Seventeen vaqueros set off from the village, followed by nineteen dogs.  All are experienced at tracking and flushing cattle; all will be pushed to their limits before the day is over.  This is rugged country in the northern reaches of Baja California, Mexico, where I’ve been invited to accompany these Mexican cattlemen.  Steep hillsides pocked with large boulders and clogging brush make great hiding places for the wild cattle that range the area. The dogs’ tenacity will prove invaluable, as well as the athleticism of the well-trained horses and excellent horsemanship of the riders.  All have developed their talents over generations chasing cattle in rough country, in harsh conditions.  The cattle, too, have developed their own wiles, and it shocks me the first time we give chase how athletic they are on these steep slopes.  I find it nearly impossible to keep up, galloping at full speed downhill one moment and uphill the next, dodging and leaping over large rocks, ducking brush, head-high to the horses, with branches thick enough to pull you out of the saddle.

Thankfully this southernmost flank of the Anza-Borrego desert, named after the bighorn sheep of the area, doesn’t have many spiny plants or cactus.  Instead, the topography of the Sierra de Juarez, the southern tip of the Great Basin Divide in northern Baja, is strewn with massive boulders the size of houses, oak, mequite and the giant yucca, which still can poke a hole in you if you get too close. The cows love to dine on the flowering stalks, and I took a liking to them myself. To lessen the chance of getting stabbed in the legs, the vaqueros here have tapaderos for their stirrups, and wear batwing chaps (chaparreras) made out of thick bull hide to protect their legs. They teased me about my short, soft leather chinks (chincaderos), saying they were better suited for an arena or a parade. If you want to hang with cowboys anywhere, you have to take some ribbing.

Soon I’m left in the dust but it is exhilarating watching from an ever-increasing distance as the vaqueros give full chase, whooping and hollering and whistling encouragement to each other and their animals.  The cattle scatter in every direction, pursued by horse and rider.  It feels like a game of Cat and Mouse, where the mice are just as big but have horns.  The cattle make for pockets of dense brush or the massive boulders, tucking in and hoping the cowboys will blow on by.  This is where the dogs show their usefulness: one, because they are small, mostly heeler types with great speed, agility and courage; and two, they have great noses and know the games the cattle play.  The dogs sniff out their quarry, and their barking alerts the cowboys to the cattle’s whereabouts.

 Trying to lasso a sprinting cow among the trees, shrubs and boulders has its challenges but the vaqueros’ roping skills are well-honed, and more often they’re successful.  Then the struggle begins as the large animals do their best to weave through the obstacles and break free, the barking dogs adding to the chaos.  The cattle are also successful and the chase begins anew, generally with another cowboy in hot pursuit. They call this rowdy riding, estilo jinete, or bronco style, and it takes a lot of skill to keep your seat and your horse its footing.

Operating out of the village of San Antonio Necua, in the verdant Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s famous wine growing region of northern Baja, the landscape is framed in by the Pacific Ocean at Ensenada to the south and west, and the border wall of the United States 40 miles to the north and east at Tecate, which is more famous for its beer.  The area has grown into the largest wine producing region of all of Mexico, and is becoming known as the Napa Valley of Lower California.  Before the Mexican-American War of 1848, all of California, both Alta (Upper) and Baja (Lower), was once a part of Mexico.  So it is for the people of Necua, who are an indigenous population of an ancient Navajo tribe, the Kumiai (also spelled Kumeyaay), that nomadically ranged into that part of southern Arizona and California – long before current geopolitical names, by several thousand years – following the growing seasons of the region.  My friends, the Dominguez-Sandoval family, have a quasi-dual citizenship due to these circumstances, where historically half of their family are U.S. citizens but their half are Mexican.  They are allowed greater freedom to travel between the two countrys than are their counterparts. They, like many Mexicans, live on an ejido (pronounced “eh-hido”) system of circumscribed land much like the Indian reservations in the United States.  

Jepte Dominguez-Sandoval, known by his nickname TeTe, and his family are part of the small network of ranchers who still run cattle in northern Baja.  Altogether, in this arid environment, his family gathers almost 1,000 head of cattle, a Charolais/Angus cross, over 15,000 hectares, or almost 40,000 acres within their three different ranchos, Rancho Alamo, Necua and Castillo.  It’s a chunk of ground, very little of it is developed, and there is not much water, which is somewhat of an advantage to the vaquero who knows where the cows will be gathering to stay hydrated.  

Historically, before the land dryed out so severely over the last 100 years, cattlemen ran ten times as many cattle in Baja than present day, according to ranchers I talked with.  Market forces and drought play a big part in how many head are raised and sold every year.  This family prefers to sell to buyers who cater to the naturally raised, grass-fed beef consumers in the USA, where they can get almost three times the price than if they sold domestically.  In a country where the legal national minimum wage was set last year at ten dollars a day, every peso counts. The margins are not in favor of the ranchers, and a small monopoly of buyers controls commodity prices on both sides of the border.  Put this way, no one on the back of the horse is getting rich – but they love what they do.  

The Mexicans I rode with take great pride in their skills as cowboys, and roping cattle. However, I learned you never call a vaquero a caballero, which literally translates as horseman but actually equates to being a dandy, a city slicker, or one who rides but has no cow sense: all hat and no cattle, in other words. A vaquero, on the other hand, means one who herds cows or vacas, and where the American word “buckaroo” comes from. They are indeed real cowboys.

Many times the vaqueros would get diverted from looking for cows when they spyed a herd of mustangs from afar; chasing after the wild horse herds scattered about the area provided great entertainment. They would strategically advantage themselfs in a line several hundred yards apart in relay form. One cowboy would sneak up on the herd on horseback and try to drive them to his compadres; they would then swing into staggered formation and give chase, passing the herd off like a baton in succession. Just like cowboys everywhere, it’s in their blood to pit their skills against a wild animal’s.  In all their attempts, even galloping at full speed, I never saw the cowboys get close except once – the mustangs are too strong and agile and suited to their rough environment. And attuned to survival. The wild horses would generally see their pursuer from far off, even when the cowboys would approach from a hiding place. I asked TeTe if they were trying to improve their herd by catching mustangos, and he told me they don’t work with animals that were once wild: only ones they had raised and bred, because he knew their temperament and lineage. This was purely recreation and sport for the vaqueros, a diversion from their months of herding cows.

One day, TeTe gave chase alone for several miles just to see if he could catch the herd, after the other cowboys had given up. He did, and it took me half an hour of galloping the cañadas (ravines) and crestas (ridgelines), following their tracks and the unsettled dust, to catch up with him. You could see the boyish glint of joy in his eyes and smile. He claimed the whole time, racing in the wind, he was looking for stray cattle. The true vaquero, always paying attention to every detail.

TeTe and his six siblings are third generation ranchers in Necua, and have done this their entire lifes. They own the cattle herd together as a family, although it is the four brothers who tend to the animals. Some of the villagers work in the nearby vineyards to support their familys, where employment is scarce but a growing tourism industry is spurring job opportunitys.  Fancy boutique lodging and restaurants are popping up everywhere in this 30-mile long, five-mile wide Valle de Guadalupe, what is called La Ruta de Vino: the wine route.  There are now over 150 winerys in Baja, with over 100 just in this area, with a fancy new wine museum, open to the public, dedicated to explaining this phenomenal growth, especially of the last ten years.  The valley and its growing amenitys have been written up in culinary, wine, and travel periodicals the world over, and international tourism is catching on.  How that will change the lifes of the vaquero, time will tell.

I stayed over two months altogether living with the vaqueros.  TeTe and his family welcomed me as one of their own immediately and I attempted to prove myself useful where my cowboying skills were lacking, by doing construction projects and helping out where I could. As a cabinet maker, word got out and soon I was building and repairing all manner of household furniture in the village when I wasn’t on horseback. In my free time, they worked on my roping skills and taught me the basics of horse shoeing. We even castrated a stallion, which they do only during the full moon cycle, to preserve its spirit and vitality, according to their lore.

