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Charlotte's Baja Diaries

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Thursday 11th March

Two days before the race and all cliches about adrenaline, fuel, transformation, excitement, anxiety, anticipation, crystallise. Everything is about the race. Our Paradise: the kingdom that is the beach below our balcony is succumbing to alien invaders with trailer homes the size of coaches; quads, ludicrously jacked-up pick-ups, obnoxious pipes on the end of haring motorcycles, dune buggies, and people under the age of 30. The air hums like a distant helicopter, and it’s the basic energy of everyone that's instrumental.

I got all emotional this evening. I had a few drinks inside me of course, in fact one very large fishbowl glass of margarita. Still, the emotion was caused by speedy arrival of clarity - we were part of this energy. Members. Too often it is easy for me to become a mere spectator. But tonight, it all began to mean something. Being part of this energy is intoxicating.

The intoxication is severe for us. Pete's Camp and San Felipe has been our silent, unassuming home in the desert for 6 weeks now.

The four of us, Kay, Marsha, Gabe and I, headed into downtown San Felipe late this afternoon. The chaps need to register for the race. It’s still early as far as race preparation is concerned, and the town isn't quite in full race swing; it rather feels like the bride's house on the morning of the wedding. Tomorrow will be D Day, when all vehicles: trophy trucks, sand rails, buggies, motorcycles and quads are paraded along the Promenade: the Malecon. I can’t even think past this evening for the moment.

I feel incredibly heady and can’t imagine therefore, truly how Gabe and Kay feel. The day has been the first hot day in a while, the sea is the calmest it’s been in days. Something appears to be in cahoots with the weather.

Andy came round this evening and brought racing jersey, pants and armour for G, donated by one of the many generous and supportive fellow bikers in town. I continue to be unsettled by the ease of generosity found in both Americans, and bikers. Thank goodness for these humans who remind people like me of how easy it is to help someone, and the difference that can be made.

Gabe tries on the gear and suddenly it all becomes a surreal reality. Outside, camp fires are being lit, engines are roaring, some guys are welding the belly of their Pro-truck, and occasionally the Pina Coco man drives round offering pina coladas from the back of his pick-up.

Friday 12th March

24 hours until Ready Teddy Go! I'm not altogether sure that the Race Starter yells this, but it would be nice; might take the edge off things.

Another glorious morning of powder blue skies and promising heat. Everyone on the beach, around Pete's Camp, our neighbours, are up-an-at-em early. 6:00am early. Rising with the sun. I have to admit I'm a little disappointed that I don't even have the morning to myself. The race swallows up every minute.

Today is Tech Inspection, and the parade of all vehicles. The entrants, nearly 300 odd this year I'm told, must have their vehicle checked by the race officials. They are wheeled, towed, walked, and pushed along the length of the Malecon.

The morning was spent in giggles. Kay and Gabe have always professed that their race team is the epitome of budget racing (hey, a name maybe). While 4x4 chase vehicles are decorated with speedy stickers denoting their team number, “259x” is drawn in dust on the back of Kay's rough'n'ready Nissan Pathfinder. The chaps have bought 259x stickers from a shop in San Felipe and like everything else in this beautiful town they had become caked in sand. All stickiness lost, Gabe proceeded at Kay's suggestion to scotch tape over the stickers and ensure they kept their place. Kay had been up last night making home-made Egyptian flags using not pens, but Marsha's nail polish.

Ingenious! Budget! And full of character. Would you have it any other way?

Not long after 10:00am, the four of us, Kay, Marsha, Gabe and I head off for the Tech inspection, Kay riding, and the rest of us up front in the Pathfinder. Someone had not closed the boot (trunk) properly and as Kay came riding up behind he swung his arm, grasped the door and gave it a proper thwack to shut it.

Something happened! Something knocked Kay off balance: the car came in contact with the bike, or there was something in his path, but the split seconds that followed shattered with noise, and the bike, the race bike, with Kay on it, shot down out of our rear view.

It was one of those dry mouth moments. Cliches, this time about everything moving in slow motion, minutes feeling like hours; and all we had to do was unbuckle our seat belts and get out the car. It felt like forever. We did, Gabe first. Kay was getting up to his feet, the Mexican paved road was severely gouged where the bike had spanked it on the ground.

Everything was fine. The bike was okay, save for a new “x” needed for “259” on the front. Kay was fine - he didn't 'arf hit the ground with an almighty smack. Phew! The race is back on, and we hit the road (pun intended) for San Felipe.

All along Pete's Camp road, where there was once space and the odd flag pole or palm tree, are dozens of trailers. Makeshift camps, the off-road racing version of wagon caravans, spilled out of the main camping area.

