Baja By Chance It has been a while now since I returned from a large-group motorcycle trip of some fourteen hundred miles through the deserts, and mountains of Baja California. This ride took many turns and twists, not all related to the roads we traveled. I would like to tell the story of this trip… a cautionary tale. The trip started as a request from my oldest son, Jason, to share my KLR with him on a motorcycle road trip that seemed just made for our tastes. After some discussion, the "sharing the KLR" part got dumped altogether. Jason ended up buying a Honda XR 650 to ride. I did not want do most of the trip in a pickup. After all, what serious rider is going to sit in the ‘sag-wagon’, and eat dust, not me, not yet! So we each prepped or own bikes, looking forward to our style of “roughing-it”. Blasting across Baja desert all day, then camping out on the coasts or deserts each night. I was looking forward to getting to know my son's associates, and making up for our lack of time spent together in the past…. Perfect… Or was it? We were to take a variety of roads: some paved, sort-of-paved, graded dirt, washboard, washed out, and rock- infested… the usual variety in the northern portion of Baja. It is a wild and wonderful place to ride. Early November was an exceptional window for weather, and road conditions. However, I would like to emphasize some other conditions to consider when taking off on a motorcycle adventure in this area of the world, or anywhere else for that matter, as part of a large group of riders... thirteen in all. One could create a laundry list to include all of the precautions to consider when riding dirt bikes, and multi-surface motorcycles in northern Baja’s mountains and deserts for seven days. But no matter where, or when, you ride it is whom you are riding with, and the dynamic of that group, large or small, that will ultimately shape your experience. Group Dynamics: When asked along on a motorcycle road trip, longer than a couple of days, pay particular attention to the number and make-up of the other riders. In this case the large group number (13) gave me reason for pause at the very beginning. As with any long road trip, the number of bikes will compound the possibility for problems. There will be more chance for accident, more chance for mechanical failures, more chance for separation, and the ensuing delays. However, I felt these concerns would be offset by the fact that these were mostly professional firefighters, one a scuba-dive master, two doctors, one dot-com millionaire, two battalion fire chiefs, and at least one other fellow over sixty, whom I had a couple of years on. One of the doctors was around mid-fifties, and that would lend more life experience to all that relative youth. The majority of this group was in their late-twenties, early-to-mid thirties. The firefighters, medics, rescue specialist, and two battalion chiefs, would be safety conscious, and the group cohesion should be at a very high level. The two doctors, paramedics, and EMT’s would lend even more safety consciousness, and a high level of concern regarding dangerous situations. That would help to insure general levelheaded behavior, and maximum enjoyment. Why not just enjoy my son's company and let the trip unfold? Ok, now that I learned who would be going, I was very Interested in what routes, and roads we would be taking along with how the trip would be organized. I received an email with a list of the travel days noted by the starting point and the ending point of each days travel, consisting of seven days, some 1400 miles of Baja roads, leaving from Mexicali on the northern border. Along with the travel agenda was supplied the organizational structure which was in the form of a “two team” system: Team A) six riders, one driver (a crew-cab 4x4 pick-up truck pulling a dual-wheeled gear-trailer). Team B) made up of seven riders. Each team was to have a designated treasurer to mind the travel money for that group, take care of the food, and beer bill when necessary… It was noted, “When the kitty runs dry all members will be required to pay up immediately or risk being exonerated (sic) from our groups. We will not play with you, and you will be like a lone lion wishing you could hang out with the pride.” Whoa, OK… I’ll bring some extra money. A word to the wise; beware of open ended kitties used to pay for unexpected expenses due to haphazard planning, poor decisions, heavy partying, or… all three. I emailed back with an inquiry regarding the route on the beginning west, and southbound segments of the trip, along with a number of suggestions regarding many possible dirt roads, including the possibility of avoiding Ensenada. (I had the topo-sheets, and AAA maps of Northern Baja) I mentioned a few dirt roads we might take instead of asphalt, getting us to the same place, but doing it in the dirt! I did this in an attempt to contribute to the group, not assuming any hierarchy. These well-meaning questions and suggestions generated a turse reply from the organizer of the trip, to wit… “Sounds great… we usually enjoy going in the direction that sounds fun” At this time there was so little dirt riding included on the early part of our itinerary, and the… “Going in the direction that sounds fun” comment, got me to wondering if the Ensenada stop-over wasn’t all about some strip-club time? I never got a chance to test this theory, because we went through Ensenada in the afternoon. A day late… as chance would have it. Things fall apart… stage one. On the way to Yuma, a warm fall day on interstate 8, two of the riders who had opted to ride their dirt bikes on this first leg. They also decided to see how fast they could