Arizona to Baja to Alaska to Trans-Am: From the tropics to the arctic and everything therein

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Alex warms fingers while pedaling over Cache Mountain Divide in the White Mountains Recreation Area north of Fairbanks, AK this spring.  After riding with us in Baja for two months, he joined us for several weeks of winter riding in Alaska.

Crossing the Mexican border at Tecate last December, we could not have known what was to come.  We weren’t planning to ride down the peninsula twice to make the Baja Divide, Lael wasn’t planning to race the Trans-Am.  And I couldn’t explain exactly how we had gotten there.  How, after five years, are we standing at the border gates with such great excitement to return to Mexico, hoping and knowing the desert will provide the opportunity to enjoy long restful nights and open roads.  Baja was a consolation for our other plans.  We’d tossed around lots of options, such as riding in Egypt and Sudan or wintering in Eastern Europe, but Lael had too recently attempted the Arizona Trail to commit to those kinds of trips.  So we went to Baja, and now we are here.  Specifically, Lael is standing adjacent to the mouth of the Columbia River in Astoria, OR riding a carbon road bike with electronic shifting and no sleeping bag, planning to ride to Virginia as fast as she can.  And I’m in Alaska, rounding third on a three month commitment to The Bicycle Shop, before I jump on a plane to Newport News, VA to ride 13 miles to meet Lael at the finish in a few weeks.  If it works the way I’m planning, we’ll roll into Yorktown around the same time.  But I cannot really expect anything.  The only rule is the consistent progress of time and the consistent process of making decisions as they come.  It happens fast, and you have to act fast.  That’s as much as I know anymore.  It is a passionate and impulsive existence, and it moves fast.     

I had spent the summer working and Lael spent the summer racing, this is back in 2015, when she was riding an average of 175 miles per day down the Great Divide Route.  It was a great summer.  That’s how I remember it, at least, but there are heartstrings and missing fragments working to ease the hard memories and sweeten the great ones.  I remember collecting her from the end of the Divide, from the second ride when she traveled the route by herself and crushed it and she felt all alone.  That ride was bittersweet.  

We collected ourselves at the end of the summer in Alaska and landed in Las Vegas for a fun week at Interbike with the Revelate crew, followed by a week long bicycle ride to the start of the Arizona Trail by casual riding on paved roads and a few dirt tracks.  Arriving at Jacob Lake, AZ and making an out and back trip to the Utah border to officially high-five the northern terminus of the trail, we set out to complete the entire Arizona Trail.  We first contacted the Arizona Trail back in 2013, when we arrived via plane from Ukraine to Denver, hitched to Grand Junction, and rode Kokopelli and Lockhart Basin toward Arizona.  We traversed sections of the AZT, Coconino Loop, and the Black Canyon Trail down to Tucson.  But that was just a taste of the whole AZT which is best known for monumental challenges like the Grand Canyon and Oracle Ridge, along with more mundane challenges such as overgrown trail north of Oracle and mud-hardened hoof prints on the plateau near Mormon Lake.  But in between things you wouldn’t ever wish to do again, are things worth doing every day.  This time we would do them all.

By the time we rolled onto the Arizona Trail in the north, a brief conversation which had taken place a week earlier at Interbike was developing into a media project involving Lael and a solo time trial down the Arizona Trail later in the month. She should have been excited.  But the coming days and weeks of touring the route would leave her in tears.  The prospect of having to navigate the narrow, overgrown, rocky trail at night, at the end of October when daylight is limited to barely 10 hours a day was now a little more than challenging, and all of this at someone else’s request.  She could have said no, I suppose.  But it was her summer of Tour Divide racing that allowed her the opportunity to be involved with this project, this opportunity to work, and she needed the money.  The media project was sponsored by REI and Outside Magazine, and they connected Lael with a nice bike from Specialized.  Surely, you’re not asking her to race her blue bike?

The old blue bike, a secondhand Raleigh XXIX, had a hard life.  The fork was less than fully functional, the drivetrain worn out, the bike at all times had one broken brake lever, and not until after we gave the bike to our friend James in Flagstaff did he discover that the frame had a hole on the driveside chainstay.  Lael selected to ride a Specialized Era Expert Carbon on the AZT, a conscious decision to balance weight, the ability to endure long days yet still be efficient over more rideable terrain, and durability.  We received the bike via Absolute Bikes in Flagstaff, AZ and assembled it on the sidewalk across the street from the shop with a multitool, sans pedals.  I pushed Lael on the pedal-less bike over to Flagstaff Bike Revolution to begin the process of customization: installing dynamo lighting, wider handlebars, desert-worthy tubeless tires, custom luggage from Revelate Designs, and Lael’s tried and true cheap Cannondale saddle and NS Aerial Pro platform pedals.

The remainder of our Arizona Trail tour went well, except for the level of anxiety which resulted from the impending “media project”, as we called it.  Riding the AZT late in the fall, especially in the southern portion of the state, means you might be the first person through the remote trail after a scorching hot summer where recent monsoons have shaped the land.  These trails get little use in the summer.  There are thorny cacti and tall seedy grasses growing over the trail, making the path hard to find even in daylight, in some sections.  There are long sections of trail which are well defined, yet peppered with loose rock better suited to hiking than riding a bike.

We toured every inch of the trail up until Kentucky Camp, south of Tucson, where we bailed on our tour in search of a way north to Utah.  The project was set to begin with some filming in Flagstaff in two days, and Lael’s ride would begin two days later at the border.  We rode our bikes north to I-10 and to the Tucson Airport where a small rented Chevrolet carried us north to Flagstaff.  I paid the rental rate plus insurance and saved the receipts for future reimbursement.  We camped in Black Canyon City for the night, at the trailhead to the Black Canyon Trail where we had camped several years ago.  Arriving in Flagstaff the next day I negotiated a $25 hotel room for the night.

Flagstaff provided two days of rest, two days to film in-town sequences, and our last chance to get the bike and equipment perfect.  Rolling north to the border, we felt like we had done everything we could to prepare ourselves.  Lael was still a little tired, and the drive to the Stateliness Campground took longer than expected as I gassed the little Chevy through a series of erosion patterns in the road.  It rained for several hours during the night at the Stateline Campground, and Lael began her southbound AZT ITT about an hour before sunrise, immediately climbing 1500 ft onto the Kaibab Plateau.   The rest is documented in the short film “Fast Forward” produced by Talweg Creative for REI and Outside Magazine.  Thanks to Talweg for stellar videography and editing, and for telling such a compelling story,

After Arizona, we spent several weeks in Upstate New York visiting my family around Thanksgiving, planning our next move.  I pushed to return to Egypt and Sudan, but with only several major exit points from the region we would be committing to a long trip to access a reasonably priced flight out of Africa, probably arriving in Cairo and leaving from Addis Ababa.  Lael was still feeling tired from a season of big efforts, and I knew that Egypt would not be the most restful place to visit.  It takes energy to be in new places like that, and Lael was concerned that she would not be able to run freely and jump rope, realities of travel in Muslim countries.  We finally decided to return to Baja California.  Since traveling there in 2010, we had always talked about returning with the right bikes for the job.  We traveled there in 2010 on bikes which we assumed were capable of some off-pavement touring, mine a 1985 Schwinn High Sierra, hers a modern Surly LHT.  It was our first taste of true off-pavement touring, and we were hooked, but the riding did not come without challenges, especially on those bikes. 

This time, we crossed the border in early December and spent the next three months traveling up and down the peninsula, riding a series of dirt routes which would eventually become the Baja Divide Route.  Our low-key bike tour evolved into a route-building project after the first few weeks of riding.  I had purchased a series of printed and digital maps to assist our routeplanning.  We soon decided to share some of our routes and tracks, and eventually committed to building a continuous route down the peninsula with as much off-pavement riding as possible.  The Baja Divide was born, and we dove deep into the project for the remaining two months, joined by friends along the way.  Thanks to Alex Dunn, Erin Nugent, Christina Grande, Betsy Welch, Montana Miller, and Colleen O’Neil for assisting in route research.  Details of the route will be released this summer.

Returning from Baja in early March, flying from La Paz, BCS, MX to Anchorage, AK, USA, with our friend Alex in tow, we planned three weeks of winter fatbiking before the end of the season.  Despite a low snow year and warm weather, we linked together a series of short trips in the White Mountains north of Fairbanks, on the first section of the Iditarod Trail from Deshka Landing to Yenta Station, in large singletrack loops around Talkeetna and Anchorage, and for our last overnight trip we rode and pushed up to the Fox Creek Cabin on the Resurrection Pass Trail just a few days before the first of April. Alex, Joe Cruz, Carp and I pushed the final five miles in wet knee-deep snow to reach the cabin for the night,  By morning, the refrozen snow was more quickly passable, but the winter fatbiking season was over.  The next day Lael and I started work at The Bicycle Shop, and spent our evenings building her bike for the Trans Am Bike Race.

