Off-Grid in Baja :: A New Perspective

Day 2 Off the grid :: Rested and ready to tackle the road less traveled.

I hadn’t handled our first day on the back roads of Baja very well (Kai might say that was an understatement) but twelve hours can make all the difference.  It was a new day.  I had some experience riding the rough road under my belt and the strong winds had disappeared.  Today we would get in to some climbing on progressively rockier terrain, a task I wasn’t necessarily excited about but one I wasn’t worried about either.  We had enough food and water for the next couple of days so we could take it as slow as we needed, as long as we got to Highway 1 by the third day we’d be fine.

Our bodies are hesitant to get moving so we take a little extra time stretching, reaching for the sun then falling forward, head pointed toward toes.  Once on the bicycles our bodies warm up quickly.  Beads of sweat mixed with sunscreen trickle their way down our foreheads, dropping irritatingly in to our eyes.  Arms and legs take on a glossy sheen that immediately attracts the sand.  Within an hour of twisting this way and that to avoid the sandpits, large stones and washboard areas we feel like baked goods, twisted donuts covered in thick layers of sugar.  The climbing becomes more technical and requires great concentration.  In order to keep moving forward we have to look ahead and pick out a line that goes from one side of the road to the other within seconds.  One moment we’re delicately riding through sand, the next plowing over large stones.  If we pick the wrong path, lose our balance or are thrown off course by hitting one of the many ruts or rocks ahead of us we slide to an abrupt stop and have to push our way up the same mess, which requires much more energy.

Close up of Cactus

Close up of cactus (not sure what kind of cactus this is….anyone?)

Kai, SW of Gonzaga Bay

Kai choosing the path of least resistance.

Road between Gonzaga Bay and Hwy 1

Close up of the road….becoming rockier as we climb.


Sheila, on a really bad downhill section

You know the road is bad when you see a cyclist walking a bicycle down a hill. 


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Succulents line the roadside and snuggle with the rocks.

As we slowly scramble ahead alternating sounds come bubbling out of us.  Heavy breathing.  A grunt to push over a gut-busting section.  Quickening breath in sync with a change in cadence.  A sudden curse.  Every bit of our energy is focused inward and on cycling.  Eyes scan then pass the scene before us along optic nerves.  Neural impulses send rapid response messages to legs, arms and our core.  Muscles immediately respond to keep us balanced and moving forward.  Somehow our brains find small pockets of space between the constant motion to spit out random motivational messages.  “You’ve got it!  You’ve got it!  K-e-e-e-e-e-e-p going.  C’mon!  You’re almost there!  You can do it!”

It is exhausting, mentally and physically.  We take more breaks than usual to keep ourselves hydrated and the mood light.  We squander away a perfect place to take some “serious adventure cycling” photos and, instead, opt for goofy belly shots and dorky poses.  Our laughter bounces off the boulders, shoots into the valley and then rolls back up to us.  Standing dead still we hold our breath to listen to what we expect will be complete silence but, instead, we hear the buzzing of hundreds of bees.  Several swarms occupy the cracks between balanced roadside boulders and multitudes are feasting on yellow flower bushes popping out from the gray hills and spread open, swaying back and forth, like delicate, ancient, hand fans.

Goofballs!

Goofballs!


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Stopping for lunch under the rare shade tree.

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At several points in the day we meet other travelers.  A few motorcyclists stop to chat while some just slow down enough to shout the question:  “Everything ok?”.  We give a thumbs up and nod to indicate we’re fine and they nod or mirror our hand signal and speed past, carefully picking their own way along the precarious path.

During one particularly knarly climb, Kai is snaking around a tight washed out curve on the road ahead of me when I see several expedition vehicles, packed full of twenty-somethings in their bathing suits, climb up out of the desert and on to the road between us.  They were just as surprised to see us and after finding out about our travel plans they follow up with an offer of a lift to the highway.  Kai laughs, mostly because he’s not really sure where they would fit our bikes or our bodies even if we did want a ride but also because he knows I might just accept their offer.  He responds, turning toward me, “I don’t know.  Honey, do you want a ride?”

