Jeff Allen

The Miracle Madness Of The Baja Peninsula

We celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Baja 1000 our way

W

e had to be here. Had to load up the van and shuck south across the border because this is the 50th anniversary of the Baja 1000. No matter how many times you’ve looped “Dust to Glory” or “On Any Sunday” in the garage, you can’t understand this place or the race that runs through it without putting your boots in the dirt. This is an entire peninsula of absurdity. A place where some towns have only recently received pavement and electricity while others still wait. A place where cellphones and credit cards are still quaint curiosities, and no one bats an eye if you go gunning through the heart of it on a pair of red-sticker 2017 Honda CRF450RXs. The machines are special. Brand-new and laden with a stack of aftermarket goodies. LED headlights from Baja Designs, IMS desert tanks, and Acerbis Bark Busters, all without a scratch on them. Honda took the 450R, threw on an electric starter and a handful of specific engine maps, retuned the suspension, and called it a day. It’s made for hare scrambles and enduros, a full-on competition machine with a toggle for a throttle and zero patience for anything less than a full-on sprint. We would put more than 800 miles on them in four days, riding from the hotel where we left the van in Ensenada all the way south to Bahía de los Ángeles and back again.

We were dirtbagging it. No support. No reservations. Just a wild notion to ride some of the course before the race got going and to see how far south we could get ­before having to turn north again to meet my flight home.

Ensenada is a sprawling, low city with a miraculous ­tangle of traffic. Belching city buses, all of them repurposed Blue Birds and Fords from the surplus school fleet up north, jockey with scrap trucks and brand-new ­Renaults. We were three days ahead of the race, and already the town was filling with teams. Trophy trucks, buggies, and trailers were everywhere we looked. Bikes too.

We caught Highway 3 out of town, through the salvage yards and cemeteries that make up the outskirts, and on through the low hills. When the course left the pavement at Ojos Negros, so did we, turning off and following the orange markers staked in the dirt. What began as a wide, hard-packed road quickly devolved into my personal riding nightmare. I’d expected sand and whoops and silt and nasty climbs. I didn’t expect all four to happen simultaneously.

Mission in Baja
The afternoon sun lights the sanctuary of a 200-year-old Dominican mission.Jeff Allen

It was the third down inside that first hour. I cannot in good conscience call it a drop; it was an honest crash at the bottom of third gear with the throttle yawning wide. A good and meaty lowside. My right arm burned with blood, sand, and dirt—the first of many gifts from Mexico. There wasn’t time take stock of what was torn or broken. Jeff Allen, our photographer and my riding companion, had been clear before we set off: Teams were pre-running the course. At any time, a truck, buggy, or bike could come ripping around the blind corner behind me at race pace.

"But right then, sweating and bleeding and utterly incapable of cursing, it was the first time I fully grasped what this race means. One thousand miles. Of that."

We hadn’t covered more than 30 miles and already every inch of me had something to say about the life choices that led me there. At some point, my confidence abandoned me for someone who wasn’t intent on snapping a limb. It was replaced by fatigue and hesitation, that hateful cocktail that leads only to more drops. After getting pitched from the bike again on an off-camber rock step, it dawned on me that I was no longer on a motorcycle ride. I was in a fight. And I was losing. Mexico was kicking my ass.

We’ve heard the words “Baja 1000” so many times that they’ve lost their meaning. Somewhere along the dusty years, the jagged impossibility of the race fell by the wayside, replaced by dreamy images of riders lofting their front wheels down impeccable, empty beaches at 100 mph. But right then, sweating and bleeding and utterly incapable of cursing, it was the first time I fully grasped what this race means. One thousand miles. Of that.

Fishing camps in Baja

Highway 5 is a lonely stretch of perfection dotted with fishing camps.

Highway 5 is a lonely stretch of perfection dotted with fishing camps.Jeff Allen

I had to swallow my pride. I choked it down with the rest of the grit between my teeth and admitted I couldn’t keep riding the course. Allen agreed to change our tack, and we spent a few hours exploring the peninsula’s interior, slinging down ranch roads and chasing out dry washes, their bellies full of loose, dry sand.

The RX and I never quite came to an understanding. The bike’s meant to be ridden like death’s not far behind. I don’t have the skill set to whip it down a riverbed or up the rutted ridges that became the flavor of the day. Not at full-tilt.

