"I've spent a lot of time down there, and it's frightening. You need to be careful." (shakes head with look of grave, vague reminiscence.
"Those drivers down there are crazy!"
"Some places are fine, but Tijuana is one of the worst. You need to make sure you plan your route really well."
"They will kill you!"
Now, most of these came from a place of genuine concern, but weren't particularly helpful. The "Be careful!" admonition is one that immediately causes both Schwan and my hair to bristle and we'll immediately switch off the listening part of our brains. Oh I should be careful? I was going to play chicken with Mexican petrol trucks and search for blow in moonless alleys, but now that you mentioned it maybe I will think about being careful.
It's now been a week since crossing over to "down there" and surprise, surprise, Northern Baja from Tijuana to San Quintin hasn't been land of narcos, violent glue-sniffing robbers, and sociopathic drivers that advice would have led us to believe. Yes, things have been a little more hectic in Mexico but that's how it goes in most of the world.
Riding the stretch from Rosarito to Ensenada felt like an extension of California's Highway 1, dry rolling hills and headlands, the road winding above crashing surf and crystalline water. We were able to put in 52 miles without terrible difficulty.
It wasn't until the highway cuts inland, away from the coastal breezes and into the Sierra de San Pedro Martira that things started to get hard. First it was the hills, which had been steep but short since leaving the Big Sur area, but now kept getting bigger and bigger until they turned into mountains. Then came the heat. It behaves different in these parts. None of the steady building until a 5pm high like in Oregon summers. Here, the early mornings are cool, but there's a time around 8am, when the sun gets high enough, that the day's heat is released into the atmosphere and the temp can jump 15-20 degrees in as many minutes. By 9am it's almost as hot as it's going to get. The morning's are blazing, but the heat starts breaking around 1pm steadily descends for the rest of the afternoon. Not that we knew any of this until we got into it.
My personal low-point of the entire trip so far came 2 days ago. We'd spent our first night in a Mexican campground (similar to private U.S. campgrounds, but with roosters!) and were moving slowly in the morning. Kelly and her Groucho-Marx looking cat-friend worried about food and I slowly packed up the tent. We didn't get on the road until almost 9am and it was already in the 80's. As soon as we started pedaling I didn't feel great, but usually it takes a little while to get into a rhythm. As we started climbing I couldn't find that rhythm. Something was off, whether dehydration, not getting enough calories to recover from the previous day's ride, blood pressure, or a combination of all three I can't be sure. On the rather gradual slope I had to shift into my lowest gear and crawl up. "What's wrong?" Kelly asked as she waited for me at a shaded shoulder. "It's not near as steep as yesterday, you should be crushing this." I didn't know, so I kept drinking water and had some food. In civilized life, it's pretty easy to get through the day if you're a bit dehydrated or you haven't eaten right. You might feel a bit sluggish. But when you're pedaling for 5+ hours day, the body has a tendency to make its needs very apparent. Subtlety is not in it's best interest.
So my body yelled at me and I yelled back and eventually Kelly and I made it to the top of the pass at 1,600 feet. It always feels good getting to the top of whatever you've been climbing, for you get to enjoy the descent. And a helluva descent it was, a fast open road that sped us past hardy scrubland and dusty arroyos. The problem was that as soon as we dropped onto the other side of the mountain the temp jumped into the low 90's and kept climbing as we descended. Kelly likened the descent to driving in an old car in the summer and having to blast the heat to keep the radiator from overheating. I knew I was going to have issues when I saw my spedo at 40mph and I still wasn't cooling off. As soon as the road started rolling and I had to work, I was cooked. My struggles only prolonged both mine and Kelly's time in the blazing sun, though Kelly was as patient as a sweating Schwan can be. By the we pulled into San Vicente at 1pm, Kelly's black helmet straps were caked white with salt. We'd only done 24 miles and I couldn't do anymore. In that heat, all the niggling doubts about whether this trip is physically possible for me started to come to the forefront and we almost hoped on a bus to San Quintin to get back down to the coast. But after some rest, food, and a few dousings of ice-cold water, we decided to just find a room where we were and see if tomorrow went better.
We found a room, a market, and met some of the local kids who wander the dusty side-lanes of town on their BMX bikes. By the time we'd bought some food to cook dinner, the sun was setting over the mountains. They cut sharply into angry red sky that slowly deepened to purple. The kids were racing after passing Baja 1000 trucks, pleading for stickers. People smiled when we passed because not many people stop in San Vicente unless they have to.
The next morning we were up at 4am and on our bikes heading for a quick coffee at 6am. The sun hadn't yet peeked over the hills and already the town was bustling. Everyone going to work, or already working, and we didn't feel so special for getting such an early start. That day we climbed in the early morning sun, bumped over miles of stony construction zones, and made it out of the inland sauna before worst of the heat arrived. Both our bodies felt good so we kept on riding, over hills and through dusty valley's, out of the mountains and into agricultural land. Kelly towing another 30-40lbs of water weight in addition to her normal road. 69 miles in 85 degree heat towards the promise of an air-conditioned room for Kelly's birthday. It's amazing what your body can do when you decide to try again.