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Old 04-15-2013, 09:59 PM   #1
Rex Nemo OP
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A Baja Misadventure: Best Practices for Minor Motorcycle Disasters

Perfer et obdura, dolor hic tibi proderit olim...
(Endure and persevere; someday this pain will be of use to you...)
--Ovid, Elegy XI


*Bear with me...this is an attempt, however long and circuitous and overanalytical, to make sense of an adventure ride that went sideways, and to prevent it from happening again. If this information ends up being of use to me or anyone else, it was worth it. Heck, it was worth it anyway.*

Ever since hearing of a co-worker's adventures riding in Baja, I'd wanted to head south on the DR650s. I was envisioning endless blue ocean and white beaches, fish tacos, and copious beer under a palm-leaf palapa with my sweetheart. We'd packed tools, supplies, food and clothes carefully, gotten Mexican insurance from Baja Bound, photocopied maps and important documents, secured our passports, prepped the bikes with fresh knobbies and oil, and loaded everything into the truck in the pouring rain for the long trip south.

The weather in Oakland was less than tropical as T and I, my sweetie and riding partner, loaded the truck.

A couple of days spending Christmas with my family made us even more eager to head out into the desert for some beauty, adventure and solitude. Especially solitude.

I'd made reservations for the first couple of nights at a hot springs campground recommended by a couple of folks I know and trust—it seemed to be far enough south of the border to be safe, as well as a beautiful and peaceful spot on the edge of the desert.

When morning broke on the 26th, though, it was iron grey, miserably cold, and pissing rain. I groaned and turned over, unable to will myself to get up for another half an hour to face loading the truck in yet another downpour. We dropped our Christmas clothes and extra gear at my folks' house, then continued south to my uncle's ranch (can't get there before 10, he's never awake before then, of course), where we unloaded and staged.

Finally, it's time to unload and ride! My uncle's place, Escondido

I'd taped over our ignitions and gas tanks, but got some water in my tank anyhow; the bike sputtered and bucked and died until I cleared the float bowl, and finally, we were off. Essentially, the morning was consumed by small delays, and our start time was later than planned. Hwy 94 to Tecate was nice and twisty, but slower than expected, and heavy with traffic. On our knobbies and loaded with camping gear, it took time.

In Tecate, it took a bit longer to show our passports, get our tourist cards signed off and paid for, and get on the road than I'd hoped for—you park, go into the immigration office, fill out your forms, parade out to the cashier in the conveniently-located booth outside to pay your $25, then back into the office where the stern official stamps your cards, and off you go. The immigration officer was curious about us, and asked lots of questions. Then, shaking a little with anticipation, we were off in the rundown streets of Tecate, out onto the road, and onto the Mexican highway. It was T's first international border crossing by motorcycle.

The weather, too, was pretty cold, and we hadn't taken time for more than snacks all day. Up on the Sierra Juarez plateau in the village of Rumorosa, we stopped for gas and downed energy bars in the freezing wind, and I was glad I'd taken the time to put on those heated grips on both bikes. We fascinated a local ranching couple, who got out of their pickup to chat with us. We learned that their son was a motocross racer, and they asked how far we'd come, wished us luck, and snapped photos of us, posing with Mama. We were small-time motorcycle stars already!

The afternoon was getting long, now. But Rumorosa was unappealing as well as cold, and I didn't want to take the time for a meal, which would force us to ride in the dark down the notoriously dangerous section of Mexico's Highway 2D that twists like a coiled snake down the steep escarpment of Baja's Sierra Juarez mountains. And after all, I'd read plenty about getting as far south of the riskier Baja border zone as possible before dark. These winter days are so short! So, we chewed our cold, stiff energy bars in the Pemex gas station parking lot, shivered, laughed, and swung stiff legs over cold saddles.

After a bit of confusion at the tollbooth, demonstrating once again that bureaucracy is confusing and arbitrary in any language, the barrier was raised, we were over the tooth-shaking topes (think rumble strips on steroids, and a big thing to watch out for in Baja), and on to the scenic highway.

