Baja Bound

Mexico lies mere minutes to the south of San Diego. Crossing the border and driving southbound along the coast, one notes little geographic difference in the topography. The same bluffs and beaches continue on from Imperial Beach to Playas de Tijuana in an unbroken line, heedless of any international boundary. Yet one can feel the difference right after rolling over the speed bumps at the border checkpoint. Political borders are imaginary lines that only exist in our heads and on paper, yet one can see, hear, smell, touch and taste the effects of such invisible boundaries. Especially in Tijuana.

For me, crossing the border felt like receiving a jolt of electricity. Nothing can match the thrill of international travel, even if it's just a couple of hundred miles away from home. Countless years had passed since I last traveled anywhere south of Ensenada, so I could barely contain my excitement. And once again, I found myself in a vehicle with two beautiful women. I felt alive.

Taking the quickest route through Tijuana to the coast—which was anything but a straight line—our Total Escape crew raced down the toll road. First stop: brunch at La Fonda Hotel (officially, "El Royal de La Fonda Restaurant and Hotel"), halfway between Rosarito Beach and Ensenada. Sitting under a palapa on a bluff overlooking the beach, washing down chorizo and eggs with a cold Dos Equis, I couldn't imagine a more perfect moment (though many more were to come). It was easy to see why this road stop was a favorite of Dana, our fearless trip leader.

Passing through Ensenada, we turned east and headed up into the hills on Highway 3. At the wheel of Lory's 4Runner, I drove through parts of Baja I'd never seen before. Stringy ribbon clouds flecked the sky above verdant mountains and pastures. Recent rains had worked wonders here. Lush fields lined the sides of the road as we passed through the valley of Ojos Negros. Even Lory, the Baja veteran, commented that she'd never seen the hills and valleys so green. It certainly didn't mesh with my expectation of normally arid Baja California.

Reaching the little town of Héroes de Independencia (in-day-pen-DEN-see-ah), I realized too late that I'd been following Drew's Land Rover too close in our position of "sweep" patrol. I watched as he nearly caught air on a stealth speed bump, then tried unsuccessfully to slow down myself. My passengers and cargo shook, rattled and rolled as if we'd already gone offroad. But Sirpa would soon get her revenge....

We gassed up in rural Valle la Trinidad, a dusty little town that reminded me of that sequence in "Terminator 2" out in the Mexican desert. Sirpa climbed behind the wheel, and we finally hit dirt. For the next 20 miles or so, we cruised over bumps, through ruts and across dirt tracks on Baja back roads. For me, sitting in the back seat, it was an E-ticket ride. After almost two hours of bouncing, we arrived at our destination at last: Mike's Sky Rancho, a little hideaway far from the slightest trace of civilization.

Well-known in the offroad racing community, the rancho fills up with offroad enthusiasts nearly every weekend—and this was no exception. Even before we arrived, dirt bikes started passing us along the road. When we crossed the creek and drove up the last hill to the rancho, a long line of bikes already sat parked in front. By dinnertime, the place was packed. The dining room boomed with the raucous celebration of riders who'd spent the day covering 200 miles on dirt roads. And as we Total Escapees gathered around the campfire after proprietor Mike shut off the generator, the riders joined us to share their insane road stories, each one more unbelievable than the last. By the time the bottle of Tres Generaciones had made several rounds, some of us began to wish they'd take a long sip from a cup of shut-the-f***-up (a "you had to be there" reference).

Eventually, they all stumbled off to bed, and we could finally stargaze in some semblance of peace and quiet. So many stars winked from above that in my eyes they seemed to blur together in a white haze (or perhaps it was the tequila). If a telescope could survive the offroad travels to get here, it'd be a great place to do some amateur astronomy. Unfortunately, Christian learned the hard way on a previous trip that such accoutrements are not good accessories for back road explorations.

As we too made our way to our beds (or to our tents, for some of us), we looked forward to the adventures that awaited us.

Next: Mike's Sky Ranch

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