Lael and I worked every day for the month of April, with just enough time during the evenings to organize a program to provide refurbished, secondhand bikes to two third grade classes at Russian Jack Elementary school where Lael’s mom Dawn is a teacher.  Dawn realized that many of her students at this Ttile 1 school did not have bikes, and some didn’t know how to ride.  Others had bikes, but flat tires and loose chains kept them from riding.  With help from about a dozen friends and volunteers from the community, from Off The Chain Bike Collective, and from The Bicycle Shop of Anchorage we provided bikes to over 25 students.  Helmets, locks, and instruction were provided to all 3rd grade students at the school.  The two classes were invited to Off The Chain to gain some perspective about how bicycles are repaired and maintained, and to further understand the mission of a not-for-profit, volunteer-based bicycle collective.  It took a minute, but we reviewed the words, “volunteer” and “donate” a few times for clarification.  Check out the video about the project published by Alaska Dispatch News, as well as the article written by Erin Kirkland entitled “3rd graders get free refurbished bikes thanks to dedicated cyclists”.

On May 1st, Lael rode out of town to the start of the Trans Am Bike Race.  There are only so many roads out of Alaska, so to provide a unique experience she rode into Canada and back into Haines, Alaska, before taking a ferry south to Bellingham.  After a brief detour to Vancouver, BC, Lael continued south through Seattle and Tacoma to reach Portland, OR two weeks before the race start.  There, she met with friends and family, and serviced her bike with the incredible support of Kevin at River City Bicycles, who is technically versed in road tubeless, Di2, dynamo systems, and other details of Lael’s Trans Am Race bike, a highly custom Specialized Ruby.  More than anything— and this is something you don’t usually find in a bike shop— is that Kevin cared enough to do exacting custom work such as wiring a new USB charger into the system and assisting with tubeless tire experiments, to meet our exact needs, even though there was some level of unknown in the project.  I would have loved to be there to help, but was previously committed to working at The Bicycle Shop in Alaska for the three busiest months of the year.  The bike season in AK is not unlike the fishing season.  We’re grateful to Kevin for nailing the last few details in an otherwise successful bike build, pre-race ride, and preparatory period in Portland.   

Road tubeless tires are almost impossible to mount, the result of the ultra-stiff tire bead required to hold air and to stay on the rim at 100psi without a tube.  Whereas with tubeless mountain bike systems, where rim profiles are paramount, road tubeless relies as heavily on tire shape and structure as on the rim features (while tubeless-ready rims are still mostly required).  After trying half a dozen tires, and narrowing in on tires ranging from the 26mm Specialized Turbo to the 28mm Schwalbe Pro One, I discovered that the Hutchinson Sector 28 is the only tubeless road tire in our hands that could be mounted with relative ease.  A road tubeless wheel system should resist most punctures and pinch flats, but tire failure from a large cut or puncture is still possible.  It’d be a shame to be stuck on the roadside, unable to remove a tight fitting tubeless tire.  Even harder may be to reinstall such a tire with a tube,  The Hutchinson Sector 28 solves that problem, and is reported to be a nice riding tire.  Lael rode down to the start on Specialized Roubaix 23/25 Road Tubeless tires, which were difficult to mount but provided a flat-free ride down to the start.  That tire was narrower than preferred, but proved an essential concept— that tubeless road tires are worth it for the ride experience, and for their low-maintenance in use.  Above all, the ride quality from a road tubeless tire is remarkable!  The same bike, before and after the tubeless conversion, was greatly changed.  Before, it was fast, comfortable, and muted.  After, it was an electrifying, high-energy experience.

In the same few weeks, we also learned a lot about Shimano D12 electronic shifting.  Initially, we had planned to build a bike with hydraulic disc brakes and a mechanical group.  However, many of the complete bikes that were readily available came with D12, and several competitors in the Trans-Am and also the Tour Divide have successfully used electronic groups with great success, and with positive remarks.  Specifically, Joe Fox chased Lael to the finish line last year on the Tour Divide, riding a custom titanium drop bar 29er with a mix of XTR Di2 and road levers.  Mike Hall and Jesse Carlsson both used Di2 equipped bikes to win the Trans Am in 2014 and 2015, respectively.  We reasoned, much like hydraulic braking, that the electronic shifting would minimize rider fatigue and maximize drivetrain performance.  Could this be understood as an exact benefit in speed or distance?  I never managed to justify such claims, at least not objectively, but it is one in a list of many small features that we hope accelerate the process of riding across country.  In combination with all of the features built into the Specialized Ruby to provide a stable and comfortable ride, we hope the bike provides a platform for Lael to do what she does best, which is to simply ride a bike.  Details aside, I expect long days in the saddle, short restful nights by the roadside, and reasonably fast riding without stopping. 

The Trans-Am Bike Race starts today, June 4, at 8AM PT in Astoria, OR.  Follow the 2016 Trans-Am at  

Additionally, several nice profiles have been published about Lael and the Trans Am Race: “Stars, Stripes, and Speed” by Holly Hill on the Revelate Designs blog; “Lael Wilcox: A Rising Star in the Bikepacking World” by Michael Lambert on Roots Rated, and “Readers Rig: Lael Wilcox on the Trans Am Bike Race” by Lindsay Arne on  Thanks to all for sharing.

Additional thanks to Eric Parsons and everyone at Revelate Designs for providing custom luggage including the maximum-volume stars and bars framebag and magnetic closure Gas Tank, as well as a refurbished Lael Can, the oversized Jerry Can which survived both Divide rides last summer.  Lael dubbed the bag the “medicine cabinet” after falling ill and filling it with Mucinex, inhalers, and antibiotics.  Thanks to Charles at Intelligent Design Cycles for providing the SP PD-8 dynamo hub for this ride.  Thanks to Kerry Staite from K-Lite in Australia for the high powered dynamo lighting and the switchable system, which also operates a B&M USB-Werk to power the GPS and the Di2 system.  Thanks to Specialized for providing the Ruby for this ride and for building a custom front wheel out of the SP PD-8 dynamo hub and CLX 64 rim.  Lael completed her first endurance event on an older model Ruby borrowed from her mother, and this video tells the whole story

Baja California, from San Diego to San Jose del Cabo, MX

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New routing on our second ride down the peninsula is more heavily involved with the Pacific Coast, where foggy mornings are common in winter.  Here, the desert drips with sweat from heavy fog.

While drier segments abound on the route.  The entire route passes deserts of various kinds. 

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Mountains never far away.

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Resupply is easy when options are limited.

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Even a boat ride is included on the Baja Divide, if you can muster the Spanish and the energy to negotiate with the local fishing crew in Mulege.

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But it is worth it.

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And when routing issues plagued our planning, unexpected solutions arise.  What looks like not much on the map, looks like not much in person.  Incredible.

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Great ideas, such as racing the Trans Am, come three months into a trip which was meant to heal the fatigue of last summer’s efforts.  Touring and racing the Holyland Challenge Route in Israel is part of the motivation for racing the Divide last summer.  The Fireweed 400 started it all, and technically qualified Lael for RAAM some years ago.  But before that, we just rode and rode and rode, and good ideas sprouted from every last good idea.  It’s a trend that continues into the foreseeable future.

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Back to Alaska, but not without a glimpse of the Baja Divide Route.  It is the small road on the left, near the beach.

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“Fast Forward” on the Arizona Trail

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Back in October, Lael committed to racing the Arizona Trail by bike, solo.  I provided some location scouting to the film crew.  It isn’t easy to find the Arizona Trail in a truck with a bunch of camera equipment.

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“Fast Forward” is part of a highly successful film series by REI to tell the stories of three people, connected to three trails, part of their “Every Trail Connects” campaign.  Watch the short film “Fast Forward” at Outside Online. 

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Always good to have friends with a school bus, thanks Carp and Will!  As soon as we arrived we went straight to The Bicycle Shop to begin building fatbikes.