We took a break, the sun filtering between the hills and the clouds behind us. It was so quiet, I could hear my blood in my ears. The desert ran out for miles around us, nothing but scrub and cactuses. The harshness of that place ebbs at dusk. The sky shades pink and soft, and you can’t help but feel the beauty of it in your chest. I added it to the day’s bruises and abrasions, glad of the ache.

Baja makes it easy to come down and visit. ­Businesses readily accept American dollars, and nearly everyone speaks English. Those who don’t were tolerant of my mangled high school Spanish. Everyone gets on, and when we asked about fuel, the matron of the house pointed us toward a couple of 50-gallon drums. A gentleman was glad to measure us a few gallons by milk jug and funnel, the scene playing out by cellphone flashlight under a wide blanket of stars.

The next morning, we couldn’t help but point the bikes toward the long beaches that parallel the highway. Baja is an astounding playground. There’s no one to tell you where you can and cannot go. There are no rules about leaving the pavement and heading through the dunes. I dropped the bike twice more in the sand, drops eight and nine, reopening my forearm’s tender skin. I was in the middle of a ranging rant about Allen, sand, Honda, and gravity when I crested the last dune. The words stuck in my throat. The view was stunning, the beach running out for miles, ­nothing but white sand, shells, and a perfect blue sea.

Baja Peninsula
The peninsula is webbed with ranch roads is waiting to be explored.Jeff Allen

Was this what Southern California was once like? Empty and gorgeous? Highway 5 became a wonder, a gleaming, paved two-lane threading through alien ocotillo flats, then jogging back toward the coast. We called the day at Bahía San Luis Gonzaga, riding up the cove to a $100-a-night hotel with an endless supply of Pacifico and rooms that open onto the water. That’s where we met Curt Fournier.

He’s been coming down to watch the race for 30 years, usually on bikes. It’s a long time to do anything.

“I’m a high, type-A, fast-paced hurry-up-let’s-go-go-go,” he said. “I get down here and I just let it go. You go to a gas station, they’re in no hurry to do anything. You go to a restaurant, they’re in no hurry. You just kind of go with that pace, and pretty soon you feel your blood pressure going down. It’s a good thing.”

Fish tacos in Baja
Where there are fishermen, there are fish tacos. The course ran right by this stand. “I’ve already built a few jumps,” the ­proprietor said.Jeff Allen

That, and watching riders come sailing through the desert is an experience.

“The machinery has improved vastly. Back in the ’70s, machines had very little suspension travel. And I think a lot of guys did it Ironman. One guy rode the whole thousand miles… Can you imagine riding a thousand on a 1974 Husqvarna? It’s crazy.”

“Everyone takes a beating their first time down here.”

I admitted I could not. I barely managed 30 miles on a modern, fuel-injected Honda. Fournier laughed and said he couldn’t help but notice my blossoming right arm. Said not to worry about it. Everyone takes a beating their first time down here. When I asked him what this place means to him after all these years, he went quiet.

“My father passed two years ago,” he said. “He drove the chase truck for us. I don’t know how many times we sat right here…”

He didn’t finish the thought. The tears that welled in his eyes finished it for him. On the human scale, 50 years is a tender blink. For a race that runs down public roads and over private land for more than 1,000 miles, it is a rare and precious eternity, one that spans generations. Maybe that’s why we keep coming to the desert. To get close to the ones who blazed the trail. The ones who left for better riding.

The next day, the highway dissolved into a shade of its former self. The pavement ended, replaced by a smooth and fast dirt road through the desert. The asphalt has been clawing its way south year by year as construction crews work to unite the peninsula’s northern and southern ends, and we found ourselves riding on the future roadbed, squaring off with heavy graders, bulldozers, earth movers, and oncoming traffic. It all felt like the waning hours of something wild. Progress, even here. We couldn’t stand the sight of it, and after two days of sticking to main roads, Allen suggested a detour. It was a 20-mile blast down an easy two-track, the road ­alternating between sand, silt, and loose stone. For the first time this trip, the RX and I were getting along, the bike glad to stretch its legs down the long straights. There was no preparing for what we found at the end: a 300-year-old adobe Jesuit mission crumbling into the sand. It seemed impossible for anything to be out here among the nothing, and yet, there it stood. And its successor, a stone ­Dominican mission built in 1801.

