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Spinstera by Gretchen Howell - 1M ago

There are daily flights from La Paz back to the Bay Area. But I hate flying with a bike. I decided to take the slower option. One less international flight. One more travel adventure.

The nice thing about the bus is that there’s no need to dismantle the bike. Or even pay extra for it. All I had to do was take off the front wheel. Which, I learned from a bearded white guy on YouTube, is super simple. I bought a couple of cheap plastic travel bags to stuff all my gear in. I also brought about a week’s worth of candy and empenadas and other snacks.

The ride to Tijuana takes 24 hours exactly. Not an easy bus ride. The seats were comfie but the road was bumpy. And long. The most interesting part was stopping at a military checkpoint in the middle of the night and watching the soldier dog inspect all the luggage. By the time we got to Ensenada, the rain had started falling. Just a light rain but more or less all day. I had a five mile ride from the TJ bus station to the border. No big deal, right? Just follow the google maps.

Except no, because, omg, water was everywhere. I guess Tijuana has a little drainage problem. My five mile ride nearly turned into a swim. The sidewalks and gutters were completely flooded with swirls of dank dirty water. Sometimes waterfalls spewed across the road. I charged through, certain I would be swept off a cliff. Cars drove by, splashing up brown waves that crashed over my head. I clamped my mouth shut to keep the poo water out. I was soaked through ten times over by the time I got to the border. At least I didn’t have to wait in line with the cars.

The border guard told me to take off ALL my bags and put them through the X-ray machine. I resorted to whining. “It’s really hard to get all the bags on and off,” I told him. “Can’t you just look inside them? I’m really cold.” Anyway, it worked.

I took the trolley to downtown San Diego. This trolley, I’m happy to report, has been upgraded since 2004. The old trolley had horrible steep stairs and when I hefted my loaded touring bike aboard, it nearly toppled me over backwards. The new trolleys are much nicer, with proper low floors. I found my downtown hostel with just a little hassle.

That was the first leg. The Amtrak left San Diego before sunrise. I made it out to the street with plenty of time for the 1/2 mile ride to the station. The first train left on time. The Pacific was wild, churned up to a brown foamy froth. I had an hour or so at LA Union Station to observe the morning commute crowd passing through the gorgeous old style station. The rain kept falling and our late start turned into more delays. I’ve never seen water in the LA river before.

I treated myself to lunch in the dining car and then spent the rest of the day staring out the window at rare green California hills. Maybe it’s not high speed rail, but the view from the Pacific coast train tracks is unbeatable.

A mere 52 hours after leaving La Paz, my mom picked up at the Salinas train station.

The next morning I caught this picture of my parents’ house at the end of a rainbow.

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Spinstera by Gretchen Howell - 1M ago

I woke up to an incredible sunrise. Also, so many tiny terrible bugs that I actually pulled on my mosquito head net. Getting bit was a good motivator to pack fast. And I was pleased to be using all my gear on these last couple days.

Paved road goes by so fast. I could tell I was getting closer to tourist land. RVs dotted the nicer beaches. I saw so many places to camp that looked so much better than where I’d ended up. Oh well, probably they had bugs too.

I hadn’t made coffee (I know, shock!), so I pulled into the first roadside restaurant. I eavesdropped on the ladies in the kitchen until they started talking about me. They thought I lived in La Paz. I had to let them know I’d come from the other direction. They were gratifyingly impressed. I love that the Spanish word for brave is valiente.

Then I was on the outskirts of town and it was busy and cluttered again. I stopped again to eat tacos. And then I was on the malecon. It even had a bike lane.

I handed my phone to a man on crutches who seemed like his job was snapping pictures of tourists at the La Paz sign. Some Mexican tourists asked to take pictures with me too. Then I rolled over to the Pension Hotel California. There were some other cycle tourists checking in. Some road bikers from Europe, who asked why my name was Gretchen. Luckily, the hotel had a small naughty black kitten to cheer me up.

