Tuesday, November 21, 2017

San Felipe to Loreto via BAJA MIL

By chance, I arrived at Kiki's campsite and hotel in San Felipe. Without question, there are energies in this life which set up our paths and drive our directions.  I had seriously thought of finding some beach camping south of town, but I ended up at Kiki's place.  This simple decision led to an experience for me which has truly been a once-in-a-lifetime series of events.

As I set up my camping space at Kiki's, I noticed that 90% of the licences plates were from British Columbia. At first, I thought that this is not going to help me increase my knowledge of Spanish.  I wandered over to a guy who had an old beat up Chevy truck and a ratty old trailer.  I thought to myself "at least he is not one of those pretentious RV types, with two little yappy dogs." It turns out that Guy L. was from Vancouver, and that he was a bike guy. 

I have thought a lot about this post, as the time and events represented by the photos hardly do my experience justice,  I don't know if I can find the words to describe the levels of human endurance, persistence, and passion that I have been privileged to observe and be a part of for the past few weeks in Baja California.  This story is about the guts, determination, and single-minded focus that it takes to be a Moto rider in the Baja 1000.

On my journey south, I was half aware that trucks and bikes and other buggies raced up and down the Baja Peninsula, and I had mentioned to friends that I had hoped to "see" some of the race.  By making the time to meet and talk with Guy L., I not only "saw" the Baja 1000, I was able to live the dirt, dust, and glory that is associated with the longest desert race in the world. I saw incredible effort, not only by Guy L, but by many team members supporting a variety of vehicles.  I saw Trophy Trucks valued at over $500,000.00 being pulverized, and in turn, tearing up the course and anything that got in their way.  I saw support crews with chase trucks that were valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. As well, there were family teams made up of old beater chase trucks, rickety trailers hauling beater Volkswagens. 

I feel very privileged to have been offered an opportunity to "help" Guy L as he prepared for the over sixty Moto race.  I didn't have a clue what I was signing up for, and while Guy was completely honest about the no pay, no joy, and no sleep aspects of the offer, he could not describe the true essence of the experience as it is unique and powerful for each individual in their own way.  I am two days away from the end of the race, and back on my journey south.  I find it very important and necessary to describe the Baja Mill from my perspective, as somewhat of an insider.  I also feel that it is incredibly important to try and capture a small reflection of the courage, tenacity, and stubbornness required to be a successful Baja Moto racer.

I had arrived at Kikki's on Hallowe'en, with a wonderful full moon coming up across the Sea of Cortez.  I had decided to slow down and enjoy Mexico, and particularly the people of Baja.  I spent the first day trying to get some decent OSM maps downloaded for my GPS systems.  I also spent time  talking to Guy and drinking a lot of coffee.  I noticed that he jumped on his bike during the hottest part of the day, and took off for about 5 or 6 hours.  I thought that there was some bit about Mad Dogs and Englishmen going on over there, but I did not comment.  As I got to know him, he informed me that he was presiding his section of the Baja Mil race, and that he had to ride close to 200 miles of the desert, in the dark.  Aside from  his capacity for gallons of black coffee and his habit of discussing many different subjects, this riding in the midday sun seemed to fit his personality.  I like who I was getting to know, and when I learned that he had a Lab named Gypsy when he was a kid, I had that feeling I was on for the long haul. 

At one point, the fishermen of San Felipe were successful in the Sea of Cortez.  In the immediate area, commercial fishing had been shut down because the Mexican Federal government needed to protect the remaining species.  As I wandered around the town, I could see evidence of the failed projects, the hotels uncompleted, and the lost dreams of the real estate entrepreneurs.

Guy and I met Ben from Seattle.  He too was pre riding the course. We would run into him throughout the next few weeks, at different stage of the the race.  I really liked how he had set up his Honda for the preriding.

I didn't spend much time taking photos of San Felipe, as I began to understand what was involved with the Baja, I started helping Guy where I could.  One day, we drove to Ensenada and back in order  to have Guy's helmet certified by the SCORE people, who were organizing and officiating the race.
I had been in Ensenada five years before, and it was interesting to arrive there via the "back door", from the eastern part of the peninsula.

Ben's well-laid out Honda.....

I would see this picture in a couple of different places.  Les Haserot  was an adventure rider before the term was invented. He rode up and down the Baja over 20 back in the 50's, when there would have been nothing but dirt tracks and mule road.

Guy has an incredible knowledge of the Baja riding community, and I learned a great deal about those  people who built the race into the world class event that it is today.