It was pretty exhilarating zooming down the canyon, lit up with warning signs—Curva Peligrosa!—and an almost-full moon was rising over the ruddy, tumbled granite boulders of the mountain range. The knobbies hummed around the turns. The air warmed as the road flattened out into low desert at last, the soldiers at the military checkpoint on the road waved us through, and our turnoff onto the dirt road towards Cañon Guadalupe and the hot springs was well marked, wide and flat, although marked private on both sides for the first stretch. Still, after a couple of miles of standing up over washboard, it was time to stop and check in.

Never ride at night in Baja, they say. And yet here we were.
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Old 04-15-2013, 10:02 PM   #2
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T exclaims over the moonrise--having fun in the middle of nowhere


A bright, nearly full moon rose over the desert, and the low scrub stretched away on one side to the dry lakebed, and up the astonishing escarpment of the mountains on the other. Hmmmm....should we camp? I hated to lose out on our reservation money, but it was getting dark, and I knew well the travelers' rule—never ride at night in Baja. I talked to T, and she felt as if it was worth trying to get where we were going; we could camp wherever we pleased on this desert's edge, it seemed, if we ran into tough going. The moon rode high over the pale and lovely desert, I felt the pull of our campground, out there somewhere, and the road was wide, flat, and straight. I took a deep breath and decided to continue on. We whooped and hollered at the gorgeous expanse and the huge moon rising above it, plumes of dust rising behind us.

As we rode, though, the road got bumpier and more washboarded, yet softer and sandier. The bike started to squirm and get squirrely over soft spots, and I throttled out of a couple of alarmingly sandy places. I stopped again and asked T, “do you want to air down?” Perhaps it would give us better traction? But we were cold, and eager to get to our destination, and the hardpack beneath the sand seemed to be the wrong surface for lower tire pressures. Still, this was the exact situation I'd claimed I wanted to avoid. We were on a dirt road after sunset, on the hardest riding yet of the day.
And not knowing how far we actually still had to go was frustrating. Nobody wants to find out by morning's light that they gave up and camped all night a bare couple of miles from their destination! Besides, the lure of hot springs was calling...

Hoping to float over the sandy spots, I swapped places with T into the lead, and kept up the pace to what felt like a reasonable 30-40 mph, staying within sightlines in the moonlight but keeping us moving. I wasn't exactly sure how far off the pavement we were going to end up, but it seemed like something in the range of 35 miles, and I wanted to cover ground. The road continued, gradually, to get worse, and an intermittent stiff breeze picked up; and as we passed a ramshackle farmhouse, a big dog came roaring out of the darkness, all flying paws and bared teeth, making straight for my leg; and I nearly went down smacking open the throttle and fishtailing as I roosted him in a cloud of sand. Now I REALLY didn't want to stop, but I was getting that grim, teeth set, “now we're in it” feeling.

And then, I looked back and saw no headlight, only darkness, in my rearview mirror. No T following me. My heart jumped right up into the back of my throat, hammering. Shaking a little, I turned around. I hauled it back a quarter-mile or so, and saw nothing but the faint glow of a taillight, next to the ground. Oh, fuck. She's down. She's down. NO. My pulse was throbbing in my ears, now. But wait, all's not too lost—I could see her standing, but with an unmistakable posture that meant she was trying to shrug off a great deal of pain. I jumped off the bike, saying,

“Are you all right?! What happened?”
“Went down in the sand.”
She took in a sharp breath, fighting for control.

“We're camping here. Slipped in a soft spot, bike came down on my leg. The ankle's bad.”

She found a place to sit on a small dune, and decided to keep the big motocross boot (Sidi Crossfires, FYI) buckled on to control the swelling that was fast coming.

“Think it's broken?”
“I don't want it to be, but it might be. Fuck. I'm sorry.”
“No, I'm sorry...I got us into this.”
“Can you ride on the back of my bike?”

She tried to stand and walk, but it was too much.

