Don’t panic; there are going to be pretty pictures and whatnot, but I want to get the critical stuff out of the way before y’all wander off. For over a year now I have been working together with an amazing group of ladies at the Women’s Coalition of Motorcyclists to craft a series of surveys. Our goal is an ambitious one: To be the first independent entity to gather large-scale, in-depth data on the experiences of women in the powersports world. The number of females riders has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade, but even beyond our direct involvement as riders, women have a tremendous amount of control over the motorcycle purchases made by other members of their households. WE HAVE THE POWER! What we don’t have is cohesive representation within the powersports industry as a whole.
This is where you come in. We need to know what you think! It doesn’t matter if you ride, rode, or aspire to ride. Whether you’re happiest behind the bars or behind someone else. Young or old, newbie or pioneer. Two wheels or three, off-road or street, tiny scooter or huge cruiser. All of your experiences matter! And while social media has been instrumental in the impressive response to our first survey (Motorcycle Training), the critical part here is to get all of our surveys into the hands of ladies beyond the reach of social media. We’re focusing on experiences in the United States on this round of surveys, but may expand our scope in future endeavors. So here’s how you can help: if you are a woman and/or know any women who are moto-inclined, please click on the link to take the survey. Share it far and wide. Take the link to your riding clubs, pin it up on the bulletin board at your favorite shops, share it on your social media and with your favorite online groups. We don’t just need our friends to respond, we need riders of every stripe to respond! Thank you for your help – together we will magnify our voices and make our experiences count!
What else have we been doing, aside from aspiring to change the face of the powersports industry? Montessa and I are still happily hanging out in Mexico. If you make a habit of reading French sidecar magazines, you may have recognized December’s cover as a photo I took last year in Real de Catorce. Six years old and Monty is already an international cover girl! And let me tell you, she is QUITE pleased about that! They also did a great multi-page article on some of her sidecar adventures, so check it out if you get the opportunity.
Beyond that, we’re pretty much doing what the whole world is doing: Juggling distance learning classes, getting in some little excursions when and where it’s safe to do so, and biding our time until things reach some semblance of normalcy. Speaking of distance learning classes, I’m going to keep this one short and sweet so I can hop on Zoom for another 30 minutes of assuring kindergarteners that we’ve all seen their dog/cat/sister/stuffed anchovy/loose tooth and begging for maybe just four or five minutes of focus so we can learn something. It’s gonna be great. And with that lazy outro, I’ll leave you with those pretty pictures I promised, so long and you SPREAD THE WORD about our survey project! Muchas gracias!
What a ride! I’ve had all sorts of adventures on two wheels, traveled all over North America and completed a wide variety of Iron Butt rides, but the Black Label Biker/Not Right Riders Rally is definitely one of my proudest certifications. Why? Because I am always telling people that a Saddlesore can be ridden on just about any bike and this event finally gave me the opportunity to prove it: The Not Right Riders certification requires 1000 miles (~1610km) in under 24 hours on a bike under 250cc. That’s right – entrants are limited to a displacement of less than1/5 that of my trusty FJR. But hold on just a hot minute! I’m still in Mexico, still on my Bandit 1200 sidecar rig, so how did I pull this off? That’s where Zontes Mexico comes in. Zontes offered me a chance to ride the rally on their brand new, not-yet-on-the-market U150 sport bike. That’s U150 as in 150cc, as in just ½ the size of just one single cylinder on the Bandit. Sounds like a party, right? Let’s do this!!
Because the bike wasn’t officially on the market as of rally time, and because of the shipping delays resulting from the pandemic, I wasn’t able to get my hands on my loaner ride until a week before The Big Day. Lucky for me, the bike required very little to be rally ready. Along with Marco Almaraz, president of Asphalt Rats Endurance Motorcycling and Iron Butt Association Mexico, I made the ride from Aguascalientes to Queretaro to retrieve the bike and found it already broken in, serviced and fitted with auxiliary lights. We were incredibly impressed with the dealership and the entire Zontes lineup, with Italian-inspired adventure, naked, sport, and scrambler-style mounts which seriously defy the norm in Chinese motorcycles. The fit and finish, attention to detail, and factory options are leaps and bounds beyond what one would find from the ubiquitous small-displacement bikes found in every department store across Mexico. I would have loved to pilot the T310 Adventure, especially after enjoying a rather spirited test ride, but alas, most of the lineup exceeds the 250cc maximum for the event.
So I have one week to get a borrowed 150cc motorcycle ready to knock out a Saddlesore. How… What… WHY?!?! Seriously, there is only so much I’m going to invest and only so much time to fine-tune, so I was pleased to find the U150 basically ready to rock. The factory gel seat was super plush, ergonomics amazingly comfortable for a 6’ rider, and with an easy 350km range on the stock tank I would have no trouble going the distance. The inverted forks were good, so a little adjustment to the shock preload was all that was needed for a maximally comfortable ride. Chassis tweaks completed, I needed to address ride functionality. The U150 has a built-in dual USB charger, so no wiring was necessary; I pulled my phone mount off the Bandit and slapped it right onto the new bike. The plastic tank wouldn’t work with my magnetic tank bag, but I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to cram that much stuff into the cockpit anyhow. Instead, I bought a small rubberized pencil pouch from the dollar store and zip tied it to my handlebars. This gave me enough space to store my spare Sena module with charging cable and a Ziploc bag full of cash to hand the toll-takers. I borrowed a tail bag and stocked it with the bare essentials: Tire plug kit and compressor, a few basic tools, InReach, spare cables and emergency back-up phone, a few snacks and a bottle of water, and some heavy-duty Ziplocs to hold my ride receipts and documentation. The weekend promised rain, cold, and heat so I made sure to leave room for any jettisoned clothing layers, and that’s pretty much where I called it good. No aux fuel, no hydration system, no GPS; Navigating with offline maps on my phone, hydrating out of a water bottle old-school style, and never underestimate the utility of good pockets on your riding gear when it comes to snacking on the go. A borrowed bike, some borrowed and repurposed gear, a few test rides, and we’re ready to roll.
We (me and the AREM/IBA Mexico staff) converged on Mexico City on Thursday, ready get the administrative side of the event staged, do some pre-ride interviews and generally enjoy this beautiful city for a few days. The area where we were staying reminds me a lot of West Hollywood: fun, quirky, lots of green space and generally safe with pretty much anything you could need available within short walking distance. We enjoyed a mouth-watering array of Brazilian, Argentinean, and of course plenty of Mexican food, while snubbing the Starbucks which are crammed in two-to-a-block here too. Life it too short for chain restaurants, I say! The planning and execution of this event was heavily molded by the pandemic, which makes the final product that much more impressive. To begin with there were actually three separate events taking place – vintage bikes, small displacement bikes, and standard modern bikes – all of which saw their original running dates rescheduled due to lockdowns. While motorcycle riding is an inherently socially distant affair, this still meant hundreds of bikers converging on Zontes Mexico City in the days before the rally with nearly as many expected at the finisher’s party. This was addressed by staggering check-ins, bike inspections and riders meetings across five days prior to the start of the rally. Riders who lived in Mexico City needed to come in several days before the event, with more distant riders checking in as they hit town. Even the press conference adhered to the 1.5m spacing, required masks, and kept attendees to a relative minimum. With a field approaching 300 riders, the pre-ride festivities turned out to be a beautifully choreographed affair.
It was 2am on rally day when all three groups of riders – Black Label Bikers, Vintage and Not Right Rider – staged in front of the Zontes dealership along Avenida de los Insurgentes, the road closed to all traffic except rally riders and the many dozens of supporters and spectators. Rarely outside of the Iron Butt Rally have I experienced an event with such a buzz of excitement, a scene all the more impressive when you consider how much work went into securing enough space for hundreds of participants and well-wishers to queue up while maintaining social distance. A good number of moto-journalists were also present representing some of Mexico’s best print and online magazines. Endurance riding is still fairly young in Mexico, having been introduced just over 10 years ago, so this style of event is particularly new and exciting in a country where the majority of motorcycles are more for utility than passion. I chatted with seasoned endurance riders, folks trying their hand at long distance for the very first time, and guys who were back for their second or third attempts to secure their Asphalt Rats membership. And before you judge too harshly about those repeated attempts, remember we’re talking about riders on old CB400s or new Cub 90s. Seriously hardcore riders who want to see their bike-of-choice go the distance just as much as they want that AREM four-digit number.
With traffic control generously provided by Mexico City’s finest, kickstands up hit at 3am. This is much earlier than the standard US rally, but I can’t think of a better time to be making my way across Mexico City. In all the ways CDMX reminds me of West Hollywood, crazy snarled traffic is right up there on the list. Think New York City, complete with double-decker highways, one-way streets, way too many vehicles and road signs which are often positioned not so much to let you know what intersection is coming up, but more to let you know that you just missed your turn. It is exciting and chaotic and I love it in the same way I love battling through Time Square, but I’m also perfectly happy to save that kind of battle for when I’m off the clock. At 3am sharp our Vintage riders led the charge, followed by myself and Rafa Murguia (both Zontes sponsored riders on 150s) heading up the Not Right Riders, and finally small-displacement record holder Matavacas on his relatively large-displacement Zontes 310 at the front of the Black Label Biker group. The applause, honking, cheering, camera flashes, police lights – phew, what a send-off!! I stuck with Rafa as we wound our way through the mostly deserted streets and out onto the highway, after which we struck out on our own. Each of the three ride categories had their own unique route with a few areas where our paths would intersect, but generally speaking it would be other small-displacement riders I’d be waving at for the rest of the day.
We hit our first toll demarcating the far outskirts of CDMX and the beginning of a steep climb into the surrounding mountains. It also happened to be the point at which the sky let loose, soaking the unprepared almost instantly on a winding, unforgiving highway. I’d anticipated the rain and was geared up accordingly, but I passed many riders huddling up under bridges and trees trying in vain to get their rain gear on before becoming utterly and irredeemably soaked. Even in the dark I could appreciate the thick blanket of pine trees packed tightly along the road, and my little 150 did an impressive job of maintaining speed even on a steep incline. For reference, the speed limit on the major highways was typically 110km/h, with the twisties set around 80-90km/h. With a running start and a tailwind on a downhill I could hit 135km/h, but even climbing hills the U150 had no problem maintaining in the 80-100km/h range. With some momentum, race tuck, and some active gear shifting, I had no problem staying with the flow of traffic or even passing slower traffic on the hills. Plenty of rain, plenty of race tuck, and plenty of mountainous roads later, I hit the first checkpoint just outside of Cuautla, Morelos.
With only one exception, all of the checkpoints were at gas stations; my stated fuel range of 350km is when I’m using the Sport mapping mode and riding fairly aggressively, and with the ability to extend that by another 50km or better when using Eco mode, there was only one stretch where I needed to source fuel outside of a checkpoint. The gas stations in Mexico are all staffed, with self-serve not even being an option; that is actually a good thing in terms of minimizing contact with frequently touched surfaces, and in my experience the attendants do a great job of wearing masks, wiping down surfaces, maintaining distance even if that means asking me to get off the bike, etc. The down side is that sometimes this can lead to a bit of a wait while waiting for a fill especially if the stations have limited staff during off-peak hours, but I was very lucky throughout the rally and my fuel stops did not create any significant delays. The rally was also designed to keep us primarily on toll roads; as in the States this can get a little pricy, but the tradeoff is well worth it. The toll roads are safe, well maintained, have roadside assistance patrols to help in the event of a breakdown, and have plentiful fuel and food options. It is amazing how rapidly the parallel free highways can pack on the hours, with marked and unmarked topes (giant speed humps) ready to launch the inattentive immediately into orbit, seemingly endless speed bumps, treacherous speed control devices that look like half cannon balls spread across the road, not to mention the potholes and frequent traffic lights… the free roads with their vibrant little communities are fun to explore off the clock, but I’ll happily spend a few bucks to keep a brisk pace when time is of the essence.
Checkpoint One was a gas-and-go, just requiring a picture of my odo along with my fuel receipt. Sunrise is pretty late down here at the moment – after 7am – so it was still dark by the time I wound my way out of the mountains and into Checkpoint Two at a Shell station in Puebla. This checkpoint was staffed by enthusiastic volunteers from Zontes Puebla, which was fun. They had snacks, drinks, and assistance available, although being so early in the rally I suspect few required much beyond their quick odo verification and signature. Then again, with the chilly rain finally beginning to subside, the siren call of hot coffee may have enticed a few riders in those wee hours before daylight. By dawn I had cleared the mountains and the rain, for the time being at least, and I enjoyed being dried and warmed to the backdrop of a truly stunning sunrise. I was in a lush green valley with the blanket of fog having burned off from the highway but still hugging the surrounding hills, making the shifting pallet of purples, reds, and oranges against the ebbing clouds a much welcomed reward for the night’s ride. It was mid-morning by the time I rolled into Checkpoint Three at Zontes Queretaro, giving me a fun opportunity to show the guys there the few modifications I’d made to the bike since taking delivery there just a week earlier. Since I had the benefit of having a mental map of the dealership, I decided this would be a good place to shed some layers without wasting a bunch of time. Not that my comfort requirements are exceedingly stringent, but when it comes to adding/removing pants layers (which requires removing boots and riding pants) it’s always a bonus to be able to do so in a known clean bathroom as opposed to balancing on top of your riding boots while trying to avoid touching the questionable gas station bathroom floor in your socks, all while juggling various base layers. That mission accomplished, I grabbed some water and a granola bar from the well-stocked snack bar, secured my odo witness signature, stayed still long enough for a couple pictures, then hit the highway.
The ride from Queretaro to San Luis Potosi was fairly uneventful, but the ever-changing scenery kept the ride engaging. The San Luis Potosi checkpoint was also staffed, but I suspect this was an area where more than one of the event routes overlapped because they were really swamped. Not needing any snacks or supplies, I opted for a quick fuel up and pic of my receipt and odo pushing on. Checkpoint Five was situated in my home-away-from-home city of Aguascalientes. It’s fun to feel like I’m on home turf again and I was familiar with the Pemex station where I needed to stop, so I was able to make relatively quick work of this checkpoint as well. This was the only place where I had a bit of a wait for fuel, but the rally support crew manning the station did a great job of handling my paperwork quickly so I could get moving again. Being so tight on storage space I had considered leaving any unneeded clothing layers with the checkpoint crew and retrieving them after the rally, but at this point I had only removed my pants base layers and was still very comfortable with all of my top layers on. I was already more than halfway through the route at this point so rather than waste time removing layers preemptively just to potentially save myself some space later in the rally, I opted to push on.