In a week or so, we would move our headquarters to San Ignacio, where Guy's section of the race would begin.  The Rice and Beans hotel is famous amongst racers, and I would soon learn how to camp in their parking lot.
Guy had an opportunity to test some extraordinary lights designed  to deal with the blackness of the Baja night.

I was beginning to see pre racers show up and try their course sections.  The navigation equipment was extraordinary and the rigs were built to take a tremendous beating.

We slipped down into the town of San Ignacio itself, off the main highway.  A pleasant plaza was situated in from of a classic church that had been there for a couple of centuries.

We ran into some Germans who were doing their round the world trip in the huge truck.  I had seen these types of vehicles in Bolivia, and I remember the owner saying that they carried 600 litres of fuel..

The local museum of San Ignacio had a wonderful museum, where they had duplicated the local paintings of the first indigenous tribes in the area.  It seems that none of the tribes  survived the transition from the arrival and takeover of the Spanish.

Guy tells me that SCORE is trying to minimize the accidents and that they have set up speed zones in the villages.  Apparently it was not uncommon before to have the trophy trucks and others going through villages in excess of 100 mph.

Bruce and Anne know my thing about doors....

The small community square, before the chaos of the race.


Somehow, Loreto pictures snuck into the story.  Loreto was technically the end of Guy's section of the race, and we did travel down there to meet with other members of the team.

I have always been a sucker for street graffiti...

One of the basic service trucks.

We had an opportunity to enjoy the Shrimp festival in San Felipe

I am almost positive I saw this dude in Lima Peru, almost five years ago.  The flute music was enchanting.  I could hear the wind in the Andes as he played.
Guy spent a great deal of time and money ensuring that his pre race bike was set up to take the beating of the San Felipe whoops and the tough terrain of the dry lake bed.  He rode the whoops every day, in the hottest part of the day, trying to build up his endurance and strength for what was to come.
His tires and chain were fresh.

Apparently his kids have named Guy "Old Man Winter"....

The San Ignacio Church was old and evoked thoughts of a period long gone from history..

When we were out on the track, there were some directions for the riders and drivers.

Guys' handoff was to occur at Checkpoint 3, which was about 250 kilometre south of San Ignacio, and about 60 kilometres north of Loreto.  We did a number of day light runs, and I drove the truck down to meet guy and the bike, after his long hot and hairy rides through the desert and mountains of Baja.

This is the sand buildup at Check point three.  Manageable in the day, without any Trophy Trucks chasing him down.  I wondered what it would be like in the middle of the night.

On the straight sections, during the day, some riders were getting up to 80 ad 90 mph. Again, I wondered how this was possible to sustain, particularly when darkness comes.

Loreto is a beautiful town, and it was quite pleasant for us to go there at the end of some of our runs. It was a bonus for me, as we generally found a hotel and I was able to sleep in a real bed.  The parking lot at San Ignacio was getting real old.  Guy said that he was able to sleep through my snoring, and it was a good test for his ear plugs.
We met the fellow rider who Guy was going to pass off the race bike to at Check point 3.  Larry was from California, and was an accomplished desert racer.

I was intrigued by the different set ups that the racers had brought for pre riding their race sections.

Did I mention that really liked Loreto, even though I only visited it 4 times....

Larry and Guy went out to Check point 3 and agreed upon a hand off point for the night of the race. It would be critical that they would be able to refuel, see each other, and make the transition.

Some other teams were out at Checkpoint 3, checking out their communication systems.

Back to Loreto, where Guy's truck decided it would not run after 500,000 km.  We needed to find a good mechanic in a hurry.
We did find a good mechanic, but not before renting a little Chevy 4 door so that Guy could do the final preface in the night.  Reuben, in the meantime, was able to solve the electrical problem with the old Chevy.

  From my notes: November 11. " Guy left St. Ignacio at 6:30 pm. darkness all around.  Two Baja race lights on the Husaberg.  He arrived at Checkpoint #3 at 10:30 pm."  I won't get into my side of the ride, with the little Chevy avoiding cows and other creatures on the. 200 km drive south.  I managed to get there before him, and we ended up, yet again, back in Loreto.  The checkpoint soldiers just north of town were becoming like old friends to us, and Guy keep supplying them with stickers and carpenters' pencils.

