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Dodge Ram 4x4 EarthRoamer Baja California Mexico - Bienv Enidos A Mexico!

Posted in Features on August 1, 2002
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Contributors: Bill Swails
A huge cardn cactus near Cativia dwarfs EarthRoamer.

I struggle to snag a comprehensible word or two from the endless stream of espaol the man is spewing at me, but I'm having no luck. The searing 104-degree heat is blistering my brain and I'm in a state of shock over the condition of my truck. All attempts at communication are failing miserably. Just when I'm about to give up hope of understanding anything he is trying to tell me, he reaches into his back pocket, pulls out a well-worn leather wallet, and retrieves a single bullet. My heart begins to race, and panic sets in as he holds the bullet up in front of my face. What is he trying to tell me? What am I doing, traveling alone more than 60 miles from the nearest paved road in the remote deserts of Baja California?

Oops, I've gotten a little ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

As I drive westbound on the smooth paved freeways toward California from my home in the Intermountain West, I'm on my way toward what I hope-yes, and expect, even-will be Great Adventure. My mind is bustling with thoughts of the countless things that can go wrong. I mentally review my weaknesses: I'm traveling alone in an expensive, high-profile vehicle that always attracts attention. I don't speak Spanish. And I have no means of communication with the outside world if I need help or spare parts.

On the plus side, I'm driving the EarthRoamer expedition truck. The EarthRoamer is based on a lifted four-wheel-drive Cummins-powered Dodge Ram and is equipped with front and rear winches, auxiliary lights, heavy-duty bumpers, air compressor, and recovery gear. I carry critical spare parts, a comprehensive set of tools, engine oil, ATF, brake fluid, gear lube and 52 gallons of fuel. The attached camper provides a secure shelter and carries 36 gallons of water, a month's supply of food, clothes, computer and photo gear. The EarthRoamer has reliably carried me over thousands of miles of backroads throughout Canada, Alaska, and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. On this trip I will never be more than a thousand miles from San Diego or more than a hundred miles from a paved road. How difficult can that be?

I am about to find out. Most of the Baja guidebooks lecture that crime rates are low in Baja and Americans are filled with paranoid delusions of banditos. But I also read several news reports of campers being robbed and even murdered in Baja. All things considered, I wasn't sure what to expect.

The border crossing at Tijuana is quick and non-eventful. The stunning contrast between San Diego and the squalor along the Mexican side of the border is depressing, but the scenery quickly improves. The toll road leading to Ensenada is quite scenic, with beautiful houses sharing the coast with rundown shacks.

I arrive in Ensenada and get down to business. I need to get my tourist card and convert dollars to pesos. After fumbling around a bit, I find the tourist office and get my tourist card. On to the bank, where I'm shocked to discover that I've lost the ATM card that I planned to use to get cash. Although the margin for error is small, I decide to continue with the $600 I have and hope that I can get cash in Cabo San Lucas. As I'm leaving town, a guy looks at my truck, smiles, and gives me a big "thumbs up." I can't help but forget about my lost ATM card and smile back.

The drive after Ensenada is surprisingly green and lush. I stop for a late lunch in the camper, and decide to find a camp for the night. My camping guidebook mentions a beautiful camp by the beach but says the access road isn't suitable for RVs-sounds like a good bet. The road is rough and without a GPS I'm not sure I would have found my way through the maze of dirt trails. My first day in Mexico and I'm already in four-wheel drive. The owner of the campground speaks little English, but the connection is made when he slowly walks around my truck, examines the front suspension, and energetically announces "Baja Especial!"

A typical two-wheel-drive dirt road in the mountains.

The next morning I awake to a crowing rooster and crashing waves. I head south out of camp on a moderately challenging dirt trail not shown on my map. At one point, the arroyo crossing is so steep my front bumper scrapes the ground as I begin to climb up the other side. Two-wheel-drive or long-wheelbase trucks would have a tough time through this section, and an RV wouldn't stand a chance. The steep, twisty dirt road continues along the Pacific coast with spectacular ocean views.

