We woke up to a lovely sunrise. We made a quick breakfast, packed up camp, and drove up to the tiny village of San Juanico. There was a small restaurant (whose parking lot was filled with trucks we recognized) and a few little winding streets with nice “get-away-from-it-all” houses. It was up on a cliff and had a beautiful view back into the bay and the beach where we camped.
We had a lot of miles to cover today (again) so we skedaddled pretty quickly. Today our route took us on a dirt road until well into the afternoon, but it was a wide, graded road so basically a highway, by Baja standards. As we made our way northward, we moved into less sandy desert and more mountainous desert with scrubby green trees and lots of hills and valleys. The landscape was breathtaking.
We came out of the hills toward Laguna San Ignacio, which is an ocean inlet that slowly evolves into vast salt flats. The road took us right by some really unusual orange crusty ponds and Dr. Seuss-like salty piles of rocks. The ground seemed like hardened sand, but it was deceptively easy to sink right in. We steered clear of any major rescue situations and carried on.
Lunchtime found us back in the lovely square by the cathedral in the oasis town of San Ignacio, the only town we officially visited twice. After filling up on some delicious tacos and tamales, we got back on the actual highway to head back to Guerrero Negro. Remember that place? Way back on Day Three when the rally imploded, and we didn’t know what was coming next. Seemed like months ago…
Our destination was an actual established campground in a place called Laguna Ojo de Liebre, or Jackrabbit’s Eye Lake (another ocean inlet turning to salt flats). As we neared Guerrero Negro, we turned off the pavement to follow dirt tracks running in between massive salt fields. This area is the biggest salt mine in the world, run by a single company founded in 1957. We had to pass through a security gate and eventually we arrived at the campground just as the sun went down.
Each campsite had a little palapa and its own porta potty, something fairly unusual for Baja campgrounds. Assuming we had to pay a fee for the site we went back to the campground entrance where there was a building that looked like a visitor center. We walked around the back and discovered a lovely little restaurant and a few members of our group enjoying margaritas and dinner. We couldn’t say no to a margarita and swapping stories about our travels so far! Two of the other people there were the only two people in the rally on motorcycles, so it was really cool to hear about the trip so far from their perspective. It was a super fun night, and we didn’t even expect it!
We paid the camp fee and returned to the campsite where JR and Judy had crammed their tent inside the little palapa as it was very windy. We made a small fire and ended the evening listening to the coyotes that were surrounding the campsites (very close!), waiting to clean up any errant food scraps or dine on our shoes if that’s all we left out…
After a lovely night’s sleep in a big soft bed, we packed up and had a nice resort hotel breakfast and got back on the road. We had a lot of miles to go, and we were looking forward to taking the last part of the actual rally route off pavement to get into our next campsite in San Juanico, aka Scorpion Bay.
We backtracked our way up the highway, zagging over to La Paz and zigging back over to Ciudad Constitución. Stopped for a quick lunch and kept powering north.
Early afternoon we finally got to the spot we could leave the highway. Now we’d see what that “new” spring could do! Luckily, these roads weren’t too hairy – just sandy and a bit bumpy. No problem.
Along the way we detoured to see an abandoned town out in the desert. This was a normal small Baja desert town until 2006, when Hurricane John pummeled the Baja. This place was positively eerie. Our rally roadbook informed us that some residents are actually moving back into the town (which you could see evidence of in one area) but most of it is like every town you see driving down the road, only shelled out and empty.
We carried on down long stretches of smooth sandy road and several water crossings. There were roads going off every which way, but we stuck to the track and soon came into view of a beautiful bay. And for once, we were arriving before most everyone else! We navigated down to the beach and, along with a few other rally teams, established a camp spot.
We had a really fun night! It felt like what the rally would have been if the competition had been allowed to proceed… everyone gathering around a fire (using firewood we’d all been gathering along the way) and sharing stories of the adventures we’d had so far. We stayed up late and crawled into the tent tired and happy.