Here, the family doctors their own animals with both modern and old medicine, including using snake oil from the many cascabeles (rattlesnakes) they regularly catch, and native plants their ancestors used from the area. (I even tryed the same smelly, viscous oil on a sore elbow, that they rub on saddle sores and whatnot, and admittedly felt relief – snake oil’s debunked reputation, notwithstanding.) Several times I watched them treat horses with bad coughs by lighting a pair of denim jeans on fire (Levis 501s preferred, they tell me), and holding the smoking pants in the horse’s face, after running him hard to get him to breathe deeply. Several of the horses had developed coughs, I think from the mold in the hay they feed; but at $10/bale USD (a day’s wages), it’s too expensive to waste. Almost all of the hay is trucked in from Mexicali, Mexico, is coarse and lacking leafy protein, and costs more per dollar than better hay we get in the United States. Doctoring their own animals is based on need and saving money, as well as knowing what works. They must be doing it right, as their horses improved, were strong and work hard every day, as I found out from the miles of strenuous riding we did.

The whole reason I lucked into this experience is because I had embarked on a three-year around-the-world motorcycle trip fall of 2018, although worldwide closures due to this pandemic have curtailed my plans for now. When I do resume my trip, I will be traveling south from the USA, through the Latin countrys, ending up in Patagonia, where I have connections with estancias and gauchos there. Again, I will be looking for more opportunitys to gain greater horsemanship knowledge, and improve my skills, in varyous parts of the world.  That I found the chance in Baja at the outset of my trip was a surprise, and my good fortune.  I had expected to get further south in my travels before locating a ranching community.  I knew Baja California, had a cowboy culture having purchased the dvd “Corazon Vaquero” by Garry McClintock years ago and reading several books about this area of Mexico; and that the vaquero lived close to the land and followed timeless practices since the first conquistadors and Jesuit priests had brought horses to the region, over 300 years ago. Back then, Baja was an unpopulated peninsula, except by very small groups of native tribes like the Kumiai, who subsisted on very little.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Mexican government wanted to populate the area, hoping it held mineral riches of gold and silver, and to prevent the United States of America from taking it over in another war, so they gave out large land grants to friends and influential people.  They also advertised free land to anyone who wanted to become citizens and prove up and settle farms and ranches, which many Americans and Europeans took up the opportunity.  One of the more famous familys to settle in northern Baja actually originated from Norway, where they started the Meling Ranch, and later Rancho Coyote Meling, or Ranchos Meling as is they are known today. Seven generations later, they still run cattle, although not in the same large numbers. Both have been popular hunting and dude ranches the last half-century, as they transition from traditional ranch activitys. David Lang, an American who is marryed to one of the great-grandaughters, and helps manage the ranch, told me they historically had 10,000 cattle that ranged the high mountains east of their two ranches, with over 40 jinete riders to take care of a herd of a several hundred horses, in the Sierra San Pedro Martir. This mountain range rises from sea level in the west, to over 10,000 feet in just 30 miles, as the crow flys.  From that vantage, people claim you can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Gulfo de California (also known as the Sea of Cortez) – which separates Baja from mainland Mexico – the peninsula is actually that narrow east to west. The Melings have scaled back to a tenth of that herd and are now taking advantage of the interest in eco-tourism that is growing in popularity in Mexico, by operating a restaurant and lodge at each ranch, where I stayed one night as a guest several years ago on a different motorcycle trip.  David laments it is hard to find good cowboys these days, with the skills of the old vaqueros.

 With a growing middle-class, most of their clients now are Mexican nationals, and their rancho is also part of the ejido system that governs the shared use of all Baja California.  This system came about from the class struggles of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, when Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and their ilk raided the countryside in the attempt to make things more equitable for the poor, taking back feudal land grants and distributing them to working familys who lived there.  The Melings often had to defend their homes and cattle from the roving bands of marauders during that time period, as well, which has been documented in several books.  Once in power, the Zapatistas began to reward their friends in the same manner as the old ruling class. Corruption has a long history in Mexico.  

TeTe and his family are also the beneficiarys of that land “reallocation”, in addition to being part of the Kumiai Tribe, raising cattle on the reservation ejido. Their connection to the land and their cultural heritage runs deep in their community and several family members operate the indigenous museum in Necua, showcasing the ancient ways of living off the land. Several times a month, cruise ship passengers from Ensenada are bussed to the wine country for tastings and cultural tours. San Antonio Necua is one of the stops.  Anselmo Dominguez-Sandoval, TeTe’s younger brother, known as the “Professor” because of his background and education, is the local historian and gives talks about the traditional skills and values of Kumiai culture.  He works collaboratively with university programs in the United States and in Mexico, to give anthropology students the opportunity to study that region’s history and the Kumiai language, which he teaches.  He is also one of the coordinators of the Indigenous Games, where athletes compete at different historical native sports, held at a different town every year in Baja, as well as the rodeo competitions in Necua.

Two of TeTe’s nephews are champion ropers within the greater northern Mexico region, spanning from Tijuana east to Chihuahua, and they have the winning trophy saddles to prove it.  Always a humble family, they acknowledge their skills but say their uncle TeTe is much better than they are, and I feel lucky to be learning from such talented cowboys.  

From the time he was little boy, his mother Guadalupe tells me, TeTe lived to be in the saddle.  Every year since he was 12 he would spend months at a time alone, watching over and caring for the cattle.  Some years, he would load his sawbuck aparejo pack saddles with leather panniers called alforjas, made from actual cowhide with the hair left on to shed rain, onto his mules and lead the packstring into the high country, not to be seen for a month or more at a time, sleeping out in the open under a light blanket or plastic sheet if it was raining, cooking his food over an open fire.  Now approaching his fiftys, he is marryed and has a son who is the same age as when he became a full-fledged vaquero.  Young Abraham wants to emulate his father and has little interest in school work but his parents use the privilege of herding cattle as the incentive for him to finish high school.  Education is revered in their family, and TeTe’s younger brother, also called Abraham, has worked hard ranching to afford his three children a college education.  Two of them are large animal veterinarians and the other runs the growing schedule at one of the larger winerys, as an agricultural engineer.  They, and their many cousins, understand education will help them make a living in ways not afforded their parents.  They also grew up as cowboys and help when they can during cattle drives and brandings, when they are not competing in rodeos.

Despite the emphasis of a formal education, animal husbandry is still a big part of their livelihood.  The Dominguez-Sandoval family make up about a quarter of the village’s 175 people.  Each household raises chickens, sheep, pigs and horses, vegetable gardens and citrus orchards, as well as being part owners in the cattle herd.  Some familys have a dairy cow for milking and for making cheese, which is legendary in this area.  (While we were camped with the cattle at Rancho Alamo, we made cheese daily from a Holstein with calf they keep with the herd, getting about two pounds of a firm, sweet ricotta from each milking. It was delicious and complimented the large pot of beans parked daily on the barrel woodstove.) The family members all help each other, sharing what they have and celebrating together.  Every week there is a birthday, holiday or family remembrance it seems, and to feed 30-100 people at a time takes a lot of organization. Tabita, the oldest sister in the family and also part owner of the herd, has started a restaurant from her home under an outside, shaded patio, since she is used to feeding large crowds, to earn a little side money. It is called WA Kumiai Restaurante, and she is an amazing cook – I can attest. At these gatherings, there is so much laughter when they get together I couldn’t track conversations, so I mostly just sat in their midst with a smile on my face. And ate delicious food.

Depending on the occasion, an animal will be selected for slaughter and the whole family chips in to help.  While I was there I learned to butcher all the different kinds of creatures they raise, which was new for me being a principiante (novice), aka caballero (city slicker).  Sparing me my lack of know-how they did not; instead handing me a knife with instructions – or an ax or a handsaw. Good thing I’m a carpenter and know how to handle sharp tools. Everything either gets eaten or has a use – nothing is wasted… from the hoofs to the hide, even the eyeballs, which TeTe assured me are sweet and delicious.  To learn to how to harvest and cook so many different kinds of meat, as well as giant pots of frijoles or refryed beans over an open fire, was a joy, and a real learning experience.  But the best treats were the homemade flour tortillas made fresh for every meal and cooked over a wood fired stove, eventhough I never quite got the knack of rolling them out with a piece of PVC pipe, despite the women’s best efforts at improving my cooking skills.  

