A warm Baja sunrise cast shadows across the desert as sand sprayed off our tires in crescent arcs. We had survived a 24-hour marathon drive to Bahia de Gonzaga and blasted south on a trackless beach toward Punta Final. Four hundred miles lay between us and our destination, the San Juanico checkpoint (race marker 652) of the Baja 1000. Of course, we could have taken the paved road like everyone else—but where is the adventure in that? I was there to cover the race, sleep in the dirt, taste the dust (and cerveza), and feel the adrenaline. The only way to be at one with the Baja 1000 is to run the race course. If we were lucky we’d get to San Juanico without having a 4,000-pound, 130-mph trophy truck run us over.
Cell phones, watches, and hassles of everyday life had been stowed in the glove box when we crossed the border, and we were slipping into the mañana mode. Mañana is frame of mind and body in which one forgets all the trivial crap we normally deem important. The thought of bills, deadlines, email, stock portfolios, traffic, and brain-dead television shows vanish into the recesses of one’s mind. In mañana mode, life’s focus is based on the important things: when the sun rises and sets, is the cerveza cold, do we have enough fuel, which dirt two-track to explore, and is the cerveza cold; I said that didn’t I? It needed to be restated, as it is a key element for 10 daze in Baja. And lest I forget why I was there; the race and getting the “money” shot.
Several vultures were giving last rights to a beached dolphin as we pulled into the tranquil pueblo of Punta Final (final point), a small gathering of palapas, rustic stone houses, and fishing boats, rests at the southern end of Bahia De Gonzaga. The majority of its residences are expatriates; sunbaked Americans in a quest for the endless mañana. It is also a great place to strip down and take a dip in the Sea of Cortez…and have a coldy. Nary a sound could be heard, save a few snoring dogs laying in the shade as we turned off our motors and walked its sandy streets.
On a faint path we veered south and into an arroyo. Sand transitioned to a rocky two-track left over from Baja’s fleeting gold mining era. Rising from the valley floor, the tranquil blue waters of the Sea of Cortez faded in our rearview mirrors. Cardon and cholla cacti lined the canyon, and the boojum “Dr. Suisse” trees loomed over the track as it twisted through the parched interior mountains. The area has seen little travel since the days of yesteryear, and we took time to explore several old hard-rock mines. Life in the mines was a harsh existence, the elements unforgiving, and weathered crosses marked the final resting place of the peninsula’s early entrepreneurs.
Calamajué Canyon, Race Wannabes and Dodging Federales
Veering east from Coco’s Corner we headed toward Calamajué, an isolated fish camp, and were again on the race course. Back in the day, this place is rumored to have been a pick-up point for contraband heading north. Although I’ve bartered with the fishermen here for langosta y pescado (lobster and fish), I’ve never departed with warm fuzzies. Today, a residual haze of suspicion lingers from its cloudier days. At a course marker, we veered right on a non-descript turnout towards a canyon of the same name. Pushing the threshold of velocity, the frame, cab, and suspension of my old 1982 Toyota truck groaned in protest as we bounced south across several miles of whoop-de-doos. Dropping into the arroyo, the cacti-covered hills converged, green shrubs began to appear, and in the distance of a half-mile the gray desertscape turned to a lush marsh.
It was 48 hours to post time and we were sharing the course with straggling pre-runners. Several came up in the rearview like a shot through a gun, passing with similar velocity and leaving us in their dust. With visions of Baja 1000 grandeur, we raced fairlead-to-taillight for the better part of 20 miles, emerging into the cacti forests of valle Desengano and one of the race pit stops. Cardon cacti, which reach up to 60 feet in height, cast long shadows across the landscape. As the sun headed for the western horizon we hightailed it for our next fuel stop in Guerrero Negro.
