Baja Divide Pt. 1: Tales from the Cape Loop
In his first report from the storied Baja Divide route, Evan Christenson returns to Mexico’s Baja California peninsula to seek answers to questions that have lingered since he first rode it two years ago. As he rides, he gets swept into a sea of other characters with unique stories, perspectives, and questions of their own. Get to know some of them here…
Baja’s draw is wide. A mere scratch mark in the schemes of great continents, its iconic shape jets like a missile into the Pacific and beckons with it the wild and the curious. Baja is full of dreamers and chasers, of ranchers and fishers, of everyone from real estate moguls to vanlife dirtbags. Baja stands dramatically apart, both culturally and geographically, from the mainland, and thousands of snowbird Canadians begin their pilgrimage south every winter. I came to Baja with questions two years ago, but I left unsatisfied with my half-baked and messy answers. Why do people feel a draw to this place? Where does that force come from? I still feel a need to know. So, I’ve come back down to seek more answers.
I’ve taken the bus down here to ride the Baja Divide from south to north, aiming to meet as many riders as I can. In the amalgamating of their experiences, and in the rewriting of my own, I hope to find a continuous thread through it all. Is Baja becoming just an extension of Southern California? Is Baja just a place for thrill seekers to scratch an obsessive itch? Is Baja, now full of gringo towns and off-road races, big agriculture and an intense climate, satellite internet and smoking garbage dumps, still holding onto its Mexican heritage? Is the Baja Divide too saturated with riders? The route traces 1,700 miles through the heart of the peninsula, and despite heat, sand, and isolation, I’m certain I’ll find at least something.
I’ve come here from the mainland, and I wrote in my journal by the side of the road as the whole change shocked my system. “It will take my eyes a few days more to adjust to this place. The harsh light and spines of jettison cacti, it’s a monochromatic expanse of heat in midday. And the scale, the ridges, the jaggedness, the water, everywhere, all around me, the sea so vast and the sky so blue. This desert knows nothing but time. I plan to rot in it.”
The Cape Loop
I’m just unpacking my stuff as Susan and Sandy labor into the yard we’re all camping in for the night. They’re dusty, sweaty, and still breathing hard. Susan sits down to slowly pull off her boots and just stays there for a while, moaning with the aches and lingering in the shade. She eagerly agrees to a glass of jamaica and finally rises to find a soft chair in the shade. The two are not who I expected when I was told two more riders were coming to join me.
Susan, now wearing a skirt and her librarian glasses, with her deep laugh and dirty jokes, riding an old junky Trek with panniers and hiking boots. And Sandy, a Mexican from Guadalajara but raised in California, gay, riding a polished new Esker. She rolls her Rs beautifully, like a real expert. She’s full of stories, each one better than the last, and as she tells, them Susan butts in with the jokes. The two make an amazing pair. We grab another glass of jamaica, laugh for a few hours, hike up to a viewpoint for sunset, and along the way we dig into it.
The two have come down from California to give bikepacking a try on the infamous Cape Loop. Sandy spent her quarantine scrolling Instagram posts of bikes while trying to get away from the messy politics back home, and Susan butts in and confirms how overwhelming it all became. “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t go out because I’m just gonna run into a bunch of assholes.” Street dogs are barking in the distance, neighbors are playing music, broken down cars sputter by—it’s loud everywhere in town. The two of them are still trying to regain composure after the long, exposed pass to Todos Santos. Susan turns 63 the day after, and she and Sandy have come for their first bikepacking trip to prove to themselves they can still do it. Sandy, now 58, a project manager deep in government bureaucracy, has turned to bikepacking to rekindle her love of cycling, a sport she’s loved for decades but one she’s felt increasingly disenfranchised by. “Ohh, I’ve always been riding. Racing came and went. I’m getting old, you know. The days are getting shorter. I don’t care about the competition, I just want to go ride my bike.”