We woke up after an arrest-free night on a beautiful sandy beach. Packed up camp and headed into Todos Santos where we drove around for a while, checked out the famous “no, this isn’t the one” Hotel California and witnessed a cowboy on horseback strolling along amongst a surprising amount of traffic. We found a fantastic little outdoor grill that made nothing but huge, delicious quesadillas, where we filled up on a selection of meaty joy and fresh squeezed orange juice and headed back to the Hotel Cerritos Surftown to check in.
What a beautiful place! Our rooms were huge and lovely, there was a chilly pool (but we got in it anyway) and we spent the day chatting with other resort residents (many of whom were from the rally) and sipping pina coladas, margaritas, and beers at the swim-up bar. Fantastic restful day.
Mid-afternoon we got the expected notification that the last part of the rally scheduled to finish up in Baja North was…. cancelled. It was just too difficult to start it back up after all that had happened, so the organizer said he’d be waiting for us at the final hotel where we’d have a closing ceremony via Zoom. Anti-climactic, yes, but we were having the time of our lives, so it was just all ok.
So, we’d heard the rumors. We weren’t the only truck that had, uh…problems. Some were far more dramatic than ours. But now that their owners had a few days to work up solutions, we started to realize two things. One, nobody was going to give up and go home. Nobody. And two, Mexican mechanics are problem-solvers. It doesn’t even matter what the problem is…they will solve it. So today was the day – we were going to find another Montero or find us a repair shop.
We reluctantly left the Best Camp Spot Ever and headed south towards Loreto. We had our eyes on a couple yonkes, but when we got to this beautiful up-and-coming tourist spot on the Gulf of California (aka Sea of Cortez) we were hungry and needed some street tacos, stat. And oh boy, were they good!
On the outskirts of Loreto, we ventured to yet another yonke. This one even had a website. It was very big, and we were very hopeful. But, alas, once again, no Montero. We were finally ready to throw in the yonke towel and find a repair shop. A friend who lives in Baja had told us about a shop in Ciudad Constitución which was a few hours in front of us, so we decided to head that way.
As you can see on the map, there is basically one big highway that covers Baja California from north to south. It zigzags back and forth from the Pacific side to the Sea of Cortez side and it’s really just a two-lane highway. Most of the rest of the roads are dirt. This system is the key to Baja’s magic. It’s just not easy to get around, period. You can do it, but you have to invest in the trip. It takes a really long time to get from one place to the next and that right there is the spirit of Baja. Why be in a hurry? It’s all about being where you are when you are there.
After Loreto, the highway turns inland again and heads back to the west side. Once you cross the mountains, you end up in a large farming area. We arrived at a town called Ciudad Insurgentes and as we turned south, we saw a federal officer pulled over on the side of the highway waving us over. Many people in the rally group had been stopped in various places but this was a first for us. We felt a little scared that we might get thrown out of Baja Sur (or worse), but the officer was very professional and positive. He asked if we were competing in a race (no) and if we knew that off-road races were not allowed (yes). We told him where we were going and that we were traveling with just our two vehicles (truth). He thanked us for our understanding and motioned for us to continue. Phew!
About an hour later we came upon Ciudad Constitución. And a lovely huge yonke right on the outskirts! We forgot our decision to abandon yonkes and pulled over immediately. And were greeted with silence and a locked gate. Oh, so close! This one even had a sign painted on the wall that said Mitsubishi! It was like…a sign! (Get it?) We grudgingly got back in the truck and carried on. Our friend had instructed us to go to the AutoZone and ask for directions to Abraham. Mexico is so great! We did exactly that, but the AutoZone employee we encountered didn’t actually know Abraham…but he did know a really good suspension shop just up ahead and suggested we go there when siesta was over. (Ohhhhh…siesta. That’s why the yonke was closed….)
