The first day in Baja, day 10 of our trip, had been a great start. We got a tour of the facilities from the caretaker, found out there are many things to do in the area--climbing, petroglyphs, waterfalls--but we were itching to ride so off we went. The sand road leading back east towards Laguna Salada was a blast. A couple inches down it was still wet, and there were some berms at the turns where you could rail it, I roosted Bryn pretty well a couple of times, he was laughing.
The plan was to follow BigDog's track from 2007 where he went across Laguna Salada and then connected with Mex 5--the paved 2-lane road that runs south from Mexicali to San Felipe--then turn west on Mex 3 at El Chinero and then take the dirt road to Mikes, a trip of about 145 miles. We were stoked.
We had no idea that this day would be, in many ways, the decisive day of our journey.
The day was warm--probably upper 60's--but cloudy as we followed the dirt road lined out by the track. It was helpful having the track because it gets a little maze-like in places. As we continued to head south we felt like this is the Baja experience we'd been dreaming of. Beautiful desert, cactus, occasionally we'd pass by a little rancho and wave to the residents. There was a small herd of wild horses who'd run with us alongside the road and then peeled off to the side. We came across a military training compound, apparently deserted--but wondered if we were being watched. The road was a mix of medium sand, sometimes harder washboard, sometimes rocky, but we were maintaining about 35-40 mph on my lead, a speed nowhere near the fastest we could do, but heck, we had 5 more weeks ahead of us and I wanted to make sure we lasted 5 more weeks...
As we continued south I realized that our road had started to diverge from BigDog's track. We were heading southwest on the road, but the track was headed southeast in order to intersect with Mex 5. I wasn't too concerned, saved tracks are fairly coarse and often there will be sections of the track that are off the road where some points have been filtered out, but eventually within a half-mile at the most the track will rejoin the road or trail you're following.
The track and our road continued to diverge and after 3 or 4 miles I stopped to try and figure out whether to keep going along the road, or go back and follow the track. I had no idea how important this decision was to be.
Decisions like this are based in part on information-----and the information I had was far from adequate. For navigating in Baja I was relying on: BigDog's tracks and waypoints from 2007, my 60CSx gps with Open Street Maps topo & routable gps maps, a 2010 edition of the AAA paper map of Baja, and the Nat. Geo paper maps of Baja. As I quickly learned, this was Gear Issue #5--none
of my gps maps showed the road we were on nor did they show a road or trail where BigDog's track led; the Nat Geo map showed nothing as well, and although the AAA paper map did have a road shown the scale makes it difficult (not impossible, just difficult) to accurately correlate where you are on the map from the gps coordinates.
Next time I will have the very best paper and gps maps I can find. Period. I'd read that the E32 gps map is very detailed and accurate, and the same with the Baja Almanac paper maps. But figured I could save $100 by going with the "good enough" free OSM gps maps, and the Baja Almanac was out of print and I could only find it selling used on amazon for $85. Good enough isn't, by a long shot. (The Nat Geo maps were a waste of money--not accurate, and poorly edited. The AAA map was surprisingly good, thankfully, and I'd take it to Baja again-----along with the Almanac AND the E32 gps maps.)
So, the information I had was that our road should be trending to the southeast--the AAA map shows a fork right about where we were, the southwest fork heads up into the Sierra Juarez, while the southeast fork heads to Mex 5; and BigDog's track led southeast as well, meeting up with Mex 5.
At this point I assumed we'd passed the fork and taken the wrong side, and that the track on my gps was the road on the AAA map. I decided we should head across the desert and reconnect with the track.
I'd just turned into Michael Scott, and was about to follow my gps into Lake Scranton, with Dwight in tow...
We headed across the sandy desert, feeling like JN Roberts in On Any Sunday
dodging the pucker bushes. About a mile or so later we found the "road" that the gps track marked. Eureka! That was easy, and away we continued. This Baja stuff is COOL. As we continued along we could see we were on a track that had been used for a race--there were occasional race markers, cast off parts, water bottles and oil containers were marking the course as well.
We were out on the bed of Laguna Salada and occasionally we would come across mud sections. The first deep section was a surprise--you'd suddenly find the back end sliding and trying swap with the front, but it the trail would dry up pretty quickly and continue through a dry section. Bryn went down in one muddy section, I stopped and helped him up, and a little while later it was my turn to drop the bike.
We were laughing, having fun, not worried at all. Heck, we've both ridden and raced in mud, it's just part of riding offroad. Eventually we stopped for a break and could see the mud was building up heavily on the fenders and swingarm. We spent a few minutes cleaning it off with some sticks found nearby. We could see Mex 5 off in the distance with Mexican truckers and Canadian RV's crossing north and south. We ate an Odwalla bar, it was only about 11 am but we'd worked up an appetite.
