Starlit Rambler - Adventure Travel Our Way
I recall reading a travel blog which asked a very serious question. “What do you do for heat in the winter?” A puzzling question every van dweller must ponder as the days become shorter and the temperatures plummet. So what is the best method in order to warm your space and have a little comfort in this minimalist lifestyle? Well there is a slick diesel powered furnace which taps into the fuel tank so heat is available as long as the tank is full. Others have gone with the cheaper propane powered indoor heater or a less efficient electric powered space heater. When temperatures dropped to -16F in Park City just after Christmas the answer to this highly debated question became utterly clear… just drive south!
After nearly two months back in Park City we decided it was time for the second leg of our Rambling Life. Time to load back into the van for more experiences and new faces. November and the second half of December was spent with my family allowing us to have the great pleasure of meeting my niece for the first time! At 9 months old, little baby Alta graced the USA with her fantastic smile and carefree attitude. Since the airlines frowned on a 9 month old flying solo from New Zealand, Alta decided to bring her parents Scott and Rachel along with her. Rachel, my sister, and Scott recently built a home in the Cadrona Valley on the south island of New Zealand. Scott received a 90 day contract to make snow at Loveland Resort in Colorado which worked out fantastic to get the New Zealand family over to the states for a long visit. Along with the New Zealand family, Zahava, Rachelle and I; my gracious parents also hosted Rachelle’s family for Thanksgiving and our Engagement Party. A memorable time celebrating the next chapter in our lives. Rachelle and I wanted to extend a huge thanks to my parents Ron and Colleen for hosting people and events throughout the holiday season. While Rachel was extremely given of her time lending a massive helping hand for our Engagement Party. Furthermore, it was such a pleasure to host so many of our amazing friends that came to celebrate, we thank each of you for taking the time to be a part of our lives.
On December 30th, 2015 we bid farewell to Park City leaving behind the comforts, warmth, and stability of my parent’s house in search of warmer climates and unfamiliar faces. Our final destination was the small fishing village of Los Barilles in Baja California Sur, Mexico. This small fishing village turns into a wind mecca from December through April as windsurfers and kiteboarders flock here in order to harness the power of the wind. Rachelle and I decided to leave the kayaks at home in order to make room for our newly acquired North kiteboarding gear. The first two weeks of December we made a trip to South Padre Island, Texas where we stayed with a good friend, Lisa Tedford. Lisa and her fiancé Jason were awesome hosts as Lisa graciously taught us how to kiteboard in the shallow smooth waters of South Padre Island. We also tapped into the local activities of surfing, flounder gigging, bow hunting, whiskey dranking, fresh Snapper grilling, and other redneck south Texas joys.
Getting a late start on December 30th after running a few errands and making some necessary stops, we only made it a few hours south of Salt Lake before the winter storm slowed us to 40mph on Interstate 80. That night we slept among the Rambler’s big brothers; 18 wheeler Freightliner semi's at a truck stop in central Utah. Cuddled up for the night, as temperatures dropped below zero, we reached for an additional blanket. 6am came quick as I crossed my fingers the diesel engine would start without delay. It fired right up, a different story from four days prior when the diesel gelled during our -16F winter chill.
White scenery glowed as the first rays of light began to thaw the icy road. A crisp clear morning warmed my soul and provided a relaxing smile to my face. This early morning calmness amongst the sound of the 3.0 liter Mercedes diesel was rudely interrupted by a sudden change in the normality of the situation. Something was wrong as the Rambler began to sway and make an unfamiliar sound. My first thought was, “No way is the fuel gelling up while I am driving?” Quickly however I realized the left rear tire had completely blown out the sidewall. Meanwhile Rachelle’s slumber was abruptly disturbed as I was determined not to lose control of our 25 foot long van. Not sure which was worst the fact we blew a tire or Rachelle got woken up suddenly from her beauty sleep? As the gauge in the van displayed 1 degree F, I bundled up in all the cold weather gear we brought and faced the elements in order to not delay our trip any further. The first lug nut was on tight as it finally took a small kick on the wrench to break it loose. Great! Only 5 more to go as I prayed the others were not lodged on so tightly. My prayers were not coming true as the 2nd lug nut seemed to be screwed on with red LockTite. Going for another kick to the wrench, the realization of what I did seemed foreign to me. The head of the wrench snapped clean off…shit! Without delay I searched for our second lug nut wrench which was collapsible but soon found out the deceased leverage in this smaller wrench no longer helped the situation (but did store nicely when not in use). Hitchhiking seemed to be the next logical option to the nearest town no more than 2 miles away. As I await with my thumb to the sky, trying not to look like a bum, I continued to look back at the van in order to analyze what a passing motorist might think. Surely the 3 orange safety markers and hazard lights flashing would disarm any conservative Utah driver, maybe causing them to stop…wishful thinking but at least they signaled to the left lane in order to give me space. Finally my salvation came in the form of a fellow Sprinter driver and his son. Initially this driver began to make his way to the passing lane, but when he saw the big white 9 foot tall van he recognized we were one of his own quickly bringing his van to a halt. See the day you buy a Sprinter you are unknowingly sworn into a secret underworld society of The Sprinter. There are no ceremonies nor religious rituals or confidential handshakes. Just the mutual understanding that you are in the club, “The Cult de La Sprinter.”