The two set back out in the morning hoping to hitch-hike to the base of the next climb. They’re a bit overwhelmed by the whole experience. Susan leaves more stuff behind at the house. “The trail of Susan,” as Sandy calls it. She leaves her spare book, her water filter, her second pair of shoes. I meet up with them again a week later in Cabo Pulmo as they near the end of the loop. Sandy has thick tan lines on her forehead, and she buys another round of beer and slams it down. She’s thirsty, hungry, and tired. Susan is in bed dealing with a sore stomach.
“It’s been more than we expected. Yeahhhh, we’re having fun. But it’s hard!” They’ve loved the quiet and remote parts of the route, and it’s served to give Sandy a new, valuable perspective on her Mexican heritage, but she also looks forward to meeting up with her girlfriend in Cabo and spending some days on the couch. I ask if she’ll go bikepacking again and she pauses with her beer and just laughs. It’s a deep laugh though, a hearty one, one of those contagious laughs. I take it as a yes, and we take our beers for the road and tuck in early.
I ride on, quickly finding Kristjan and Madeline at a tienda, the young couple eagerly looking for more bags of beans and water for the night, maybe a vegetable too if they’re lucky. We end up at a quiet beach and jump into the water under the last rays of a blazing sunset. They’re a new couple, having met on Hinge about a year ago, and they spent that time mostly at distance due to Madeline’s job as a backcountry ranger for the National Park Service. They’re using the Divide to finally spend some intimate, uninterrupted time together, something their work/life dynamics don’t normally permit.
“I don’t think we can ever go back to not being completely co-dependent,” Madeline says as she makes the breakfast and Kris takes down the tent. They’re pushing onto the mainland for a couple months before Kris’ sabbatical is up. He’s nervous about going home, and feels hesitant about returning to his job in accounting in the big city. He was raised bike touring. His whole family does it. He even started this trip by riding down the coast with his little sister for two weeks. He loves this life, especially with Madeline. Down here, they spend all day talking, laughing about their bagged bean farts and smelly tent and staring together at life on the horizon. They’ve long since run out of conversation topics. “Today we spent an hour ranking our favorite Electrolyte flavors. Want to hear ‘em?”
I imagine how hard the transition back to the office will be for him. Kris is adamant his parents wanted him to get a real adult job, so he graduated with an accounting degree and quickly found a gig at one of the biggest accounting firms in the country. The conflict in his heart is obvious as he talks. Kris was raised outdoors. During his quick two-week break while studying abroad in Spain, he went bike touring with a group of dumpster-diving hippies. I push them off down the peninsula, with no idea of what will come next.
After a day of riding with other Cape Loopers, jotting notes in a flurry under the passing of semis, pushing through sand and racing the highway bits, I walk into the shade at a supermarket and almost run into two Dividers. Dave and DeAnne came from Colorado, two professional road cycling guides with 22 bikes between the two of them. Dave has the cut of a cyclist with long hours logged in the saddle. DeAnne was a lifelong racer, a successful, but burnt out junior, and now the two of them have used the Divide to shake up their relationship with cycling. They’re both strong, they drop me as we ride from the grocery store to the campsite, but they were surprised at how hard the Divide was. DeAnne chops the vegetables hurriedly, like someone deprived of nutrients after a month in the desert, and recounts the northern section. “I’d be on a climb pushing my bike and slipping on the scree and my arms would be cramping and I’d start crying because I’d be thinking ‘I can’t do this…’”
But they did. They push into La Paz and coast the Cape Loop back to the finish. They show me the matching tattoos they got here to commemorate the “biggest thing they’ve ever done,” a Baja peninsula with cacti and skulls and the route faintly dotted. It serves as a token to remember it all by, when the tans have faded and the scrapes are healed and the tears have long dried up.
I get back on my bike and finish the ride north back to La Paz. My head is spinning. Every story I hear, every photo I see, every bagged bean joke that’s made brings back a million memories from my own journey down this rocky, hellacious paradise. I remember someone telling me too many people have now ridden the Baja Divide for it to still be considered an adventure. I get to La Paz late and watch the dust roll off my legs in the shower and collapse into bed and think how utterly wrong they were.