Arriving in Anchorage, I prepared for our winter rides by purchasing a Specialized Fatboy Comp, a relatively inexpensive and lightweight fatbike.  I was happy to add carbon Dirt Components Thumper rims to the equation, with tubeless 45NRTH Dillinger 5 tires.  I’d never ridden 5” tires before, nor had I used any proper studded fatbike tires other than Grip Studs in Surly Nate tires.  Each time I make it back for a winter in Anchorage, fatbike technology has changed dramatically.  In 2011-12 Lael and I rode Surly Pugsleys through a record-setting snowfall, happily and successfully.  But things have changed.  In 2013-14 we drilled the singlewall rims on our Salsa Mukluks to save weight and converted them to tubeless, installed Grip Studs.  But this year, our bikes required relatively little modification, weighing in at less than either of our conventional touring bikes.  They’re high end machines, but they are widely available.  Remember when there was only one tire available?  

From desert plusbiking to late-winter fatbiking, it’s all big tires, tubeless of course.  In this case, Lael used a pair of prototype Dillinger tires set to be released this coming season. These tires feature the same tubeless ready casing found on the 45NRTH Van Helga and other tires, leathery and tough yet light and flexible, with substantial and tight fitting beads.  The tread pattern is slightly improved on the newer Dillinger tire, with a remarkable new stud design.  The old style concave studs are expanded, now more than twice their old size.  The result is positive traction on icy surfaces not found in any studded tire to date, save for Grip Studs and the Schwalbe Ice Spiker Pro.  In the last ten years, fatbikes have undergone more dramatic improvements than almost any other genre in a ten year period.  Maybe mountain bikes did the same in the 80’s.  

Oh, and HED Big Deal fatbike rims have the best tubeless interface in the industry.  The rim design is ingenious, and is feathery light.

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I enjoyed using a pair of Dirt Components carbon Thumper rims, with custom Dirt hubs on my bike.  The wheel build quality was excellent, but the thing that impressed me most was that the rims were prepped with Orange Seal tape.  This kind of thing makes me feel like we live in the future when everything is tubeless.  

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We travel north to the Talkeetna Trio, a popular local race sponsored by Speedway Cycles.

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Race organizer and owner of Speedway Cycles and the Fatback bike brand, Greg Matyas, counting down the start of the Trio.  Top Alaskan racers Carey Grumelot, Tim Bernston, Clinton Hodges, and Josh Chelf stand ready up front.

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An incredible race day in March, with views of Denali and the Alaska Range.

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While in Talkeetna, we meet a young GIS specialist from Anchorage named Rob Clark who offers to help with the Baja Divide project.

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After the race, we enjoy some riding on the Susitna River.  These few weeks of riding outside of Anchorage provide perspective about how backcountry winter routes in Alaska exist and are maintained.  It should have been more obvious to me, but it is all about snowmachine routes.  That speaks to the nature of Anchorage riding, which is defined more by packed singletrack and groomed multi-use trails.

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If only for a brief period, Lael enjoyed riding a carbon Specialized Fatboy Expert, complete with HED rims, Race Face Next crank, bars, and seatpost with 45NRTH Dillinger 4 tires.  After all the heavy bikes she’s ridden, I like to think she deserves the pleasure of riding some light ones.

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White Mountains

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Traveling north of Fairbanks, Lael, Alex, Christina, and I rode the White Mountains 100 race route over a two day period.  Starting late in the afternoon on our first day, we cranked out 40 miles in just a couple hours, reaching the Cache Mountain Cabin about an hour after dark.  Both Christina and Lael would race the WM100 in a couple weeks.  We’d dragged Alex back to Alaska from Baja, and promised some stellar riding.  Since most of Southcentral Alaska was melting, we headed north. 

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On the second day, we mostly are able to ride over Cache Mountain Divide, to clearing skies and cold temperatures on the other side.  A few wind drifted sections require walking.

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Eventually, the clouds roll back in and snow starts falling, building to about 6 inches by the time we finish an hour after dark.

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Christina had also joined us for ten days of riding in Baja so group dynamics we pretty well established by the time we started.  Mostly, there was a lot of laughing.

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From downtown to the nearby backcountry, all by bike.

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We timed our travels to coincide with Joe Cruz’s arrival in Alaska.  We almost never fail to see Joe when our paths cross within a couple hundred miles of each other, such as in Prague, in New Mexico, and for a second time in Alaska.  We begin with an epic day ride from Midtown Anchorage into the Chugach Mountains, and back.  For cyclists, this is the most unique exit from town.  The following day we push out of town to Willow where we begin an overnight journey on the Iditarod Trail.  We cross our fingers that rapidly melting snow is still rideable.  

Arriving late in the afternoon, we pedal the local Willow Trail System in several inches of fresh snow.

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The Willow Trail System, generally designed for snow machines, is well developed and signed, marked much like a network of MTB trails.

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By morning, after a long period of bacon, coffee, and light philosophy with Prof. Cruz we push out onto the trail.  We connect from Crystal Lake to the Willow Trail System, down the Susitna River, and up the Yenta River. 

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Alex’s Baja inspired sombrero helmet gets an Arctic ruff, while Joe pedals a brand new Seven titanium fatbike.  This is the guy who I thought might never give up his Pugsley.

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Conditions are good, softening, but rideable.  Cold rain falls for a period, lessening our commitment to any particular destination.

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We stop at Yenta Station for a beer, enjoying the Iditarod paraphernalia inside.  Just upriver, we loosely stake out our pyramid tent in the snow, using our bikes as anchors.  Light rain falls through the night, condensation builds inside the structure.  By all accounts, it is kind of a miserable night outdoors, but we all manage a sense of humor.  Joe pretends not to be uncomfortable sleeping between 6’4” Alex and a drooping wet tent wall.  That’s what Joe does.  

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Everyone is happy to point back toward home the next day, as temperatures reach 48F on the river that afternoon.  

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Snow packs well in such warm weather, so much that the snowman basically made himself.  Each section was really heavy.  

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Talkeetna, again

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We return to Talkeetna to visit friends, and make a few laps around the local trails which we’d recently discovered during the Trio.  Joe would be spending the following week here, we were excited to show him around.  The wide snowmachine width trails make for really fun riding, as they traverse small-scale glacial topography, undulated less than a hundred feet at a time.  

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Resurrection Pass

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Back in Anchorage, days before Joe and the Baja Divide team disband for good, we plan one final outing.  Packing four bikes and bodies into the famed Anchorage “short bus” we head for Resurrection Pass trail.  We knew it would be warm, but we knew everything would be warm.  

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We enjoyed a gorgeous day and 7 miles of good hard trail conditions, characterized by mud and wet ice, but nearly all rideable.  Once we crossed the creek onto the east side of the valley, we met deeper and deeper snow…

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Postholing for about 5 miles to a cabin.  Once committed to reaching the cabin, the group opened up into a slow moving pack train.  Imagine three of us waist deep in wet denim arriving at a cabin, the fourth shivering and barely concealing curses.  Within minutes the hunt for firewood, and both Starbucks Via and blended Canadian Whisky change the tone of the afternoon.  Hours later we are drying our pants over the fire, slowly de-robing in the warming cabin, and trading the kinds of stories that are only told deep in the woods with nothing else to do.

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White Mountains, again

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The final chapter to our winter adventures include a second trip to Fairbanks for the White Mountains 100 race, an event including fat bikers, skiers, and runners, as well as a sole competitor on a kicksled this year.

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Overflow is a common concern on this route.  Most riders got through the race without getting their feet wet, although a few were less fortunate.

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Megan Chelf set a new women’s record on the route.  She and her husband Josh now own both the men’s and women’s records on the WM100.  Here, Megan is riding up “the wall”.  

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Lael racing to the finish, completing 100 miles in 10 hours 51 minutes with a lot of climbing and even a little walking.  Conditions over Cache Mountain Divide were windblown and soft.

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Christina finishes just after dark.

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Building a road bike for the Trans-Am Race

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Returning from our winter adventures, Anchorage was quickly moving toward spring with a continuing heat wave.  We built Lael’s Specialized Ruby and began customizing it for her ride down to Oregon and for the Trans Am Race.

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Our first stop is Revelate Designs headquarters, which is only three blocks away from The Bicycle Shop.  When picking up Revelate orders for the shop, we stack boxes of luggage into the baskets of a 1950’s era Schwinn and navigate the streets of Midtown Anchorage. 

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Bikes for Russian Jack Elementary

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On a series of weekday nights, working until midnight, we organized a one-time program to provide bicycles for two third grade classes at a local Anchorage elementary school where Lael’s mother teaches 3rd grade.  With help from friends at Off the Chain Bicycle Collective and The Bicycle Shop, we refurbished more than 25 bikes for students and provided locks and helmets to both classes.  The program required a lot of volunteer hours, but was hugely successful.  Check out this short video about the project on the Alaska Dispatch News page.

