WanderlustBy Sam Lepore

Subject: The Permanent Vacation (2 of 2)
Date: Sat, 15 Feb 1997 02:21:27 -0800

Tuesday. Day 5.

        Looking at various maps and thinking about the muted pleasure of 300 more miles to the next ferry port, combined with 400 miles of return for that segment of Baja, I decided to save those two travel days for elsewhere and try to get on the ferry from Guaymas to Santa Rosalia. Reservations a week in advance? Nah. Motorcycles don't need no steenkin reservations. But since the ferry was due to leave at 9 am and tickets would be sold at 8 am, I decided to get there at 7 am. What a plan. (Remember: Mexico. Time. Lots of it.)
        When I first walked out the motel room door, I thought geez, all the bus fumes from last night collapsed into a cloud. Nope, it was a heavy moist fog that made the air quiet. The fog was so well defined that you could play with it with your hands - like stirring cream into very strong coffee and watching it mix. I packed and left for the ferry dock. Big thanks to Sanborn's here again. There were no signs. Without the Sanborn map I  would have gotten lost. Truth is, even WITH the map I got lost ... but pulled up at 7 am to find a line of people already at the window. (And not another vehicle in sight.) Well, when in traffic WITH a moto, you just go to the head of the line. Everyone expects that. So, in (people) traffic with moto gear, I just went to the head of the line - and no one objected.
        Yes, it was possible to get on the ferry today, that is, if it runs today. You see, the schedule is printed because a schedule is supposed to be printed. The schedule is not what the ferry uses to decide when to go ... I don't know WHAT the ferry uses! But they sold me a ticket. Great! I got in line - scratch that - being the only vehicle there I formed the line at the loading dock. The transportation officer who helped me so far came over again and said "Retonarse a nueve!" Return at 9? I thought it left at 9? No, it leaves at 11. (Schedule? They don't need no steenkin schedule.)
        Back into town to find a coffee shop. Nope. Too early, so I sat in the city center park, played with the fog and finally got to read *my* copy of the 60 CityBike newspapers I took to DV. Precisely at 9 there I was at the gate again. And at 9:02 there were two more motorcycles behind me. Both BMWs. Both GSs. Two brothers from Colorado about to spend a week in Baja. It occurred to me much later that the entire time I was in Mexico I saw only 7 other motorcycles (not counting mopeds in towns), and 6 of the 7 were BMWs. Says something about the 'adventure touring' moniker.
        Ken and Dave both spoke Spanish well, which was a good thing. When the customs officer came through to check papers (aside: each Mexican state, i.e. Sonora, Baja Sur, Baja Norte, has its own customs and border guards just like crossing into another country), he smiled at me and asked 'how fast can this go?'. When he got to theirs, he looked front, looked back, looked front again, looked at MY bike again ... obviously something was not obvious. Ken said "Hay una problema?" Customs said SI! and that was the last I understood for 20 minutes. Turns out the brothers had trucked their bikes from home and left the pickup at the fancy American hotel resort. When they crossed the border they got a vehicle permit for the truck but not the bikes (each). Customs here at the ferry thought all three of us were trying to use MY permit. Arggg. Good thing the ferry does not follow a schedule. Oh, yeah, by the way, the transport officer said the ferry might not go today at all because of the fog.
        Well eventually Ken worked it out, though I don't know how. No gratuity changed hands - that I do know because Ken was surprised his offer for some 'appreciation' was declined. Ready for the next hurdle ... and it was: Federales. Out of a barracks comes 6 Marines in full combat dress (with M16s that I can see are not for parade use). They take up clear fire positions on high points of the dock and walkways. Then 4 more marines come escorting a blue beret escorting a black labrador retriever. As they approach each car or truck, the locals open all doors, get out, and step away. The dog goes in, under, around, and in one case up on the hood. Nada. What interested the dog most was the nerf football the brothers were tossing around the lot. But these marines were very serious. Three times they passed us. Three times they ignored us. Not even 'how fast ...'.

