Friday, 6 November 2009

Mexican Meltdown - Day 65 – 55 miles

My plan was to reach the city of Ensenada 72 miles away so an early start was required. I loaded up my bike with my own bodyweight in water and left my hotel. I was a little nervous on the roads to begin with. The roads around Tecate were full of large potholes and busy at 7.30am. It took me a bit of trial and error to get on the highway to Ensenada. It seems signposts for major highways on Mexican roads are a little sporadic. I was hoping to roll down the the other side of the mountain I'd worked so hard to climb a few days before. It appeared there was more elevation to gain before descending into Baja's wine-making valley. Disappointingly, despite a day's rest my knee felt worse than ever. It's a little scary to be embarking on a 1,000 mile bike journey with a bad knee at the best of times. With Baja's population being almost entirely based in the north and with mostly desert to the south I was going in the wrong direction to be near a hospital. I knew there would be no shoulder to ride on and a lot of trucks but I thought that I was starting on a bit of a quiet backroad. The trucks were big and fast and flew by sometimes with only inches to spare. The road is only big enough for 2 trucks to pass each other in opposite directions. There is no additional space for a bike. Every now and then a truck would pass when a vehicle was passing in the other direction. I was forced to teeter dangerously on the edge of the road. Much of the time the edge of the road drops straight off to a steep slope. If forced off the road onto this slope I would certainly come off the bike.

I can't say I wasn't prepared for any of these things. The guide book I bought in San Diego specifically advises against cycling Baja because of the road conditions. Perhaps foolishly I thought with my London riding experience I was prepared for anything. The thing I was not prepared for were the dogs. Once out of the city I found myself riding through farmland. Every mile or so I would pass a farm. Each of these farms would have at least 1 dog, usually 2 or more. Almost without fail the dogs would be free to roam onto the road. My first encounter was with 2 nasty looking large mongrels. They ran out onto the road barking and chasing me. My limited previous experience with dogs has taught me that they can't be outrun uphill or on the flat. I tried slowing down in the hope they'd lose interest in the chase. As I slowed another dog appeared from a farm on the other side of the road. I thought my number was up. I had 2 dogs in front and one behind. Luckily the third dog started chasing the other dogs and distracted them from chasing me. As I cycled away a truck sped by honking at the dogs. I didn't look back but I guess they had a narrow escape.

I passed a dead kitten at the side of the road. With all the unrestrained pets on the highway I wasn't surprised to see this kind of domestic roadkill.

It was quite foggy and a little chilly at times. Quite a contrast from the last couple of clear hot days I'd experienced in Mexico.

As I continued on I was regularly passed at uncomfortably close distances by vehicles. To give them credit many of the lorry drivers gave me plenty of room but much of the time it simply wasn't possible for them to do so because of the width of the road.

I passed another farm and another hungry dog. I'm not generally afraid of dogs but in a country where rabies is a real problem you can't afford to be complacent. If I was bitten by one of these dogs I would have to flag down a passing vehicle and hope they would take me to a hospital to receive a rabies shot. If this happened I may have to leave my bike and belongings at the side of the road. The dog chased me, barking and jumping at me, only a few inches from my exposed leg. With shoes clipped into the pedals I felt even more vulnerable to any potential lunge from the dog. A truck passed in the other direction scaring the dog away. This was truly horrible. I was so afraid I began to cry.

I started to question my motives for coming to Mexico. Unlike my trip through Canada and the US I had few things I really wanted to see here. I was of course interested in experiencing Mexican culture, riding in the desert and improving my Spanish. Was this worth putting myself in real danger for?

After another couple of miles another pair of dogs came at me, the biggest and most determined so far. One was at my heel and the other in front of me. I was descending a steep hill. It was hard to avoid the dogs whilst trying to keep from swerving dangerously in the road. I got up enough speed to escape the dogs and then pulled off the road onto a sandy lay-by. I could see another even larger black dog wandering about on the side of the road further down the hill. This was too much. I stepped off my bike and sobbed. Had I not been alone this may have been a manageable, even funny situation but as it was I was really afraid. I'd only covered 15 miles. I had another 60 miles of farming country to cover today. At my current rate that would be another 30 dogs pursuing me before the day was out.

Cycling in Mexico from Jon Stanley on Vimeo.

I called my girlfriend. I needed support. I told her I was ready to turn back. It was hard to even think about turning back after all I'd put into the planning of this Mexican part of the trip. I needed to make a decision. I sat on a rock and tried to weigh up the pros and cons. I really couldn't think of many good reasons to continue. Certainly nothing worth risking my safety over. My only reason to continue would be not to appear a coward. Had I been with someone else I'm sure I would have carried on but this wasn't something I could do by myself. Having spent 2 months deliberating over whether Mexico was worth the risk or not I now knew the answer. My main concerns coming into Mexico had been the violent drug-related crime. In the end it was the dogs, traffic and knee pain that turned out to be the more tangible reasons for not continuing further into Mexico. Had I ridden south for another 2 weeks I'm fairly sure the traffic would have improved. I suspect the knee pain would have only worsened. As for the dogs I would have probably armed myself with pepper spray and left a series of blind dogs in my wake. It took me nearly an hour of sobbing on a rock at the side of the road to come to this decision. It was too late to come out of this looking like a tough guy.

I turned my bike around and headed back the way I'd come. I once again ran the gauntlet of dogs, this time ready to kick them in the face if they got too close. I was willing to risk a bite now for a slice of a revenge. At least I was heading in the direction of the hospitals now.