go. Well, they were able to maintain around 90 mph. That is when those big knobby off-road tires in back began to heat up and expand. That in turn pushed the center-most knobs into the mudguard or frame at the yoke, ripping off all the center knobs and exposing the chord where each knob had been. This is for the entire outer diameter of the tire... on both bikes! Of course they did not discover this until we slowed down just outside Yuma. Because of the damage to the tires, these two riders decided to try to replace these rags with DOT (Department of Transportation, Highway Approved) tires before continuing. We were all stopped at the first motorcycle shop in Yuma… in a bit of a panic. The two riders, and most of the group, poured over the tires in stock to replace the ones that had been shredded. This being primarily a sand, and dirt riding area, the shop did not carry any tires they could use. These riders did not have any spare DOT tires. By now everyone with rear tires similar to the ones that had lost center knobs, was concerned that their dirt tires would do the same on the many miles of asphalt highway we planned to run. Along with the two “high-speed cowboys", they needed DOT tires also. But, the right tires were not available in this shop. Now, a certain degree of quite panic set in. The consequences of what one could only consider as poor judgment at best, running big-knob soft, dirt tires at 90 mph on asphalt, jeopardizing their own safety and equipment, delaying the trip, and in fact, as pointed out by one of the Battalion chiefs when we were first leaving… “Any major problem incurred by one, would in-affect jeopardize us all…” Well, this situation had been created almost immediately by two of the ‘best riders’, one the Co-leader of the trip. We were all effectively stopped at noon of the first day… before we even got out of Arizona. Again… just by chance. That nervous, panic continues as part of the pack got directions to the only other motorcycle shop in town, and their last hope. We all followed each other across town and gathered at the next shop. There were DOT tires, however the counter-man guessed it would be an hour or so before the shop could change the tires. I decided to go back to talk with the mechanics, knowing that the counter-man would usually give the shop a considerable margin of time before accepting “walk-in” work. They do not want to get their ass chewed for cramming non-scheduled work into an already busy day. I went around to the back of the shop, and there were three or four mechanics hanging-out enjoying cold sodas in the shade of the huge open-air shop area. I ask them if they could change two or three rear tires, and they said, “Sure, it’ll take 10 minutes, bring ‘em back! I ran back to the front parking lot to tell the others just in time to get in on the tail-end of a group meeting. Our fearless leader, and his sidekick were announcing to the group… ‘WE don’t want to waste anymore time… We’re gonna just ride these tires until they blow!” With that being instantly agreed on, everyone got on their bikes and roared out of the parking lot. There was no opportunity to stop the momentum, and tell them the shop was ready, and waiting to put on new DOT tires. I did not want to think about riding those tires off the lot, let alone more miles of high-speed desert highway… but it seemed they were all willing… to take that chance. It seems the older I get, the more I realize how foolish I could be in my youth. But the chances being taken now were simply not necessary. Pushing on, riding on dangerously bad tires, to avoid more delay, and save face for holding up the trip, was certainly making a bad macho decision to cover the outcome of an earlier bad decision. Reminiscent of mistakes made in the early stages of every doomed expedition. My problem was this; that everyone, Drs., older men, all agreed instantly without discussion, to… the bravado of, “Ride ‘em till they blow”! So off we went, to our next major delay. Food shopping… So now, we got to enjoy the noon-day sun while sitting around for an hour or more in the parking lot of the Walmart store in Yuma Az. This was one of those hurry-up and wait sort of things, that can happen… However, we finally did get out of Yuma, about 2:00PM that afternoon. The plan was to get an early start, right? Many of us left home at 6:00 AM. that morning. Finally, we headed for the Calexico Fire station. We were to drop off cars and trailers for safe keeping, then on to the border, and on to Ensenada for the night... If, by chance, those tires didn’t blow… Things fall apart… stage two. On that same warm Friday afternoon at the fire station, we all changed into riding gear, packed the equipment trailer, and roared off to begin the trip. Everyone now in a big hurry. But wait, they had to buy vehicle insurance. So, they got in line at one of those road-side insurance offices that dot the entrance to the boarder on the main. While waiting around, I noticed a bolt on my KLR’s front brake lever had vibrated off. I knew they would be some time before everyone got their insurance, so I found a hardware store with the right metric while I waited. I was just tightening things up when my son went by looking for me. He stopped and topped off his front tire pressure and away we went. It was easy to catch up because ten bikes had to get insurance before reaching the border. Travel tip… bike insurance for Mexico can be purchased on-line, it’s cheaper, faster, and it can be printed out and in your hand in a few minutes. This is always better than standing in line, waiting at a crowded border crossing insurance shop, on a Friday evening… The next wait was in a line of traffic