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The project required 3-4 nights of intensive bike building and repair, donation collection, transporting bikes from Off The Chain to the school, an afternoon of field trips to Off The Chain, and an afternoon bike rodeo at Russian Jack to present the donated bikes and equipment and to educate students about cycling skills and strategies.  Watch the video.  The sound of excited children riding bikes is totally worth it.

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Riding to the start

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Lael left Anchorage on May 1 to ride to Astoria, OR, to the start of the Trans Am Bike Race.  Eric Parsons and his son Finn joined us for the ride out of town, along with Lael’s parents.  Finn had just received his first big bike, a 16” wheel Redline that he selected with Lael at The Bicycle Shop the day prior.

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Lael and I continued to Palmer for the evening and stayed with friends, who housed and fed us for the night.  Alpenglow over the Knik River valley.  

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Lael continued the next day and I returned to Anchorage to make it back in time for work.

To finally see the complete bike in action was exciting, after all the work that had gone into it and all the late nights required in the last month to make ends meet.  Riding becomes the quiet meditative time.

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This is Lael’s touring load out of Anchorage, including a pair of running shoes, a jumprope, and all of the maps covering the Trans Am Route to study on the ferry.

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Godspeed Lael!  Enjoy the Trans Am!  Follow Lael’s progress on the 2016 Trans Am Bike Race page at

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The Baja Divide Route, Mexico

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Don’t ride MEX 1, ride the Baja Divide.  Lael descends toward Ejido Uruapan on her Advocate Cycles Hayduke.

It’s called the Baja Divide.  The route touches the Pacific Coast and the Sea of Cortez multiple times.  It crosses every mountain range in Baja California, a desert where freshwater streams and springs are not uncommon in winter, and where traditional ranching and fishing lifestyles persist.  The route climbs and descends on well traveled graded dirt roads, popular 4×4 and moto routes, and forgotten jeep tracks.  We’re planning a connection across Bahia Concepcion by panga, the durable fiberglass fishing boats used by local fishermen, to access a little used dirt road on the other side of the bay.  The Baja Divide is a personal project of Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox to give back to the bikepacking community.  We’ve enjoyed routes in Israel, Arizona, South Africa, Slovakia, Montenegro, and elsewhere.   

The Baja Divide is a dirt bikepacking route from Tecate to the southern cape.  When the route is complete, it is expected to be nearly 2000 miles long and over 90% unpaved, recommended for bicycles with 2.3” tires or larger.  Thus far, 3.0” tires as on Lael’s Advocate Hayduke have proven to be perfect for the route, and 4.0” tires would not be out of place.  As always, pack light, leave room for food and water, and leave most of your cold weather gear at home.  The route would be best enjoyed between November and February, when most dirt routes in the USA, Canada, and Europe are closed for the season.  

What began as a personal project to craft a pleasant ride down the peninsula– an experience and a route which we hoped to casually share— has developed into a commitment to publish a real route in Baja.  As such, a real route is thoroughly researched, tested, and recorded.  A GPX track, route narratives, and a resupply guide will be prepared.  Most of all, I hope to be able to publish a printed resource similar to the high quality maps we have come to appreciate from the Adventure Cycling Association.    

There is much work remaining to complete the route.  Thus far Lael and I have connected San Diego to La Paz by a series of dirt routes, and we plan a few more weeks of exploration in the southern cape with a rotating cast of friends who have joined us to escape winter and help with the route.  Thereafter, Lael and I plan to take a bus back north to Tijuana to ride down the peninsula a second time.  We will ride alternate routes, make detailed notes and waypoints regarding resupply, and record more GPX tracks from which the final route will be compiled.  It is a big project, seemingly growing in scope every day.  

The future of the Baja Divide requires your support.  We are looking for corporate and individual sponsors who wish to promote the project and the culture of self-supported bikepacking through financial or technical assistance.  In-kind equipment sponsors are also welcome to offset costs associated with building the route, including worn tires and drivetrain parts, camping equipment, etc.  For instance, Lael and I are both using threadbare sleeping bags, worn from nearly four years on the road.  Additionally, I am looking for a high-quality 27.5+ wheelset for my Meriwether, as I’ve been jealous of Lael’s 3.0” tires on the many sandy and rough jeep tracks in Baja.  My six year old Brooks B17 saddle has bent rails and has lost two rivets. We are also seeking assistance in building a high-quality custom website for the project.  For now, I have built a simple site for the project at

I expect to have a complete GPX track available later this spring.  An informal group ride is scheduled to start on January 2, 2017.  Lael and I will be there.  Ride self-supported at your own pace, form your own groups, ride as much of the route as you want. 

I will begin sharing stories on the blog from the process of route building in Baja in the coming weeks.  Look for more stories on Lael’s Globe of Adventure, the new Baja Divide website, and our new Instagram accounts @nicholascarman and @laelwilcox.  

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Solace of solitaire and winds– leaving Loreto

Loreto to san javier

Another guest post from Alex Dunn.

my good friend erin left three days ago.  now i am alone.  i have been so long attached to my riding partner, for a month to be exact, always trailing one another, riding side by side, sharing every meal, sleeping head-to-toe in the close comfort of my tent for roughly twenty nights and the other nights spent in cheap hotels bed-next-to-bed– our every action was duplicated, mirrored by the other.  our thoughts did not become the same, but our nature certainly did.  whatever nuisances we harbored in the beginning seemed to have little effect in the end, for holding onto such trivialities would only tarnish such a unique and vivid experience.  we became patient, easily pleased, almost impossible to dissatisfy.  we were present.  

now i am here, on a lonely road pedaling up into the hills away from the city of loreto – a place i came to love, for there i became reacquainted with the ‘self’. myself. in loreto i rented a small cabaña on the malecón, let myself decompress, reevaluated my objective, my journey. i let it all hang out so to speak. i had my own space for the first time in almost seven or eight months: first i took off my pants, i stretched, i slept to my heart’s content, i played guitar and sang falsetto, i journaled and started steinbeck’s log from the sea of cortez. i cooked for therapy to rid the loneliness– a great pot of honduran style soup (a recipe learned from my cousin from tegucigalpa) with chicken, onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, five varieties of hot peppers, chayote squash, chunks of corn on the cob, plantain bananas, ancho chili powder, cayenne and heaps of cumin, and of course salt and pepper. the pot lasted me for three days, eating bowl after bowl. i also indulged in grilling some bacon wrapped steak, for what better meal to re-instill a sense of confidence and pride in a man. i cooked beer batter pancakes every morning to keep things light. i reawakened within the walls of familiar comforts and a sense of home. these days were a necessary tangent on the path toward my approximate objective.

i left loreto in the early afternoon and now i am simply man and bicycle. just south of town i turned west and am now climbing up into the hills some twenty or so miles. there is a sense of calm in the air. something foretelling. the golden hour, that hour just before sunset (or just after sunrise if you are on the other side) where the quality of light is most rich and even, seems to have come early. it’s only two p.m., yet the earth around me is bathed in a light so complete, it gives the feeling as though the sun is preparing to sneak away at any moment. the clouds are perfectly three dimensional, almost sculptures of themselves hanging motionless in the air, their shadows printed exact and defined on the land beneath. the wind is warm, but so calm, nearly a notion. this warmth soon fades to a ghostly chill as i climb higher and higher, more than two thousand feet into the sierra la giganta. the pavement is ideal, affording me comfort in my arduous efforts, though sometimes the surface crumbles into the valley, washed away by floods and destroyed by rockfall. out in the distance behind me i see the great blue sea, and loreto faintly teetering on its edge. i reach a high plateau and the sea disappears as i turn around a small peak. loreto is but a thing of the past.

the sun is undoubtedly sinking now, quite close to the horizon, but i know i am only a few miles from misión san javier (est.1699). soon enough, i drop down into the tiny pueblito of the same name. I need water, and i am tired. i pedal calmly down the cobblestone street that leads to the mission and am entranced by its commanding, beckoning presence. i get off my bike and practically stumble, gracefully, mercifully, to the gate of this great church. the village is completely quiet and i am alone, humbled by the history and location of this majestic piece of architecture in the mountains. the oranges hanging from the trees in the courtyard glow like orbs of fire, small avatars of the falling sun that keeps them lit – within them there is a sense of the immaculate.

i park my bike and walk to the small fonda close by, the open sign still hanging on the wall outside. i am greeted kindly by its proprietor and i purchase water and cold beer before inquiring about a place to camp. he smiles and asks for me to wait as he shuffles off into a back room where, from the muffled voices, i assume he is speaking with his wife. he returns promptly and tells me to set up my tent under the mesquite tree directly next to the church. this is unexpected, but i am obliged and excited for this rare, undeniably spiritual opportunity. i thank him and say “esta noche acampo con dios,” to which he replies without hesitation “despues de esta noche, siempre acamparás con dios.” well, i don’t quite know who this dios actually is, but i certainly cannot refuse such a blessing.

