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May 2011 4Word - Editorial

4word
Phil Howell | Writer
Posted May 1, 2011

Baja California

A few years ago, during my stint at Off-Road magazine, I wrote editorials about three memorable trips to Baja California. I’ve received some requests to run them here in 4WD&SU, as our readership is more interested in this kind of thing. I’ve decided to do it. Here goes

I started visiting Baja California before I could drive. We’d go down to San Felipe with our motorcycles, unload there, and then take off on the bikes for points south. There was no paved road in the 1960s and very few inhabitants on the gulf side of Baja. In the next three issues, I’d like to relate three experiences I had south of the border that stand out in my memory. Here’s the first:

A number of families decided to head south and camp on Bahia San Luis Gonzaga for a week. A few pickups would carry our supplies and the rest of us would ride motorcycles from San Felipe south. The trip down happened without incident. While we were enjoying a week of beautiful sandy beaches between Papa Fernandez’ and Alfonsina’s on Gonzaga Bay, a Cessna 172 came in to land on a dirt strip near the beach and nosed into a pothole, destroying its prop. Other than that excitement, we had fun on the beach and took day rides into the interior.

For the trip back, my friend Shawn Packer and I decided to race to San Felipe. I can’t remember what he was riding, but I had my trusty Bultaco with an experimental leading link front fork that was too heavy but soaked up the bumps better than most forks of those days. We started back on a warm morning, with the sun glistening on the Gulf of California and the clear desert air magnifying the beauty around us. It was so beautiful that even teenagers took note. Shawn and I soon left the rest of our group far behind as we rode into the desert, heading for the mountain range that’s south of Puertecitos. A misjudged turn and a spectacular crash into an arroyo allowed Shawn to blast past. By the time I got the bike back up, straightened out, and started, he was long gone. Sand and rocks roosted as I tried to catch up. I rode hard, even over The Seven Sisters, but still couldn’t catch up with Shawn.

I rode into Puertecitos, which in those days was a very small fishing village with a ratty, dirt-floored Cantina and the hot spring on the hill. There was no sign of Shawn, so I cranked the throttle and headed north in a cloud of dust. The road between Puertecitos and San Felipe is paved today, with houses on the gulf and other signs of habitation along the way. Back then, there was no sign of man. Nothing but beautiful desert, white sandy beaches, and a dirt road that ranged from rocks, to dirt, to deep sand. I felt like I was the only person on Earth as I sped north. I remember cresting a divide and seeing 20 miles or more up the road as it went through a basin, then disappeared over the next ridge. In those 20 miles, I could see the long ribbon of dirt track stretching north, the deep blue gulf to the east, and no dust. None. Shawn was a good rider, but no way was he that good! I twisted the throttle to the stop as I determined to catch up with him.

Riding at top speed for hours is a good way to get tired (especially after pulling a few muscles when flying off the bike into the arroyo that morning). Even though I was young, in shape, and had a bike that was, for those days, cutting-edge, I started to feel it. The road was bad, and what was cutting-edge then would be laughably bad now. About five miles south of San Felipe, the road turned to deep, soft sand that stretched almost all the way into town. By now, I was so exhausted and hurting I was having trouble staying on the bike. I still couldn’t figure out where Shawn had gone.

With San Felipe in sight, I heard a two-stroke blatting up behind me. I turned and saw Shawn, who, when he rode up, pulled off his helmet because he was laughing so hard at my attempts to keep the Bultaco headed in a straight line. Then, it was my turn to laugh as his bike gave a couple of coughs and ran out of gas. We siphoned a little out of my tank and got his bike started, and we rode the rest of the way together into town. Our group arrived more than five hours later.

It turned out that Shawn had parked behind the Cantina in Puertecitos to get a soda and had heard me blast through town, so had scrambled to get back on his bike and catch up. He didn’t do it (ha!) until we were almost to San Felipe. Obviously, Shawn was faster than I was, but, that day, we both experienced the almost mystical beauty of the backcountry of Baja California by ourselves. It was quite an experience. One I’ll never forget.

Experiencing the backcountry whether we’re on motorcycles, quads, side-by-sides, or 4x4s is still what makes off-roading great! Next issue, Hummer H1s south of the border with Rod Hall 19 years ago, and someone we know slides off the cliff out of Mike’s Sky Ranch on the road to Valle Trinidad.

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