Lost in Mexico - Riding the 22-Day Trail

July 27, 2017

After ten years of thinking about it and five talking about it, Brian Lopes and I finally made it happen. Riding mountain bikes across the Baja peninsula on the amazing 22-Day Motorcycle Trail. Freerider Richie Schley would join us on the multi-day ride as well.

How hard would it be? How long would it take? We didn’t know. I did know it was committing. Eighty miles in total, 65 miles of single track, a few miles of dirt road and two-track and 10 miles of highway. There are the west side and the east side section of the trail split by the main highway and bordered by a remote beach on the Pacific Coast and the Sea of Cortez. Each side is a single section of trail with no bail outs or access points. The west side would be the hardest. Thirty fives of singletrack winding across ridgelines through the mountains. Since it was designed as a moto trail there is a lot of incidental up and down that would add to the difficulty. The east side would be mellower, thirty miles of single track across flatter terrain but enough sand to be a potential issue.

The planning and preparation was epic. Trying to organize three bike riders, a photographer, a videographer, a support rider on a moto and a couple of people in the support vehicle, food, water and plan around unknown road and trail conditions. Fortunately, we assembled a great crew. Best of all we were able to arrange with Bill and Pamela Walton to stage out of their compound on the east side in Bay of LA and Bill agreed to be the primary support driver. Without them, it wouldn’t have happened.

The drive down to Bay of LA was epic, five hundred miles, across the border down the east side of the peninsula including thirty-five miles of dirt road during a torrential downpour. Narrow Mexican roads with no shoulder in heavy rain and wind into the dark added a lot of uncertainty. But we finally rolled into Bill and Pamela’s place about 8:00 and instantly everything was good.

We spent a day getting organized. I rode out with Bill and John Levy on the motos to check out the trail and dirt road conditions. With all the rain the ground was literally oozing water. At times it felt like the bikes were sinking several inches into the ground. It sure was fun on the motos but I couldn’t imagine how hard it would be to try and pedal through the soft wet dirt.

Back at the compound Brian, Richie, Bill Freeman our photographer Devin Schmitt the videographer and Pat Parnell spent the day getting ready for the adventure to come. We had so much stuff it barely fit in my Ford extended van.

Bright and early Monday morning we made final preparations to ride. It was a beautiful day to ride bikes in Baja. It was finally happening. I rolled out about 8:00 am with most of a fifty-mile ride ahead. The desert was green and alive from all the rain, cool temps and no head wind pedaling up the ten miles of pavement to the beginning of the dirt. I met Brian and Richie along with the rest of the support crew at the turnoff for photos and words of encouragement from everyone. Bill Nichol, the trails creator had come all the way down to witness our effort. He was stoked to tell us about his original trail build back in 2006. Photos and high-fives and we were off.

Welcome to the Baja.

Sometimes you have to walk your bike.

The dirt road gradually turned into a two-track then singletrack. There was still a lot of water and mud in places. The sand was nice though with the moisture making it very rideable. The miles started adding up as we rode, careful for that cholla, look out for snakes, enjoy the views, look at the flowers, watch out for ruts, keep moving, pace yourself and don’t forget to eat and drink. I was excited to show Brian and Richie my favorite trail in Baja. The conditions were perfect. I just kept having to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. We had timed it perfectly. All the worry and stress getting organized was paying off.

We rolled into our camp at dusk. Bill and Pat had been busy setting up. It was like the van exploded, there was gear, tents, boxes, gear bags and miscellaneous stuff scattered everywhere, organized chaos. We enjoyed a big dinner around the campfire. The stars were out it was a nice evening in Baja.

Giant cardon are native to the Baja.

Taking a break from the heat of the day.

We rolled out of camp about 9:00 am to start the western section of the trail. This was where is was going to get committing. We had to make it to the coast, the van had to make it to the coast and we had to find the van when we got there.

It was a gradual climb up to the high point on the route. Weaving our way through all the cactus, elephant and boojum trees. Cresting the top we could see the Pacific way in the distance. We still had thirty miles to go. The trail got rougher, lots of up and down, hiking, loose rocks, ruts and the sun was starting to beat down. Every hour or so I would ask Brian how far we had gone, it felt like slow going. We stopped for lunch in the shade of some bushes taking stock of how much water we didn’t have. It was going to be tight. By mid afternoon we had descended down out of the mountains and started crossing a few drainages riding along the ridge lines. We started making better time as the trail opened up. Pretty soon we were spinning our way faster and faster finally hitting the coast road and finding the van waiting with beer and water.

We had made it, another three miles and we rolled onto the beach at Punta Maria right at dark where we planned to camp. Perfect timing again.

Camping on a remote beach in Baja was amazing. Bonfires at night, countless stars in the sky, the sound of the waves, hanging out with old friends and new friends, resting up, hydrating, checking the bikes and eating. We spent a whole day resting for the return ride. Brian had this crazy idea that we could ride the whole route in a day. I had my doubts, Richie was worried and Brian was confident. But we decided to make the attempt.

We were up before first light, coffee, food, hydrate, final checks on the bikes and packs. We rolled out about 5:45. We had planned to stay together to the highway crossing but Brian rode away from Richie and myself straight off. He was on a mission. Richie and I were too but we needed to pace ourselves differently so it worked out fine. The morning was cool as the sun came up. Everything was damp from the overnight dew as the sun peaked over the hill the light was sparkling off every blade of grass. It was beautiful.

Steady pedaling for hour after hour, lots of hiking on loose rocks, up and down through the cactus gardens of Baja, a couple of flat tires repaired with tire plugs and best of all Richie and I were having fun. We were ticking off the miles and enjoying an epic day of riding. Crossing the high ridgelines with views of both coastlines in the distance. Dropping down off the crest on the flowy fast trail towards the highway crossing at mile 38.

We rolled up to the support van on the highway after about five and a half hours. I had already consumed nearly a gallon of water, ten energy gels, and a few snack bars. We spent almost thirty minutes at the van drinking Gatorade, eating sandwiches, changing socks and chamois I put on a new tire to replace the cut one that had three plugs and then we were off.

Pedaling into the second half of the ride was a reality check. Lactic acid burn in the legs, the sun was getting a bit warm, the sand was dried out and slowed us down, we had 45 miles still to go and this would be the longest ride I had ever done on a mountain bike. We settled into a steady pace, just keep moving, don’t stop, don’t try to pedal through the sand whoops, keep eating, drink more water and enjoy the adventure.

That strategy worked, we exited the single track at mile 65, 5 miles of 2-track and we hit the pavement. I couldn’t believe it, we would make it before dark! We had assumed it would take a lot longer. Pedaling towards the Sea of Cortez with a nice tailwind just seemed perfect. We crested the last rise with views of the Bay below. Pulling off the pavement we dropped down a trail into the open desert below. A couple of miles later we rolled up to the water. Brian was all smiles and freshly showered. He had finished two hours earlier. It was an emotional moment. I didn’t think my old legs had it in them to ride that far. Richie surprised himself, Brian had put in an amazing ride crossing the Baja on single track in just over nine hours. Mission accomplished!

This might be the most epic and incredible ride I’ve ever done. I can’t believe we made it happen and actually met all our goals. Thanks, Brian and Richie for a great adventure. Let’s have another one.

Rolling into the finish of the first trip across 22 Day Trail.

Watch out for the wildlife.

Photos by Bill Freeman

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