The gender roles are pretty delineated, with the women doing most of the food preparation and the men doing the outside chores.  The men are also the ones who get the pleasure of working with the horses, and unlike the mainland Mexican charras and American cowgirl lifestyles, I didn’t see a single woman on horseback in the four months I was in Baja.  It’s not equitable and I had no problem pointing out to both the men and women that’s not how it is in other parts of the world.  Hopefully that will change as traditions change.  Mexico is a macho culture, and for my feminist views they teased me about being a “mandilón” or an apron wearer.  I told them, where I was from I was the president of the Mandilón Society and was here recruiting in Mexico, which always got them to laugh, especially the women who loved the idea of men helping more around the house.

The Catholic faith is important to these Mexican villagers, and the church is parked in the middle of three of the family’s households. They attend regularly and help with the maintenance of the church. A preacher comes from Ensenada to give the Sunday service, and Prof. Anselmo’s children are the musicians who accompany the rousing sermons that are well-attended. Every meal was blessed at the table and they thanked God daily for their health and love of family, putting the hopes of their future in their faith. They are people who do not ask for much in this life. They have what they need, and are happy with their day-to-day living.

The men of the village stay true to their vaquero heritage and make much of their horse tack (tachuela) by hand, using everything from braiding bailing twine into headstalls, to curing leather from their cattle for repairs.  The style of saddle popular in northern Baja has the controversial “bear trap” pommel (pomo) and deep cantle, that locks your seat in, which is good for a bucking bronc and the steep terrain, as long as the animal doesn’t fall over with you stuck in the saddle.  But some Baja cowboys are converting to a Texas or all-around Western style saddle lately, especially the competitive ropers.  They were very curious about my ranching Wade saddle, which has a larger horn wrapped in mule hide, while theirs have thin, bare metal necks for dallying. They were wholly unfamiliar with today’s Californio style of horsemanship as a concept, which originated in Mexico, but were quite adept with their lasso, which they call a chavinda, and were accomplished riders.  My friend TeTe prefers his four-strand leather la riata (lariat) when he’s roping at great distance. Conversely, their saddles are nothing like the large wooden horn and slick fork of their counterparts in mainland Mexico, whose charreada style of competitive roping is popular, but when asked, these Baja cowboys claim isn’t any good for lassoing cattle out on the range, which obviously is not true.  Everyone likes what they like. They were also shocked by the price of my saddle, which comes from a custom saddle maker in Colorado.  Theirs in turn, cost less than $500/USD but despite the myth of poorly made saddles coming from Mexico, lasts them ten plus years of daily use, with hard riding and roping.  I had brought my saddle and blankets down from the USA since it fit me well, was comfortable for the long days we had, and I was familiar with it.  

The first several weeks in April we worked out of the village of Necua, and the local vaqueros joined us, riding into the hills to look for cattle.  We were a sight, and you could tell the group was proud to ride the dusty streets through town, where fewer people these days know the cowboy culture. Folks would come outside to watch us walk by and wave hello, the dogs creating a commotion, picking fights and defending their territory.  The horses were non-plussed from all the action and didn’t mind the dogs weaving underfoot.  In all my time there I never saw a horse act out maliciously toward another animal, even other horses they didn’t know.  They understood they had a job to do and the cowboys weren’t going to tolerate any misbehavior.  Some of the guys had a heavy hand but for the most part, there were very few instances of harsh discipline.  As the foreman of the outfit, TeTe was not afraid to scold any of the cowboys when they were being too aggressive with their mounts, and the vaqueros have a deep respect for his approbation. The horses I was around, were hardworking, well-mannered and well-trained, especially those in TeTe’s remuda.

Jepte Dominguez-Sandoval is a deeply religious man with no formal training in horsemanship, other than what he was taught by his grandfather, father and uncles, and learned on his own and from others, including the horse. He loves to laugh yet doesn’t say much. People from all around come to TeTe’s table to share coffee (called jaa cuñil in Kumiai) and ask his advice. There is always a pot of coffee on the woodstove, the grounds soaking in a cloth funnel they call a calcetín, or sock, and that is their favorite joke to play on the uninitiated, saying it’s one of the cowboy’s, which accounts for the coffee’s color. TeTe’s big grin gets the best of him and he can’t finish telling a funny story without laughing. He likes riddles and many of their hidden meanings were lost in translation between us. He was always patient with this gringo but that is a pejorative no-one used around me. Ever. I never saw him get angry or raise his voice with anyone or anything. Ever the teacher but only if he sees your interest in the topic. He enjoys watching people learn but only offers advice if you ask. I hope he is with us a long time but the skin cancer growing on his hands from years in the sun concerns me. His other brothers have the same issue but count on their faith in God to keep them healthy. The vaqueros here never ride or rope with gloves, even in cold weather.

Some traditions are regional, like wearing their spurs laced opposite most cowboys in the U.S., on the inside of the boot. They’re old school cowboys, yet they all have modern cell phones, which does help keep them in touch with their familys when they’re out herding cattle in the backcountry. I still stay in touch with the entire family through Facebook.

Every day TeTe patiently answered all of my questions, in a dialect of Español that was difficult for me to understand from what I’d learned in high school over three decades prior. Fortunately, I’m conversant in Spanish from traveling in other countrys, and can read it, because I didn’t speak English the entire two months I was with the vaqueros in Necua. TeTe also explained that cowboys have their own use of language that is different from city folk, like using hop instead of jump; or mancito, which means a soft, kind eye, instead of tranquilo or calm/tranquil, to describe an animal’s temperament. Together, at night, we pored over translation books I had brought, and I wrote down many of the new words I was learning, including some in Kumaia. “Auka” means howdy and they say it often, always with a big smile. TeTe was fond of learning American slang and loved telling me to “Take it easy, man” when I was pressuring a cow too much, and “See you later, dude”. The slang I learned from the vaqueros I always checked with the women to make sure I wasn’t using bad words. I gauged this by how hard they laughed, which is hard to do because Mexicans are very jovial by nature and love to tease eachother.

 As a group, we would gather early in the morning and ride straight into the hills, along well-worn paths to ascend over 1,000 feet in elevation.  The horses were well-conditioned and used to the topography.  Spring wildflowers were in full bloom from the heavy rains of winter and the air was pungent with their perfume.  The last few years have been dry and TeTe was grateful for the extra grass in the mountains for his cattle.  It also meant the canyons would hold more water for drinking later.  The hillsides were green and lush this time of year, with huge swaths of colorful flowers, orange and purple.  Mix in large granite boulders and pockets of oak trees, willows and cottonwoods, and I could see why everyone so enjoyed being up in the mountains with the cattle.  

After about an hour, we would reach a central point and break into separate groups to cover more ground.  Instructions were given to meet at a known location some time later, with news of what they had seen, or animals they had gathered. After almost 40 years of riding these hills, TeTe knew every inch of the landscape, and was ever alert for fresh signs of movement along our chosen route for the day.  He would stop and read the tracks in the dust, determining their age and direction.  Often he would pause to scan the hillsides.  Even with binoculars, I had a hard time picking out the cattle, scattered among the rocks and trees, that he could see with the naked eye from far away. The cow’s hides were perfect camouflage in that arid landscape.

 Many days looking for cattle it seemed we moved in random fashion, taking serpentine routes the cows followed, or going in a straight line over a mountain, making our own path, stopping to take in the view and scan the valleys for animals, then plunging down the steep backside, ploughing through brush over our head.  After about a week of riding, I began to see there was a pattern to TeTe’s searching, and that he had actually gridded off the area, trying to discern the cattle’s movements and where they may be hiding.  They proved elusive and some days we didn’t see a single cow, despite riding for hours, which isn’t surprising on 40,000 acres of mostly unfenced landscape.  And the animals roam a good bit daily as they forage and hunt for water. Calfing season was mostly over by this time in April and early May but TeTe knew where the mama cows liked to hole up, safe from predators, like coyote and mountain lion, which we saw tracks of regularly. We covered 15-25 miles in the saddle, which made for long days. At night, as it was getting dark, the cowboys crooned Norteño ballads to entertain us and the cattle, while we worked. Often they would sing out or give a whistle just to let folks know where they were in the herd.