Back to it, a muddy section, then some drier sand, then some mud. We finally hit a stretch where the mud didn't stop. It didn't take long-----no more than 2-300 yards, and suddenly I'm in first gear, clutch siipping, and barely moving. I look back and Bryn's completely stopped. I get off my bike and look down to see that the forks, chain, chain guide, swingarm, linkage and shock is PACKED with mud, so much that it's actually extruding out the sides of the subframe about 6 inches to each side, looking like a play-doh extrusion.
Remembering a ride report where a WR250R rider had fried his clutch in mud like this...I had a sinking feeling. Went back to Bryn, his bike was even more packed with mud than mine, and the clutch was gone. Crap.
We fooled around, trying some adjustments to see if we could get it back. Nope. Let it cool off some, no difference. Ohhh Kayyy. Time for plan B. We could see the highway clearly now, using my gps I estimated it was about 3 miles away from us. OK, let's put the bikes in neutral and push them out--it's flat, only 3 miles, no problem.
Hah. The bikes were completely locked up with mud, our boots had even less traction in the mud than a mud-packed D606. Impossible.
OK, new plan. We could spend the night here, but camping in the mud would not be easy, and we'd be just postponing the inevitable--we needed help to get these bikes out of here, and one of them was broken. We decided to take our gear, and, gulp, abandon the bikes while we hiked out to Mex 5 and try to get some help. It was only 1 pm or so at this point, 3 miles, no big deal right?
Wrong again. Hiking out through that mud, in mx boots, carrying 60-80 pounds of luggage and gear, with 30-40 mph winds screaming across Laguna Salada was one of the hardest things I've ever done.
The pictures (of course) give no clue as to what the mud was like. I know it looks like a dry surface with all those cracks and fissures, but stepping off the track into the surrounding terrain you'd sink a good 6-8 inches into gooey mud-cement, and the track itself while only about 3-4 inches deep with mud was slicker than gorilla snot. I'd made it perhaps halfway, a mile and a half, and I just had to stop. I couldn't go any further.
This is where I get grateful. Grateful to have a son like Bryn, that he was with me on this trip and that he's grown into the fine young man he is. He is stong and resilient, and part of his job requires him to schlep awkward and heavy gear for hours at a time. He never panicked, never got angry for my role in navigating us into this mess. Our only concern was how best to deal with our situation. He suggested that I drop my gear and luggage, and I hiked out unladen while he carried his gear out, dropped it at the edge of Mex 5, and then went back for mine. While he was making the extra 3 mile trip I rested, ate a clif bar, and was very, very grateful.
By the time he returned the sun was dropping behind the Sierra Juarez mountains and it was getting dark and cold by the minute. We had to laugh-------our second day in Mexico and we'd done just about everything you're NOT supposed to do in Mexico: broke and abandoned our bikes, 50 miles from Mexicali, 65 miles from San Felipe, it's getting dark, and we're trying to hitchhike. The Americans tried not to look as they drove by, the Canadians looked aghast at us two dirty scruffy scoundrels standing with their thumbs out. After about a dozen cars and trucks had passed us, we were starting to get really worried when suddenly I realized the stakebed pickup that had just blown by was slowing...they've stopped about a 1/4 mile beyond and their backup lights are on. We take off running down the shoulder. A chance!
They didn't speak English, we knew a few words of Spanish, but they let us know it was dangerous out here! Peligro!
We told them we know!, our bikes are stuck in the mud, could we get a ride to San Felipe? They were heading there, yes, we could ride in the bed along with the boxes of pvc fittlings and sewer pipe--they worked for a plumber. We grabbed our gear, piled in amongst the fittings, and were extremely thankful.
These two men were sent from heaven, I think. They gave us their coffees they'd bought for the ride home (we tried to refuse, but they set them beside us on the bed and went back to the cab)--forced us to take them--tried to give us their cookies (we won that battle), when we got to San Felipe asked us where we wanted to go-----we had no idea------they took us to the El Cortez, a very nice place, and then returned the next day to see if they could help us extract the bikes.
We rode 65 miles facing backwards in that stakebed,
went through our first military checkpoint, through a sandstorm, sliding tires as we went through the sand drifts on the road, and arrived at the El Cortez in the dark, cold and windy, dumped our gear in the room, and collapsed. I called my ace in the hole, WoodsChick, explained our predicament, asked if she could scrounge us up some Robby Gordon type in San Felipe to extract our bikes, and fell asleep fitfully.
I was embarrassed, to say the least. And more than a bit worried this could be the end of our journey.