For visits to Southern Baja of more than three days you are required to obtain a tourist visa—which we did not have. To avoid extended visits with the federales at the military checkpoint, we pulled off the highway a few miles to the north. Greeting our headlights was an endless sea of dunes. Created of soft blow sand from the coastal wave slope, they were unstable and difficult to navigate in the dark. We found a level spot for the tents and, after a few coldies of course, set up camp under crystal clear skies, unmolested by the light of any urban sprawl.
In the morning Ned noticed that one of my rear springs was sagging—the main leaf had sheered forward of the spring plate. Fortunately, Toyota uses a military-wrap style second leaf and it was still semi-functional. By the way, if you break down in Baja, you’d best be driving an old Toyota or Ford pickup, or VW. There is usually a pile of them lying outside every town.
I limped to an auto parts store in Guerrero Negro that had located a rebuilt cylinder head for me a few years earlier and queried the owner, Manuel. He didn’t have a phone, so we waited while he walked down the street a junkyard. The junk guy had one but…wanted $68 for it. (Not good, must conserve the dinero for the next cerveza stop.) We either looked really stupid, really hard up, or like rich gringos. Maybe all three? Fortunately, I’m kind of an odd duck when it comes to carrying spare parts, and had a spare spring in my kit. It wasn’t an exact replacement but I knew we could cannibalize it for the pieces needed. A few hours later, voilà, we were on the road again. Being self-sufficient can be in invaluable attribute at times. Baja tip: carry lots of spare parts and the tools to install them. We thanked Manuel for the use of his parking lot and headed out. The racecourse jumped on the highway near El Arco, so we were obliged to follow the blacktop to San Ignacio.
Missions and Midnight Wipeouts
Originally called Kadakaaman (Creek of Reeds) by the indigenous Cochimi Indians, the sleepy village of San Ignacio is an oasis in the desert. It is bordered on three sides by large mesas, a natural aquifer supplies year-round water to its reed-lined lagoon. Planted by the Jesuits in the 1700’s, stands of date palms blanket the valley. Stucco abodes dawning colorful pastel exteriors, buildings of stone and rock, and the timeworn mission of the patron saint San Ignacio Loyola have been resistant to change since the highway came to town in 1973. With each visit south of the border we bring several bags of used clothes that would otherwise go to the Goodwill (Christmas and birthday gifts that don’t match my wardrobe of sandals and shorts). We left our swag with a woman at the mission and headed to Rene’s for a few rounds of Pacifico, tacos de pescado and langosta.
Under a moonless sky we headed west on the dirt road that skirts the southern edge of Bahia San Ignacio. Our headlights cast ghostly shadows through towering cardon as we bounced through of arroyos and washes. Ned and Randy blazed ahead while Rich Currie and ran tail gunner. I slowed to about 30 mph as we approach one of the more precipitous arroyos. It wasn’t enough. As we exited the depression all went silent as the tires levitated from terra firma. Upon touchdown the suspension fully compressed, bottoming out the shocks and snapping the steering tie-rod at both ends. This rendered my steering wheel as effective as the wheel on the slot car ride at Disneyland.
My first mistake was stabbing the brakes. The right front caliper pulled hard and off the road into the darkness we went. The truck shuddered as if the frame was being torn out from under it, and shards of shredded cactus darted through the cab. After coming to rest, a quick assessment revealed that we were not hanging upside down from our seatbelts and the windshield was still intact. So far so good. We crawled out the driver’s side door (the passenger side was pinned to a cactus) to appraise the situation: one mirror and antenna snapped off at their mounts, a slightly dented fender, tires still the ground and holding air…still good. Ned and Randy would surely realize we weren’t behind them and turn around. We hoped!
There was no way to make a repair without turning my back into a pincushion, so we spooled out 90 feet of a winch line and secured it to a cacti on the other side of the road. An hour later we were back on level ground, the broken tie-rod lying somewhere in the darkness. Es Problema? Like the good Boy Scouts that we are, we dug into the parts box for a spare tie rod. Voilà, an hour later we were ready to go. That’s when Randy showed up, cold Bud Light in hand, “dude, what have you guys been doing?” Sleep came late that night, deep in the coastal desert near Arroyo de San Benito.
