Hot on the heels of my foray into the world of the insta-famous and group-touring (dfl the divide) I was invited to a sort-of-exclusive bike party/tour on a new route called the Baja Divide; In celebration of the completion of the route. A pair of adventure-bike-world luminaries and acquaintances of mine; (Nick Carman (@nicholascarman), and Lael Wilcox (@laelwilcox) had spent a couple of winters riding circles in the desert scouting out a not-too-sandy, off-road route, with reliable water sources every few days; the length of the Baja California peninsula.
The route (gps coordinates and such) is freely available on the internet, and several people had already completed it, or were enroute. So I wasn’t being invited to ride the route as much as to ride it with Lael and Nick and 100 or so friends including a bunch of the dfl-the-divide crew. Or at least, to start the ride on new years day, with the rolling party — the first two nights had planed camps, after which we were on our own, so to speak. The route starts in San Diego CA but crosses the border in Tecate rather than Tiajuana, so it parallels the border on the US side for awhile and our first camp was at a road-side tourist restaurant still on American soil. But the merriment started long before that, at least for the DFL crew.
I was picked up in LA (having ridden the train down, and spent a week visiting friends) by a couple of very-full carloads of excited folks and bikes with fat tires — all babbling geekily about tire sizes and gear carrying systems. We were a few days early for the big event and on our way to Slab City, an abandoned military base out in the desert by the Sultan Sea, which has been colonized by crusties, drifters, and other eccentrics; to celebrate the new year with bonfires, explosions and drunken bicycle riding. The festivities were dampened however, by a heavy downpour which started about the time we had motivated to ride over to “the Range” the open-air club at slab city — a motley collection of dilapidated couches and a stage flanked by old school busses.
There were fires going, and still some alcohol to be had — so the raincoatless crusties and rock band tried to stick it out, hoping the weather would pass. But the rain just got harder, the musicians retreated to the safety of one of the school busses, and the crowd dissipated. We made our way back to our camp, through what had become a sea of sticky mud. Tents were flooded and useless and the muck was getting deeper all the time. Most folks, in proper “bikepacker” fashion had only the most minimal ultralight-tarp-shelters which were clearly not going to do anything against the deluge. So we retreated to spend the night in the relative comfort/dryness of various vehicles. I shared the evening/back of a minivan with three other people. Good times were had by all. It was hot and dry by the time we groggily woke up and headed to San Diego where I spent the day watching friends overthinking their loads and buying last minute camping gear/bike parts.
After a little hot tubing, and not alot of sleep at some generic cheep hotel, and it was time for the official party to start. We filled up some little park in San Diego with big tires, “ultra-lite” gear and bike nerds, many of whom had never met before, at least in person. Most folk had heeded Nicks bandwagon hopping recommendation-ne-requirement for 3″ tire “plus” bikes leaving Adam (@dflsticthworks) Colin (@kickstandcolin) and I as odd men out. I only spotted one other fat bike amongst the 100+ folks assembled in the park under a driftwood gazebo/art installation designed by one of the riders/adventure-sports-notable Roman Dial. My ScapeGoat was the only low-Q (not to mention designed for touring) fat bike on the route — something of a surprise to me since Tumbleweed cycles was using the Baja Divide as something of a product launch for their lo-q fat bike; perhaps they were heeding Nicks plus-bike-hype, or fat bikes are just that out of fashion; but their bikes were built up “plus” (as was the other ScapeGoat in the group). Nerdy market forecasting aside, Adam and Colin were the clear winers on the “most-interesting-bike” category. Colin on his custom Cycle Trucks 20″ fat cargo bike; With Adam a close second on his 90’s mail order mountain bike, equipped with a Crust cargo fork, complete with milk-crate storage-system and 20″ (bmx) wheel. Which bike he shredded impressively hard, a testament to his skill/fearlessness. Surprisingly his bike didn’t win my worst-setup-for-the-route award; some adventurous fellow was riding with a older (read pedal-bobbing/ energy-sucking) full-suspension bike pulling a bob trailer! (actually there were two bob trailers in the group – both of which got abandoned pretty quickly). After much nerding, and a little speech from Nick — a (strangely clean and shiny (surprising number of folks on brand new bikes, with new gear)) critical mass of bike packers paraded through San Diego, and its associated sub-urban sprawl. Hyped for a long (50miles) hard (big -ol’ hill climb — the only time on the trip l used my granny gear) day.