A nice country mechanic at the truck stop in town decided to help me out with the wheel situation as his fellow coworkers sat on their hands with no customers in sight. Watching as this 250 lb country boy wrestled with the tightness of the lug nuts made me a bit more satisfied as my 165 lb frame was defeated by these iron bolts. Even though the picture on the hydraulic jack clearly showed the position in order to lift the vehicle the “Mechanic” insisted it should go on the leaf spring right next to the wheel. Very well your the professional as the van proceeded to slip off the jack 1 minute later with a passing semi-truck. This action made us realize we also had to lift the back of the van since the spare tire could not be accessed while the van sat so close to the ground. Extremely well planning by the designers of the Sprinter, idiots. Even though the hydraulic jack in the van was brand new it appeared the fluid had dried up inside creating minimal lift of the weighted vehicle. Luckily the mechanic had a jack in his truck and soon we had the van up off the icy pavement securing the spare onto the axel. By this point the quick favor turned into a longer ordeal so we decided to give the guy $50 and a bottle of Champagne since New Years was only half a day away. After purchasing a new tire and spare in St. George, I was actually thankful and blessed we had this cluster of a situation. Luckily the tire blew in Utah and not on our 1000 mile trek through Baja where services can be sparring and Banditos plentiful in the late night hours.
My cousin Rebecca, extended an invitation for a New Years Eve dinner at a restaurant on the edge of West Hollywood. After a mellow NYE we slept on the street outside of Rebecca’s boyfriends house in what seemed to be a nice neighborhood. On New Years Day we made a trip up to Malibu to see my aunt, uncle and cousin while also picking up a couple kiteboards from my Uncle Gary. That evening we headed south to San Diego after having dinner in Newport Beach with my college buddy and his girlfriend, the famous Sam Plasman and Shea. Ironically enough my other cousin Dillion was getting married on the 2nd of January in Point Loma, San Diego which became our final stop prior to crossing the border in Tijuana.
Everyone has heard the stories about Mexico and how one should avoid traveling its’ dangerous streets at all costs. Mexico is not safe with the ruthless drug cartels running the country. Most people’s reaction when we shared our plans to drive south of the border was shock and caution. And maybe for good reason as it is an unknown territory for most, outside the protection of big gates of the all-inclusive resorts in popular areas such as Cabo, Cancun, and Mazatlan. Most travelers experience of Mexico is flying in and going straight to the safety of a resort to be pampered, over-eat, over-drink, hang out with solely tourists (aka white people), get a sunburn, practice saying ‘hola’ and ‘gracias’, then come home bragging to their friends about how cultured they got (trust me I know because I am guilty of this as well). The reason so many people choose this type of Mexico experience: it is easy, safe, and lacks unknowns. People are fearful of the unknowns in life and feed socially on negativity. CNN, NBC, FOX lead the news broadcast with murder, crimes, gun violence, scandals, and all around negative things in life for a reason. The simple answer is to blame the news stations but in reality the news is providing a service to its’ consumers with the demand being to report on the negativity in the world.
Now we are not to proud to admit we had no fears undertaking a 1,000 mile drive down the Baja Peninsula, because we did. More so our fears seemed to focus on the border crossing and our upcoming plans to take the ferry from La Paz in Baja California Sur across the Sea of Cortez to Topolobampo on the mainland of Mexico. Recently a couple of Australian surfers living in a van had similar travel plans driving the length of Baja and taking the same ferry to the mainland. After getting caught up in the wrong crowd they went missing only to find their burned van on the side of a country road. Happening only a few weeks before we pushed off on our similar adventure rightfully it caused us to pause. However only a few days later the terrible mass shooting occurred in San Bernardino and shocking statistics came over the media channels. In 2015 there was on average of one mass shooting per day in the U.S. Now take a second to absorb this unfortunate statistic and think to yourself, does this make me scared? Living in a country where daily someone opens fire on innocent people in public places? The U.S. people (including myself) have been desensitized to the horrors of gun violence as it has now been quietly accepted and unfortunately expected in our current society. Remember Columbine? The passion, condolences, and fear felt by this country for Columbine was far different from San Bernardino. Quietly and quickly mass shootings have been accepted by the American public, no longer making it an ‘unknown’ thereby culturally the general public no longer fears this violence. I ask the question, Are we safer in Mexico or the U.S.A.?
