“Excuse me, gentlemen, where do you intend to go?”
We were studying our map and GPS units at a gas station in Camalú, Mexico. A man walked toward us from his battered, dusty Subaru station wagon parked at the pump. Our reply was Cabo San Lucas, several hundred miles away.
“In that case, my friends, I suggest you go that way,” he said, extending his arm south.
We were traveling on motorcycles, looking for the dirt track that would take us from this small town out to the beach and to the coast of the Pacific Ocean. The trip was the idea of my friend and Santa Fe New Mexican photographer Luis Sánchez Saturno. We began our journey in late April and returned to the U.S. in early May, covering close to 2,000 miles. It took us seven or eight days to reach the turnaround point of Cabo San Lucas, more than 1,000 miles straight south.
In order to maximize our time in Baja, we decided to leave after work on a Friday and drive through the night to reach the border crossing by early morning. We parked the truck on the U.S. side of the border and rode our motorcycles across. After exchanging dollars for pesos and eating a delicious breakfast, we hit the trail.
Most of this first day was spent traveling on narrow two-track roads that wind through the edge of Baja wine country. We rode through deep sand, over rocky mountain passes and through a national park to a dry lake, where we took a short nap. As we made our way along the dusty track and through the towering pine trees of the Parque Nacional Constitución de 1857, we were feeling good. The freedom of traveling by motorcycle was starting to help separate our thoughts from the everyday tensions.
Somewhere along the way, we missed a turn and, after a hard two hours racing the sun, we came to a familiar place. My heart dropped. We were there that morning. We rode past this ranchito hours ago.
After consulting our map and GPS, the truth set in: We went the wrong way. The feelings of devastation and exhaustion were almost overwhelming. The lesson? Don’t start a big adventure with little or no sleep. That is a recipe for bad decisions.
Each day, our rule was to look for a place to camp starting no later than one hour before sunset. That’s why we were looking at our map in Camalú. We wanted to spend the night on the beach, watching the sun drop into the Pacific Ocean. After the first day’s misadventure, we were extra careful about following the right trail in the correct direction. We did reach the beach with just enough time to set up our tents, make dinner and enjoy the sunset. We fell asleep listening to the sound of waves tumbling ashore.
The new day began with a pod of dolphins surfacing as they swam south along the edge of the cresting waves. Our destination that day was Bahía de los Ángeles. To get there, we had to travel across the central mountain range. We began to see that we had underestimated the scale of our adventure. The dirt road we started on turned to a dirt track, and then a narrow path dodging giant granite boulders and cactus. Soon our progress was so slow it would’ve been faster walking.
The scenery was so beautiful that we didn’t mind the slow progress. We crossed hot arid plains, climbed rocky trails into the mountains with big pine trees, weaved through boulders and all kinds of thorny plant life. But one of the most striking scenes we traveled through was a forest of giant cactus. The trunks were bigger than one person could reach around, and there were miles and miles of them in all directions. The dirt road had been bulldozed right through. There was only the flat road and the rocky and thorny cactus forest — no shoulder. It was an amazing sight. We stopped because the view was just too wonderful.
I was eager to travel through Baja California because my wife worked in sea turtle conservation and told stories that made me a bit jealous. I wanted to see where she had lived and worked. The base camp for her work was Bahía de los Ángeles and Campo Archelon. The charismatic scientist she worked with, Antonio Resendez, died a few years ago, but maybe I could find his widow or children still living there.
There was an off-road car race in town the day we arrived. Every hotel and campground was full of American off-road racers and their crews. We hoped to camp on the beach near the old research station just a little way out of town. The research station was now a beach destination with palapas, thatched shade structures with one or two walls to shield from the wind, casitas and a small café that serves locally sourced gourmet food.
The raging offshore wind made the idea of setting up our tents unappealing. But when we met the proprietor of the retreat, our fortune changed. He was the son of the famous scientist and remembered my wife. There was one palapa left, and Antonio Jr. let us spend the night in it. With smoked fish and veggie quesadillas filling our bellies, we collapsed into the dead sleep of exhaustion.
The route south from there parallels the gulf coast for a while and then heads inland back across the peninsula toward the Pacific. This road is not traveled much. We traveled over 130 miles of dirt and gravel roads with very little evidence of human habitation before we reached the paved highway again.
That was the day we crossed from Baja California to Baja California Sur. Every day was dusty, but this one was exceptionally so. Hot, dry and dusty. So when we came to the town of San Ignacio and saw the long narrow lake glistening, surrounded by emerald green date palm trees, we couldn’t motor past. We had to stop and spend the night under the palapa, next to the lake — or lagoon as it’s called there — at a tiny campground. There was a shower, a 55-gallon drum filled with water on the roof of a cinder block hut. To turn it on, you reach up and open the spigot, allowing gravity to drop tepid water on your head. It is a glorious shower in a glorious setting.