Of course, that kind of decisive action is the magic formula for making the ambient temperature increase by about 20ºF and this day was no exception. By the time I hit Checkpoint Six in Guadalajara, I was hot enough that even unzipping all of my many vents still wasn’t enough to get the job done. The rally crew here was super enthusiastic as well, so it was a perfect opportunity for a quick break. The guys cleaned my visor & tempted me with a huge spread of sandwiches, fruit, snack bars and drinks. I quick pulled off 3 shirts and opted for a bag of nuts and bottle of water before grabbing my witness signature and setting my sights on the finish. Of course, that kind of decisive action is the magic formula for making the ambient temperature decrease by about 30 ºF. This was the longest stretch of the event without a checkpoint at nearly 550km, but in my mind that meant I was practically back in the barn. There was an optional Last Ditch Checkpoint option in this leg; the Not Right Riders route actually clocked in at roughly 1675km, giving us substantial buffer over the 1600km required for a Saddlesore, so this final checkpoint was put in place at the northern outskirts of Mexico City for the riders who had met the distance requirements but who would be at risk of missing the time cutoff by the time they made the slow slog across the city and into the finish line. I was making good time, on track to finish my ride in under 20 hours, so I opted to bypass the optional checkpoint and head straight back to Zontes Mexico City. I would once again be meandering through the mountains and into the (anticipated) relative warmth of the valley, except this time I had the benefit of daylight so I could truly enjoy the rolling hills and deep blue lakes dotting the landscape.
Up until this point, my many layers of clothing had been what I would consider darn near perfect. I’d been just slightly too cold at the very coldest and just slightly too hot at the very hottest, and if the Guadalajara checkpoint didn’t happen to be conveniently (inconveniently?) located at the very hottest point of the ride, I almost certainly would have just continued on without bothering to remove any top layers. Ah, woulda coulda shoulda, because the chill of the mountains gave way to the chill of the night, followed rapidly by more rain. HARD rain, a real frog strangler. Turns out that the anticipated warmth of the valley would never materialize, shoved aside by the leading edge of Tropical Storm Hanna. Already somewhat annoyed at my bad foresight and/or bad timing of my painfully recent layer removal, I stubbornly refused to stop to gear back up. I was SO close to this finish, after all! By the time it became evident that the rain would not be stopping any time soon, my jettisoned gear was already thoroughly soggy inside the tailbag, making stopping to add layers a moot point. I’d had a beautiful, flawless ride up until this point; even the early morning rain, having hit when I was fully geared up and prepared for the passing storm, hadn’t been enough to dampen my mood. But the last 100km just plain sucked. I hadn’t anticipated such an intense storm, the kind of driving rain where you can’t see through your visor but once you give in and open your visor, you can’t see for the stinging drops hammering directly into your eyeballs. I was ready to be done, dry and warm, and I spent that last 100km consoling myself with the knowledge that 100km = 60 miles, then 80km = 48 miles, and so on. Those silly little mind tricks that keep you focused on something other than just how darn much rainwater, when sufficiently determined, can force it’s way past your waterproof layers and collect in your waterproof boots. Since I had opted to bypass the optional checkpoint, my mapping program routed me on a more direct path – more direct, but a good chunk of it was off the toll road and therefore pocked with time vacuums, not the least of which were giant potholes disguised by standing water and those half-cannonball speed deterrent devices which become doubly treacherous with wet tires. My brain was already preparing for the ride to be finished, which just made the exercise that much more exhausting.
It was only about 10pm when I began reentry into CDMX, so traffic was much more snarled than it had been on our way out of town. It was a wild ride, with poorly marked interchanges on fairly congested high speed highways, made worse by blinding rain which did a great job of disguising small seas of standing water. Minus the rain, I think I would have enjoyed the chaos: High-dollar luxury cars going well over the limit, dodging rickety old pickup trucks carrying impressively precarious loads and going maybe half their speed; people who were clearly petrified to be in this situation, desperately holding their ground against the drivers who had no patience for those with such an unnecessary overabundance of caution; other competitors on bigger bikes barreling towards the goalpost, seemingly always just a few more turns away. At some point though, I ended up on a highway on which vehicles under 250cc were not allowed. Being soaked, freezing, and within 25km or so of the finish line, I didn’t even consider pulling over and trying to reroute myself onto a displacement-approved (but undoubtedly slower) path into Zontes; as such, it became even more crucial for me to keep my speed high enough to avoid drawing undue attention to myself. For a while I stationed myself in a line of The Petrified, cars going reasonably slow enough to allow me a decent line of sight and reaction distance without appearing as though I was the one setting such a low speed. I missed a couple interchanges, came frighteningly close to hitting huge pools of water at a high rate of speed, and sat for what seemed like a maliciously excessive amount of time at traffic lights which weren’t triggered by my little steed, but eventually I managed to make my way to Avenida de los Insurgentes where my adventure had started some 20 hours earlier.
I was the first of the 150s to finish the ride and the first of the Zontes sponsored riders to arrive, but all that mattered at that point was getting out of the weather. Coffee couldn’t come fast enough, but by this time there was really no sense in trying to shed wet layers or add dry ones. All I wanted to do was have my paperwork verified and head back to our hotel. Even on a small-displacement naked bike I’d been feeling great and wouldn’t have hesitated to push on well past the required 1,000 miles, but in those last couple hours I seriously missed my heated gear and the weather protection afforded by the giant windscreen of my FJR. None the less, I’d pulled it off: I am now officially a Not Right Rider. I kept that U150 rung up to within about 200rpm of redline for darn near 20 straight hours with nary a hiccup. Once I warmed back up, I felt great – I dare say I actually physically recovered from the event faster than the IBA crew, who were flogged for well over 24 hours straight from the last minute pre-ride preparations to the final confirmations that all riders were safe and accounted for.
Not everyone earned their Asphalt Rat number as they’d hoped, but there wasn’t a single accident and everyone ended their ride safely of their own accord. Some of the riders had so much fun with the party-like atmosphere of the checkpoints that the hours got away from them; others were defeated by the unexpectedly harsh weather, and still others found that in spite of their best efforts, their little (or big, or old) bikes just couldn’t quite go the distance. There were some great stories to come out of the event as well, stories from riders who refused to accept defeat: One rider came rolling in with a riding suit meticulously crafted from garbage bags and duct tape, giving the finish line crew a good laugh and a great display of ingenuity from a rider who was NOT too obstinate to stop (cough)me(cough). Another rider had his mini-apes with integrated risers snap mid-ride; undeterred, he somehow managed to safely navigate off the highway, eliminated the busted risers by reinstalling the handlebars upside down, and proceeded to successfully finish the rally with a ridiculously awesome tale to tell. Then there was one of the vintage bikes which had caught my eye at the starting line, sporting unfiltered velocity stacks where the airbox once had been. Not being particularly great at deflecting frog-strangler-levels of rain incursion, the poor guy had choked to a halt just inside Mexico City limits. As it happens, although time had appeared to be on his side he had wisely chosen to hit the Last Ditch Optional Checkpoint just outside Mexico City limits, meaning he had time to call in for some four-wheeled assistance. Having completed more than enough kilometers, he was able to load up and make it in to the finish line before the clock ran out. These are the types of adventures that remind me that no matter how hard your ride was, no matter how big of an accomplishment it was for me to do 1,675 kilometers on a bike with a piston significantly smaller than a coffee cup, chances are good that someone out there will wrap up a successful ride against far steeper odds, and with a much cooler story, than me.
The vast majority of the riders were elated with the event whether they officially finished or not – I heard more than one guy raving about the scantily-clad ladies offering to clean their windshields or load them up with snacks, as well as the enthusiastic encouragement they needed to press on for just one more leg, then again to one more checkpoint beyond that. No matter how easy or beautiful your ride has been, that kind of lively interaction can be so amazingly invigorating, making you feel like a rock star rolling in after hours of being alone with your thoughts. This event brought a consistently high level of community support throughout the event, offering a fun, supportive environment from beginning to end. It was really amazing to see, something that I’ve never experienced on shorter rallies in the States, and I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to all of the many, many volunteers who did such an incredible job of staffing and stocking the checkpoints. I saw a lot of the behind-the-scenes work from the Iron Butt staff as well as being privy to the amount of juggling required by the Zontes staff in order to pull this off polished production while also providing a pandemic-safe atmosphere, so huge kudos to them as well for all of their hard work.
After a decent nights sleep, the banquet was held Sunday afternoon at the Arango Rider’s Room just a short distance away from Zontes. WOW! This would be an awesome place to spend ANY Sunday, but I can’t think of any place cooler to celebrate a great event like this. It’s a super cool little semi-open-air café and bar, tucked into a quirky corner of town right next to a motorcycle shop and including a tattoo parlor above the kitchen. Someday when (if) I grow up, I’d love to own a place just like this. Because of the size of the venue vs. this size of the crowd, the banquet was broken into two groups to maintain distancing. The Not Right Riders event was first, made extra exciting because this ride also earned the right to celebrate a new Iron Butt record, boasting both the largest number of small-displacement bikes to start a rally and the largest number to successfully finish. Way to go, little guys! The Black Label Bikers and Vintage groups were next, with certificates and amazingly cool swag handed out to all of the successful riders before the weekend wound to a close. I was sad to have to relinquish my U150 (I’d even tried to con my way into riding back to Zontes Queretero, but no dice as it is destined to live out it’s days on display in the Mexico City dealership) but it’s not all bad news: I will be riding a Zontes T310 Adventure in an upcoming 3,200km/48 hour rally! Woo hoo!
The IBA crew and I were enjoying CDMX so much that we decided to extend our stay by another day. IBA Mexico member Juan Gomez gave us a personal tour of some of the most impressive, interesting, and historic sites around the city, most of which were closed due to COVID-19 but many of which could still be enjoyed from afar through the cultural context and stories he shared. Left to my own devices I certainly would have chosen to avoid navigating through the legendary chaos of Mexico City, but I am so glad that circumstances gave me the chance to experience it first hand. It is beautiful, varied, both modern and historic, with far more to enjoy than I could possibly fit into a single long weekend. I will be looking forward to making a return trip for another rally in the very near future! And for those of you who are wondering what happened to Montessa in the midst of all the excitement, she and Elena La Loca held down the fort in Aguascalientes while we were gone. If Elena hadn’t been christened “La Loca” before spending five days alone with a wild, imaginative, rambunctious night owl of a five-year-old, she absolutely would have been by the time we got home. They had a fantastic time doing girl stuff together, and I dare say I got the less exhausting end of the arrangement by only having to spend 1,675km on a 150cc motorcycle.
Thanks for reading, and keep and eye on the Asphalt Rats website for information on upcoming rides. I know travel is a tough proposition for many right now, especially considering how many highly-anticipated events in the States have been forced to cancel, but trust me when I say that nothing is quite like rallying in Mexico! When circumstances allow, give it a try – with incredible people, scenery, food, culture, roads and more, you won’t be disappointed!
I’ve wanted to ride an Asphalt Rats event for years. Mexico is one of our two neighbors and while I’ve done a substantial amount of riding throughout Canada, I’ve done comparatively little in Mexico. The timing just never seemed to work out, until now. With our temporary home base located in San Diego in order to help my mom recover from her transplant, I was finally in a prime jumping off point. With my mom on the very tail end of her intensive recovery period and healthier than any of her doctors had anticipated, I was able to sneak away for a week of adventure. Not one to take the easy way on any task, I rode my FZ1 (amazing, but not rally-ready) from sunny SoCal to snowy SoDak in order to swap out for my FJR (amazing, and always rally-ready). You can read my write up on that frosty ride in the blog post “It’s Been A While…”
Optimal bike procured, I proceeded on to legal requirements. Mexico insurance is a must because most US companies don’t extend coverage into Mexico like they do into Canada. It was cheap and easy to find good coverage for my well-loved motorcycle – $300K Combined Single Limit liability coverage with theft, partial theft, vandalism, fire, uninsured motorist, the works, all for under $225 for six months. Baja California is something of a “free zone” with regards to tourist visas (Forma Migratoria Multiple, or FMM) and vehicle Temporary Import Permits (TIP). If you are only traveling within Baja, you are not required to have a TIP at all and you can get a free seven-day FMM. The free seven-day FMM is actually good beyond Baja, but things are a little fuzzy with regards to Baja travel specifically; you’re supposed to get the FMM stamped on your way in to Mexico, which I did, but there are actually no provisions made for getting it cancelled on the way out if you are exiting Baja traveling by land. It’s a bit unnerving to just wander out, but both Mexican and US immigration authorities, along with countless internet pseudo-authorities, assured me that there was no way to cancel my FMM in Baja even if it was something I insisted upon. The other American riders didn’t bother with the FMM paperwork at all and that was clearly a perfectly acceptable way to go. I will be going back to Mexico in a couple weeks and have opted for the 6-month visa, which only cost about $35US, just so I don’t have to worry about overstaying my legal welcome regardless of where in Mexico our adventures take us.
The border crossing into Mexico is a snap, as always, and I made my way the short distance to the starting hotel in Mexicali. I always find riding in the border cities to be especially chaotic in a New York City meets Thailand kind of way – tons of motorists, different road configurations, and an extremely lax adherence to road rules. It takes me a few miles of riding to regain my sea legs (or would that be si legs?), then it all becomes part of the fun. The Araiza Calafia Mexicali hotel was lovely and did a great job of playing host to a whole slew of excited riders. The bike demographics were interesting in this event: Almost entirely BMWs with a good showing from Harley, with only one each of Ducati, KTM, Victory and Yamaha. That’s right, I piloted the only Japanese bike in the event. No sweat; I knew she’d be up to the task. Most of the riders were Mexican, with six of us coming down from the United States. Even with my laughable Spanish skills, I quickly felt right at home with the group. The event itself was more of a checkpoint-to-checkpoint rally than a scavenger hunt-style rally. I think there are enough variables with a 1,000-mile day through Mexico to make it a fun challenge even without the bonus hunting element. The route was actually designed by Ioram Abolnik of DiscoverMoto Tours and was being certified at the finish line by Marco and Ellen of the Asphalt Rats and Iron Butt Association: Mexico. Ioram was at the starting line and did an excellent job during the riders meeting of letting us all know what to expect, in both English and Spanish. Road conditions, terrain, weather, animal activity, sections without fuel or cell service – he was extremely knowledgeable about the route and what we would encounter along the way. Ioram would be riding down to La Paz along with the rest of us, and a chase truck would be taking up the rear in case of emergency.
