Retracing the Notorious Baja 1000

Getting wild south of the border.

Jeff Johnson is the real deal. A lifelong professional adventurer in this new era of social media socialites traveling first class just to cop a geotag worth bragging about, Johnson was there first, took better pictures, and left behind more blood. He also probably slept in his car and crapped in a ditch, but he won’t tell you about that. It’s not about the telling, it’s about the doing.

Johnson recently returned from a trip below the United States’ bottom border, where he followed the path of the dangerous, anything-goes underground race the Baja 1000. Also along for the ride was filmmaker Dana Brown, son of “Endless Summer” and “On Any Given Sunday” filmmaker Bruce Brown. Brown Senior’s 1991 documentary “Baja 1000 Classic” revealed more of the annual dusty debacle than the media’s quick hits or muttered word-of-mouth rumor-mongering had to that point.

Read a few words from on the road with Johnson below, and then click play on the video to watch Dana Brown's mini-doc on the trip.

Geographically, nothing changes when you cross the border into northern Baja. The desert continues but everything else starts falling by the wayside. Door handles come off when you grab them. Toilets don’t flush. Communication unexpectedly goes askew. Plans fall apart. All the creature comforts you had back home quickly disappear and anything you thought important becomes mañana.

My first trip to Baja was in the spring of 1986. We were three clueless surfers in a tiny truck, driving south from San Francisco. Once we made it through the impoverished and surprisingly congested city of Tijuana, we were shocked. For some reason, we thought of Mexico as a tropical paradise but this was a desert in every sense of the word—dry, rugged, and harsh. The winds were relentless and the ocean was actually colder than off Southern California. We quickly embraced the Baja shit show, a theme as consistent as Montezuma’s Revenge. Our maps were rendered useless. The directions we were given contained no street names. We were making our trip by way of obscure landmarks. Life, we found, is broken down to clicks on kilometer markers that line the Mexican Federal Highway.

Recently, I was invited to follow a support crew as they assisted four motorcyclists across the entire 1000-mile Peninsula. The planned route was a rough interpretation of the notorious Baja 1000 race. Over the years, my trips south of the border had been about the surf, where the seemingly endless dirt roads, crossing sketchy arroyos and dried out lake beds were just a means to an end. For these guys, the roads (if you can call them that) are the main attraction.

Carlin Dunne is the leader of the pack. Hailing from Santa Barbara, CA, he’s a two-wheel, jack-of-all-trades, phenom. He is already considered an accomplished Baja veteran at the young age of 32. Carlin has invited his two buddies, Marcus Boyle and Mike Claytor (also from Santa Barbara), to tag along for the ride. And joining them last minute is retired motorcycle cop and Baja 1000 veteran, Mark “Big Tickets” Daniels from Oxnard, California.

Neither Marcus nor Mike have ever been to Baja. While Mike has some experience riding, he has never ridden great distances. Marcus, God bless his soul, is fairly new to the sport and has very limited experience on bikes. But these guys are super fit and have extremely positive attitudes—which is key. They will be riding 1,000 miles in 7 days. Not a trip for the faint of heart.

Your first trip to Baja is always going to be the most memorable. The lack of experience opens you up to a world of potential snags. The first day out, just south of San Quintin, Carlin takes a digger. He rides up to the support trailer, laughing with a big lump growing on his forehead.

“We were cruising through this wash and I saw this nice berm to jump down. As soon as I went for it, I remembered: ‘You idiot. You’ve done this before!’ I buried my whole front tire and, next thing I know, I’m cartwheeling over the bars—right in the same exact same spot as last year!”

Mike and Marcus are wide-eyed with adrenaline. They’re pounding water and shoving carbohydrates down their throats. The day is only half over and the riding will get even more desolate.

Day 2. We’ve made camp in the desert, 40 clicks south of Cataviña in El Crucero. Just before sundown, we hear the bikes rumbling off in the distance. The four dudes come riding in and it’s obvious that Mike, covered in fine powder, has been in some sort of mishap. That morning, riding through a sandy wash, he hit a baby head (half-buried rock) that bucked him over the bars. His bike went ass-over-teakettle, taking out a cactus on the way down and leaving nothing but a stump in his wake. As if in slow motion, Mike’s body flew past spine-filled cardon cacti and landed perfectly in a soft patch of sand surrounded by creeping devil cactus. What virgin luck! This was the only clearing of its kind in the entire area. A couple inches in any other direction and this would be an entirely different story.