Back in Tecate I remembered I'd withdrawn a ton of Pesos not knowing when the next cashpoint would be. I visited one of the rip-off money changers on the border, not caring that I was getting a terrible exchange rate. I was ready to leave Mexico as soon as possible. At the border I was confused. I could see no exit and there was nobody around to point me in the right direction. I knew I was doing the wrong thing but decided to go for it anyway. There were traffic cones blocking traffic from exiting through the border but on a bike I could avoid the cones. I cycled across the border back into America. I was of course immediately set upon by an armed US border guard. 'What are you doing?', he asked incredulously. 'Am I going the wrong way?', I replied trying to sound as if I'd made an innocent mistake. He told me to go back through the border and pointed at the correct US entry point. I'd illegally entered the US. It was quite exciting. Had I been Mexican I would have most likely been pinned to the floor with a gun held to my head. Apologies to any Mexicans who followed my advice a few days back about Tecate being an easy place to sneak across the border.

I pushed my bike through the pedestrian gate and entered the US border entry office. The border police looked at me with disbelief. What had I done wrong now? I don't think they'd ever seen anybody arrive by bike before. 'Where do you think you're going?', the border guard asked. 'America!', I replied chirpily. He looked me up and down and asked to see my passport. He asked me where I'd been. I explained about my intentions to cycle to the end of the peninsula until the dogs started chasing me. He laughed. He proceeded with a few of the usual tricksy American border questions. Being interviewed by an American border guard is a bit like playing a game of chess with a 10 year old. I passed the test and was allowed back into the States. To their credit the border guards all seemed concerned about my safety and wanted to make sure I knew where I was going. I didn't. I was a man without a plan. As I walked through customs I panicked for a moment when I saw a dog running around. Luckily it was of the cocaine sniffing rather than the rabid Mexican bike chasing variety.

I had no map of the US. My detailed map of Mexico was of no use to me now. I decided to head for Joshua Tree National Park which had been my original plan B had I decided no to go to Mexico at all. I put it into my GPS and saw that it was 200 miles away. I followed the route for the next 15 miles but it was a struggle. Both of my knees were hurting and my mental well-being had taken quite a beating. I felt like I'd let myself and everyone who has supported me on this trip down by turning back so early from Mexico.

I decided the best plan of action was to head to a motel and take some time to plan my next move. The route to Joshua Tree was quite remote and probably through the desert. This didn't seem like a good day to get stranded in the desert so I headed back towards San Diego and found a motel on the outskirts of the city.

As I write this I still have no idea what my next move will be. I don't believe I'm in a good enough physical state to embark on any serious cycling right now so I need to consider my options.


  1. Have a big drink. Then have some nice food. And then sit back and think about the fact that you've cycled accross an entire continent!

    Then be really pleased with yourself. Then decide what to do next.
    You've don'e what you went to do - and it's bloody incredible! Now you can go and do exactly what you want to!

    Good luck -mate - keep enjoying it - loving the beard.

  2. Jon, sorry to hear about the dog gauntlet and the knee pain. That's unfortunate, but you probably saved your life by coming back to the states. You're more than welcome to throw your bike on the Amtrak train and ride up to Washington - where you can enjoy the paradise of Bellingham. Whatever you end up doing, good luck buddy.


  3. You're always welcome at our place Jon! At any time and any length of time!

  4. Jon,mate don't be too hard on yourself. What you have acheived is something most of us only dream about. The decision to return , I'm sure is correct. Look at this way the dogs could be a blessing in disguise. We have enjoyed following your journey & look forward to shaking your hand one day. Wishing you safe return home. The Rose family Young Australia

  5. Sounds like you made the right decision to me Jon. If it ain't fun it ain't worth doing. No point cycling just for the sake of racking up the miles - you gotta be enjoying it too. And it didn't sound like much fun to me.

    All the best. Daire.

  6. You can hang out at Spa McKenzie all you want; the Jacuzzi will do your knees some good. Maybe that six-week rest period you took before the trip was, in hind sight, the best thing for you. I'm so very proud of you for making it all the way to the border. Such an accomplishment! You will remember all the crazies and life long friends forever. When your London cubicle starts closing in on you, imagine riding through the redwoods or flying down hills with people that supported you on the road and back home. You are truly an inspiration!!!

  7. Hi: Remember me from Patagonia? Don't beat yourself up ... you made the absolute right decision. When I told my husband that you were going to cycle down Baja he thought it was a death sentence due to the narrowness of the roads, let along the dogs, drugs, etc. He has spent alot of time down there an loves it, but not on a bicycle. Next time bring your truck, surfboard and mountain bike and you'll be free to explore off-road. And if you make it back to Ventura, you definitely have a place to stay before you head up to Spa McKenzie!

  8. Terrie's husband, Alex writing
    Without question you did made the right decision. No cowardly decision at all, remember, discretion is the better part of valor. As hard as it is, it is better to let go of your goal and not get hurt or worse. You can always go back, it's a wonderful place, just not on a bicycle. Having been into Baja a lot and being a rider too, I cannot imagine riding a bike there. The road is FAR too narrow, the shoulder falls off rather steep, the trucks, dogs, well, you found out the hard way. As well, the trucks or road does not get better. Farther South there are many very twisty, narrow climbs and passes that you would have had to ride over. You would have been scared out of your mind, I promise you. Mex 1 is the only paved road that goes South, so all trucks and car traffic must use it. If you are dead set on riding Baja on two wheels, buy a motorcycle. Welcome back to the U.S. glad you made back in one piece! If, or when you make it to Ventura, you have a place to stay, a open invitation. Contact Terri @ Patagonia