I hadn’t planned to find myself flying through the air, passing over cactus shrubs as my body careened towards the 300ft drop down into what would surely have been a helicopter ride home just yards off of one of the hardest sections of the Baja 1000 (mile 720). But then again, this was Baja, and the desert always seems to have her own plans in store.
I always look forward to our annual Baja ride. It’s a chance to get out of the city and surround yourself with true silence, true desolation. Nothing but yourself, your bike, and some close friends to share laughs with around a fire. This trip started out just like any other, unloading the bikes in Tecate, ripping through dry lake beds as we all got re-acquainted with our steeds and eventually calling it a night in Guadalupe Canyon.
After a good nights sleep, we left the canyon excited for an easy day of what I affectionately refer to as sand skiing.
My bike this year, a modified 2016 KTM 500 EXC made easy work of our first water crossing, finding it’s footing over the slippery rock bed and eventually connecting back with the wet sand on the other side.
We made good work of traversing the valley floor and sometime around noon we passed the first sign of human life we’d seen since Guadalupe. We slowed the bikes down and hopped off to chat with the farmers and check our route with them. It had rained pretty heavily the day prior and we could see snow still on the ground in the surrounding high desert peaks, so we wanted to get the locals green light before trying to leave the valley through a mountain pass we’d never ridden.
The farmers seemed to think it wouldn’t be a problem so we topped off our water and continued forward. We must not have been on the same page about which pass we were taking.
After five hours or so, the open valley floor quickly swept up, pinching us into the beginning of a breathtaking high desert pass. With 1,500 vertical feet to gain in less than 1 mile, we estimated the average grade to be around 30%. As we climbed we left behind the light small sand and found in its place rocks that only continued to grow in size as we climbed. The sun was getting low on the horizon, and the dry white light of day began to twist into soft shades of rose and amber.
The first crash came and went easily. A hill climb gone wrong. Thankfully the 500EXC is a light machine, so I made easy work of getting back up and once again climbing onward.
The sun set further. The brittle cold of the winter desert was offset by the sweat and focus required to gain elevation without breaking things. Focus. Focus. Focus. We were running low on water and we knew it. The rationing of our final 1 Liter had begun hours ago. The top of the pass would surely put us out somewhere near civilization, but we were unsure of the summit, and the crashes were becoming more frequent as the pitch of the climb and our dehydration increased.
It was about this time the worry began to set in. With our pace slow, and less than an hour of sunlight left we pushed harder for the summit. Almost there. We must be close. And then – whack! , A rock I had underestimated jettisoned my front wheel to the left and sent my body flying through the air and tumbling over the ledge. I didn’t have enough time to hope my body would catch a cactus before falling further, but in retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened. My riding mates rushed up to me and helped pull the cactus spines out of my Klim suit. This was the first, but not the last instance on this ride where I’d take stock of how crucial my luck and gear would be to my health and safety. The 500, like a trusty mountain goat was no worse the wear and after our few final sips of water were had, I shook myself off and continued onward.
The sky was illuminated only by the last traces of sunset. We consulted our trusty Garmin. Could it be our last hill climb? We all took a moment to gain some composure before the final push. I went first, charging up what must have been the steepest portion of our climb thus far. The grunty 500 shot up toward the summit. My front wheel left the ground. Then a rock. Then… whiskey throttle. I launched up the embankment to my left. I was back in the air, only this time it was both my body and the bike. The bike falling first into a large cactus pile and then my body following suit. As though I was the leg of a rocking chair, my body arched in reverse, as my back attempted to fold over my neck. I’ve never been so thankful for my Leatt neck brace as I was in that moment. I laid there for a moment, trying to make sense of the crash and feeling for any broken bits of body. I was lucky. A bruised rib, and a broken finger, but nothing requiring immediate attention.
We all sat there as the final few minutes of light disappeared. Thirsty. Tired. Wondering where we were. In a final fit of frustration on of the guys in our group ran up to see what was beyond the final 100 meters of the climb…
Farmer! There’s a farmer! Somehow, we had managed to make it within spitting distance of the first sign of life outside of the valley floor. The farmer’s name was Jesus (not kidding), and without hesitation, he brought us water and prepared a fire. The guys rode our bikes up as I sat down with Jesus and warmed up by the fire, reveling in our luck, and the twisted humor in all of it. Hour after hour, Jesus entertained us by putting more tires (yes, this was a tire fire, not a wood fire!) and we found ourselves relaxing as we knew we had made it out of what would soon be seen as another successful Baja trip in the books.
Matt Work has been riding motorcycles for over three decades and is the founder of Piston & Chain, a community motorcycle workshop and club in San Francisco.