From my notes: Race day. St. Ignacio
"Cleaned up area and nervously waited for bike to meet us from the North....around 3 pm we went down to the exchange area, and it was already packed with Baja Pits crew, other crews for bikes, quads, trucks and God knows what."  The prearranged concrete pad which had been negotiated as a clean area for tire swap and air filter exchange suddenly became unavailable, unless we came up with a further 800 pesos.  Guy and the others said screw that, and we set up our 609X sign across the road.    "...the Northern crew arrived a good 40 minutes before the rider. They had a fully sourced Van, and a number of them had already ridden the northern sections. They were all seasoned Baja hands...Guy was nervous, excited and very very eager to begin his portion of the race,  He had practiced and endured at least 4 reruns, and one night run. He had sweated through searing heat, massive whoops and huge piles of rocks. His vest had 3 blinking bike lines, our attempt to offset the Trophy Trucks barrelling down on him without warning or escape. The fear of the massive monsters tearing up the night sky with their huge and powerful light systems was enough to make me cringe. I don't know how the night Moto riders prepared their minds for the fear of the monsters coming at them, let alone the other creatures in the night. A rider had died last year when he hit a coyote and the GPS system tracking him had failed.  The spectre of death was real and right in the riders' faces.

The onlookers were hyped and constantly bugging the riders for stickers and photos. The starting street was completely organized chaos.  The Baja pits crew, who did the refuelling, were organized and had good signage, and the teams tried to identify their stations so that their riders and drivers would get to them as quickly as possible. Our plan was to exchange both the front and rear tires for brand new rubber and to also place a new air filter in the Honda. One crewman was assigned to check the oil and water.  The bike had Baja Lights installed, but the lights had not been tested because Guy's run was the first for the night.

Guy was to lose precious minutes when he found that the lights had not been prefigured.  He left as the sun fell below the horizon, and he was headed for 180 miles or more of mudflats, rocky and boulder strew ravines and sea fog that was so thick that it was blinding at times.

Kurt, the rider handing off to Guy, tried his best to help with the change over.

A well organized Mexican team struggles with the lighting for their ride.

Guy had offered his lighting system from his own bike, but the Mexicans declined...
The Baja Pits crew were the fuellers for the motos and quads..

Guy's new tires were ready for the exchange..

The fuelling process was amazingly quick and efficient...these guys knew what they were doing..

Anxiety builds as other riders and machines start to hit the exchange point..

Guy gets some good advice from a Baja veteran who had ridden the full race solo in two different races.  He advised about tidal flats, mud that doe not throw back the lights, and the dreaded potential of sea fog.

All the riders are 60 years of age or older....

Now is not the time to find out that the lights are not compatible with the bikes' plug...

Fuel is ready...

"Where is that damned bike?"

From my notes:
"the street was organized chaos...other bikes, other teams appearing random and chaotic but individually organized and prepared to do their best for their rider....one or two three wheelers broke through the crowd..they were incredibly fast and almost took out spectators in their haste to find their crew and fuel..."

This mans' advice and encouragement would prove to be life-saving, 8 hours from this conversation.

"In Guys' case, over 45 years of riding dirt bikes, with many crashes, and injuries were all culminating on his ability to focus and ride into the growing night. The real and imagined dangers were there, the talk of spectators who purposely build pitfalls for the drivers and riders, the threat of light failure, and the ever-present possibility of sea-fog and an unpredictable tide which could flood one of the track were on all of our minds, and those fears had to be hammered down, in order to ride. The stories of Trophy Trucks roaring up to and overcoming riders were on everybody's mind, as well as the questions if the newly installed lights would penetrate the dust and silt that was ever-present on the course....The GPS on the race bike was loaded with the track, including the highly regulated speed zones through the small villages the riders would pass through.  SCORE had developed a electronic warning system called STELLA which would, theoretically warn the riders of the oncoming Trophy Trucks and give them time to get off the course."

Guy gets the low-down on the Honda race bike, from a rider who ran the course earlier in the day.

The lights are not going to work, Bro......

Finally the bike arrives, and the crew set to work.

Kurt and Guy share a few laughs before the exchange.

Guy's vest is covered in reflective tape and has three blinking lights to ward off Trophy Tuck monsters..

he public wants a piece of the riders.

And he is finally off on the biggest race of his life...

Every rider needed to have a wrist band...

Guy was off into the Darkness and all we can do is imagine what went through his mind as he struggled  through his section of the race.  He described, on his preface trial of the course, that he came upon an old Mexican man on the course with a shovel, cleaning off the rocks from the track.  Perhaps that same old man would be out there on race night....
Unfortunately for Guy, the reality of his ride on race night was not even close to the poetic vision of an old Mexican with a shovel  under the desert stars.  Instead, he faced a very long section of sea fog which slowed him considerably, making it almost impossible of him to see.  His only description of the fog was that it was "insanity." In his night run practice, Guy had run the course in a little more than three hours.....I knew that I had at least this long to drive the highway south to the checkpoint 3 and be able to meet him for the handoff to Larry at our prearranged point.