i push my bike over to the mesquite tree and begin setting up the tent as a mountainous veil is pulled over the sun at once. in this instant a biting cold blows through the canyon, a cold that chews straight to the marrow. i put on more layers, a hat and gloves and return to my duties with urgency. as i am preparing the rainfly a small black street dog, a dog that reminds me so much of one from my past, comes running up to my side. it wags its tail nervously, a strange combination of timidity and elation. in a way it seems to be begging me not for food, but merely for love. i crouch beside her and stroke her mangy black coat and she is nearly overwhelmed. i tell her to go lie down so i can finish making camp and she listens, scampers over to my bicycle and digs a small crater in the dirt for her bed. she waits patiently, watching me, as i set up my stove and begin preparing dinner. she does’t beg for any of my food at all, but i still share some chorizo and tortillas with her, to which she becomes forever indebted. i eat quickly for all i can really think of is my sleeping bag. the cold is getting colder. as i lie down, the little dog pops up under my vestibule and digs herself another bed in the earth just beside me. i allow her this moment of companionship, something she seems to ultimately long for. in the night i awake several times, once to a small hail storm dropping granizo upon my tent, and two more times to my little friend warding off other dogs from our camp. she is my protector.

the rooster’s crow wakes me in the still darkness, but it is too cold to move. i lay in my bag for an hour waiting for the sun to hit the tent but it never does. we are in the shadows of the peaks above, my little dog and i, and the tent is covered in frost. escarcha. the sun is out there somewhere i know, but we seem to be forgotten in this hidden bend of the canyon. i finally muster up the courage to climb out of my tent and my bones creak and crack as i hobble into the icy dim light. my little dog does not stir. my first concern is to fire up the stove, after which i drink cup after cup of coffee while waiting for the sun – this takes hours. around ten a.m. i am finally ready to leave and i head off from the mission down the dirt road that connects west to carretera 53. my little companion follows me to the edge of the village then sits down and watches, longingly, as i disappear into the high mountain desert.

from the pueblito, the road meanders out of the canyon and through a shallow valley for about twenty-five miles, back and forth across the slow flowing rio san javier. the dirt is hard packed for the most part and there is only a little washboard from time to time. i am riding at a pretty good pace for traveling on dirt, with the wind at my back the entire way, and i encounter no signs of human life all day save for the distant sounds of cow bells, muted by the breeze. i am thus alerted to several ranches just off the road, but still i see no one. i am solitary in this experience, yet the wind begs to differ as it sends dust devils swirling, dancing alongside me. mesquite trees tremble and shake, cheering me along as i pass. i take lunch and swim in the river, despite it’s murky, bug infested waters for i am too hot to really care. as i climb back on my bike i realize the rear tire is running a little low. damn devil’s thorn strikes again! these schwalbe fat frank tires have been perfect along the way in every other regard, except when it comes to goat heads – the sharp little pricks have found the achilles indeed. i change the tube, burning a little more day light, then ease back down the road.

as i am riding i am amazed with how seemingly effortless things have been today, for the dirt roads i’ve traveled prior have required more struggle. as i hold this thought i come around a bend in the river valley, rolling out onto the western steps of the sierra la giganta, and i instantly remember that the dirt roads of this peninsula turn to sand when they pass through low lying valleys and back out to sea. my bicycle comes sliding to a halt, and i am unable to pedal. all i can do is laugh as i walk my bike for about one hundred yards before i am able to get it going again. on and on it is like this for the next twelve to fifteen miles – gaining momentum, then fish tailing side to side, almost dumping the bike, and sliding to a stop. i look back at my tracks and they appear to be those of a drunken serpentine beast, not a bicycle. i become disheartened as i realize the sun will be setting soon and i have no idea how long it will take to go on like this. once i reach the highway, i may be riding in the dark for an hour or two before i reach ciudad insurgentes.

my spirits remain aloft however, for the colors of the changing sky are enchanting and the wind brings me solace. in the sunset i have visions of colorado, and i hear the song of wyoming in the tall grasses swaying in the light air – the same birds singing as those from the marshes behind my family’s house in saratoga springs, where i spent much of my youth. the gurgling warble and rattling trill of the melodious marsh wren, cistothorus palustris. i am overcome with nostalgia, and the empathetic wind takes me home.

sooner than i think i arrive at the highway, and turn south onto the sweet, consolatory pavement. as i begin to pick up speed a lone horse crosses the road in front of me and makes like it is going to charge. i am slightly uneasy about this, but my sudden surprise and confusion keep me from anything but pedaling forward. the horse stands stoic as i ride by, then commences to gallop up alongside me for what seems to be a quarter mile. it soon appears to me that this horse is not chasing me, but gallivanting with me. it acts as though i am a horse myself, or at least it feels we share similar motives. even when i have felt most solitary, nature again has proven it’s ability to commune with me. i suppose that first, we must be open to this communion before it can take place, we must bow before nature in humble fashion, and surrender ourselves to its power and mysticism.

i pedal towards the coming darkness and soon see a loncheria on the east side of the road, tecate sign flickering in the pale blue twilight. i am thirsty and go inside to buy a cold soda (they are out of beer) and fixings for dinner. as i am paying i ask about safe places to camp nearby for i am losing ambition and no longer care to make it fifteen miles further to ciudad insurgentes. the kind old man invites me to camp in front of the store and says that there will be no traffic once it gets dark and he will turn out the lights. the night he says, will be quiet and cold. in accordance with my motto, porque no, i graciously accept these accommodations and at once begin making camp. he is right, after a short time the cold falls heavy upon us, and the chill climbs back, deep into my bones. i cook, eat quickly and turn in soon after to read sea of cortez. as i am reading the old man turns out the lights, and i am suddenly fast asleep.

the next three days are very enjoyable, my game of bicycle solitaire continues and i become ever more comfortable with myself. but, the road is boringly straight and its surrounding features are quite bland, much like the stretch of carretera1 from guerrero negro to san ignacio. the days meld together, and the experience is a long meditation under the infernal sun, reduced to an exercise of sanity maintenance. half of my water i pour upon my head to keep from heatstroke. the nights are still bitterly cold, and my only comfort is to seek refuge in more loncherias – my new kind of hostel. it is all a vision, or a hallucination, and i do not fully return to consciousness until i arrive at the gates of familiarity. la paz.


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Misión nuestra señora de loreto

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Carretera 53

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Camping km 76  4

A la paz

All words and images: Alex Dunn.  More posts from Alex here.  More to come.

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Dreams of Cortez: San Ignacio to Loreto

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“the phosphorescence exploded in response to our every movement like great flashes of diffused lightning. entranced and electrified by the alluring phenomena, our witching hour began – running in circles, kicking, splashing and howling like great coyotes of the sea. small fish darting all about, leaving trails of glowing light, fading into the dark waters. our companions, our mates back on the shore had no idea what they were missing as they receded into the dying embers of consciousness. we too heard the call of sleep.”

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amidst the sounds of palm fronds brushing and pelicans diving for fish along the banks of the small river, the dream of san ignacio comes to an end. the sun rises, again. the two burros on the property have been eating the bark of the date palm and its fallen fruit that lay just beside our tent. awake– startled by their grunts and grinding teeth.  it is a strange and menacing sound when heard so nearby, hidden in the darkness. my first movement– an attempt to peer out at my devourers– spooked them instantly and the sound of their frightened hooves trailed off into the distant grove. and so i smiled, and climbed out of the tent to wait for the coming light. salutation.

the sky turned a blaze orange– the color of a burning flame.  i rekindled the previous night’s coals and made coffee. mario arrived moments later, for he wanted to say goodbye before we continued to ease our way eastwards, back out to the sea of cortez. cheerfully, he hung around as we ate our breakfast and packed up our camp. con abrazos fuertes, we experienced yet another happy, grateful farewell – a recurring event on this voyage through the ephemeral.

the highway steadily climbed eastward for a slow twenty five miles. no wind. from there, around the southern base of volcán las tres virgeneswe were afforded a pleasant, calm descent out and and away from the proud volcano. the next twenty miles were flat and easy, before an abrupt drop straight to the edge of the sea. we then skirted the dirty beach north of santa rosalíapast a massive copper mine and the town’s disregarded trash site. fortunately these were both hidden out of view, in the shadow of the high plateau, when we approached from the west. the early evening sun painted the sullied outskirts of town in a warmth of golden light– inviting light– helping to make things a little more presentable. of interest though, is the fact that the old mining facilities (built by the french when they founded the city in the late 1800s) were never dismantled and one can see old locomotives, great furnaces and other giant steel structures all about the town itself. the french influence is apparent, though it dresses itself in a dignified mexican garb. and rumor has it that the ordinary, unimpressive church near the center is argued to have been built by gustave eiffeli don’t really see the argument, but such a claim to fame must be good for the shop keepers, restauranteurs, and hotel staff. so be it.

we checked into a cheap, dingy hotel and went about the town, wandering through tight streets and bustle. we found a nice restaurant offering whole baked chickens at a reasonable price, and by chance shared a meal with a group of english cyclists (one canadian) whose paths we briefly crossed the night before in san ignacio. we ate wholeheartedly then bid them adieusure to see them along the road. after many scoops of ice cream, a deserving fat-filled retort to such a protein-rich dinner (our bodies crave such things most, for our calories have been reduced to mere bicycle fuel). a deep slumber immediately fell upon us.

