The boat is loaded with cars, semis backed in carefully, and a few motorcycles. Ours are strapped to the walls like mental patients. Riding the motos onto el barco is something like driving into the belly of a whale - out of the sunlight and up ramps, into a dull orange and green-lit cavern with a hot dampness all it's own.
The deck is diesel engines and our beds for the night. Thumping, thumping, rocking, holding fat ropes and emergency rafts, and exuding a strange slimy water that changes course over the deck during the night and soaks our sleeping mats.
Inside, a man is playing a soulful song illuminated by lazer-dots as people drink themselves to ignorance of sea-sickness at the bar, and fall sleep on cafeteria benches.
The sea of cortez passes by just beyond my right shoulder. It is tropical weather sans mosquitoes, con tecate. 15 hours to Mazatlan..
The Baja is Mexico to be sure. Dirty, dusty, sunny, and a little confusing at times, but like Tecate lite is still considered beer, so do I consider the Baja peninsula Mexico lite. Too many ex-pats, high tourist prices, and too many California license plates to be in a different land.
So with the tickets of a ferry ride to the mainland in our palms the future held for us the reality of real Mexico. Mountainous Mexico. Volcanos, church squares, 15 peso beers, and a brand new expanse of antique landscapes unexplored by our nubile minds; Mexico.
Hundreds upon hundreds of elaborate churches spot the Mexican land, though they are "newer" in the Baja than on the mainland. There is so much rich culture and history here. Often, the Spanish built their churches and abbeys on top of indigenous religious places so frequently you will find them placed on pyramids that are thousands of years old. A clear statement of "conquer"
The Baja had worn thin on me. The sand, salt, sea, and heat were taking their toll.
As a child I thought of myself as a beach lover. Every summer my family took trips to the oceans of North Carolina and the yearly return to beach condos, pier pinball machines, and saltwater taffy perhaps played a bigger role in influencing my favor for the ocean than the actual enjoyment of the ocean itself.
But later as an adult I began to see the ocean for its tactile qualities and with a slight penchant towards the OCD the sand never seemed to leave the soles of my feet fast enough, the sweat never dried, and my pale complexion I've come to learn doesn't roast to an even brown like one would hope.
So after 10 days of few showers on greasy motorcycles through hot sand and mosquito-filled nights, I was ready to say goodbye to the peninsula and hello to the cooler weather of the mainland.
Mazatlan would lead to Durango up past 7,000 feet of mountains and into a climate more reminiscent to cities where I once lived, of Salt Lake City or Boone, North Carolina, as Harry Nilsson once said, going where the weather suits my clo-o-o-o-o-thes. Whaaaa wha whaaaaaa.
Pristine camping on the coast of the Baja California Sur, and excellent fishing. Travel warnings here are clear, and some think that the fall of El Chapo has increased territory wars as cartels and gangs struggle for power. We haven't seen anything to make us nervous - and are careful about how we travel. So far, the general goodness of humans has far outweighed anything negative.
I enjoy boats these days. Ever since I spent 7 miserable days and nights on a sailboat endlessly tacking into the winds of the Gulf Coast, our beds soaked in diesel, I haven't had a problem with most boats. And the ferry is closer to a cruise ship than a cargo ship so a 12-hour overnight cruise loaded up on beer with sleeping mats seemed like a vacation compared to riding through the Baja.
We came onboard prepared for the boat excepting the fact that I had broken Sharah's vape pen while driving to the dock. The pen slipped off my bike while it was charging and hit the ground hard.
Sharah's been trying to quit since we entered Mexico and short a few loosies here and there she had been holding on strong. But to have the one thing that was mediating her misery (Sharah's words) break moments before a 12 hour trip was too much.
The rocks began to fly, the curses flowed, and the scene wasn't pretty.
I felt bad for breaking the pen but it must have been a pittance to what Sharah was feeling. Eventually a pack of Marlboro Reds calmed the high seas but I was beginning to understand what it was like for a person to try to quit smoking and see that it's not a 3-day, 1-week, or even 1-month struggle, and that the struggle is real.
This trip is a learning experience coming from all sides and sometimes the obvious difficulties of travel that lay in front of you like a new land, a new language, or a new riding hurdle pale in comparison to the internal struggles we all face every day.