So, let’s cut to the chase. This place was nothing short of magic. We pulled in, explained our problem, they showed us where to park, shooed us off (actually they got a bunch of lawn chairs for us to sit in), and inside of about 15 minutes they had the tire off, the broken spring removed, and a guy had jumped in a car and taken off with it, presumably to go find a replacement. 20 minutes later he was back. They jammed the new spring back in, asked Jon to drive it, he reported it was a little high and a little loose, so they pulled it back out, shaved off a ring or two, added some material to stabilize it, sent him on another test drive, used the extra rings to weld the broken spring back together as a replacement, and Jon returned reporting that it was driving just fine. Simply amazing! In the U.S. we would still be negotiating the time of the appointment when they could fit us in. And the price for this speedy service? $75 US. That’s it. (We gave them more!)
We were back in business! At this point we were a day behind the rally schedule. If things had been on track, we would have been spending tonight in Los Barriles with our friend who helped us find the repair shop, and then moving on to Todos Santos the next day for a pre-arranged hotel stay. Because of the delay, we decided to bypass Los Barriles (never fear, Mr. C., we’ll be back!) and spend the rest of the day into the evening heading straight for Todos Santos. We didn’t have a reservation for tonight, but we’d heard you can camp on the beach in front of the hotel (which is really south of Todos Santos in El Pescadero). Off we went, zigging back across the peninsula to La Paz, then zagging across once more towards El Pescadero.
We arrived around 9:30pm and started trying to find a way down to the beach. Blocked by either someone’s house and yard or fences and walls every time we thought we were close. Eventually we went to the hotel gate and asked the security guard if we could get out on the beach anywhere. He assured us it was fine to drive out there and camp and pointed us back in the direction from which we’d come.
We drove back and tried again but still no luck. Time to punt! We used Google maps to find visible dirt roads that led out to the beach south of town. Found our way onto a dark and deserted beach that just might have been a whole bunch of private lots, but we took our chances. Parked in front of a lot with nothing built on it, set up camp, made a quick dinner and had a nightcap listening to the waves of the Pacific before going to bed to listen for policia all night long.
We started the day with showers. One for me, one for Jon, and one for our fridge and most of the things in it. We did a nice tidying of the truck, checked out of the hotel, and went in search of coffee.
After coffee & breakfast in a very Pacific NW style coffee shop, we took off, heading southeast again towards Vizcaino and beyond. Team Malos Habitos (JR and Judy) stuck around to join the lineup of trucks waiting for a car wash to get the mud frosting off, planning to catch up later.
We passed through Vizcaino (taking the speed bumps reeeeeeally slowly) and on towards San Ignacio. This is a little oasis town in the middle of the desert, home to a beautiful 18th century cathedral and a lovely town square. We were a bit nervous because the previous day’s blowup with the authorities happened in this town. However, we passed through the military checkpoint and got into town just fine. Spent some time checking out the cathedral and drove around the little town a bit, then gassed up and continued towards the coastline of the Sea of Cortez.
As we drove, we activated “Old Truck Owner’s Brainstorming Mode” – wherein those of us who lovingly nurture our ancient 4x4s dig deep in our brains to think up creative solutions to the myriad of challenges presented by our aging buddies. Luckily, the truck was running fine on the pavement. We had to take it pretty slow, but we were grateful that we could keep moving without too much difficulty. Ultimately we decided the best option was to find another spring – not exactly a walk in the park, because the spring is particular to the ’95 Montero. But there is one thing that Mexico has plenty of…dead cars sitting around in lots. And so, we learned a new Spanish word – YONKE (junkyard).
The first town actually on the coast was the busy industrial Santa Rosalia. Still holding out hope for a new spring in a parts store, we stopped at one and asked. The man who worked there spoke flawless English and basically confirmed what we suspected – we were highly unlikely to find a new spring anywhere. BUT…there was a big ole yonke just south of town. He gave us directions and we set off.
