We hatched the idea for a Baja road trip during a pre-run for the Manx Club's Third Annual Run - Julian Banner and Borrego Squeeze, April 19-20, 1997. A little beer and some boiled (shell-on) shrimp during a road-side luncheon in Fish Creek talking about the good times and tense moments we had in November 1996 in Baja made us ripe for another adventure. Trip plan: San Diego, Tecate, Rancho Veronica, Mike's Sky Rancho, Mellings Ranch, the National Observatory of Mexico (at San Pedro Mártir), Laguna Hansen, Tecate, back to San Diego.
We actually left more "on time" then we've ever been...including the Meyers (no doubt thanks to Winnie-the-Planner). EDT from San Diego was ~10:00 AM...we got going before 11:00 AM. Bruce Lightner and Dave Helland didn't get near enough sleep as they were working on their buggies until the last minute (Bruce on his driving lights, Dave on his rack). Also along for the adventure was Dave's wife Barbara and Bruce and Winnie Meyers. Barbara speaks fluent Spanish, we had a GPS unit along...we were ready for anything!
Just after noon we were at the Mexican border at Tecate. We filled up our cars and gas cans with fuel on the US side. First stop after crossing into Mexico was for lunch in town. Bruce Lightner forgot his tellow Y.B.D.B. T-shirt, so Dave loaned him a spare...we were mistaken for some kind of "gringo gang" during the trip, thanks to our matching "uniforms".
Lunch in Tecate included a trip planning session, using a "scrollable" topographical map that Bruce Meyers had pieced together. (Unforunately, he had cut off all of the latitude and longitude markings!) Guess what kind of beer they have in Tecate?
After lunch, we headed south to Rancho Veronica, a campgound/resort about an hour south of Tecate and a few miles off the paved road. The resort (as usual) was filled with a number of motorcycle riders. Dave and Barbara took a room...with hot showers. Winnie and the Bruce's opted for a (cheaper) campsite in the oak trees...cold showers only. We all eat dinner in the resort's resturant. We made a camp fire after dinner...with oak flooring we found stacked under an oak tree! We were immediately adopted by the local dogs. By morning we had a full campsite...a number of Mexican families arrived in the night to camp for the weekend.
Between the cows in the pasture next door (the local dogs barked at them) and the coyotes (the local dogs barked at them) and our fellow (late-night) campers (the local dogs barked at them), we didn't enjoy uninterrupted sleep for the night, but we all managed to get some rest.
After the (Bruce Meyer's) required buggy line-up and pictures (no show-and-shine awards...darn!), we were on the road south by about 9 AM...a Baja AM departure time record?
We had our first equipment failure of the trip...Dave's newly constructed roof rack began to settle onto his polished chrome roll-bar...bummer! A little road-side engineering fixed the problem. (Over the course of the trip, Dave would pile more and more stuff on his new roof rack, until he had to begin carefully checking clearance on overpasses.)
Just before noon we found a stream crossing and just had to stop.
Bruce Meyers learned why there was a cement berm across the stream after he convinced Winnie to "drive Old Red into that sandbar so we can get a photo over there". Oops...the streambed was made of "quicksand"!
Bruce Lightner tried to cross the stream with Old Yell'r to tow Old Red out...guess what happened to his buggy? All ended happily as we had a hand winch, plenty of rope, and lots of trees. Dave towed Old Yell'r out and then we winched Old Red out.
After extracting the buggies from the quicksand we decided to stay for lunch. We also drank some beer. We took a GPS fix and decided that we didn't know where we were! So, we drank some more beer.
After lunch we packed up and continued south, with Winnie navigating with her AAA map...not a lot of detail there! We had lots of options (i.e., forks in the road, cross-roads, etc.) but with a few false starts she eventually found the pavement (Highway 3) and we headed for the turn-off to Mike's Sky Ranch. At one point it looked especially bleak (to the uninitiated), we were clearly off course, it smelled like dead things, and buzzards were circling in the sky! (It was just a dead horse beside the road!)
A few miles before the turnoff to Mike's Sky Ranch we encountered one of the many military checkpoints one finds in Mexico. As usual they asked if we had any drugs or guns. (Bruce told them he was sorry, and that he only had beer!) The soldiers were quite taken by Barbara and her command of Spanish...they told Winnie that Barbara was "muy bonita".
We soon turned south off of the pavement and made the 20+ mile trip up to Mike's Sky Rancho. Mike's is a class-A (for Mexico) mountain resort which caters to motorcycle riders and off-roaders. A flat rate gets one a room, dinner, and breakfast. They even have a swimming pool...there was a dog swimming in it when we arrived. Barbara said it needed pool care badly...she decided that maybe it would be OK to swim in because you actually could see the bottom!
Electric power (and the water heater) comes on at dusk for a few hours...each room has a kerosene lamp. Most of us took cold showers as it wasn't quite dark and the generator was not yet on. Nobody went swimming. We swapped a few stories with the dozen or so motorcycle riders at Mike's and got advice on the road ahead. We had seen evidence of water damage (a hurricane had hit Baja the weekend before.)
The Mexican hospitality found at Mike's is legendary. You have no choices as to what you eat...but no matter...the food was great.
Barbara took a picture of the kitchen help. They do it all without electricity and/or microwave ovens!