I have a terrible time with the end of trips. Because isn’t the end of the road just a metaphor for death? I’ve always felt that the best part of the journey was the journey itself, not the reaching the end. And certainly not going back to work. So my goal is never the finish line. It’s to be present in the place where I am. Probably why I ride so slow.

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Spinstera by Gretchen Howell - 1M ago

Oh look at that. Day 47 and also my first day of being 47 years old.

I woke up several times in the night to re-inflate my mattress pad. That big agnes pad was expensive but not Baja-proof. I was out of alcohol so I made a quick little fire to heat my coffee water. I’d never had such an easy time getting campfires going. There was endless fuel lying around, even the kindling. Even bushes of dry twigs that I could mash down on top of my one piece of paper.

The road followed the coast. Almost flat but not quite. To the west, green layered cliffs rose weirdly. What was the green? I tried to find a good rock of green stuff but it all crumbled like dry cake.

I came to a small fish camp. Swarms of seagulls circled overhead. I pulled in and rode out to a shelter where three guys were chopping up the day’s catch. Two dogs helped with the scraps, their muzzles dripping with blood. I asked if I could buy a fish. The guys looked around at their stacks of butchered manta rays. I didn’t really want to buy a manta ray. They held up a little shark. Actually, I didn’t want that either. Finally one guy pulled out a parrot fish. I pulled out some extra plastic bags and he had that fish in filet form in less than a minute. It looked like plenty of fish to me but he joked that it was only enough for breakfast. When I asked how much he wanted, he shrugged like I was supposed to take it for free. I gave him 50 pesos and I’ve no idea if that was too much or too little.

Fish tucked away, I started back down the road. Immediately I started worrying about the fish. Was it leaking inside my bag? How long before it went bad? Did I even remember to eat breakfast? What the hell, the beach was pretty. I’d just stop and enjoy this nice place and try my hand at cooking fish.

Because I brought fish-cooking gear. A thousand years ago, when I was agonizing over what to bring to Baja, I’d settled on bringing the lid and pot gripper for my MSR pot. That lid occupied some prime packing real estate inside my frame pack. It definitely needed to get used.

I had some garlic and ginger and a packet of coconut oil. Which didn’t seem like enough oil so I put in water to poach my fish. It cooked super fast. It tasted bitter though, sort of disappointing. But at least I got to use my fish cooking set-up. And delay myself on the beach. It was a gorgeous, unspoiled beach. After I cleaned my pan, I played in the water for awhile.

The elevation profile for the day was deceptive. Flat compared to that last bit of mountains, but there were definitely still hills. I took my time. The end of the trip melancholia was starting to weigh on me. Much as I try not to think about all the things I’ve got to do before that flight back to Korea, the list of must-do’s was writing itself in my brain. My days of living outside were numbered.

The route headed inland. I came to a spooky gray moonscape, littered with rusted mystery machines. Maybe some kind of old quarry, could be the setting of a MadMax type movie.

I crossed a bridge over a conveyor belt carrying black gravel to a ship anchored at the end of a pier. The next town was San Juan de la Costa. The sky was getting dark when I reached the town. There was a store next to the river but it was just a beer store. You could tell by the crowd of drunk guys in the parking lot. The store with food was at the top of a hill, of course. I filled my water bottles and bought too much candy. Now to find a campsite. By this time, it was truly dark, and suddenly I was back riding on the highway. Not much traffic but still. I put on my lights and hunted for a camping spot. Actually not very easy to do in the dark and also there were lots of invisible bugs biting my face. I’d been trying to ignore them all day but they’d obviously waited till darkness to start feeding for real. I fumbled around on a few pull outs, trying to find someplace not too exposed or icky. Finally I found a spot next to a beached boat. Once I was zipped into my tent, I could see the no-see-ums clustering on the mesh.

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Spinstera by Gretchen Howell - 1M ago

While I was making my morning coffee, an old man came walking up the path. He did a double take when he saw me in my tent. We chatted awhile. He let me know that he was single and available. Then he said to come by his house if I needed water.