We hit the road at 2am on Saturday morning, which set us up to be out of Mexicali, through our checkpoint in Tijuana, and on a beeline away from the border and into more rural parts of the coast before crazy traffic started building. My GPS supposedly did not include Mexico maps and had not been impressively functional during recent trips to Tijuana, but I was surprised to find it was totally functional throughout most of the trip. I had planned on routing using my phone and Google Maps, and had downloaded the relevant map sectors so they would be available offline. Even having taken those steps, there were a few sections which were devoid of cell service for long enough that it would scramble my route if anything needed to be recalculated. It wasn’t a huge deal since these sections didn’t require any sort of complicated riding directions (“Stay on Mexico 1 for 665km”) but it was good to have my GPS operational in those areas, just in case. Getting out of Mexicali, I hit the first couple turns as dictated by Google, then stuck tight to a group of Mexican riders who seemed to know what they were doing. Google is great, but there is just no replacement for local knowledge. With the usual excitement and fanfare of the start of a rally, we bombed our way out of town and each settled into our own pace. Once out of the buzz of Mexicali, the next order of business was to summit La Rumerosa. There was some light rain and there had been talk of snowy conditions over this rugged mountain a few weeks back, but luckily the temps were in the mid-40sF and the rain wasn’t heavy enough to be a nuisance. It was a wonderfully twisty ride on a well maintained toll road, and with the traffic at that hour being very light we were able to maintain a brisk pace. I bunched up with other riders a few times at toll booths and inspection stations, so obviously we weren’t too far apart from each other, but for the most part I was happily enjoying having the road to myself.
Once we hit Tecate and Tijuana, I made more of an effort to stick with some Mexican riders once again as we navigated the busier roads. Again, with the adherence to road rules being somewhat… “fluid”… I felt comfortable sticking with riders who were well versed in the local road rules. When I’ve ridden in Mexico in the past, it was as a solo tourist who stuck strictly to the posted rules of the road so as not to draw undue attention to myself. During a rally, however, I tend to give myself a bit more leeway to ride like the locals. Not just with our riders but with traffic in general, I found red lights to be more like… loose suggestions of caution. Stop signs were barely a rolling pause to check for cross traffic. Turn signals were not really a thing, as any and all lanes were free for the taking at any given time. Where turn signals were regularly used was to signal to a vehicle behind you (ie, antsy motorcyclists) that the road ahead was clear to pass, regardless of whether or not you were in a passing zone. I actually rather enjoyed it, once I got into the swing of things. How many times have we sat endlessly at a red light that refused to change for motorcycles? Sat twiddling our thumbs behind a big rig going 1/3 the speed limit up a hill when we totally had the line of sight and power to zip by? I found it to be an unexpectedly courteous, mellow way of interacting with other road users. The only time things got a little hairy was when someone threw up that left hand turn signal and it wasn’t actually clear whether they were signaling for you to pass or they were the one-in-a-thousand drivers actually signaling their intention to turn. Out in the country it generally wasn’t a problem since there was really nowhere TO turn. But it happened to me twice – once was in town with a car turning left, once in the country with a big rig signaling his intention to pass the rig in front of him. Luckily for me, I’m still leery enough with the system that I didn’t get bit. However, there was one rider who was involved in a rather serious accident on his was to the starting line in exactly this scenario. It’s not a perfect system, but I like it none the less.
The Tijuana checkpoint was an OXXO (basically like a 7-11) near the northern tip of Mexico Highway 1. Water procured, receipt in hand, odo picture snapped, ride log filled out, back on the road. Being the first checkpoint there were quite a few riders and a lot of general excitement, but it would be a good haul before Checkpoint #2 and riders would do a good job of relaxing into their own speed and enjoying the ride. I had made my way through the beach communities of Rosarito and Ensenada and into the interior of Baja by the time the sun began to creep up. I didn’t have any twinge of safety concerns riding through the night; there were plenty of well-lit 24-hour gas stations along this portion of the route, very few animals in the road aside from the odd coyote here and there, and all the people I dealt with were very pleasant. I found the gas situation to be interesting and different from the last time I traveled down into Baja; I didn’t find any pay-at-the-pump, but instead almost every station had attendants who would assist you with your fill and run your card on a handheld card reader. You could also pay cash to the attendant, which was often the faster option as the more rural stations seemed to be a bit hit-and-miss with regards to the speed and functionality of the handheld readers. It was actually really nice, and it meant I didn’t ever have to go into a station unless I really needed to. Just for your information, since I didn’t know and had to ask: We are not expected to tip the gas attendant. There were a couple times when the attendant rounded off my cash change to the tune of maybe 3.5 pesos (about $0.17US) but they would also round up my change when I only had large bills. As with so many things in Mexico, it seemed to be handled with a very easy going attitude.
I was excited to make my way to Checkpoint #2 in El Rosario, right on the edge of Baja California Norte and Baja California Sur. I’d never been that far into Baja before, and with the sun coming up I was finally able to enjoy some of the beautiful scenery. It reminded me quite a bit of Central California, with serene twisties interspersed with farm fields, cacti and small communities. This event wasn’t a monotonous grind down the interstate; it was the whole gamut, from flawless high speed toll roads to rural dirt segments and everything in between, which really made the experience far more enjoyable. The rain dried up with the sunrise and the rest of the ride saw clear skies and warm weather. Checkpoint #2: Gas receipt, odo pic snapped, ride log filled out, back on the road. I saw two other riders at this checkpoint, but nothing like the dozen milling about at Checkpoint #1. South from El Rosario, we headed into a long ride with no cell and no fuel. Around the midway point across this dry section, there were enterprising folks set up with truck loads of jerry cans, selling fuel to tourists at a steep premium. Several riders had to utilize this service, to the tune of roughly $25 for two gallons of gas, but luckily with the aux fuel on the FJR I was able to easily make it between checkpoints without stopping. The scenery was stunning, full of desolate beauty similar to what is found in the American deserts: not simply droning along through an empty featureless landscape, but enjoying a varied and spirited ride through the gorgeous vastness of the inner peninsula. Interesting, massive cacti varieties I haven’t seen elsewhere; wildflowers of all different colors sprinkled throughout the rocky terrain; wild burros, free range horses & cattle, and smaller critters to include dogs, bunnies & humans, milling about the road; peak-a-boo views of the Pacific Ocean or the Sea of Cortez here and there between sleepy little towns. My very favorite views were in the areas where an army of giant cacti stood shoulder to shoulder, all the way to the crashing crystal blue waves in an empty yet impossibly gorgeous tropical beach. It seemed so stunningly contradictory, the juxtaposition of these two visuals, I’d almost wonder if it wasn’t photoshopped if I hadn’t been looking at it with my own eyes. For a period of time just after crossing into Baja California Sur I was actually at the very front of the pack. I know for a fact that this was only because many of the Mexican riders stopped for lunch, because I saw them pulled off at a little restaurant near Guerrero Negro. The event wasn’t a race and no distinction was made based on finishing time or order, but that’s ok – I’ll take it where I can get it J
By and large the road conditions were better than expected, especially on the toll roads, but there were also sections that randomly turned to dirt for a bit or had man-eating potholes, but no worse than you find in most areas of the Midwest. The topes were fun too, designed to slow everyone way down before entering a town. You hit a couple dozen speed bumps of increasing frequency until they toss you up onto a massive mountain of a speed bump. Sometimes they were smooth and mellow, no big deal when taken at an appropriate speed; sometimes they were shaped more like a pyramid and you’d be certain, based on the hideous crunch of metal on concrete, that you’d just tacoed your exhaust; sometimes they were just painted lines designed to look like a tope. You never really knew which one you’d get, which is obviously the whole point. Somehow I managed to make it through the ride without puncturing my exhaust or blowing my fork seals, so I consider that a solid win, although I did say some things loudly enough and in such a tone that I’m sure most people understood exactly what I was saying, in intent if not in the actual language.
Checkpoint #3 came late in the afternoon just south of Mulege, BCS. Lots of friends & customers from Kernville talked fondly of visiting Mulege, so I was excited to see it even if it was just a quick trip through. It definitely had an ex-pat/touristy feel, but still in a good small town way as opposed to the gross sanitized feel of the bigger tourist towns. I’ll look forward to giving it a more thorough visit next time through. I had a couple more hours of daylight as I worked my way south before being left to finish up my ride on a deep, moonless night. I was grateful that I didn’t have too much riding to do after sundown, because the dark totally consumed my high-powered LED lights which made it tough to see the copious number of cows & horses milling about the road. By this point I was also confident that my snowy ride to swap out the FZ1 for the FJR had been well worth it; it’s not that the ride couldn’t have been done on the FZ1, but between the aux fuel and aux lights, it was just far more enjoyable on the FJR. The giant windshield and heated gear provisions on the FJR just made it that much more pleasant in the wee hours of the damp and chilly morning. Cows dodged, closed roads circumvented, the bustling city of La Paz navigated, and I was thrilled to find myself at the finish line Araiza Palmera hotel some 18 hours after kickstands up. I arrived to an enthusiastic crowd of spectators and volunteers, which made for a fun finale. It was easy to navigate the final odo check and paperwork confirmation, so it didn’t take long before I was relaxed in with the group of spectators welcoming in the new arrivals. Once again, Araiza was an excellent host to all of group and it was a wonderful place to stay. We gathered up on Sunday afternoon for a general awards ceremony hosted by Iron Butt Association Mexico. After that, we were presented with our finishers certificates, incredible swag, and new Asphalt Rats/IBA Mexico member numbers. I am extremely proud to have earned IBA Mexico Rider number 1000, which I can now display alongside my IBA #376.
I cannot say enough good things about this event. From the time I signed up many weeks before the event, there was an active group chat where we were able to share information, receive updates, and build excitement. This made it especially easy to work with my limited Spanish because I could easily translate anything I didn’t immediately understand, although everything important was also posted in English. This was a lot of fun and was a great way to build camaraderie with fellow riders before we even met. The structure was a perfect balance, in my opinion: Straightforward enough to entice new riders who are perhaps riding in Mexico for the first time, but fun and interesting enough to attract seasoned riders as well. It didn’t require any special bikes (you didn’t need a dual sport to navigate the easy dirt sections, for example) and you didn’t need a rally-prepped bike to finish successfully, although many riders carried at least a small can of spare fuel. The swag is cool almost beyond description. Logo products unique to IBA Mexico, super cool Asphalt Rats and Discovermoto goodies: plate backers, patches, pins, stickers and shirts, all different from the Saddlesore swag we get from the IBA in the US. The after party was the stuff of legend. I showed up at the starting line knowing people only from our online interactions, and I arrived in La Paz with a whole slew of awesome new friends.
After the Sunday afternoon awards ceremony, we had another fun post-ride event: The Asphalt Rats, old and new, rode in the front of the La Paz Carnivale parade. I’ll be honest, I waffled about joining in the ride. I know what parade riding looks like: Do I let my bike grenade from sitting at idle endlessly, or do I kill my battery from turning it off & on every 35 yards? One other rider did end up killing his battery, but that aside, it was SO worth it!!! What an absolute blast!! First, I really loved the town of La Paz. It was big enough, but not too big. It was fun and comfortable without being overly touristy or sanitized. This wasn’t a tourist event, it was a wonderfully vibrant local affair. There were announcer stands every so often throughout the route, and although my Spanish isn’t great I was able to understand them describing our ride and thanking the riders who came all the way down from the United States to join their parade. The children were as joyful as they are anywhere in the world, incredibly enthusiastic about the motorcycles, running out for fistbumps and photo opps whenever the parade stopped its forward progress. There was confetti and loud music and beer in squirt guns, unbelievably good smells and bright colors and cheering crowds. Of an entire amazing week this was absolutely one of the highlights, partly because it’s something I wouldn’t normally seek out to take part in and partly because the atmosphere was so different from the parades I’ve seen outside of possibly New Orleans. The pure joy of the kids, the relaxed atmosphere and blurry lines between the spectators and participants, and the camaraderie of our group all made this a really fun way to cap off the DiscoverMoto rally.
On Monday morning (or, for those of us who found mas cervezas than just the odd squirt gun shot full, Monday afternoon) we all began trickling back out into the world. For a full write up on the rest of my Baja travels, complete with my more standard inane color commentary, walk your way on over to Part Dos of my ride report. For those of you who were just looking for a review of riding a rally in Mexico: DO IT! I had such an absolute blast and will absolutely do it again. In fact, I’m already planning to return to Mexico in just a couple weeks. The Asphalt Rats really know how to put on a top-notch event and take good care of their riders, so head on over to their fun-filled ride calendar and see what calls your name. Hopefully I’ll see you there!
This is Part Two of my Baja road trip; Part One specifically covers my Asphalt Rats/DiscoverMoto Rally, so feel free to cruise over and check that one out here. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Ah, great! You’re back! Let us proceed… The pre-ride activities for the Asphalt Rats rally took place in Mexicali on February 21st, so being a paltry 115 miles or so from our temporary SoCal headquarters we decided to meander on down on the morning of the 21st. Mike and Monty accompanied me in the sidecar so as not to miss the excitement of the festivities, but also as not to miss the opportunity to swim in a pool I’d probably never set a toe in and sleep in a bed I’d be lucky to see for a couple hours prior to my 2am rally departure. As I mentioned in Part One, the ride into Mexico is almost always a piece of cake. I’ve never experienced much of a backup, and this time was no different. We breezed through the border crossing, got our tourist visas stamped with little fanfare, and made our way a few miles into Mexicali to the Hotel Araiza Calafia. There were a lot of hugs and handshakes, meeting riders who I’d been chatting with for weeks in our group chats, and reintroducing myself to riders who I’d apparently met immediately post-Iron Butt Rally. In my defense, I was most likely actively asleep on my feet at the time. J But they were quite gracious about my embarrassing face blindness, and we have all now bonded over Baja which is an experience none of us are likely to forget!