Leaving san ignacio

Descending into santa rosalia

Santa rosalia

as always i arose at dawn, and went out into the streets to look for potential breakfast. everything was boarded up and closed, the town still sleeping. i returned and cooked our porridge and coffee on the alcohol stove in the hotel foyer. erin awoke as breakfast was readied and we ate quickly, eager to ride south.

luckily for us there was a large windstorm that day, and it was blowing fiercely towards our destination – south to mulegé! another beautiful day at ease, traveling fast, pedaling little. we sailed along the coast through piercing light: through large open seas of suguaro cacti, silhouetted from behind in green shades of black and by mountains pressed against the burning blue sky. the morning passed – even time was consumed by the incendiary nature of the sun and wind.

without much effort, we arrived in the fishing town of mulegéweary and burnt dry by the incessant rays. but we felt good. we felt accomplished. we rolled unworriedly through town, another desert oasis divided by a meandering river, set slightly inland from the sea. another oasis, another mission, another expat hideout. we rolled through narrow corridors of shops filled with curios, blankets and hammocks to the eastern edge of the town center and parked our bikes in a small park across from a taqueria. at that very moment our cycling comrades from santa rosalía came wheeling to a halt alongside us. we escaped out of the sun and shared pork tacos, really just baskets of delicious pig with tortillas and different salsas. it was the only option on the menu that day, but it was certainly satisfying when coupled with ice cold cerveza. it’s amazing to me, the rarity of vegetables at any restaurant or taco joint in this country. just meat, beans, rice, tortillas, salsa. but some how, they still maintain a magical sense of variance.

after lunch our new friends were headed further to the mouth of bahía concepción, but i was tired and needed to write and to purchase a plane ticket to ecuador. i was beginning to feel my proximity to the tip of this great peninsula, and i needed to figure out what to do when i got there. we wished them well with hopes to reunite, and then went off to find an inexpensive hotel. i consummated my further plans for post-baja vagabonding and we went out for dinner – an unfinishable amount of pizza, pared with free spaghetti. quite an odd pairing, but sometimes it’s best not to ask and just eat. after flan and full bellies, another day was at its end. mulegé.


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in the morning we awoke, packed our bikes, and leisurely departed for bahía concepción. we planned to ride only some fifteen miles and search for camp along the white sandy beaches. after ten miles of inland riding we turned off onto a dirt road a pedaled out to punta arena, where the road met the bay and traced the water’s edge. the bay was an enchanting teal, a glowing neon green, or some color unnameable. the road turned to large stones, kindly sprinkled with goatheads, or devil’s thorns, named by the laughing, conniving gods of cortez. their prickly spines would give me grief for the week to come as i periodically fixed flats and found remnants of thorns previously unseen. what a damned evil way to spread one’s seed.

luckily, as long as i didn’t pull the spines out, my tires held air. we meandered on around the point, turning into a smaller bay named playa santiscpac, butted up against the highway. the picturesque beach was perfectly lined with rv’s, efficiently packed side by side from one end of the cove to the other. this same scene can be experienced at each and every one of the beautiful beaches along the western side of the legendary bahia. on every patch of soft sand along the water accessible by four wheels, there will be found a multitude of expats living out their dreams of final escape, yet nestled within the confines of the western world they can’t do withoutgiant satellite antennae maintain a constant connection (wouldn’t want to miss a game! ), skiffs, quads, dirt bikes, everything motorized; and a right minded person certainly wouldn’t want to leave home without a lazy-boy. nevertheless, many set up their tents alongside heaps of excess, in attempt to still feel like they are camping– roughing it. these little ‘campgrounds’ become little americas in the end, creating an unsavory paradox, a strange almost disturbing juxtaposition of industrialization stamped upon a seemingly pristine setting.

it is my fortitude to accept these surroundings as a fleeting experience, still beautiful in its own way. the power of letting go. we would also find that the far end of the cove harbored a secluded mangrove where we could camp, far enough away from the motorized masses. in doing so, we were once again, almost serendipitously reacquainted with our fellow cyclists of the past few days. they too, had discovered our mangrove hideaway the night before, and decided to take a rest day on the beach. they invited us to share their camp and to join them for dinner at a little shack by the road exiting the highway. we set up the tent, walked off into the warm coming night, and sat down to an exquisite dinner of fresh fish fried in garlic butter, battered scallops, and margaritas so strong they were really just large bowls of tequila.

following our gluttonous, yet justifiable feast, we returned to camp, built a fire, and moved on to a bottle of rum (by demand of the english of course). sitting around the flames, half of our camp grew tired while the rest of us enjoyed music and composed revelry. out of habit, as i have always been one for a good midnight swim, our new friend mark, erin and i shed our clothes in the black and ran out into the shallows of the bay. the tide was low, so we were able to wade quarter mile from shore, the phosphorescence exploding in response to our every movement like great flashes of diffused lightning. entranced and electrified by the alluring phenomena, our witching hour began – running in circles, kicking, splashing and howling like great coyotes of the sea. small fish dart about, leaving trails of glowing light fading into the dark waters. our companions, our mates back on the shore had no idea what they were missing as they receded into the dying embers of consciousness. we too heard the call of sleep.

at dawn, we awoke to say goodbye to our new allies of the road – they were off for loreto. shame they could not slow down and experience the southern reaches of the bay con despacio. erin and i would remain at this sequestered camp, swimming, napping, reading, playing old folk tunes on the guitar, plainly walking around barefoot in the sand with no real objective. at night we waltzed back to the restaurant for dinner, and while eating, a surprising thundershower came pounding upon the tin roof – a powerful monsoon. we waited it out for a while, but fearing it would last all night we ran through the rain, immediately soaking ourselves silly. it was only seven o’clock, but we had nothing to do but strip off our wet clothes and hop into our sleeping bags. about ten minutes into my book, by the exact nature of a monsoon, the rain stopped. dead quiet. night. it never returned.

we awoke from a long night’s rest in a different dark. sunrise. fire. breakfast. a happy routine. we then gathered our things and pedaled on in search of a more remote location to camp further south along the bay. the road was a serpentine dream, gently winding about in and around modest points, never really climbing, never really falling, never really lying flat or straight. we stopped at isla requesón for lunch, and the tide was out so we could walk across the thin spine of sand, out to the island itself. we waded in the waters to cool ourselves from the baking sun, and happened upon a few scallops, so tenacious and determined in their attempt to remain rooted. after a valiant effort we pulled them free, immediately searching for more. soon, we had quite an excellent addition to the night’s dinner. we cracked them open, cut out the meat and saved them in a bag for later.

back on the road, lost in such a dream the minutes and the miles slipped away. soon we found ourselves at the bottom of the giant bay. we had heard that there was an abandoned rv site close by, deserted in the early 90’s once the proprietors decided the wind too strong and the beach too ugly for their taste. not enough diamond white sand i suppose, and the road was frequently getting washed out, too difficult for large motoring behemoths to traverse. perfect for us, and sure enough we found it. km 76, a good day’s ride from loreto. we opened the gate, closed it behind, and rode about a mile out to the forsaken grounds. it was only a skeleton of an rv site, the best there is, naked bones of an ambitious plan thwarted by the mighty forces of nature. there was no one around. we found ourselves the best shelter from the wind, set up the tent and collected stones from used fire pits. watching a vibrant setting sun, we cooked dinner as the stars crept sheepishly out of the fading hues. this would be erin’s last night camping. in just two days she would be on a plane back to portland, oregon. and I– residing, contented, far off within a distant desert dream.