A motorcycle doesn't enable us to ride away from our problems, and I'm always learning from Sharah what it means to overcome obstacles. For someone to not only have to master an overloaded motorcycle on shitty roads in a foreign country where you don't speak the language, and to try to quit smoking and be successful at all of those things at the same time is an inspiration. Sharah's one hell of a person.
Side note on "overcoming obstacles". Quitting smoking sucks. It's hard, and miserable and makes you look all of the things you have been avoiding directly in the face. Sometimes you feel like diving off of a bridge. Of course, I want a cigarette. And I fully appreciate the support of my partner in this endeavor without whom it would be a much more miserable task, and who has most compassionately engaged in my misery on multiple occasions like the wonderful and kind and patient human that he is.
Obstacles, though - yes, quitting is hard, yes, motorcycling is wearying, difficult, and sometimes frustrating. Sometimes it's extremely awful and sometimes it's brilliant, like most things that are worth doing.
However, all of these things are rather pale in comparison to the obstacles I've hurdled or crushed completely to be here in my life today with this opportunity, this partner, and this tested and tried ability to take on hard things and succeed. So it seems easy in some ways. Not less challenging, but I have the utmost confidence in success, I am ok with discomfort, and I am grateful.
I am not grateful for the very many difficult things (which of necessity can not be explained fully here) I have experienced in my life, as in, I would never choose to repeat them or wish them on another person, but I am grateful for what they have taught me and who I have become.
We have choices - and bitterness is not a choice that makes any sense, no matter your circumstances.
Finally some general words of advice for riding the ferry. Make sure you got your tourist visa and vehicle import permit at the border before trying to get on the boat.
A lot of travelers think that just because you can ride straight into Mexico you're golden, but you will be turned around at the dock if you don't have your paperwork, and the customs agents don't take the mordida.
We met a fellow moto-traveler who neglected his paperwork and had to fly back to Tijuana from La Paz just to get back to the border and get his paperwork stamped. It cost him $300 for the flight.
The tourist visa and vehicle import paperwork are necessary for the ferry ride. Don't forget it!
Oh, and sing the karaoke. Whaaaa wha whaaaaaaa!
Well, Coco's Corner is something. It used to be (and we were expecting) 200 km of dirt roads to get there from San Filipe, but now they are building a "super-highway" which translates to under-funded sinking bridges and 2 narrow lanes of graded pavement. Today the remaining unfinished portions are 30 miles of rocks, sand, and dirt along the Baja 1,000 Route to get to Coco's. Soon the daily caravan of about 100 semi trucks that drive the remaining miles of dirt-rock-mountain roads at 5mph with one or two flat tires will be replaced with hundreds more cutting hours from their La Paz-Mexicali route.
Coco first saw his "corner" tucked in cruxes of the Sonoran desert mountains in 1959. He must have been about 15 years old. He spent his life working in tourism and cattle inspection in Ensenada, saving money to buy his corner and build a plywood house there. His very dreams he pursued, and have come to be.
Now it is Coco's Corner in the cruxes of Sonoran desert mountains, and it is a haven for travelers. The cases of Pacifico are stacked high and selling these for a reasonable price (about $1.50 usd) is Coco's retirement income. If you buy some of the liquid shares of Coco's retirement and he likes you well enough he'll offer you a broken-down camper shell that you can sleep in for free. The sunset and a safe place in the desert - empty if you have a limited imagination, but so full if you really look - are priceless.
A singular man in a singular corner of the world. Coco has no legs beyond his knees, but that's ok with him because he "walks" around as much as he needs to, drives the 4x4 and the truck, and the world arrives at his doorstep every day. Utah and France stopped by when we were there.
When you have made friends with Coco, you know. He offers you all of the Bologna and cheese in his fridge, gives you tortillas, and puts you to work moving heavy coils of wire for his new beer can sign, drowns you in instant coffee, and offers you a ride on the back of his 'motorcycle' (the 4x4).
Along the Baja 1000 Coco is a legend. For over a decade Coco's Corner has served as a dedicated checkpoint along the race course and the pit crews, drivers, support teams, and fellow race enthusiasts set up camp for repairs, reconnoitering, and cold beers as the trophy trucks, Class 1 cars, and amateurs come tearing through the sweeping left hand turn right before the entrance to Coco's.
When we arrived at Coco's in early October the race was still a month away but the SCORE International prep-teams were already out in the desert posting directional signs for right and wrong ways. Our drive in to Coco's was directed by the red SCORE signs over the old highway alongside the half-finished super-highway.