After the technicalities were handled – riders meeting, odo check, safety inspection, paperwork, pre-ride swag, the works – we were released into the wild until it was time to reconvene in the parking lot at 1:30am. We did a little interweb sleuthing, as the kids do nowadays, and found a really well reviewed little hole-in-the-wall restaurant just across the street. My first order of business, however, was to figure out why I couldn’t get my hands on some pesos after I’d reported my trip to all my credit card companies like a good little citizen. Phone calls made, problem rectified, and we decided to make the short walk to the nearest bank to see if my luck had changed. Bank one had a busted ATM… I think. My Spanish is… I’m gonna say, a work in progress. But I THINK the other customer was telling me it was busted, so I’m gonna stick with that. No problemo (see, that was Spanish right there!), we just moseyed another couple blocks to the next bank and pulled out a massive wad of cash. It’s easy to feel rich in Mexico, where right now $1US is worth about $20 pesos, especially when, with little effort, you can find a decent hotel, some good grub, and a couple full loads of fuel (including aux tank) all for under $75. Mission Primero accomplished, we couldn’t help but notice that about a block back we’d passed a Honda shop. Not one (or three) to miss a good opportunity to ogle bikes, we made that our next stop. I’d just recently learned about Italika motorcycles (engineered and built in Mexico) but there are just tons and tons of awesome small displacement bikes just crawling all over this country. A 150cc sport bike with a kick start that weighs about 18 kilos? Sign me right the heck up for that!
After we wore out our welcome at Honda (c’mon, it was like an adorable baby Africa Twin! Who WOULDN’T squeal like a little girl?), we made our way back to the restaurant we’d scoped out. They seemed to be mostly about the aguas frescas, but we ordered a mixed grill plate to share as well. A good heaping plate of meat, enough to feed three people with leftovers, plus a couple tasty fruit waters, and we were still out of there for about $10US. At this point it was about 4:40pm and I had a couple of options: I could hit the hay and potentially get a full night sleep before I had to be up at 1am, I could aim for a short nap around my normal bedtime and hope it didn’t leave me worse for the wear, or I could commit to keeping myself up for the duration. I really could have gone either way; I’m not much of a napper and it usually leaves me feeling worse than forgoing sleep all together, but I’m such a light sleeper that trying to grab just a couple hours of sleep often leaves me feeling groggy if I wasn’t feeling super tired to begin with. On paper I’d been leaning towards just staying up; from arising in San Diego to hitting the hay in La Paz, we’d only be talking about 40, maybe 42 hours max. That’s comfortably doable in my book. But with all of the excitement of the day, I was actually feeling like I might be able to grab some zzzzs. Mike & Monty hit the pool while I did some solid dozing. I was awake but relaxing again after a few hours, then down again for a couple more, but all in all I think it actually worked out great because I was able to queue up on the starting line at 1:30am feeling great and carried that with me through the ride. Mike & Monty, on the other hand, happily snoozed the morning away then made their way back to San Diego once they’d squeezed every bit of enjoyment out of the fun night out in a hotel.
Flash Forward: Awesome ride, amazing roads, fantastic people, incredible event. Two solid days of nonstop frivolity and happiness, but then you already know that because you just read Part One. So what happens after such an epic party, when one finds oneself at the distal end of a nearly 1,000 mile peninsula? One plans an epic return trip adventure, obviously. Some of the guys grabbed the ferry from La Paz to mainland Mexico; some rode back to Mexicali or Tijuana and shipped their bikes home from there; some joined Ioram and DiscoverMoto for a guided tour back up the coast. I, along with the rest of the American guys, planned to take our time and enjoy the ride home. We were heading in roughly the same direction post-rally, down towards Cabo San Lucas, but the rest of the guys were hitting the Harley shop down there for some tires and brakes while I intended to push on another hour or so to the village of Todos Santos. I don’t particularly enjoy the Disneyland-esque, sanitized touristy facades one tends to find in cruise ship ports around the world, but I also wanted to ride across the Tropic of Cancer and to the far southern tip of the peninsula. Cabo was a fine spot for a layover, I just planned to keep it brief. There were some really beautiful little communities along the way, ranging from tiny artisan colonies to busy ex-pat enclaves to the modern metropolis of Cabo. There are a few areas which I’d like to revisit, like Los Barriles; I usually like to play it a little more by ear when I travel, but I hadn’t come prepared to camp so the fact that I prefer smaller towns meant that I’d be up a creek if I hit town late and found the inn was full. Next time around I think I’ll feel a little more confident about flying by the seat of my pants.
I hit Cabo in the late afternoon and found it to be chaos. Not like enjoyable chaos, just entitled narcissistic unpleasant chaos. I looped around for maybe an hour or so trying to locate the Harley shop where I was slated to meet up with the other American riders, but it didn’t actually seem to exist in this universe. I finally sussed out that it was in a mall complex with no vehicle access, at which point I decided to pull the plug. Of all the places I traveled in Baja, 98% of it solo, including walking and riding extensively at night, the LEAST safe I felt was in Cabo during the middle of the afternoon. I just felt like I was going to park my bike in BFE and return with a $75 t-shirt to find $750 worth of stuff pilfered off my bike. Meh. Hard pass, thanks. Mind you, I base this feeling on nothing other than my personal preference for fewer people and more space, along with that general level of streets smarts which would make one leery of leaving a bike full of easily pilfered goodies sitting open and unprotected in pretty much any major city anywhere in the world. I sent the guys a message, for all the good that did since my reception seemed to have taken leave as soon as I hit the Cabo region, and I pointed myself north.
Todos Santos was definitely more my speed. I’d found a wonderful little boutique hotel for the equivalent of about $20, so I proceeded to knock the dirt off myself and set out to wander the town. I got a giant serving of incredibly fresh molcajete with all the accoutrements and a few bottles of water for about $6. I’d planned to stay a couple days in Todos Santos, so I actually had time to unload the bike and take a nice hike and check out the community the next day as well. The original plan had me meeting up with a few Asphalt Rats in Todos Santos, but they’d ended up staying in Cabo instead so I wound up riding back down to Cabo on Tuesday night to meet up with the group for dinner. In fact, I had a couple other rally riders message me who had intended to stay in Todos Santos as well, but they’d been unable to find a room and were asking me to check availability at my hotel. So while it was a bit of a bummer to miss the opportunity to more in-depth exploration of some of the little towns as they caught my eye, it was also good that I didn’t find myself a solo adventurer in a somewhat isolated town without a place to bed down.
I’d passed a sign for Tropic of Cancer on my way to Cabo the previous day, but it kind of popped up out of nowhere and didn’t have an immediate area to turn around, so I’d blown it off thinking I’d most likely have another opportunity as I crossed the Tropic again going north. No such luck. I’d mulled over the idea of riding back to the original sign, about two hours ride from my hotel and an hour beyond Cabo, then backtracking into Cabo for dinner, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care that much. I was actually having fun relaxing, checking out art galleries and back roads and local markets, and I just couldn’t be bothered to spend hours backtracking for a single picture. Maybe next time.
When I did make my way back down to Cabo, it had a different feel somehow than it had the previous day. Less frenetic, perhaps. I’d expected there to be worse traffic and general chaos given I’d arrived around what I’d guess to be rush hour, but it was quite light and generally more pleasant. Maybe it was the fact that I’d been hot, or anxious to keep rolling, or without a solid reason why I needed to be there. Maybe the full day of R&R in a sleepy village had calmed my brain. Whatever the case, I was happy to find the atmosphere a little more palatable, if still notably Disney-esque. I met up with a pretty big crew – two of the Americans, Bill and Todd (the other three – Ksolo, Reef, and David – had pushed on up the coast), plus Marco and Ellen from IBA Mexico, rally volunteer Carol, and a few established Rat Riders – for dinner at a lovely restaurant where the tables were literally set right on the sandy beach. It was very touristy, but I’m not going to lie – the food was amazing. And Bill was generous enough to cover the… well, bill, which was an incredible gesture from a cool new friend. We talked late, told lies, and those of us who didn’t have to ride back up the coast had plenty of Coronas to add to the fun. I figured I might cross paths with some of the guys again as we all ping-ponged our way north, but this turned out to be our last time hanging out of the trip. It was great fun & I’m definitely looking forward to doing it again some time soon!
The next day was going to be a fairly big mile ride – not Iron Butt big, but big by the measure of a fairly solid distance over slower speed roads to reach a remote village whose hotel clerk only works until 3pm, after which you need to rouse her from her home. Sounded outstanding to me, so I bid farewell to Cabo and all my friends so I could return to Todos Santos and hit the hay at a semi-reasonable hour. I was up at 5am and moving not long after, aiming to knock out my 1,040km ride by 3pm. Part of my battle plan hinged upon the fact that I would be gaining an hour by crossing time zones as I headed north; alas, it seems that adherence to time zones is as lax as pretty much everything else I’d experienced in Mexico. While Bahia de los Angeles is located quite solidly within the Pacific Time Zone, I arrived to find the town operated on Mountain Time like Baja California Sur. Or at least the hotel operated on MST. No matter; it was a lovely ride in, warm (if a bit windy) weather with stunning views, and the hotel owner was not only present but exceptionally accommodating when I did finally arrive. In fact, he gave me a free room upgrade to an oceanfront villa. I could step out my door and directly onto the sand; a few more steps and I could wiggle my toes in the topaz blue Sea of Cortez. Pretty hard to take, that kind of luck. 😉
The only downer on my ride in was a little close encounter with a very big vulture. Heck, it quite possibly could have been a condor for how big it was. It was one of those moments where I saw him swooping down from my right and I’m moving further and further towards my left, thinking, “He’s not, he’s NOT, HE’S NOT!!” But he did. Right about the same moment where I was doing evasive maneuvers into the thankfully empty oncoming traffic lane, he did a brief touch-and-go directly into my path. I braced myself for impact but we met for only a brief kiss before he presumably pooped himself a little and set off to update his will. I was fine, probably suffering the most pain simply from the act of tensing up in anticipation of impact. My windshield, however, didn’t get off quite so easily. Since the impact was glancing it didn’t break the screen itself, but the windshield had slammed to the full-down position and would no longer raise up. Given my time constraints I hadn’t taken the time to troubleshoot the problem on the road, but once I hit Bahia de los Angeles I gave it a good once over. I have limited ability to assess the windscreen motor components without major, arduous, hateful, soul-wrenching disassembly, so taking into consideration that the only other guests in the hotel complex were about 15 adventure riders from all around the western US, and in the interest of not having a bunch of cool motorcycle guys see me cry, I decided to forgo that route. Instead, I confirmed that the motor itself was operational (which is good, since it costs $750) and there was no visible damage to the brackets. With a little luck, I figured, maybe the shoulder bolts had sheared off; this would still mean an unholy amount of disassembly, but only require about $20 in parts. But in the meantime…
If I was about a foot shorter, having my windshield in the full-down position wouldn’t bother me in the least. Alas, taking a foot off the bottom wouldn’t really help in this situation and taking a foot off the top would render me no longer concerned about taking full wind blast directly in the mug as I would no longer have a mug with which to take wind blast. Having ruled out self-modification, I was left to concoct a Plan B. I still had many miles in my planned ride home, so I needed to come up with some way to wedge my screen against the spring pressure on the retention arms to hold it in the upright position. After trying and eliminating a number of options (I don’t care how uncomfortable I am, I’m not going to risk a SnapOn tool going skittering down the road even it is my only viably sized rigging option) I finally came up with a solution. I was able to wedge a 6mm allen key through the forward brace of my dash panel, then twist it around under the main windscreen bracket. This held the bracket solidly in place without impacting the windscreen material itself. It was about as Trail Fix as trail fixes come, but I tell ya what – it was impressively solid, it lasted the entire rest of my trip, it accomplished exactly what I needed to accomplish, and it was free because everything I used I had on hand. Plus I had several fun conversations with the other riders who wanted to see the crazy solo lady rider disassembling her bike in the dirt, so that’s always a good way to make new friends. I was surprisingly torched by the time the sun went down. It had been a long day of riding, so with the added excitement of the strong winds and wayward vulture, I was ready to relax. Luckily there was a great restaurant not 50 feet down the sand from my door, so I was able to have a fresh caught fish filet with salsa & veggies and make my way back to my room where I fell asleep to the sound of waves crashing right outside my door.
The next morning dawned warm and substantially less windy, and I was well-rested and ready for my day’s paltry 200km jaunt. All of my plans may seem a little haphazard on my return trip, but in addition to the aforementioned desire to have confirmed accommodations, there were a few factors at play: First, as mentioned in Part One, the orchestrator of the rally route is also the Big Queso over at DiscoverMoto Tours. As Ioram and I chatted over the weekend, he kept dropping tidbits like, “Oh, and you HAVE to go to Bahia de los Angeles! Freshest seafood on the peninsula!” Lots of places, like Todos Santos, had already been on my radar as they received glowing reviews from pretty much everyone, everywhere you go. But Ioram also kept dangling more interesting little options out there for me, even after I’d started making hotel reservations for the return trip. There was also the little factor of Leap Day. Obviously. J The Iron Butt Association was offering a special certificate for any ride executed primarily on Leap Day, and although I’d been pondering it for a few weeks I just wasn’t feeling inspired. I’ve done some pretty awesome weird fun unique big mile rides recently, so it was going to require something extra special to goad me into another certificate ride. In the pre-planning stages it had looked like I needed to be out of Baja by 2/27, which would mean an odd day of kicking around home before leaving again. Not exactly a deal killer, but setting out for a run-of-the-mill cert ride doesn’t hold the same appeal as executing something cool while I’m out in the wild. So as my week in Baja progressed and it became evident that while the 7 Day Free Tourist Card is pretty hard-and-fast on the mainland, it’s really more of a very, very lose suggestion in Baja. They actually don’t even make any provisions to get an exit stamp on your tourist card when leaving Baja by land. So this got me thinking, if I squeezed an extra day out of my Baja adventure, I could conceivably execute a really interesting cert ride that would extend into Leap Day and tick all the right boxes. So this became a critical ride planning factor as well: Setting myself up for a nice, relaxing day on 2/27 so I could depart on 2/28 and complete a ride which would take me through the day on Leap Day 2020. As convoluted as it sounds, I finally had a plan.