We got to the approximate location the parts store employee described and we did see a lot of old junky cars, kind of spread out between several buildings. It was difficult to see all the models there, so we edged in a little closer to the fence and driveways, kind of driving around the buildings and peering into the group of dead soldiers looking for a Montero. We didn’t see any people, but we did see a lot of things that looked pretty domestic. Were we at someone’s house? Um, probably better back out and carry on before we find ourselves in trouble…
We drove on and in about 5 minutes discovered the yonke we were searching for. Sorry, random homeowner with a whole lot of junked out vehicles in your yard! We pulled into the yonke and found a teenager, who went in search of someone to help us. A really nice young man emerged, and I used my somewhat less-than-totally-fluent Spanish to explain what we needed. He perked up and said they indeed had a Montero and asked us to follow him. We trailed along behind him, trying hard not to get too excited.
We walked and walked and walked. Hundreds of partially dismantled cars and trucks of all kinds in rows and rows but onward he went. It was impressive how well he knew the lot. Finally, he stopped. Behold! Before us was a very well preserved 1990-something Montero….Sport. Which happens to have…. leaf springs. Sigh…
We carried on. Our eyes were filled with beautiful views of the ocean and mountains, and we drove along scanning the roadside and towns for any sign of accessible dead cars. Mexico Yonke Tour 2021 was on! Our destination for the night was the official campsite from the previous night, a beach spot just north of Loreto. One or two more Montero-free yonke stops along the way, and then we stopped in Mulege, which is a really cute town with a good number of American ex-pats in residence. As with everyone else, most of the businesses were closed due to Covid, but we found the Mulege brewery where we were (safely) served a nice beer and a snack before carrying on down the coast.
As the sun began to dip to the west, we found the beach spot, and it was fantastic! Warm water, a nice little cove, 5 or 6 other teams from the rally, and after a stunningly long experience at the truck wash, Judy and JR caught up to us. We set up camp under a beautiful sunset and toasted the lovely place before turning in for the night.
The sun came up on our lovely campsite and we prepared for another day of moving southward. As we packed up, we tuned in to the daily briefing, held over CB for proper social distancing. Around 7:10 as the briefing was ending, someone asked if there was an official start time. We’d always known there was a time limit each day (usually 8 hours) but our understanding was that was just 8 hours after you went across the start line coordinates. The organizer confirmed this. So we carried on packing up, which was taking on a certain established process. The last phase of this process was packing up the potty tent. We bought a light, cheap, self-popping tent off Amazon that was meant to efficiently fold back up into a circle that fit into a zipper sleeve that keeps it from popping back up. The previous morning, we nervously grabbed one end each and kinda walked towards each other and executed some savvy “twist up from the bottom” move and the beast just slid right into itself perfectly. We had congratulated ourselves mightily, but we really should have taken that moment to rehash what we’d done. Because today….it was not going quite as well. And then, suddenly the organizer gets back on the radio and says “oops, sorry, what I meant was you have 30 minutes after the briefing to cross the start line.” This was now in about 13 minutes, and we didn’t even yet know where the start line was. Cue the panic!
We…just…can’t…get…this…stupid…tent, forget it! We partially fold the monstrous object and shove it between the seats and the storage unit and hope it doesn’t pop back open and decapitate us as we race towards the start coordinates.
We crossed the spot in the nick of time and then pulled over to start again on the tent. You know how they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? That theory applied to this process. 45 minutes later, that godforsaken piece of evil fabric is again haphazardly folded in half and jammed behind the seats and we take off, hoping for the best (and maybe laughing at ourselves a lot too).
The morning passes nicely, more beautiful landscape, more amazing Sea of Cortez views, more whoops, more checkpoints. At one point we made our way into a tiny little enclave called San Rafael. It was just a gathering of houses up above a lovely beach. Our task was to report the species of an animal skeleton at Pancho’s house.
Unsurprisingly, there was no sign indicating which was Pancho’s house. After spending time overthinking it all, we remembered we’d brought a bag of toys to hand out to kids and hey look! There are some kids over there! And I speak Spanish! We meandered over, handed out toys to joyful little grimy hands, and they pointed across the way to a funky little house with two very amused old ladies sitting out front…and the whale skeleton that bordered the edge of the yard.
