By Gabriel Amadeus Tiller
This is my first time in Mexico. We have no plan. No itinerary. No goals and no heart rate monitors. The only statistic we’re collecting on this trip is “number of tacos consumed.” (Final tally: 111.) To give you an idea of how prepared I am I didn’t bring a tent. Or pants. What we do have, though, is roughly a month before we need to be back through the Tecate border crossing into the U.S. and then on to our desk jobs.
The Baja Divide is a 1,700-mile dirt touring route that meanders the length of the Baja California Peninsula on Mexico’s Pacific coast. The route was conceived by Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox as a “gift to the bikepacking community.” Nick and Lael are a couple of snowbirds from Alaska who have been cycling the world for years. They’ve been spending the winter in Baja for the last few seasons now, riding up and down the peninsula exploring every unmarked rutted road they come across—and as far as I can tell, they’re all unmarked and rutted.
The amount of effort and detail they’ve put into developing the maps, the guide and other route resources has allowed me to have a cavalier attitude on this trip. I’m usually the one stressing about dead-end roads and resupply logistics, but instead I’m planning on fine-tuning my tan and following the 80 or so knobby tracks in front of me.
I’m no stranger to camping with my bicycle, but riding with a group of almost 100 new faces on this first running of the Baja Divide is refreshingly exciting. I enjoy solitude and solo discovery, but I’ve forgotten what a joy it is to see others experience and share new wonders for the first time. Nick and Lael have gone to great lengths to discourage competitive attitudes during the group start and even partnered with Advocate Cycles and Revelate Designs to give away a bikepacking “scholarship,” including a completely kitted out bikepacking rig, to one lucky female rider, Lavanya Pant.
The result of this intentional inclusivity shows. Nearly half the riders on this trip are women and experience levels vary widely throughout the group. We’re riding with people who have never bikepacked and some who are brand new to mountain biking. Ages range from 19 to 60. Some are riding fat bikes and some have full suspension bikes or BOB trailers. For some,this is the hardest trip they’ve ever done, while for others it’s just one of many this year. But the thing we all have in common is that everyone is having an excellent time. The moral support, the combined knowledge and the reality that we’ve all got each other’s backs makes pointing our tires down a steep rocky slope or along a 120-mile section without water much less intimidating.
We are all mesmerized by the landscape of Baja. Sitting around the campfire each evening we sip Tecate, grill tacos and excitedly recount the day’s curiosities. The geology is rugged and varied—at one point the San Pedro Martir mountains rise up to 10,000 feet above sea level. This uniquely long peninsula has many distinct climate pockets: The southern tip is obviously warmer and drier, but the Pacific coast also happens to be starkly cooler and damper than the Gulf of California just a short distance to the east. This geography lends itself to some fascinating botany. The north has high elevation pine forests, but as we move south the landscape is dominated by giant saguaro cacti, crooked ocotillos and the Martian cirio that is endemic to the Baja Peninsula.
Winter rains have briefly filled the dry arroyos and encouraged the desert to bloom. A thin layer of verdant green appears where there was only sand before. In a throe of life, the giant armored century plants shoot up towering stalks with pennants of golden fur only once before they collapse and perish. The ocotillos bleed red droplets randomly along their leafed stalks and the cirio trees spurt comical yellow tassels from their tips.
And then, too abruptly, our trip comes to an end. We realize it’s time to start making our way back north toward responsibility. We share slightly jealous goodbyes with our newfound friends who continue onward for who knows how much longer. Looking at the map, it becomes apparent we didn’t even make it half way. This is great news to us. It means we get to come back another year—or two if we’re lucky—and finish the job.