Jihane rolls up the next morning, dazed and confused, surprised to see another bikepacker. She’s down here alone and hasn’t seen many riders on the route. She’s overwhelmed by the whole experience, chasing words to summarize it all, unable to really find them. Her legs are pinstriped by the chaparral and cactus thorns, her hair is a mess and her hat is faded. She talks eagerly but just wants to go get a beer. She rides in Vans, tattered up with a dusty sheen over the blue canvas, the skater shoes serving as a remnant of her days as a bike messenger.
After a tour down the California coast, she decided Baja would be a logical next step. She bought a mountain bike and left her crepe cart back home in BC, and leapt into this big adventure straight off the couch, utterly untrained, never having bikepacked before and completely on a whim, just because. “That’s just who I am,” she tells me. She lost her wallet day one and rode into Mexico with no money. She got lost, she was helped by ranchos, she hitch-hiked, she got stuck in the mud, she made friends. She’s traveling lighter than anyone else I’ve met.
Jihane, now 40, has stumbled into a node in her life and let the silence of the desert help her explore it. She’s the “black sheep” of her family, her brother is an engineer, her sister is a successful journalist, the other one an entrepreneur. “What did you think about out there?” I ask. Jihane has tanned, rosy cheeks and crows feet, the remnants of a happy life spent traveling and out deep in the mountains. Jihane smiles a lot. She smiles again and pauses. “I thought of completely re-doing my life.”
She isn’t scared of being a solo woman riding in Baja. She says she feels safe in Baja, save for the remoteness. “I’m scared of hitting my head in the middle of nowhere. I descend and put my feet down all the time. And I’m scared of breaking down and not being able to fix it. But other than that, I feel totally fine.” It reminds me of meeting Shea on my first day down here, a solo woman from New Zealand who was racing down the peninsula, on track to finish in four weeks. She just laughs about it, “Men will sometimes look at me and say, ‘Do you have any idea how far that is?’”
I wake up groggy and in some dusty hangover, the off-shore wind already whipping at my face, tired and excited to roll downtown and meet Brian Charette. Brian’s been vocal on the Baja Divide Facebook group, posting regular videos updating people on his progress, showing him playing guitar at a rural ranch, talking to the camera as he crosses the border in Tecate, or just hanging out at the hostel. I walk into my interview with him knowing it’ll be interesting, just unsure in what way.
Brian yells over the crashing waves as I photograph his bike in the early morning light. He’s excited to show me the details: the custom built guitar pannier, the 360 camera on the bar end, the solar panel that fits in perfectly, the small crack growing on his seat stay. He pulls out the guitar and plays his go-to song, “Boyfriend” by the Undercover Hippy, a song about a guy doing acid with a girl and falling in love with her until he realizes she has a boyfriend. Brian packs it all back up and punches a big hole in both the air and the world around him as we ride over to breakfast.
Brian Charette is aware of his peculiarity. He’s always yelling. “I’m like a cartoon character. Look at me!” At 6’7” tall, he cranes over the counter and orders not off the menu but just a mess of food, everything they have, plus a coffee and an orange juice, in ostensibly bad yet endearingly laughable Spanish. His dreadlocks hang long off the back of his head, tied up with a smartwool sock tie, a fuzzy mess of helmet hair on the top. His face is sunburnt and his clothes are stained and he acts out drinking from his alcohol burner after his Sawyer squeeze bag burst while filled with tequila. “I didn’t want to waste it!”
We sit down and dig into it. Brian is intense. He raced bikes for a while, wanting to be like Jay Petervary, but admits he was always more interested in partying. After a divorce rocked his world, he bought a sailboat and went down to Mexico for several years. He sailed around, taking people on half-legal charters and having the time of his life partying and swimming and just being. But he sold it and left Mexico to be closer to the family as his kids grew up. With time, he felt the laziness creeping in. So, he rode the Tour Divide last year, and then after losing his housing in Jackson Hole, decided to just keep riding. He’s smiling as he remembers the feeling of pedaling again. He’s addicted. “I got jazzed again. I feel the best I ever have. I feel better now in my 50s than I did in my 20s. I needed to embrace the pain, but once I did that, everything was better. Life is easier if you’re fit.”
