Raising Riders: From Passengers to Partners on the Baja Divide
Last February, the Clark family set out to ride the 1,700-mile Baja Divide route, and something extraordinary happened along the way. They watched as their kids made the transition from passengers to partners, growing up and growing into their own as riders. In this story, Dan Clark reflects on the impact the journey had on his family, and what he hopes his kids will take away from their time on the road…
Words and photos by Dan Clark (SimplyPropelled.com)
With the sun sinking irrevocably into the Pacific, we pull our bikes to the side of the dusty track and scour the little saddle for an opening where we can camp. Between cow patties and thorn bushes there are few options for our four-person tent. My son Koby rummages in his frame bag for his headlamp and bustles off over the crest of the hill, determined to find a place. Meanwhile, my daughter Ava Fei and wife Alice start putting on layers as the warmth of the Baja is pulled away by a cool wind flowing down the Sierra Juarez.
“There’s a spot over here!” comes Koby’s quick reply. As he returns to our little circle, the beam of his headlamp casts jagged shadows and each footfall sends a puff of powdered earth into space. It is early in the trip and we are still getting things figured out, like our headlamps. “How do you unlock this thing?” I ask.
Koby is our headlamp expert and reminds us of their intricacies, “Hold down the top button until the flashing blue light stops.”
With lights on, four sets of hands make pitching the tent a quick job, and soon Alice and the kids are in the tent, checking the floor for thorns, blowing up sleeping pads, and wiping dirt from dusty legs with wet wipes. Our tent is a consistent space for our family in the wilderness, and a great place to unwind after a day outdoors.
Outside the tent, the burble of voices is interrupted by the firing of the stove and the rustle of branches on this gusty evening. With darkness across the land, I settle into the routine of preparing dinner on a single burner in the backcountry. It is at this point of our fourth day that a feeling of overwhelming peace settles over me. I am flooded with happiness to be together as a family in a foreign land, in the uninterrupted space of a wilderness journey. All of the planning, preparation, and initial discomforts are behind us. With stars overtaking the sky, I feel the first glimmer of hope that this route is navigable as a family on bikes.
Riding the 1,700-mile Baja Divide is an ambitious plan, backed by a progression of family adventures. The kids have grown up in the wilderness, with over 500 nights camped under the stars during journeys from the Arctic to Patagonia. Our family adventures started when the kids were toddlers and we haven’t looked back, except to check that we are still together!
Over the last decade, the nature of these family journeys has changed as the kids mature; their roles have gradually transformed from passengers to partners. Increasingly, the kids are pedalling their own bikes over rough terrain, taking on responsibilities within the group, and becoming actively engaged in route discussions. These times together help us grow as a family and as individuals, and our trips form important milestones in our collective history.
At the start of our second week, it is hard not to notice the wall of cloud on the horizon while we load our bikes with refried beans and fiery gummy bears. Within an hour the sun is gone and spits of rain are carried on the wind. Turning away from the gravel road that climbs into the mountains is a tough decision, but our progress is slow enough in dry conditions, and I can’t imagine the hardship posed by rain and mud that would stop us completely.
The black asphalt of MEX1 spools out ahead of us and disappears around the bend as we settle in for some road miles. Alice is out front, while I try my hardest to keep up so I can draft behind her. Ava Fei is attached behind me using a FollowMe Tandem connector, and Koby is towed behind her using a Bicycle Bungee. This system saves the kids from having to pedal long hours on their own, but they are still actively engaged. Koby needs to control his bike while tucked in close behind Ava Fei. Communication in this familial train is crucial for safety, so Ava Fei is the conductor. She shouts observations to the rest of us and relays messages back to Koby. “Gravel on the right!” or “Truck behind, move to the shoulder!”
Riding near the highway through the farming communities of the San Quintin Valley puts us into contact with many people. As we pedal along, we are amazed to see large groups of workers bent over the endless rows of strawberry plants. Sometimes the pickers stand and point in our direction, to which we wave in reply. In the rough agricultural outskirts of Zapata, a man and his son approach the roadside stand where we are devouring fish tacos. He inspects our bikes from several angles and stoops to squeeze a tire before asking, “Donde esta el motor?” It takes me a few moments before I realize that he is wondering if this is a motorcycle.
In my limited Spanish I sputter that this is a bicycle, “Nada, es una bicicleta.”
He is quietly surprised. We all laugh when he squeezes the tire again and exclaims, “Los neumáticos muy grandes!” I try to explain what the big tires are for, but all I can say is that they are for the mountains. He and his son ask a few more questions and then wish us good luck, departing with “Suerte!”
Our destination for the day is Vicente Guerrero, where we plan to have our bikes checked over. When we walk through the doors at FASS Bike, Salvador exclaims, “You must be the Clark family! I’ve been worried about you in this wet weather! My friend saw you near Punta Colonet and we were hoping you didn’t get stuck in the mud up in the sierra!” Salvador is an amazing host. While our kids get to know each other over a dusty soccer game in the parking lot, Salvador pulls up camp chairs and his wife Flor brings out donuts and coffee. We sit around in the doorway of their shop while Salvador explains much about life in the Baja. As the afternoon progresses, Koby and Ava Fei are invited to an art lesson, and by dusk we are eating together at a favorite local restaurant. There is much laughter from the kids and adults alike, and the short time we spend together feels particularly rich.
The Valle de los Curios forms the middle section of the Baja Divide, and is the most remote and diverse part of the route, with a wide variety of plants that include forests of cardon cactus and curios trees with furry trunks that extend straight into the air, terminating in a curlicue.
