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B.C. to Baja: Two bikes, two weeks and one long highway

motorcycle Baja for Travel P1070289 - The author rounds a turn on the Transpeninsular Highway in Baja California. (Brett Sorrells)

I expected wide-open highway, a never-ending high stoked by the constant rush of wind and maybe some occasional solace on a forgotten Pacific beach.

I didn't expect to sleep in the back of a cargo truck, a four-lane freeway in Monterey, Calif., mere metres from my head.

I didn't expect a convention of clowns, bent on teaching us how to spin plates on the end of a stick. Or to have our clothing stolen - and recovered - at a high-end resort. And I definitely didn't expect to be behind the wheel of a five-metre canary-yellow truck.

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The plan, admittedly hastily conceived, was to ride 8,200 kilometres from British Columbia to the southern tip of Baja California and back - on motorcycles, in just two weeks. We had visions of sunshine and blue sky, heat and desert. We made sure our friends knew how epic this was going to be. We heard from colleagues who told us we were knocking off an item from their own bucket lists.

This was going to be a serious thrill ride.

Nathan VanderKlippe gives you a glimpse into his journey

Then we looked at the forecast for our Vancouver departure day. There was no sun. There was only something like a hurricane: rain, mixed with strong winds and even some hail.

My riding partner, Brett Sorrells, and I swallowed our pride and decided testosterone may not be waterproof. We settled on the easy road through the storm. We rented a truck. Our friends jeered. We cringed, but we were dry. Sixteen-hundred kilometres later, we found ourselves parked at the drop-off location in Monterey, in sleeping bags next to the bikes in the back, wide awake.

It was 5 a.m. We had parked next to a freeway, a fact we discovered when a passing rig rattled the truck like a jackhammer. It was time to finally hit the road on two wheels. Two hours later, our belongings strapped on Rube Goldberg-style, we turned on to Highway 1 and headed south.

The Pacific Coast Highway, as it is also called, is everything a motorcycle road should be - especially as the first rays of morning light up the surf crashing below. The road heads south from Monterey, passing a sign that warns 74 miles of twisting road lie ahead. It's not a misprint. For hours, the turns are tight, the air is fresh and the traffic is minimal. When the winding finally relents, it opens onto a broad coast green enough to be Ireland, its rocky shores bristling with elephant seals.

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But this was not what we had come for. Our real destination lay beyond the choked freeways of Los Angeles, south of the meal we shared with friends in San Diego. Our real destination was Baja California, that magnificent eyetooth of land that juts past the western edge of Mexico.

Baja held the promise of mystery and danger, a place where our bellies would be sated with fish tacos, our blood with a rush of adrenaline. There would be no cruise ships, and hardly enough time to stop at a beach. The road was the thing.



And, as we discovered, we were right. The road was the thing, a narrow ribbon of black asphalt that stopped at the horizon only long enough to bend its way up miles of perilous cliffs before descending back across a great expanse of cactus and scrubland turned green by the spring rains.

Baja is a thousand-mile scroll, a parchment of mountain and desert where the world comes to scrawl the story it wants to tell friends and drinking buddies. Even in a season when tourists are a rare species - especially with the nerve-racking reports of deadly gang warfare in border towns - we met dirt bikers from British Columbia who were out to ride every bit of cactus-lined dirt road in three weeks. We met an Alaskan cycling to Colombia. We met an Ohioan cycling the entire length of the Americas, bottom to top. We met a B.C. couple towing an RV, pledging to take a month to drive home across roads that had taken us six days.

It's easy to see what draws them all here. Outside magazine called Baja "1,000 miles of nada," and an empty landscape is adventure's best friend. Indeed, it's not hard to conjure dreams of lawless escapades on the long isolated lengths of road that crisscross the peninsula's spine. Friends warned that bandidos still lurk here. The worst we encountered was a California whale researcher who, when we discovered that we had forgotten toilet paper, handed us a huge roll of paper towel and wished us well.

Yet the heart of Baja, the long road that wends from coast to coast, remains largely untouched territory, where shopkeepers speak very little English, kids jump on a stranger's motorcycle to feel what it's like and small ranches somehow eke a living out of the sun-baked land.