About lunchtime, everyone would meet at the designated site, usually with nearby water, pushing along any cattle they had found.  The cowboys would drink first, filling their canteens or dropping down prone and kissing the water’s surface.  I wouldn’t say the water was safe or clean to drink, filled as it was with moss and algae, and polywogs, and other things I couldn’t identify, swimming about… not to mention, lots of cattle activity.  Everyone but me quenched their thirst, as I drank from the water bottle I had filled back in town.  They smiled, knowing I’d likely get sick from the water they had grown up drinking, and their bodys were accustomed to.  They good naturedly teased me, saying I couldn’t be a true vaquero until I drank from the seeps and pools like they did, but I wasn’t going to risk it.  I was still a caballero, afterall.

We would loosen the saddles and drop the reins to “ground tie” the horses, then pull out fresh burritos from the saddle bags, made that morning.  Someone would gather a few sticks to light a fire and a metal grill would mysteriously appear, which we used to heat up lunch.  After a few days, I realized these were their usual resting areas, where there was shade, water, a fire pit and grill, and level ground for a nap, which dogs, cowboys and steeds took advantage of, in the cool of the trees. Any cattle that had gathered would mill about or wander away but not far.   For an hour nobody moved, not dogs, horses or men. Siesta time.  The cattle would still be where we needed to look for them.

Blog 3: Jinete Time

BLOG 3  12-26-2018

I believe I left off from my last blog with hopes of finding a place to hang out with the true Californio Vaquero, or cowboy, in Baja, Mexico.  Well three weeks ago, I landed just that opportunity thanks to an inquiry I made on a Facebook Page called Talk Baja, in which I asked the group if anyone knew of any ranchos where I could go to learn Mexican horsemanship.  An American ex-pat living in El Rosario has a friend who has a friend, who lives south of Tecate, so I maked (Editor’s note: Remember, I deliberately misspell words the way they should be spelled, according to their root word.) my way up to the Valle de Gaudalupe, in Baja’s wine country, and meeted TeTe and his family, of which there are many in the small village where his ancestors descended from the Navajo Indians of North America, the Kumiay, long before the United States annexed Mexico in 1848.  I couldn’t have been more welcomed, and it wasn’t long before I was no longer the center of attention, and made to feel part of the family.  It was a Saturday when I rolled into town and they were making a pile of tamales for a birthday on Sunday.  Getting together and socializing is a big part of their lifes, and how they show their love for eachother. I realized they must celebrate a lot of birthdays in the family with so many relatives? They also help eachother work on projects regularly, moving farm animals back and forth, or shopping for all the familys when someone goes to town. TeTe’s family accounts for over a quarter of the village’s 250 inhabitants, and they are well liked and respected in the community. They have a long history in this area, and many generations of vaqueros.


The tamales and birthday celebration were great fun, and a pinata was stringed up with the kids taking turns having a whack at it until it breaked.  I witnessed a lot of adults dive into the candy action, and it was an obvious highlight to the afternoon.  The enormous Christmas hog got loose and was running wild around the yard about the time the birthday cake was cut but no one payed attention until the dogs decided it was their job to herd it back into the pen.  They did a fine job in short order so it must be a regular activity?  (I later saw pictures of that hog in pieces, ready for cooking on Christmas Eve.)  People came from out of town to attend the party and church services later that Sunday evening, where the pastor gave an impassioned sermon that bringed tears to most of us in the congregation.  My spanish was rusty my first week in Mexico but even I was pulled in by the emotion of it all, and I’m not religious.  TeTe’s family has a strong Catholic faith, and grace is sayed at every meal, giving thanks to God for all the blessings they have in their lifes. His mother, Lupe, the sweetest woman you could ever meet, is the matriarch and lives alone as a widow. Her home is never empty, however, and I witnessed endless love by her family in their care for her. She misses her husband dearly, as does the rest of the family. That is obvious.

Monday I set about finding work to stay busy and word soon got out I could fix broken furniture.  The village has a community woodshop but it had been neglected for some time, so TeTe taked it upon himself to clean up while I assembled rudimentary tools.  I was feeling frustrated by how little was available to me in both materials and quality tools, when I realized that I had a very elitist attitude coming from the USA, where I have my own personal cabinet shop and access to any kind of lumber I want.  Despite the rustic conditions I still builded TeTe’s sister, Tabita, a nice kitchen island to her specifications to prep food and make tortillas on.  She was pleased when it was delivered, and promptly moved out her kitchen table to make room.  The family soon utilized one of the drawers to set the granddaughter, Kuilchap, in to watch while they socialized in the kitchen. The baby was adored by all and rarely was not sitting in someone’s lap, smiling constantly and providing all of us with endless entertainment.

I was happy to have helped make something useful and offered their family to keep me busy whatever they needed help with. The next day two broken chairs were delivered to me in the shop, missing legs and a back, and a chest of drawers to repair.  In all, I fixed 14 chairs, a kitchen table, four drawers, and the island, and became known as the Doctor de Muebles, or Furniture Doctor.  It was great fun and I enjoy giving back to people who are so appreciative and hospitable. Not having all my tools at my disposal was challenging but I adapted to what was there, and it all turned out well. I even had a good helper in Abraham, TeTe’s young son, who liked spending time in the shop with me.

As the first week neared, I didn’t want to leave before spending some time on horseback, so TeTe saddled me up one of his mounts he promised was not a “bronco”, raced him around to to knock any notions from his mind, and off I went on my own around the village and over the hill to the many vineyards in the area. The Valle de Guadalupe is a valley 30 miles long filled with 100 winerys, and is becoming famous for producing fine wines.  I was gone about two hours when we came upon a loose horse who decided to join up with us.  It had rained the day before and the arroyo had flooded so I was concerned crossing the wide creekbed, not knowing the consistency of the soil and getting stuck in quicksand.  I carefully picked my way across, with the colt following me all the way back home and to the corral.  The local dogs, not recognizing the new horse, decided to have some fun and run him off, which was just as well.  For the next two days I practiced my roping skills with good instruction from the vaqueros, and went riding in the wine country.  It was heaven.  

For my accommodations, Abraham, the son, had given up his “cabana”, which is a vintage 1980s Class-B RV camper, on blocks in the front yard, that had gotten mixed up in a head-on collision in its day and had its motor pulled but the living parts are still in good shape, next to the house.  To keep the rain off, it is covered with a fabric billboard banner advertising a furniture sale in the USA.  It was nice for all of us for me to have my own privacy.  Each night I retreated after dinner to read; waking in the morning to scribe in my journal.

After ten days, I was sad to say goodbye to the family and promised to return on the next leg of my trip.  We had wonderful conversations about how different our lifes are from where we live but really how elemental is the human existence: where if you have the basics covered, like love, a home and food, you can count yourself blessed.  They have never experienced snow, skied, floated a river or sat in a forest but I will never equal TeTe’s experience as a vaquero, where as a young man he lived in the mountains tending the cattle alone for months at a time, from when he was his son’s age of 12.  His skills as a horseman are legendary and people speak with reverence when they describe this humble man.  

Seeing the love TeTe shares with his family, their sense of community and belonging, I can understand why he prefers to live where he does.  People dropped by constantly to ask his advice, and other family members are leaders within the community. Everyone treated me with respect and kindness because of my association with the family. I was repeatedly invited back for Christmas and New Years, when the entire family from afar gets together to celebrate, and both a hog and a steer would be butchered to feed everyone: they were expecting 100 people for each holiday.

TeTe tryed to teach me to throw a lasso, and made it look so easy with every toss strangling whatever it landed on.  TeTe also throws a reata, a leather lasso braided from several strings of rawhide, up to 70 feet long. It is a real talent to use a reata well, and very few cowboys do anymore.  It is also much more fragile than today’s nylon ropes, more expensive and hard to find good ones, as making them is a dying art; and it takes a lot of maintenance to keep supple, and not dryed out.  The thought of lassoing a 2,000 lb bull on the end of a bungie cord makes me rethink why I want to learn to do this.  The reality is, no matter how many times you put on a cowboy hat, unless you can rope an animal off a horse, you’ve got no business calling yourself a cowboy, let alone a Californio vaquero.  All hat and no cattle, as the expression goes.  And, I was quickly corrected when I made the mistake of calling TeTe a caballero, which is the equivalent of calling a real cowboy a “dude” or a city slicker.  Often, a caballero is a ranch owner, or a gentleman horseman who doesn’t work with his hands and never has gotten a callous or a blister in his life, let alone been pulled through a cactus field by an angry bull or stomped by a horse gone loco.  

