Lost And Vibrating Apart
Sierra De La Giganta
In our last episode, Bill and his EarthRoamer Dodge Ram expedition truck had endured what seemed like days of vibrating hell over very rough roads. Finally, Swails camped in a secluded spot on the Sea of Cortez, near Punta Evaristo. Mindful of warnings about being especially watchful when camping alone in Mexico in isolated locations, he drifted into an uneasy sleep. He was right to be concerned-but he had no idea of the size of the problems he'd discover the next day.
After a nervous night punctuated with bad dreams, I welcomed the sound of my alarm. After just one long restless night in this remote location, I was eager to be moving on. The hour was early, so I took the time for a nice breakfast and a cup of hot coffee before taking photos of the sunrise. I got an early start and was driving before the sun started baking. I was making good time, and pleased to see that while the roads frequently were rough with many narrow sections with steep drop-offs, they weren't as bad as I had been led by the guidebooks to believe.
I followed the dirt trail along the coast for a few more miles, and then the road made a sharp westward turn and began a dramatic climb into the Sierra de la Giganta Mountains. I suspected that I would find the worst roads still ahead of me, but after my experience with the incredibly bad washboard roads from the previous day, I had no desire to turn back.
Hmm. The many unmarked intersections I'd encountered didn't look anything like the route marked on my map. Many of the intersections were peppered with signs marking the course of previous Baja 1000 races, but the only information I gleaned from the signs is that I probably was driving on roads I shouldn't be driving on. Using my GPS and a lot of guesswork, I generally worked my way northwest and hopefully back to the Transpeninsular highway.
As I slowly made progress, once again the road got very rough. When finally I stopped to take pictures, I noticed my camper looked strange. Something had broken, allowing EarthRoamer's cabin overhang to drop down onto the cab of the truck. It was just a little past noon. The temperature had risen to 104 degrees.
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I reluctantly crawled under my truck to investigate, and was stunned to find that the steel mounts between the truck frame and the camper were destroyed. One of the three mounts that attached the camper to the truck had collapsed, and another was broken. There was very little to prevent the camper from rolling off of the truck. I began to panic. I hadn't seen anyone in the past four hours of driving, and I'd never felt more alone
I contemplated my predicament and my options. I knew my exact latitude and longitude, thanks to my GPS, but the roads didn't seem to correspond to the roads on my map, so I wasn't sure where I was. I was sure, though, that at least 60 miles of bad road separated me from the nearest town where I might be able to get my broken mounts repaired. I had no way of contacting anyone or of sending for help. And any truck large enough to rescue me would probably be too big to travel on these roads.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a man and boy in an old Ford pickup appeared. Maybe they could help. Using sign language, I somehow managed to communicate my problem, and after crawling under my truck and looking at the broken mounts, the best the man could offer was a concerned look and a stream of Spanish that I couldn't understand.
Oddly, the man kept pointing to the red dot in the EarthRoamer.com logo on the side of the truck and saying something in Spanish. Did he think that the red dot represented the sun? Was he trying to tell me how hot it was? I had no idea. But it surely was hot, so hot that I was sweating profusely. With the help of a guidebook, I managed to ask him the distance to Ciudad Constitucion, where I imagined I might be able to get my truck fixed. He scratched out the number 111 in the dirt with a stick. I'm not sure, but I think this meant that 111 kilometers separated me from Ciudad Constitucion. It also probably meant that I shouldn't try to walk it because it was very hot outside. I showed him my map in the hope that he could pinpoint my location, but my map of Baja might as well have been a map of the moon. He probably had never seen a map of Baja before because all I got from him was a blank stare.
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Then things began to get bizarre. With the searing heat blistering my brain, I was in a state of shock over my broken mounts. This helped ensure that any attempt at communication with this man would fail miserably. Just when I was about to give up hope of understanding anything he was trying to tell me, he reached into his back pocket, pulled out a well-worn leather wallet and retrieved a single bullet-all the while repeatedly asking me something in Spanish. My heart began to race. Panic set in as he held the bullet up in front of my face. What was he trying to tell me? More importantly, why was he holding up a bullet? What the hell was I doing, traveling alone more than 60 miles from the nearest paved road in the remote deserts of Baja? In a matter of seconds, this trip transformed from a scenic adventure to an exercise in terror.