In order to ensure a solid computer generated receipt to document my cert ride start time, I actually opted to backtrack 200km to the town of Guerrero Negro, BCS. North of Guerrero Negro I was looking at a vast distance with little to no cell service, with a smattering of tiny towns which maybe might have one or two possible options for a decent receipt. It was too much of a gamble, to set out hoping to find a good receipt in a little town when failure to secure a good receipt would mean having to potentially ride hundreds of miles without being able to properly document them. The safer bet was to backtrack to a good sized town with multiple documentation options and plenty of interesting things for me to do and see while I waited for Go Time. I got a good night sleep in BdlA, lingered around chatting with the other riders well into the morning, and made my way down to Guerrero Negro at an impressively casual pace. I crunched some numbers and decided that my target start time would be between 2pm and 3pm Mountain Standard Time on 2/28. There were several reasons for this: First, the Leap Day ride had to see more than half of the planned ride executed on 2/29. With a 2pm departure time I was assured that no matter how my planned ride panned out, more than half of it would take place on Leap Day. Second, I hoped this would help me avoid serious congestion in the bigger cities I would encounter as I moved north and as I rode along the border back to Mexicali. Third, it would have me crossing the border back into the US close to midnight, which hopefully would mean a shorter wait at customs. I chose to return to Mexicali because it allowed me to maximize my ride distance within Mexico without leaving Baja, and also helped me avoid the perpetually clogged border crossing in Tijuana and, to a slightly lesser extent, Otay Mesa. It all looked good on paper and I had some hours to fill, so I set out on foot to explore the town.
I spent about 10 miles wandering in and out of little shops and shacks, smelling racks full of freshly baked goodies at the panaderias, seeing the whale watching boats come into the port at the end of the day, and enjoying some hiking trails through a local preserve. I was even enticed into a shoe store when I noticed a selection of Vento motorcycles prominently displayed in the middle of the sales floor. A brand new 150cc bike could be purchased for the equivalent of about $900US. I’m pretty sure I need two. I’d scoped out all of my potential dinner options, and while there were many incredible looking places with al pastor beckoning to me from it’s spit or seafood so fresh it was practically still swimming, I just found I wasn’t hungry. I passed on dinner and just enjoyed walking around the community, finally retiring to my room late in the evening.
I had plenty of time to kill the next morning too, even after it was time to relinquish my room, so I made my way to a fish taco truck which every overlander resource said was THE fish taco truck in Baja. They weren’t kidding! A fresh-off-the-boat fish taco with a full spread salsa and toppings bar set me back about $1. I meandered around shops again for a bit, looked at my watch a lot, and generally felt antsy to get on the road. Around 2:45pm local time I decided to put myself out of my misery and get the show on the road. Receipt procured, odo picture snapped, kickstands up.
Here is what my ride vision entailed: If all went perfectly I would be executing a Bun Burner Gold, which is 1500+ miles in under 24 hours. That would require the stars to align just right, because a BBG is a reasonably rigorous ride on the best of days. Add in some random sections of dirt road, half a dozen toll booths, half a dozen military and agricultural checkpoints, plus an international border crossing and things could get real fuzzy real quick. That factored in to my timing: If I had to extend the ride out to a standard Bun Burner (1500+ miles in 36 hours) I could easily do so without upsetting the Leap-Day-to-non-Leap-Day balance, whereas if I’d started my ride on the 29th any serious delays could have spelled the end of my special cert quest. Things started going sideways almost immediately. At the first military checkpoint, I got to do a full luggage teardown. No big deal – all the guys are generally very nice and professional except when they’re laughing at the skirtless hula girl on my dash – it just didn’t bode well for efficiency. Second checkpoint, same procedure (except this time they were laughing at my Zombie Rosie the Riveter). Tick, tock, tick, tock. On cert rides you need to document fuel at least every 350 miles, so I aimed for a gas station in El Rosario which had been a checkpoint in the rally. Alas, the receipt didn’t show an easily identifiable location; it had a mile marker along the Carretera Transpeninsular within the Zona Ensenada. While I was busy trying to document my exact location with GPS pictures and whatnot, I neglected to take a picture of the pump to show my fuel purchase, which was important because the receipt didn’t show the gallons purchased either. Oh, and remember the lax adherence to time zones? The time was an hour off, even if one assumed they were operating on MST in stead of PST. But this type of issue was precisely why I’d opted against planning my ride start in a small town. El Rosario actually was the other town I’d played with for a starting point, so it would have posed a much bigger issue if it was my critical start time receipt that was questionable as opposed to just a fuel receipt.
However, once I was back on the road and my mind needed something entertaining to do, I started crunching numbers again. IF the El Rosario receipt is deemed no good, I need to do something to salvage my ride. My next planned receipt wasn’t for over 300 miles and even just the next available fuel would be a good haul, so the potential was there to lose as much as ¼ of my planned ride due to funky documentation. The obvious course of action, then, would be to extend my ride in such a way that SOMETHING would be documentable regardless of how I ultimately chopped it up. I settled on adding a spur to my planned route which would put my total ride miles at over 1800 which would still allow me to tick all my boxes. As I continued north, I found myself at a long dirt construction zone which had been little more than a blip in my southerly progress. I found myself there after taking the rider’s prerogative of sailing past the eight miles of stopped vehicles and making my way up to the flagger, where I proceeded to wait. And wait. And wait. No lie, I probably sat there for a solid half hour while no traffic moved in either direction. Eventually a car zipped up to the front and pulled in next to me, whereupon the passengers engaged in a heated exchange complete with grand gesticulating with the flagger who was impeding our progress. Eventually the flagger literally just threw up his hands, said something which quite clearly translated into “Fine, do whatever the hell you want” and just started waving everyone through. It was nice to be making progress once again until we started encountering oncoming traffic on the washboard marbly one-lane dirt track, but that was really more of a problem for the dual-track vehicles than it was for me. But it really begged the question, why bother delaying 8+ miles of vehicles for an indeterminate period of time if you’re ultimately willing to set us loose with little more than an eye roll and a “Good luck”? It was silly, it was fun and I’m glad I was at the front of the line.
The rest of the ride through Baja was fairly uneventful, although I was truly surprised at just how much congestion I encountered even given the late hour at which I was passing through many of these towns. Time and again I found myself impressed with the timing of the Asphalt Rats rally, where we really didn’t have to deal with any noteworthy areas of congestion. That is a really impressive feat of scheduling over so many towns and such a great distance, especially when you again consider than these mostly aren’t US Interstate type roads, but rather small two-lane highways which slog through the surface streets of big towns and tiny villages alike. My hats off to the organizers once again; 2am may seem like an odd rally start time, but the subsequent timing along the whole route just worked out perfectly. I reached Mexicali just before 1am PST on Leap Day and picked up my final Mexican “exit receipt”. This might be a good time to give you a better overview of my ride plan, because a Bun Burner Gold just isn’t interesting enough for my taste. After hemming and hawing, I’d actually decided against doing a Leap Day ride until a post-rally conversation sparked my interest. You see, as Asphalt Rats we are eligible to receive special recognition for any big mile rides completed outside of Mexico. The fact that I am from the United States doesn’t preclude me from earning this special recognition within the United States. I definitely wanted a solid chunk of my ride to take place within Mexico, but I also wanted this ride to fulfill two other criteria: travel at least 500km into another country (not skirting along the border, but actually into the interior) and travel at least 2000km within another country. With the extended spur added after my first gas receipt hiccup, my route would accomplish both goals. I had to stop just before crossing the border to obtain a receipt verifying my time and location, then again once I crossed the border to mark the start of my ride in the new country.
The two-country twist was a fun one for me, but here is another one: I hit six states and changed time zones six times. I started in Baja California Sur (MST), hit Baja California Norte (PST), crossed back into the United States in California (PST), then off to Arizona (MST), Nevada (PST), Arizona Strip and Utah (MST), the back to Nevada and finally California (PST). Talk about fun record keeping! I’d been playing with keeping certified ride records in Greenwich Mean Time recently just to help simplify complicated scenarios such as this, and I toyed with the idea of doing it on this ride as well. Ultimately though, since I was just repeatedly switching between the same two time zones, I decided to leave my bike clock in PST and note all my times in both MST and PST regardless of which time zone I was in (or in the case of Mexico, whatever random time zone they chose to observe in any given village). By the time I slogged my way across the border, made my triumphant return to the States by way of Calexico, and procured my New Country Receipt it was pushing 2am. I’d been slowly embracing the fact that a BBG would be nearly unachievable my this point; I hadn’t totally thrown in the towel, but by the time I hit Casa Grande I was about 150 miles behind BBG pace. That’s not an entirely insurmountable deficit, especially on the more predictable roads of the States, but it’s not far off. Besides, I have nothing to prove. This was supposed to be a fun ride and an interesting achievement, not a miserable chore requiring an uncomfortably high average speed. I hit Tucson and actually turned back south for about 55 miles; my original plan had me traveling really, really close to the 500km minimum, so I’d planned to head a bit south to document a more southerly point before making my final run north. Even after adding the more northern spur extension, I opted to keep the Tucson jog in place as originally planned as cheap insurance.
I aimed for my pre-selected gas station, only to find a forlorn canopy surrounded by construction fencing in an otherwise empty lot. No problem; there appeared to be another station just across the freeway. Gassed up, receipt…. Receipt?? No receipt. No problem; I’d run inside, take a quick bathroom break and grab my receipt. As an aside, I ponder how many people in the world attempt a potty break at a gas stop only to find that no restroom is available for whatever reason, and think “Well, I guess I’ll try again in 350 miles.” It’s gotta be a pretty small club, I reckon, although that is precisely how my Calexico gas stop played out. Not for the first time, I can assure you, and almost certainly not for the last time. And so I decided to make lemonade… yeah, you see where this is going. J So I made my way inside and the clerk said “That’ll take seven to 10 minutes. That pump is being really slow talking to the computer.” Holy… mother… of… So off I went to make lemonade. No receipt. Fill my snacks. Wash my faceshield. Check my windscreen pseudo-repair. No Receipt. Sigh. A second employee wandered in and had a conversation with the first regarding why this one solitary pump was causing such a ruckus. I mean, god forbid one throw up a sign saying “Use another pump if you want a receipt in a timely fashion” or, I dunno, LOAD PAPER IN THE PUMP?!?! This is truly the cause of such irrational rage across the I’ll-pee-in-350-mile set, but at this point it just became humorous. It really seemed like the cosmos were telling me to slow down and enjoy the ride, so I made the decision to do just that. Finally, eventually, arduously, the receipt was procured, odo pic snapped, kickstand up.
I made my way north back across Tucson with the intention of avoiding rush hour traffic, not remembering that it was Saturday until I was well on my way to Phoenix. Regardless, I staged myself at a truck stop beyond the north edge of Tucson and had myself a lovely little coffee break. Stretch, scratch, warm up & watch the sunrise as I sipped. It was kind of my official release of the BBG plan and embracing of the slower Bun Burner pace. The trip to Kingman, AZ was uneventful, as was the trip through to Las Vegas, NV. I continued beyond my original planned pivot point to visit St. George, UT. This put my total ingress at more than 500 miles, or just over 800km. Confident that this part of the mission had been accomplished, I did a quick gas up and turn around for my final descent into my temporary home. One more quick jog off I-15 out to Kramer Junction, CA would give me a comfortable 32 mile buffer over my successfully executed 1,800 mile ride. It was just after 9pm when I made my final fuel stop. I’d wrapped up another recent cert ride at a local Chevron, but while the receipt was good the station itself was congested and not super motorcycle friendly. I made the last minute decision to pick a newer, bigger gas station in town, which predictably on this hilariously unpredictable ride, resulted in a terrible final receipt. One block away, CVS, new receipt, odo pics snapped, kickstand up for the final time. I received a hero’s welcome, or at least the closest thing to a hero’s welcome that a perpetually wandering soul could hope to receive: a big plate of BBQ lamb from the best local BBQ joint around. (Not as good as JRs Rhodehouse BBQ by a long shot, but still… that’s not a fair comparison, because NOTHING is as good as JRs.) I kept my eyes open long enough to eat about half my dinner before crawling into bed for a good, long, hard-earned rest.
As a post-script, my windshield trail fix was rock solid for the entire ride. If it didn’t look like a glaringly hideous black eye on the bike of a mechanic, I might have kept it. Heck, I seriously considered keeping it anyways. But my good ol’ girl has enough structural gorilla tape at this point, I need to fix the things that can be fixed. The job was no less of a nightmare than indicated above; there is simply an offensive amount of teardown required, with the worst of it being entirely my own doing what with all the farkles and nonsense added to the stock machine. I’d special ordered the windshield mount shoulder bolts with guarded optimism, figuring they’d arrive right around the time I’d returned home and fully assessed the problem. Spoiler Alert: She chose not to break in a cheap and easy way. It was a bracket sub-assembly, available only as part of the complete $750 windscreen motor assembly. So that’s a solid nope, obviously. However, having gone through the indignity of digging into the bowels of my head fairing, and being doomed to suffer the further indignity of reassembly, I refused to admit defeat and reinstall my structural allen key. A dozen phone calls later, I found a shop not far away that was able to weld aluminum and was willing to do it that day. Badda bing, badda boom, I returned home with my previously ordered OEM parts (including all new bushings for all the windshield pivots), one very tidily welded sub-bracket, and $700 that I was not forced to spend on replacing an otherwise functional motor. I replaced all the bushings, rebuilt my motor, and restored everything to fully operational condition. While I was in there, I knocked another handful of things off my Rally Prep To-Do List, which I’d been putting off doing since it is such a miserably hateful nightmare to get in there. Making lemonade, right? Odds & ends ticked off, I got her reassembled an knocked out a good 100 miles just to be sure everything was really and truly working. Goodness knows one can’t fully assess windscreen motor operation in the driveway, right?
What a wonderful ride through a couple beautiful countries! I am ecstatic to finally have earned my IBA: Mexico membership, and had a blast executing my successful-but-not-quite-as-envisioned Leap Day ride. It was such a convoluted ride, I suspect it’s going to be a while before I hear how my bid for certification pans out. In fact, I KNOW it’s going to be a while, because not one hour ago I received an email which basically said “This dumpster fire of a ride submission is going to take a while.” It’s all good; I’m patient, I’m confident I’m good for at least a Bun Burner Silver (1,500 miles in under 30 hours) or standard Bun Burner, but even if it has to get chopped down further than that for some reason, I had a ton of fun doing it. In fact I had such a blast that we’re up here furiously gearing up for our next round: Monty and I will be making a little loop to visit family and friends in CenCal before heading back down to Mexico together in the sidecar. Thanks for following along & stay tuned for more exciting updates in the near future!