All of TeTe’s brothers grew up ranching, and they were helpful in teaching me new knots and how to throw a lasso.  Two of his nephews are champion ropers and the oldest telled me TeTe is better than they are.  They prominently display the many trophy saddles they’ve won over the years, inside the house, and their father Abraham recounts with obvious pride that all three of his boys are college educated, two as animal veterinarians and the youngest as an engineer; he is also a champion soccer player, and our first day together we all crowded inside the living room to watch the flat screen TV on the wall.  The Mexican girls national team went against Spain for the U-18 World Futbol Championships, this year in Uruguay.  I was startled to learn how good both teams were and actually thought I was watching women’s professional soccer.  Mexico lost but this family held them in high esteem and were gracious losers to their former colonizers: what might be considered a long-standing rivalry…?

So, in light of all of this newfound knowledge and excitement to want to become a true vaquero/cowboy, I’ve decided to postpone my motorcycle trip for a few months and help out during the crucial time of gathering and branding.  For the next two months, TeTe and his family will be out at their two ranches in the mountains, four or more hours away by horseback, collecting the herd which has been grazing the wild country of north Baja, just south of Tecate.  There, the heifers will give birth, and the calfs roped and branded.  I don’t know what use I will be, and I certainly won’t be on a horse’s back pretending to be anything other than the city slicker I am.  I will, however, return to Idaho to retrieve my roping saddle and my chaps, with the hopes of learning to lasso bushes and rocks and maybe a goat or a dog or two; I have found the Mexican saddle doesn’t fit my long legs very well.  This, after my girlfriend Katherine and I take our motorcycles down the length of Baja, me for the third time and she for the first, in February.

So, a hiatus from my motorcycle trip is in store.  It just happened six months sooner than I figured.  This is not unexepected for me, as I often let my plans dissolve in life’s current, being more interested where this river is taking me vs. where I think I should go, or where people tell me I should go.  My plan on this trip all along has been with the idea of pausing in varyous locations to learn from the locals what I can, wherever that is – preferably with horses and mules. To quote from my first blog from a month ago: “I leave myself open to the opportunity for anything and everything on this trip.”  From here in Baja, I now have contacts in Acapulco and Veracruz, Mexico, to learn more jinete (horse riding) skills in the form of the very traditional and flamboyant charreada equestrian style.  Then onto South America to work with the gauchos and arrieros of Chile and Argentina.  When I get to Spain it will be with even more vaqueros and caballeros, all over again, with hopes of offering more skill than I had prior.  In Mongolia, I will be with the nomadic herders, on tiny mustang horses, camping in yurts.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself; there’s still a lot of motorcycling between here and there.  On with the adventure.  And the blog.

Second Blog: 11-26-2018

The next day I hunted down my usual big American breakfast in Yucca Town, California, then went on to meet up with an acquaintance I’d met last summer who was motorcycling through Idaho.  I was due for a shower and a night on the town, and David knew where in Palm Desert.  So far, I hadn’t stuck to my unrealistic budget of $30/day in the states but I wasn’t worryed and knew I’d make up for it free camping and skipping meals, especially in cheaper countrys.  We had a nice evening, and it was pleasant to stay in house and take a shower after being on the road for a week. Then it was back to Joshua Tree the next day to stay at my friend Mike’s cabin, who happened to be down in the area for Thanksgiving, from Idaho.  Great timing and more revelry and fine dining, this time Thai instead of Italian, with some whiskey chasers at the local tavern that had quite a collection of brickabrack, as well as pretty ladys from L.A.; or so it seemed to Mike.  I couldn’t tell how attractive they were, as it seems everyone here has had some kind of plastic surgery?  More whiskey and a game or two of Backgammon and I was ready for my sleeping bag.  Another omelette in my gas tank in the morning, steeped in coffee, and I set off to find Big Bear Lake, California, with the invitation to return to Mike’s cabin and party with his friends, who were all meeting there the next day for their annual Thanksgiving celebration.  Crawling out of the heat of the desert to Lucerne, the chill air was a welcome relief as I twisted my way up the long climb into the mountains.  I even had to zip close the vents in my motorcycle jacket by the time I made town in the waning light.  I could see the ski hill had snow on it, so I drived that direction only to find out they were opening the next morning. I finded a dirt side road that looked good for camping and set up my tent, not bothering to put up the camo tarp since I didn’t want anyone to drive over me on the shoulder, foolishly counting on my reflectors to protect me.  The road was to a campground that was closed for the season so I was not bothered once it got dark.  Frost in the morning made for haste to find coffee but I enjoyed seeing the cars lined up in the parking lot to go ski the six inches of artifical snow barely covering the grass – what people will do for their recreation.  The Alpine Country Coffee Shop came highly recommended by two people I stopped in the street and I had my usual fare of, you guessed it.  I’ve found it’s always best to ask the locals where to go, especially the people who look like they labor for a living.

The drive down to Redlands was full of twists and turns and the day grew warmer as I got closer to the desert and the freeway, Interstate 10.  I opted for some quiet alone time and poked around on the internet intrigued by this place called Desert Hotsprings, locating an inexpensive hotel with mineral hot water.  At $89 plus tax for a single large bed with kitchenette was too good to turn down, especially with gated parking for my motorcycle, so I made my way directly there to soak.  Once I was unpacked, I showered and washed my clothes at the same time, hanging them in the sun to dry while I taked advantage of the soothing mineral water for a long soak.  It had the viscous quality of hot oil and was thick and heavy but with no sulphur smell. And roasting warm at 107F, and not crowded.  In fact, I had the whole place to myself, a choice of five pools, three of which were cooler and large, and I alternated at will.

It was a short hop back to Joshua Tree the next day, and I enjoyed my time meeting Mike’s friends, all of whom were competent backcountry folk who knew how to cook, and there was a big spread for dinner, starting with fresh lobster and chukar appetizer.  From there, it was two big pans of homemade lasagna, salad, bread and dutch oven apple pie for dessert.  (I never sayed I would be roughing it this trip.)  Mike and his friends are climbers who have traveled the world, so we heard interesting storys and I made good connections with people who want me to visit and stay with friends in varyous places on the globe.

Meeting people, hearing their story; learning from them and their ways of thinking, what their culture is all about; learning new languages and eating new food… that’s why I travel.  It makes me a better person to understand others, and not righteously believe my way works for everyone.  That’s the very American attitude I’m trying to shed.  The Ugly American is real, and is us, both in our cultural and military imposition around the world.  I will do my best to be a good ambassador for the USA, unlike our current president who thinks it’s his job to offend everyone in every country, from every culture and religion, and get the entire world to hate us.  It’s why I delayed my trip a full year after the election to see how this shitstorm plays out.  Resident Rump will be long gone, and likely assassinated at this rate, but his legacy will haunt America and our standing within the world negatively for decades.  We’ll be revisiting the topic of this shithead President many times while I’m traveling overseas, so feel free to chime in and add your opinion.

I opted to indulge myself another stay at the Sahara Mineral Springs Spa Hotel, and delay my crossing into Mexico yet another day, so it was an easy 40 mile ride down the hill from Joshua Tree, after my daily omelette, into Desert Hot Springs but this time I knew the backroads in how to get there, so I had the whole day and the whole place to myself – except for the aging Russian ex-mob boss and his aging concubine.  Or, at least that is the story I created for them as she helped him with his physcial therapy in the hot pool, despite his constant complaining and protestations.  You could tell they loved eachother from the non-stop bickering that killed the peace within the place, and my serenity along with it.  I’m sure they were in the FBI’s Witness Protection Plan but had run low on funds and now were resigned to stay at cheap hotels like me, that called itself a spa.  I learned from the Mexican maid who lived on premises the last five years, the place had had two different ownerships: one Armenian and now Korean, which could be why I couldn’t understand a word the hotel manager sayed to me.  How she got the job I’ll never know because listening to her book rooms over the phone was painful for everyone except Koreans.  Watching her explain herself to her Mexican staff explained why they did whatever the hell they wanted all day, and operated on their own, accomplishing not much.