Three weeks into the Baja, we leave the pavement near the Rancho El Descanso roadhouse with our friend Mike and his dog Koda. We have been bumping into Mike on a regular basis since crossing the border. We rarely ride together, yet an easy symbiosis has developed between us, and the kids love playing with Koda. The day begins with several hours of weaving through small ridges on chunky doubletrack. Most of the route here is too rough for towing, so we ride separately. Ava Fei is eight years old and struggles on some of the rougher sections, but at 10 years old Koby rides comfortably ahead. On the largest climb he pedals cleanly to the ridge and waits at the top, kicking up dust that takes off instantly in the wind.
Together again on the wide vantage, we enjoy a lunch of refried beans, cheese, and tortillas. The expansive view before us shows no sign of civilization, save for the rutted track that we are following. As we eat, I gaze out at the sea of desert scrub that stretches unbroken to the horizon, and can’t help but compare it to the uninhabited expanses of Canada’s treeless northern tundra. As we pack up from lunch, I am puzzled to find that Koby doesn’t want to be towed. I can only imagine that he must be getting tired after riding all morning on his own. I ask again, “Koby, are you sure you don’t want to tow on this next section? It looks a little smoother!”
Koby replies, “No, I’m OK.” He throws a leg over his bike and pedals ahead.
I’m still puzzled when Alice approaches and whispers in my ear, “He made a goal to ride entirely on his own today. He doesn’t want to be towed.” Alice pedals away, leaving Ava Fei and I alone on top of the ridge. An immense feeling of pride fills me as I watch Koby pedal ahead with Alice. True to his goal, he rides independently for 30 miles over several steep climbs and endless technical doubletrack. It is inspiring to see Koby challenge himself with his own goals and work to achieve them.
Our route through the Valle de los Cirios continues along the wild Pacific coast, on the longest section of the Baja Divide without food or water. Leaving Cataviña, our Salsa Fargos are heavily loaded with four days of food and over seven gallons of water. By my calculations, my bike weighs 130 pounds! The challenge is well worth it and we are astonished by the diversity in this section. The route to the sea passes granite boulders and forests of cardon cactus, and then near the ocean it all changes. The wind-beaten coastline is devoid of vegetation, with vacant beaches and rocky points. For a family riding this section, we are fortunate that the temperatures remain cool and skies clear. Pulling into the village of Santa Rossalita is a huge relief, and we all feel a strong sense of accomplishment. At the only store in town, we bump into Mike and Koda, and happily swap stories over a gallon of ice tea and 17 burritos.
Under ideal conditions we are challenged in the Baja and enjoy the adventure. We make good progress when the tracks are reasonably smooth and temperatures moderate, averaging as much as 40 miles a day. When conditions are less ideal, the challenge becomes too much. A week later we are at an important intersection: turn into the mountains for three hard days to Mulegé, or take a shortcut to the south. Our morning ride takes us 15 miles to a pine tree in a river valley. All afternoon a hot northerly wind blows up into the arms of the pine where we stay reclined. Soon we are joined by a herd of goats seeking respite from the sun. The heat is unlike anything we have experienced thus far, so our two-hour siesta stretches into the late afternoon.
To make this vital route decision, we launch into a discussion and try to find consensus. As parents, we worry about the kids and their ability to regulate their temperature in the heat. We also express our concern about our ability as adults to function with our heavy load. We lay out the details of the options, and encourage the kids to share their opinions. Consensus evades us. It is dusk by the time we decide on the easier route south to a nearby town. I am disheartened to leave the route, but can’t reconcile the difficulties required for our family—the heat wearing down our physical and mental reserves. As darkness overtakes us, we turn on our lights and ride rolling hills to San Juanico. It is still hot in the darkness, and the decision feels right.
In the week that follows, we ride between Spanish missions and rack up 250 miles on the roughest ground yet. Tracks in this section are littered with volcanic rock that tinkles like broken pottery as we roll over it. In the sandy sections there are more goat tracks than tire tracks. The riding is hard, but doable. Within sight of the Southern Cape, Alice and I come to the realization that the heat of Baja Sur is too much to continue riding. We talk openly as a family about what we should do, and Ava Fei clears all indecision when she firmly states, “I want to go back to school.”
Instead of pushing on, we make the decision as a family to stop riding after two months and 1,200 miles on the Baja Divide. We travel home and transition back into our regular routine. Things do not always go as planned, especially when the degree of difficulty for an objective increases. Yet, the success of challenging a backcountry route through the Baja lives on in each of us.
Six months after leaving the Baja, this adventure comes to the surface during the school district writing assessment. In a classroom looking out on pine forest, grade six students are busy putting together their best essay on a ‘sticky situation’. Koby writes about the tough decision we had to make on the turn to Mulegé, far away in the Baja. He clearly describes the complexity of the situation, how options were weighed along with their accompanying risks. He details how his dad wanted to try the more challenging route, the worries his mom shared, as well as his own role in the consensus decision. He finishes his essay describing how he and his sister made the final decision and how good it felt to ride into the dark, together as a family.
It is our hope as parents that these adventures help our kids develop the curiosity to seek out the unknowns in life, skills to navigate uncertainty, and the grit to push through the challenges that arise.
Interested in planning a Baja Divide Bikepacking Route trip of your own? Take a look at our complete route guide here, and stay tuned for a follow-up film about this journey that Dan will be publishing soon.
About Dan Clark
Dan Clark is a Canadian educator who has focused much of his adult life on mountaineering expeditions and ski traverses. Having kids opened the door to wilderness canoeing and cycling trips. You can find out more about the Clark family and their films at SimplyPropelled.com. The Clarks gratefully acknowledge the support of: Salsa Cycles, Big Agnes, Revelate Designs, Lauf Forks, MEC, Wolf Tooth Components, Kinekt Seat Post, B.O.B. Gear, Crank Brothers, BicyclebungeeUSA, Voltaic Systems, and the Robert Axle Project.