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It’s desert-dark. A quarter moon shines faintly above the western ridge line. We’re sitting around the campfire, sipping margaritas, and eating tri tip burritos. Mike has an air of contentment, having survived the morning. It’s not if you fall, it’s when, and he’s happy to have gotten the big one out of the way. Marcus, on the other hand, has a look of impending doom. With bloodshot eyes and goggle rash on his face, he confides, “I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. This is much harder than I imagined.”

This reality check lasts only moments before the riders and crew are back in high spirits. Beers are disappearing by the case and I hear the second bottle of tequila crack open. A few margaritas later, Marcus is running barefoot through camp, jumping over the bonfire that even a pyromaniac would fear. Little does he know the hardest days are ahead.

The next morning moves slowly. Everyone is a little hungover and sore from riding. We are joined by two Baja regulars: a woman named Kasey Smith aka Lizard Lady and her boyfriend, who introduces himself simply as Bean. After a somewhat drawn out breakfast, the riders gear up and set out for a very long day. Bean doesn’t get farther than 100 yards out of camp before he loses it. All we can see is a cloud of dust and the silhouette of him picking up his bike. Everyone motors back to camp to jury-rig broken parts. It looks like ol’ Bean cracked his frame. No choice but to continue on.

With gold sand beaches and crystal clear ocean, the Bay of Los Angeles provides a much-needed break from the inland desert. The riders seem to have gotten into rhythm after a good swim and big dinner, though Bean is still having bike trouble.

The wind howls all night but the morning is calm, warm, and pleasant. The rising sun harbors no premonitions to warn the riders of what’s to come. But things are beginning to slip. Their departure for San Ignacio is continuously delayed by maintenance and unforeseen details. Finally, the riders leave an hour before noon.

Twelve clicks down the highway, Bean’s bike makes a horrible sound. Everyone pulls over to inspect. It could be a rod bearing or maybe a broken cam chain with valves hitting the piston—hard to tell. Knowingly and without hesitation, Kasey hooks her boyfriend up to a tow strap. Casual goodbyes are exchanged as the two turn around and head back north.

A few miles later, the riders hit the “Green Door”—a shortcut that ends up being a longcut. Severe storms have completely wiped out the trail. For hundreds of yards at a time, the riders pick their way across boulder-strewn terrain with absolutely no sign of a trail ever being there. Back on the main road, Mike’s footpeg nearly falls off. He had lost one of the two bolts that hold them together. They pull a triple clamp bolt from one of his forks and use that to get him going again.

Big Tickets had assured the riders that a support vehicle would meet them where the dirt hits the highway, between Guerrero Negro and Vizcaino. They arrive at the meeting place as the sun is setting. No support vehicle. Every rider is down to the last bit of fuel in his tank. They go through the tedious process of draining all their tanks into Big Tickets’. Meanwhile they’re trying to bum fuel off the occasional passing vehicle to no avail. Big Tickets takes off for an 18-mile ride north to the nearest Pemex station for fuel.

We’re all waiting in San Ignacio at a dump of a motel. Dinner is over. Beers and tequila shots are going down way too easy. One of the crew, Chris “Big Daddy” Eberz, an injured Baja 1000 veteran, is relaying sporadic information via satellite phone. He’s pacing around the parking lot, margarita in hand, bellowing over the line. Details of the debacle bounce around our empty beer bottles and salsa droppings.

The three riders remain in the dark, somewhere in the Vizcaino desert. They’re passing time with stories and a lengthy rock-throwing contest. A guy in a big truck pulls over and the riders think they are saved. But the driver has no fuel, only watermelons—a truck full of them. Like Saint Ignatius incarnate, sent by God himself, the truck driver leaves them with a giant watermelon. The riders commence to rip the sand apart like a pack of coyotes.

Big Tickets makes it back. They divvy up fuel between the five bikes. All the detours and delays have brought them into the late hours. The extended downtime and lack of movement, with very little food or water, has made them lethargic. They straddle the bikes slowly and without ceremony.

While their bodies tap into hidden reserves, they head south in the black starry night and shift into high gear. Someone’s headlight goes out. The dark, quiet desert looms ahead as they speed down the Mexican Federal Highway. Marcus and Mike are focused. No more thoughts of beds, or food, or even making it to the tip of the Baja peninsula. They are riding low, hunkering over their tanks—eyes blood-red and wide open. Bat-crazed smiles. Their calloused hands and fatigued arms tighten as they embrace the Baja shit show, full throttle, one slow click at a time.