The first racers had left Ensenada, 600 miles to the north, before we broke camp. The motorcycles are first out of the gates, followed by the rest of the classes. In the pole position was three-time Baja 1000 champ Steve Hengeveld. In order to cover 1,000 miles to La Paz in the 40-hour time limit, teams needed to maintain an average speed of 25 mph—the winner would average over 60 mph. While 25 mph seems like a leisurely pace, drivers would be faced with mud bogs, whoop-de-doos, choking alkali flats, coastal tidal zones and thousands of tire-shredding cacti. It was such an arduous event that less than a third would make it to the finish line.
Big Surf, Adrenalin, and the Mile 652
San Juanico sits at the north end of Scorpion Bay, a sweeping 10-mile crescent beach and internationally know surf destination. Its remote location and tranquil environment have attracted Margaritaville-seeking expatriate gringos since the 1960s. It is also a major hangout for race teams and the Wide Open Baja crew (WOB). We joined the WOB clan at Juan y Juan’s place, where the drinks were flowing and a smorgasbord of fish tacos were steaming. Good company, hot food and cold cerveza—we’d found our Margaritaville.
The sun was setting on the Pacific when a small dust trail appeared on the horizon. The whine of a Honda four-stroke engine pierced the coastal haze and a single headlamp appeared in the distance. It was that of motorcycle legend and seven-time Baja 1000 overall winner Johnny Campbell. Campbell rides like a bat out of hell with its hair on fire—fear nothing, stay on the throttle, and stay alive. Let up on the gas and you’ll have a 750-horsepower trophy truck shredding tire tracks up your backside. His teammate Hengeveld rolled out of Ensenada at 06:30 and handed the bike over to Campbell mid-race. Screaming past our position towards La Paz, Campbell was on a no-holds barred scramble to defend their title.
At dusk, we set up the chairs and coolers near the BFGoodrich pits north of town to catch the action. An intoxicating concoction of dust, adrenalin, and the smell of fuel swirled through the pits as the leading rigs slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt. The pit crews had rehearsed everything from refueling and changing tires to checking vehicle fluids and welding broken parts. Before the last drop of fuel hit the tank, drivers were standing on the skinny pedal (which their feet are usually strapped to), engines screaming, and tires spinning as they sped back onto the course and disappeared into a cloud of dust. Reports were heard over the radio of breakdowns, crashes, and injuries, including a fatality of a chase team member whose vehicle went off the highway. Several rigs, after surviving end-over-end rollovers, limped into the pits with no more than a few shards of fiberglass remaining from their original body panels.
In search of the money shot I hiked up the course to the leeward side of the crest of a hill. As the night progressed, the lights of vehicle after vehicle illuminated the distant skyline, becoming near blinding as they accelerated up the hill to my position. Clearing the rise at 60 to 80 mph, all tires off the ground, they launched past like an F-18 off an aircraft carrier, dispersing a violent blast of dust and gravel in their wake. Set up just inches off the side of the track, the first rig scared the bejesus out of me, sending an adrenalin rush down my spine that I hadn’t experienced since, well . . . I crashed off the road on the previous night. For the 24 hours the pit was a hub of activity as racers arrived in various states of disarray.
About 02:00, rumors on the radio were that Johnny Campbell and Steve Hengeveld were still in the lead, followed by Troy Herbst and Larry Roessler in a Class 1. In a few hours we would be heading back up the racecourse (not the most prudent thing to do) to catch the stragglers, wrecks, and morning-after havoc. Crawling into the back of our trucks, we drifted off to the piercing sound of high-octane trophy trucks and buggies heading south.
(Keep an eye on Expedition Portal for Got Baja Part III, and follow Chris and his amigos to Baja remote rancheros, a lost desert oasis, and Bahia de los Angeles)