After a late night celebrating at my cousins wedding we missed our hopeful 6:00am border crossing at Tijuana. Still we managed to cross by 8:00am after spending the night in the parking lot of The Marriott Courtyard Hotel, utilizing the plush amenities for our minimal needs. The anticipation (and hangover) was mounting as we arrived at the border not quite sure what to expect. An officer asked for the registration of the motorcycle and waived us through…that was it! Shocked with the ease of crossing an international border because at the very least we expected our passports to be checked. We could of smuggled 10 people in the back of the van…but then again why would you want to be smuggled into Mexico? The crossing was so fast and easy we totally missed getting our vehicle permit and tourist visas quickly realizing as we gained ground south on the toll road, bypassing the heart of Tijuana. The late night endeavors may have had something to do with the mental lapse. It is not a problem to drive through Baja Norte without a visa but technically if you are traveling in Baja Sur it is required....technically, but this is still Mexico. We did pursue the visa at 6 different migration offices in each town we passed through over the 4 days driving south, for reasons unknown to the locals, all were closed. The real issue we are currently facing is travel to mainland Mexico. Apparently a tourist visa is required to receive the vehicle permit which is required to purchase the ferry tickets. At this point we have only been provided with three options to receive this sought after tourist visa: drive back North to the Tijuana border, fly from San Jose to the Tijuana border, or fly out of country to the U.S. and return. Stay tuned to see how we figure this ordeal out.
All in all it took us 4 days, 3 nights in order to make the 1,000 mile trek south. Deciding it would be best to get to our destination then take our time as we travel back up Baja towards the USA in a few months. See one could easily spend a month just in Baja Norte so we opted for a straight shot south planning to slowly explore on the way back. You follow one paved road the entire way so getting lost was hardly an option as beautiful coastline absorbed our pupils. The cacti are out of this world as a dozen different species could be spotted just from the roadside. Never have I seen cacti rise up out of the sand and tower over 25 feet above my skull. The color and complexity of these plants are truly a sight to behold. Rachelle accidentally got a little too close to a cactus and returned from a roadside desert bathroom break with more than she started. Stuck deeply in the side of her right foot was a piece of a cactus the size of a baseball. I had the pleasure of pulling this spiny thing from the dermis of her foot.
Military checkpoints were abundant as we encountered them throughout the days, however every time they saw the gringos in a white van we were waived through. Questions consisted of, “where are you coming from” and “where are you going?” We were never searched and overall felt safer with the military checkpoints in place. It might be a different story returning back North as we head towards the US border. Day 2 of our drive the rain fell off and on wetting the pavement and flooding some surrounding areas. As we rounded a corner an oncoming driver had his hazard lights on, while the next passing vehicle also had their hazard lights flashing. Quickly we discovered what the warning was as a father and son stood next to their overturned car as a stream washed over the low spot in the road. After a short conversation confirming the driver and passenger were fine, they posed for a picture next to their upended transportation.
Rachelle is in love with whales so the moment she realized there were three whale sanctuaries along Baja, a stop was in order. The small village of Lopez Mateo on the Pacific side became our first kinda touristy stop. These California Gray Whales come to these protected lagoons to raise their calfs before heading North for the summer. Under the setting sun we flanked these graceful animals as mother and baby swam up and down this lagoon. Exclaiming at the 4 pairs of whales swimming around us, the panga driver spoke of another 50 +/- around with a peak of 200+ whales during February. This small village embraces the whales as they provide a livelihood for many of its residences.
Another amazing experience on our drive down was the town of Mulege on the Sea of Cortez. We had been driving for hours and hours through the Baja desert and finally made it to the Sea of Cortez outside Loreto as afternoon hit. From the cliffs we witnessed one of the most incredible marine feedings as over 100 dolphins were working together to corral fish in the bay. The dolphins jumped, played, and preyed on a huge school of fish providing enough protein for the entire pod.
Day 4, finally arrived in Los Barriles as Taylor Meehan greeted us at Exotikite exclaiming, “what are you waiting for the wind is blowing, get out there!” Here is where we will call home for a few weeks as we utilize the wind to power our newly acquired kites. Immediately it was clear that we were no longer in South Padre as the huge swell and deep waters greeted our nervous faces. Time to jump in and explore the Sea of Cortez, “The World’s Aquarium.”
Stay tuned for stories of our exploration of Baja California Sur!
Author: Jeremy Wilstein
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