On the Road to Gonzaga Bay

Best road yet!

As we leave Puertecitos we thank our lucky legs for one of Baja’s previous expansion efforts.  Less than two years ago the pavement had ended at Puertecitos and a gravel road took its place but today a brand new and mostly unused highway lay before us.  It would provide an additional 33 smooth miles before we would hit the infamous back roads of Baja.  The irony that the best road we had encountered so far was leading us to the worst road we would travel in Baja did not escape us.

All morning we weave up and down the foothills that meet the Sea, each climb revealing the same barren and rocky landscape, with little in the way of vegetation and even less in the way of inhabitants.  Occasionally we spot a dilapidated RV or a pieced together shack along a flat piece of the coastline but, even then, most of them appear to be abandoned or unoccupied.  Of the maybe 8 vehicles that pass us on the road, almost all of them slow to honk, wave the classic two-finger peace sign or give a thumbs up.  Two of them actually drive slowly alongside of us, chatting with us as we climb.  In the end, one man offers us a place to stay for the night if we need it, his place being where the “pavement meets the sand” and another family living at “House number 62” offers us a beer when we get to Gonzaga Bay.  Both ask if we need water or food or “anything else” before taking off down the road.

South of Puertecitos

S of Puertecitos

Canyon S of Puertecitos

We came upon this huge canyon on our ride.

South of Puertecitos

Kai, South of Puertecitos

Kai heading for the hills.

Out here we notice the lack of electrical lines, or more specifically, the absence of the constant humming that accompanies them.  Vehicles on the road can be heard from miles away and they sound extremely intrusive in this context.  The intensity and purity of the quiet becomes apparent when I hear a soft but somewhat repetitive swishing sound, the likes of which I have never heard before. *swish*swish *** swish*swish*swish *** swish*swish ***  I stop, look around, confused, unable to locate the source.  Just when I think it gone, there it is again, just above me.  And as I swivel my eyes upward I see a bird sailing overhead, it’s wings beating out a clear *swish* with every new stroke.  I gasp.  For the first time in my forty years of life, I’m truly hearing the sound of a bird flying.  I’m hearing the sound with out noise interference.

As I cycle, I’m entranced by the new sound in my life.  I can hear the swooshing from birds that aren’t even close to us, flying way out there, over the sea while we’re over here in the hills.  How is it possible I have never so clearly heard these sounds before?  I grew up in the country but I have never been in a place as secluded as this, so far away from humanity’s roaring.  And I wonder….what else in my life have I allowed humanity’s collective chatter to drown out?

Kai, Gulf of California, S of Puertecitos Sheila Stretching, Hwy S of Puertecitos Rock Formations, S of Puertecitos

Island, South of Puertecitos

A volcanic upshoot off the coast.

Sheila, climbing south of Puertecitos

Use your seatbelt, save your life.

Further into the day we run into a white-bearded leathery gringo working on his truck alongside the road.  We’re not sure what he’s doing exactly, with a generator on one side of his vehicle humming away and he on the other side tinkering with nothing in particular.  A quick glance at the camper/cabin on the truck reveals it’s packed to the gills.  We stop and Kai shouts a “hello”.  Eyes not able to rest on either of us or anything in particular, he chats with us about the upcoming roads.  After discussing our route he starts lecturing us on cycling on the highway.  We don’t belong there, it’s dangerous and he asks us if we want to be responsible for killing a trucker.  With that statement, I grow hot, considering our system of transporting goods in trucks is wholly unsustainable and is leading to many more deaths than little ole us on bicycles could ever cause, not to mention that automobile accidents are already the leading cause of death, without any help from cyclists.  When I bring up the fact that people driving will soon be forced to use more sustainable and less lethal ways of transporting themselves, considering we’ve long since passed peak oil, he counters with an argument that peak oil is a myth.  Apparently, we have plenty to go around but it’s a conspiracy by the government to make us believe there’s a shortage.  Within minutes we realize no amount of scientific evidence will sway this guy’s certainty that we have an infinite supply of fossil fuels.