The ride through Palm Desert to Ramona was a joy, and where I crossed the Pacific Crest Trail, there is a restaurant at the intersection of Hwy 74 and Hwy 371 that serves fantastic burgers and must be popular with the starving PCT hikers.  The Paradise Valley Cafe had a large selection of beers on tap, and while I don’t usually indulge while I’m riding, I opted for a pint of something dark to go with my hearty burger.  Fulfilled, dropping elevation, I located a county park outside of Lakeside, California, but had to circle back toward Ramona when I learned just at dusk the park didn’t actually allow tent campers according to the ranger, as the tent sign showed.  So, I located a lovely spot just off the road, hidden in some big oak trees, throwed my camo tarp over the bike and put up the tent with just enough light to spare.  No one bothered me and I finded a wonderful place to breakfast the next morning in Ramona, ordering guess what?  Fortunately, despite putting my phone service on standby for the next three months while I consider canceling it for good, I can still use the GPS mapping function if I have reception.  Must be a safety feature?  Doug, a local BMW rider joined me for coffee and regaled me with travails of motorcycling below the border, including his crashing his bike but riding it home despite three broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder.  Tougher guy than me, that’s a fact.  Or at least I hope I don’t have to be that tough one day.  

With my delay in game, I decided Tecate would be far enough and would make a good home with enough light to get though Aduana (customs) and to my hotel.  I knew there would be vacancy at the Estancia Hotel after the Baja 1000 race over the weekend and the Mexican Independence holiday, and the subsequent big push of humanity through the border.  As it was, getting my tourist permit was not much of a problem, and only taked 30 minutes and two trips to Banjercito to get the necessary tourist and vehicle permit.  A comfortable night, hot shower, and amazing buffet breakfast – the extra $80 expense was worth it.  

The ride over to Mexicali from Tecate on Hwy 2 the next day did not take long, even as I avoided the speedyer toll road to save pesos.  The pass dropping down Rumorosa was a fun, seemingly endless whip of a snaking road to the hot desert plains below, dropping 2,000 feet in elevation.  The military checkpoint wasn’t interested in stopping those of us heading east, just the drug trade heading west, so I continued onto the outskirts of this million population town.  The toll road gave me the option of skirting Mexicali but I thought I’d be clever, and sink myself into the full Mexican experience since I was now across the border and feeling more confident in my Spanish.  Early onset hubris is a dangerous condition, I learned, and I soon got lost in some pretty scarey barrios, or neighborhoods, where people actually stopped in the street to watch the stupid gringo risk his fate.  It taked me about 20 minutes to get myself untangled and back to a main road, my nerves jangling from the adrenaline of zigzagging through potholed, broken dusty tarmac with glass, tires, bricks, trash, and sharp metal everywhere, in the impoverished decay of humanity and extreme poverty.  I counted my blessings over and over, especially once I was back on Highway 5 headed south to San Felipe.  Soon I leaved the city and the wind cooled my nervous sweat at the higher speeds.  

Ahhh, San Felipe, how I like this sleepy little fishing village.  Yes, it caters to gringos down for a long weekend of revelry but mostly it’s a working town suffering from a commercial fishing closure by the Mexican government.  The malecon (beach boardwalk) is full of shops and restaurants, looking to sell you cheap t-shirts or plenty of burritos and tacos, or a day of charter fishing.  I made my way to the campground, Playa Bonita, and fixed up my home for the next few days.  It’s right on the beach, has covered picnic tables, great tent sites, few people, hot showers and flush toilets, gated parking with security guard who patrols all night – and it’s only $10 a night for motorcyclists.  Each day, I would wake at first light, watch the beautyful sunrise, walk the beach to town, and eat the most amazing shrimp omelette with hash browns, tortillas and frijoles (beans), fresh squeezed orange juice and coffee for $10.  Such a deal, and a meal to hold me all day.  Here, ensconced in San Felipe, I was under budget by $10 at $20/day.  I’m limiting my daily caloric intake to breakfast, since I’m sitting on my butt all day, whether I’m riding my bicycle or not.

From San Felipe, delayed two days because life was so easy and I didn’t want to move, I left town early (after my fourth omelette in a row for breakfast, of course), fueled up at $4/gallon and made it through the military checkpoint no problem.  Some of the soldiers are curious and formal, ask questions and want to peek inside my bags; others don’t care and wave me through, like I’m a pest for bothering them for showing up.  I’m okay with that.  I’d rather they not be too interested in my stuff.  An easy, long road through Valle de Trinidad and Ojos Negros.  It was here three years ago outside Heroe de Independencia that I believe I heard two people murdered the night I camped outside the town dump.  Very frightening memory for me to recall: listening to their screams, the sound of gunfire, then someone digging their graves for three hours until midnight.  Needless to say, I didn’t sleep at all that night, leaving at first light in the freezing cold weather, dizzy and sick from my nerves and the cold.  Today it was much calmer, warmer and a bit hectic when I arrived in Ensenda about lunch time.  Trash fills the roadsides from ten miles outside of town, where people simply toss big bags of garbage that get strewn about by wind and animals.  I toured the city a bit to get a feel from the inside out but couldn’t last, so stopped at the supermercado to get a banana and some instant coffee and my favorite Mexican wafer cookies, then set off for San Quintin. I got sidetracked by a sign for La Bufadora, which is a natural blowhole in the side of a cliff that has become a huge tourist attraction, which I didn’t know and mistakenly thought it was through-road to where I was going.  I saw vehicles wending through pedestrian traffic in the street bazaar, not knowing it was a deadend.  It was crowded but people were friendly, if disbelieving of my loaded motorcycle.  I couldn’t get out of there fast enough and retraced my tracks back to Hwy 1 to San Quintin.  Soon, I was rolling over the pavement to The Old Mill Hotel, south of town, recalling the last time I was there it was dirt with marble sized gravel, three miles off the highway to the bay.  The customary free cold cerveza was waiting for me when I checked into my room, just as ten Mexican riders rode in on a mix of KTMs and BMWs.  Very nice guys, touring from San Luis Potosi.  They insisted I not go along the mainland Mexico coast, through the usual tourist areas of Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco, the states of Sinaloa, Michoacan and Guererro, where the drug cartels dictate public safety.  They say they don’t even go there.  Instead, they wanted me to visit their hometown and tour with them on their backroads.  I’ve never seen the Golfo de Mexico from that side, and I’ve always wanted to go to Veracruz and San Miguel de Allende.  Done. 



Motorcycling the world Menu

First Blog: 11-23-2018

San Felipe, Baja Norte, Mexico 

(Readers be forewarned: you will encounter many intentionally misspelled words and “typos”; this is not done with the intention of annoying you or to offend the Grammar Police but to attempt to change the english (sic) language to something that makes a whole lot more damned sense.  Word conjugation in our language is ridiculous and is full of rules that are archaic and idiotic.  For example: dived has become the replacement for dove, as it should since it is closer to the root verb, to dive.  Compare Weave and Leave and all their screwed up tenses for the fun of it, then think how hard it would be to learn our language for someone who wasn’t born in the USA.  Try Peel and Feel. Did you pelt that carrot; no but you felt it when you peeled it.  Stupid, right?   Another is bake: we don’t say, I boke a cake but baked one; so I say I waked up, not woke.  And that’s what I want all of you to do and put the Word Nazis in their place.  I refuse to “change the Y to I, and add ES” just because my teacher telled me (tell rhymes with yell, remember) because their teacher telled them, etc, etc.  As you know, I’m not good with following rules, and I encourage others to do the same.  The Queen and her proper english can kiss my ass.  Languages changeth, doth they not?  We can now proceed forthwith.)

