One of the overarching themes of this tour seems to be that there are positives to be found in every situation. My personal outlook has switched full turn from full frontal pessimism towards an accepting optimism, even if it is still slightly guarded by reality. In riding down the Baja peninsular it has taken getting ill and spending five days incapacitated, shitting water and vomiting back up whatever I could force down to really appreciate the experience. Being made to stop, reflect and count my blessings in a bizarre way has worked to reignite my waning passion for the tour and reopen my eyes to the incredible opportunities I have built for myself.
Before hitting Playa El Coyote on the Bay of Conception (my current location), about 600 miles of riding into Mexico, I was spending a lot of my time in Baja wishing I wasn’t in Baja. It seems to have been my time to exercise some touring demons. Touring fatigue is inevitable; it is hard to stay enthused about every new thing you see and every new person you meet when you’re covering thousands of miles over a multitude of months. I am forever drilling home to people the relevance of context on a long distance bicycle tour and it is this I believe was fuelling my disappointments with Baja. After the exhilarations of the USA it is unsurprising that I should suffer some form of hangover. It’s hard to follow the marvel of the Grand Canyon as it is difficult to adjust from being in the cosy domestic bliss I was lucky to find in Flagstaff. The realities of a long solo tour bit and although my motivation to persevere never subsided, I came face-to-face with loneliness and serious disillusionment for the first time in the ten and a half months I’ve been out on the road.
I am sure that if I’d started my tour in Yuma then I would have been in raptures about Baja from the gun, I also suspect that if I’d followed the Pacific Coast route down through San Diego I would have been suitably enthused. As it is I had already had my ‘oh my days how great is the desert‘ moment and thus found myself plain bored by much of the riding that Baja was offering. After popping out onto MXC1 at Chapala I found myself enduring hundreds of miles of characterless boring desert. This desert lacked the personality of that which seduced me in California, it was not just rubbish but also filled with rubbish. The riding became dull, flat, generally uninspiring and simply a matter of going through the motions. As I counted down the miles to La Paz I could frequently be found asking for inspiration and hoping upon hope to find a riding partner. Not to say that I was miserable, more introspective. But the road is kind and when I seek inspiration it is often found; whether through illness or chance encounter, something turns my thoughts, adding more coals to the fire of my spiritual curiosity. It is a reflection on the power of the mind that negativity can cloud what otherwise could be great and interesting adventures. Even before my illness, when cursed with the most pertinent pessimism, I was still having my moments…
One of my motivations in writing this blog is that I hope it may prove a valuable resource to any folk planning a similar tour. I know that much of my research and inspiration came from other tourists writings. When I was plotting my route south from Yuma I searched these other sites to find an account of the road south from San Felipe, I never found one, it seemed that for some reason everybody went down the west coast. I was under the impression that the road south from Puertecitos all the way down past Gonzaga Bay and up over to join MXC1 was unpaved dirt. Having tamed the Dalton Highway and set my bike up for these very conditions I figured it would be a fun road to ride. But the road wasn’t quite as I’d imagined and I hope my experience may help others decide whether to take this way down.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that a stretch of brand new paved highway rolled out another 30 miles south after Puertecitos. A glorious surface, the miles were easy to come by and the world a wonderful place. Then one evening the black top ended and I was straight into savage unpaved rockery. What followed was just over 60 miles of the most hideous road surface I’ve encountered thus far. If large rocks weren’t making me feel as if I were riding a bucking bronco, I was getting swamped down in sand. Riding this surface was tough, a full body workout that had me wrestling every foot of the way. One word kept running through my head… ‘brutal’. The uncompromising road conditions were not helped by a lack of services that had me carrying a full complement of 16 litres water and my usual large stash of food. Then came the weather; still air and 90 degrees in the shade, my thermometer got up to 43 degrees Celsius. Needless to say I wasn’t going anywhere fast. My average speed for the two full days on what I christened the ‘Hell Road’ were well under 5mph. 6 punishing hours in the saddle punctuated by rehydration and salty snack breaks had me pushing just 25 miles in a whole day of perhaps the hardest riding of the tour so far.
Twelve miles from the end of ‘Hell Road’ is a little cafe type institution called Coco’s Corner. Coco is quite the celebrity and I was looking forward to meeting him. Unfortunately he was in hospital so I was denied, instead I had to make do with guzzling down two Cokes and admiring the collection of women’s underwear hanging from the rafters. Everyone who passes down this road will stop in on Coco and sign his visitors book. There are a few volumes of this huge ledger, with the one I scrawled in starting from 2007. Scowering the pages of this impressive journal I could find only a handful of other cyclists (evident as we’re told to draw a picture of a bike), this surprised me considering the huge amount of cycle touring traffic that hits Baja annually. It seems everyone else got the memo about the ‘Hell Road’!