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Deserted rv camp ground  km 76  5

one last pot of cowboy coffee in the baja light of dawn. one last breakfast burrito and empanadas cajeta. one last time to load the panniers. erin’s last ride would be one of the more memorable rides of the trip, both symbolically and visually. after the stout climb in the beginning, the majority of the highway led us through vast swathes of suguaro forests set against the mountainous backdrop of the sierra la giganta. there were few other vehicles throughout the day, and a gentle cool wind at our backs fought the ceaseless infernal sun. the final descent was slow and perfect, and loreto could be seen from miles away, projected far off onto a distant screen, slowly coming closer and into focus.

we arrived with a couple hours of light remaining, and we rode satisfied and serene through town and out to the malecón. the wind at the shore was violently blustery and we could see that much of the beach had been destroyed by a hurricane two months before. the malecón itself was being rebuilt, slowly. another stroke of good fortune and we found a nice cabana at the south end of the road for dirt cheap because of the construction. this didn’t bother us because we had a swanky little home now with many sconces, modern art, a full kitchen, dining table, living room quarters and a master bedroom. this was a wonderful place for erin to spend the last of her time. we made new friends with an alaskan couple and their two year old daughter, and had maybe the most unrivaled mexican food thus far for dinner. the next day we rode several miles out to the airport in search of a bike box only to find the airport empty – no flights scheduled that day. no matter, for a stove box from the appliance store worked just fine. for her last meal we barbecued fresh shrimp with pineapples and mushrooms and prepared a decadent guacamole. we even shared absinthe with the ever amiable man who manages the cabanas. we grew tired. in the morning, she flew away.


End of the bay

Bahía concepción

Nuge s last ride  a loreto 3

Nuge s last ride  a loreto

Nuge s last ride  a loreto 5

All packed up

“there was no one around. we found ourselves the best shelter from the wind, set up the tent and collected stones from used fire pits. watching a vibrant setting sun, we cooked dinner as the stars crept sheepishly out of the fading hues. this would be erin’s last night camping. in just two days she would be on a plane back to portland, oregon. and I– residing, contented, far off within a distant desert dream.”


All words and images: Alex Dunn.  See his other posts in this archive.

Coco’s Corner, Baja California

Coco s 4

the next day, after sleeping six hours, we rekindled the fire and cooked our porridge, then headed off for coco’s corner. the dirt road past bahia gonzaga traversed along a dry valley and turned to a river of sand and stone. the sand was so thick and slow that at times we were forced to walk our bikes, some of us falling flat over before getting up to push. all i could do was smile and laugh like a crazed school boy – for some strange reason i was having the time of my life. the sun was hot and the light bright white – perfectly illuminating the soft scattered clouds. after a full days ride, we finally reached coco’s corner at sundown – merely twenty miles or so from where we started. though coco himself was not there (his diabetes that has left him legless had recently affected his vision, forcing him to travel to the hospital in mexicali) his legendary pitstop at the junction in the middle of nothingness was truly a site to behold. straight out of mad max or road warrior, this small tract of land was a true, post apocalyptic oasis. junked, stripped down vans turned into sleeping quarters. fences constructed of beer cans, christmas lights and random bulbs strung from lines for about a square kilometer around the perimeter of the property. strange trash art, like a crescent of old toilets around a tv, and a large scorpion made of motorcycle parts– we had reached the end of the world.

there seemed to be no one around, as the high desert wind whistled cold and eery, but soon people were alerted by our presence and slowly emerged from the vans to great us. a family was acting as caretakers while coco was in the hospital – they welcomed us to camp on the property and turned on the generator to power the great light display. we had beers and they cooked us food (the usual tortillas with beans rice and meat) in exchange for a few pesos and some english lessons. we stayed up for a while, but exhausted and cold, and unable to really hear one another from the loud hum of the generator, we set up our tent inside the bar/carport to hide from the wind and fell fast asleep.  


Coco s 2

Coco s 3

Above words and images: Alex Dunn

Lael and I met Coco just after the new year, 2010.  He is a boisterous and generous man, proud of his home in the desert.  He beckons his cat, Cokie, in a viral comedic mood.  He jokes with Lael– “penguino”— for she is from Alaska.  The place is neatly decorated with other people’s refuse, a sign or a lesson that there is value in sun-bleached beer cans and old porcelain thrones, amongst other things.  Cold sodas– some pesos that equal a dollar.  Cold Pacifico– about two dollars.   Coco insists we sleep in an old camping trailer, now grounded in the desert.  In the morning, we share cookies and jam and coffee, and sign his guest book– the most extensive of its kind on the peninsula, I suspect.  Everyone signs the book and draws a picture: touring cyclists, motorcyclists, Baja 1000 aficionados, globe-trotting motorists, vacationing Mexicans, expat Americans and Canadians, even nearly neighbors from fifty miles away.  In a desert world that has forgone the the ills of the city, Coco has encultured a virtual city of his own, where visitors count as neighbors in a place with only one resident.  In either direction along dirt roads and desert, there is nothing for tens of miles.  This is Coco’s Corner.

Oye Amigo!– Ensenada to San Felipe

Cañon la calentura 3

“…made me feel i had finally found what the hell it was i didn’t know i was looking for down in this godforsaken land.”

Highway 3  3

hey buddy –

just got into san felipe yesterday (staying at costa azul hotel on the beach for two nights for a much needed descansa and holiday treat), camped last night in a weird rv/camping site called las playas del sol (6 km from town) where a bunch of retired old folks think it would be nice to have a home away from home amongst some nice dirt and propped up mobile homes.  we were recommended to stay there by an elderly couple from victoria, british columbia, and their description was much nicer than actuality.  we stayed under some palapas and had the place to ourselves, and no one was around in the evening to accept our 15 bucks, nor were they there in the morn.  the view was spectacular and the residents were more than nice, but the communal amenities were rather sparse and dirty.  glad it was free.

prior to that we stayed at cayote cal’s for two nights, one night camping and the second inside due to crazy winds that were about to rip my tent in half.  the hostel was great, but the owner rick was a total arrogant ass.  it’s too bad his manager lulu (whom we met just upon departure) wasn’t there while we were, for she would have made the stay infinitely nicer.  rick seemed to be much more impressed by cycles with motors than ones powered by bi-peds, though he doesn’t ride himself for the great fear of falling.

the ride from coyote cal’s along highway 1 to the turnoff for cañón la calentura was made quite difficult and slow by an incredible side wind.  we went two miles past the turnoff before asking a farmer for directions, turned around and went back to the military checkpoint where we had semi-nervously passed the unmarked farm road.  the soldiers laughed but were impressed with our endeavor and happily directed us on our loco path.  after making it about ten miles down the sandy road we dipped off and hid in the bushes of a little slot canyon.  only a few cars passed in the night and we fell asleep under stars and silence.

the next day proved to be one of the more beautiful, yet challenging riding days i’ve ever had – those thirty miles of dirt were even tougher than the ninety mile push from hollywood to laguna beach.  such a beautiful way to travel, biking in solitude and dirt (reminded me of edward abbey’s proclamation to allow only feet, bikes, and hooves as a means of travel through national parks).  we only encountered two trucks passing, and a few men on horseback, nothing more but swirling sand and gusts of wind in the high desert.  the climbs were intense but the views were more than rewarding, made me feel i had finally found what the hell it was i didn’t know i was looking for down in this godforsaken land.

we finally reached the top of the pass and descended into a high, dried up lake bed where we started to run low on water.  close to the top of our last climb a truck came barreling down the road towards us and i stood with hand up, desperate to confirm our proximity to civilization.  the truck stopped and in confusion and awe, the four seemingly sketchy old fellows told me ten to fifteen more kilometers.  i waived them on and we immediately collapsed by the side of the road and stuffed our bellies with all the fats and sugars we had – even took big “nicholas carman” gulps of agave nectar, straight shot of glucose to the blood stream.  drinking the last of our water and high as kites we crested the final hill and could see lázaro cárdenas off in the distance.  the next eight miles or so were beautiful, slowly rolling down the washboard dodging frequent patches of what seemed like quicksand.  as we reached the ranchos outside of valle la trinidad, exhausted and parched, we had to evade quite a few packs of angry guard dogs – which proved rather difficult and frightening as we slid through the wash and repeatedly had to stop to throw rocks to ward them off.

