Sunday, April 9, 2017

Reflections on My Baja Trip

As was alluded to in my last post, Biking the Baja Divide: A Photo Journal, my trip to Baja was less-than-inspiring. In fact, it was so lackluster that I returned to The States a month earlier than expected, having only biked 600 of the route's 1700 miles. As is the case for all my travels, the venture resulted in significant reflections and a handful of lessons learned.

I Prefer Certain Types of Nature 

Walking the beach at Los Frailes.
(Photo: El Mecánico)

The principal reason I travel is to immerse myself in nature. I love being in temperate forests -- majestic trees, babbling creeks, the sounds of forest life. I love being near alpine lakes -- shimmery aquamarine waters and craggy snow-capped peaks. I love being on the shorelines of The Sound -- the rich orange bark of madrona perched high atop the tides.

Truth be told, I prefer certain types of nature over others. Deserts, for example, don't do anything for me. I spent my grad school days living in a desert, and I was relieved to return to green after my sentence was over. I knew I didn't care for deserts going into my Baja trip. Nevertheless, I had grand hopes that exploring a barren region on two wheels might make the landscape more appealing.

I was wrong.

The first few days of the Baja trip were interesting; the deserts were unusually lush due to a plethora of recent rains in the north. But as we cycled further south, the enlivening greens were overshadowed by hues of dull browns. Even though the route joined with the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Sea of Cortez on the east, the blue contrast of the water did little to make the desert more attractive.

Just as I'm not a desert person, I'm also not a beach person -- at least when it comes to the types of beaches with expansive views of sand that are salt'n'peppered with cabanas or palapas. Even the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez couldn't right my Baja experience.

I quickly tired of the Baja landscape. The scenery was exhausting. I kept murmuring to myself, "I wish I was biking in Patagonia." My bike adventure from the prior year was the complete antithesis of Baja. Instead of monotonous sands and dull flora, Patagonia proffered energizing trees, dramatic waterfalls, and enticing fjords.

What did I learn? I want to travel to places that have appealing landscapes.

I Don't Enjoy Bastardized Cultures

Marveling at a road-side tree.
(Photo: El Mecánico)

After abandoning the Baja Divide route, I didn't want to give up on my Baja adventure altogether. And so I turned to the culture in hopes of salvaging the trip.

Alas, I found the culture in Baja to be disappointingly heavily gringo-ized, particularly at the far southern tip of the peninsula. Dotting the coastline were ridiculously proportioned houses, located within ostentatious gated communities. Rude snowbirds made no effort to speak Spanish to the clerks at the minimercados. Instead, they boisterously bragged about how the strength of the dollar made everything so cheap. Yeah, it's a good thing our President doesn't like your country.

I was particularly turned off by my experience at the airport. I stood just outside the doors of the San Jose del Cabo airport for nearly an hour waiting to greet El Mecánico upon his arrival in Mexico. As I waited, I couldn't believe my eyes. The party that is Cabo started as soon as tourists exited the airport doors. Music played loudly as costumed actors greeted the new arrivals as if they were royalty. Tiki-like bars, just feet from the exit doors, served up margaritas and mai tais. I watched in complete disbelief at the pomp and circumstance. This was so not me.

I wasn't seeing authentic Mexican culture; I was seeing a culture bastardized by my own. Suffice it so say that there were numerous times in Baja when I felt ashamed to be an American.

What did I learn? I want to enjoy authentic cultural experiences; not ones that have been adulterated by tourists or snowbirds.

Not Everyone Likes the Same Things

A knitted flower found in a cemetery.
(Photo: El Mecánico)

When I first learned about the Baja Divide, I wasn't terribly interested in the ride because I knew it traveled through the desert. But the more the route was evangelized, the faster I chugged the kool-aid. The excitement over the new route was admittedly intoxicating.

The Baja trip, however, was a sober reminder that not everyone likes the same things.

I'm reminded of a comment made on the bike trip that I led last fall down the Pacific Coast. As we passed through the magnificent Redwood Forest in Northern California, one of my favorite riders from the trip commented that he was tired of riding through trees. Tired of riding through trees? I love riding through trees. And I will love riding through trees until the day I die! How could anyone tire of trees?

To each his own.

As I've followed the adventures of others who have biked the Baja Divide this last season, I've seen that while many people love the ride (Lael and Nicholas did a truly marvelous job mapping out the route), a surprising number of others, like me, have not enjoyed the Baja Divide. Of course, those who didn't care for the route tend not to boast as loudly as those who did.

So as to prevent unnecessary kool-aid chugging (and drugging) by my bicycle friends, I'll say this: For those of you who are considering the Baja Divide route, I suggest considering the feedback of both those who enjoyed and those who did not enjoy the route. I certainly wish I had the benefit of reading my own reflections before embarking on the trip.

What did I learn? Just because someone else likes a bike route doesn't mean I will. When someone recommends something, it is prudent to examine the recommendation with a discerning eye.