I’m surprised that my initial reaction is “no” and I hesitate, a little in shock that I might actually want to continue sweating and grunting my way through the desert mountains.  Despite all the moaning about the road I realize I’m actually enjoying the challenge and now that we’ve made it half way my pride has determined my course.  Besides, based upon past experience, I know I’ll be much happier sticking with my bicycle.  I smile at the driver and say, “Nope, but thanks for the offer.”  As they spin their way up and over the curve I’m left with the nagging memory of the look on their faces when I declined their offer.  Incredulous admiration.  It was the incredulous part that bothered me.  Was I crazy for turning down their offer?!

But I calm myself before I let self-doubt take over.  And, just like that, I feel very sure.  Satisfied.  With my choice.  With where I am.  With what I’m doing.  Despite how hard it is for me to tackle the road ahead of me, and despite that I know it will grow more difficult over time and despite that every fiber of me wants to quit at least once each day, I realize that part of why I am here is because my heart and head needs to be here.  I need the challenge, physical and mental, that will change my perspective of myself and the world.  I need to see things from a different vantage point, a point from which I am reminded of our universal frailty, our ability to live differently and our humanity.  I need to unwind everything I’ve wrapped around in my head as “impossible” and replace it with “possible”.  I’m astonished by the clarity of this moment but I feel it with a certainty I’ve rarely felt.  And so, I put foot on pedal, lean in and grunt my way forward.

:::

Soon we reach a brief plateau and as we gratefully ride on flatter earth we notice brief shocks of sunlight glinting off of some things metal in the distance.  As we approach “Coco’s Corner” we hear the legend, Coco himself, yelling out from where he sits on his cot, “Hola! Hola!  Stop! Stop!”.  We make our way past fences lined with soda and beer cans, tied and hanging loosely, swaying in the wind.  They were the source of the glinting we noticed earlier and here they provide additional ambiance with their clickety-clattering.

Coco is a legend in these parts, having lived on this plateau, among the mountains, for over 20 years.  Known for his generosity, he greets travelers with a smile and an offer to stay in one of his several campers parked in a field adjacent to his main home, which consists of an open-air veranda built out of dead cactus trunks and a small paneled room that houses his few possessions.  His eclectic personality (he collects the underwear of those willing to depart with them and hangs them from his veranda) rarely shocks people as much as the fact that he has lost both of his legs.  When moving about he balances and swings what remains of his legs, wrapped in sheepskin, from one tip to the other, in his own unique and shuffled gait.

After we introduce ourselves he tells us he was expecting us, having heard from the motorcyclists that passed us the day before that we were en route.  He wonders if we want to stay the night in one of his campers or if we’re going to keep on with it since it’s early afternoon.  After thanking him for the offer we tell him we’re planning to continue since we have limited supplies but that we’d love to stop and chat a bit.  With that he offers to fill up our water bottles and asks us to sign his guest book.  The guest book actually turns out to be a huge ledger, one of seven that he has (he used to have eight but someone stole one).  He tells us each book contains approximately 65,000 signatures!  During his spare time, he decorates the pages with his own drawings and sketches (how great is that!).

When we offer to pay for the water he refuses, saying he never takes payment for water or use of his campers.  We leave Coco with handshakes and a thank you, glad to have had the opportunity to meet the 75 year old man whose current wish is to become the owner of two kittens (if you live in the area and have any, he’d prefer one male and one female).

Coco's Corner

Coco’s Corner

Coco & Kai

Kai and Coco chatting over the ledger, undies overhead.

Coco

Coco’s Ledger/Guest Book

Our hardest part of the road lies ahead of us, three steep climbs before we pop up and over the highest part of the pass. We spend another two hours slowly making our way over a couple of the climbs, all the while keeping a look out for good camping options.  The roadsides are steep, strewn with large boulders and lacking in places to pitch a tent.  When we come upon a narrow track leading off the road and down to what looks like a turn-about we decide to end a little earlier than planned, knowing this may be one of our only options for camping for the night.

Sheila, cycling back roads of Baja

Sheila on the plateau leading to the last of the climbs.