Riding with that big a group was a first for me, and as we spread out along the weird no-man’s-land that is the US-Mexico border there was a lot of leapfrogging and opportunity for interaction/observation of my fellow riders. The first thing that struck me (other than the matchy/matchey same-ness of bikes and pack-systems) was the gender equity. Not quite 50/50, but there was a dam strong female-bodied contingent — thanks largely I think to Lael’s co-authorship of the trail and efforts to attract/support non-male riders, along with scholarships/deals offered by Advocate Cycles (which incidentally (and intentionally — good marketing ya’ll) made their “Hayduke” the most common bike in the pack). What ever the impetus, I want to offer a hearty hell yeah — woymen are bizarrely under represented in the world of cycling.
The other take away, from my people-watching, was what a big adventure/leap out of comfort zones this was for most people. There were of course a handfull of for whom this sort of thing was old hat, and who felt that following a marked route seemed strangely pedestrian and a little like cheating; but they were the strong minority. Most had toured, or were mountain bikers; but not both — and among those who had mtn-bike touring experience, it was almost exclusively on the Great Divide Trail. Which while fun and beautiful and mostly dirt, is technically easy riding, and extremely well mapped/supported — lots of water, frequent resupplies, not to mention english speaking. In any case it seemed to me that mixed with the hubris and excitement, there was a general sense that there was a steep learning curve ahead, and that most folks weren’t entirely sure what they had gotten them selves into. Again a hearty hell yeah to everyone for getting out there.
Bieng in the more experienced camp and having a strong inclination toward mechanic-ing especially of the trailside sort — I spent several hours at the base of “the big hill” tuning-up, modifying, and repairing bikes. Making good use of the bag-o-bolts (and screws and bits of metal) I carry around with me. Eventually I rode on, arriving at camp around dusk. Tucked-in behind a Western themed/Americana restaurant was a sort of bike-camping expo. A fashion show if you will, of the cutting-edge in ultra-lite camping gear. After some wandering around checking out peoples shelters and lack-their-of; there were a few tents, but mostly more minimal arrangements: Nick and Lael for instance carry some semblance of a tarp, but only set it up if absolutely necessary, preferring abandoned buildings and the like — and had their seranwrap-like ground cloth spread in the band shell; I tired of talking to people who hadn’t ever set up their set-up before and headed inside for a steamtable buffet which was the price of admission for camping there.
The hall was packed with now slightly more appropriately smelly/dirty bike riders. Food was ok, company excellent, conversation esoterically nerdy. Nick gave a longer welcome/thanks/this is what you’re getting yourself into/ I am in no way responsible for what you do/ where you go after this moment, speech. And those who were into that sort of thing, which was most, settled in to do some drinking. I talked tire sizes and bike-brand relative-representation (on the ride) with Nick and some other uber-nerds for a while then headed to set up my own tarp. I was riding with a more-minimalist-than-usual set up — the syl-nylon tarp from my Hennessey Hammock and a tyveck ground cloth (scavenged from a building site). My reasoning being, it was a short trip (only a month or two) and in the desert….I wasn’t planning to set it up too often: but the clouds looked ominous.
The next day the trip started for real — crossing the border. Tecate was chosen as border crossing because it is relatively small and mellow (not to mention housing the Tecate brewery). Most folks dutifully stood in line, paid their fees and did the paperwork to get their “tourist card” (one can cross the border with no formalities for 24 hours or less — and there is no oversight going or coming, to prevent fee/paperwork evasion) and then we all milled around the town square — got officially welcomed by someone seemingly important, took a lot of photos with the big ‘Tecate’ sign, and headed to the only other planed group camp: a roadside “camping” complete with waterslides and go carts (sadly closed down for the season). It was also the only time l paid to camp in Baja Mexico.