“If you go down with me on board, we'll just be in a worse way. My weight's going to make it a lot harder, and I don't think I can trust myself to hold on. ”

We had no idea how far we were from either our destination or a hospital, anyway. It seemed right to make a stand where we were.

Hands shaking, I picked up her bike, lights still on in case another truck came flying down the road in the dark, and rolled it off the road's edge, then my bike, fighting to find a place in the soft sand. They kept wanting to fall onto me, sidestands sinking away, as I struggled and cussed, and T crawled around, fetching a sidestand plate and rocks to shove under it.

Well, at least the bikes are up--fuzzy shot of our wreck/camp site.


Then we sat in the dark, arms around each other, just trying to deal with the shock and pain of it for a little while. Then it was time to find headlamps, pull out camping gear, and bivouac here, no matter how inhospitable this windswept edge between mountain and dry lakebed might be. As I stumbled around, stupid with shock, cold and hunger, looking for a flat spot for the tent, the wind started whistling. By the time I unrolled the fabric and tried to fit the poles together, the wind was pouring off the mountains, full of cold and stinging sand that glittered in the moonlight. I couldn't hang on to the tent enough to get it staked out or set up before the wind twisted it out of my hands. I was growling curses, then yelling them, in vain.

This was gonna be one of those nights.

T, broken ankle and all, helped by rolling onto the tent and holding it down, spread-eagled, while I tried, like a demented Sisyphus, to hammer stakes into the deep sand that spat them right out again. I tied guy lines, desperately, to scavenged rocks. At this point she burst out laughing, as the wind bowed the tent poles all the way down onto her face—the situation was so bad that it had become hilarious. That laughter was the extra push we needed; we finally managed to wrestle the poles into the clips and get the whole thing up. There was no way the tent fly was going on, and I'd already used every stake in the bag. When we finally crawled in with food, water, painkiller and sleeping bags, the wind howled and shook the tent, and sand sifted through the mesh with each gust. Nothing like a good howler of a windstorm when you've broken a bone and are anticipating a night groaning in pain in the gorgeous moonlit middle of nowhere. And nothing, too, like hearing the howl of the gale tearing at the tent fabric, seeing the desert sparkling venomously in the moonlight, knowing you've led someone you love into pain and damage; and on top of all that, how are you going to get selves and bikes out of there, and to a hospital?

At last, T got our sleeping bags set up, took some ibuprofen, and taking a deep breath, unbuckled the boot and worked it off. The swelling was disturbing, and that sock was going to stay right where it was, thank you, but an Ace bandage rolled snugly around the joint to prevent as much swelling as we could was a help. I found some big rocks to help stake out the tent more firmly in the shifting sand, and we ate the Christmas cookies and ham sandwiches from a world away, and started to formulate a plan.

The ankle, just wrapped, before it swelled to the size of a softball. You'll have to imagine the sound of the desert wind.


By the time we fell into exhausted, restless sleep, we had one: I'd ride out at first light to the campground at Canon Guadalupe, and see if I could find someone to get her back to the camp. Then I'd ride back with our hoped-for helpers, put her in their car, and ride her bike back to the campground. After that, I'd take a few essentials and make a fast, hard run for the border, get back into the US, pick up the truck, and come right back down again to pick up her and the bike. Since her ankle was painful and swollen but there was no bleeding, compound fracture or serious shock, this seemed like a reasonable plan.
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Old 04-15-2013, 10:13 PM   #3
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Old 04-16-2013, 04:33 AM   #4
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I second this!

Sounds like a hell of an experience.
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Old 04-16-2013, 06:17 AM   #5
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Have heard good things about Canon de Guadalupe, sorry to hear about the ankle......(subscribed)...
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Old 04-16-2013, 08:04 AM   #6
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What quarrel, what harshness, what unbelief in each other can subsist in the presence of a great calamity, when all the artificial vesture of our life is gone, and we are all one with each other in primitive mortal needs? --George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss


In the morning cold, I shuddered awake before the sun peeked over the mountain's edge, and prepped myself. I wasn't sure how far it was to the campground, or what surprises the road had in store for me.