As the sun went down on our night at Coco's we stood on top of a rock pile overlooking the Corner and watched him drive his 4x4 through his property tearing down the SCORE signs marking turns and checkpoints, an act I had once attributed to disgruntled locals trying to confuse the racers. I thought of the home-made boobytraps that influenced the Paris-Dakar rally to abandon Africa after one too many roads were altered and damaged vehicles stripped of parts in remote desert stretches.
Later when I asked Coco why he was taking down the race signs he began a long story in broken english about how the new race organizers had not paid him money for the right to use his property as a check point.
He described racer after racer making the sweeping left turn at 100mph and digging a rut so deep it would require a backhoe to fill in. The money needed to be paid before he would let his property be turned into a race course, even after more than a decade of history with the race.
New organizers, a lack of communication, fiercely independent landowners, the Baja desert, perhaps it was all a misunderstanding a month before the race was to begin, but Coco was not a man to roll over for anyone, even for the race that he loves.
In the old Baja, where distances are measured by landmarks not mile markers, the Baja that Coco's Corner still inhabits, cash was still king. While I don't believe that Coco would ever sabotage a race or refuse to help a racer in need, the Desert Bear could still hold his own against a Titan in the racing world.
We are fortunate to have spent time with Coco talking and hearing about his life, his stories, and what it's like in the world of Coco. He is truly a legend of this world, and we were blessed to have received his true hospitality on our way to a delightful pile of puppies, the ferry to Mazatlan, and the mainland of Mexico.
Y entonces la frontera. We picked Tecate to be our border crossing of choice because it is smaller and less traveled. Our fledgling Spanish skills got us tourist visas and vehicle permits, a quick visit to a copy shop, a roundabout reentry to America and then the green light into Mexico. As soon as you cross the border everything changes. The roads are different, the drivers are different, the stores are different, the language, the economy, all of it, and it’s wonderful. We got lost leaving town, asked directions a few times, and the people literally went out of their way driving in front of us to guide us through the asphalt maze and onto the Ruta de Vino. Our first destination was Ensenada for gasolina, and then to a place called “La Bufadora”
We stayed at a beautiful place on top of costal cliffs with no electricity, little water, and the wiggliest dog we have ever met - “El Tigre,” who stole our books and shoes, and with two kids, 4 and 5 who played futbol with us and occupied our hammock for an hour. Only about half of the houses here have wired electricity - it's mostly solar and gas generators, and 100 gallon water tanks on pedestals. With cities so far away and incomplete infrastructure, the inhabitants are resourceful.
After a day of rest we drove across the peninsula through the mountains to the Eastern coastal town of San Felipe, full of Baja 1000 lovers and ex-pats. As the day grew dim we haggled for a $6 campsite on the ocean at a Campo with electricity and salt water showers. We made friends with the caretakers who we watched kill two rattlesnakes (cascabels) that night and let us harvest the tails. They even gave us salt to preserve them and we gave them a grapefruit. Gifts require gifts, of course.
But oh, the sunrise. All you have to do is open the door to your tent and the sun rises over the Bay of California and an hour of rainbow-sherbet skies and then a few moments of hot, red, sun until the tide is out, the heat descends, and the locals are on the sand bars picking up shells and clams and other treasures from the sea.
One rather lovely (though not really cheap - about $20 to camp and use the springs) stop was in Puertocitos, a small town with very unique costal hot springs. The pools are only good twice a day at half tide for about an hour when the hot thermal water flows out of the rocks and the ocean water rushes in and the waves lap over the rocks and swirl about mixing sulphur and salt with crabs and coast-roaches, and it is so incredibly delightful. In an hour’s time as the tide goes out the pools are too hot to be in and if you miss that one hour of perfect mixology you have nothing, but if you catch it at sunset or sunrise it is magical and cleansing. Salty, sulphury, hot and cold, hot, hot, hot.
Without a doubt, the Baja is beautiful. Rather than taking highway 1 the entire way, we opted to cross the peninsula in the North which would require (we thought) a 125 mile dirt ride - now only about 25 miles with the advent of a new "superhighway" (two lanes and some already sinking bridges). The East coast was sometimes desolate, sometimes full of ex-pats, and absolutely beautiful. Sonoran Desert Coastlines, wild life, and interesting people who have come, one way or another, to live in this lovely and remote part of the world.