Apocalyptic Biker (Photo from Raising Arizona, 20th Century Fox, 1987)

Just as the conversation takes the fascinating turn of him fanatically proclaiming he’s a “tree-hugger”, a rusty two-toned pick-up truck pulls up.  The driver, hanging limply out of the cab, grins at me in a way I don’t particularly like.  He looks a bit like the apocalyptic-motorcyclist in the movie “Raising Arizona” except that he’s wearing a baseball cap that’s almost in shreds, has longer, nattier hair and is obviously shit-faced.  Drunk apocalypse-wanna-be guy offers us all a beer, which he has readily available in the seat next to him.  We politely decline then thank the man-in-denial for his helpful road information and declare we need to be on our way.  As we push off, we hear the sound of a beer can opening and man-in-denial saying, “Sure, why not?”.

A mere half-mile later the highway suddenly ends, with two dirt roads sprouting from its edge.  One road consists mostly of dirt, packed down, wide and obviously being prepped for application of pavement.  The other looks well-used and at home, rough, like the land around it.  We had planned to make it all the way to Gonzaga Bay that evening, knowing that the last 15 miles would be on a rough road but we weren’t expecting the completely loose sand of the road ahead of us.  We try riding from one side of the road to the other, hoping to gain enough traction to propel us forward but the sand sucks our tires down and we come to complete stops, half-falling, half-holding on.  Being as it’s the end of the day and we have miles of challenging road ahead of us we decide it best to just wild camp where we are and reserve our energy for tomorrow’s ride.

Sandy road to Gonzaga Bay

Loose & plentiful sand road, right off of Highway 5, leading to Gonzaga Bay

We begin pushing our bikes over thick piles of sand alongside the road, our general intention to move closer to the sea and to get as far off the road as possible.  We want to put some distance between ourselves and potential oncoming headlights so that we can get a decent night’s sleep but foremost on my mind is removing ourselves from the view of the two who are still down the road enjoying Happy Hour.

Just as I’m lamenting my lack of strength in a ploy to get Kai to help me lift my bicycle over a particular sandy lump (it didn’t work), we hear the distinct rumble of a vehicle and turn to see a sand cloud building beyond the hill south of us.  Within a few minutes a couple pull up beside us and introduce themselves as Belinda and George and, after making sure we don’t need water or food or “anything else”, begin to ask us all sorts of questions.  They’re originally from the states but have lived in San Felipe for over 20 years. George tells us stories of catching snakes with his bare hands then warns us to avoid holes in the ground (of which there are many).  When I ask him about snakes in the area he tells me it’s mating season and that they may be a little jittery right now so we should be extra vigilant.  I see Kai’s glance dart my way.  I know he’s thinking, “Great, now she’ll be worrying about snakes for the next few weeks.”  And he’s right, I will.

But Belinda senses the subject needs changing and we’re now talking about, of all things, peanut butter.  She’s holding up a jar of “natural peanut butter”, nectar for Kai.  Before we know it they’re handing us two large celery sticks spread with peanut butter.  They have a house a mile down the road and although they’re not planning on being back for weeks they propose we camp on their porch.  The offer amazes me since these people don’t know anything about us.  We say thanks but the sun is now slipping behind the hills and it’s getting dark and we tell them we’re probably just going to set up right here for the night, too tired to even cycle another mile.  With that, they say they’ll leave us but not without offering us a beer.  We say our goodbyes then watch as they disappear over the horizon.  I realize this is another ‘first’ for me.  I’ve never been to a place where strangers tell you they’re leaving town, give you directions to their house, hand you a beer, then enthusiastically wave as they drive off in to the sunset!

Dawn, Wild Camp S of Puertecitos

Desert Flower, N of Gonzaga Bay

The next morning we awake to find morning flowers abloom and caterpillars everywhere, neither of which we had noticed the day before.  They put us in a good mood which is quickly spoiled once we get back on the road to Gonzaga Bay.  Even with a fresh start and rested limbs the road is unmanageable.  We spend most of our time trying to cycle a few feet before jumping off to save the bike from going down.  Occasionally we fail and then one of us has to precariously park our bike in order to help the other pull theirs up out of the sand.  There are deceiving patches that allow us a good 10 minutes of riding, just enough to make us think we’re past the thick of it but not enough to offer much encouragement.  It doesn’t take long for me to fall in to that place where I hate cycle touring and wonder why I’m doing this.  Kai isn’t having much fun either and I know he’s worrying about our water to rate-of-travel ratio.  A relentless sun helps set tempers aflame.  Some unnecessary blaming leads us into a yelling match that could be heard the length of the peninsula.  Before we know it we’re in the worst of places and worlds apart from each other.  Kai takes off, making headway up and over the next hill, while I firmly plant my crying self where I am, completely unmotivated to push forward for even one more moment. Caterpillar & Tent