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We rode hard, waking before 7 every morning. We camped in a desert, surrounded by the cirio trees whose waif-like forms cast strange shadows over northern Baja. We drank coffee on a beach, where pelicans were silhouettes on a pink sunrise over the Sea of Cortez. We rode through 10 C mornings and ducked into the cactus to strip off long johns when the sun boiled afternoon temperatures above 30 C. We ate at taco stands. We bought gas from men with cowboy hats who leaned against pickup trucks next to hand-painted "gasolina" signs, as we attempted to make it through the gas gap: a 350-kilometre stretch of desert where service stations don't exist and those men, if they are at their posts, are the only source of fuel.

And, more than 4,000 kilometres from home, we found ourselves surrounded by Malaysian clowns at a hotel in Cabo San Lucas.

We had roared into Cabo, choked down a few tequila shots from tin camping pots (the only glassware we had), grabbed one-litre Coronas from a corner store (the bottle opener was on the street, ready to abet drunken hooliganism) and snuck through a resort to the beach. An hour later, wet from a swim and warm from the sun, we retreated to our hotel, where we discovered that we were a day too early.

Had we come 24 hours later, we would have found ourselves face to face with Patch Adams, in living flesh. As it was, the hotel was populated with the early arrivals from a group of 37 clowns who were flying in for a convention of some kind. Among them were four Malaysians, experts in laughing yoga and plate-spinning, who laughed at the beers in our hands and taught us some of their tricks.

There we were, at the end of the road on Baja California, our hand-eye co-ordination compromised, trying to spin bright red plastic plates on the end of a stick. Mastery, it need not be said, was elusive.

The next morning, after giving the clowns a ride through Cabo, we departed. The trip was half over; the travel was not. We still had another luxury resort to sneak into, where we rented kayaks on the sly and returned to find clothing stolen - only to have it returned after a chance encounter with a high-ranking tourism official, who delivered stern words on our behalf. We had a four-course street meal in La Paz that had us traipsing from stand to stand, eating first marquesitas (sweet tortillas rolled around edam cheese), then burritos, then tacos, then ice cream.

We still had a few more 800-kilometre days to do roaring back up into California, where we traced the grey lines on a map and discovered empty roads winding through high elevations in Los Padres National Forest. We still had a return trip to make though Big Sur, where we ate and drank with an L.A bartender who nourished his soul on the coast after serving celebrities. We still had to drive across the Golden Gate bridge on two wheels, and then lean those wheels through the contorted road that leads to the Point Reyes National Seashore. We still had to camp on an unstable ocean cliff the morning an earthquake shook our tents.

And we still had to find rain. It took three days of riding in Baja before we saw our first cloud. The weather, for all the foreboding it had caused, had smiled on us. We rode hard to Salem, where we drank some of Oregon's best beer and, when it was still dark the next morning, parted ways - Brett to Vancouver, me to Calgary.

It was at that point, riding alone down the interstate concrete we had so studiously avoided, that I found a moment to reflect.

Why, I asked myself, do this? It was the last day of the trip. I was riding a seemingly endless 1,400 kilometres that left my shoulders aching and my backside passing from pain into numbness. After more than 7,500 kilometres of dry riding - I would ride 8,200 in total - rain clouds had appeared to dampen spirits.

My motorcycle, which I had bought weeks before the trip, had become an albatross. Still hours from home, the oil reservoir was half-empty because of an unfortunate thirst it had acquired. Worse, it had developed a horrible banging sound, and seemed ready to, at worst, pitch me off at high speed, or at best, leave me on the side of the road.

It was miserable. I was miserable. Then I looked around.

I had crossed into Alberta and the sun was setting, leaving the clouds and the Rockies doused in a dusty purple. The day's last light marbled the dun foothills. A fox dug for something in a ditch. The road stretched out before me, long and straight. I was alone, and could feel the chill of a crosswind blowing over a lake still partly frozen. It was familiar scenery, but seeing it from a motorcycle gave it a new intimacy.

It would be nice, I thought, if this didn't have to end.

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