Traveling by dirt bike in Baja allows you to see out-of-the-way places, to smell all of the smells of the desert, sea and villages. It is a sensory treasure. But you also get to meet lots of people. We found that people were curious about our journey and often asked about it.
After riding for miles over roads etched into coastal flats and soft beach sand, we came to a small fishing enclave. There was a board painted white with the word gasolina hand lettered in black pointing toward a large shady porch.
As we pulled up, five or six men emerged from the shadows offering to sell us a can of beer. They were clearly intoxicated. We only need gasolina, we told them, which they were happy to sell us but still encouraged us to have a beer with them.
A stout guy filled our tanks and we asked about the road ahead. He assured us the towering white sand dunes were amazing. Concern crept into my thoughts. We traveled half the day to get here and didn’t relish the idea of turning around or trying to ride through miles of soft piles of sand. But we pushed on, deducing that the big trucks we saw parked in the village must be to carry their catch to market and they wouldn’t have to drive over the dunes to do so. The reward was more tidal flat roads, which were firm under our tires.
From there, we headed for the bustling city of La Paz, where ferries carry vehicles and people to Mazatlán on mainland Mexico. We didn’t spend much time there, just overnight and then on our way south to Cabo.
That turned out to be my favorite day. It was a bit more than 160 miles down the East Cape Road, which is mostly a rocky dirt road hugging the coastline. In fact, for many miles, it contours along the coast usually a couple of hundred feet straight above the crashing waves. A glance down under my handlebars revealed the blue ocean. There were also miles-long stretches of beach riding — deep sand that required momentum to keep moving at all. As we continued south, cars piled with surfboards were heading north to the beaches we just passed. The waves looked big and perfect for surfing.
Our arrival in Cabo San Lucas was a relief. We had made it halfway. The plan was to recuperate a bit, change the oil on the bikes, enjoy some beach time and then take the paved highway back north.
The plan changed in an instant.
The southernmost point on the Baja Peninsula is a series of cliffs that jut up from the beach and ocean. There were a few families and hotel guests lounging on the sand. There was a giant rock well back from the reach of the waves that looked like a good place to launch the drone for an aerial view. Just as the drone reached the right altitude to look for dolphins or other sea life in the ocean, a big wall of water crashed over the end of the rock, racing toward us. With no time to react, the wave knocked us off the rock onto the sand several feet below us.
When I came up from underwater, I saw all of our stuff — helmets, boots and backpacks — being carried out to sea by the retreating wave. Frantically, we gathered everything that was floating, then I realized my pants with phone, wallet and passport were gone. Totally disappeared. Panic set in. My passport and all my money were gone.
The search lasted for two hours before I accepted the awful truth: I had no passport. The next 24 hours were a nightmare of anxiety as I tried to find out how to get across the border, how to replace my passport. First, we found an address for a U.S. consular agency that was only a few miles away. The phone message just kept looping through its message of options, but none took me to an actual person. So we went to the office to find it closed because of the pandemic. There was a phone number posted on the door, but it went straight to the message loop. What now?
Since the international airport was on our route back, we stopped to see if there were any U.S. immigration officials there I could talk to. I was able to speak with a very helpful Mexican immigration official who had a phone number to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. He dialed the number and handed me his phone. Finally, I was able to talk to a person who gave me an email address for the Tijuana Consulate for situations directly related to passports. There were electronic forms to fill out, submit and wait for a return email. The return email had a phone number that helped me reach the State Department. This guy was sympathetic and also very helpful. He knew someone at the consulate in Tijuana and dialed her direct number.
By this time, it was nearly 24 hours since I lost my pants and 24 hours of nausea-causing anxiousness. I was worried I would have to wait in Tijuana for weeks to get a passport to cross the border. The lady on the phone at the consulate told me that I could cross without my passport as long as I had actually been issued one. She told me my info was in their database and a U.S. Border Patrol agent could look me up as I crossed.
With this knowledge, we changed our plans. Instead of the three or four days we had planned for our trip north on the highway, we did it in two long days — 1,130 miles of mostly two-lane country highways. When we reached the border crossing in Tecate at 9 p.m. the second day, we found it had been closed for five hours already — crossing hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. It was one more night I had to worry about whether I would be able to cross back into the United States.
Early the next day, we were at the front of the line, waiting to tell the agent my story.
“I don’t have it. I lost it.”
He didn’t say anything as he walked behind me to look at my license plate. Then he tapped on his keyboard for a bit and said: “Do you live in Santa Fe?” He asked a few more questions and I realized he was establishing that I was who I said I was. Then: “Welcome back to the United States.”