Just as I’m considering turning around and heading back to San Felipe on my own, I see a motorcyclist slowly approaching from the north, eventually making it to where I’m standing.  He stops and asks how I’m doing.  “I’ve had better days,” I respond with a wry smile, feeling a little embarrassed by my puffy eyes.  He laughs and tells me he and his girlfriend, Brenda, are having a hard time navigating the road and wiped out once already.  They’re considering turning around.  Brenda, whose walking down the road toward us shouts out, “And I thought we were the adventurous ones!”.  By this time, Kai notices a group has formed and makes his way back.  We find out they’re from Flagstaff and are taking a tour through Baja, heading south to Loreto then back home.  John is a therapist for a troubled youth wilderness program.  After I tell them we thought the 15 miles in to the Bay were supposed to be the easy patch of the road and that we’re not sure if the road gets any better ahead of us they decide not to risk it and turn toward San Felipe.  [As a side note, John and Brenda ended up cycling the road after all, on their return north from Loreto.  You can read about their travel experiences here.]

Caterpillar & Tent

Unlike us, this little guy can find lots of food in the desert.

After they depart Kai & I apologize to each other, acknowledging that we’re in a bad situation that isn’t being helped by our fighting.  It has taken us 2 1/2 hours to cycle a little over 3 miles.  We have 37 miles of this road to travel, with reports that it gets worse the further we go.  At our current rate of travel it will take us over 10 hours just to make it the 15 miles to Gonzaga Bay, the only place with supplies within a 40 mile radius.  We barely have any water left and we don’t have enough food for another night of wild camping and another day of riding.  We hadn’t planned on this.  In fact, we had been in contact with others who had cycled through this area only a couple of months before and none of them mentioned how un-rideable this road was.  The only thing we could guess was that the road had been in better shape when they cycled it.  Drivers from the day before had informed us that the road had recently been regraded so perhaps the regrading had removed a more compacted layer of sand, one that would have been easier to ride.  Whatever the reason, we reluctantly acknowledged that our best option, considering our circumstances, would be to hitch a ride to Gonzaga Bay then determine if the road beyond was able to be cycled or not.  Only then could we know whether we should backtrack or move forward.

On cue, we see a small pick up truck rambling down the road, going in our direction.  With a pang of regret I stick out my thumb and smile.  When the truck stops we find two men smiling expectantly at us.  The passenger quickly switches from his native Spanish to English when I utter my apology for not being able to speak Spanish very well.  Within seconds of finding out we want a lift, they hop out of the truck –  one of them begins to let air out of the tires while the other helps load our bikes and gear into the truck.  Somehow we manage to squeeze our bikes, all our gear and ourselves into the mini-bed.

A scary 20 minute ride follows, one in which the tailgate falls open not just once but three times.  Each time it does I let out a tiny scream.  Kai, while holding on to the side of the truck and simultaneously telling me everything is going to be fine, reaches out to grab it and slam it back into place.  Our rears are balanced (but mostly bouncing) precariously on our panniers.  I start to feel a little nauseous as we begin climbing into the foothills and careening around boulder-laden curves, splitting my time between worrying about my bike or gear flying out of the truck and thoughts of dying in a mangled mess of metal.  Just as I am about to start madly giggling out of nervousness, we are stopping.  Here, in the middle of nowhere, is a military checkpoint.  “Well, why the hell wouldn’t there be a checkpoint here?” I think.  Just one more thing to add to an already crazy day.  Thankfully we avoid the mess of having to unwedge ourselves from our current positions to open our panniers.  After a few pokes at a couple of bags and several questions we’re waved through.

By the time I finish telling Kai I would rather get out and bike the rest of the way, we pull into the parking lot of the Rancho Grande, the supply store of Gonzaga Bay.  I have never been more grateful for two more opposing things in my life.  On one hand, I was grateful as hell for the ride which prevented us from having to suffer through 10 hours of pushing our bikes through the desert without food or water.  On the other hand, I couldn’t get out of the truck bed fast enough.  Not only did I feel like I had just cheated death (something I feel almost every time I get into a truck or bus driven by someone else) but I had never felt more wedded to my bicycle than at that moment.  A bicycle does not hurdle me carelessly through space and time like the contraption I just crawled out of.  A bicycle does not make me fear death when I ride it.  On the contrary, my bicycle takes me places at exactly the speed I need to be free.  And when I’m free, I don’t think about things like fear or death.  When I’m free, I focus on living.

