from a tree to dry out with the evening's final rays (they left camp early without drying their bags which struck me as genius). Alex is friends with Cait and Carp, and he was kinda like a little puppy at a dog park who didn't want to leave his friends. But we successfully talked him into riding on with us toward our mythical pozole.
We rode downhill into the night, re-donning our layers from the morning. It got dark before we got to town, and as we barreled down one of the final hills, Rafael heard a small voice yelling from the bushes below the road and stopped us.
"Hey!" a girl's voice shouted out from below.
"Hi!" we shouted back into the night. "Are you ok?"
"Yeah, I'm fine! Are you guys riding into town?"
"Yeah!" We said. "Want to go with us and be potentially disappointed?"
"What does that mean?"
"We're trying to get to a place that serves Pozole in the little town a few miles up. But we might not find it, and it might be closed."
"OK, well, can you wait about five minutes for me?"
The voice was named Jess. She was from Oakland. She re-packed her tent and pushed her bike up a hill toward our voices. When she came out, we saw she was the girl with the pink glittery singlespeed—certainly one of the best bikes on the Divide.
We rode downhill toward Puerta Trampa on a funny dirt road that was actually two very wide side-by-side roads where drivers snake around to catch whichever line has the fewest rocks and avoids the largest mud puddles.
We got into town and were greeted by the gruff voice of some bikepacker camped out under a baseball stadium dugout who overheard us talking about the restaurant.
"There's no food here," he shouted out from the dark. "If you want food, you've gotta fuck off to Ojos Negros."
"Who are you?" Alex asked, incredulous.
The guy lightened up a little, but we weren't adding him to our crew. We got out fast with a vague explanation that we were going to "keep going."
The place Alex thought was the restaurant was only two blocks away though. There was a worker restocking the tiny open shack of a bar and Rafael struck up a conversation with him, working his Mexican magic. Within a minute we had an offer to come into the house of "Don David" next door where they'd make us pozole in "quince minutos."
Alex pulled us aside while the guy went into the house. "This is actually not the same place as last year." We were literally reliving the same experience as last year at a differenthouse!
A nice woman invited us in and set us up at the dining room table. Two kids (not sure if they were hers or the other guy's or Don David's) hid in the bedroom off the main room. Eventually little David came into the room and started engaging us. The woman served us Nescafe instant coffee (the customary drink for most people in Baja) and a styrofoam bowl of cut-up queso fresco to snack from, meanwhile the other guy must have run to town because he showed up a few minutes later with plastic bags of food. The pozole was ready and it was served in styrofoam bowls with other bowls of cilantro, radishes, limes and queso fresco to garnish.
It was great! It also had a ton of bones, so she gave us another bowl to spit 'em out into.
It was difficult to believe that we were in some completely random person's house in Mexico—warm, safe and sound—being served our second helping of pozole and drinking our second cup of Nescafe. What would we do if these same Mexicans showed up at our house in the United States?
Don David, the owner of the house and the neighboring bar, finally showed up and offered to let us sleep on his porch, which we heartily accepted.
It was another cold Baja night, but we were warmed up by the pozole and the hospitality. Alex set up a tent, but Rafa and I slept out. I woke up cold again on my tiny pad with my ultralight quilt's down insulation wilted by the condensation.
At least my quilt dries out as fast as it gets wet.. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Our wonderful hosts invited us in for coffee and bathrooms while we waited for our stuff to dry out. Meanwhile Cait and Carp showed up, having somehow already covered the 10 or so miles from their camp before we got moving. We all rolled out together down the ultra-wide double-road to Ojos Negros where we'd get tacos for breakfast and resupply our food for the next 24 hours.
The ride out of town on day 4 was somewhat depressing at first, with a lot of trash and a couple dead dogs on the side of the road between town and Mex 3. But once we crossed the highway, we were back on good backcountry roads. Eventually we made it to some segments from this year's Baja 1000 and they were littered with beer cans, trash and course tape. Great roads though.
