Between the Cactus and the Deep Blue Sea

Between the Cactus and the Deep Blue Sea

Photos by: Ken Etzel 

This is a love song about a thousand-mile-long crooked finger of dust and rocks and cactus. It’s also about the enduring power of friendship, and about the connective power of bicycles. There’s a metaphor here, maybe too blatantly obvious for people who make bicycle wheels for a living, about how axle to bearing to hub to spoke to nipple to rim to tire makes a bicycle wheel a complete thing in much the same way that each individual on a trip contributes to the whole. Those individual human components, and the journey to the destination, the terrain being ridden, and the culture being ridden through all combine to make the experience.

In this case, the experience was a question mark ahead of time. A group of friends wanted to ride mountain bikes in Baja, each of us having many years of experience doing everything EXCEPT riding bikes in Baja. Because, for the most part, riding mountain bikes in Baja is an acknowledged act of masochism. There will be blood. There will be flat tires. There will be rocks, and sand, and sand with rocks in it, and everything has thorns, and it is hot, and nobody really rides bikes there. That much is true for most of the peninsula. It is a punishing and beautifully empty place, where human life tends to cling to either the Pacific Ocean or the Sea Of Cortez. Three mountain ranges along the length jut steep and jagged from the landscape; there are few roads into them, fewer trails traversing them, and in spite of the topographic allure, the opportunities for riding are for the most part more focused on survival than shreddits.

But wait. Way down south in Baja, outside of Los Barriles, something has been happening. Snaking through the cactus, weaving in and out of arroyos and climbing along dusty spines toward the eastern flank of the Sierra De La Laguna, singletrack has been getting built. They’ve been scratched into place over the past couple decades by windsurfers and kiteboarders desperate for something to do on windless days. Los Barriles has exploded in size with the influx of seasonal gringos looking for warm weather and howling winter wind, and with the people, the trail network has grown. So, right as the first legitimate storm of the season began to drench Northern California in the wake of thanksgiving, that is where we decided to gather.

This was Ben’s idea. He makes things happen at Roval, and has been itching to get down the peninsula on bikes ever since his teen years when he’d come down here every spring break with his best friend in a Peugeot station wagon with an inflatable Avon strapped to the roof. He hatched the plan to Cameron and Mike around a campfire somewhere uphill from Downieville last summer. Many months later, that plan coalesced with six of us gathering in Los Barriles on a warm December afternoon. We slapped together bikes, sweating in muggy warmth, and spun out onto the trails just in time to catch the sunset, ripping back downhill in rapidly gathering darkness, riding fast on unfamiliar trails; rocky, loose, lined with teeth.

The next two days fell into a smooth rhythm. Up before dawn, out on the trail in time to catch the sunrise, shoot and ride for a few hours learning the trail network, back in town in time for a late breakfast by 11. Digest food, pluck cactus spines from arms and hands, exchange sweat soaked clothing for fresh, fill up the water bladders, and head back out onto the trails again by 3. Get down around dark, hose off, find dinner, toast to a day well spent, talk until the sleep hammer fell, wake up the next day. Rinse. Repeat.

Eugene and Sue were our conduit to the trails. They spend their winters in Los Barriles, taking a break from their regular lives in Oakridge Oregon, where Eugene manages Willamette Mercantile, the bike shop in town, and where both of them guide for Cog Wild. Eugene and Cameron have been friends since about 2000, but this was the first time they had connected with each other south of the border. Cameron, meanwhile, crafts fine steel bicycles from his northern lair in Quincy, California. He has been riding his whole life, and is a Marin-raised, deeply talented countercultural touchstone in terms of “keeping it real.” When it comes to Roval putting an ear to the ground and listening for the sound of approaching hoofbeats, Cameron is one of our advance scouts.

Los Barriles is a strange town. It is packed with gringos churning back and forth on quads and side by sides, and is one of those places that might never have compounded into the destination it is were it not for the Sea of Cortez and the abundance of winter wind making it an almost perfect place to kitesurf. But it is exactly that influx of athletically inclined gringos that led to the birth and expansion of the trail network there. The trails leading out into the desert from Los Barriles consist of an informally built maze of singletrack, organically unplanned and entirely built with the sweat of volunteer labor over many years. They are a constantly evolving work in progress. Every couple years when major hurricanes hit the region, the trails get pounded almost out of existence, then get built back up. Fences get built, property lines move, cattle graze, and the trails shift and morph following lines of social constraint as much as they do topographical contour.

Todd Simmler is one of the current driving forces behind trail work in the region, and head of BATS (Barriles Area Trail Stewards). He is a compact, animated, energetic force of nature. And a scary good rider. Another migratory Oregonian, he has been making winter pilgrimages to Los Barriles for a decade now, and is maniacally dedicated to making the Los Barriles trails destination-worthy. The terrain is baked hard most of the year, rocky, and lined with brutally sharp vegetation, making the trail work environment incredibly inhospitable. With most of the local gringo eyes focused on the Sea of Cortez, waiting for the wind to pick up, it’s a testament to Simmler and his posse of volunteers that the trails are as good as they are. On our final dawn patrol here, he was out before sunrise to show us around, then headed straight back onto the trails after riding to shape some dirt in the narrow window of time left while the soil remained diggable.

An hour to the north is La Ventana, another formerly tiny fishing town transformed into a seasonal kiteboarding ghetto. Much like its neighbor to the south, La Ventana has seen a proliferation of trailbuilding. There is a network of flat but ridiculously fun trail slaloming through a cactus forest at the south end of town, and a hillier, at times chunky and mid-level sketchy network of trail north of town heading out toward Punta Gorda. The trails around La Ventana have a similarly organic vibe to those in Los Barriles. They are just uncivilized enough to keep you on your toes, easy to ride at a mellow pace, but edgy and hard to ride real fast.

This was a short trip, but after four days of pre-dawn rallying to get the good light followed by full days of scouting our legs were getting sapped and we were all plucking remnants of cactus spines out of our arms and legs. Nevertheless, we jumped on a last minute opportunity to ride in Rancho Cacachilas on our way out of La Ventana, and get our legs ripped off by one of Mexico’s fastest U-23 XC racers in the process.

If the trails in Los Barriles and La Ventana are examples of informal, organic volunteerism, then Rancho Cacachilas is a study in intent. A massive 38,000-acre ranch, featuring working organic farms utilizing permaculture processes, an ambitious water reclamation landscaping project, and over 70 kilometers of impeccably built, architecturally mindbending trails. Joel Ramirez, born and raised a couple short hours to the south in San Jose Del Cabo, an international caliber racer who has been supported by Roval for a few years now, toured us around the ranch. In contrast to the close-contact, high-thorn count, informal treachery of the trails we had been riding, the trails at Rancho Cacachilas felt like freeways. The rock and bench work that went into making them is a sign of dedication, intent, and more than a few dollars being spent. Rightly so, since this is a pay-to-play environment, a daring experiment in sustainability and ecotourism in a region known for kitesurfing and a notoriously untamed desert.

 

We came down here to escape winter, reconnect as friends, and maybe find some decent riding. We found more than we expected in every regard. We came home with cactus thorns lodged in our arms, good memories, new friends, and the knowledge that the trails are there, and they are legit. We will be back.

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