In town we couldn't move for people, and the heat was growing. The hottest day by far. The Malecon was lined with stall after stall selling Baja 250 merchandise, the restaurateurs relishing every second. There were huge inflatable Tecate beer cans and arches to walk through and around, and plenty of the real Tecate to drink: crates and crates of the stuff piled outside every beer shop in town.

I see my first trophy truck up close, then another, and another. I challenge anyone not to feel an injection of adrenaline standing in their shadow. Trucks on steroids; shiny and new, sparkly, immense suspension, chassis' graffitied with graphics from every sponsor under the sun; even going to the trouble of mock headlights incorporated in the graphics.

I'm sorry I can’t write with any more technical finesse, suffice it to say I was in utter awe of these monsters!

Marsha and I munched on a couple of delicious tacos as the chaps wheeled the bike along the Malecon. Slowly weaving in and out of all the queuing four-wheeled entries, and masses of Margarita-swilling spectators. Marachi bands played music, the Score stage played music, the restaurants played music. Absolute madness.

The bikes passed. Their helmets passed. Two Mexican boys asked for Kay and Gabe's autographs in the hope they might be worth something after tomorrow's results. Surreal.

So home to bed. A quiet and early meal of protein and carbs cooked by Marsha.There was nothing left to say.

Kay will be waking us tomorrow at 4:30am. I can’t sleep. Gabe, thank goodness, can.

Tomorrow morning Kay needs to be at the start line for 6:00am, Gabe and I need to be across Zoo Road in the truck before the first bikes cross just after 6:00. We will then need to take the dirt roads to our first pit-stop at roughly mile 100. Gabe will race the next 105 miles and Kay the last 40. I think we have everything we need in the truck. I can’t believe how nervous I feel, and I have really very little to do.

Sleep.

Saturday 13th March

What a day!

It’s all G could say: “what a day”, over and over, as we drove the last miles home. Evening time and the sun was just low enough in the sky to start singeing the horizon with oranges and pinks. On one side of the track the sun rays fought through the lingering dust creating perfect silhouettes of alien desert plants. We came round the last long slow sweeping bend in the track and miles in the distance was the turquoise Sea of Cortez. What a desert. This evening, everything has finally felt free and endless.

4:30 this morning was a completely different kettle of fish!

There was a rap at the door, Kay waking us up, and even at this time, he was already geared up. Only his bright red jacket, and red helmet left to don. It was a shock to the system. Gabe and I barely spoke to each other. It was dark outside, and for once, silent. Few other motorcyclist racers, the first to start at the race line, were at Pete's Camp, so it suddenly felt all the more profound. Different from the other mornings of consuming busyness. There was an element of stealth and secrecy which for me only added to the tension.

I was thankful for everything being prepared last night: the truck fully packed, Gabe's gear in the right place, fuel, food, water, compressor, GPS, sun cream, sun hats, chairs, more water, beer, tools, map, paperwork, toilet roll. I had even laid out my clothes so I only had to put them on in a sleepy nervous haze.

Kay spoke very little. We all said few words in the hour before the off. Kay left at 5:30am. Gabe and I left in the truck 5:45am.

As we took the turning off pavement, and onto Zoo Road, I had no idea what to expect. I had not been out on any of the pre-running. It was the first time I had been able to experience the proper outback of Baja. No tarmac or pavement, no food stalls, no lights, no traffic; nothing but absolute desert.

Desert, followed by scrub land, followed by more desert, dry lake beds, plains of boulders and cacti, with mountainous backdrops. Chase trucks: standard jacked-up pick-ups used to support each race team, were overtaking us, racing themselves, chewing up the track and spitting it back out. All eager to get somewhere: a pit stop, the course, everywhere fast. It seemed like we were all racing to get somewhere before the sun rose. In fact we were all racing to get somewhere before the race started.

We got across the course and stopped at the point Zoo Road intersects a long straight section (mile marker 8), and a brief break to the long section of whoops. This section of the course follows a line of giant power lines, affording great views all the way down the desert and along the race course. There were already a handful of Mexican families unpacking their trucks, ice boxes filled with tacos and burritos; fires had been lit; everyone wearing sunglasses, thick coats and beanies. Waiting.

The senses are incredibly acute at times like this. The sun by now was millimetres above the horizon and piercingly bright, as though its wrapper had only just been pulled off. The air was filled with sand, dust, and petrol fumes. Then a helicopter. The bass and the pulse of moving air. The race had started!

The first bike whipped past doing speeds I wouldn't consider doing on pavement. Then the second, and third, maybe each 1 or 2 minutes apart already. The intensity of the race was magnified by the vastness of the desert that lay ahead, which was magnified further by the rising sun.