Around the middle of the day, we broke loose of the sandy roads and got back on the highway. We were right on the border between the two states of Baja – Baja California and Baja California Sur. Our plan was to stay on the highway and skip a whole chunk of the points along the way so we could make it to the campsite while it was still light, as it was right on a beach. But alas…plans DO change.
As we pulled into a town called Vizcaino, we went over a speed bump a little too fast. The rear end slid off the bump with a loud CLANG! We pulled over right away to investigate but saw nothing obvious. As we continued into the town, we see quite a few other rally vehicles in various places, including the AutoZone. Clearly, we weren’t the only injured soldiers. We pull into the AutoZone to have a better look. At almost the exact same moment in time, two things happen. 1) We discover we’ve completely snapped a rear coil spring, and 2) Our compadres at the AutoZone inform us that a huge group of ralliers ahead of us have been stopped by the Baja California Sur (“B.C.S.”) authorities and told we were not allowed in the state. Their Covid policies had just been escalated and no off-road races were allowed. Nobody knew anything beyond that, so we collectively decided to stay in this town until we heard more. We had a coil spring to find as well…
After a nice beer and ceviche lunch, we returned to the AutoZone and by then had been conversing with other group members. The general consensus was that everyone was going back to Guerrero Negro, about an hour northwest and right on the border between the states. Our spring problem remained unsolved, but luckily Monty was running fine and able to drive pavement with no real issue. After watching a whole bunch of our fellow travelers be escorted northward by police, we joined the exodus to Guerrero Negro to get a hotel room and await further instructions from the rally staff.
By the end of the evening, we’d been fed in the hotel restaurant (who was clearly not expecting so many dirty off-roaders all at once), had a great margarita, and learned that the B.C.S. government would not allow our event to continue. However, they did agree to the alternative of allowing us to travel as tourists (meaning we had to take those beautiful Baja XL stickers off our trucks) and continue throughout the state. The organizers officially cancelled the B.C.S. leg but sent us the GPS tracks for that entire section, so we decided to carry on with Judy and JR and do what we could do (while also trying to find a solution to the coil spring issue). The plan was to reunite with the other competitors just north of the border in another 5 days and resume the last bit of the competition in Baja north.
Day Two dawned sunny and cool. The first morning waking up in the rooftop tent afforded us a beautiful view of the mountains across the not-so-dry-lakebed we gleefully avoided. We had breakfast, packed up camp, downloaded the day’s checkpoints and were off.
Eight out of the first ten conversations of the day involved whoops. Predicting how much of the day would include them, verbally strategizing the best ways to drive them, grudgingly agreeing that the paths running alongside whichever path we were on only looked better but really weren’t, that sort of thing. Yup. More whoops.
We eventually made our way to the coast, yay! Our first view of the Sea of Cortez was stunning. We stopped for gas at the first town and grabbed a photo of a particularly cute stray dog. There are stray dogs a’plenty all throughout Baja, a real challenge for bleeding heart dog lovers (looking at you, Judy!) and they almost all seem oddly healthy.
Back on pavement now, we made our way to San Felipe, one of the bigger towns on the inside of the peninsula and home to many a retired gringo. We’d decided to stop for groceries here (translation: beer run) which turned into a bigger deal than it seemed. The first grocery store had all the groceries…except beer. The second grocery store HAD beer but apparently can’t sell it before 10am. So, we went to AutoZone because they are allowed to sell car parts and fluids before 10am. Back to the store and I went inside for supplies while Jon made an adjustment to our tracking device. It had been beeping almost nonstop for the entire morning, so he made some… wiring adjustments… and quiet tracking was re-instated.
Not long after leaving San Felipe, the route took us back onto the dirt. We were starting in on a series of checkpoints that had to be crossed within 100 minutes. The beginning of that drive was on a sandy road that was blissfully free of whoops and we were haulin’ booty! 100 minutes? No problem.
