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Highway One Diaries: Peace by the Sea

All_good_things_must come to an end, or so the saying goes.  Highway One and its stories ended for us in La Paz near the southern tip of Baja California.  Riding south along the Sea of Cortés and weaving back once more through the harsh deserts near Constitución made us anxious for the end of a long road stretching back to northern California.  Our time on Highway One ran out and so this marks the last Highway One Diary for Bound South.

Mountains abound in the Baja.

La Paz, “The Peace” by the sea, appeared on the horizon with no time to spare.  The desert was wearing on us.  Our last night before reaching the city we found ourselves on a desolate stretch of Highway One with little water, little food, no supplies within 40 kilometers, and worse yet, solid barbed wire fencing along each side of the highway.  Any good bicycle expedition depends on fortuitous gaps in the cattleman’s or farmer’s fence.  Through those gaps and into the wilderness we camp out of sight and leave in the morning, leaving nothing but tire tracks.  When no gaps exist, we are forced to get creative; which in this case meant sleeping under a bridge that hummed and grumbled over us with every passing vehicle.  Lest you get any romantic ideas about our brave campsite, it smelled like poop.

Looking over the city from the southern outskirts.

But then again, we probably did too.  Lots of time and sweat and effort finally got us to La Paz, where the generosity of a Canadian family and a local church community connected us with unparalleled goodness.  We stayed in tremendous luxury atop a hill overlooking the marina and its waterfront illuminated by city lights at night.  David ran through a hellish college application gauntlet.  Nathan ate absurd amounts of fresh fish tacos.  I got to see my girlfriend.  We spent some time by the ocean and the sights and sounds and smells of an authentic, working Mexican city.  We went to church.  We kayaked through a pack of jumping dolphins.  We volunteered to help serve breakfast to numerous children in one of the poorer colonias on the outskirts of La Paz.  One night, we ended up in a very questionable Mexican bar.

Children learned my favorite game from Dartmouth's DOC Trips.

The magic passes by quickly, but the memories stay and sustain us as we ride further.  La Paz was monumental for us; it was a kind of natural checkpoint, Nature’s confirmation that we’d done a pretty fine job of bicycle riding, and that it was time to ride a ferry across the sea.  It felt like luxury, but perhaps the goodness and wonders of strangers and new lands is instead a necessity we all go without too often.  Having repaired our bicycles, said our good-byes, and relished our last days of rest, we rode our bicycles over mountainous roads to Pichilingue where a Transportacion Maritima de California cargo ferry took us overnight to Mazatlán and the mainland of Mexico.  This good thing, Highway One, has come to an end; yet the road and its people and its landscapes wait for us should we ever have the privilege to return to it once again.

Portions of Highway One along the Sea of Cortés make California jealous.

Our cargo ferry across the sea to Mazatlan. We slept on the deck in our tent.

Mailbag Monday #6

Today_we_continue our Mailbag Monday series…

Dear Nathan,

How are you?  I am good.  I have a walking brace on.  I had an infection.  Will you send back?  I hope so!  I love dogs!  What is your favorite animal?  I like all animals.  Are you having fun?  I hope you are!  Do you ride 100 miles a day?  Well, I can walk 1/2 mile already.  That is to my mailbox and back!  Well, have a safe trip!

Your friend,

Elle

Mountains on the mainland

Dear Elle,

I’m doing pretty well, just had a hard day biking mostly up hill yesterday and my legs are a little stiff. My brother had to wear a walking brace for a while after he hurt his back in a soccer injury.  Glad to hear that you don’t mind having a brace on for the time being. We have two dogs back home that I miss from time to time, and I don’t dare strapping a dog to my bike rack to replace them.

I’m having an amazing journey so far, but I wouldn’t mind some cooler weather. Some of the long mountain climbs in the Mexican heat can get to you. The other day we had a climb that went on for thirty or forty minutes in the sun. We haven’t done a hundred mile day since we were in the states. We tend to average around 75 miles a day, the effort varies with the terrain. That’s a long walk to the mailbox! I bet you bring your dog on those adventures. Thanks for the letter!

Your friend,

Nathan

Merry Christmas

Guadalajara_and_North Dakota are worlds apart.  Today the distance shrinks.  In Mexico and at home, love abounds, family is primary, and somehow snow is nowhere to be found.  May you all find joy and love with your family this Christmas Day and reflect on that rare blessing that you possess in the company of your loved ones.  Merry Christmas!

Angus dressed for work in his festive Mexican Christmas attire.

A Guadalajara Christmas with the Salazar Family.