I went to his house. A nice old woman filled my water bottles. I think she was his wife. Possibly he lied about his relationship status. How about that.

My birthday treat was some candy I’d kept myself from scarfing down the last two days. The best was this big gooey coconut log. I love anything coconut.

This is my last hundred miles.

I went by a farm full of cute animals. There was a pen full of baby goats. We hung out. Also there was a spotted baby donkey that I was in love with. It looked plenty naughty.

I rode and walked up and down hills. It was slow going. Finally I got to the big downhill. Back to the Sea of Cortez. That downhill, just as treacherous as the rest of that section. I gave my disk brakes a good squeezing on the way down.

Back by the sea, I noticed a spur road heading to a lighthouse. It seemed like a fine place to camp. Sand would be a lot nicer than rocks under my dying mattress pad. I pitched my tent in some dunes.

Wandering around, I found these weird puffballs. Some kind of disembodied bird part. They were made of feathers and nearly weightless. They were too cute to dissect for science. You know who would love one? My cat.

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Spinstera by Gretchen Howell - 1M ago

It was a windy morning. Things tried to blow away but I caught them.

Once again I was climbing mountains. There were road crews out. They were building drainage and paving the stream crossings. The high passes are paved too. I had to walk on plenty of the hills. Not because I can’t ride up, just that they’re too steep. Don’t start thinking that I’ve got a handle on this mountain biking thing.

I walked a lot. Sometimes it was just easier to keep walking instead of climbing back on. Once I ran into a sand trap. I started to skid out. I looked down and saw that it was all sand under me, no rocks or pokey plants. So I just flmphed down into a pile of sand.

Around lunch I came to a dry river crossing with a half finished drainage built. The workers were gone but they’d thoughtfully left some car seats in the semi-shade. I leaned my bike against one and sat in the other.

Not all the water crossings were dry. Sometimes they were full and looked like magic oases.

Of course that’s where everyone lives. Not in the dry bush. My dreams of camping next to water were not to be. The waterside spots were all taken. I pushed on passed sundown until I came to a tiny settlement. I followed a little path off the road and found a flat spot without too much goat poo.

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Spinstera by Gretchen Howell - 1M ago

I washed my pants in the sink and dried them with the hair dryer. Afterwards they looked even dirtier. There must be layers of dirt and stains. At breakfast, an older man came to my table, asked if I spoke Spanish, and sat himself down for a chat. He told me about his years living in California, buying and selling used machinery. One of his daughters married a Korean man who runs an agricultural outfit in Baja, growing some kind of nafta green veg. He said he has a ranch now, but he comes into town because it gets a little lonely. I told him I admired Baja ranch life. He said I could come visit anytime, he’d even get me some goats.

It’s not the worst proposal I’ve ever had.

Leaving Ciudad Constitucion involved riding through the dump. It smelled about how you’d expect.

I stopped at a mission town for lunch. At some time, San Luis Gonzaga was a much bigger town. Besides the church, there were two more once-grand, now-decaying edifices. I went to an open hut restaurant for some machaca burritos. I figured it would be my last restaurant meal for a few days. The cook told me that the extra buildings were a monastery and school. While she busied herself with my cheese and beans, a couple dudes and a little abuela gathered around. One of the guys asked how much my bike cost. Normally I would never talk about stuff like that. I don’t want to sound braggy or rich. But I was curious to see what they’d say, so I told them. They laughed and told me, “that’s a car.” I guess I can’t pretend to be a poor teacher when I’m riding a bicycle that costs the same price as a car. It is weird to be seen as a rich person. I’m doing a rich person sport in a place where people are poor, so I guess that’s what I am.