Three checkpoints in, they were back. You guessed it – The Return of The Evil Whoops. Our speed slowed to a mere crawl and we admitted what we knew all along…that we were probably not going to make this series in 100 minutes. We slogged along, fighting the sinking Ship Morale, slowly knocking them out.
But look at the map! Surely there’s another way! That nice smooth pavement is just…over…there. We made the decision to veer off the route and find the tar via what looked like just a short little friendly wash. It was actually a long, windy, semi-grumpy wash, but it did get us back out to the highway, where we turned south and carried on. 100 minutes was in our rear-view mirror, but we were having fun and the views were amazing!
At some point we were again facing the reality of hitting the 8-hour timeout window and wondering if that really meant something or if we should carry on collecting points. We were somewhat less enthusiastic about that today, picturing another 7 days of very long nights and maybe not so many points. We decided to play a little Checkpoint Leapfrog and skip the ones that were way off the highway and just grab those that were closer.
We continued powering south on the road, skipping the iconic Coco’s Corner, almost missing the advertised Last Place for Gas (we flipped around and went back because running out of gas in the desert is not on either of our bucket lists). As the sun started to sink towards the mountains, we finished the last few road checkpoints and arrived at the little fishing village of Bahia La Concepcion. Cute little town that is strangely hard to navigate. We could SEE the lighthouse at the end of the spit whose photo was the last checkpoint but just couldn’t wind our way there. After a stunning amount of zigzagging around very small dirt roads (was that actually a driveway, oops, sorry!) we got as close as we were allowed to go. Camp was just around the bay and we were ready!
An hour or so later we pulled into the second camp. The first step is to go to the lead car where there is a device that wirelessly picks up our tracks for the day. Only on that day they didn’t pick up ours because, well, remember that grocery store parking lot back in San Felipe where we fixed the beeping tracker problem? Turns out you gotta plug wires into the spot on the fuse block that actually has a fuse……So we lost many of the points (that we might have been too late for anyway) but we didn’t really care. Our scores for Day One came out and it turned out that it was indeed true that any checkpoints you got after the 8-hour timeout did not count, so we happily re-strategized our upcoming days into “do what we can do and don’t miss anything cool to see.” We’d had such a great couple of days that this mishap was a total non-event for us.
We went to find our campsite but were flagged by the drivers of Team Voodoo, aka the most awesome vehicle in the group. An off-road limo, really? So cool! But…stuck in the sand. We put a tow rope on them and yanked them out and they came round our campsite later with thank-you margaritas. Delicious!
It’s finally here! The first official day of the Baja XL…a day we thought might not happen with us a part of it after the series of events leading up to this moment. The organizers’ original plan for the Day One start was a sort of crazy launch with people in costumes and lots of revelry. The previous night, the local authorities came to the hotel and asked us not to hold any group events. This put the kibosh on the Day One start revelry but costumes still optional. We kind of decided to forgo them, packed up our stuff and went to the hotel next door to get ready for takeoff.
We got there in time for the morning CB briefing, during which we heard the start was delayed by 15 minutes. Turns out 15 minutes is just about the exact amount of time it takes to put on a housedress, fake preggo belly, smeared pink lipstick, blue eyeshadow, and curlers (me), and a redneck tank top, mullet wig, and SUPER cool shades (Jon). Hello, Lowlife Nomads! In case there is any question, yes, this attire lasted the entire day, through all the things that were to come on that very long day…
Mapping software fired up, engine running like the ole trusty horse it is, coffee in hand, we cross the official start line and we’re off! The first couple hours consisted of a long caravan of off-road vehicles leaving Tecate and motoring down the one open highway heading east toward Mexicali. There’s a free highway and a toll highway, the latter being closed due to snow. In Mexico. Yup. It wasn’t really that bad, especially compared to what we’d gone through the previous few days in California. The highway jeg was capped by a twisty road up and down through La Rumorosa, an otherworldly zone of giant boulders and sweeping views.