...Up next is Coco's Corner - an iconic place known well to travelers and motorcycle adventurers
S & S
“Shakedown” is what we said we were going to do a month before we left. A weekend trip into the mountains with limited gear, but it isn't the real deal. Little can prepare you for a change of life that turns your weekend getaways into a new lifestyle. And so what were to be the first days of a new beginning turned into an assessment of what was missed before we left. The bikes revealed their antiquity and our own minds began to clear as we started stripping away the things that made us who we were on that little farm in Salt Lake City. The Shakedown was supposed to be for the bikes, but extended beyond them.
We shall start with the motorcycles. As mentioned on our first day we discovered we had a leaky brake and a broken shock. A good start. “Leaky and Squeaky” we were. In Bishop, California Scott had an eBay front brake assembly shipped but of course it too was leaky. Well, that’s what happens to old things so a rebuild kit for the replacement brake was ordered. It wasn’t ideal traveling the windy California mountain roads with terrible handling and no front brake but well-timed downshifting and an eye for potholes got us through. Sharah ordered a brand new YSS shock from England and had it shipped to Los Angeles, a mere 700 miles away, so the ride was going to be a trial of discomfort for both of us.
Funny story. Did we mention the gasket on the Hammer's gas cap broke and fell in pieces into the gas tank? Gas was leaking out the cap and down the sides with every bump and it was not a great scene. I (Scott) thought of an ingenious solution. By wadding up gorilla tape around the gas cap it would act as a new gasket, but this failed as the gas dissolved the glue and then the tape and the glue sank into the tank to mix with the old gasket. Oops. Luckily Clarke Manufacturing is only one state away in Oregon and their rush delivery to Auburn, California was a 2-day job. In the meantime we took off the tank and filtered the remaining gas through a rag into Whisker’s tank. Thanks to parking lots and ingenuity we cleaned out the glue and were on our way.
Despite mechanical headaches and work obligations, we made time to enjoy the coast.... California beaches and a land-locked Big Sur stuck in time and place gave us the spaces we needed to remember that it's not all work and moto mechanics (reading books and making coffee at the top of a chilly mountain in Big Sur with an ocean view - not a bad way to wake up)
Oh but what a beautiful thing it is to have a new shock for the Hammer. The YSS shock is shiny and sturdy and beautiful. I wouldn't say I don’t want flowers (I do)… I also want shocks. A bouquet of bounce and good handling. In our friends’ driveway in LA we replaced Scott’s over-worked rear brakes and my shock, chain, and sprockets. Then we paid a quick visit to our friends at Lucky Wheels, a DIY motorcycle collective of sorts for a quick weld on the Hammer’s rack, an oil change on Whiskers, and a few beers with good people. With new parts the Hammer felt like a new machine all together and Whiskers can stop - maybe not on a dime - but, can stop.
Aside from moto mechanics, it has been a gear shakedown. The packing, re-packing, re-configuring, and dialing down methods and arrangements can be surprisingly frustrating. We have already broken four of our supposedly indestructible Rok-straps (once Sharah punched herself in the face as it broke), and ditched a pelican case and a laptop to save weight and space. Packing these mid-80’s enduros is a feat in and of itself. We keep seeing modern motorcycles with perfect side cases and minimal gear - but they aren’t fixing their own bikes, or camping, or carrying filming equipment, cooking dinner every night, or riding old motorcycle-tractors. It may look like we have a lot of extra stuff but it’s really pretty minimal. Minimal in the sense that tools plus parts plus spare tubes plus lenses plus this and that and this and a killer first aid kit including sutures really isn’t that much. Oh except maybe my winter coats that were a blessing in the eastern Sierras but are becoming a heavy, bulky, curse as we approach the Tropics. I guess we are prepared for almost anything.
Finally, the other shakedown has been work related. In Cali we were finishing a film project about honey bees - which meant - carting film equipment and extra gear around to beekeepers, almond orchards, and beyond while riding all morning, then deconstructing the motos, filming and interviewing, reconstructing the motos, and riding all night, then editing for 12 hours a day for a week; rinse and repeat!
When we finally left LA it felt like we were embarking for the first time, again. Saying goodbye to friends, leaving the film project behind, leaving the country behind. Ahhhhhhhhhh on to a long lost friend in San Diego (so good), and Mexico!
The great shakedown. We could write so much about it but for now the photos shall tell a story, and on to Tecate for visas and motorcycle import! Viva Mexico!
S and S