We were all up with the sun after a great nights sleep...no dogs, no coyotes, no electric motors, no TVs, no radios.
A man and a women on bikes left first (just before us). Our goal for the day was the observatory in the San Pedro Martir Mountains near the top of the Baja pennisula's tallest peak, which is 10,154 feet high. There are several ways south from Mike's. We followed the motorcycle riders out...not an easy road...not well marked either! Bruce Lightner went trail-blazing...following the fresh motorcycle tracks. A number of forks in the trail added uncertainty...plus, we knew we would be restricted in our wanderings by limited fuel onboard.
Dave finally stopped and took a fix with the GPS...we were right on the trail and very close to the spot were we all got lost (in the dark) in November of last year, looking for Mike's Sky Ranch, but coming from the south.
Soon we came upon the mountain cross-roads where we had got lost last November with the Manx Club's seven French visitors. Last year we were close...but so far...given the road, the fact that it was dark and cold, and that we had abandonded (and would need to retrieve) a buggy.
The "lost in the mountains" spot was not near as spooky in the daylight...the trees were a lot smaller too!
We found the spot by the stream where we camped last year after giving up on Mike's Sky Ranch.
After a quick stop a Mellings Ranch to check on gas (they were closed), we headed up the mountain...a good 6,000 foot climb. The road must be very interesting with snow. It wasn't long before we were driving in the pine trees.
We reached the Observatory (National Observatory of Mexico at San Pedro Mártir) at lunchtime. The public (dirt) road stops at a paved road...2 kilometers from the mountain-top and the telescopes. We were told that we would had to hike (not drive) to the top. After lunch we started hiking...that was the longest 2 kilometers anyone remembers...2 kilometers as the crow flys, maybe!
At the very top we found the "big dome"...a much smaller affair than Mt. Palomar, which houses a 2-meter telescope.
The view from the top weas great! From there one can see both the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean (which was covered in low clouds that day). To the east, the topography drops to near sea-level (9,000+ feet) in the space of a few miles. We looked down on Diablo Dry Lake, a great place to off-road, except that it was full of water from the previous weekend's hurricane.
After taking lot's of pictures at the top, we headed back down to our cars...a real hike in the thin air. One of the astronomers, Gaghik H. Tovmassian, Ph.D., was kind enough to Bruce Meyers a ride down the mountain to our buggies.
We started our drive back down the mountain late in the afternoon. Given our low fuel supply, we decided to head for the Pacific coast...60+ miles away. Bruce Lightner was almost out of fuel, so he coasted down...a good 9,000+ foot elevation change! Dave (and especially Barbara) thought Bruce was going too fast, given that he wasn't running his engine! (Actually, Barbara thought eveyone was going to fast, especially Dave...the road is narrow, steep, gravelly, sloped the wrong way in places, has 100-foot drop-offs, and lacks guard rails.)
We had our second equipment failure on the trip to the coast...Old Red's carborator float stuck. This amounted to a 30-minute delay...Bruce Lightner was way out of CB communication range by that time...but he was smart enough to wait.
Near the bottom of the foothills, Bruce Lightner come upon the remains of a brush fire...not quite out. (Nobody seems to bother trying to put brush fires out in this part of Mexico.) He buried the smoldering logs, then took a picture. (Last year this same canyon was ablaze when we entered it...with lots of smoke.)
We finally found the Pacific coast highway, then headed out to the beach at Pt. Colenet. After an extended search for the "perfect campsite", we pitched our tents well back from the breakers on cobble-stones. (We need to bring a tide calendar next time!) We were all very crusty from the dusty trip...Bruce Lightner went swimming in the high surf, in the dark, to get clean...Dave played lifeguard with a flashlight.
We all had a good night's rest to the sound of the surf. Breakfast camped on a deserted beach...it doesn't get any better than this.
In the morning we watched the dolphins play in the surf. Bruce Meyers chased the pelicans and sea-gulls with his "long lens". Soon it was time to head north...for the first time in three days. Winnie used her AAA map to find us a "short-cut" to the highway...another adventure...but good off-roading with a little mud, and a many mile long, "vehicle eating", sand wash.
After a quick fuel stop, we headed towards Ensenada where we stopped for lunch. We were all getting pretty crusty, and hungry by that time. The Meyers found a great spot near the water where we could watch our buggies through the front window. The food was good...so were the prices.
Margaritas and (Tecate) beer all around. Another trip planning session at lunch lead to the decision to avoid a potential Tijuana border crossing mess and to cross the border in Tecate.
Dave lost a spark plug wire and began running on three cylinders, so we had to stop for a quick field repair. A local dog mistook the Meyer's buggy Old Red for a red fire hydrant...we keep telling him to paint it Y.B.D.B. yellow...but he won't listen! By this time Dave had achieved a new "high" in terms of "rack stackage". (Also by this time Barbara was getting worried because she was the only thing left inside the buggy besides the driver!
We dumped our fruits and vegtables in Tecate then headed for the border. School had just let out...we were a ready made mini-parade in downtown Tecate. A quick and easy crossing was made by all. More fuel on the US side, then back to civilzation.
We hit San Diego traffic just before 5 o'clock rush hour. Everyone made it home just fine...although Dave now has an ominous new noise coming from his motor. (It's his turn to rebuild his motor.)