To begin writing my blog I have needed to take the time to sit down and start the process.  It’s not that I haven’t had opportunitys, it’s I’ve lacked discipline and have not made it a priority.  I also don’t understand Word Press – it sucks.  And, I hadn’t really gone anywhere and didn’t have much to talk about.  Now that I’m 5,700 miles into my trip, it feels like I’ve done a lot of riding but doesn’t feel like I’ve seen or experienced much, even so.  Some of it could be a blurring from compressing time and space; and from not having a particular destination or timetable.  When my mom died five days into my trip a month ago, I had to switch gears, turn around and make a full circle to take care of her affairs.  I then departed Boise, Idaho, two weeks later than expected, and that threw off plans I had for joining my friend Marco in Baja.  He lives in Tijuana and I was going to stay with his family while I worked on my motorcycle and got it ready for the rest of my trip.  And I wanted to work on my Spanish, as Marco speaks perfect English.  It’s always an adjustment going to a new country, and having a safe, comfortable place to land is great at reducing anxiety.  It’s why when I crossed the border into Tecate, Mexico, three days ago I came straight to the Estancia Inn.  Partly because it was close by, and on the main road to Mexicali, but also because it was familiar, since I had stayed here when I came through from my Cabo San Lucas trip almost three years ago. Familiarity breeds a little bit of complacency…

Entering Mexico, I realize it is a privilege to be able to afford hotels as needed.  There will be times when it feels comfortable to camp to save money but that is not possible in citys.  Coming to Baja is a good place to transition to a new country and get my bearings as a traveler again.  My skills and decision making ability need a refresher.  Baja is mellow because it is mostly open country, punctuated with small towns geared toward tourism, but most are not.  There are three large border towns, and I will hit all three in a short period of time, but thankfully my Spanish is starting to come back as I slowly dust it off.  The anxiety of not recalling high school Spanish, coupled with not having a definitive itinerary has caused me to drag my feet in coming to the Mexican border this last week.  I look forward to hanging out in San Felipe, Baja, for a few days, just sitting on the beach, catching up in my journal and working on this blog.

When I left Boise for the second time, on October 29th, I knew I was pushing my weather window, especially crossing over the Cascades in Oregon.  I had good riding gear to combat the cold and felt a bit overstuffed like the Michelin Man.  I wasn’t worryed about any weather except possible snow and ice.  The forecast looked good but I knew western Oregon had been getting hammered with precipitation; and it was getting cold enough to snow.  I always enjoy traveling the coastlines of Oregon and California, so heading to Highway 1 was my priority.  Once I got to sea level the weather could come at me, and I would deal with it.  The roads can be slick with rain but not impossible on a motorcycle like when it’s freezing.  That would stall me significantly; and it’s dangerous and foolhardy to travel in those conditions.  I just won’t do it.  I’d rather hunker down right where I am and camp and wait it out.  The weather will change but the seasons don’t, so I knew I was pushing my luck.  

After a big breakfast in Boise, I barreled across the desert plains of eastern Oregon with the cloud covered Cascades looming in the distance.  Cold but not weary from the six hour punch to Bend, Oregon, I stopped into a brew pub for a bowl of hot soup to regroup and warm up.  Next, rolling into the picturesque tourist town of Sisters, the sun broke out and I decided to take a quick nap in the park under the enormous ponderosa pine trees. Ten minutes later I was back on the bike refreshed and ready to get to the coast.  I’ve found if I don’t stop and rest my eyes for even five minutes, I get drowsy enough to be downright dangerous.  That’s all it takes is a bit of shut-eye to make things right.  I’ll often count to 100 but most of the time don’t make it to 35 before I’m asleep.  Then like a coiled spring I bounce awake a few minutes later.  I’m lucky that way.

As I headed up the pass, the clouds rolled over the Cascades and closed down the horizon, blocking the view of the peaks in the area.  A fine mist condensed on my faceshield and wetted the road.  The highway was not busy and I felt relaxed knowing I would soon be over the pass and heading to lower elevations, out of the zone where it could snow.  As I climbed higher it turned to a light rain but I was not alarmed.  I then started to see patches of snow alongside the road on the shoulder.  Soon it was white all around as I climbed higher.  A few flakes appeared and they threatened to start sticking on the road.  When I got to the top of Santiam Pass at 5,000ft elevation there was six inches of snow from that morning’s storm, and the potential for it to start at any minute.  I’m still kicking myself for not stopping to take a picture of my motocycle surrounded by snow at the beginning of my trip but I was worryed about the road on the other side of the pass.  The picture would have been a good illustration of why I shouldn’t have been there at this time of year.  Needless to say, I was the only motorcycle I saw on the road that entire day.  As it was, there was a bit of snow on the next pass, and although not as stark, I stopped to illustrate the consequence of traveling at the end of October.  In the end, I traveled well that day and had a warm home, a bowl of chili and a cozy bed to snuggle in at a dear friend of my mom’s who lived near the coast.  As my girlfriend, Katherine, told me on this trip: never pass up the offer of a bed or a shower.  She is well-traveled and knows these things.  It’s been good advice.

The next morning, after fresh blueberry pancakes, I left Julie’s home and reveled in the winding country roads of Oregon that follow the rivers leading to the ocean.  These are salmon rivers and supplyed the Native Americans with meat for thousands of years along the coast.  Newport, Oregon, is a lively town with two historic districts, one at Nye Beach and the other at the harbor.  A beautyful old Art-Deco bridge from the 1930s spans the narrow bay, and my friend Barb had the local fish market pegged for our lunch.  The weather was hot and sunny so we opted to picnic by the wharf.  Clam chowder is what my tastebuds hanker for when I hit the ocean and I added in a crabcake sandwich.  Barb’s oyster hoagie looked divine and she gave me a bite to make me jealous.  She even offered to pack up the other half as she ushered me out of town, insistent that I was a fool not to take advantage of the fine weather and put in some miles that day.  Frankly, I think she was tired of so many visitors to her quaint cottage since she had moved to Oregon a year ago, that she wanted some peace.  Nevertheless, she promised to visit me somewhere exotic along my travels, and knowing her, I can count on that happening.  

There is no prettyer place (I will say this a lot in my travels, so be prepared) than the Oregon Coast on a sunny day, especially after a storm where the air is rich from the stirring of the ocean, and the waves froth in heaves upon the beaches.  I can never get enough of the ocean, and much of this trip is organized around that theme.  I know mountains and I know desert but the sea is its own animal and it’s spirit eludes me.  Maybe it’s my Viking heritage that causes that want to know?  I have always desired to learn to sail and live on a boat for an extended period.  Who knows, that may happen on this trip, or after?  I leave myself open to the opportunity for anything and everything in this experience.

The next morning from my motel in Bandon, Oregon, the rain poured outside and I was glad I put the cover over my motorcycle the night before.  I watch the weather radar and saw my break, skipping breakfast after a hasty pack up, and headed south in the misting rain to visit the Redwoods; always a magical experience.  Just over the border into California is Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, with the most enormous trees on the planet.  It is such a sight to see, the first time I saw it, it brought tears to my eyes with wonder, years ago on another motorcycle trip.  The trees dwarf everything on the ground and it’s not hard to believe fairys live in that place to guard over it.  Back to the ocean at Crescent City and I made my way to Arcata to spread my mom’s ashes at the univeristy campus, since she had tryed to go to school there while being a newly single mom with two kids and not a great income.  She dropped out to raise us, and returned to finish college when we left high school.  Kudos, mom.  I wanted to thank her by doing this act.  Fun to see the college kids dressed up for Halloween on campus.  I met up with friends who offered their place for me to stay the night and we went for pizza and a sauna soak at the community center after.  

Up early the next morning to find my way through the fog to The Somoa Cookhouse, where I had eaten on my first motocycle trip down the coast in 1999.  It hadn’t changed much but I was glad for the technology of Google Maps that has changed how we navigate, to guide me through the dense fog or I might not have made it.  Full belly and caffeinated, it was a short fast run south to the main Redwoods and the Avenue of the Giants; 26 miles of original two lane road from the Model-A era that wouldn’t qualify as a single lane of asphalt today.  Wonderful motorcycling that makes you want to take your time, not so much for safety since there is no shoulder and huge trees are within an arm’s reach – but for the sheer spectacle that is this magnificent forest.  It’s sad it has mostly been cut down so that only this fragment remains to showcase trees that are thousands of years old but it was logged heavily even before mechanized advantage 100 years ago; it’s been told a single tree could build a 2,000 sf house, framing, siding and all.  Still, this is what we have left and I’m grateful it’s not all gone.  I even saw some saplings poking up through the duff, which is encouraging but who knows what the planet will be in 2,500 years?