This event was truly one for the ages. Deceptive in its simplicity, diabolical in its execution. There wasn’t a single correct solution, with constantly shifting variables such that even the most skilled player ultimately had to leave a large part of their success in the hands of Lady Luck. Every single one of us rode a different ride, and nearly every one of them had the potential to be the winning solution. One construction zone here, one wandering Winnebago there, and the outcome would be totally different. That’s on top of the added retro twist, providing waypoints that were just within the (100 mile or so) vicinity along with written directions to the actual location, plus the potential for time-consuming tasks involved in order to actually secure the points.
I LOVED it. Absolutely loved it. What an amazing way to pull everybody’s collective heads back out of the spreadsheets and make us pay attention to the puzzle. Like I said, deceptive in its simplicity, diabolical in its execution. I’d considered taking 2019 off, spending my vacation with the family, but I lost my resolve as soon as I saw that Jeff Earls would once again be the rally master. I am SO glad I threw my name in. I have never had more fun in a rally, hands down. From beginning to end, from the roads to the bonus locations, twisty bits of asphalt to twists in the game, I was hooked.
I can’t say enough to thank Jeff for this absolutely stunning event. And even the best rally idea couldn’t be executed without the indefatigable Lisa Landry, Michael Kneebone, and an army of amazing volunteers. The Iron Butt family truly makes this event what it is. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for bringing us together every two years, then flinging us violently apart, then bringing us all back together for this amazing celebration of the fringe of motorcycle exploration. Without you, we’d just be a bunch of weirdos bumbling about the continent.
What I actually said:
I heard there were people online saying they’d win the rally by finding the winner, following her around for 11 days, then picking up one more bonus. Well, only Ian McPhee had the cajones to try and it killed his final drive. Thank you and goodnight. 😂
In my defense, I did previously attempt to recruit Tyler Risk to be my wing lady so she could help me make good words come out of my face. Unfortunately she couldn’t be at the finish line and I was tragically left to my own devices. Thank you to everyone who had more faith in me than I had in myself, and thank you to everyone who understands that I had no actual expectation of winning and was left at a nearly complete loss for words when the big moment came. This was a huge rally filled with amazing riders and determined in large part by luck. It really was anyone’s game to win, and it still seems quite surreal that my exhilarating adventure was enough to bring home the win. I will truly never forget the feeling of that moment, and I thank each and every one of you who helped celebrate the amazing rides and incredible adventures of all 109 riders.
Endurance riding isn’t for everyone. We’re the 1% of the 1%, and even that is probably a pretty generous figure. Not everyone understands why we do what we do; some people don’t care at all, some are intrigued while acknowledging that it’s not something they’d personally pursue, and some are quite vocal in declaring that this is NOT the right way to be riding a motorcycle. No one is obligated to condone or participate in endurance riding, but I thought I might shed a little light on why I personally love this type of riding in the context of the 2019 Iron Butt Rally rally.
In the course of these 11 days I watched the sun rise over the vast, rugged Nevada desert. I watched the sun set from the lush beauty of the Gaspe Penninsula. I felt the weight of a deep, moonless night in one of the most distant corners of the Everglades. I felt the buzz of humanity in a traffic jam in Washington DC at 1am on a Friday morning. You can do any one those things right now, should you desire. Load up, head out, and be confident that you can have those experiences at your leisure.
I also rode some roads that you almost certainly will never ride, because there is absolutely no good reason to be there. I rode nearly 100 miles north of an already far-flung town on virtually flawless asphalt to reach a small informational sign overlooking a remote dam. Aside from being a dam employee, there is no logical reason to travel this road. And yet there I was, with beautiful blacktop unfurling along the shores of a stunningly beautiful reservoir, beams of sunlight stabbing through silver skies to highlight the perimeter of rugged, verdant cliffs deep in the Canadian Rockies, and I had it all to myself. I reached the terminus of this quest, snapped a quick picture, and saddled up for the return journey. In what seemed like only minutes, I reached a sign indicating that I would be intersecting the main highway in 20kms, and I was legitimately disappointed. I was in the middle of nowhere, with no practical reason to be there, and I was disappointed that this amazing bit of moto-perfection was coming to an end.
But you could go there. If you’d like to go to Mica Dam, you certainly can put that on your bucket list. But there’s more to it than that. At some point – I couldn’t tell you exactly where – I was riding in the rain in the middle of the night when the wind shifted just so, such that the only sound, the only sensation in the world, was the quite pull of my tires against wet pavement. I was riding through a misty dawn when I came upon a moose in a field of wild flowers – tall, willowy flowers in every imaginable shade of red, pink, orange, purple, and white – simply enjoying her breakfast and regarding me with the same fascination with which I regarded her. I’ve had just exactly the right song show up on my playlist at just exactly the right minute, as though the cosmos was telling me that this is exactly where I was intended to be at this very moment in time. I’ve watch the breathtaking symphony of distant thunderstorms, powerful and beautiful and nearly impossible to capture in all of its majesty; it simply must be experienced and absorbed. I’ve had moments where the sky is so blue, the air so calm and warm, the ride so fluid and so effortless, that the entire world melts away and I’m left with a calm focus that I can only imagine must rival the most ardent practitioners of meditation. I have formed connections with people who, outside of this pursuit, I never would have had occasion to meet, people who make my life richer, fuller, more complete.
This is my zen. This is my release. This is my connection with that which is both greater than myself and deep within myself. You can’t put those moments into your gps. You can’t plot a trip to the place where your soul will heal or grow or quiet or shout for joy. You just have to put yourself out there. Your place may come through hiking or biking. Sailing or soaring. Brushing the dog or holding your new grandchild. I hope you all have a space in the world where you find your best self; this is mine. On two wheels, exploring, experiencing, looking for any opportunity to avail myself of the majesty of the universe. The more you’re out there, the greater the likelihood that these moments will find you. Rally riding is not for everyone, but its right for me. Any excuse to be out there, leaning, twisting, seeing, smelling, feeling, focusing, absorbing; any opportunity to be so overwhelmed by the majesty of it all that I have no choice but to hone in and thoroughly experience the precise splendor of this solitary moment. This is why I rally.
It would be so easy to undertake this trip in a van. We could easily carry everything we needed to be comfortable and self-sufficient. We would have fewer concerns about safety and security on the road, especially when we’re off on an adventure away from the vehicle. We could easily sleep in a van when we’ve found that amazingly perfect spot, but it’s too cold or wet to bother with a tent. We could charge all of the gadgets and doo-dads we’d need to keep us entertained and on our pre-determined path. Cruising in climate-controlled luxury. Best of all, overlander rigs are a dime a dozen all across South America. We could pick any destination we fancy, and I guarantee that within a week we’d be the proud new owners of an appropriate vehicle that fits our budget. Absolutely no international vehicle shipping required. Maybe… maybe just a nice little van…
But you know what else comes with a cage? Insulation. Isolation. You don’t really smell the ocean spray or the freshly cut fields. You don’t feel the rain or the warmth of the sun. You pass over the road as a means to an end, instead of really experiencing the road as an integral part of your journey. You close yourself off, intentionally and unintentionally, to interactions with other people. Simply being in an enclosed vehicle, especially as a family unit, makes people less inclined to approach you. As a result, you’re less likely to hear about that incredible road-less-traveled, that little gem that only the locals know about. But possibly the most critical thing missing from a caged journey? The community. There is simply nothing in the world like the motorcycle community. I can’t imagine taking a trip of this magnitude without the motorcycle community being an integral part of it, both because of how important it is to me and because I want Monty to fully experience it for herself. This is truly the best community in the world.
Case in point: My last blog post. I was (am) at my wits end trying to come up with a shipping option for getting the sidecar rig (at bare minimum) to South America. I ran through the full-picture drama in that post, but the Cliff’s Notes version is that nobody really wants to deal with vehicle export from the USA. We make life difficult, apparently, and nobody wants to willingly subject themselves to that. Cue the Amazing Motorcycle Community! Within hours of that blog going live, I had literally dozens of messages from friends and followers offering help and suggestions. Some provided contact information for freight forwarders or transport services that they had used. Others offered to put me in touch with contacts in other regions – friends, business associates, experienced travelers – who might be able to help. Still others offered up ideas for approaches that I might not have thought of. That’s why I love this community! Even though I’m not sitting on the side of the road with a flat tire, riders saw another rider in need of assistance and jumped right in.
So through the power of love and brotherhood, we solved our transport troubles and are excitedly planning all the other aspects of our journey, right? Um… not so fast. Turns out I didn’t just have a flat tire, I had a massive blowout with no tire shops in sight. I submitted for a bunch of quotes to fly the bikes between North and South America, based on recommendations of friends and fellow travelers (albeit from transactions that happened a number of years ago); I received a New Record High Quote of $8,000 to fly both bikes from Los Angeles to Chile. No problem; we’re just as happy to ride up to Canada and fly down from there. Canada on the whole is far more amenable to facilitating (or at least not impeding) international vehicle transport, and we do love the heck out of Canada. Air Canada doesn’t have any routes into South America on their Fly Your Bike program, but they can still fly motorcycles as regular cargo. I approached them for information and, not to be outdone, they quickly provided me with a New Record High Quote of $9,600 to fly both bikes from Toronto to Bogota. We’re Number One! (sigh.) It seems the harder I work, the more research I do to make sure I’m providing all the right information in the right way, the higher the price tag is getting.
It’s time to come at this from a different angle, so we’re mulling over a number of different options. The US is a bust and Canada doesn’t seem to be any cheaper. Or at least, it’s not cheaper to South America. Just for interest sake I also asked Air Canada to quote transport to Glasgow, Scotland. Glasgow IS on the Fly Your Bike program and we also have family in Scotland. Turns out we could get both bikes to Europe for under $2,500 out the door. At that rate, it would be substantially cheaper to fly the bikes to Scotland, explore for a while, then ship from Europe back to South America. At least then we’d get some cool adventure for our money rather than just tossing $10k directly down the drain. Another possibility would be to go South to fly South. We could ride down through Mexico and fly out of Mexico City or Merida, or possibly ship out of Cancun. Mike isn’t nearly as apprehensive about riding Baja California (or as he called it, Southern Southern California), and from there it’s an easy ferry ride across the Sea of Cortez then a quick zip across mainland Mexico. Piece of cake, right? Maybe?
Then again, if we’ve already broken that Central America seal, why not just keep going? There are two reasons why we were not planning to ride through Central America: First, Mike didn’t feel like it was safe. It took me so long to talk him into South America that Central America was a concession I was more than willing to make. So what has changed? Believe it or not, Mike was actually the one to suggest riding down through Mexico and shipping from there. I think he’s actually getting pretty enthusiastic about this trip, and doesn’t want to see it derailed before it starts. He’s willing to make some concessions to make it happen. I gently presented to idea of the yacht cruise and he said “Why the heck aren’t we doing that?!?!” Because that option requires us to get ourselves to Panama. “Well,” he replied, “you talked me into South America.” A little glimmer of hope, perhaps? I think maybe the myriad of travelers saying “My only regret about Central America was not having more time to enjoy it” just might be starting to sway his opinion a tiny bit.
The second consideration was that, at the time, it seemed to be nearly the same price to ship from the US to South America as it was to ship around the Darien Gap. Once you’re in Panama, they know they have you over the tourist barrel. There is really no reasonable away around The Gap aside from shipping or flying; you can easily get sucked into a mire of surprise fees, shipping delays, paperwork struggles, bribe attempts, and language barriers. And once again, the sidecar really throws a wrench in the works. It’s definitely a lot harder to just show up and hope to sneak in on a shipment with the sidecar, especially based on the number of “We don’t handle sidecar” replies I’ve received on transport inquiries. It just seemed so much easier to handle everything in the US and arrive in South America ready to roll. But that was before, and this is now.
To recap, what are some of the options around The Gap? We could fly, which is the fastest and typically has the fewest surprises. We could share a container, which is the cheapest but also the slowest, with the highest probability for delays and added costs. There are any number of countries and ports/airports where we could depart from, depending on how far we wanted to ride. Travelers often report flying their bike and themselves from Central America to Colombia for around $1,000, but then again I’ve heard people say they got an entire container out of the US for $2,600, so I’m taking all these numbers with a big ol’ grain of salt.
And there is another option around the Darien Gap: Yacht cruise. No, I’m not joking. Sailing along with your bike on an island-hopping vacation-within-a-vacation is actually a very popular choice for motorcycle travelers. They load up you and your bike, feed you glorious meals, stop for snorkeling around little desert islands, and deliver you fat, relaxed and happy to the port in Columbia. Depending on which company you select, either all or most of the fees and expenses are included in the price of the trip. It’s not nearly the cheapest option, but at $3,300 for an all-inclusive four-day cruise for three people and two bikes, it’s not nearly our most expensive option either. (That $10k quote for Air Canada is going to be hard to top.) The down side is that our travel schedule had put us in the area of Uruguay in early October. If we’re just hitting Central America in October, we’ll be arriving right in time for hurricane season. A lot of the ships start rolling in their sails at that time, so we’d either have to leave home much earlier than planned or come up with a different option.
So, yeah. We’re still at an impasse. We’re not paying $8,000 to get our bikes to South America. I wouldn’t be thrilled about paying half that. I would sooner pay $2,500 to ship the sidecar, then just buy a second bike down there. I gave a good overview of that option in the last blog too, so if you haven’t read that one yet, head over there to see all the pros and cons of buying down there. What happens if we can’t come up with any palatable options? Then plans need to change. Europe is an possibility that neither of us are opposed to, but the cost of traveling around Europe will definitely shorten the duration of our adventure. Asia is a possibility too; Mike has traveled around Thailand, but I’ve never been to Asia. Or what about… staying a little closer to home?