Once we got through that, we came to a right turn that took us off pavement and essentially onto the Baja 1000 track. Whoops. That doesn’t mean we made a mistake, not that kind of whoops. Whoops are overgrown speed bumps of many different sizes created by off-road racing vehicles in the desert. And the bane of all slower off-roaders’ existence. We’d experienced whoops in the U.S. primarily in sanctioned OHV areas, but this was a whole new whoopsey rodeo. It. Did. Not. End. Miles (actually kilometers because Mexico don’t do no stinkin’ imperial measurement – kinda like most countries in the entire world) and miles and miles of them. Really wishing we’d focused less on transmission and more on suspension right about now.
The very first checkpoint was a GPS location where the task was to take a team selfie with the vehicle. It was a little bit off the road and as we got closer it was pretty clear that it was somewhere on this little sandy hill just to the right of the dirt track. We see a few vehicles take the obvious trail up to the top. So, we gotta be different. We decide to sneak up the steeper climb from the side and promptly get ourselves stuck in the sand. First checkpoint. Sigh. We got out pretty easily and with our tail firmly positioned between our legs went up the “common” way and got our white trash selfie.
The day flew by. We went checkpoint to checkpoint, having a great time looking for all the challenges and running into other competitors pretty often. The checkpoint guide told us we had an 8-hour time limit to get the points and while the sun was still shining, we didn’t think much about that. We assumed that it was actually possible to get all the checkpoints inside that window. Silly us! Granted, our vehicle fell in the category of Not The Fastest Truck In The Group, but as happy hour drew closer we started to realize that we, um, had a whole lot of checkpoints left.
But we’re not quitters! No way! Surely they didn’t realize how impossible that task was and would grant us some timing clemency, right? We carried on. Collecting checkpoints, as the sun sunk below the horizon and we started testing the off-road lights. Because you know what’s really, really dark? The Mexican desert at night.
By now the whoops have graduated to whoops mixed with big rocks. We are moving forward, we think, but our speed is less than optimal for arriving anywhere before March. We feel pretty alone out there, but we got the CB running and every once in a while, we hear people talking that are definitely part of our group, so we know we’re good. Monty is feeling a little rattly, but still plowing ahead.
But then things change a bit. Jon is starting to feel some oddness when he hits the brakes. Pretty quickly he realizes that braking is causing the front axle to shudder on the passenger side, which isn’t a thing you want to have happening in the desert at night. Or anytime, really. We pull off the road and execute a fancy turnaround so we can work on the front passenger wheel and have the truck blocking the ferocious wind that has kicked up outside.
This is right about the point where a person could decide to feel a wee bit of panic. I debated doing that but reminded myself that people travel the back roads of Baja all the time and we have rally buddies all around us. I jumped out of the truck and dug into our fancy new storage unit to get the jack. Ran around to the tire and threw myself, housedress and curlers included, down in the dirt and started jacking up the Monty. As I did so, the problem was obvious…the upper control arm was flopping around like a dying fish. Thank you for properly torquing all the bolts when you did the alignment, Les Schwab! Ugh. We pulled off the tire, tightened everything up, and put everything back together. The simplicity of the repair gave us renewed enthusiasm, and as we packed up the tools, we happened to catch a stunning moonrise over the desert. We felt so glad we were here!
We kept going through the whoops and the rocks and the seemingly unclimbable hills, thinking we were FOR SURE the last ones out there. The last bit of the route put us back on pavement for a minute (never been so glad to see asphalt) and then a left turn toward a “dry” lakebed.
We had already heard this spot was deceptively evil and were planning to take the road that went around it. Camp was just on the other side and we were excited to try out the new tent. Do you believe that story? No? Ok, ok, the truth is that we were hankering for that beer in the fridge….
We passed by a few other ralliers who had just dug themselves out of the muddy lake. It looked like a row of truck-shaped frosted cakes. We happily skirted the lake and found our way to camp where to our surprise we were far from the last poor suckers to arrive. We checked in, cracked open the Modelos, uploaded our daily checkpoint info, made some food, and happily fell into the cozy new tent. It was a fantastic day.