        Fog. Fog. Fog. Suddenly everybody scrambles, the gates open, we are rushed on board. Hurry up, tie the bikes, hurry up, get off the ramp, hurry up, go up the walkway. Of course it would be another hour before we sailed ... but Mexico. Time.
        One more note about the serious marines. I was walking down the ramp to get on the boat when one marine suddenly stepped 'in my face' to stop me. Looking me in the eye he asked "Militarista?" I could see another marine tense a bit. Hey, I'm just dressed in jeans, flannel shirt, and a leather bomber jacket. Sorry, sir, I don't understand. "You military?" No, I am not military. Still looking in my eyes he said "Your boots." Oops. Indeed I was wearing a pair of old paratrooper boots, the style that CIA operatives had been fond of, and not exactly 'current issue'. No, no, not military - motorcycle! Si, passo! Whew.
        Oh yeah, the 'scheduled' 9 am ferry left the dock at 12:30. Mexican math also dictated that the 'scheduled' 8 hour trip would now actually only take 6 hours. Nonetheless, we docked at 5:30. Go figure.
        Santa Rosalia is a different state of Mexico, so the whole sniff search routine had to happen again. (So tell me, where is the contraband supposed to come from if you are sniffed before the ferry and after the ferry? Does anyone every sniff the ferry itself?) After all the vehicles unloaded, they lined up. Ken decided he wasn't going to wait to be ignored, so he just drove over the curb and out the gate. I waited for the click of the safety lock on the carbines ... Dave gassed his bike a little too much and spit a little rooster tail as he jumped the curb. I waited for the snick of the switch from single round to full-automatic ... Nada. So I rode the long way around the lot and out between the tire spikes on the entrance ramp. The dog wagged as I went by. I waved back. No one mentioned my boots.
        The brothers wanted to camp. I wanted to find a motel. We made one pass of the town as the sun just set, then they headed south. I found an old hotel that could have been in any western movie and took a room for the equivalent of $11.

About 5 miles today.

Wednesday. Day 6.

        Baja is about 1,000 miles from top to tip. I was half way. After chatting last night with two just-out-of-college guys who said it took 3 days of hard travel in their car to drive down from Tijuana, I decided to push hard today. Up at 6 to be ready to roll at sunrise 7 am. Santa Rosalia Baja Sur is not far from the Sur/Norte border where the time zone changes to Pacific, so I would regain an extra hour to travel. Again, no coffee shops or restaurants open that early, so I got settled into my privation-travel mindset. Unfortunately when that happens, I sometimes overdo the ride/gas/pee ride/gas/pee cycle a bit. Today would be such.
        One of the nicest things about BMW motorcycles is that their tank size is perfectly matched to my bladder size. One empties at the same rate the other fills, seemingly in perfect unison. Kinda gives new meaning to that warning light on the K ... and I have been tempted to call the FuelPlus gauge by another four letter word that ... never mind.
        As I crossed the Sur/Norte border, the road was blocked by traffic cones. A couple of trucks were by the side of the road near an empty guard shack. I rolled over to them, but no one spoke English and I didn't really know what to ask anyway - so I drove through the cones and on ahead. Around the next corner, there's another set of cones, and another shack. This one is NOT empty, but it does empty fast ... 5 army soldiers carrying Russian made automatic weapons (didn't recognize the model) motion me to stop in the middle of the circle they just formed.  One walks toward me, I flip up the System3 chinbar (great for open face greeting!) and say (English) "Good morning! What a great day for a ride." He looks me up and down and asks "How fast can this motorcycle  go?". (Despite the guns I've mentioned, I never felt worried about the troops. Treat them with respect and treat them like airport security - no joking about guns in the gas tank - and they are happy to share with you.) When I asked about the other checkpoint behind me, the soldier laughed. It was a truck weighing station that only works once a day - but the locals can't proceed without it. Mexico. Time.

