the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
The sun had yet to rise and Jacqui and I were already loading into the van on a drizzly morning in San Diego. In a last minute maneuver we were now entering into a caravan for the border crossing, obviously a tactical Starbucks meeting was in order.
Josh and Jenna of Travel Amateurs were patiently sitting behind steaming cups of coffee while Jacqui and I arrived in tardy fashion. We gave them a choice, to stay or to go, a last minute opportunity to choose sanity. We were happy to wait out the storm if they wanted to; they put their faith in our judgement.
Guess they don't know us that well. We crossed the border.
Three winters in a row we've crossed the border into Baja and never once has it felt the same. Trip one was a venture into the complete unknown. Trip two was with a different vehicle a few months after Baja had had it's largest storm in recorded history, the desert was green that year. This time, the desert had transformed to wet peanut butter.
We made it a goal to keep our first day's driving miles to a minimum. We also planned to meet up with some online friends that were cruising around in classic split-window buses. They had given us two possible meeting locations. Neither was going to be particularly easy to reach and this was clearly articulated when they told us to simply try for Camp One, unless the road was "impassable".
For an hour and a half we trudged through sludgy, washed out roads searching for a campsite by the sea that may or may not have a small group of old buses camped on it. It's difficult to gauge what a group of complete strangers would consider impassable. Determined not to be the ones with the lighter nerves, we dragged Josh and Jenna further and further out towards the coast, while a steady drizzle added to the slow demise of the roads we were traveling.
When at last we pulled out into a giant field of artichokes, we came to the conclusion we were lost and opted to try for Campsite Two. We were astonished by how quickly the roads were deteriorating on the return trip.
A field of artichokes at the end of the world
Hours of mud and muck later we managed to find Campsite Two and our Bus Trippers friends managed to find us.
Day one was a win for the Caravan. But Baja was brewing a counter attack.
The following morning we packed up and set out determined to show our friends one of our favorite repeat camp sites: Punta Baja. Every year we turn off Highway 1, near Mama Espinoza's restaurant, and start the 10 mile trek down a dirt road to find the tiny fishing village nestled at the end of a peninsula. We'd talked up the beauty and scenery plenty to Josh and Jenna and were excited to deliver them there.
Now sometimes things just go unexpectedly wrong. Life is full of unpredictability: break-downs, flat tires, getting sick or any other number of mishaps that can choose to strike at random, and all of this is only amplified by living on the road. I make this statement because I want you to understand what follows is absolutely avoidable.
And so, a familiar road turned unfamiliar.
It began with a giant crack and a sketchy descent where avoiding lodging either of our vehicles into this crack involved no shortage of skillful driving. Josh and Jenna later informed us that we had driven on three wheels for part of this.
Josh and Jenna finishing the last of the cracked road
Our second opportunity to turn away from a masochistic path began with a lake, in the middle of a road, where never before had there been a lake. The aforementioned lake appeared to offer two potential paths separated by tall grass and brushes. Rather than be discouraged, Josh and I began attempting to evaluate this obstacle. With sticks and such we worked to measure the depth of the water and determine which path would be less painful.
A local in a Chrysler Sebring (aka, your grandmother's grocery-running car) took a whack at our pride when they unhesitatingly plowed through the path on the right. Our wounded pride infused our veins with courage so we boldly pressed forward. Within seconds the front of the PennyWagon took a dive, Jacqui yelped and I watched what I assume was the Chrysler's muffler float to my left while water rushed over the windshield. It was deeper than expected. Just as quickly as we dove down, Penny's face surged back above the surface of the water and we were through our second obstacle. I'm still not sure how the Chrysler, minus their exhaust, made it through. We were waiting with smiles for Josh and Jenna on the other side.
Evaluating Obstacle 02.
As we continued, I immediately started hearing a loud clacking noise. One of our axles had a torn rubber boot that I'd known about for a while. Apparently they like to be full of grease, not sludge and water. Obstacle 03 began and another opportunity to turn back presented itself, then that opportunity reiterated itself. I'm proud to say I ripped out and rebuilt that axle on the side of the road in a measly 45 minutes thanks to Josh having a Dremel, with metal bits, that we used to transform a pair of pliers into a snap-ring tool. But while we sat there sorting out our mechanical woes a local pulled up and informed us that we should turn back. He didn't think taking our 2WD van out to Punta Baja was a good idea. We didn't listen. I, on several occasions, have been quoted smugly saying, "If you're driving with someone that has 4WD, you basically have 4WD."
Rebuilding the axle after van-swimming
Obstacle 04 presented itself as a long patch of desperately thick mud that was no less that 90 feet long and had a 4x4 Nissan SUV stuck, smack dab in the middle. Josh, Jenna, Jacqui and myself all stepped out of our vehicles and began watching the little SUV repeatedly switch from reverse to drive in an attempt to free itself from the bog.
Obstacle 04 truly shook my resolve to ignorantly push forward. I stood imagining consequences, experienced a fluttering of emotion in my stomach, then the atmosphere itself felt poised and ready to whisper in my ear, "You've done good, now turn around while you're ahead."
But just as my ears perked up ready to hear reason, the Nissan freed itself and a school bus trudged through without issue. With my hand on the shifter and Jacqui in the passenger seat I mumbled, "This is probably a bad idea.''
I mashed the accelerator to the floor.