The sunrise was breathtaking--raw and paradoxical in its beauty. Whatever might be happening to us, the world was going on its majestic way.

Our camp at dawn


We tried to brush some of the pounds of sand out of the tent, our eyes, ears, and noses. Grimly, we talked about our backup plan: If I went down and couldn't get to her, she'd have no way of knowing, so if I wasn't back by late afternoon, she should crawl out to the roadside and hope for a passing car she could flag down and ask for help. I agreed to hit SOS on my SPOT tracker if anything happened to me, and hope that help would come. I left T with the tent, food, and almost all the water, and ran light.
(Not knowing what the road had in store for Nemo made triaging gear for her next bit feel very fraught, she says.)

Looking at T's bike in the morning light revealed that it was completely undamaged--not so much as a turn signal was broken.


We had one last kiss in the morning sunlight, knowing that it (no, don't even think that, it's not that bad, it's not) just might be the last. Time to swing a leg over and ride into the unknown.

My bike, waiting for whatever may come


I tried not to look back at the lonely tent and bike and T, waiting by the road, terribly vulnerable.






In daylight, I could see more of the sandy spots coming. I stood up, letting the bone-shaking washboard rattle the bike under me, refusing to let the hunting and slithering of the front wheel get in my way. Several miles in and past an empty rancho surrounded by olive orchards, I saw the hand-lettered sign that marked the turnoff for Canon Guadalupe. Here the road was broad, but sandy and washboarded all to hell.

The road to Canon Guadalupe




For someone with little skill and a big bike, and a lover left behind in pain, this was rather intimidating


As the road headed up the canyon, the occasional cholla cactus became thickets of spiny virility, rock formations studded the landscape, and the road began to alternate between sandy and rocky. I scooted far back on the seat and tried to throttle and posthole through a section that was 6-8 inches deep in sand, and lined with chollas; don't fall! I picked my way through some tooth-rattling rock sections, over short steep hills, over a treacherous rattling bent cattleguard, through a water crossing...and came out into a grove of palm trees. I'd reached the hot springs.

Canon Guadalupe--I'd reached the oasis

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Old 04-16-2013, 12:07 PM   #7
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Originally Posted by Rex Nemo View Post
Hi Rex Nemo,

Fantasitic writing, great photos, drama ... wonderful ride report! (except for T's injury, of course!)
Thanks for taking us along ...

see you around the campfire,
-- SFMCjohn
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Old 04-16-2013, 06:04 PM   #8
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Those are some beautiful crisp and clear photos. What sort of camera do you use?
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Old 04-16-2013, 06:24 PM   #9
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Good stuff this.
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Old 04-16-2013, 06:45 PM   #10
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Subbbbbbbbbbbbb-skribed...
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Old 04-16-2013, 07:06 PM   #11
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Wow

Wow, great story, this should be in ride reports! I cant wait to read the rest of the story.
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Old 04-16-2013, 07:15 PM   #12
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Hi John! You're one of the heroes of the next part of the story...

The camera is a Canon S95. I don't know much about photography; that terrible dawn simply had some of the most amazing light I have ever seen in my life. And those Sierra Juarez mountains floored me with their fierce austere beauty.

And yes, T is in physical therapy still, but her cast is off, and she's back to doing gentle rides and hiking up to 9 miles at a stretch. She's tough.
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Old 04-16-2013, 07:30 PM   #13
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Great writing....can't wait for more!
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Old 04-16-2013, 07:37 PM   #14
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It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.
–Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Bedroom


Wobbling a bit, I walked into the campground—and to my surprise, the first people I saw were John and Cary from San Francisco, packing up their bikes. Last I'd seen them was in the shop at Werkstatt, prepping their rides for this trip. Somehow it was a tremendous relief to see friendly and familiar faces.

John and Cary heading out of Canon Guadalupe. Boy am I glad to see you guys!


