Skipping breakfast had been a bad idea. Concentration was tough. A headache throbbed between my eyes, each of which felt twice its normal size. Our group of six riders dodged between traffic, and every combustion cycle from the single-cylinder mill between my legs sent discordant vibrato up my spine. A soundtrack of the mellow thunder of internal combustion and quiet thoughts can be hypnotic, but that morning it wasn’t. Trying to make up ground, we snaked around 18-wheelers, beige Camrys and CUVs. We had started late on our journey and the John J. Montgomery Freeway — a.k.a. “The 5” — was making us pay.
We made it to the border, where it took less than five minutes to roll into Mexico. The San Ysidro port of entry, in Tijuana, may be the world’s busiest land border crossing, but I’ve waited longer for micheladas at an empty bar. There were no stops. No border patrol guards furtively questioning entry. No need to show a passport. Just a minor slowdown through a meandering path of asphalt, passing a very large fence. And just like that, we were ahead of schedule. We rounded a final corner onto the Via Internacional, followed the fence towards Highway 1, and the coast and California, as well as my headache, quickly faded behind me.
The contrast between the US and Mexico is immediate. Unlike jaunts over the 49th parallel, crossing this dotted line of diplomacy is palpable. You feel all of this on a motorcycle. The language is different. The buildings are different. The air is different. Things are gritty, simple, rustic. As if on cue, even C.A.R.B.-friendly cars with California plates begin to belch black smoke. The excess of big box stores and strip malls quickly becomes a distant memory, replaced by the simpler forms of necessary commerce that nostalgists pine for. The Coca-Cola tastes different, too. We stop for a drink and shoot the shit about the journey ahead at Playa La Mision. We have planned a night’s stay in Estero Beach, before heading inland on dirt roads toward Picacho del Diablo and, ultimately, Mike’s Sky Rancho.
From Ensenada, there are effectively two ways to reach Mike’s Sky Rancho. The most common route is to hop on Mexican Highway 3 for approximately 80 miles, until you spot a sign on your right and 18 miles of winding, sandy dirt road. If you’re new to off-road adventure riding or have a bike you’re still making payments on, this is the way to go. It’s challenging enough to be fun and rewarding without punishing riders or machines. The path less travelled — the one we opted for — will test your mettle and the metal you ride.
After continuing along the coast to El Bramadero, the tarmac finally ended after winding inland and climbing the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir mountains. A sign and a closed barbed wire gate greeted us. We were all chomping at the bit to put the knobbies on our KLRs to good use, and the first portion of dirt was rough but obviously passable. The sign told us we could either head north, along an “easier route,” or continue east and traverse one of Baja’s notorious race roads. It took less than five miles of negotiating the boulder-peppered hills and deeply rutted washouts for any regrets over choosing the easy route to disappear.
Soon after, the riding became superfluous and the landscape simply took over. For me, it happened while negotiating a Martian pass as slender as a heroin addict, and equally twitchy and unpredictable. In situations like those, I’m always amazed at how the preservation of the bike toggles with the preservation of my self. The bike is my means of experience and adventure, but in remote conditions like this, it becomes as essential as the blood pumping through my veins. I tried to immerse completely in the terrain of my surroundings, spotting lines and committing to paths that may or may not have been the easiest choices on my body, but surely wouldn’t wound my ride. Some worked wonders, others less so. The Kawasaki KLR isn’t a light bike. Picking it up on any kind of gradient is exhausting. My forearms and shoulders were burning with abuse and no matter how much water I chugged back during stops, hydration seemed nothing more than the far cry of luxury.
When we pulled up to Mike’s, sweat literally dribbled out of the sleeves of my jacket. My bike and I were both battered and bruised, but nothing was terminal or even cause for concern. A cold Pacifico Clara disappeared in three parched mouthfuls as Mike himself announced the carne asada would be ready in forty-five minutes. We took some time to decompress and take in our surroundings. Mike’s is stationed quite literally in the middle of nowhere and has earned an almost mythical reputation for riders seeking a dot on a map. Every wall of his property was plastered with stickers, T-Shirts and graffiti from those who had made the journey before us. We planted flags of our own and laid claim to a poolside table. The conversation, as it often does in these situations, turned back to our bikes. No matter how difficult these journeys appear, there are no better motorized contrivances suited to deliver this kind of experience. We’d arrived in Mexico, a hard-fought passage, but one well-worth the journey.