La Roca

We_met_Daniel in Las Palomes, a desert oasis in the Baja.  While chowing down on our peanut butter and jelly tortillas, he walked up to us, bags of crab in hand, hoping to make a sale.  We declined his product, but he persisted.  He spoke some English, so it was a good opportunity for both parties to practice each other’s language.  After explaining our background, cause, and plans for the Baja, he became ecstatic.  We had been planning to rest in Santa Rosalia, and he had just the right place for us to stay: La Roca, or The Rock in English.

Volcano in the distance

Two days later, after climbing between massive volcanoes, we descended into Santa Rosalia, a vibrant city nestled alongside the Sea of Cortez.  We knew that La Roca existed and that it was a Christian center, which proved to be enough.  Directions to La Roca led us to the outskirts of town, where we found solitude in the desert, fellowship among brothers, and a rock to rest upon.

The descent from volcano to sea

La Roca is a Christian Rehabilitation Center.  It is where men of all ages seek a second chance, new direction, and a place to call home.  Admitted men spend three months at the center performing manual labor and reflections, while also reading the Bible and relevant guidebooks.  They attend church twice a week, once at the center and again in the city.  We arrived just before the church service in the city.

This metal church in Santa Rosalia was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the Eiffel Tower's architect

Before long, we were crowded into a minivan headed for the city with three twenty-something’s.  Sitting three across on both front and rear bench seats, we made introductions.  They struck us as an edgy, fun and purposeful group of guys.  Though they spoke little English, we immediately found camaraderie with them.  Language barriers ceased to exist.  It was refreshing.

Soccer match in session in Santa Rosalia

The service was unusual for us (or maybe bizarre by our Lutheran standards). Hours of contemporary Spanish songs and booming sermons filled our ears.  Plus, a majority of the service was spent standing. Add a long day of riding (and our early bedtime) and you have three exhausted gringos.  We survived, and soon returned to La Roca, where we were introduced to our sleeping quarters.

These two boys walked cheerfully up and down this hill endlessly.

Like so many summers at Park River Bible Camp, the early bird gets the worm, or in this case, the bottom bunk.  As latecomers we had the privilege to sleep in a three creaky top bunks in the bunkhouse with the men from the camp.  Snores abound with ten men in tight quarters, but that was no matter for a few weary cyclists.  We were sound asleep in no time.

Schoolchildren collected Red Cross donations at this busy intersection all day.

The next day brought forth a delicious group breakfast, chores around the center, and a trip to Santa Rosalia, where we walked the town and found a restaurant with Wi-Fi.  I discovered an ardor for street photography and spent a large part of the day talking with locals and capturing life in the city (I chanced upon Daniel again, too!). That night we had one more meal with La Roca.  Crowded around two gigantic rectangular pizzas and a tub of warm milk tea, we enjoyed laughter and conversation.  Desert serenity and strong fellowship permeated the air.  Moments like this filled our time at La Roca.

Late-night pizza at La Roca

As we prepared to leave, the pastor told us we would always be welcome.  I often reflect on experiences like this and find excitement in the thought of return.  Like so many other experiences on this adventure, we found a place like home in a strange land, and for that I am thankful.

Gear: Tale of Two Bicycles

Surly_is_a_pretty cool company.  They make bikes, really good bikes, bikes built out of chromoly with strong welds and good character.  Just ask a guy named Troll.   We all chose the bike named Troll for Bound South and have built three of them nearly identically to one another.  Yet we have all developed individual relationships with our bicycles and our gear since leaving Alaska.  Bicycle touring is certainly not all about this equipment; there are many tourists who could probably get by on used hybrid bikes and backpacks.  One has to keep everything in perspective and take nothing for granted.  We are thankful everyday for what we have: a superb bicycle and three bags of stuff each.  This post marks the first step in a series chronicling all the stuff of Bound South that you usually just glimpse in pictures; the Trolls, the trinkets, the tools, the tent, the luxuries and the immense satisfaction that comes when the little things don’t let you down.

David's Troll, named Goliath, all dressed up for work.

The bikes are a natural place to begin.  If our Trolls could be personified, they would be much like Surly’s officially unofficial spokesman: they are honest, unusual, they ride lots, and they do great with laughter.   Within a few days of leaving Alaska, I had christened my Troll Angus.  There was no real reason, except that I was raised on a farm-and-ranch, love a good steak, and thought that the name suited my bicycle.  My day begins with  “Good morning, Angus, today seems like a good day to kick butt, don’t you think so?”   This bicycle is a tractor with panache.  It can do just about anything.  I do have another bicycle at home, though.   To be completely honest I have three but I don’t like to dig too deeply into the ugly details of my addiction.  Don’t tell Angus.  We’ll focus for now on my Lieutenant, my go-fast bike, my pretty little thing that weighs 17 lbs and speaks Campagnolo.  It’s my Giant TCR Advanced road racing bike that I picked up after my Bianchi cracked.

