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Common Tread

Riding Baja after a 40-year layoff

Mar 13, 2015

1972. That was the last time my old man had been on a motorcycle.

More than 40 years since he’d sat his ass on a vinyl seat, pulled on a helmet and ridden off into the sunset. So when I approached him about riding with me and my girlfriend, Kyra, into Baja California, Mexico, for a month-long journey that would include an opportunity to witness the 47th annual Baja 1000, I was rather surprised when he agreed to go.

The first obstacle was that not one of the three of us had a suitable motorcycle. Kyra was new to off-road riding and my Yamaha TTR250 had been stolen from my father’s parking garage — a damn shame.

Unsure of my old man’s intentions, I looked for bikes Kyra and I could ride. I found a pair of nearly new Yamaha XT 225s sitting on a showroom floor just north of Seattle and we were one step closer to embarking on our adventure. But what about my old man? Not one to be outdone, he purchased a brand-new Suzuki DR650 and was already elbow-deep in the internet, exploring all sorts of accessories and upgrades.

Suzuki DR650
My father's well equipped Suzuki DR650. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Kyra and I began upgrading the XT225s with all of the items I deemed necessary for a month-long journey into Mexico: skid plates, hand guards, 4.1-gallon fuel tanks, tail racks, soft luggage, a GPS unit and fresh rubber. We dedicated a great deal of riding time to getting Kyra, a street rider, comfortable in all kinds of off-road conditions. My father, on the other hand, had ridden off-road quite a bit… 40 years ago. To say I was concerned would be an understatement.

We trailered our bikes from Seattle to San Diego, then crossed the border into Baja at Tecate. To my surprise, he hopped on his new dual-sport — the tallest bike he’d ever owned or ridden, I might add — and followed us effortlessly across the border, dodging semi-trucks and soccer moms the entire time.

near Ensenada
Barren landscape south of Ensenada. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Riding south out of Ensenada, we turned off the highway and onto a long sandy road that lead due west toward the Pacific Ocean. At the end of the road was a steep, narrow section that dropped down to the beach. The lack of tire tracks or footprints was evidence it was a place few people had been. I rode down to explore the rock shelf that stuck out over the ocean. I encouraged my father to come. He declined, stating his bike was too heavy and that he wouldn’t want to pick it up if he tipped over.

So, this is how our trip was going to go? Or so I thought.

Baja ain’t bad. There are gas stations just about everywhere, OXXO stores, taco stands and plenty of tequila. Hotels are inexpensive and almost always have availability. Turn off the highway, and you’ll find dirt roads riddled with large rocks, pot holes, dog poop, etc. We had ridden south to see the start of the Baja 1000, eat tacos, explore the peninsula and escape the ever depressing winter weather in Seattle.

Shooting pool at the Hotel Mission Catavina. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

My old man’s decision to accompany us meant our budget had damn near doubled. This allowed us to stay in some decent places complete with pools, pool tables, private beaches, air conditioning, etc. We had planned to camp a couple of nights, but as time and energy dwindled, we decided to stay in roadside hotels instead. One of which was in the middle of San Quintin, a truck stop town about four hours south of Ensenada.

desert riding
My father riding in the desert on his DR650. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Looking on the internet, I found an infamous watering hole about 40 miles west of San Quintin. The next morning, we rode out of town down a double-wide, sandy dirt road strewn with large stones. After a few miles, however, it was clear this was the wrong road. We persisted anyway. To my surprise — and excitement — my old man blew past me, throwing a foot-tall roost as he raced down the dirt. Ever confident and certainly one to show off, my father looked as if he’d been riding dirt bikes every day since 1972. He navigated the loose rocks, avoided the ruts that lined the road, kept the back end in check when it got loose and applied an appropriate amount of petrol when the conditions called for it. Impressed I was. The ride was shorter than any of us wanted. This was the first time we were able to explore off the highway since we crossed the border, and we were all eager for more dirt, more rocks, and more sand… especially my old man.

riding at sunset
Riding back from Molino Viejo at sunset. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Sand, unfortunately, was something we found in full. Sitting on the Sea of Cortez is a small fishing town called Bahia de Los Angeles. A must-see destination according to countless friends, we traveled south from San Quintin, riding a few empty sections of the Baja 1000 race course along the way, with intentions of staying a few nights in this quaint fishing village. What we didn’t know was that a hurricane had all but destroyed Bahia de Los Angeles. Our villa, which sat seaside on the north end of town, was impossible to reach by road. Knee deep sand separated us from our accommodations — two, maybe three miles of the stuff. Here, again, my father proved me wrong. He dropped the bike, finally, but picked it up as fast as it had fallen over. Then, with sweat on his brow and determination in his eyes, he throttled through, blasting his way down the beach toward our seaside chateau.

What awaited us was utter devastation. Running water and electricity were unavailable, and the stench of an overflowing septic system filled our room. We headed back north just as the sun began to set.

Baja 1000
All smiles at the start of the 47th annual Baja 1000. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.
We returned to Ensenada later, watched Trophy Trucks race through town, ate octopus tostadas, drank countless Tecates, and then, when the excitement from the race had ended, we headed north toward Tijuana.

Three weeks riding dirt bikes in Baja. Sounds like the kind of trip most people take with a few friends, not with your father and significant other – both entry-level off-road riders. But I’m not one for friends, or for that matter, an ordinary adventure. Besides, my old man, although difficult to deal with at times, is about as cool as they come.

So what did I learn from all this? If you’ve got good ones – friends, family members, a lover – take them with you. Encourage them to escape. Give them an excuse. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Having been seasoned in Baja, the family team gets ready to ride the Los Angeles-Barstow-Las Vegas dual-sport ride. Photo by Justin W. Coffey.

Two weeks after we returned to the United States, my father and I rode the 31st annual L.A.-Barstow-Vegas, a 300-mile-plus dual-sport ride from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. This time, I wasn’t concerned about his abilities. He dropped the bike a few times, crashed in soft sand, then picked it up and kept riding – as if he never stopped in 1972.