South of Ensenada the road rolled through farmlands, coastal areas, and more small towns. I passed a few more military checkpoints uneventfully. I still have yet to be stopped. It became clear one day that they don’t really care about cyclists when I was asked to stop, the soldier’s face became serious, then before I had time to bring my rolling wheels to a halt he laughed and waved me through.
Descending from a 1600′ climb, I met Eric and Joel heading back north towards San Diego. They had more stories of being taken in and fed by expats lazing away their days in Mexico. After this brief reunion I managed to crank out 63 miles and ended up at the Quattro Casas Hostel; seven miles off the beaten path on a dirt road. I was very tired and hadn’t eaten much that day. I was greeted by a young boy named Jesús. He informed me in Spanish that his father was gone for a few days and he had been left in charge. He spoke authoritatively so I went with it. I had the place to myself other than a very large pile of honeybees I could not identify and a centipede so large I first thought it was a rubber toy. Not a bad place to stay but I probably wouldn’t do so again, even at $14 / night. After going to bed I immediately became feverish and chilled; shivering the night away. My illness from San Diego had never quite relinquished it’s hold on me and I let it get a foothold. The next day I laid on the couch in my sleeping bag after sweeping off a pile or two of dead bugs, and watched movie after movie on the TV/VCR while drifting in and out of sleep. That day also brought rain and wind to Baja, and very shortly after I learned that it can really dish it out down here.
I decided I should take it easy for a while and cut my days down to around 30 miles until I felt 100%. I stayed in a hotel the next day and in the evening decided to go out and forage for food rather than cooking. To my surprise I found a cyclist I had run into earlier in the trip was staying in the room right next to mine and was outside cooking. The dinner being made was big enough for two so we traded stories and shared a meal. We decided to go traverse the unknown perils of the desert together for safety sake and have been having fun riding together since.
Continuing southward we eventually turned inland to El Rosario, climbing a few hills and getting some great views and thrilling downhills. This directional shift marked the start of the section known as the Valle de los Cirios, a protected area which would be some of the best riding of my life … so far. To reach the high desert we climbed up steeply at first, yo-yo’ing the day away. I have really learned to relish the climbing. I don’t seem to be able to make my legs sore anymore and they seldom tire unless past the six hour mark. There’s something very visceral and real about a good climb that I enjoy: the stinging sweat in my eyes, the cadence of my heart, the solidity of my upper legs; now petrified tree-trunks from over 80 days of bike travel. The discomfort has become a novelty, and the rest is indulgence of compulsion; I love it. Over the next few days we entered valley after valley, crowned with mountains on all sides. The sprawling valley floors opened up before us; a giant multifaceted pincushion of Cardon Cactus, Cirios, Elephant Trees, and Agave. The road rolled ever upward but more gently than at first; a lazily piled bed sheet cast aside. This terrain made for what was the best cycling of my life … so far. This qualification, “so far”, has firmly planted itself into my daily lexicon. Every time I think I’ve reached the pinnacle something even better makes itself available.
We dry camped four nights in the desert off the road. It can be a bit of a trick to find a good spot where you can’t be seen by passing vehicles. Sometimes the best choice is simply to walk three-quarters of a mile through the cactus until the cars in the distance are miniature. Tire health is a constant concern. Often, we would strip the panniers off and port them separately, carrying the bikes to prevent punctures. Also, when wandering the scrub I’m constantly on the lookout for snakes and scorpions for the kids and for safety; none to report.
Another section of note was the boulder fields of Cataviña. Upon entering this valley, rocks became prevalent, eventually to monumental proportions. A giant eroded game of marbles gone ary. Enormous piles of boulders loomed in the distance while smaller ones, all the makings for a great game of hide and seek, lined the periphery of the road. That night we stayed in an RV Park and met the manager, Lorenzo. He and his wife were very kind to us. We probably talked for an hour or so, allowing me to practice my Spanish which improves day-by-day. We discussed cycling, local flora and fauna, which cactus has water inside in an emergency, and eventually he offered us a place to stay indoors so we didn’t have to put up our tents. Since there was no one else staying at the park that night the bathroom wasn’t such a bad spot to lay out a sleeping bag or two. We selected a location decidedly separate from the urinals. Lorenzo’s wife made a fire for us and heated water which she poured into a bucket, perfect for a very welcomed warm shower to rinse off a few days of salt.
One day the wind became so bad that we were forced off the road. A constant side wind, gusting stronger than the Oregon and California storms I rode through, caused me to list as a pedaled. This technique coupled with strong-arming the handlebars will work until you lean far enough for the front bags to catch the pavement. It feels a lot like you are on a rug which is slowly being pulled out from under you. The wind: a young sibling making threatening faces with each gust, just waiting for an opportune moment to give a good tug and topple you over. We did the valorous thing and exercised discretion.
After climbing to around 3000′ we started a long descent which eventually dropped us next to the coast for a day of very flat cycling and eventually led to the city of Guerrero Negro.
The primary attraction of Guerrero Negro is the whale watching. There are also tours of the salt production facilities and some cave paintings. Unfortunately, we were met with rain the morning after our arrival and the whale watching tour was canceled. Determined not to miss this opportunity we stayed another day and were not disappointed. We ended up seeing around 50 gray whales surface for air, some within 30 feet of the boat. We were also lucky enough to see a few whales breaching but only at a great distance. These whales migrate down from the north to mate and calve in the warm buoyant salty waters of Laguna Ojo de Liebre. I took around 60 photos but due to the horrific shutter-lag of my point-and-shoot I only got a couple good ones. Oh, I longed to have my Olympus E-1 with my telephoto lens with me that day.
We are back on the road now, heading for San Ignacio where we hope to see some cave paintings. The terrain is much drier and very flat. Today a single stretch of road went on without a single turn for almost 30 miles. The telephone poles lining the pavement eventually merging with the pinstriped ribbon of road into a silvery mirage infinitely far away. I sprinted to 20mph for miles for fun, longed for the harshness of the mountains, and dreamt of what lay ahead.