For the past few weeks, I’ve been traveling with Brian and Janet, a couple from Atascadero, CA who are riding The Baja Divide on a mountain tandem. To say the least, it has been one of the highlights of this entire trip.
This is because of two reasons:
Primarily, they are great people who, even in our short time spent together, inspired me in more than one way; taught me a lot about traveling on a bike; provided a good bit of vicariously experienced adventure (more on this later); and opened the doors to a more rich cultural experience here in Baja.
In addition, riding with Brian and Janet put some parts of this trip into perspective–primarily the difference between riding alone versus with other people. I’ll dig a little deeper into this later, but first, there are few things you need to know about Brian and Janet.
It’s hard to describe their drive, skill, and passion for bike touring. I want to call them hardcore, but that would paint a picture of intensity and exclusiveness which neither of them embodies. Instead, they are kind and patient, working extremely hard all day long and yet still holding conversations and asking about my life.
Also, they are infectiously optimistic, even in the face of difficulties that could ruin a trip. When I first met Brian and Janet, their rear tire was just starting to show signs of failure. Tandems are hard on components, including tires. Unfortunately, the tire was starting to tear lengthwise along the bead which is the semi-hard ring that ‘mates’ the tire to the rim. While some tire issues are fixable like a small puncture and maybe even a tire tear, something like this is pretty hard to fix on the trail–and could lead to a blown tire that is impossible to ride on. Even given this, Brian and Janet pushed on, putting their faith into their ‘make-it-work’ mentality.
So as the tire bead continued to tear (now in multiple places), they pushed on. They stitched the tire multiple times, buffered the tube with more rubber from a motorcycle tire, repeated as was inevitably necessary, got a short truck ride only once, tried to use a tire found in a local’s junk heap, and still somehow made it through three days of riding. We stopped a good bit, but they never gave up. In the last miles leading to where a new tire (and thus a solution to the problem), the tire finally gave into its injuries and was beyond repair. I volunteered to ride into the town of Vizcaino and retrieve the ordered tire. They could have waited for me. Instead, in an effort to shorten my ride, Brain pushed the tandem while running alongside, while Janet steered the bike while standing on the pedals (Brian’s saddle was too high for her to sit on)–all through sand. In the time it took me to ride the 20 miles, get the tire, and start my ride back, they had nearly made it to town.
If that wasn’t enough, they fixed the tire, we got some lunch, and then rode another 15 or so miles out of town–they never showed signs of fatigue (you know, the kind that normal humans get from running through sand while pushing a bike for 15 miles).
The difficulty of their ride is hard to fully understand. The bike they are using has 2.2” tires which makes riding in loose conditions almost impossible…at least for most people. When the trail becomes sandy, I need to put down some major power and concentrate on maintaining a line to stay afloat. This is difficult for me and I have 29” wheels with 3” tires–theoretically, the perfect setup for this type of route. Brian and Janet, on the other hand, are riding a bike with 26” wheels, 2.2” tires, and their weight (2 people) is being distributed to just two wheels. In addition, they have to coordinate power and their steering is twitchy and unnatural. And yet, we were still doing 50 miles a day, a feat that many do not reach on the Baja Divide.
Brian and Janet have done many bike tours around the world, some on a Tandem and some on ‘normal’ bikes (they are calling this tour more ‘laid back’). They have some crazy stories and lots of experience.
I would say Brian is fluent in Spanish and Janet is not that far behind and ambitious in her practice. Thus, I experienced a much more accurate Mexico while tagging along. The language barrier has been the largest impediment on this trip. Even though the local communities are very welcoming and kind, it is hard to truly connect with the culture without a shared language.
Communication opens doors, that’s for sure–Brian and Janet have inspired me to really take the time and put in the work it takes to learn Spanish–not just expect it will come naturally if I just spend enough time in Mexico. The beauty of Baja is amazing but the real experience down here is with the people and the little adventures you can find with a few kind words and an open mind. We’ve been invited into the homes of ranchers for coffee and bread. We’ve been gifted burritos full of Machaca (a dried, spiced meat that is everywhere) and beans just when we needed it and resupply was limited. We’ve been directed to better and more scenic roads by friendly locals. If I had been riding alone, I’d have been stocked up, following a GPS line, and missed some pretty great opportunities.
Oh, and did I mention that this year Brian won the Tour Divide MTB Race, the longest (~2700 miles) self-supported off-road bike race in the world?
So, it goes without saying that I had a lot of fun riding with these new friends.
So why did I ride this trip alone?
I’ve had much more fun, experienced more, and been more excited for future bikepacking trips during the past few weeks than during the first three months of this trip. So wouldn’t that mean riding with people is better?
There’s a distinct difference between riding alone and with other people–which I guess goes without saying. Further, I assume there’s also a distinct difference between riding with friends and riding with people you meet on the trail. I’ve ridden with a few other folks besides Brian and Janet, but not for very long. This is more to do with a group’s ‘style’ of bikepacking. I found it extremely easy to ride with Brian and Janet since our styles are similar and we all have similar ways of processing/planning our ride.
Planning and executing a trip with some family or friends could be a totally different story–you could share gear and better problem solve along the way–leading to more adventurous decision making. I could see this kind of trip being more of a fun-filled vacation. Of course, there is adventure and hardship to be had, but the company of someone you know can make challenging situations a little less daunting.
And I guess that’s why I chose to ride solo (aside from the fact that it’s hard to find someone who is free for 4+ months, who has a bikepacking setup, and who wants to ride a circuitous route down into Mexico). I initially wanted to be alone and be forced to reconcile with the types of issues we all have, the ones that can be buried by the stimulus of daily living. I wanted to become stronger and more independent…more confident in my decision making.
That kinda happened. I learned to feel safe and self-sufficient while riding through the SW. I dealt with challenges, monotony, and a good bit of loneliness. At first, I was propelled by excitement and a sense of adventure–I was really doing this.
However, after a few months, this faded. The routine of riding, camping, resupplying, etc. became much easier. Plus, the terrain was becoming less challenging and I was lightening my load by getting rid of unused stuff (I’ll do a write up on this later). And yet, the days were getting ‘harder’ and were starting to blend together. I looked forward to getting into towns so I could check the internet, call my parents/friends, maybe talk with some locals, and if I had time, watch some Netflix.
In essence, I missed people.
And this is what this trip has taught me, most of all–that durations of being alone are good for me (I do feel more confident and ready to tackle the next steps during this time I call “The Lost Years”), but only to a point. I’ve met many people who have been out traveling for many years. Some are joyous and happy–free from worries. Others are gaunt. And the difference seems to be how much they interact with others during their voyage.
Many travel in groups, whether it be with partners or friends. I’ve met groups that are traveling together that came together on the road and are now riding with one another for a good chunk of time…maybe even changing plans and routes to do so. And I’ve met a few solo travelers who have managed to stay connected through being social and/or via the internet. Even though I’ve never met him, Iohan Gueorguiv is a great example of this.
So would I do another trip alone?
But only for a limited time–I think three months of more-or-less solitude is my limit. Staying connected and talking with people along the way is essential, at least for me. In addition, traveling in a foreign country requires more language skills.
I didn’t really expect to come to this conclusion. Rather I was hoping to become more content with just being alone–the idea that the longer I spent in solitude, the more OK I’d be with it. I think this might be possible if I didn’t have so many amazing friends and family members who I miss greatly. I’m so fortunate to have such a community of caring people in my life and this trip has greatly helped reaffirm this fact.
In a quick google search, I found a simple quote from Aristotle:
“Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god”
I guess I’m neither.