I finally determined that he was asking if I had a gun. This doesn't sound good. Why would he ask me if I had a gun? "Pelegrosa," (danger) I asked him? "No," he and his son replied in unison. But if there was no danger, why did he want to know if I had a gun? About then, he noticed my marine flare gun lying on the back seat of my quad cab. He nodded approvingly. After that, his interest in my predicament and me diminished rapidly. He asked for oil, and after dumping a quart of my oil in his truck, he was on his way.
I began to drive very slowly and cautiously. I was moving, but the fastest I could go was about four miles per hour, and frequently I had to slow to less than two miles per hour to keep the camper from rocking and screeching in agony. I was creeping in low-range four-wheel drive with the engine idling, and still I had to ride the brake pedal through many of the rougher sections.
After creeping along for less than a mile, I looked in my rearview mirror and discovered, to my horror, that EarthRoamer's spare tire carrier had broken and my tire was being dragged by its safety chain behind the truck. Baja was ruthlessly ripping my EarthRoamer apart. I could only imagine what would break next.
By now, I was mentally and physically exhausted and beginning to doubt my ability to get out of this predicament. At my current speed, my GPS was telling me that I would make it to Ciudad Constitucion in 30 hours. It could be a lot worse, I reminded myself; I could be walking, instead of sitting in an air-conditioned truck. I began to think of friends at home, and my resolve to make it safely back home began to rise. EarthRoamer's Cummins engine was still running and I was still moving. I had plenty of water, plenty of food and a secure shelter. I was neither sick nor injured. If it took 30 hours, it would take 30 hours.
After another eight hours of driving, I was only 12 miles closer to my destination, and I'd hit the roughest roads I'd seen so far in Mexico. It was now dark and I was hungry, so I just stopped in the middle of the trail and crawled back into the camper for a sandwich. I decided that since the temperature was well over 100 degrees during the day and there was no traffic on these trails, I would drive all night, when the temperatures are cooler.
While eating, I used the latitude and longitude from my GPS to try and plot my position on my map. I was hoping to reach San Luis Gonzaga, since my guidebook informed me that the road from San Luis Gonzaga to Ciudad Constitucion was a "good" road. As near as I could tell, I was on an unmapped trail far west of San Luis Gonzaga. This was discouraging news, since there remained a very real chance that I would encounter an impassible spot and have to backtrack and find another route.
After eating, I continued driving in the darkness, and quickly realized that even with EarthRoamer's arsenal of lights illuminated, it was still too difficult to judge the terrain. I reached a particularly rough section, and after three attempts at getting through, I realized how truly exhausted I'd become. If I tried to continue driving, I most certainly would make a bad situation much worse. So I abandoned my plan to drive through the night.
I pulled partly off the road, EarthRoamer badly off plumb. Never mind, it would be my camp for the night. I crawled into bed and just as I was falling asleep, I was rudely awakened by a truckload of kids screaming and yelling as they drove by. At first, I thought I was dreaming, since I'd seen no one in eight hours of driving. But sure enough, they came driving by again. I popped my head up through my roof hatch as they drove away. They probably saw my lights and came to investigate. I found my flare gun and bear spray and laid them next to me.
The next morning, my alarm awakened me from a deep sleep before sunrise. After a nervous night, my mind began to shift gears, as my predicament came back into focus. I quickly ate breakfast and drank a cup of coffee before proceeding on my way.
The bad trail continued to deteriorate, and I frequently had to get out of the truck and scout the worst sections of road. I came to a wide arroyo crossing and realized that I'd completely lost the trail. It looked like my worst fears had been realized: I'd reached the end of the road. I was sure I didn't have enough fuel to backtrack, and I didn't have a clue where I was.
Is this where the EarthRoamer shrine will be built? I'll answer that question in the final episode next month.