Desert Blues

Our little vacation at Don Eddie's ended with the sad realization that we had to get back on the road, specifically the dirt road of our nightmares. Luckily, this time we knew what was coming, the general level of frustration was kept to a minimum. We were thrilled to rejoin with the highway (asphalt!) and soon realized that we were most definitely headed away from the Pacific and into the desert. It being Monday, there were hardly any cars on the road. For long minutes on end we rode along with barely a sound, just our legs pedaling and our chains squeaking. Barren landscapes all around, mountains to the left, brown dust to the right, all in all a very different world from what we were used to.

Adios, Don Eddie...

...and hello, desert.

On our way into the desert, we passed yet another military checkpoint. It lay at the top of a seemingly enormous hill, with the bored soldiers sitting on top waiting for us like kings of the mountain. I guess we haven't really talked about those yet, have we? Every 100 miles or so there have been these checkpoints where heavily armed soldiers make people empty out their cars in order to look for drugs and weapons. Apparently our bikes don't look too threatening, because we get waved through every time. But man, they are taking the threat quite seriously here.

The stuff nightmares are made of...

...but what goes up, must come down.

Our destination for the day was El Rosario, a tiny town and the last stop before the vastness of the inland desert that awaited us. (Little did we know that we would be spending much more time here than we had planned, but more on that later.) Much to our surprise, our campground had a small patch of grass! Like moths to the flame, we hustled to that spot and pitched our tent right there, on the grass and in the shadow of a tree. The little things can make all the difference.

The owners of Hotel Sinahi get straight to the point.

We didn't know it yet but the next day would be quite an endurance test for us. After leaving El Rosario behind at dawn, we covered a good ten uphill miles before Alex called for an immediate emergency stop. Her chain had broken! We weren't scheduled to see another town for two or three days, and worst of all, we didn't have a replacement chain or a tool to handle the situation. To put it lightly, we were majorly screwed, in the middle of nowhere, and no town ahead for almost 100 miles. A friendly Californian couple took pity on us and turned their car around to help us figure out what had happened. Essentially the master link was stretched out to the point that it would no longer hold together, not surprising after the many hills that the Pacific Coast had thrown our way. The Californians, after somehow becoming convinced that my name was David, helped us cobble the chain back together. That fix, though temporary, would enable us to backtrack (read: roll) back down to El Rosario.

Things were so pretty until disaster struck.

Once there, we quickly confirmed with the locals that El Rosario does not have a bike store. We were directed to bike stores either 50 miles back in San Quintin, or 250 miles ahead in Guerrero Negro, neither of which we were particularly keen to undertake by bike. Instead, we made for the first hardware store we could find and Alex used a combination of Spanish and sign language to explain our predicament. Luckily, the two nice guys helping us went right inside and grabbed two chains, just like that! Knowing next to nothing about chains at this point, we bought the chain that looked right, rethreaded it, and headed off to replenish our energy supply with tacos. Unfortunately, by that point it was almost noon and the sun was out in full force, and we decided that it would be stupid to continue on in the dead heat. We waited and waited, and both of us grew more impatient with every minute. Finally we got going, and just our luck, a bad scraping sound near Alex's derailleur made us stop rather quickly. Upon a closer inspection, we realized that the chain hadn't been attached correctly: it was mismounted on the derailleur and needed to be taken apart again. But of course, we were missing the tool to do just that. At this point, shit really hit the fan.