The other crew left in their van, and I followed immediately in the little Chevy which we had rented in Loreto. Dodging black cattle and racing south, I soon passed the Van and headed for checkpoint 3, where I was to meet Larry and his chase truck driver Mike.  I arrived at the checkpoint within my allotted time, and set out to find the other crew.  There were hundreds of people who had set up camps all along the course, waiting to see the bikes, quads, and Trophy Trucks as they roared by.

I figured that I had about 45 minutes before Guy would arrive, and that would be adequate time to align with the other team.  After a brief search of the immediate area, I had a growing sense of frustration and fear. I could not find the others at our pre-arranged meeting place.  Self-doubt was riding me: had I misunderstood the plan?  I walked up the course about two miles, looking for the Baja Pits crew, which was supposed to be the exchange point.  Time was getting shorter, and I was getting very tired from walking the course.  I could not find the other other crew.  The Van guys showed up, and they were pretty angry that I had somehow messed up the meeting.  They set out to find Larry, while more time passed and the threat of Guy arriving without a relief rider grew in all of our minds.  The noise and chaos from the spectators did not help us to concentrate. We finally came to the conclusion that Larry was not present.  I did not know what to do, or what to say.

Guy and I had prearranged that our meeting signal would be a flashing red light. It happened that the SCORE people also had flashing red lights, just in order to confuse the issues.  With respect to time, we were well beyond Guy's expected arrival time, and I was getting very worried that he have been run over by a Trophy Truck. I tried to ask riders as they come in, but no one could talk, and there was not any chance of knowing if he was hurt and out on the course. Not only was he taking longer than he had done on the pre-run, there was no sign of his relief rider.  I was getting very worried and felt that there had been a conspiracy of errors to mess up Guy's chance to ride the Baja Mil.

I had now been at Checkpoint 3 for close to two hours. In my mind, I was convinced that Guy was lying broken and busted out in the middle of the Mexican night. I could not find his relief crew, and I was frantic to find a solution.  There was not any solution.....

Finally Guy came to the SCORE checkpoint. I could see from the look on his face that the ride had been much worse than what we had planned for.  He could hardly talk and when we told him that Larry was not there, I thought that he would lose it. I can't imagine what he was thinking at that point. He had struggled through some incredible parts of the night ride: faced bouts of sea fog and very rocky tracks which threw him down. The silt and the sand were almost overwhelming, but he had struggled to do his part, to finish his assigned portion of the race. Arriving later than he wanted, and frustrated with the lights not being focused for the beginning of the race, what did he find, but no replacement rider.  He was furious, and probably felt like the race had been lost.

Richard, the Baja veteran of many races, managed to calm Guy down and he was also able to tell him that the only solution was for Guy to keep on riding!  Guy needed to find that extra strength and will to succeed in order to complete the next leg of the course, and hopefully another rider would be able to take over at Loreto.  As he calmed down, Guy's instincts took over, and he restarted the bike and roared off into the night.  He raced into a course that he had not pre-ridden and he did not have any idea of if and when he would be relieved.  He knew that at this point in the race, he needed to ride, inspirte of putting in 4 gruelling hours already.

Once Guy left, I knew that I had to figure out where the next checkpoint was, and figure out how to find him. I headed south as fast as I could, not sure where I was going, and having a vague idea that the Loreto dump road would be the place to meet Guy.  As I was speeding along, and fretting about this, a black Ford truck with a familiar Moto on the back roared by.  It was Larry!!

The Ford Expedition and the Chevy broke all sorts of speed limits and passed way too many vehicles getting into Loreto.  Larry guided me to the hand off place where the course would allow him to take over from Guy.  Larry and his chase car driver had been given instructions by the team race manager which   disallowed Larry to be at Checkpoint 3 on time for the handoff.  Larry was very concerned about Guy's health and extremely worried that he had undertaken to do part of the race that Larry knew was extremely difficult and hazardous.

At approximately 1:00 AM, Guy finally rolled into the pits for the changeover. He had been on the bike riding continuously for over 7 hours, and had ridden a large part of the section beyond Checkpoint 3.  Richard and I managed to get him off the bike and explained  to him that he was finally able to stop riding, that he had finished by doing much more than his own share of the the ride.

By his willingness to go the extra miles and to carry on when every bone in his body was killing him and his mind was on the edge of some very dark precipices, demonstrates to me the kind of effort that world class athletes need to have to be the top of their class.  What for me had started out as an adventure to "see" the Baja races has turned into a very clear lesson on what it takes for a person to overcome incredible odds and to carry on and to fight for their goal.  I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to help and to observe these world class riders in action, and to meet a great Guy, who showed me that we can do what we want with this life, if we stay focussed and true to ourselves.