A bicycle for a different kind of riding.

If I want to race or to fly around the roads on a training ride, my Giant is my dream bicycle.  If I want to get groceries, it’s like a Ferrari with no trunk.  Before Bound South, I had never seriously ridden anything other than a road racing bicycle.  The zen of skinny tires and humming pacelines was all I knew.  When I first took a ride with Angus that fateful day in Fargo, ND, I was admittedly a little bit hesitant.  Angus is heavy.  Angus rolls a little slower with big, heavy, fat, bulletproof Schwalbe Marathon tires.  Angus is designed to be flicked around dirt singletrack like its brother the Surly’s 1×1.  Unloaded, Angus can be twitchy on the road due to its dirt-optimized geometry.  He behaves very nicely on pavement and dirt while loaded.  What can I say?  Angus possessed everything we needed to ride from Alaska to Argentina and he could carry it with class.  Angus was a new friend yet somehow also the bicycle I’ve known my entire life.  Angus represents a beautiful marriage of theory and practice; he is a chromoly touring bike that can run sturdy Surly racks, bombproof disc brakes, broad fenders, fat tires, and God’s uber-German-bicycle-gift to man: the Rohloff.  Angus forced me to reconsider what I could expect of a bicycle.

Fourteen speeds of internal and indestructible magic.

Angus and other bicycles like him represent an idea that I find intoxicating.  That idea is that bicycles shouldn’t be limited.  If your bicycle is only a weekend exercise machine that has your back screaming in an uncomfortable position, chances are that it will hang dusty and unused.  If your bicycle is only a rusted commuter with no brakes that risks your life with every cross-campus trek, it probably won’t last long before it hits the trash heap.  Angus would have me believe in the celebration of form and function; that a bicycle can be your beautiful commuter, your grocery store getaway, and your trail explorer or bicycle camper on the weekends.  Or maybe it can take you all the way to Argentina, if you’ve got the legs and the will and the time to let it take you there.

Climbing in Alaska, a world away it seems.

A few people really get this, and with any luck they’ll shake up the world and get more of it back onto a bicycle.  It seems a world away, but I think of our past photography presentations at Bend Velo in Bend, Oregon and Velocult in San Diego, CA.  These were highlights of our journey through the United States where we stopped at a bicycle shop, put our photography on a screen, and met the local cycling community.  We shared our story and learned more about the places we were traveling through.  These were shops where the owners really got it.   Too many people have forgotten what makes bicycles so powerful and so functional and so beautiful: they become intertwined with our everyday lives.  Here’s to hoping that shops like this can thrive and make a difference.

Bend Velo, one of the shops we presented at in Bend, OR.

As for Angus, we’ll be hopelessly intertwined for a very long time.  Assuming Angus doesn’t die or run away, he’ll be around for the rest of my life, serving as my faithful companion through hardship and illuminating new horizons with every turn of his wheels.

Functional, mechanical elegance: rotor, brake, hub, shifting assembly, dropouts.

Brooks: Do your butt a favor, please, and get a leather saddle.

Climbing the cobblestones up to our home in La Paz.

Mailbag Monday #5

Today_we_continue our Mailbag Monday series…

Dear David,

How are you doing?  Do you like riding so far?  my name is Gavin.  I like to drive 4 wheeler.  It’s awesome!  I like to drive fast on the 4 wheeler.  Where do you live?

Sincerely,

Gavin

Pasture fences forced us to camp under this highway bridge near El Cien north of La Paz.

Dear Gavin,

I am doing very well.  After a 14 hour ferry ride across the Sea of Cortez, we are on mainland Mexico in the city of Mazatlan.  We left La Paz on a massive cargo ship.  Hundreds of people, along with their vehicles (a majority of which were loaded semi trucks) rode with us.  Accommodations were limited, so many people slept on the open deck.  Aside from the fact that we pitched our tent near the railing on the port side of the ship, it was an ordinary night for us (except when the wind and waves would rock the boat!).  Many were envious of our accommodations, which rarely happens!

I like to drive 4 wheeler, too!  Sometimes I wish my bike had a motor and throttle.  Descending hills and catching a tail wind are exhilarating.  They often fulfill my need for speed, too!  Before leaving on this trip, I lived at home where I grew up outside of Starkweather, ND.  Now, I live as a nomad on the road.  Most nights are spent in our tent off the road in pastureland or local’s yards, and some are spent in homes when we are invited.  After countless nights in a tent on a small air mattress, I will always be thankful for the comforts of a bed in the shelter of a home. Thank you for your letter, Gavin and have a wonderful Christmas!