::

Gonzaga Bay in the Distance

Gonzaga Bay in the distance. Washboard road was bumpy but rideable.

After pulling ourselves and our bicycles back together, we cycle across the street and down one of two roads leading toward the Bay.  We have the option to camp under a palapa but the winds coming in off the sea are extremely strong and can be annoying in a tent so we decide to spend way too much money ($46!) on a shabby room at Alfonsina’s, the one and only hotel in town.

We unpack our bags and arrange our bicycles in the room, gather a few snacks and start to head out the door toward the beach when we realize we don’t have a room key.  Kai comes back from the office a few minutes later informing me that they don’t actually have room keys, for any of the doors.  He was told we don’t need them here!  I’m flabbergasted by the fact that a hotel doesn’t have keys for the rooms but I consider the character of the people we’ve met in the last 48 hours and we realize we probably don’t have anything to be concerned about.  It doesn’t hurt that the beach is right there in front of us, only feet from our door.  No one is going to sneak in to our room without our seeing them.

Gonzaga Bay

Gonzaga Bay

Gonzaga Bay is strikingly beautiful.  We have the secluded and quiet beach to ourselves.  Frigates and pelicans take turns diving for fish while the seagulls follow closely behind, hoping to scavenge dropped goods.  As we sit on the beach, I realize I’m completely spent from the day’s events.  Fighting with Kai and thinking you’re going to die, all in one morning, is more exhausting than the longest day of riding a bicycle.  I stroll the shoreline looking for shells and spot a heron majestically poised just where the waves lap the shore, scanning the bay.  He stands there for hours, only occasionally moving a few feet this way or that.  Kai & I jump in and out of the waves then dive in head first.  It’s frigid, invigorating and just right.

Gonzaga Bay
Peligan, Gonzaga Bay
P1030037
P1030068
Frigate Bird, Gonzaga Bay
Gonzaga Bay

I recall my good day at Puertecitos and add this afternoon to the “Remember This” list.  I haven’t had to pull my good days out of their bag to get me through tough times….yet.  But this morning was a close call.  I don’t even want to consider what tomorrow’s roads will bring.  Instead, I plop down on the sand, loop my arms around my knees and let the wind whip my wet hair dry.

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Our route :: Puertecitos to Gonzaga Bay

 

16 comments to On the Road to Gonzaga Bay

  • Mark Willard

    Best post yet! Felt like I was living it with you…

  • Allen Thoma

    As I sit in my office reading this blog entry I envy you, your life, your adventure. Even the worst day on the road beats the best day working in the belly of the capitalist/consumerist culture. You have your health and each other in this adventure – what a joy!
    Al Thoma

  • Mary Houghton

    What an adventure! SHeila, keep in mind the feeling of listening to the birds – what a rare adventure. Remember that while you forget the @#$%#$##$% sand.

    Your pictures are wonderful

    Mary

  • Diane

    Wow, I was “exhausted” after reading your post–mentally & physically! Riding in the frustrating sand, the crazy men on the side of the road, the ride in the truck. But then the beautiful end, making it to the beach and Gonzaga Bay. I also love listening to the birds, especially in the morning while still in bed, but there’s always background noise. I can’t imagine what you experienced with NO background noise! Lucky you. Thanks for such a detailed posting! Until next time…

  • Dear Sheila, I found you through a search about overcoming fears of bears and other fanged wildlife. I became so engrossed in your story that thirty minutes later, I’m still here. Your writing is very deep, personal and compelling. My husband and I frequently hike, but his love for the backcountry has been put on hold after we encountered 17 black bears on a hike through the Shenandoah. When you wrote about “the exhaustion of holding fear close to your heart” I immediately connected. I love that you are able to keep going, while I’m sitting here at home wishing I could overcome and return, even part time, to mountains and remote spaces. The life you are living now is truly inspiring.

    • Thanks for your encouraging words Jenny. They have come at exactly the right time for me.

      17 bears is a lot to take in. I can understand your hesitancy get back out there and I’m sorry your feeling fearful.