A big wrench in the works is if we stay anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, with an October departure date, winter will be upon us. This past October we had some solid weeks of freezing rain in South Dakota. We’d have to head south pretty quickly, and that’s assuming that the weather treats us well for our departure plans. If we’re leaving from the US and heading south through Mexico and Central America, we should be in good shape weather-wise (assuming we can dodge any hurricanes.) So what if we were to explore around Central America through spring, then head back north to explore Canada and the US? I know I said that we didn’t need a year to explore North America because it is so more accessible than South America; when I said that, I didn’t realize that South America was virtually impenetrable from here. It is also much more expensive to embark on extended travel around North America, but by avoiding expensive shipping we will have that much more to spend. I would be extremely disappointed to give up on my South American dreams (for the time being) but I don’t want to entirely miss out on the opportunity to travel before Monty starts school. I also don’t want to tank our family financially by plowing ahead with a “nothing money can’t fix” attitude.
I sent out some new quote requests today. I still have a few friends putting out feelers for us. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling pretty defeated. Persistence, in this case, only seems to be making things worse for both my stress levels and shipping quotes. Pending receipt of these last few quotes, I’ve pretty well exhausted all my resources. While I was writing this, I received an email from my last yacht-cruise option with the news that they don’t accommodate sidecars. I’d happily buy a couple cheap bikes in South America if finding a sidecar was a reasonable expectation. I’ve done my due diligence and come back with nil. So what does the future hold for Third Wheel Adventures? Only time will tell…
*2019: This is the last episode of #ThrowBackTravel to be pulled over from our old website. There may be more throwback stories as I have time to compile old ride reports and pictures, but they won’t be coming as fast and furious like they have been. So don’t just wolf it down. Sit back, pour a drink, savor it… And off we go!
Crossing on the Yukon River Ferry. Yes, that’s us in a car. A rental car, to be precise. Three of our four tires were destroyed, beyond repair. The closest tires we found were 8 hours away in Fairbanks, Alaska – a far cry better than the 8 DAYS it would take to have tires shipped to us in the Yukon. The trade off for time was price – this car only came with 100 free kilometers (about 60 miles). When our little trip was complete, 25 1/2 hours and 1,407 kilometers later, they hit us for almost $600. Talk about painful…
Alaska was having a little wildfire problem of their own, although thankfully farther from the road. You’d think that a place that spent half the year covered in snow and the other half of the year slogging around in melted snow would be low on fire danger, but that’s clearly not the case.
The view from the Top of the World Highway was impressive, but not quite as impressive as the Dempster. This road was also dirt, and better maintained than the Dempster, but we have to admit that if we had to be on it, at least it wasn’t on the bikes. We’ve done enough dirt riding on street bikes to last us a while.
Entering Alaska for the second time. We look happy because we think our troubles are over. We’re so gullible.
OK, the sights WERE pretty, and the faux sunset WAS spectacular, but still… It wasn’t $600 worth of spectacular.
WOW! OK, this was also pretty amazing. We also got a chance to actually talk, which we can’t do on the bikes. I guess it wasn’t so bad, but still… $600?
We left Dawson City at 5pm and arrived in Fairbanks at 3am. We couldn’t find a campground or a reasonably priced hotel with a vacancy, so we did what any completely insane person would do – we slept in the parking lot of the motorcycle shop. Mike slept in the driver’s seat, and I slept with the rear seat down, half in the trunk and half on the seat. Not a real restful night sleep since it didn’t get dark, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
BUT LOOK! IT’S A MOOSE! A MOOSEY MOOSEY MOOSE AND HER MOOSEY MOOSEY BABY! Now THAT makes it all worth while!!
We finally got a picture of a moosey moosey moose!
I’ll make a long story short. When the motorcycle shop opened and we asked for our tires (which we had ordered and paid for by phone last night), they just shrugged their shoulders. It took over an hour and a half for them to figure out what had happened: They charged us for the three tires we needed, then someone else came in and wanted to buy one of them. Knowing we were driving all night from the Yukon to get these tires, they credited us back for one and sold it to someone else. They didn’t call to inform us, didn’t apologize, and didn’t want to give us our third tire back. Call us if you want all the sordid details, but lets just say that in the end, the cops were called and we left the shop with three tires.
*2019: OK, we’ve dragged this out for 14 years. For those of you who haven’t heard the whole animated, curse-filled tale in person, here’s a little more story. There was a lady working at the parts counter who had some serious attitude. I get it, we’re foreigners, but we came in with a pleasant attitude (or as pleasant as could be expected, considering we’d just slept in their parking lot) and just wanted to retrieve our paid-for tires and hit the road. If I had to guess, having 14 more years of powersports customer service under my belt since that glorious day, she was probably the one who sold our tire out from under us. She probably gambled that we wouldn’t make it, and figured that cash-in-hand from a local buyer was better than a refunded credit card charge a few days down the road. She lost that gamble, and rather than roll it back she decided to double down.
“May we speak with the parts manager?”
“I am the parts manager.”
“Who is your manager?”
“I’m the top of the food chain today. So sad for you.”
The only thing the shop offered was to give us the two tires that were still on our invoice. Fantastic! A $600 rental car later, that would get us fully 2/3 of the way to mobile! Sigh. An hour and a half of nasty looks and snide remarks later, a mechanic innocently walks in from the back and says “I found that other tire you were looking for.” He was immediately incinerated with the vicious laser-gaze from the Parts Manager Lady.
Apparently the sequence of events were as follows: We purchased the three tires over the phone. I called from the road about half way to Fairbanks and confirmed that our tires were there, paid for, and that we would be arriving to pick them up the following morning. A few hours later, a local rode in and asked for one of those tires. Not having any more to sell him, they credited us for one and sold it to him. He left his bike to have the tire installed… And there it sat. The tire had yet to be installed, but when we asked for the tire (which was, by any measure, rightfully ours) so we could be on our merry way, Parts Lady said she couldn’t sell it to us because it was already sold to someone else. Aaaaaahhhhmmmm,…. Okaaaaay,… buuuuuttt,…. I also have a receipt showing that I paid for three tires, including that one right there. Does it need to be resold a certain number of times before it gets locked in to a particular owner or something? Or is that a determination made based on the zip code of the purchaser? What exactly do we need to do to leave here with those three tires?
We did not go to extreme lengths to hide our discontent with the situation, but we never got loud or made threats. We did, however, make it clear that we would not be leaving with fewer than three tires. And why would we? We’d ordered three, paid for three, and needed three to get on with our trip. We weren’t about to pay for the World’s Most Expensive Tire Change ®, only to have to return to Dawson City and wait for over a week in order to arrange for a single additional tire to be flown in. Not happening. Parts Lady, or somebody in the shop, apparently tired of our presence and called in the fuzz. They were pretty cool about the whole thing, just standing by to make sure we didn’t try any funny business. Eventually the tables started to turn and the other shop employees started to more vocally support our position. I think the fact that we were polite(ish) but persistent really helped sway sentiment in our favor. While Parts Lady held firm, other employees started loudly telling her that, basically, she was being a jerk. They got pretty persistent on our behalf, pointing our the obvious fact that the tire was ours to begin with, Number Three hadn’t been installed yet, and that the ride-in was in a better position to wait for another tire to arrive.
I think, ultimately, everyone just grew tired of the “locals back locals” thing when it came to backing up her clearly indefensible position. It was ridiculous and everyone could see that. Everyone – the cops, the other employees, even customers that were lingering around to take in the show – were chatting with Part Lady while giving us the side-eye that said “Yeah, I get it.” We reached a point where the cops were probably tired of hanging out but Parts Lady needed to save face, so she stepped out for some reason and another parts guy thankfully gave us our rightful Number Three. In retrospect, and even really at the time, we weren’t angry with the shop, it was just one person on a power trip who made a series of increasingly poor business decisions. But I’ve said it before: It’s the spectacularly good things and the spectacularly bad things that really stick in your mind after a trip, and no matter how this panned out it was going to be a memorable event.
By the time the bike shop dimwits were done screwing around, it was too late for us to get the rental car back in time. There’s an extra fee for that. The rental place also runs the only taxi service in town, and since they were closed by the time we got back, we had no way to make it the 25km to where we left our bikes. Sigh…
When we finally made it back to the Klondike Lodge, they were closed. We shared our sob story with the mechanic there, trying to sway him into opening up the shop so we could install our new tires. It didn’t work. Instead, he bought us dinner and a night in the lodge. Praise the Lord, there are some good people left in the world!! We were filthy, exhausted, and STARVING – we hadn’t had time to stop for food since we left Fairbanks. We ate like pigs and slept like babies, clean, dry, and happy for the first time in days.
Our Heros! Richard, the mechanic at the Klondike Lodge, and his assistant Brandon. When all was said and done, they didn’t charge us a cent and refused a tip. (We left one anyways.)
We didn’t get good pictures of the slices in the tires, because we intended to cut out the worst chunks and save them as souvenirs. We forgot. You can see how bald the top tire is – that was Mike’s front. The middle one is my rear tire, and it has five big slits in it (the largest was almost 2″ long). The bottom one is Mike’s rear, and if you look at the bottom of the picture just left of center you can see one of the many places where his steel belts were showing through. Believe it or not, these tires were new when we left California, and should have lasted us at least 5,000 more miles.
All this struggle faded into distant memory when we made it to Mukluk Annie’s in time for the all-you-can-eat breakfast a few days later. The whole buffet was good, but those were the best blueberry pancakes we had ever eaten. Look at that – it’s flopping off the edge of the plate!! Judging by the look on Mike’s face, Gnomad picked the wrong place to kick back…
Overlooking Teslin, Yukon. If you look at the far side of the bridge, then nine more miles up the road, you’ll see Mukluk Annies. Mmmmmm…. pancakes….
This was going to just be a short rest stop in Watson Lake, Yukon. A sign forest is a good excuse to take a break, but we figured is would be kind of geeky. Saying so might confirm our geekdome, but it was actually a lot of fun!
We were just going to stretch our legs and pop in for a quick look. With over 60,000 signs, I don’t think there’s such a thing as “a quick look.” These are all thumbnails. Click on a few, and I’m sure you’ll see what we saw – There’s a lot of really funny stuff in here!
We saw lots and lots of wildlife, but this herd of buffalo was probably the closest. We saw caribou today, too, but they cleared out before we could snap a picture. I think they sensed that we had eaten a Caribou Burger a couple days before. (Incidentally, it was VERY tasty, and I highly recommend trying it if you get the chance.) This big herd was standing right next to the road, completely ignoring us. Mike was sitting right next to me, completely ignoring them. (I guess you become immune to the cuteness of big, smelly, hairy animals when you grow up in South Dakota, but not me! I’m married to one!)
Muncho Lake, British Columbia. This lake was just as still as Boya Lake, but the water was a deep turquoise. It also made for beautiful pictures, and I’m sure sunset is truly a sight to behold. Maybe on the next trip…
This big fella was standing right in the middle of the road (which had again turned to dirt, but nowhere near as bad as the Dempster). He and his kin folk like to eat the seeds and things that are easy pickin’s on the road, and they really don’t care how many people honk at them while they do it.
Look! A bear!
Seriously. Here’s the story: For the second time on our trip, we saw a black bear cruising around next to the road. Another car had also stopped to take pictures, but we weren’t fast enough – he slipped back into the woods before we got the picture. I hollered back to Mike in my best redneck drawl, “Hey, Baby! Ya’ll want me to run into them woods and flush ‘im out sos you can git yer picture?” The guy in the car looked simultaneously disturbed, repulsed, and almost… hopeful. I don’t think I’d laughed as hard since we saw the giant mutant hopping beaver by Boya Lake.
Camping in Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington.
I like these two pictures. The one to the right is me at a stop sign on Mount Rainier on the way back from our honeymoon, and the picture on the left is me at the same intersection in June 2004 as I returned from a solo trip around the U.S. and Canada. Check out all that snow!! What a difference a year and a month makes!
We like to call this little series, “Why throwing your luggage off a third story hotel balcony to someone waiting in the parking lot may not be as good an idea as it first seems.” Don’t worry, ladies and gentlemen – he’s a trained professional. He limped away with only minor injuries.
I know we’ve said this before, but this time I mean it – this may actually be the absolute best picture we took on our entire trip. I mean, really. It’s hard to go wrong with Sumike vs. Wenzilla.
After a few days unwinding in San Francisco, we finally made the last short hop home to Pismo Beach. It was bittersweet; once you’re that close to home, it’s always nice to sleep in your own bed, scritch your own dog and wear some clean clothes. Especially if you’re Mike. Me, on the other hand – I told Mike I was going to keep on going to Tierra del Fuego. He wished me Godspeed and said he would send me text messages with the weather reports from his Official Command Post on the couch in front of the TV, as long as I didn’t expect updates before 11am. OK, I agreed to pass on Tierra del Fuego for now, but not for long. My goal was to ride to Inuvik before I turned 30. By the time I’m 40, I vow to have Tierra del Fuego securely under my belt.* And between now and then… Who knows? When adventure calls, I listen!
Thank you so much to everyone who supported us through our trip and shared in our adventure with us. Creating this website is very time consuming and we just didn’t have time or space for everything we would have liked to include. Like the huge Hell’s Angels raid in Inuvik. Or when we had to backtrack a hundred miles because Mike left his wallet in Hyder. Or standing up to a bully backwater cop trying to give us unearned citations. Or precise details on the giant mutant hopping beaver. Thanks to everyone who has pumped us for information on these neglected tales, and everyone who has emailed us with their own stories of adventure. Because of all of you, our journey will never really come to an end.
*2019 Post Script: OK, “not for long” actually became “too long”, but I’ve only missed my goal by a couple years. That’s tolerable; the interceding adventures have been beyond all expectations, not the least of which is this adorable little adventure right here. Like I said, I hope to start putting together some new #ThrowBackTravels on adventures like our Nova Scotia trip or the time a stranger broke into a motorcycle shop for me. Long story. Maybe I’ll write about it someday. 😉 In the meantime, follow along with Third Wheel Adventures to see what happens next!
This week’s blog is going to be relatively short because I simply don’t have enough hours in the day. I keep telling myself that I need to relax, that we’re far enough out from kickstands-up that some aspects of the planning might just have to wait. Handle what I reasonably can handle now, and attack some of the finer details later.