Sincerely,

David Berg

Highway One Diaries: Land of Pointy and Mean

The_urgency_of_crossing borders propelled us quickly through the borderlands of Mexico.  We figured that the further south we were, the safer we were.  Furthermore, as the traffic and city lights of Ensenada and Tijuana were left behind us we regained our familiarity with empty landscapes, quiet roads, and a date with Mother Nature in a new dress.  Welcome to the desert, the “land of pointy and mean” as I coined it outside El Rosario.

Clear desert skies

This desert was the real deal.  We were warned to fill up on water and supplies at El Rosario before pressing on into the 400k of desert separating if from Guerrero Negro.  Water conservation and carrying capacity was of paramount importance in desert heat and pronounced isolation.  Replacing our staples of bread and jelly were new staples of tortillas, rice, beans, and whatever else we can find cheaply and in abundance.  Lots of desert camping and desert lessons lay ahead, yet we had little idea of what to expect as some people warned us of a desolate desert with no civilization for over 140k; others said we would be just fine and would see spots to replenish food and water every 60k with little trouble.  Local knowledge can be comically unreliable which is why one must learn to laugh.

Camping near chicken coops isn't always pleasant. Early morning for us in El Rosario.

Laughter has sustained us through what was easily some of the most miserable camping of Bound South.  Who could forget the night outside of Guerrero Negro when we decided to sleep under the stars during a pleasant, cool night in the desert, only to find a dense fog descend upon us in the early morning and soak us and our sleeping bags.  Lesson learned: even when the sky is absurdly spectacular to look at, don’t bother sleeping outside the safety of a rain fly and a good tent.

Fierce winds howl through a desert valley near Punta Prieta.

We fought vicious crosswinds through much of the desert and mountains south of El Rosario.  Usually we maintained our high spirits by reminding one another that “thousands of people envy us” and that if bicycle expeditions were easy and fun, everyone would be doing them.  One evening, after battling through hard crosswinds (enough to throw us off the road on numerous occasions) we decided to take a cattle road up through dirt and stone into the hidden desert brush of an august plateau above Highway One.  A strong but manageable wind was blowing as we set up camp and ate our simple dinner of rice and beans on our MSR stove.  The wind began to intensify.  As we were reading and preparing to sleep, David and Nathan noticed that the wind was still increasing in force and that the tent was slowly collapsing around us.  What followed was a feat of brotherly teamwork and haphazard desert camping ingenuity.  With 40mph winds and plunging temperatures, Nathan and I shivered as we assembled outside of the tent to hold it down.  David pulled stakes in order to rotate the tent to more aerodynamically face the wind.  Stakes once more in place, the tent was still collapsing.  Undaunted, Nathan had the idea to throw our bicycles into the brush and then anchor bungie cords to the bicycles and the tent in order to reinforce it against the fierce winds.  The wind and the sound of the rain fly was nearly deafening.  We slept safely in a reinforced tent that night, but everything we owned was covered by dust the next morning and the wind was blowing just as fiercely.  We were reminded of a warning from a restaurant owner we had met the day before: “We don’t waste money on paint here in the Baja.  Any of our sandstorms will blast it off in a matter of days.”  Lesson learned: camp in places well sheltered from the wind.

Desert winds whip against our reinforced tent.

There have been other lessons, less dramatic but no less poignant.  After taking care of business 50 yards away from our tent one night, I discovered that my headlamp was out of batteries and my steps suddenly painful.  Desert thorns and native species of cacti had successfully sent 3/4″spikes through the soles of my flip flops that stabbed me with every step.  I walked back wincing on the balls of my feet, praying that I didn’t walk into a cactus or step onto some other godforsaken member of the kingdom Plantae.  Why anyone would choose to live in a place like this remains elusive to me.  I am reminded of what most of my friends think about North Dakota.

Land of pointy and mean

The desert is an austere, beautiful place.  We had to learn to respect it.  I still have no love for the sand, the harsh vegetation, the nonexistent wildlife, the terrifying insects, or the pitiable donkeys and cattle that graze the scraps of green scattered across the brush and cacti.  It is probably best for the desert to simply be feared, but if it is to be loved, it should be loved for its constancy.  No amount of human ingenuity or force of will can wring water from its ground or bring rain to its hills or people to its vast empty spaces.  It is a landscape in beautiful stasis, defying the frenetic cycles of life and offering a great empty space for the mind to explore.