I heard there’s this crazy race thing next winter, wanna go? Yeah, we can take the Montero. What transmission? Oh, we’ll get that done, don’t worry….
One Garage, Two People, One Transmission
We really should have started earlier. Like months earlier. But no, there we were, barely two months before the rally was to start with a To-Do list about three months long, and we decide to tackle replacing a transmission in a 1995 Mitsubishi Montero. All by our twosome. Not only that, but we also had to install a second battery and all the wiring that goes with that, fix about 610 minor things, and build out the back end to carry all our stuff across thousands of miles to support ourselves for two weeks.
Cut to the chase – it’s cold in the winter in Washington and the garage is not insulated. It does, however, have a nice wood burning stove. Thus begins the morning competition – who’s getting out of bed first to light the fire? That was our first teamwork success…we managed to divide that chore pretty evenly. One person built a fire and made the coffee, the other one tackled breakfast. By the time we were ready the garage was no longer sub-zero.
Over the course of about a month, we physically battled a 300lb transmission into submission. A combination of a 4-post lift, a rolling jack, a lift jack, two bottle jacks, various sizes of wood blocks, muscles, and sheer determination helped us get that thing into place. 5 times, actually, because 4 times we got a bolt in and something wasn’t right. Once that even included the fun fact of having sandwiched a major wiring harness between the transmission and the engine. Sigh….
Never Let Your Guard Down
Finally, several weeks in, we had that thing bolted onto the engine. Ready to test drive. We cautiously lowered it, cautiously started it, cautiously backed it off the lift, and cautiously drove it around the neighborhood. Success!! It shifted! And drove!! Mexico here we come!
Back to the garage we go, reversing onto the lift this time. We raise it up a bit and tackle various projects, high-fiving our success every few minutes. At one point I asked Jon to raise it up a couple more notches. Up it goes, and goes, when suddenly a colossal EXPLOSION! Glass flies everywhere! We just froze, staring at each other, completely stunned. The back door of the Monty was open when we started lifting. We didn’t notice it catch under the frame of a small loft in the garage…until the pressure burst the entire rear window and bent the door.
Talk about a buzzkill.
Long story short, we got real lucky. Within a week or so, Jon found the same color and year Montero in a junkyard, and we were able to get another door and replace it all without much trouble. Phew!
During the final few weeks, we put our noses to the grindstone and knocked out the list efficiently. Within a week of departure, we had the truck all ready to go, list all knocked out, and still actually liked each other!
It’s Always Sunny in California
Except for when we have 2 days to get from Washington state to the Mexico border. Team Malos Habitos, our good friends Judy and JR, wisely left a day earlier than us. True to form, we didn’t need no stinkin’ extra time. Our plan was to power southward through Washington and Oregon and get to northern California before we crash for the night.
We’d heard rumors of snow but like many, we thought yeah right, it’s California. Well, the biggest storm in over 100 years hit. That very day. We got as far as central Oregon before we encountered the first blizzard conditions. We tried as hard as we could, but only got to southern Oregon the first night. All highways south were literally closed, we couldn’t have gone any further even if we were driving a snowplow.
We woke up the next morning with 36 hours to make a 24-hour drive. Daunting. Teams from all over the northern states were getting waylaid by the weather, we were definitely not alone in this drama. We ended up routing ourselves all the way into the state of Nevada to try to get around it. While we avoided most of the closed roads (not counting the one we pushed our way down in the darkness before being turned around by the highway patrol), we went hundreds of miles out of our way, and encountered blizzard after blizzard. There was one 20-mile leg somewhere north of San Bernardino that we drove through in the wee hours that was like driving with your eyes closed. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it.
We just kept going, and going, and going. As the sun came up, the snow was gone (finally!) and we approached the border outside Tecate, where the start line hotel was. Our joy and relief (and exhaustion) were immeasurable at this point. We checked into the hotel around 7am, shared a beer, and crashed into a deep sleep. We had made it!