I spent the afternoon riding passed little ranches. Goats and cows everywhere. Sometimes I came around a corner to find a whole herd of goats. They’d turn to glare in unison, like I’d just caught them in the act of doing something illegal. Or, I’d come upon a single cow, standing mid-path, staring me down with big cow eyes. Sometimes they didn’t even bother moving away when I rode by. It’s unnerving, riding so close to a cow. They’re not huge animals but big enough to give me a good knock if they wanted to.

I waited too long to find a camp. I ended up wandering down cow trails through the darkening desert, looking for a flat patch. I found an okay spot and set up tent in the dark. It was close to the new moon, so the only light was my headlamp and a billion stars in the sky. As soon as I was settled in, I started hearing bells. And footfalls. Shit, cows. Was I on a trail? I shined my light around. All around I could hear the sounds of cow hooves thumping the sand, their bells clanging. By my light I could see nothing but cactus and brush all around. No eyes reflected back at me. No movement through the brush. Were the cows even real? Maybe they were ghost cows. Well fine, as long as they didn’t trample my tent.

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Spinstera by Gretchen Howell - 1M ago

It rained off and on all night. I worried that I might wake up in puddles, or a mud pit. But no, the ground was still solid under my floppy mattress in the morning. It was sprinkling, just enough to be super annoying. I hate packing in the rain.

I figured the ride into Ciudad Constitucion would be easy enough. On the map, it was all straight lines. Well traveled dirt roads. I rode by long rows of agriculture, a few orange groves, some tattered plastic greenhouses. I went by a small busy quarry, and for the next few miles I shared the road with great big trucks, sand and gravel blowing off the back. I could feel the sand sticking to my sunscreened face.

Just outside of town, I came to the cemetery. The tombs were painted cheerful pastel colors. It looked like a tiny house town. I rode through a great big hole in the surrounding brick wall and wandered the paths.

In town, I saw another loaded mountain bike outside a tortilla store. I met another rider, Pat from Seattle. We rode into town and found a reasonable hotel. I spent a few hours draping my wet gear around the room. Then Pat and I walked around visiting taco stands, both of us going, “blah blah blah, bike bike bike.” At the plaza we saw a parade of collector cars. A beauty queen waved at traffic from a truck bed. Pat said that Anthony Bourdain was into finding local car shows when he traveled. I bet Bourdain would have approved of our taco eating, especially when one taco guy slipped Pat a piece of cooked tongue.

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Spinstera by Gretchen Howell - 1M ago

Super foggy morning. I woke up to a world of gray outside my tent. I put up a rope and hung up my fly to dry. Goats bleated in the distance. Teeny tiny hummingbirds visited the pale yellow flowers growing out of the rocks. By the time I was packed up, the goats arrived. They stared at me from rocks, skirted around, nibbling at anything edible in goat’s reach.

The road continued same as yesterday. Often when I came to a water crossing, there would be a solitary donkey or horse hanging out. They’d perk their ears towards me when I yelled hello and patiently wait for me to leave.

I was kind of tired. It was a slog. No more giant hills but enough sand to keep me sweating. I took a big break to eat most of my remaining food. Probably I’d get to the next town in time to buy more. The track started to even out, turn into more of an actual road. A pickup truck passed me and then I saw a cell tower. A sure sign of civilization.

I got into Ley Federal de Aguas Numero Uno (what kind of name is that?) just around sunset. As I was packing my bike and cinching my straps, a responsible young man pulled up to the water store pushing a big water jug in a baby stroller. While the water guy did his thing, Rodrigo took the opportunity to pepper me with questions. He was a serious kid and very curious. I did my best. There were one or two questions I didn’t understand. When I told him that it was snowing at my sister’s house, he had lots of questions about snow.

Then it was dark and I was riding on a paved road. Beside agricultural fields and fences. Wuuut? Where was I supposed to camp? I stuck lights on my bike and pedaled on. Finally the desert started again. I waited for no cars, turned off my lights, and scurried back into the brush. The ground was full of burrs. I did my best to sweep them away before setting up my tent. I suspected my mattress leak was about to get worse.