For Me, Biking is Cerebral

Biking north outside of San Jose del Cabo,
with the Sierra de La Laguna mountains in the background.
(Photo: El Mecánico)

The Baja Divide was my first foray into bikepacking, a form of bicycle travel with mountain biking at its core. As it turns out, the trip was also my foray into mountain biking. I had no experiences with which to compare the Baja Divide route.

I had heard others say that the first few hundred miles of the route were particularly "gnarly" (whatever that meant). While I enjoyed the challenge of the first hundred plus miles, something about the bikepacking experience wasn't riding well with me. It wasn't until my riding partner and I took a 30 or so mile off-route detour on a sweeping, low-traffic, paved road that it dawned on me -- for me, biking is cerebral.

When I've traveled by bicycle in the past, I've loved engaging all my senses as I scan my surroundings. I can take in an incredible amount of sensory input in just a single rotation of my pedals. I've also loved losing myself in my thoughts. Sometimes I've been so deeply entrenched in my musings that I've arrived atop a five-mile uphill climb without recalling a single ounce of physical exertion.

The mountain biking part of the Baja trip was so-so. I chalked this up to the uninspiring scenery. On the drive from Baja back to Seattle, El Mecánico and I went for a mountain bike ride in Marin County, the birthplace of mountain biking. While I enjoyed riding the trails that were in pristine condition, I didn't enjoy the more rugged trails. Why? Because my eyes were so focused on making lines through the rocks and the ruts that I couldn't enjoy the scenery. When I'm traversing a forest, I want to be able to look at each fallen tree and the texture of each trail-side boulder that catches my awareness; I can't do this when I need to pay attention to where I'm steering my bicycle.

I enjoyed off-road bicycle travel prior to Baja (for example, My Mostest Favoritest Bike Ride in Central Oregon and my travels to Patagonia). Even though these trips were off-road, they allowed me to divert a majority of my attention from the roads to the scenery. I look forward to enjoying future non-mountain biking off-road trips, such as these.

What did I learn? I enjoy bike touring because it enables me to be cerebral. Touring that involves mountain biking, in the traditional sense, doesn't allow for this. Future off-road travels (such as a section of The Great Divide, which I hope to ride this summer) can be accomplished on Shirley, my Surly Long Haul Trucker, with her wider tires.

A Keyboard Is Critical Gear

Looking at the sand.
(Photo: El Mecánico)

As mentioned earlier, I had planned on taking two months to bike the entire 1700 miles of the Baja Divide. As the minimalist bikepacking setup precludes the inclusion of extraneous gear, my iPad didn't make the cut. This was okay, as I didn't imagine having much time to blog, let alone enough electricity to charge my device or enough wifi to post my entries.

Unexpectedly, a good deal of my time in Baja was spent off-the-bike. While I'm certainly capable of enjoying downtime, the law of diminishing returns applies -- especially when I have so many things I want to do with my time, such as write. While a pen and paper sufficed for my writing needs, my mental barfing is far more voluminous when my fingers are dancing atop a keyboard.

I wish I had packed my iPad, or perhaps even my laptop.

What did I learn? On long trips, my packing list should include my iPad at a minimum, and my laptop, if possible.

While the Baja trip wasn't everything I had hoped for it to be, it shined an unexpected brilliant light on what I want to avoid in future trips.


  1. Hey Sarah,

    Informative reflection and learning. I'm with you on needing to see green, lakes or streams (and if possible, mountains). I admit to being relieved that you haven’t been seduced over to mountain biking. I may yet see you again on a road tour some time!

    1. Thank you for your comments, Ron. Great to hear from you!

      Though I was temporarily seduced by The Sirens, I managed to break free from their trance. 😀

      I'm glad I gave mountain biking a go. Alas, my heart remains with more traditional touring. Shirley and Bromleigh are still my first loves. I certainly hope we see each other again on a road tour!

  2. You know, I think I can relate to some of this. My buddy took me dirt bike riding once. I loved riding on the open forest service roads, seeing the sights and just having fun. On the narrow single tracks, I had MUCH less fun, and had to pay way more attention to not dying (and I did successfully crash more than once!)

    I would think a mountain bike on these same roads would be a LOT of fun, and there are plenty of places to camp.

    Deserts, no. I don't even like driving through the brownness. I need trees.

    And you have seen the beaches I like. Rocks, tide pools, wind and few people. Warm sandy beaches are not my favorite.

    I am glad you gave it a shot and glad you knew when to cut it early. We share many of the same preferences when it comes to two wheels! As always though, love the photos and post!

    1. You get it, Tony. Or at least you get me. ;)

      The open forest service roads (where forest = trees) are great! As are the beaches with rocks and wind. :)

    2. We understand each other, and add a hail storm while walking on the beach today to show our beaches aint for wimps!

    3. Yeah for a show by Mother Nature!


I would love to hear your comments on this post!