finally, we reached valle la trinidad as the sun set and by luck rolled right into a nice, cheap hotel in the center of the quiet little pueblito of sand.  steaming hot showers, the best tacos of my life, a six pack of dos equis and twelve churros were my ultimate resolve for such a tedious day of pedaling.  the man and woman who ran the taquería asked if we were there just a year or two ago – was that you nick and lael?  I said no but told them of our recent adventure, and the man said we were ambitious fools for having ridden and camped on that road for only outlaws and bandits traveled through there, assaulting anyone else who tried to pass.  in retrospect maybe those men in the truck i stopped where crazy banditos who were too befuddled by my giant dirty bike and self to really think of assaulting me.  or maybe they wouldn’t have deemed any cyclist as worthy prey.  or maybe they were simply old cowboys headed to a dusty ranch and that taco man’s worries only reflected a universal fear that many have of remote places.  i take the latter.

rising early to thaw our milk for the morning’s coffee, we packed up and headed north of town where the sandy road finally met up with the pristine pavement of highway 3.  heading east we stopped at the last outpost for water and tortillas and by chance crossed paths with an ex-military man from fort louis washington passing through with his wife and father.  they had been coming down here for fifteen years, sailed around the entire peninsula and even done a three week cattle run in the area with a mexican cowboy friend of theirs.  he assured us of the safety of the region and insisted that we camp only twenty five miles or so in the valle santa clara on the southeastern foot of the sierra san felipe.  and that we did, after a relaxing, gradual drop down such a grade of road that would make any cyclist blush.  hardly ever needing to pedal, banking through mellow canyon turns and cruising along smooth highway in high gear, shooting off into great expanses of only more sand and cactus scattered in the bright light– this truly was the most beautiful ride so far.

we climbed off our bikes around 2pm and pushed them a quarter mile off the road through sand and mesquite, constantly evading the dreaded jumping cholla cactus – those little buggers gave us such annoyance they even haunted erin in her sleep that night.  we set up camp out of sight of the highway, dug a big fire pit and had infinite mesquite for fuel.  when the sun fell the heat turned immediately to a dry, piercing cold, perfectly illuminated by the extreme clarity of the desert moon.

waking with the coyotes and leaving erin cocooned in her bag i went on a two mile hike by my self through the changing darkness, black to blue, and gathered firewood for sunrise coffee and porridge.  i’m learning how to steal away from my companion for these brief moments of much needed solitude.  when she rose we packed up and continued our glorious decent.  after four days of riding alone on dirt roads and highway, we came to the military checkpoint where highway 3 meets highway 5.  the soldados asked to go through our bags and quickly realized we had nothing but dirty cloths, food and camp gear.  impressed by the preparedness of my surly big dummy bicycle and a gringo’s ability to speak spanish, they happily wished us luck along the way…

–we are gonna stay the next two days in san felipe, maybe leave on christmas but locals are warning us of drunks on the road so maybe we’ll wait till the 26th.  time to switch the tires from front to back – the rear is getting quite warn already and has some little tears from glass probably.  the front still looks brand new.

i’ll send photos tomorrow.

hearts from erin,
me too,


Erendira  south san isidro

Baja California is traversed north to south by the main Transpeninsular Highway, which was unpaved until the mid 1970’s.  Today, it is trafficked by gringo tourists and locals.  Some long-range truck traffic is present, mainly serving the larger cities in the southern cape region such as La Paz and Cabo San Lucas.  South of Ensenada, a short paved road leads from the main highway to the town of San Isidro on the Pacific Coast.  This is a popular surfing hang, and is home to the aforementioned hostel with mixed reviews.

As secondary roads are paved at a rapid rate, now is the time to visit Baja. Plentiful backcountry riding opportunities abound.

San isidro 2

San isidro 4

Returning to the main Transpeninsular Highway, or Carretera 1, a small dirt road crosses a low mountain range to connect with Hwy.  3, which eventually leads toward the Sea of Cortez.  This road can be found amidst farmland south of San Vincente along Hwy 1, and meets Hwy 3 at Lazaro Cardeñas.

First night cañon la calentura

Big man make big bike look little

The road passes through farmland for a few miles, then narrows into the Cañon la Calentura and climbs nearly 1500ft to a pass.  It steadily descends the other side before settling onto an elevated plain near the town of Lazaro Cardeñas.  This is a great road, and a nice introduction to dirt road touring in Baja when approaching from the north.  From pavement to pavement it is a single day’s ride, although camping near the top of the pass is recommended.

Cañon la calentura 4

Camp  SE foot sierra san felipe 2

Highway 3 crosses the peninsula from Ensenada on the Pacific Coast to Hwy 5, near the salty marshes of the northern Gulf (Sea of Cortez).  Hwy 5 connects the California border near Mexicali (and Calexico) with San Felipe, a popular beach town to the south on the Gulf of California.  While San Felipe is a quick trip for many San Diegans and Arizonans, it is much more peaceful than Tijuana, Rosarito and Ensenada on the Pacific Coast.  It is one of many retirement/expatriate communities on the peninsula where Americans and Canadians seemingly outnumber Mexicans in winter.

Erin rides a vintage Specialized Stumpjumper, re-imagined with an more upright position and versatile 26×2.1″ Continental Town and Country tires.  She asked me how she might free some space in her panniers and balance her load toward the front of the bike.  Over the phone, I recommended she strap a drybag to the handlebars.  I was surprised to see it secured above the bars, presumably because it interfered with the exposed brake cable running to her front cantilever brake.  I like to think that it may provide a measure of safety in the event of a collision, like an airbag.

Hwy 3  6

Sunrise SESF 2

Camping along the shallow waters of the northern Gulf near San Felipe.  South of San Felipe, past Puertecitos, the pavement ends once again…

Palapa camping san felipe 4

Palapa camping san felipe 2


Jumping cholla sunrise

“…and that we did, after a relaxing, gradual drop down such a grade of road that would make any cyclist blush.  hardly ever needing to pedal, banking through mellow canyon turns and cruising along smooth highway in high gear, shooting off into great expanses of only more sand and cactus scattered in the bright light– this truly was the most beautiful ride so far.”  

Hwy 3  4

All images: Alex Dunn

La Paz to Guymas




Novermber 5th is a little late to be biking out of Tacoma. Following two months of rain-soaked shoes and a brief snowstorm near Shelter Cove, we crossed the border from San Diego into Mexico on New Years Day. For the next three months, we didn’t see a drop of rain. Baja was a dream– a great climate and a great introduction to Mexico. We found dirt tracks on the peninsula that uncovered remote fishing villages and missions with olive groves. The Sierra de la Laguna, at the center of the southern cape region, was a highlight with fresh water streaming out of canyons carved into the mountains. Aside from two freshwater oases at Mulege and San Ignacio, these streams were the only surface water to be found in Baja outside of the brief rainy season. From La Paz, we had planned to take a ferry to Mazatlan on the mainland at close to 100 dollars a person. Rather, we met a young French-Canadian captain named Gael in La Ventana who offered us a few days of cruising around Isla Espiritu Santo, and swimming with gregarious, if not a little aggressive, sea lions. A female sea lion, inverted, hugged both Lael and I. Gael deposited us at Marina de La Paz, where we were able to connect with other English speaking captains from home ports like San Francisco, Astoria, Bellingham, and Vancouver. Club Cruceros is a social club at the marina designed to connect the cruising crowd in La Paz, and is a great place to fish for a ride to the mainland. Within minutes, we were introduced to Dennis, formerly of Astoria, OR and the United States Coast Guard. We were to leave on the fourth day after some brief preparations and grocery shopping.

Dennis’ 38″ Island Packet was comfortably large for the three of us, with room for our bikes below deck and away from the saltwater. The arrangement was that we would cook meals and split food costs in exchange for passage. On the final night, we would make the overnight crossing to Guymas, each standing watch for three or four hours. The first three days at sea we would motor north along the islands of the Baja peninsula to improve our angle of approach and shorten the voyage across the Sea of Cortez. In all, the trip was a leisurely few days of motoring and reading; and nights in magazine-quality anchorages, swimming to shore to explore the surroundings. The crossing on the final night afforded us the experience of real cruising, although minimal winds made for a safe, uneventful passage– music to a Coast Guardsman’s ears.

From Guymas, we traveled paved highways south to Navajoa, and inland to Alamos, which marked the end of pavement. The following days mark the most memorable and challenging riding either of us have ever done; Alamos to, La Higuera, Chinacas, Chinipas, Temoris, Bahuichivo, Mesa de Arturo, and down to Urique. Consecutive days climbing five thousand feet of switchback dirt roads with classically inadequate Mexican maps, and descents that would have been impossible ascents left us gasping, gripping brakes, riding as little as 23km one day. But this was what we were here for, challenging the limits of 47mm touring tires, even if Lael promised never to do it again. Fun isn’t always fun, and never doesn’t always last for long– she is, we are, back at it.

Merry Christmas and to all a good night…

A retro-post, thanks to a disc of photos awaiting us in Alaska from our captain, Dennis.