      The truth is sometimes I’m not able to keep going. Recently I’ve been coping with my own fears and difficulties surrounding traveling by bicycle. We’ve been in a hotel for days in order to give me some time to remove myself from the road, to relax and reflect. I’m finding that I have to take these little retreats to help me gain a sense of purpose and intention. Having time to comfortably write about our experiences also helps me to review and reflect upon lessons learned only a week or two before and it helps me to put it all in perspective.

      I think we all need times of retreat in our lives and I think it’s really smart of you to take time to find peace in your heart before moving forward. Let’s commit to being patient with ourselves as we navigate around our fears. There is no shame in our building courage to continue. 🙂

      Hoping to hear more from you in the future. Take care!

  • Hi Sheila and Kai!
    You adventure looks magnificent! Thanks for all of the fantastic photos. Quick question, have you felt that a computer was too bulky or super helpful?

    Brant and I head out next week! Look forward to running in to you guys on the road.

    Love,
    Lauren of the Establishment

    • Hi Lauren!

      SO EXCITED for you two!

      Both Kai & I have computers, for the sake of our relationship 🙂 (we both tend to have competing online interests and we both write a lot) but I’ve know other couples to travel with only one computer when they’re using it primarily for blog updates, email and mapping. Kai has a small 10″ Asus which is MUCH BETTER SIZE WISE for cycle touring/space if you’re only using it for basic blog updating, emailing, reading, etc, although it can be quite slow at times. I have a larger 13 inch Asus which is a much more powerful computer and only slightly larger and it’s used for blog updating, photo editing, storage, mapping, and generally anything that we need quickly and/or that is graphically intensive. My trade is in the IT industry so I also chose this laptop to allow me to do work while on the road, if I ever chose to go that route, plus I’ve found I cannot work for long periods of time on a small 10 ” keyboard/screen. The size of my computer does annoy me at times and it takes up a large section of my panniers (I keep it in a DIY made case I made from a bubble wrap shipping envelope and Gorilla tape) but it’s one of my most used items and I wouldn’t give it up for weight/bulk reasons because I think it’s worth it. I guess it all depends on your needs and what you’re going to use your computer for, and it’s size. If it’s large and you’re only using for basic functions, consider trading it in for a smaller 10″ pc. If you’re a photographer with heavy editing software programs, or will be dealing with heavy data-entry programs for your environmental work/studies, keep the higher functioning pc and use it till it fails then get a smaller one (they’re only getting more and more powerful each year). Hope this helps!!

      Sheila

  • I just read of your adventure. Your photography and writing is great. Your trip has awakened many of the feelings I had bicycling 4 times across the USA from 1989 to 1995. If only I could have captured and put into words the adventures I had like you have done. I tried and learned HTML when the web was in its infancy. I would have loved to capture my trips on a laptop. Good luck and safe travels to you. I have given up touring now as I push 70, but love reading of yours. Thank you!

    • Thanks so much for the kind words Clyde. I love the blog because it helps us review and capture what we felt, which can slip away so quickly and easily when traveling. I feel like we process our lessons more quickly by doing that as well – plus, it’s fun to look back at where we’ve been and how we’ve changed over time.

      So glad to have an experienced cyclist with us on our journey. 🙂 Keep letting us know you’re out there!

  • Great post and nice photos. I just started blogging on Mexico myself, and really enjoyed reading about your experiences.

    I just read that the road has now been paved all the way to Gonzaga Bay and will connect, I believe, to Hwy. 1 shortly thereafter. Though I don’t know if a paved road would provide you the same level of (mis)adventure!

    • Kai

      Scott: Love your website! Well done! And thanks for the update on the road from hell. I guess that moniker is now officially a thing of the past. When we passed by that spot the new road bed was well underway although paving had not yet begun. Bahia de Gonzaga (Gonzaga Bay) will never be the same! I find it hard to believe that there are plans to continue from there to Hwy 1. What would be the point? Not that it couldn’t be done but it sure seems like a waste of asphalt and concrete. That section is currently so beautiful and remote it would be a shame to spoil it. Thanks again!

      • When I was in San Felipe in early 2012, the locals I spoke to seemed to be pretty excited about the road. Apparently, it will help some of the trucking/commerce that moves from north to south in Baja now start routing through San Felipe, opening up new opportunities in their economy (because when you think about it, San Felipe is pretty much the “end of the road” now and a destination vs. a thoroughfare). It is unfortunate that some pretty beautiful spaces will now be a bit more traveled and used for commerce, but such is “progress”.

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