So back to the store we went, and at this point the two nice guys that were helping us had been replaced by an unsmiling, unhelpful couple who really just wanted us to go away. (Note from Alex: My Spanish is pretty thin on words like “needle nosed pliers” and “chain rivet extractor,” and the store owners had no interest attempting to understand my increasingly frantic gesticulations.) They were essentially stonefaced, up to the point of denying even having another chain, even though we had seen it less than an hour before. Eventually though, they brought the other chain out and without even looking we bought it. We proceeded to break the old chain with a pair of pliers and try to rethread the new chain correctly. But here comes the next obstacle: the new chain is too wide for the derailleur. Hooray. In case anyone is wondering, there are apparently two sizes of chain: a 3/32″ and a 1/8″. And boy, does that extra 1/32″ matter. It would have been cool if that six week bike repair class we took before leaving could have mentioned anything about chains…

So now we're stuck with three chains: one that fits the bike but has a broken master link, one that fits the bike that we've just forcibly broken in half, and one that doesn't fit the bike at all. Time to get down to business. There followed a good two hours of us desperately going from store to store – hardware stores, auto repair stores, tire stores and supermarkets, we tried every single one in town just to find another chain. We must have stopped by at least twenty businesses. Most people just looked at us sadly and shook their heads, as if there was just no way we were ever going to find a bike chain in town. A few got our hopes up by thinking that they might actually have one, but time after time they returned empty-handed. Luckless and full of frustration, we gave up and headed back to the campground/hotel we had started from that very morning. As a last ditch effort, we stopped at the one last tire store on the route to ask about a chain. A simple shake of the head from the teenaged employee put the final stake in our hearts.

But then, lightning struck. A truck was sitting in the driveway of the tire store getting its air pressure topped off, and the driver stuck his head out of the window and yelled, “Necesitas cadena de bicicleta?” YES! Yes, we really do. We quickly explained our problem, and he and his brother promised to meet us at our hotel with a new chain. Not twenty minutes later they turned up, brandishing a rusty chain that the brother had literally just removed from his Chopper. Not promising. But it didn't matter, because in his other hand he held…(drumroll)…a chain rivet extractor! Our hearts leapt with joy.

This is what saving the day looks like.

With a little bit of elbow grease, we used the chain rivet extractor to simply remove a link from the chain we had broken with the pliers, reattach it correctly to the derailleur, and voilà, Alex's bike was back to normal. The brothers, Juan and Abraham, promptly tried to sell us the chain rivet extractor for $20. Instead, we paid them about that much for their help and Alex suggested that they use the tool to set up a bike shop in town. Future cyclists would sure appreciate it! We parted ways with many graciases and handshakes, immensely grateful to have run across just the right guys at just the right time. Exhausted from all that stress, we fell right into bed and didn't move until basically the next morning.

We have pretty high standards when we're not sleeping outside.

With Alex's bike fixed, there was nothing between us and the desert, and I mean the real desert. We approximated 6 days to pass through a stretch of highway that would lead us up into high up mountains and through completely desolate wastelands, essentially devoid of towns. We made it past the chain-breaking site without incident, and shortly after met an Irish biker who was on his way from Bogota to Vancouver. He seemed a bit out of it, really tan, and severely in need of a shower. He told us that the road ahead was hot and hilly but manageable, which gave us hope. But alas, the brutal heat got to us, and we decided to pitch our tent around noon, atop a mountain in the middle of nowhere, and wait out the hottest part of the day. We sat around sweating for hours while the wind tried to blow our tent down a ravine, and by late afternoon we were more than ready to get back on the bikes.

After pushing on for a few more hours, we came upon an abandoned restaurant on the side of the road. The place itself was creepy and had clearly been deserted for awhile, but there was an enormous palapa outside whose shade we just couldn't pass up. It turned out to be a little bit unnerving as a campsite, as we were visible from the side of the road and got honked at by truckers all night long. Of course, Alex started freaking herself out by imagining some truckers coming by in the middle of the night to rob and kill us. (Note from Alex: Sorry, Mom.) Thanks for the nightmares, baby!

So we realize that you're closed and everything...

...but do you mind if we use your palapa?