        So now I've been riding about 4 hours, and I recognize that last town is the place the college guys said they stayed one night. That's hard driving? Yeah, perhaps if they never passed anyone. Come to think of it, they did say they were upset at Mexican drivers, especially trucks, because it seemed every time they started to pass a truck, the driver would put on his left blinker and they would have to drop back. In case you don't know, drivers in Mexico usually signal you when it is safe for YOU to pass ... they put on their left blinker. :) Then of course, the car the guys were in probably didn't take the curvos at 70 mph, and they had to stop for gas every 100-120 miles. So at this rate, my normal riding was going to put me in Ensenada by dark. Not Bad. That's less than 100 miles from the border.
        There is only one road through Baja. It is almost a two lane road. It is two lanes if you think that 2 or 3 inches between trucks passing each other (with one wheel at the edge of the pavement) is a full lane. There may be an inch or more of 'runoff' beyond the white edge line. Then there is anywhere from flat sand to 20 feet drop off for a shoulder. The road surface is generally good, but you do not take your eyes off the pavement if you are travelling at anything other than walking speed! (Not kidding about the drop. When the road goes through a town it is often elevated like a levee road.) Even on a GS you MUST pay attention to where you want/have to pull off for quick escape if someone runs wide on a corner or even just to wipe a bug off your shield. Concentrating on this road is a drain. I enjoyed the ride, but like the mainland the geography was a bit disappointing. The more southern passage is in the center of the peninsula. The terrain looks a lot like Arizona. A lot of the northern passage was just inland so you could see the ocean, but not the coast. It was on flat rolling terrain a lot like New Mexico. And unless you are on a GS, there are no other roads.
       The miles flowed easily. The K75 loved the constant speed. With the throttle lock screw on, it gave a steady contented purr, reminding me of a turbine at speed under load. After a while it seemed I could hear the change in elevation of the road by how the tires sang feedback going up and down the gentle hills.
        About 20 miles south of Rosario where the road meets the coast, I crested a small hill on a curve and suddenly passed a R11GS headed south. I recognized the rider - it was Duner who I 'might pass'. I waved energetically to try to catch his attention. He casually return the wave and blasted on. Later in email he said he remembered my waving but just thought it was someone happy to see another BMW.

Ride/gas/pee ride/gas/pee. I was surprised to see my day total already at 500 miles. Ensenada was going to be easy, maybe I'd try for the border. I started calculating time/distance/map scenarios. It is always when you distract yourself that something happens you could have avoided ... rounding a corner just south of Ensenada, I suddenly came upon a checkpoint blocking the road. These guys had set up what was almost a blind corner. Not a problem for average vehicles, but I was humming. Now I wasn't going "too fast" but fast enough so that in the split second of getting my attention back from the numbers, I had to grab the brakes fairly hard. The front tire skipped a couple of pebbles. It was something I could have handled, but the ABS kicked in. The whine of a K bike dropping out of warp speed and the damn-is-it-loud chattering of the ABS perked up the Federales the way deer are supposed to react to deer whistles. Heads up and running. Hands were pointed at me. So far, guns were not in those hands. I stopped and was directed to pull off the road. These guys were part of what I guess is the Mexican counterpart to US Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. They had three questions: Do you have any guns? Why are you wearing military boots? How fast can this motorcycle go?
       Now here's why I say don't joke around. It had turned a little cool in the afternoon near the coast, so at the last gas stop I put on my Gerbing jacket with the variable thermostat clipped to my jeans pocket. At the checkpoint, as I was chatting about the bike with the English speaking officer who had interrogated me, the squad captain came over with a curious look, pointed to the thermostat with the coiled wire hanging into the power socket, and said in a firm voice "Que es esto?" (What is that?) Instantly, two rifles were leveled at me. Kinda takes your breath away ... but I explained 'Electric heat, like a blanket.' When the interrogator translated, the captain didn't believe so he just reached out, unzipped my jacket and stuck his hand inside to feel. That made the rifles even more nervous because they had no idea what he was looking for. It all turned out ok. El Captain was impressed and the rifles went on rest again, but I didn't need the electrics on to keep warm for a while after that ...