We greeted each other, I told 'em what had happened; and though they were headed to San Felipe that night, they agreed to take the washboard route out and keep T company until I could get someone with a car or truck to help. John also told me that one of the other campsites at the springs contained some Bay Area riders who would likely be pretty helpful. I asked around the campground and found them—a group of Bay Area party people, queer/Burning Man folks, no less. JD, one of the camp founders, turned out to be a V-Strom rider, and her sweetheart Heron had an SUV she was willing to use for the rescue. They agreed to bring me back to our doleful campsite and bring the wounded one back, so I hopped in, surprised and grateful, for the bumpy ride out.

Gosh, it was a much less scary ride in a 4WD with air conditioning, and lovely women to talk with. When we at last reached T, she was in the good company of John and Cary, who kept her company, helped boost her spirits, and packed up camp. A good deed, and deeply appreciated. And oh, man, was it ever good to see T again. The wash of joy was intense.

Party at the crash site!




JD and Heron helped them load our gear and T into the SUV, and John and Cary continued on their bumpy, sandy, adventuresome way to San Felipe and beyond. It was tough on her and I to watch them go, knowing that we weren't getting much farther, but the gratitude and relief wiped that up easily enough.

The frightening, sandy road into Canon Guadalupe was easier the second time on T's bike.

Gotta watch out for feral jackasses sleeping in the road, though


Even the particularly exciting deep sand section lined with cactus was a little easier than before, and sliding my weight way back on the bike, keeping a steady throttle, and steering with my feet helped tremendously. When I did bog down on the big porky bike, I was able to post-hole myself out of it. I blasted through the water crossing, up into the campground, and waited for the rescue party.

The campground owner, Ernesto, didn't speak too much English, and our Spanish was pretty minimal. Nonetheless, he gave us an easier-access campsite, then walked over and left us a set of battered old crutches for T to borrow. We set up camp (T considers broken bones no excuse for not helping with camp chores), and realized that, after all, we'd reached a place with hot springs and a palapa of our own. T managed her pain with ibuprofen and courage as best she could. Heron and JD, too, came over to offer us a gourmet late breakfast of fresh scrambled eggs topped with parmesan, home-cured bacon, and fresh orange slices. Holy cow—we had met the right people. I washed their dishes, not sure what else I could do in return.

Our camp palapa


I readied myself to ride out to get our truck, figuring I might be able to get back by morning if all went well. I'd have to ride at night again, of course, and alone. T stopped me, though.
“Why leave now,” she reasoned, “when you're already pretty wiped? The ankle isn't getting any worse, we have food, water, our own hot spring, and help. Honestly I'd rather have your company tonight, and you can head out first thing in the morning.”

Well, fair enough.

So, there was this broken bone and fear and pain business, but there was also our own private hot tub camp, a nice palm-thatched palapa, our tent (which we did manage to get most of the sand out of. Eventually.), the gorgeous desert canyon, really great people as camp neighbors, and most importantly, each other.

Well, we made it after all...



T discovered that her dirtbike knee guards were just the thing for crawling around the campground when crutches were too hard to use. She did, though, appreciate the ADA back in the US...bathrooms in Mexico are NOT set up to deal with gimpy folks. There were some pretty hilarious wrestling sessions getting into the bathroom with her busted ankle, and in the end she ended up reaching up to the ceiling and swinging herself to the stall from strut to strut, as if she were on monkey bars. There's always a way.

Dirtbike knee guards--more useful than I realized


We spent the afternoon and evening lolling about in the hot spring, reading, talking, and relaxing. The doves in the camp cooed softly, and the palms leaned over the steaming water under the rising full moon. This night, unlike the previous night and its windstorm, was chilly, but lovely and still. Our buddies invited us over for company and a gourmet pasta dinner, complete with pomegranate-infused vodka. I was, by now, completely astonished at the kindness of others in this situation, and all I could do was be grateful, wash the dishes, and resolve to be good to others in the future. Kindness to folks in need makes such a difference—for the heart as well as the body. And a little hedonism in the face of pain and fear...why not?

Full moon over the palms and steaming water

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Old 04-17-2013, 03:39 AM   #15
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