Waking up fresh (and thankfully non-abducted), we made our way further through the desert. One of the more depressing sights, and something we had already seen plenty of the day before, was the prevalence of deserted towns and settlements along the road. There was literally not a person in sight, and what's more it looked like most of them had just up and left without bringing any of their belongings. Which also meant that we kept getting our hopes up for a place to buy food and water when we saw a building, only to find that it was completely abandoned. Sooner or later it dawned on us: this stretch of desert was not worth the effort. It was hot, hilly, desolate, and the landscape would have been interesting for maybe an hour or two, but not six days. Was that really what we wanted to do? Hell no! We decided that we would get to the next town, Cataviña, stay there for the night and figure out a way to get through the rest without another pedal stroke. Once in Cataviña, we found yet another mostly abandoned town that was way overrepresented on our map. More deserted buildings, a measly store selling only cookies and chips, and a shockingly overpriced hotel were all that kept that town alive. That pretty much sealed the deal. We made for a nearby ranch that accepted campers, and after another brief abandonment scare, finally found the owners. At least we ate some good food there, and got instructions for making our next move. Time to get out of the desert!

We were a little surprised to find horses roaming through the campground...but hey, it's Mexico.

That's how we found ourselves the next morning, standing with all of our bikes and bags outside the local hotel, scanning the horizon for the next bus. We passed the time by worrying that the bus wouldn't come, and plotting what we would do if it didn't stop, or worse, wouldn't take the bikes. Finally, the bus crested the hill in front of us, and the driver was probably surprised to see two gringos waving like complete lunatics to get him to STOPPP. It turned out that there was just enough room below for the bikes, and (unlike Greyhound) no pesky boxing required. Man, what a nice change of pace that bus ride was. Air conditioning, reclining seats, what more could we ask for? In just three hours we covered four days of riding and skipped more hot, desolate, hilly tedium – didn't miss much there.

Tom, ready to stop the bus by any means necessary.

The bus is here!

And just like that, we've saved ourselves from a slow decline into desert-induced insanity.

We were dropped off in Guerrero Negro, an old salt mining town now famous for its whale watching. It's really too bad that we missed whale season, it would have been great to get out there and pet some of those friendly giants. However, our whale sadness was made up for by watching the World Cup in a local restaurant. We gleefully witnessed the brutal takedown of Spain by the Netherlands, and learned some Spanish terms for various types of goals. New favorite: gol del escorpio, as performed by Van Persie to kick off the Netherlands' scoring streak. What a game that was!

We took a long coffee break the next morning to get ready for a new beginning. Sure enough, before we even got to take a sip of our coffee some old guy starts chatting me up, asking to take pictures of me with the bikes and insisting that we go visit his son on our way down south. Normally, once caffeinated, would nod and smile and say thank you, but this situation was a little odder because said son, who turned out to be a guy in his 40s, was awkwardly standing next to him, clearly not pleased and not saying a word. I wished them the best and excused myself, only to find half an hour later a little note on my bike, probably written by the old dad. Well, we'll see about that…

Finally fueled up on coffee, we were treated to more desert. But this time riding was fun, with the wind on our side and the road an endless, flat, straight line into the horizon. Incredible tailwinds pushed us more than 70 kilometers in about three hours into the next big town, Vizcaíno. We took a long rest there to munch on dirt cheap watermelons, and good thing we did, because we came across a friend from the road. Valerio, a guy from Italy we had met the day before, was riding like the wind past us, and when we waved he made a big turn to stop for a longer chat. He is an intense character who rides with next to no luggage and no food, only water, and covers distances of 200 kilometers per day and more. Pretty impressive for a guy in his 60s. Full of energy and talking a mile a minute, he told us plenty of crazy stories from his cycling adventures all around the world, may it be Tunisia, Peru, Morocco, or Brazil. When he departed we felt like we could accomplish anything. Thank you for the inspiration, Valerio!

Um, I think you forgot some peppers...?

Back to our old ways, hanging out in storefronts.

Valerio thought that our chairs were the ultimate luxury. We agree.