The first half of the day was an easy uphill which finished in a very hard uphill, but we were paid back in spades on the descent, as we blasted down 2,500 feet of rutted roads at high speed. The ruts had a unique pattern that I've never experienced anywhere I've ridden before: deep ruts ran the same direction as the road for a long distance, allowing you to gain speed in-between them on, before they inevitable crossed and forced you to bunny-hop your loaded bike over a deep chasm at high speed to get out alive. Extremely fun riding for us, as we gambled many times but never went bust.
The descent leveled off into a rolling-but-ultimately-downhill valley that led us through a bunch of gates to Ejido Uruapan (I made a song about it which I can sing for you upon request). On one roller, we ran into Mariah (whom we hadn't yet met). She initially told us to stop waiting for her, but then caught up to us and we rode her wheel into town, now a member of our posse.
The town had a "hot springs" which was actually a lavanderia with some bath tubs where you could take a warm bath for 20 pesos.
We hadn't showered or washed our clothes in four days, so I lobbied heavily for doing the laundry and taking a bath.
Rafael wound up getting into a conversation with the laundry lady and instead of handing over our clothes to be washed, we were offered a place to stay for the night, which meant we had to wait for Rafael to go meet up with the laundry lady's cousin and come back before we could do laundry or take a bath. Mexico can be a difficult place for a person as impatient as me.
Alex and I spent our time waiting under the lavanderia store's awning as the mist turned to rain, buying snack after snack after snack. I ate candy, chips, more chips, Coca Cola, more chips, more candy, Jumex mango, more chips, etc. Finally Rafa returned, we handed over our laundry to the laundry lady, and I took my bottle of Dr. Bronners to my little room for one of the best baths of my life! I had a 30-minute ticket, but dried myself off with a t-shirt after 20. Apparently we could have rented towels for a couple more pesos..
We had enough food including the lavanderia's snacks to make it through the night, so we packed up our clean laundry and followed the laundry lady's cousin in his truck up the muddy road our lodgings: his nearly-completed house with electricity and a microwave!
It was almost impossible to believe. The guy came in, showed us the spot, turned on a breaker to get all the lights and microwave working, and directed us to a massive pile of white sheets to use for anything we wanted.
Alex and I made beds out of multiple layers of sheets to augment our teeny sleeping pads. And we used some sheets to make foot-wipe zones and walkways across their unfinished floors, so we didn't screw them up after going out for a piss.
We pooled our resources and made a massive burrito feast with machaca, refried beans, onions, tomatoes, onions, avocados, lime, salt, cheese and tortillas. I went to bed warm, full, and secure in the knowledge that my sleeping bag would retain its loft all night with a house to block out the condensation. Then I woke up with the immediate need to shit, and ran outside and scrambled to quickly dig a hole in something as far away from the construction site as I could get without shitting my tights.
Part III: El Pacifico
My stomach didn't feel good that next morning, and I was pretty nervous about what kind of ride I was about to take. We had no bathroom, and the house sat prominently on a little hill above other farms and houses. The cousin of the house's owner drove up to greet us and to get started with the day's construction. Meanwhile I prayed to la Virgen María that I wouldn't have to emergency-squat in front of all these nice people.
We piled up our sheets, swept the floor and got on our way—an early start made possible by our dry equipment sheltered from a night of misty rain. We followed Cait and Carp's advice from the day before to go a mile out of the way on Mex 1 to a restaurant and tienda for breakfast and resupply.
And guess who was already there? Cait and Carp, sitting at a big, round table by the patio with space for us all! They'd shown up the night before and slept in the entryway.
I decided to stick to more "healthy" fare for breakfast, ordering some kind of crab and eggs thing with excellent tortillas that did nothing to ameliorate my gut—but luckily the store had a bathroom that I made use of twice during our time there. I bought a lot of Multi-Grano bars for some added fiber and the usual supplies, then we headed out with Rafa, Alex, Mariah, Cait and Carp as a unit. We rode the highway for a few miles before taking a right and going up a steep hill to start our climb over Baja's equivalent of the Oregon Coast Range. I dropped off the back of the group on a rolling downhill and yelled to Rafael not to wait for me as I ran behind a bush to dig a shallow hole.