“Can we spin around the neighborhood for a few minutes so I can get the hang of this thing?” I asked my boyfriend, Tyson, as we headed out on what would be our first long motorcycle trip and my first time riding my motorcycle on busy interstates.
I had ridden dirt bikes before, but I had only put about 200 miles on my Adventure Bike (a dual sport motorcycle made for dirt and roads) since buying it. Living in a small mountain town with only one stoplight didn’t exactly give me the experience I needed for what we were about to embark on.
We had trucked our motorcycles to Alamo, California, a suburb of San Francisco and were leaving our truck and hound dog Hank with Tyson’s sister and family. While their house is situated only a mile from a busy interstate, you’d never know it sitting in their beautiful, lush backyard. It was a different story for me. I knew exactly the time I would have on my motorcycle before getting on my first ever interstate. I don’t even know why I was so nervous but I was nearly shaking when I first started up my single cylinder bike.
Everything about starting a motorcycle makes me happy; from the smell of fuel, to the sound of the thumping cylinder. These moments would become more imperative and gratifying as we got further and further away from civilization. Our ultimate destination was Baja, Mexico and while we longed to get to the very southern tip of Baja, we knew with our allotted time we may or may not make it that far.
I felt like we were prepared for every situation. My motorcycle was loaded down with ninety pounds of luggage consisting of spare parts, tools, camping gear, and clothing. I had everything I needed except experience on a motorcycle. I was certain I’d acquire some experience, though uncertain of what my riding skills would be like weaving in and out of traffic on a 12-lane highway.
“Yeah, of course,” Tyson answered and we pulled out of that safe little driveway. No turning back now, I thought. Tyson’s idea of “spinning” around the neighborhood and my idea of “spinning” around the neighborhood were two totally different things. Within three minutes of leaving the driveway, we were accelerating to upwards of 70 miles per hour and merging into endless traffic on the busy interstate.
I knew I had to become a decent rider, and quickly, because I sure as hell didn’t trust anyone else on the road. The feeling of being on a motorcycle was everything but boring. Feelings I had never felt came to me while cruising down California highways. I sensed things I didn’t know I could sense. The temperature changes were an extraordinary feeling and something I had never felt at 75 mph. I mean, I had felt temperature changes before but everything felt so new and exciting on a motorcycle.
Reaching two-lane roads north of Big Sur was relieving and felt more adventurous than the bustling highways. It had been about 2 hours since we left our starting point and I was feeling more comfortable and more confident with every wheel rotation. Then it got dark. Darkness on a motorcycle was darker than any darkness of any desolate desert night I had ever experienced.
We reached our campground in Big Sur after what had felt like a much longer time period than 3 hours, convinced that the most beautiful section of Highway 1 was yet to come in the early morning golden light. I learned otherwise in the campground bathroom that morning—we had surrendered the views to the moon-less night—and didn’t quite feel like we had time to retrace our steps to witness the amazing scenery.
Continuing on down Highway 1 was impressive to say the least, with golden green hills kissed by ocean mist, the pavement winding along the coast like it was always meant to be there, not put there intentionally. I was feeling more as though I belonged on the bike, although the curves of Highway 1 were still a bit intimidating.Everyday, our map seemed less to scale, as it felt like we weren’t making progress. I think Tyson was discouraged by the four days we spent traveling through California, but I kept assuring him that this is the adventure, it doesn’t only start when we cross the US/Mexico border! This was the first trip I embarked on where I had entirely no expectations. My mind felt fresh and I had room there for anything and everything.
By the time we got to the border, I was feeling even more comfortable on my motorcycle but soon I would step into an entirely new riding world that would make me uncomfortable all over again.I had heard about the non-existent shoulders, the poor driving, and the trying road conditions, but no one ever said anything about the stop signs of Mexico being a mere suggestion. We learned this soon after crossing the border, as we watched two consecutive cars blow through four-way stops. It was a good wake-up call. My already overkill observance was about to be taken to a whole new level.
Soon across the border I was already appreciating my rough Spanish. We headed out of town for our first night of camping in Mexico. Our number one rule above all other number one rules of the trip included not riding at night. We had already done so nearly every night in California but thought when we got to Mexico, ok seriously no riding at night.
We reached the dirt road outside of El Hongo that would take us south and stopped for a minute to stare into the desolate darkness of Mexico. Our first night in Baja and we had already broken our number one rule.