All good things come to an end (thank God) and I eventually popped out onto MXC1. After kissing the asphalt I set off south at a more conventional pace. But this is where the riding became a bore and I was soon yearning for the punishment and satisfaction of roads like that I’d just conquered. Largely flat deserted desert ran for about 200 miles before I was at least treated to some undulation. It was around this time that I was truly gagging for inspiration and company, a yearning destiny was trying its hardest to oblige. First came a meeting with another cycle tourist, the Polish, Parys Lisiecki.
Parys, 40, is an experienced cycle tourist who had laid down thousands of miles in Europe and China before setting off from Urshuaia 14 months ago. On his way north from Tierra del Fuego Parys has covered about 14,000 miles, evidently hitting up trails wherever he can. Since I met an Austrian couple who had just completed their journey in Prudhoe Bay, my unconventional course had taken me away from the traditional Pan-American route and the chance of meeting fellow End-to-enders. But this is not the most remarkable thing about Parys, for me that was the meagre size of his load. Rocking only rear panniers with tent and sleeping bag strapped ‘turd’ style over the back, his modified mountain bike looked admirably fast and light. He was riding on the brink, minimal with food and water and seemingly being very successful with it. We had a long conversation in broken Spanish (I’m picking it up) and pigeon English where handy tips were passed both ways. Then, as I sailed away with the wind at my back and Parys hunkered down to continue his fight the other way I was hit by a wave of inspiration. I decided to lighten my load and give the Parys approach to food and water a go. The next morning I repacked my bags and got rid of the ‘overflow’ dry bag that has been sitting atop of my ‘mountain’. I’ve done well with it and have vowed to keep this set-up, after all this is always what I had planned my load to be, it is the vast wilderness of north American that seduced me into carrying far too much food.
Parys has also got me thinking about my route through the Mexican mainland. I have always planned to visit Copper Canyon, Guadalajara and Mexico City on my way over to the Yucatan. My Polish friend had taken a tour around the Yucatan and then dropped down to follow the coast up to Topolobampo and ferry over to La Paz. This simple path has me thinking about possibly sacrificing the fascinating history of Mexico City and its ancestor, Tenochtitlan in the name of morale, ease and the desire to progress. We’ll see.
Another welcome flash of inspiration came as I reached the little desert Oasis of San Ignacio. With Palm trees and water I was pretty happy to have left the desert for a while. As I toured around searching out a suitable lunch spot I found myself in Los Petate campsite and listening to the dulcet tones of three fellow English folk. I’ve hardly met any Brits on my tour so it was truly a blessing to find Cliff, Nikki and Justin, all hailing from the Cambridge area. Nikki and Cliff had cycled 800 miles down the Pacific coast from San Francisco at the start of their five month tour while Justin had flown to Baja to meet them. I didn’t get back on the bike and ended up staying the night at the campsite, a rare treat that enabled me to have a much-needed wash. I felt so good to scrub off the thick coating of factor 30 sunscreen and grime that had accumulated on me since San Felipe. And it felt great to be joking around in a common language with people who actually understand each others humour.
It’s amazing how dirty one can become without really being that concerned. After a week or two in the same clothes without a wash I certainly feel the effects when it comes to peeling off the socks and rolling down the bike shorts at the end of a day. But otherwise I never really think I smell too bad. I think of it as a badge of honour, commemorating my efforts that when a recently acquired new friend, Lulu, offered to wash my things in Mulege she had to wash the load twice because my socks had made the whole lot stink! I needed an afternoon chilling and chatting and that is what I found with Lu. She was on her way north having spent some months in her old RV at Playa El Coyote. If it was good enough for her it’s certainly good enough for me and I would make my way there for some down time the following day.
I convinced myself that a race to La Paz was the best thing but when the Bay of Conception beaches started flashing by I was more impressed than I ever imagined. I managed just 10 miles before giving up at El Coyote and taking the rest of the day off. Now, if I’d resisted this temptation would I have escaped illness, or would my health simply have failed elsewhere? It is a question that doesn’t really warrant conjecture but has me thinking nonetheless. For the next day I was drained of all energy and things weren’t going so well. Fortunately I had imposed myself on a North American trio of Casey (Vancouver) and Mark and Joel (both Oregon) whose presence helped me no end. They meant I’ve always had a chair to sit in and some shade to cower under. At present I’m camped up in their ‘yard’ keeping an eye on their stuff as they enjoy a few days out on the boat. In a couple of days my unwitting hosts will return and I know I’ll be strong enough to continue southward once again. A week behind where I thought I’d be and a lot physically weaker than I imagined, but mentally I’m back and ready for more action… bring on the Mexican mainland!