        Ensenada reminded me too much of somewhere-just-south-of-LA, and I wasn't looking forward to a night in Tijuana, so I decided to squeeze the last 75 miles out before sundown and head for Tecate. What a wonderful surprise the MX 3 road is from El Sauzal on MX 1 (just north of Ensenada) to Tecate! A real two lane in excellent condition that rises from the sea into the mountains through two graceful passes. If you are ever in this area of Mexico, don't miss this road!
        It wasn't until I was in Tecate Mexico that I even realized there is a Tecate California. Maybe it is on the map, but other than a convenience store and a gas station, Tecate CA is just a border crossing. I passed through customs to look for a motel, found nothing, and re-entered Mexico. Both crossings surprised me. Other than US Customs running my license plate through the computer, no questions were asked at all (not even "how fast ..." :) Geez, do I look that clean, stable, and sober that no one even suspects my intentions? I guess BMW touring bikes in full regalia don't evoke the 'biker image'. Back to Tecate BC to find a motel - which turned out to be the only place in Mexico that tried to cheat me. They pulled the old scam about not having change for my room payment (come back in the morning for your change ... but the morning clerk knows nothing about giving change).

About 650 miles today.

Thursday. Day 7.

        Open the motel door to poring rain. Suit up, pack up, fill up (gas), stop at the Mexican National Bank to sell the remaining pesos ... space alien descends on normal people again. When I walked through the door of this pristine marble lobby in my scotchbrite rainsuit, iridescent rain gloves, flopping rain boots, heater cord dangling to the floor, helmet flipped - the bank guard decided to follow me to the counter. Nice to have an escort :)
        Finally back in "sunny Southern California". Actually, the sun did come out by the time I got out of the mountains and down to San Diego. Like the earlier dynamic rerouting in Arizona, I scrapped plans to visit Alpine California. The idea was to scope out next year's entry in the Alpine Lunch series started by Rob Lentini, but given the rain and Alpine's, uh, alpine elevation, I didn't want to 'snowplow' the K again.
        So, Bienvenidos a California - and try not to translate all the 'spanish' road signs into english (El Cajon, San Diego, La Jolla, Ciudad de Los Angeles de la Madonna de la Assencion ... oh, didn't you know LA's real name is Madonna? :)

        Freeways to LA. Freeways around LA. Freeways through LA. Freeways ARE LA. Eventually, Santa Monica, then I scrapped a few canyons, came out of the woods in Oxnard, took the gorgeous, curvaceous, sensuous sinew of a road (CA 33) from Ojai to Cayuma, then back out toward the coast. A motel in Paso Robles.

About 300 miles today.

Friday. Day 8.

        After touring the fairgrounds where our club rally will be this year (Central Cal Beemer Bash, September, y'all come!), it is 200 miles to home. Never being one to take the convenient way, I headed across Jolon Road, then the back way into Carmel Valley, and up CA 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, from Monterey.
        Most of us like where we live or we probably would move somewhere else. Seeing so much of this land in so short a time reminds me why and how much I like living in the west. I grew up in Connecticut and lived in the Boston area for a few years, but being able to ride all year round in varying terrain (sorry, Florida) and in varying but not oppressive weather (sorry, Washington) is something I didn't know I missed before having it.
Despite all the fruits and nuts, California is a special place.
Sam Lepore, San Francisco, 1988 R100RT and 1995 K75RTA

Epilogue: The week after the trip, I cleaned out my office and was released on January 31. It's taken until now for me to get resettled in my semi-retirement and collect my thoughts for this story. I forget who it was that signs his mail "This work thing gets in the way of my riding." But I don't have that problem any more!

Good riding to you all.

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