getting through the checkpoint at the border. It was now getting dark and we were moving very slowly in three lanes of traffic. This is one of the busiest border crossings on the frontier… Oh, did I mention this is a Friday evening. Our eyes were burning with the fumes of exhaust, and the bikes were heating up in the stop and go approaching the checkpoint. Then, one of the race bikes started to boil-over. We all pulled out of line and waited beside the stream of cars and trucks, sucking up more noxious fumes. A few minutes later, it was determined the rider had pinched off a radiator vent tube. That fixed, we were anxious to get out of traffic and into Mexico… …some, were way more anxious than others. Those pipes roared, and the bikes flew across into Mexicali. The more aggressive riders simply disappeared down a hill and into the night. My son and I were back some distance, and decided to pull over to regroup with those behind us before entering what looked like a maze of narrow streets and alleys. We pulled into a vacant lot on the corner where the divided road continues on south. The smaller two-lane veers right into the glow of town. I was stopped at the intersection, asking a local policeman for directions when the others, who had blazed on ahead, finally noticed that two thirds of the group was missing. They turned back, and began pulling into the once vacant corner lot. I went over and just hung around with them, waiting for the other riders, and the sag-wagon to catch up. About ten minutes later, I noticed one fellow was talking on his cell phone in a loud, animated way. Well, my son comes over and tells me that the sag-wagon, with trailer, and two other riders are lost in the ‘nether world’ section of very busy, Friday night, bawdy-Honky-tonk Mexicali. They were in that ‘nightclub’ section at the top of the hill... somewhere? The one on the phone was talking to the driver, and he was informed it was going to take some time to get the caravan back together. The very leaders, people who had at least been to Baja before, had run out ahead, and the driver was left to choose his own way. This, as it turned out, was taking a big chance. The “some time” was about two more hours… Now here is one of those examples of escalating crap-o-circumstances. They had gotten lost deep in the shabby neon strips of "upper" Mexicali, the bikes had overheated in the grid-lock traffic… so, they had to wait for them to cool down. Then, the driver with the 4X4 crew-cab pulling the fully loaded trailer, ended up taking a wrong turn and going back across the international border by mistake! Now, they were in an even longer Friday-night line trying to get back into Mexico! The rest of us waited in this dirt parking lot, on the outskirts of residential Mexicali. I went next door to a small Pine-Sol smelling beer-joint and ordered a cold Tecate with lime and salt. Came back out, leaned on my bike and waited. This was getting way too random... just by chance. The beer idea caught on for the rest, and three or five beers latter we saw the big pick-up and trailer coming down the hill. As we went out to guide him in, suddenly a Mexican Border-Police Bronco, lights up the truck. The Mexican Border-guy, riding shotgun in the police Bronco, begins waving at the driver to pull over. We were able to determine quickly that they thought the motorcycle tires strapped all over the trailer were being smuggled into Mexico. What? Now you see how one complication will cascade… leading inexorably to another. Fortunately, the problem with the border police was solved quickly. We finally regrouped, and headed out of town. We were lucky they didn’t arrest us for drinking in public, which is a real moneymaker in the border towns these days… It’s now about 8:00PM. We had been on the road for about twelve hours, some fatigue was developing, and most of the group had two or four beers on-board, but no food. However, the leaders were confidently in the lead now… The earlier events would unspool our furture. We finally began to pull away from the sprawling city for the open road. Just before clearing town, we stopped at a typical roadside restaurant and ordered our first meal in Mexico. It was at this food stop that I became a bit concerned about what might lay ahead of us? If we leave Mexicali this time of night (after 8 PM in Nov.) it's 185 Mi. to Ensenada. That meant we would be traveling over a busy mountain pass at night, then through the somewhat mountainous “wine country” to the south. Some bikes without lights at all, some with inadequate lights, and only three or four bikes with mirrors. Not to mention the two riders on shredded rear tires. To bring these points up would only fly in the face of the group decision-making process, which at this time was like… “Whatever”. Decisions had somehow been given over to “Willy-Nilly”, and he wanted to… “ Ride till they blow”. I though better of getting myself, and by association, my son, embroiled in conflict with the pack, as it had now evolved into a single-minded stumbling beast. There was no room for discussion or dissent. The young riders were of one mind with the older males either marginalized and speechless, or supportive. The group had now become more than the sum of it’s parts and would maintain the… “Ride till they blow” mentality until fatigue or some catastrophic event slowed that momentum. Fortunately it was freezing cold, and fatigue that would slow the rush to nowhere. But that was just by chance. Things get downright dangerous. We got through the military checkpoint out of Mexicali and started winding up into the two-lane mountain pass called Rumosa Grade. The temperature began to drop dramatically, and