Wild Camp, Baja SW of Gonzaga Bay

Our campsite for the night.

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A work of art!

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Magical.

The next morning we finish out the climbing till we find ourselves looking down a straight, flat stretch of the road.  Tiny specks fly along the horizon and we realize that they’re vehicles travelling Highway 1, the lack of dust clouds and their speed being our biggest clues.  We’re giddy, ecstatic.  We push off with gusto thinking it will be an easy race to the highway but the road, in its washboard wisdom, makes us work for it.  Eyes on the finish line I smile conservatively, partly because I don’t want to get too carried away and chip a tooth or accidentally bite my tongue from the jostling (yes, I always worry about something!), but mostly because I’m feeling a distinct sense of pride and accomplishment.

WE MADE IT!  

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Kai, like the lizards, blending in with his surroundings.

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Kai picking his way through the climbs.

The Road ends at Hwy 1

Our final stretch to the highway.

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Sheila, eyes on the pavement up ahead.

The end of the gravel/sand road, Chapala & Hwy 1

A look back at the gravel/sand/rock road leading to Gonzaga Bay.

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Our route from Gonzaga Bay to Chapala.

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19 comments to Off-Grid in Baja :: A New Perspective

  • Mark

    Great post…! Perfect blend of internal and external experience. Read like a short story right out Readers Digest. Not sure if that publication is even around any more. Started out reading your blog because of the tiny house. Now I’m Simply enjoying reading about your adventures pedaling South. Keep ’em coming…

  • Love the description of washboard wisdom! 🙂

  • This is the best entry yet you two, we loved it! Thank you for sharing 🙂

  • This stuff is a good warm up for the wonderful roads of Africa.

    I love tar roads, I hate tar roads……Give me that lumpy stuff most days rather than the smooth stuff:)

    • I am beginning to understand what you mean. I did love the solitude and lack of traffic on the back roads. But I don’t know if I’d WILLINGLY go on the road the locals label “the worst”……..your pictures of those roads said it all!!! 🙂 When I read this part of your last post to Kai:

      “This went on for an hour or two, in all a 8-9 hour day to cover the 40km. I suspect some folks may find such a situation quite frustrating, I found myself just laughing…”you wanted adventure”, with thoughts of the fact I had enough food and water I figured I would just plod on nice and slow and could eat and camp when I’d had enough, no worries!! I think to fight such a situation would become very frustrating, to just accept it and push on calmly is much easier.”

      ….he told me I should take your advice on accepting calmly. My response was, “I wonder how many roads like this Shane’s had to ride to learn his current zen-like-response to bad roads.” Perhaps it was only one? That would give me hope 🙂

  • Mom P.

    Oh Sheila … you made me tired and dirty just reading this blog. Don’t know how you two are doing this. What is the time frame from this post to right now (4/29). Curious. Lots of love to you both.

  • Picinisco

    I believe your unknown cactus is an Ocatillo

  • Madeline

    Great blog entry! I am really enjoying the website; I came for the tiny house, and I’m staying for the travel notes! 🙂

    The mystery cactus that you featured in that picture might be an Ocotillo. I have seen them in the Chihuahuan Desert. Heres a link- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fouquieria_splendens

    Cheers,
    M

  • Marcia

    We drive that road in diciembre 31/2013 from dry chapala lake.. We Did 2 hour’s But the pave road start in Gonzaga bay..

  • Lance Crowley

    Sheila and Kai; I do not usually comment on blogs but had to thank you for your wonderful travelogue on the Baja section of your trip. My family and I are about to travel the section of road you describe from San Felipe south, and I googled looking for an up to date description. An hour later and I am still reading of your adventures! I found a great descripion of the road, for better or worse, but also an inspirational story that encourages me to get back on my touring bike sometime soon (Did cross Nevada route a few years ago).

    Headed south to our second home in Todos Santos, BCS, from Tahoe, better informed and much entertained. Appreciate your activism in cycling the earth while educating the importance of preserving it. Looking forward to Hot springs in Puertocitos and meeting Coco! All the best to you both in your travels. Buena suerte!

    Lance Crowley, “El Lagarto”^^^

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