Story by Nick Vleisides
I fell in love with the mystique of “riding Baja” some 23 years ago on my first trip south of the border. Ever since then, whenever I do a “Baja ride” I get a rise out of just saying to my friends, “I’m riding Baja!” It just feels so manly…adventurous and these days a bit more risky. I love Baja. Yet, every time I ride it seems Baja throws something at us that kicks our butts. I’ve gone on numerous rides and always with my San Clemente, California buddy Curt Insley who knows Baja like the back of his 60 year old hand. He’s been riding and racing down there since his youth (which he wishes he had back on this last ride).
We always do some version of a ride from Rancho Veronica outside of Tecate and either ride single track around Veronica for a few days; do a trip to San Felipe or Mike’s Sky Ranch…maybe to the coast or a combo of all. Curt’s the man and knows it all. I love Baja and sometimes I hate it at the same time! My first ride back in the late 80′s put us in hours of old snow heading into Laguna Hansen and I had only been riding a few years. Needless to say, I was suffering complete exhaustion before we hit the 60 mile mark to watch the old lady at Hansen siphon gas with her lips. On another ride years later, Curt took a group of 10 of us as far as halfway to San Felipe and had to return home for prior commitments. We assured him we could find our way to San Felipe and back to El Condor near the border. He laughed. It was a sign. Baja’s revenge (our trail bosses’ stupidity) had us take a wrong turn on the way back and we ended up running out of gas in the middle of frick’n nowhere in a desert 50 miles south of Mexicali. Ten grown men weeping into the cold and wet December night. We pooled our leftover small portions of gas in to one bike and set the trail boss off into the night to find us a miracle. He came back several hours later with a 5 gallon can of gas having found two inebriated locals in some shack miles away. He siphoned gas from them and gave each of us enough to get to a road where he met the two now “hired hands” who drove him to Mexicali to get enough gas for us all to get back. The longest, coldest, wettest, most miserable night of my life. Instead of getting back to our trucks at 2PM that afternoon we crossed the border at 7AM the next day. A Mexico miracle!
Seven years ago, with a group of about 8 guys, we did a San Felipe trip that actually went pretty well until we finished the deep sandy whoop section before the dry lake bed on the return. A few of us had to wait for a flat tire to be repaired. A buddy had a new WR450. I just had to play around on it while waiting. Goofing around I buried the front end in some deep sand and pitched myself over the handlebars performing a nice roll in the deep sand. No worries, right? My helmet’s face guard came down on my collar bone and broke it in two. One hundred and ninety miles from the border! Son of a $&@#$! It wasn’t even a spectacular crash! What do you do? You collect the best medication you can find among the lads and hop on your bike and ride home, then drive 22 hours back home to Austin, Texas where I was living at the time. My two weenie buddies couldn’t even stay awake four hours into the drive so I had to drive the medicated midnight to 6AM shift!
Three years ago my buddy Robb blows out his rear bearing on his KTM by the time we get to gas in Valley Trinidad….did I say KTM? I ride Honda in Baja! The only way to ride! Curt was all over me like fans on a foul ball for bringing a dude who didn’t check his bearings before the ride. Fortunately, I brought my other buddy Carlos who is fluent in Spanish and we arranged for Robb and his KTM to be thrown in the back of a white van (hired out two different sober locals) to drive him to San Felipe. We fully expected that we might later…someday find Robb face down in the desert somewhere with a dress on, but hey….what else you going to do? We came to ride! We said good bye! Robb was not in San Felipe when we arrived and never showed up while we all showered and got ready for our fresh shrimp dinner. He should have been there long before us. One of the guys, Jim Boggs of Johnny Campbell Racing, had his dad meet us in San Felipe with a truck and our gear. Carlos decided to drive back on the road with Jim and his dad to look for Robb in the desert. Long story short, they found the van off the road somewhere with its flashers going and two different Mexican fellows in the car. It was a bit unnerving for Carlos who refrained to speak any Spanish hoping he would catch them saying something to give us a clue as to where we might find Robb… face down with a dress on. They discovered that the original driver of the van tried to pass someone on the way to SF and his radiator fell into the fan and blew up. He hitchhiked back to Trinidad and got his brother’s Celica which he brought back to get Robb (with no dress on…just his cute orange KTM outfit) and load his KTM in the trunk of the Celica. They passed Carlos on the way to SF but didn’t recognize each other. Robb ate shrimp at 10PM in his cute KTM outfit.
Finally, last February I had Curt take me and my seventeen year old son on his first Baja ride. A rite of passage. Boggs joined us and another friend of his, Jeff. Us four super seniors and “the kid.” The ride down to San Felipe was epic. Ground was tacky the whole way. Sun was out but cool. Gas at Laguna Hansen. Gas at Valley Trinidad. Dinner in San Felipe. Hot springs the next day in Puertecitos. Good weather. Good times. Too good, right? Baja looms. On Sunday we left at 8AM to trek back to Veronica. The first 80 miles was sweet! Looked like it rained a bit outside of San Felipe on the dry lake bed. Snow on the mountains looked a bit low. Gas at Valley Trinidad. The fateful decision to head up the goat trail off of the highway and back to Veronica… the way we came. We hit some slick mud up top on the flats and that was a slip and slid fest. Then we hit the snow. Close to one hundred miles of dog gone frick’n snow six inches to two feet as we neared Laguna Hansen.
At first it was kind of fun in the fresh snow (none of which was there on the way down) especially if you were the guy in front. But as we got higher in elevation and the snow got to be a foot to two feet deep in places and the work began. I was standing like a champ the first 15 miles or so which is the only way to ride snow. But you know, us 230 pound dudes can’t just hack it that long. Little Curt (I’m Hoss and he is Little Joe) and his dancing derriere standing the whole time. I hit the wall. Jeff was on a XR650 and he was a “dead man riding.” Boggs, Insley and I were on our CRF450Xs and my son Trent was riding his CRF250X. Boggs later confided that it was the hardest Baja ride he’s ever done. It is hard to watch grown men cry. The sun was out…the landscape was beautiful with the snow….my feet were wet and cold and the rest of me sweating like a racehorse. The fun factor was now gone. Baja’s revenge. We slugged it out for hours. Finally, we headed away from Laguna Hansen and got gas at Ojos Negros and decided to head back via Compadre Road to Veronica. Just when you thought it was over. As we got higher in elevation the snow was back. Not so bad as long as we stayed in one of the two tracks left by a few vehicles which left us some terra firma to grip our tires. But we had to shlipp and shlopp in the mud and snow all the way back to Veronica. Close to eleven hours later we finally arrived back. Did I say I love Baja? Time with the son? Priceless! A week later…I was ready to go back!