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Spinstera by Gretchen Howell - 1M ago

During breakfast, I met another cyclist. She was riding solo, hitching a little. It was exciting to meet another woman. I was having a long slow morning so I guess she got ahead of me.

San Javier was full of day tourists up from Loreto. They stood around the mission staring at the rock walls and orange trees. All the little stores sold touristy things. Usually I skip over those things since I can’t carry new stuff. But I went in one to buy milk candy and saw some small embroidered cloth bags. The guy at the store said they were sewn by people who live out on ranches. I imagine them sewing around a wood stove at night, maybe watching some telenovela. Anyway, I can always use another reuseable bag.

I rode out of town into some river crossings and canyons. For once, not a huge climb out of town. Just pretty streams and waterholes. And a whole lot of goats. With babies. I stood there making googoo noises at them and taking videos forever. I touched a few but the really tiny ones wouldn’t come near me.

The route crisscrossed a river valley with occasional water. Enough for my socks and shoes to get wet. Not super wet, just enough to get really dirty. I was tempted to camp at nearly every bit of water.

Finally I settled on one around sunset. It was mostly smooth rock with a trickling stream running through it. I made a little fire to dry out my socks and cook some ramen. Later on I heard rain on my fly, good thing I’d put it on.

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Spinstera by Gretchen Howell - 1M ago

I rode about 10 miles to San Jose de Comondú. A steep drop into a canyon bristling with date palms. It was a sleepy mission town. Two tiny old ladies with a really small chihuahua sat chatting on a bench by the plaza. I bought some snacks and had a look at the mission. The store didn’t have a water machine. I was going to go down to the river to filter water. Then I met some nice girls and they gave me water from their house.

The climb out of the canyon was no fun. So rocky. Then a big bumpy downhill. After 10 miles I pulled over to eat some food. That’s when I saw that one of my water bottles was gone. Probably rattled off on the rocky downhill. Oh well, it’s high time I replaced it. I made a Nalgene full of Zuka to cheer myself up. Zuka is a powdered drink mix they sell by the packet in stores. It’s sweetened with aspartemine, which I understand is terrible. But it’s delicious and sometimes when I am riding, I just can’t stop thinking about the Zuka. The mango flavor is pretty good.

I pushed on. I had aspirations of making it to San Javier. It wasn’t that far, but so many hills! I rode through a reserve called El Horno. Which means “the Oven.” Then I saw the oven. It’s built of stones, like a castle, and it’s huge. What the hell do they bake in that oven? Is it for pottery or bricks? Gigantic bread?

My second Anker battery was dead. Only one more to keep me powered to Ciudad Constitucion. I was going to have to stop listening to podcasts.

I came over another endless hill and the sight of the road ahead just about killed me. Long switchbacks stretching up yet another steep climb. I made it almost all the way up without pushing. That last stretch to the top, I was just too tired to keep the front wheel straight. Walking and pushing felt like more actual work, but at least I wouldn’t fall over.

There were kilometer markers on the side of the road, counting down to something. It was getting close to evening when I reached the zero and met up with a paved highway. East downhill to Loreto. I was tempted by memories of a laidback town with fantastic tide pools and water birds. But the route took me west. Traffic was light. The highway followed the course of a river, meaning water and shade.

I pulled into San Javier. It was bigger than I expected. I saw a sign for an albergue. In Spain, that means a hostel. Could it be the same here? I asked a guy on the street and he told me it was for students. But there were cabins down the street that I could rent. I rode towards the mission and saw the best sign ever.

The woman who rents out the cabanas was named Celia. I liked her. She showed me a picture on the wall of her five beauty queen nieces. I got the feeling she was a smart businesswoman. The cabanas weren’t that cheap. I would’ve paid any price. She handed me a plate of carne asada. Also she told me I could buy internet time at the store next door. That’s what the conectaless wifi signal was all about. Aha.

After a couple days of dragging myself over those bumpy hills, a real bed felt mighty fine.

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