After El Rosario, the road makes an abrupt turn east and begins climbing the mountains into the interior of Baja. The scenery changes from what looked like coastal California to a landscape that looks very much like Arizona's Sonoran desert. The cacti are huge and I stop several times to take pictures. It's near nightfall when I approach the town of Catavia and I stop for the night at Rancho Santa Ines.

I get an early start the next morning and after a couple of hours of driving I notice something in the middle of the road up ahead. A truck with the entire left rear wheel missing is in the middle of the road. The man and his family look hopeless. The truck has Ford Lobo 2001 spray-painted on the side. "Lobo" means wolf in Spanish, and he obviously has a sense of humor since this beat-up truck is definitely not a wolf. I hook a chain to the disabled truck and pull him off the road. Even in his desperate situation, he is smiling and happy. A friend shows up to help him fix his truck so I continue on my way.

From this point on I decide that whenever I see a motorist in need-and in Baja, disabled vehicles are common-I will stop to help. Hopefully, if I have any problems, I will have some goodwill banked and someone will stop to help me.

PhotosView Slideshow

While no part of the Transpeninsular Highway is in good condition, the road past Catavia is especially grim. The Transpeninsular was built in 1973, and much of it looks like it hasn't been maintained since that time. The two-lane highway is very narrow, with each lane a scant nine feet wide, according to my guidebook. I never measured it, but the potholed road seems much narrower. There is usually no shoulder, and the drop off the edge ranges from 10 to several hundred feet. With truckers approaching at 60-plus mph, the road makes for a hair-raising, white-knuckle driving experience.

There are very few pictures of the Transpeninsular in my guidebooks, and now I know why. With no shoulder, it is impossible to pull off the edge of the road, and no one in his right mind would stop on the road to take a picture. Top this off with frequent signs announcing Curva Peligrosa (dangerous curve), Vado (dip or arroyo crossing) and Ganado (cattle), and the accompanying roadside shrines, rusting car skeletons, and dead animals come as no surprise.

The roadside shrines take one of two forms: either a shrine marks the spot where an unfortunate motorist met his demise, or it is a place to pray for safe travel. Unfortunately, by my admittedly unscientific count, "unfortunate demise" shrines outnumber "safe travel" shrines by a factor of at least 10 to 1.

Night driving is a topic that all of my guidebooks agree upon. Night driving only requires one word of advice: don't! It is easy to see why. It seems that cows like to sleep on the roads at night since the roads tend to hold the heat of the day. Many drivers in Baja drive at night with their lights off, either in a misguided attempt to conserve electricity, or so that they can better see other drivers who presumably have their lights on. Needless to say, night driving is yet another good way to earn your own personal roadside shrine. The dangers in Baja are all too real. I can only hope that I don't earn my own personal EarthRoamer roadside shrine.

You want pristine? That was the word to describe EarthRoamer's beachside camp on the calm waters of Baha Concepcin.

Exhausted after a long day of driving on the nerve-racking Transpen-insular, I finally reach my destination, a campground called El Coyote on the western shore of Baha Concepcin. Baha Concepcin is an exceptionally beautiful place, with calm turquoise waters and white sandy beaches. I set up camp for the night, and I'm glad to be back on a beach with gently lapping waves lulling me to sleep. I spend the next day hiking around El Coyote and decide to hang around for a second night before continuing my journey south towards Playa San Peditro. Good thing, too. After the harrowing jaunt down the Transpenin-sular Highway, the EarthRoamer and I can use the rest. This business of having Great Adventures can wear a guy out.

(Next episode, next month: EarthRoamer Does Baja 2, in which EarthRoamer encounters the Cove of the Dead, a pack of crazed surfers, and catastrophic structural failure. And eventually we'll learn about the bullet.)

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