Baja coast
The coast is dotted with tiny villages, their homes arrayed along still coves.Jeff Allen

Jose Angel met us at the mission steps. His family has been caretakers there for eight generations, working to restore the Dominican mission. He was born there on the stone floor. So were his children. The pride he feels for that place was clear in his eyes as he walked us through the tall, carved doors and into the sanctuary, the room a full 10 degrees cooler than outside. The ­mission existed primarily to convert the native population to Christianity, but it also served as a launch point for ­Spanish ­expeditions to the north.

Riding riverbeds
The highways are dirt, and the country roads are riverbeds.Jeff Allen

When the tour was over, Angel quietly asked if we would like to ring the bells. At first, we thought we ­misunderstood. Ringing the bell in a Spanish mission isn’t something that usually comes with the $10 tour, but when he repeated the question, we accepted with all the grace we could muster. The spiral stairs were narrow and worn with 200 years of human steps, and when we reached the top, the view of the sanctuary was unlike anything I’ve ever put my eyes to. Timidly, I reached out and rang the bell, the sound singing out against the stone.

Coco
Coco, of Coco’s Corner, poses for a portrait.Jeff Allen

When the tour was over, Angel quietly asked if we would like to ring the bells. At first, we thought we ­misunderstood. Ringing the bell in a Spanish mission isn’t something that usually comes with the $10 tour, but when he repeated the question, we accepted with all the grace we could muster. The spiral stairs were narrow and worn with 200 years of human steps, and when we reached the top, the view of the sanctuary was unlike anything I’ve ever put my eyes to. Timidly, I reached out and rang the bell, the sound singing out against the stone.

“Otra vez,” Angel said, his eyes gleaming. I cannot ­fathom the thousands of times he must have heard that bell or the love he must feel for the place to want to hear it one more time.

Maybe that’s what I was thinking about as we gunned back toward the highway when I high-sided the bike in fourth. Lucky drop number 10. It happened so quickly, I didn’t have time to register being airborne. One moment I was on the bike, the next I was facedown in the rocks 15 feet up the trail wondering what was making that mewling sound. It was me.

I’d rung my second bell for the day, my ears singing, every limb hot and angry from bouncing off the rocks, my mouth full of blood and snot. In a moment of clarity, I realized I wasn’t on the racecourse. I could lie there in the road until the vultures got curious. By some honest miracle, nothing was broken, just bruised and hateful.

Riding the Baja Peninsula
Left: Fuel is scarce. Expect to pay dearly for jug gas, a lifesaver. Top Right: Some señoritas are friendlier than others. Bottom Right: No trip to Baja is complete without provisions.Jeff Allen

It was a long ride to Bahía de los Ángeles, the bars bent and my right arm shouting in hot pain with every bump in the road. It was near dusk by the time we arrived to find the town booked solid. We settled for tequilas and fish tacos at a hotel on the north end of town, waited patiently and hoped someone would cancel their reservation. When they didn’t, perfect strangers offered us a couple of sleeping bags. With the hotel manager’s permission, we found a flat spot on the beach and bedded down a few feet from the bar. The magic of Baja.

Baja race
The race course is never far. The quickest riders average 50 mph.Jeff Allen

The morning was cold and clear, the sun starting as a dull glow on the water, the upturned crescent moon and a handful of stubborn stars the last threads in the night sky. It was impossible not to be excited about the day, about what else this place could show us. I limped to the water and watched the sky brighten, knowing this place was worth the blood.

We found a spot for breakfast, the patio overlooking the main drag through town. The race finally caught us, and the first riders came through just before 8 a.m., about the time our chilaquiles and coffee hit the table. The drone of a helicopter preceded the pop and thrum of a single-­cylinder, and everyone in the restaurant abandoned their plates to rush to the road to clap and cheer the racers on. The bikes are speed-limited through town, but the open desert’s never far, and we heard the throttles crack wide from where we stood.

Baja race
Watching the Baja 1000.Jeff Allen

There were miles to cover, and with the bill paid, we pointed the bikes north for the first time in days. We waved to the racers coming south as we rode. Stopped here and there to watch them gun through the desert, spectating from our handlebars. There is nothing better than a race you can watch from your motorcycle.

It would be hours before we found a room and a ­shower, two days before we’d cross the line into the U.S., and a month before the last of my bruises faded. I’m still waiting to stop thinking about that place. About its lonely deserts and empty beaches. About that perfect peninsula of absurdity and the race that runs through it.