And with Valerio's help, we had our longest ride ever, a good 105 kilometers for that day! We slunk off the road when it started to get dark, and into a cactus field that looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Hundreds of flies went after our stuff as soon as we settled down in our campsite, reminding us of our mosquito attack back in Gualala, California. After many evasive maneuvers, we managed to pitch the tent and get our things set up with only three flies making it into the tent. They quickly met their end, and luckily, as soon as the sun went down, their little friends seemed to drift away too. Instead, a creepy donkey moved into the vicinity, braying all night and sounding like it was slowly dying. Where are all the cute animals?

The little town of San Ignacio was our goal for the next day. And, to our surprise, it turned out to be a nice change of pace. San Ignacio is a little oasis of a town, down in a valley full of date palms with a beautiful town square and restored mission. We hung out in the square for the better part of the day underneath the shade of laurel trees, eating ice cream, reading, listening to music, taking naps, and people watching. We set up camp at a little lake (another pleasant surprise), surrounded by several Mexican families celebrating Father's Day. Live bands played from noon until well past midnight, and firecrackers and blaring speakers reliably woke us up every couple of hours. All of this made for not the most restful of nights, but there was water and shade and pelicans, so we were happy.

We went off the next morning in search of a place to watch the World Cup, and stumbled upon one of the best surprises of our trip. We stopped about half a block down the road from our campsite at a B&B, initially just looking for a place that would feed us breakfast and not look at us too funny when we needed two hours to eat it in front of the TV. We couldn't miss those games, first Germany versus Portugal, then USA versus Ghana. The B&B turned out be a yurt resort called Ignacio Springs, run by a Canadian couple named Terry and Gary (we kid you not). If that wasn't enough to get us to stay, Terry served us an awesome breakfast with sausages handmade by Gary, then ushered us into their living room to watch the games. After watching Germany put the beatdown on Portugal in air conditioned bliss, we were convinced that we could probably spend a little more time at Ignacio Springs. Terry showed us to our yurt, and to the backyard river where we were free to swim and kayak. We spent the rest of the day lounging in the shade of the date palms, swimming in the river, and generally thoroughly enjoying ourselves. Terry and Gary are awesome, and if you ever find yourself caught in the Baja desert with no idea how you got there or why it's so goddamned hot, make for Ignacio Springs and all will be well. We promise.

Happiness is: a yurt...

...ample shade...

...and an appropriately modified refrigerator full of beer.

We slept like the dead in our plush yurt bed, and rolled out the next morning with a hug from Terry and heavy hearts sad to be leaving this little oasis in the desert. Having checked the map, we knew that massive climbing awaited us. Luckily, we got an early start and cleared most of it out the way before the sun really started beating down on us. Epic descents were our reward, as was a hike in temperatures and some serious humidity. The Sea of Cortez, we finally made it! The change of climate was both incredible and incredibly uncomfortable. Thanks to the humidity, every movement felt like moving through a steam bath. But it was great to have the desert at our backs, and La Paz beckoning us on down the coast. Onwards!



4 thoughts on “Desert Blues

  1. Whew, I find I am extremely tense reading these posts, wondering what happens next. From Alex dealing with the bikes in LA to the broken chain, this lil jaunt of yours is a real page-turner! Again, the video almost did me in…the roads are so narrow, the cliffs so steep, the trucks so big! Keep up the great work, we really appreciate the updates.

    • Thanks Kate! The hills in Mexico are definitely a whole different breed of crazy. Luckily we seem to have the good fortune to be climbing up the gradual side, and flying down the steep side. (Hopefully the trend persists.) Cars go so slow down to negotiate the curves that it almost feels safer on a bike. And as for the whole border crossing bit…never again. Missing the ‘hood!

    • Hi Steph! I cannot believe that we’re going to be missing you by less than a week. We’re in Loreto now, and will be in La Paz by July 1. We weren’t planning to make it all the way down to Cabo, but if we had already been in La Paz we absolutely would have found a way to get down there to meet up. My mom told me that the Cabo trip is to celebrate your retirement – congratulations! Have an awesome time, and a couple of extra margs for me. Hope to see you guys when we’re back up on the island at the end of July.

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