“Come on Kay!” Gabe would intermittently shout. Urging Kay to be steady, to race his own race, to be safe. We didn't wait to see Kay pass at this mile 8 marker. We needed to be sure to get to our pit stop, 50 more miles deep into the desert scrub, before Kay and hopefully before most of the other racers too. The truck, and us, still needed to navigate terrain and distance that we hadn't done before in the truck.

Ninety minutes later, around 8:30 we reached the agreed pit-stop at mile marker100. There was only one other pit team at this location, and they had awnings, a bbq and a welder, a trailer, three trucks, three radios, and six men - none of which we had. Just one truck, one racer, one member pit-crew, fuel, water and food.

The area was a wide fast section of the course, and in fact two lines had already been created in pre-running, one fast, and the original hard washboard route. We parked the truck on the top of a small ridge in between the two. The fastest bikes had already come through, and we watched as more raced past, many minutes apart now. Some riders looked like they were royally enjoying themselves, and then others looked on the point of giving up, barely going fast enough to keep the bike upright. Then came the fast quads. These took my breath away. I never imagined such small things could go so damn quick, their riders, up on the pegs shifting their weight perfectly from left to right, front to back.

We were working on three hours from start for Kay to arrive, but because of the staggered starts of each race we were never sure of Kay's start time. Then we saw a few bikes with numbers from our Class. Straightaway Gabe and I are up from our seats, I watch for Kay as Gabe fervently completes his gear.

At 10:30am, almost exactly three hours from when he started, Kay comes zooming in! I couldn't help but jump up and down quite a few times and wave my hat (critical pit-crew requirement).

It’s always been about finishing the race and not winning the race, but suddenly, at this first pit stop it all became too much for either Kay or Gabe to do anything leisurely. In less than a few minutes, the bike was refuelled, Kay had told us that not only had he got lost, but that the course had completely changed, and Gabe was off on the bike.

It was only 10:30 but in the middle of the desert the heat had rapidly changed from warm to unbearable baking. Kay was shattered. We both sat down in the shade of the truck and didn't speak much. I got Kay a rehydration dextrose drink and he had a cigarette. He told me that he had hardly had a sip of water the whole 100 miles because he couldn't locate the hose to his camelback when he had been riding.

After half an hour we packed up this pit stop and drove less than a mile across the desert to mile marker 205, and the second planned pit stop. Here, there was no one. The race course at this point follows what looks like an ancient river bed, which is now only sand, thick molasses sand. We park the truck on the opposite bank of the ancient river bed, amongst leafless bushes, erect a tarpaulin shade, and wait.

Wait.

The racers come down the other higher side of the river bank and into the river bed and head north up the old river course. We had the perfect view of the racers, hearing them first for a good minute or more before they appeared at the brow of the river bank and hare it down into the thick sand.

It wasn't long before we heard the monstrous growls of Trophy Trucks on the section of course we had left behind. And helicopters following them. The air was pushed out and the bass was pushed in. Knowing that they could very well catch up with G was awful. It’s the first time I've felt vicarious fear.

After the Trophy trucks we could hear Pro-trucks and dune buggies; all discernible from the other simply by the depth of their growl.

We were working on a minimum of 3 hours for Gabe to finish his section. As soon as those 3 hours passed the worry began. Perspective had gone out of the window. We were in the middle of the desert with no radio, and barely any support, and it was the same for G. Had he taken that extra fuel? Were we sure we were in the agreed location? Every bike that went by I shot up from my seat and ran out of the shade to fix my eyes on the race number – you'll never know how many “259x”s I saw that day. Kay shouted across “It’s okay. It’s okay Charlotte”, and then “Come Charlotte, sit down, you're making me smoke too many cigarettes”. Kay was getting nervous too. “This is Gabe” he said on more than one occasion, and it wasn't. My hands had a slight shake to them.

Finally, 3 and a half hours since the first pit stop, Gabe came bounding over the ridge, along the river bed and snarled the bike to a stop at the truck.

“What a friggin experience!” was the first words that came out of Gabe's sweat and dust enriched mouth.

He too had got lost, and fell off twice.

Another quick turn around, and Kay was back on the bike, for the last 40 miles, and the finish!

There was no possible way Gabe and I with the truck could get to the finish line in time for Kay to finish, nor could we be of any assistance to him if he got into trouble. We just had to hope, keep our fingers crossed and head back to San Felipe.

With a couple of cans of cold Tecate we watched the first Trophy Trucks mount the river bank ridge and roar down the course, kicking up explosions of sand in its wake.

Back in the truck and on our way back we were able to help one Mexican couple with a puncture, and pull a Beetle race car out of sand twice!

Kay crosses the finishing line pulling a wheelie and is elevated to a racer's nirvana by the thousands of cheering spectators. He finishes with no problems, even with the Trophy Trucks to contend with.

What a friggin day!




 

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