Not only was I terrified of running my motorcycle and myself into something dangerously large like a cow, but I had maybe watched one-too-many murder mysteries and feared that if there was a time when my life might become one of those Investigate Discovery shows, it was now.
I had a vision in my mind of what Baja would look like, and my vision was only once accurate for about 20 miles. Northern Baja was cold and cloudy and dirt roads wound through rocky mountainous terrain. We’d drop into a valley that towered with tall lodge pole pines, and soon after would find ourselves in dust stricken open spaces.
There were many moments throughout the trip that humbled me. From the vast expanse of the Baja sky filled with some of the brightest stars I’d ever seen, to simpler things like seeing a huge brussels sprout crop for the first time.There were hard times, like when we found ourselves on a very challenging section of the Baja 1000 course. Traveling the wrong way would be risky; trophy trucks pre-running the course screamed through the dust and slid around corners as if they were drifting on ice.
I struggled to accept the fact that we were risking our safety by being there, but we didn’t have an option out, so I had to face my struggles head on. It was another no turning back now moment — but it was times like that that made me a better rider.
Tyson nearly ran out of fuel as we reached the next town, the first town in what seemed like hundreds of miles as we wound down through the uninhabited land. We were riding along the Pacific Ocean and the already impressive Baja landscape only improved with the coastal backdrop.
We rode everyday, and everyday it was all day. Our daily goals weren’t outrageous, but looking at lines on a map were much different than the reality of the land. What we thought would take half a day would turn into a full day, and we found ourselves exhausted time and time again as we pulled into campsites long after dark.
Crossing into Baja Sur felt like an accomplishment and once we were at that point, looking at the map was more impressive than discouraging. The weather was not what we were expecting, and I remember for the first time feeling comfortably warm in Baja Sur. I’m sure the reality was a little bit different but my memory entails that exactly when we crossed the border, the temperature went from cool to hot in the time it took to cross the little line on the map.
Central Baja was a vast and beautiful desert; one that I had only dreamed existed. Tall cacti towered, and the hills rolled for miles into the distance. I thought, with bodies of water on each side, the peninsula would be easy to navigate. I was so wrong, and when we crossed from the west side to the east side, it couldn’t have been a more endless piece of land.
When we crossed into Baja Sur, we were both starving and needed fuel. We were in the middle of the peninsula, and our campground for the evening was on the west coast. I didn’t realized it at the time, but there was a time change from Northern to Southern Baja. We walked outside after eating and thought, the sun is still really high, we can totally make it to our campsite.
We were only 15 minutes from the restaurant when the sun dipped low behind the far-off horizon. I had never seen the sun move so quickly but we didn’t really have another option, so we carried on towards the horizon. It seemed that every night we got caught out in the dark, the darkness was darker.
Luckily the road we were on, which was once only gravel, was recently paved. We crossed our fingers that we wouldn’t run into any cows, but soon realized that perhaps cows were the least of our worries.
Tyson was leading and even though we had communication between our helmets, the mics would intermittently cut out. Although dark, our off-road lights helped illuminate the black expanse. My tired eyes were wide.
I worked to keep up with Tyson but I knew I didn’t want to be riding at 60 mph on that dark and empty road. Suddenly I fixated on a bush that overgrew the highway. The diverse vegetation intrigued me throughout our entire trip, but this bush in particularly was odd. Tyson swerved around the bush that approached quicker than I expected and just as I thought why did he swerve, I noticed the hole in the road, stood up, and let off the throttle.
Amidst this perfectly paved highway was a gapping hole that measured about 6 feet across and 5 inches deep. I thought for sure I would’ve broken my front wheel and was then equally surprised that I didn’t come off the bike. Tyson had no idea that I went through the hole. I was mad that we were going so fast and hitting a hole at 60 mph scared the shit out of me. He couldn’t believe that I went—and made it—through. The experience slowed us down, and I’m glad it did. 20 miles later we saw a “Zona de Dunas” sign.
The perfectly paved highway was overcome with sand dunes that were over my head and we had to slowly snake through them to continue. Needless to say, we continued to acquire more reasons not to travel at night in Mexico. We were often faced with the fact that we didn’t have other options, and to me, riding in the dark was safer than pulling over and camping in the middle of nowhere.
After finally reaching our campground, we made camp quicker then ever before and fell asleep instantly.