His perspective on Baja is that of a hippie with the world at his feet. “I’m not worried about ‘banditos.’ Where’d you even hear that word from? TV? I go around with love in my heart and know it will come back to me. Don’t be stupid. There’s no problems here.” He talks about how kind everyone has been, how although the ride has been hard, it’s been nothing but rewarding. I ask him about the smoking garbage dump, a divisive part of the route just north of where we eat that morning. “The dump is the toll to do all this other cool stuff. If I get to do all this, of course I’ll ride through the dump.” I posed the same question to Jihane. She says “I enjoyed seeing the trash pile. It’s life, you know? Travel is about more than just the pretty stuff.
I leave my interview with Brian with a journal full of one-liners and wish him well on the last stretch. I ride off for my last interview before I get back on the road myself. I ride down the quiet streets of La Paz, dodging doors in the tiny bike lanes and stopping for paletas and arrive at a fancy hotel towering over the water. I take the elevator to the top floor to find Brian and Justin waiting for me by the pool. Brian is eating a bag of fried pastries. Justin sprawls out on the couch drinking from a plastic water bottle. Their sharp tan lines and satisfied fatigue give it all away: these guys are fast, and they know it.
Brian Elander and Justin Holle are racers back home in Colorado. Justin is a fitness coach, owns a mountain bike tour company, hosts a podcast on fitness, and used to own gyms in the Denver area. He’s the type to not have any excuses for not showing up and eager to help you get over yours. He beams with pride just thinking about it. Justin won’t take no for an answer. When his bike has a bottom bracket fail three days from the finish, he hitch-hikes back to town to get it replaced. And when there’s no replacement bottom bracket to be found, he just buys a whole new bike.
Brian, on the other hand, is fresh out of high school and chasing a professional racing career. He’s quiet and reserved, still finding his footing in this big world. Together, in a bid to find the hardest rides, the hardest adventures to take on, they stumbled upon the Baja Divide on the internet. Brian pitched it and Justin signed up before he even knew what it was. Halfway down the route, “I threw all expectations straight out of the window.”
They’re riding the whole route in 30 days in a bid to make it to the finish in Cabo on Justin’s 40th birthday. The two have never done anything like this before, and their roughly 20-year age gap means the two have assumed a sort of best friend, father and son, coach and prodigy relationship. Justin teases Brian while we sit high up on the rooftop, the road below a calming sea of honks and food trucks, a hectic world far removed from this five-star view.
But their ride was more than just a sufferfest and a long uninterrupted workout. Brian and Justin saw a new country, they started enjoying camping, and they had their sport put into a new perspective. After finally winning an elusive national championship last year, Justin is seeing his racing career shift while riding down the Divide. “This has been all about enjoying the sport, not chasing an arbitrary trophy to hang onto the wall no one will care about two days later. I’ve gotten my carrot. Now I want to just enjoy riding my bike.”
The Baja Divide served as the biggest month of riding ever for them, and according to Strava, they’ve logged more hours in the saddle this month than anyone else in the US. But, along the way, they’ve also met people so humble in the middle of nowhere that they’ve changed their views on the world. The ranchos were their highlight. Everyone I’ve talked to has mentioned the ranchos. The hospitality to be found in random pockets of the desert is incredible. I think back to Susan’s comment on life back in the city the past two years about how “everyone just feels like they can be an asshole nowadays.” Justin looks back and laughs about the guy who let him ride his horse in a small town, and all the times he was offered coffee from strangers. He sits content and wraps it all up. “I think, after this, I want to go home and be more hospitable to strangers.”
I ride back from it all and pack up my bike. I get back on the road tomorrow. Five days into this ride, I’ve already had to have my chainstay welded back together, and I still have a long way to go and a lot of people to meet.
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