About 2/3rds of the remaining 50-60 riders — I hadn’t realized that a sizable contingent was day-tripping from San Diego and returning to work on Monday — decided to camp with the group. Already starting to disintegrate/group-up, the big horde became several (loose and shifting) cliques around various fires (it’s cold in the desert). The DFL contingent getting quite rowdy — lots of singing and tequila drinking, to the chagrin of much of the rest of the camp who were trying to early-to-bed/early-to-rise for the day ahead. Those folks were long gone before the DFL folks — living up to their name, wandered out of camp. Somewhat uncharacteristically, Nick was one of the last to leave, having kindly spent the day teaching people how to use their gps’s and loading the appropriate files for the poorly prepared — he was headed back to Tecate where Lael was sick in bed. (they passed us at an appropriately fast clip a week or so later, trying to catch some friends from Alaska who had only another week on the trail (before returning to work).
So we settled in to bike touring. I chose to ride with my DFL friends, which meant a relatively large, relatively slow, and remarkably cohesive group. Lots of opportunity to watch people climbing their individual learning curves, facing their individual challenges. There is no way to prepare (physically) for touring and plenty of folks weren’t quite in shape/and or were struggling with the weight of their bikes (thanks largely to the the amount of water we had to carry — desert travel requiring rather alot.) The punishing terrain took its toll on untested-gear-carrying-systems, requiring lots of trailside modifications. And inspiring a couple of hotel-room-party/complete equipment revamp sessions (I spent alot more nights than usual in a hotel on this trip — usually sharing someones bed/room — as large group inertia made leaving town difficult on resupply days). The honor of the most memorable hotel party/gear revamp belongs to my new friend Kat(@kathafratha) (we had hardly met at that point) who let (asked even!) me and a couple other people go through her gear — tell her what to get rid of, and how to pack it — amidst drunken revelry, nude wrestling, etc. Because, bike-packing though we were — the party didn’t stop.
Everyone has their different priorities, what is ‘necessary’ and what doesn’t make the cut. I tend to carry alot more than the super ultra-lite crew — at least in part because, my traveling style is long-term and full-time. Including fresh vegetables, extra food, and a stove (not to mentions lots of tools and spare parts/materials for fixing all sorts of things). Of course, my normal seems to me, well, normal and I found it a little hard to believe how many folks didn’t bring any cooking paraphernalia at all! And most of those who did were on the @ultraromance tip — carrying only a big mug, and building and dealing with fires multiple times a day (he buries his for wildfire prevention, and leave-no-trace esthetics).
Over the next couple of months, I watched the lack of good food take its (subtle and mostly psychological) toll. For one thing, not being able to cook, or being rather limited in what one can cook; meant that the meagre offerings of the middle-of-nowhere tiendas we were resupplying at, were even more circumscribed. Lots of folks lived mostly on (cold) bagged beans (refried beans in a mylar pouch, often with cheese, chilies and/or meat already mixed in) and tortillas. The relative lack of food was really hard on Poppi (@ultraromance) who is rather picky and selective about his diet at the best of times — there was often quite literally nothing he would (normally) eat at one of our one-store-town resupply stops (his sweetheart Nam (@goodolenam) took over the shopping and food prep). In my estimation food is about 90% of the reason he called it quits after about 3 weeks. And his is only the most notable/high profile case.
The other biggerst struggle, for many folks was language. Travel in rural Mexico with little or no spanish being quite the challenge. And alot of the group had rusty-public-high-school training, at best. Over the course of the ride some peoples spanish improved, and others didn’t. But theres safety in numbers. And we had several fluent, and fluentish spanish speakers along, who were mostly willing to translate and mediate when necessary. Of course we shared food too, and mechanical expertise, and encouragement. Not to mention, alot of incredible beauty and good times. With frequent safety meetings for the herb loving contingent; hours long lunch stops. Every camp a party of one sort or another, rain or shine.