Blasting through the growing furnace that is north-central California (or it could have been I was overdressed from being on the coast?), I stopped in my birthplace of Ukiah to drop off ashes of both my brother and mother but it was so baking hot I didn’t want to leave them there in a parking lot and instead went east to massive Clear Lake where we had spent time as kids.  Since my mother and brother didn’t get along in the last years of their lifes, I didn’t exactly mix their ashes together but left that to the wind and the waves.  The whole area was charred for miles by fire (and would be again further north a week later, incinerating the town of Paradise, population 29,000 two weeks ago – so tragic); I rolled over blackened hill and dale until I reached my newphew, Kyle’s place north of Sacramento.  We had a nice visit and talked of the prevalence of suicide in our family.  Weighty stuff but he has a good head on his shoulders.  From there it was five days in the Bay Area with my daughter Rae, her boyfriend Dylan, and my cousins Karen and Malcolm.  Great family time in the big city.  I felt like a big boy from Idaho using the ferry and bus system to get around.  

Since the weather was in my favor with a large high pressure system, I opted to head east to the Sierras and see Yosemite instead of going down through Big Sur one more time.  It had been 20 years since I had visited that area on my first motorcycle trip and I was due.  And, I’d never been to Death Valley and hoped some of the prior rains had carpeted the landscape with flowers.  As it was, the National Park was overcrowded for my tastes and I blazed through in about 30 minutes, paying homage to the big walls that climbers like to risk their lifes on.  We had just seen the new climbing movie Free Solo in San Francisco and it seemed even more improbable in person someone could climb it without protection and survive.  At the end of a long day, getting to dusk, the granite walls cloaked in the waning orange of the sun, I climbed the steep winding road upwards toward Tuolumne Meadows, knowing I would stop before it got dark to make camp at high elevation.  Found a nice turnout that I could tuck myself and the bike out of the way, and sleeped peacefully through the night despite the cooling temperatures.  My new down sleeping bag has been delightful on this trip. My camo tarp keeped the frost off the tent and the bike, and hided our location.  Technically, I was not supposed to camp there but going on was impractical, as I was tired from my long day, and it was dark out and not safe to travel.  

It was quite frosty at 9,000 ft but I was warm enough the next morning despite the windchill as I dropped down Highway 120 and Tioga Pass to Lee Vining, hoping to find breakfast.  The whole area is quite spectacular with granite domes and spires, frozen rivers and meadows, forest giving way to sagebrush; then a long, long decent off the eastern flank of the Sierras to the desert below, dropping 6,000 feet in elevation.  Breakfast indeed was located, at the gas station at the bottom of the hill, of all places, and it turned out to be one of the better omelettes I’ve ordered; very filling and satisfying plug of calories to keep me fueled.

I met my friend Scott and his kids at a hotsprings south of the Mammoth Ski Area, after a fun detour around June Lake Loop to the north.  The hotsprings was crowded but I knew the place would thin out by morning so I went off to camp alone in the desert and went to the Crab Pot at first light, and had the place to myself, with a good cleansing soak in 106F water. From there, I fueled in Lone Pine next to four black Porsches 911s that rolled up to the pumps at the same time.  The drivers were pecking furiously at little laptops while they checked gauges and let their turbos cool down.  They all had matching clothing and spoke in strong German accents, making me think they were on a mission of speed doing some test runs in Death Valley.  They were driving prototypes I’d never seen before.  I told them I would trade kits straight up but they didn’t see my humor.  Typically German?  

I enjoyed the ride down, down, down into Death Valley, part of which is below sea level, and marveled at the lunacy of those who tryed to make a living there 100 years ago.  Stopping at the visitor’s center at Furnace Springs, I learned of a nearby campground, and as much as I hate to pay to sleep on the ground, I chunked out $16 and had the use of the only water in the desert there.  This turned out to be in my favor the next morning when I stopped at the Inn at Furnace Springs and had yet another amazing omelette, this time smoked salmon and fresh spinach, for about what I payed to camp so I didn’t feel too put out considering the circumstances of being in the middle of nowhere eating exquisite food.  Omelettes are becoming a theme.  It was a roller coaster ride dropping below sea level for the next 80 miles before I leaved the park.  Much of my travel, generally, regardless if the roads are two lane or four, takes place at 80 mph; the bike just purrs in that zone and still has loads of power and is very stable.  This day was no exception and the deep dips in the roads to allow for flash flooding were big fun.  I pretended to get big air coming out of the vados but in reality nothing came of it.  Maybe if I’d been going 100?  Thankfully, the wind speed also helps keep you cool, and when I refueled in Baker, it was blazing hot in the stillness.  I made it to Joshua Tree National Park in the fading daylight, and payed another $15 for the privilege of sleeping in the dirt.  Most of the camping spots were booked from prior reservations so I was lucky to get in, even at that time of year.

Edit”First Blog: 11-23-2018″

Published by bleverru-rtwmotorcyclejourney

I’m currently on a three year round the world RTW motorcycle trip. I’ve been dreaming about this for 25 years and planning it for six.View all posts by bleverru-rtwmotorcyclejourney

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One thought on “First Blog: 11-23-2018”

  1. Steve EshbaughDecember 3, 2018 at 5:30 pmEditYou stopping and enjoying breakfast? You probably ought to ease off on that throttle in Mexico amigo. Your writing is beautiful as always. Please keep posting as you can. And adding fotos in WorkPress is easy…you’ll get it eventually.LikeReply

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The Beginning…

20181028_081353Almost 25 years ago I came across this book and it started the wanderlust in me. Six years ago when I got divorced, I read two more books of motorcyclists taking on the world, and their dreams. That solidifyed my plans and I have not wavered from that dream. I likely won’t take ten years but I don’t know. To further inspire me I wrote to Helge Pedersen and asked to buy his book. He was kind enough to include the inscription, which I have read and re-read. And taken to heart. I know the direction of my travel but my itinerary is open-ended. I will take as much time as feels right. I’ve sold some investments, so the trip is payed for; and I’ve budgeted my travels to cost less than if I stayed home here in America. So, why not travel? I expect to be gone three years. Mr. Pedersen is still riding and leading huge trips throughout the world in his 60s, with his company, Global Riders. He often guides groups through Africa, and is presently in the Himalayas. I take inspiration from him living so adventurously, and I’m grateful for the book he produced. It’s because of him and others, this lifestyle has evolved, and the motorcycle manufacturers have created these amazing bikes that are so capable. I am indeed fortunate, and grateful for this opportunity. I have the love and support of friends and family, and I recognize my obligation to them to be as safe as possible, and not take unnecessary risks. I’ll trust my intuition and get the heck out of bad situations; and do my research about what areas to avoid. There are many dangerous places and many horrible people all over the world intent on doing you harm, especially as a foreigner. Much of it is based in poverty, but more of it is a result of shitty politicians and religious leaders who try to create discord in their followers and get us to hate eachother. Recognize how this fear, anger and hatred manifests itself in your own life, and do something positive with that energy. We are one people, human beings that all want the same thing: health and safety and happyness for themself, their family and loved ones. Tribalism is divisive and sucks. Rooting for your team, your political party, your religion, over your basic humanity leads to violence and suffering, for yourself and others. Open your mind and your heart: don’t believe everything you think. Hate and division is happening here in America, in Europe, in India, South America, Mexico, Central America, Asia, and forever non-stop in Africa. This is a sad condition but real, and has been this way since the beginning of human history. I will do my part to be a good ambassador of the USA, and I have faith in the goodness of people the world over. There are more of them than bad politicians, religious zealots, and spreaders of hate. I’m banking on human kindness, the protection of the Universe and the Creator, and my own wits and sensibility. And a whole lotta luck. I’ll take your prayers and well-wishes. I’m returning to my journey after the death of my mom last week. She and others in my life inspire me to live out my dreams, if only because they did not. I don’t know if this is the right path but it feels like it is. I feel compelled and won’t be dissuaded, especially because endeavors like this don’t get easyer as you get older. This I must do. Thank you to those who understand. To those who do not, may my journey bring clarity. For both of us. You can follow along as soon as I figure out my travelogue system; I’ll be posting weekly discourse, photos and video on my blog:

Keep the hyphen in the link.  Leaving my home, friends, family, girlfriend – all things I love dearly – for this extended period has its challenges. That’s what makes a life of change hard. But, I’ve always believed change is good. It’s called evolution. I’m prepared to experience the new and not fear what it brings. Even the changes within me. I know I’ll grow from this experience. Wish me luck. I hope to see some of you along the way, on this journey. Come find me in foreign countrys. Live your own dreams. Life is precious. On with the adventure! With love, Brandon