The PennyWagon hit the sludge flat out in second gear. I wasn't delusionally thinking I'd get through with traction, so it was time to harness inertia. The front wheels dropped into ruts dug by previous vehicles and the van all but floated over mud while thrashing back and forth from the occasional moments when the rear tires would grab and aid our momentum. In a heartbeat we were spit out the other side onto more solid ground.
For 10 miles we traversed muddy, washed out dirt roads, but, Baja ceased with its blatant attempts to persuade me to turn around. We celebrated getting to our campsite with dinner, beers, van-brownies and star gazing. I toasted to the locals that said the PennyWagon couldn't make it. At 2am we all woke up to a deluge of rain.
I had coffee and regrets for breakfast.
I knocked on Josh and Jenna's rig at 6 in the morning. I was wearing a rain jacket, swimming trunks and sandals. All should know this is the garb of a man ready to get stuck. We mutually decided it was only going to get worse the longer we waited. Time to set sail.
I decided to lead. I figured it'd be better if the 2WD led and got stuck then vice-versa. As we crested the first hill to start the 10 mile dirt road the van began to fishtail. Everything had turned to peanut butter overnight and sections of the road were washed out with mini rivers flowing across. There was no semblance of traction to be found. I began steering with the throttle, who'd have known years ago when I spent rainy days goofing off, drifting my old BMW, it would pay off when overlanding.
There never seemed to be a moment that the van was facing the direction it was traveling. Within seconds Jenna radioed to us, "Well, that's a bad start."
Mile after mile we pushed forward and I never let off the accelerator. There was going to be no restarting once we lost momentum. Drifting through corners, sliding down inclines, we just had to keep moving, and it was working. The PennyWagon was champing its way onward, Jacqui later told me I was having very in-depth pep-talks with myself while driving. I certainly didn't notice.
But alas, the terrain changed. It wasn't that it got too steep, and it certainly wasn't due to being abnormally treacherous. A slow, steady and long incline was our demise. Ever so slowly we were moving with less and less momentum until the wheels were spinning and the van was stationary. When I stepped out it was difficult to lift my feet from the sticky mud that had finally halted our impressive progress. Time to harness the power of our friend's 4WD.
With Josh's mash-the-throttle towing technique we crested the hill, unhooked and began the even harder part of the journey. The descent. I quickly found out the brake pedal was my enemy. A gentle touch of the brakes would do nothing to decelerate us, but would definitely start turning us sideways. It was time to leave it in gear and let the engine put drag on the rear wheels while doing all we could to keep moving straight.
I was sweating bullets on this part, and apparently, according to Jacqui, giving myself more pep-talks. Every so often the engine would decide to stall and in a panic I'd attempt to restart the motor and throw the van back in gear to face us straight again. Finally the last descent showed it's big, ugly face.
Momentum was building, brakes were our enemy, I told Jacqui "We just got to keep it straight!" A giant rut appeared in the road. There was no way to slow down. We plowed violently through it, I was shocked to see the bikes still attached to the back of the van. As we rounded the corner a new and furious river was waiting for us. A man and a tractor were attempting to fill it.
Josh and I evaluating the giant mud hole with the new river directly after it.
I chatted with Josh a minute then went back to the van and leaned my head in. The motor was still idling. I immediately noticed the oil warning light was on and quickly turned off the engine. It didn't take long to discover the PennyWagon had shattered her oil pan when we went through that last rut. We were now victims of a very avoidable situation.
Well, rather conveniently, there was that tractor. So, after trying to find any remaining pieces of the oil pan, I designated myself to duct-taping and bungee-cording it shut so water wouldn't get in the engine under tow. We wished our friends Josh and Jenna good luck and hoped we'd see them in town soon.
The tow was...interesting.
From river crossings to muddy bogs and lakes that had appeared or grown drastically, we were slowly pulled onward. During part of our tow, water was coming in the doors due to the depth. But alas, we finally got towed into the tiny town that is hundreds of miles from anything and found Josh and Jenna waiting with some interesting stories about their drive back. Here's their blog post of this same day.
I began this story with the definition of resilience. After two straight years of things going rather incredibly wrong; some as victims of chance, some as victims of ourselves, this seems to be a trait we have grown more than any other. Jacqui and I were surprisingly calm and collected. Brainstorming who or how we could ship a new aluminum oil pan from the States was simply a strategic conversation, not in any way panicky. If anything we were feeling pretty light-hearted about the whole thing.
During our strategizing I had all but ruled out repairing the oil pan. After all, the ability to weld aluminum, or a 25 year old aluminum with magnesium oil pan, is an extremely specialized craft. The chances of finding someone capable of welding our pan back together would basically be impossible.
But just for due diligence I asked our tractor driver if he knew anyone capable. He did. Within an hour we'd secured a tire shop with a clean parking lot that agreed to let me pull out the oil pan on their property. Then we dropped it off next door with the welder, a gringo named Scott who does welding for Baja 1000 trucks, and picked it up two hours later. We slapped it in and were back on the road $40 poorer by early afternoon.
And here's the truly dizzying thing. We were exactly, as in precisely, one mile overdue for an oil change.
There was a lot of welding involved, thanks Scott (aka Oscar)
Oh, and there's more! We were supposed to caravan with two other people who had to bail the day we were crossing the border. Miles and Aaron of Head First Diaries caught up with us while we were removing the oil pan.
Desert camping and caravanning commenced.
From border crossing, to muddy roads, to desert camping