We continued south and the farther we got, the less time we had to head north. We wanted to have enough time to explore the east coast of the peninsula and we had been riding everyday, all day, and so we wanted one rest day —preferably on a nice warm beach.Our goal was to make it down to Scorpion Bay before crossing the peninsula to the east side. The map made this—like most things—look a lot easier than it was. We flailed in the sand for a good portion of the ride and when we were finally on a gravel/rock road and off of the sand, we asked a passerby how close we were to our destination. We had learned by this point t0 take any directions with a grain of salt.The blue glowing dot of the GPS slugged along. The sun set low and we had already been riding for the 45 minutes that the passerby said to allow for the entire ride.
I only grew weary when the road lead down to a low rocky riverbed and faded away. Across the river was a bluff. Finally I noticed some wet spots on the sand across the river and realized that was the road. Tyson rode his bike through the river and then came back to help with mine. I walked through to the other side.
Now with waterlogged boots, the blue dot seemed to move even slower, and the rough rocky road exhausted both of us quickly. I feel that, generally, challenges that I face are easy to walk away from or cheat on. In Baja, that wasn’t an option. Not only was it a good lesson in finding the strength to work through something, but my easy to heat temper was mostly calm throughout the trip. Situations that would have otherwise upset me didn’t.
One of the longest days of the trip finally ended as we found (just barely) our camp spot. It was an amazing place and the morning light was more welcoming and enticing than ever.
We relaxed for the morning since I thought we had a short day of riding ahead of us. My first mistake was assuming we’d have a short day and my second mistake was looking forward to relaxing on a beach for the afternoon.
The dirt road we chose to cut through the peninsula had been explained to us as easy and something that Mexican families go over in 2-door sedans. But, as we can to learn, that doesn’t tell us much about the road. While it wasn’t the most challenging route, it was a lot longer than we were expecting. It was, however, a beautifully mountainous and covered in cacti.
There is no way to describe the East coast, near Mulegé, other than amazing. Lush green mountains spring directly from the turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez. The views were hard to believe and just when we thought the previous night was our best campsite of the trip, we found a better one.As unfortunate as it was, instead of putting on our swimsuits and throwing out our towels on the empty beach, we put on our riding gear and packed up camp. Looking back, I wish we would’ve stayed the day and figured the next few days as they came. We assumed we would find more places like Requesón Beach, but we never did.
The Mulegé area was easily one of my favorite spots throughout Baja and so I was sad to leave as we headed north. It was recommended to us to not miss the Bay of L.A. and we were glad we didn’t. The big part of travel is those who you meet along they way—even if minor—and this rang true for us especially in the Bay of L.A.
Because of some small talk at a local restaurant, the opportunity arose to swim with whale sharks that were in the bay at the time. I appreciated this adventure even more because it was the first time on the whole trip I was able to slip on my bikini. The whale sharks were surprisingly easy to find. Gliding gracefully through the water, their size was masked by their gentle movements. Swimming with them was an experience I’ll never forget.
As we continued north, we dreaded the idea that our trip was coming to a close. Just thinking about getting back to the San Francisco area made me anxious.
Of course, we couldn’t avoid hitting some horrible weather during the trip. At one point we were be riding through snow in Northern Baja and would have to stop to warm our hands by the exhaust of our bikes. We were naive to think that the whole Peninsula would be a warm.We rode out of Mexico on the same dirt road we rode in on, and that had a nice sense of closure. Crossing the border was a start to my sense of accomplishment, and once back in the U.S., that turned to a sense of comfort. There was still a lot of riding to be had, but we had made it.
After camping north of the border in California, we made the decision to head straight for Alamo instead of taking a couple of days to get back. In the morning, there were snowflakes falling from the sky, and we needed to cover nearly 500 miles.
Five hundred miles on an interstate gave me plenty of time to reflect on our trip. The feelings I had towards the end were hard to explain. If I had to sum it up in one word, I think it would be gratitude. I was so grateful for the journey we had completed, our safety throughout the trip, and the ability to learn not only a lot about riding, but also about myself.I feel like so often I am faced with challenges, whether mentally or physically, and do not have enough integrity to push through them as powerfully as possible. There weren’t many alternatives when I sat there and stared at the trail ahead in Baja, and was able to better appreciate my sense of willingness to push through fears and carry on. I couldn’t think of a more fulfilling trip and if I had to go back, I’d be sure to take an empty van so I could bring all the stray dogs home with me (with perhaps a dirt bike in tow).
Cally Arndt is lover of the outdoors from a small mountain town in Colorado. Whether skiing the deepest powder in the west or ripping around the Utah desert on dirt bikes, there’s always an adventure to be had. Find out more by checking out her website Adventure Rig.