the night was darker than the inside of a cow. Jason and I stopped to put on another layer. We decided that it would be best for him to travel ahead of me to take advantage of the halogen I had on the KLR. On high beam, this was good enough illumination for us both... until the turns. Then he would disappear out my light, and then suddenly reappear flashing across the beam like some rag-tag ghost rider in the night sky. The wind was howling enough to make taking the sharp turns through the cuts in the mountain a real challenge. As you entered the turns it was necessary to lean aggressively into the turn to offset the force of the wind coming through the gap. As you left the gap the wind-shear would suddenly change direction requiring a quick adjustment in attitude. At times the wind coupled with your angle of attack would make the rear tire seem to skip across the asphalt ever so slightly... exciting stuff. Now, let’s throw in some real fear-factors. Night Ride to Nowhere I: This being a Friday night there were lots of other people on the road, including busses and trucks. They all wanted to get to Tecate or Ensanada in a hurry. We were thirteen riders in a single file line that stretched out for maybe a 1/4 of a mile, with the sag-wagon at the back. We couldn’t maintain any speed because of poor lighting, some slower traffic, and those bad tires. This created a long snake-like string of bikes guarded in the rear by our truck and trailer. As some of you might know, many Mexican drivers are not afraid to take what amounts to death defying risks to get around a slower vehicle; a long string of Gringo motorcycles became especially challenging, and produced an even higher level of competitive macho rage in some of those folks. It wasn’t long before the big-wheeled V-8 pick-ups, and even Mexican bus drivers started making passes, sometimes into blind turns. The first pickup I saw coming up rapidly in my mirror was in a hurry. I moved over quickly. Jason, just in front of me, had no mirrors and stayed out near the centerline, probably tracking on the line. That pickup came screaming along side him, and barely had time to dive back into the right lane to avoid oncoming traffic. He cleared my son’s front tire by two feet, maybe less. Next came the bus. He must have had plenty of horsepower for he had already passed the sag-wagon and three bikes… in the mountains. Now he was closing in on me. I quickly rode up and signaled Jason to pull over. The bus driver was into the throttle just as we hit a bit of a straight stretch with a little down grade. Accompanied by three other bikes, we pulled into a wide dirt turnout as the bus screamed past. Jason, without mirrors, had not seen any of what had been coming and wondered why I wanted to pull over. There is no doubt in my mind that bus was going to take us, and if the driver had needed to take back our lane in a hurry, he may have taken us out completely. Then the sag-wagon pulled in. We watched as a bunch of pissed-off Mexican drivers that had been stuck behind him accelerate quickly and speed past. Our Sag driver was very nervous; evidently that bus had been all over his ass, high beams blazing, and then crowded him close in passing. He asked if some of the bikes would drop back behind him to keep the busses off his back. I thought… with all that iron, he already had the better backstop. I thought better of offering an opinion. So, this is how we rode for the next segment of our first white-knuckle night ride. We finally ended up stopping at the top of the grade in La Rumosa. We had climbed to nearly three thousand feet, and it was now about 10PM. The riders were butt-cold, tired, and looking for a place to crash. Some of them only having one layer of thin desert riding gear, and they were frozen to their core. Jason and I had put on extra layers, but we were still definitely feeling the chill. We were only one third of the way to Ensenada, but it was over. Even the hard-cores were finished. The motel where we pulled up to was closed, but we managed to wake the owners, and they gladly opened up for us. We rented the entire motel (7 rooms) and they opened the bar/restaurant for us. After a great meal, and a few more bears, it was 11PM and crash time. We slept 2 to a room, and got up the next morning to warm sun, and a great Mexican breakfast. Our spirits were high, however, we had spent $200-300 of the kitty for the motel. But then again, we saved the cost of a night on the town in Ensenada. At least now there was a possibility of our first dirt road… As luck would have it, we had stayed directly across the street from the road that led to the Constitution National Park, the very dirt road I had mentioned in my early email as a possible alternate. I pointed out the road to our fearless leader, and called his attention to the two dirt-bike riders that had just screamed off up into the hills. After we finished our huge plates of huevos, beans, and tortillas. He asked around to find out more information about the road... approximate time of travel etc., then he suggested to the group that we take to the dirt. (A really good idea!) This was met with instant agreement. But it was all, just by chance… They changed the bad tires after breakfast, and then we had our first safety meeting. This was to go over: 1) the importance of staying together; 2) how to point out hazards to the guys behind you; 3) How to stay, and point out a turnoff, or a fork in the road to others, then rejoining at the rear of the pack; 4) How to signal that you were OK to the others; 5) How to signal to pull over. We finally left the motel about 10:30-11:00 that morning, the "stay together" stuff soon forgotten.