And rain it did, not that much in the grand scheme of things — back in California, Santa Cruz was flooding; landslides were taking out driveways and highways alike. Suffice it to say it was much cooler and wetter than anyone had expected. Which on the whole was something of a boon — overcast skies make for much more pleasant desert riding — as well as gloomy metal-album-cover photos. Greenery and wild flowers too. But it also meant more time in hotels; and most importantly/difficultly, Mud. Slick, sticky, (at times) dangerously unrideable mud. Mostly we managed to avoid camping in the worst rain — racing a big storm to town on a couple of occasions. And likewise we managed to avoid the worst of the mud most of the time. By riding around it, or on the least sticky parts (after learning which they were) usually by riding over-land (and vegetation) near the trail. I only encountered one really-bad mud section — which happened to be in the middle of the longest stretch with-out a water resupply on the route. That particular rainstorm, and muddy stretch was the last straw as far as group cohesion, and the end of the line for many of our group.
There had been fairly steady attrition for a while; as folks returned to beaconing lives stateside, and/or the hardships took their toll. But after two days in an expensive hotel waiting out a torrential rainstorm, with the longest unsupported stretch of the route looming, and now reported to be impassibly muddy; our large group splintered overnight. Folks hitch-hiked ahead, folks bussed home. And only Kat and I decided to ride the route. Which was beautiful, and the only part of the route that followed the pacific coast for any length of time. We did have more rain, and mud to go with it. But only one day of impassible mud — though that did suck, and we ran out of water because of it. Fortunately there were puddles to resupply from, and friendly surfers too.
The rest of the trip was just the two of us, though towards the end we ran into the remnants of the DFL crew, having both hitch-hiked to the same town for bike parts/repair. And had almost caught up to them when the trip ended. Truth be told, l was ready for a break from the pace and complication of a big group. Just a little too much party for me perhaps — whereas I carry a stove and fresh veggies, the necessary luxury for many of my go-lite friends was booze to go with their cold beans. And surprisingly for me, beer more often than the more efficient tequila. In any case it was a welcome restbit to be only two, able to come and go as we pleased, plan less and spend a bit more wilderness quiet time.
But eventually all good things come to an end, and on what turned out to be our 2nd to last day riding (a little north of La Paz) l crashed on a stray slippery mud patch: gave a flying bear-hug to an unfortunately placed boulder, and cracked/separated some ribs. We rode out (painfully) to the next town which was oddly full of coffee shops. The cultural-anthropologist in me was fascinated by the starkly different coffee culture in the seemingly arbitrarily separated Baja California Norte and Sur. In the north there is instant coffee, and thats it — then all of a sudden — you cross the state line, and every one drinks drip coffee, and there are espresso-serving coffee shops even in small towns. Some historical quirk no doubt. On one of my trips in Mexico, someone (a coffee shop owner perhaps) told me that before Porfirio Diaz, there was a thriving (european style) coffee culture in Mexico — but the Dictator decreed that coffee beans were only for export — leaving the people of this coffee producing county, with only instant coffee (which is made with the worst/blemished/rejected beans). I don’t know, but the story makes me even more curious.
We took a rest day and I called my friend Ariel too say hi and in the course of our conversation, she reminded me that we were due to go to India together, in about a week! I knew about the trip of course, but with my slippery grasp of time, was about a month off on the dates. Which settled it for me — I wasn’t going to try to convalesce/keep mtn-bike-touring on the Baja Divide (which in hindsight, given how long my ribs took to heal, would have been a terrible idea) I called it quits, and headed north on a bus the next day. Kat considered riding on solo/trying to catch the remnants of the DFL — but decided she’d had enough and traveled as far as San Fransisco with me.
And like that, the party was over. Great while it lasted — awesome route, great folks, good times.
(pics borrowed from @kickstandcolin, @spencerjharding, @whitneyft, @katafratha)