Unfortunately there are a few major things that I just can’t let go of. Primarily, I really REALLY feel like I need to firm up some idea of how the bike shipping is going to work, but it just isn’t coming together for me. Plane? Container? RoRo? Give up and just buy down there? I’ve made a dozen phone calls, sent out easily three times that many emails, and still… nothing. I’m getting very few acknowledgments to my inquiries and even fewer shipping quotes. The quotes that I have received are about double what I’d anticipated. And that’s not just some wild number I pulled out of the air; I’m getting quoted double what other people are being quoted for similar travels right now. I just can’t catch the right person on the right day, or I’m not asking the right questions, or… I’m not sure what the problem is. It’s very possible that we’re simply too far out to get a firm quote, or for the shipping agents to be too enthusiastic about helping. I fill out lengthy forms with VINs and dimensions; I supply our desired travel dates, points of departure and arrival, but also include that we’re highly flexible on all of those points. It’s hard to tell if people are interpreting “flexible” as “non-committal”, but honestly I’m hoping to catch that one agent who will reply “Those ports are good, but we can save you $500 and a week of shipping time if you ship through these ports.”
I’ve even been seriously contemplating just buying a bike (or both) in South America. Our requirements are meager – as it is, we’re planning on traveling with bikes whose value will probably be equal to or less than the cost of shipping them down there. We will probably sell the bikes in South America rather than pay to ship them home (unless I can con Mike into crossing the Darien Gap on the northbound part of the journey, in which case we’ll just ride them home).
There are just a few big concerns preventing me from throwing caution to the wind and trying to find bikes when we get there. First, there is potential difficulty with paperwork and border crossings. Some countries are better than others but in most countries, as a tourist, you’re not able to actually put the vehicle into your name. You need to carry what is essentially a power of attorney where the titled owner gives you permission to cross borders with their vehicle. Getting all the paperwork in order can be expensive and time-consuming, and even then there is no guarantee that everything will work smoothly. I often see where travelers are stuck at a border crossing because some “I” is not dotted or a “T” is not crossed. My next concern is the inability to fully mechanically vet the bikes ahead of time, and be prepared with vehicle-appropriate luggage and a reasonable amount of spare/service parts. I don’t need to go too wild on this point, but it’d be nice to know roughly how we’ll be packing the bikes, what size of spare master link and chain adjustment tools we’ll need to carry, and have a couple spare levers or whatever.
The last, and biggest, issue is the ability to find a sidecar rig. I’ve made inquiries and from what I hear, they are even fewer and further between than they are in the States. We would be taking a serious risk by flying down there without having a rig already lined up. We’d be randomly picking a place to fly into and just hoping to find a hack within a reasonable distance, within a reasonable amount of time, for a reasonable price, and in safe, comfortable and mechanically sound condition. Literally the two most important things in my entire world will be on that bike, and the three of us will essentially be living off the bike for a year. I don’t want to be settling for something sub-par simply because the pickings are slim.
I’ve come across some well-reviewed places that specialize in selling bikes to tourists. They handle all the paperwork so the vehicle is actually titled in your name, not just using a power of attorney. They go through the bike thoroughly to make sure it’s safe, serviced, and ready to rock. They install any accessories you want, such as saddlebag racks, taller handlebars, wide footpegs, etc, before you arrive. All you have to do is sign the title, hop on, and go. They’ll even buy the bike back if you want to sell it at the end of your trip. The only hitch is, once again, the sidecar. Everyone I’ve communicated with is pretty confident that they wouldn’t be able to find a sidecar rig for us “in the wild”. We’ve had one shop offer to build us a rig, but they want us to purchase a bike from them ahead of time and we’d be left hoping that the sidecar they built was up to our standards. And that’s not an unreasonable requirement, really, except that the bikes they’re selling that would be suitable for a sidecar are all newer and in the $12,000 range. We’re not looking to invest anywhere near that much, especially because they say there won’t be much resale demand for a sidecar rig down there. Plowing that much money into a custom-built hack with low odds of selling it at the end of the trip? That quite thoroughly defeats the purpose of trying to circumvent the expense and hassle of shipping.
I’m honestly warming to the idea of just shipping the sidecar and buying a second bike down there. There are always other travelers selling their bikes, often from the US. Transferring a US bike into our names would be way less hassle (in theory) but still take some time and effort. Plus if we had the sidecar, it would still be possible for the three of us to get around until we picked up another bike (as awkward though that would be. We’d have to arm wrestle to figure out who’d be the passenger. Monty would probably win, and she doesn’t have a motorcycle license yet.) I’d also be happy to buy a little dual sport from one of the specialty shops, with the benefit of a guaranteed buy-back at the end of the trip. But then the question remains: Who the heck is going to help us get the sidecar to South America?!?
I’ll be writing a separate blog about “information overload” but suffice to say I have reached out to a number of the resources I have at my disposal, and I’m finding that shipping from the US is just plain difficult. It’s expensive, there’s lots of red tape, and many carriers just don’t want to deal with us. We may end up having to find a way across the Darien Gap or buying a bike down there, because I’m just about exhausted with this endeavor already. I put out a few feelers today and got two new leads, so I’m off to compose a few emails. Wish me luck. And in the meantime, please enjoy this picture of the mountains of Peru courtesy of Montessa.
Here’s where the real fun begins! We rode for nearly 18 hours on the first day of the Dempster. It sounds impressive, but with the road conditions we only averaged about 25 mph (when we were moving). It was slow and tiring, but amazingly beautiful. We must have stopped for pictures about every 10 minutes! (By the way, that’s not a painted center line in the picture below; that’s the tire ruts worn in the dirt road.)
We thought these were snow-covered mountains when we saw them from a distance, but they’re not. They’re actually light gray, nearly white, perfectly smooth stone mounds. Very cool!
It was 7:30pm before we made it to the Arctic Circle, but since it was still light we kept on riding. Accommodations are VERY limited up here, so when you decide to keep going that usually means at least 4 hours to the next campground…
Did I mention there are only two gas stations on the Dempster? Better plan ahead…
One of my favorite pictures from the trip. A fire was actively burning near the road during our travels, and in this section it had burned one half of the road but not the other.
It may look well-groomed, but that is actually about 8″ deep of razor-sharp shale. Take my word for it, it does not make the ol’ tires happy…
Not quite. This is what it looked like when we stopped for the night (well after midnight) at Nitainlaii Territorial Park. The mosquitoes were so thick here that it actually sounded like it was raining all night as they tried to get in the tent. Note Mike applying 100% DEET – didn’t even phase ’em. It was kinda like being in an Alfred Hitchcock movie…
Day Two on the Dempster was a much shorter day, thanks to a marathon ride on Day One. We needed it, too, because 736 kilometers of dirt road by motorcycle really takes a lot out of you!
Waiting for the Mackenzie River ferry at the fishing village of Tsiigehtchic (say THAT three times fast!) An exceptional summer thaw left the river banks littered with logs and debris several hundred feet from the river. The Mackenzie River is massive – it drains 1/5 of Canada, and only the Mississippi and Amazon exceed it’s flow.
Crossing the Mackenzie River. The weather is notoriously unpredictable in this area, but we had managed to skirt the storm clouds yesterday. Today we were not so lucky. As soon as we disembarked the ferry, the sky unleashed a cold, pelting rain that would last for the next day and a half.
Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada, KM 736 of the Dempster Highway. Finally, the end of the road! This is the northern-most point in Canada that can be reached by roads* (unless you count ice roads, but we’re saving that for the next road trip). (Just kidding.) We only saw a few dozen other vehicles over the last two days, and only three motorcycles. We only saw five other motorcycle on our entire drive on the Dempster. We are one of a crazy… er,… brave few.
*2019 Addendum: As of November 2017, a new road opened which allows travel north beyong Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean. Road trip!
We had heard horror stories about how the road destroys tires, so we came prepared with enough plug kits and CO2 cartridges to repair a couple dozen punctures. We felt lucky to have made it all the way to Inuvik before getting the first flat on Wendy’s rear tire. It took us a few hours to find air (so we didn’t have to waste our cartridges) and repair the tire, but all in all we thought we got off pretty easy…
Dust, dirt, gravel, andrain combined to make a thick impervious paste on the faceshields of the helmets (and our bikes, and our gear, and every other exposed surface). In order to see, we had to ride with our faceshields up. This meant being buffeted in the face by wind and cold rain for the last 128 kilometers (over 75 miles) of the road. Our faces were chapped like we’d been skiing for a few weeks, but hey – that’s the price you pay for adventure.
Today was our first – and hard-earned – full day of rest. We stayed in a hotel for only the second time on our trip, and this one was pretty fancy. They didn’t even seem to mind the massive cloud of filth we brought in with us. We had hot showers, a comfy bed, and Internet access! Talk about spoiled! We spent most of the day lounging and staying out of the rain, but we did manage to wander out and snap a few pictures for your enjoyment. Inuvik has a paved road – our first one in two days – but most of them are still dirt. The nearly 4,000 residents live in these raised row houses with above-ground sewage lines to prevent freezing in the winter. Yummy! (You can see the lines in the postcard above.)
A little break in the rain convinced us to do a little exploring around town. This is the famous Inuvik Igloo Church. It was all hand-built without blueprints. We’ve seen pictures of the inside and it looks gorgeous, but it wasn’t open to visitors when we stopped by.
This is a common “trademark” statue of the native Inuits of the Mackenzie Delta. They were used to mark the coastline of the delta rivers and the Arctic Ocean. Travelers and fisherman used them as reference points and they navigated the surrounding waters.
This is probably tied for our favorite picture from our trip. As you can imagine, Inuvik is a very small town. The main store in town in the NorthMart, which is kind of like a WalMart. Unlike WalMart, the NorthMart is counted on to carry absolutely everything and anything that the townsfolk may need, including off-road vehicles. We were surprised to walk in the door and see three quads – one with an outboard motor on it – but when was the last time you saw a Honda CRF50 on a men’s underwear display? This has truly been a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Day Four was off to a great start. We certainly weren’t as apprehensive about the road as we had been on the way up, but we weren’t nearly as excited, either, because we knew what we were in for. We were up and ready for an early departure, and we walked outside to find that my rear tire had gone flat again. Oh, goody. Rather than chance a slow leak, we decided to track down a shop where we could repair the tire properly… Whew! Glad we won’t have to do that again! (Ha Ha) None of the shops in town handled motorcycles tires, but the owner of this shop was kind enough to let me use his machine so I could do the work myself. Nothing wakes you up like a little grease in the morning!
Back on the Mackenzie River Ferry. We hit the road about 5 hours later than we intended, but we were confident we made the right choice. After all, we don’t want to spend the entire rest of our ride dealing with flats, right?
This shot kind of gives you an idea of how slow mike is – I’m that speck waaaay off in the distance. (OK, he’s not usually quite THAT slow…) You if look closely, though, you can see the razor-sharp shale laughing at us from the roadway.
We made it almost to Eagle Lodge, the half-way point of the Dempster Highway, before Flatty reared it’s ugly head once more. All of our plug kits were useless, though, because these weren’t punctures – these were big ol’ slits. We managed to cram enough sticky strips in there to hold a little air, and I made it to the lodge’s tire repair shop just as it officially reached “Completely Flat”. Once again I had to do all the work, but no matter – we want it fixed right so we don’t have to deal with any more flats. Right?
Remember that fire I mentioned earlier? Not only was it still going strong, it was now frighteningly close to Eagle Plains. It was already 9pm so we really should have called it a night, but we were worried about where the fire would go. We decided to push on for Engineer Creek about 100 miles to the south, and it turns out we made the right choice: Just hours after we passed through, the fire overtook the road and it was closed off just south of Eagle Plains.
This is the scene from the road at about 10:30pm. The fire makes it look like a sunset, which it rightfully should have been long before 10:30pm, but it wasn’t because the sun doesn’t set, but it kind of was because it was covered by smoke. See? Or maybe that’s just the extreme exhaustion talking – We didn’t reach the next campground until 1:30am.
Good News! When we reached the campground, it was completely full. On a Tuesday. At 1:30am. The same campground that was completely empty the previous Friday. The next campground is 80 miles south, so that’s not an option.
Now Day Five of the Dempster was off to a bad start, that much was true, but if you had told me that my day would end sleeping in the trunk of a car in Fairbanks, Alaska, I still would have called you nuts. Boy, would I have been eating my words…
Luckily there was this picnic shelter with a potbellied stove, tables, and fully screened to keep the bugs out. This is actually pretty luxurious – why hadn’t we thought of this before? Probably because the rangers are likely to wake you up and make you move out in the middle of the night, but hey – desperate times call for desperate measures.
And what’s this? We woke up to find yet another flat tire! By my count, this makes four flats so far. Are we done yet? Haven’t we paid our dues? To make matters worse, we had used up all our CO2 cartridges on the last flat. We had a backup plan – a hose that screws in to your spark plug hole so your engine acts as a air compressor. It does the job, but it takes a LOT of work to get at our spark plugs. Well, better get started.
…And just look how excited Mike is about it! Boy, by that long face, you’d think HE was the one doing all the work! More than the work, the dirt road was very draining and we were ready to be back on the pavement. (Or, as I was singing, “On A Road Again”) We were about half way to our spark plugs when, from across the camp, we heard the tell-tale droning of an air compressor. We’re saved! They let us borrow it, and it cut our labor in half. That cigarette lighter charger we installed in Mike’s bike really came in handy today!! A few more sticky strips and a quick fill, and we were heading for the highway.
Alas, the excitement did not last. We were less than a third of the way to pavement when Mike caught up and asked how his rear looked. I said “Flat”. He clarified that he meant his rear tire, but unfortunately the answer was still “flat.” Upon inspection we found that my rear tire had also gone flat again, bringing us to a total of six flats.
We started work to remove the spark plugs, and we found that we didn’t have all the tools we needed to get at them. (Now before you give me a hard time, we had the right SIZE tools, but the bolts were too tight for the tools we had to loosen them.) A few people stopped to help and a tour bus gave us some extra box lunches they had, but no one had the tools we needed. It took quite a while before someone stopped by that had a compressor. Now it was a race against the clock to reach pavement before we were stranded for the night. Where we averaged 25mph on the way up, we averaged over 50mph on the way out. It was do or die time, and we had run out of options. We were flatter than flat and running on the rims by the time we eventually reached the Klondike Lodge, but our day’s adventures were only beginning…
*2019: And that little cliffhanger is where we’ll be leaving off for this week. Tune in next week to find out if we end up in the trunk of a car, jail, or both!