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On a Mission to the Mission: Monkey business on Baja California

Sunday, March 25, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Lisa Morris (images by Jason Spafford)

Anyone who knows me well knows that the thought of riding in sand sends cold shivers down my spine. Thinking of sand penetrates every cell and seems to scatter molecules beyond the boundaries of my skin. In the depths of my mind, I wanted to believe my days dealing with sand were safely behind me, buried like nuclear waste in airtight containers.

"Why, pray tell, can't I stay in first gear?" I enquired en route to the Misión San Francisco de Borja, a Spanish mission located in Baja California. "I like first gear, and I feel a lot more in control," I continued, conscious of concealing any "princess tendencies" from my argument.

Jason's expression told me he wasn't buying what I was selling.

"Second gear is a tad too fast for me, and I can't give it handfuls of gas in first," I persevered, instantly regretting not having voiced such thoughts in the safety of my head first.

Jason had countered with his razor-sharp rationale tens of times already, yet did so again by reminding me that over-revving the engine in "snatchy" first gear prevented me from going a notch faster on the sand when I needed to regain balance.

Of course he was right, and the subsequent silence hung in space.

Just then, an idea struck me that was so far out I had to repeat it to myself, and after I had, it seemed even more outrageous. The idea stemmed from a Zen story originating from the villages of Khun Yuam, a small district in northern Thailand, where the locals occasionally ensnare monkeys (Presumably for an entertaining distraction rather than dinner). The story describes how villagers chain a "ewer," a bulbous-bottomed pitcher with a wide spout, to the base of a tree. Then, they fill the container's bottom with nuts and other food appealing to primates. Overnight, a monkey will invariably venture over and slip his hand down the narrow neck, grab the loot while making a fist. With his fist now too big to pull it out of the vessel, he's trapped.

The point of the story is that if you want to be free, all you have to do is let go.

For me, this story struck a chord partially because when I ride rough terrain, I tend to over-clench my grip on my handlebars. So much so, that my clutch grip has worn smooth.

It was now time to practice my new mantra, and if I could stay enlightened, it might just lead to "slowly, slowly, catchee monkey." I threw my leg over Pearl, my trusted BMW F 650 GS, and got going.

The sun was a crimson ball as it rose over the eastern horizon. Streamers of orange light fanned out across the clear blue sky before spilling over the land in a deluge of amber. We were leaving the ocean behind, and a ribbon-like highway seemingly tossed into the rocks revealed itself. The sun glinted off of it, flecking an otherwise dry and dusty desert.

After dodging a swarm of oncoming 4WDs, we branched off the blacktop and onto the dirt track, immersing ourselves in a boojum-laden landscape surrounded by cactuses twisting as they reached skyward like hairy, inverted carrots. Wobbling through a half-mile of Jell-O-like, silky sand got Pearl onto the rocky road unscathed and me off the shaky ground.

If the desert was the monochromatic start of an old black-and-white film, the landscape had turned to Technicolor. Amid a verdant landscape of saturated greens, the cacti glowed against the afternoon light. The scenery looked to be created using Photoshop with the saturation set to high. The splendor around me forced me to control my concentration every throttle twist of the way while weaving through the visual splendor.

The trail was a song of an off-road route inviting me to dance to a rhythm of compacted dirt, manageably jagged stones, and a light smattering of sand. Mercifully, there were only a few rocks bigger than a tennis ball thrown in for amusement. Pearl never hesitated to jolt my muscle memory, enabling me to slip back into a groove of sorts. Embracing the lumps and bumps together, Pearl seemed confident of the first step in her lead. I felt alive by my motorcycle's flair for emboldening me to take the reins in wielding her with artful precision. She's the underdog as much as a dark horse, that one.

The afternoon passed, as I found myself riding somewhere close to my technical limits. I was in a heady frame of mind, buoyed up as my tires skimmed over the sand instead of drowning below its surface.

Then bedlam erupted. "Oh, my giddy ants! What the...?" burst from my lips seconds after rounding a blind corner.

A dirt-biker was speeding towards me in my lane, oblivious to the fact that anyone besides himself and his crew might also be enjoying the trails. I reluctantly shared a disturbing moment with the guy: no margin for his error and nowhere for me to go-this was going to hurt. Too stunned to honk my horn, I watched helplessly as the goggled guy barely changed his line of direction, squeezing around me leaving only a hair's breadth to spare. Too close for comfort, chap-be a dear, and switch lanes.

That's the problem with luck. It can run out at any hairy moment. A trio of dry, rocky riverbeds encompassing stones the size of rugby balls stood between the mission and me.

"Okay, here we go!" I cried, as Pearl bobbled over rocks ricocheting off her boulder basher. Uncharacteristically, I gave it my all. Without thinking, I got into a groove, throwing my wheels this way and that, slaloming through bundles of rocks, sending up clouds of fine dust, and closing fast on the finish line.

Successfully zigzagging the rockbound course, I dismounted my bike. We've made it, I mused, pleased and perspiring. Removing my gloves, I could see the spike of my pulse heightened by adrenaline coursing through my hand. Shaking like a leaf, I laughed incredulously. Our mind-blowing 22 miles of undulating, curling track had led us to our destination.

Jesuit missionary Wenceslaus Linck officially founded the Misión San Francisco de Borja in 1762. With the knowledge that this region (traditionally referred to as Ádac by the Cochimí Indians) had a fresh source of water was all the impetus the priests needed to begin formal construction. The funds were provided by the Duchess of Gandía, a member of the famous House of Borgia, hence its name.

From its humble beginnings as a small Jesuit outpost or visita for the nearby Misión Santa Gertrudis de Cadacamán, in its heyday the Misión San Francisco de Borja administered to a booming community of nearly 2,000 converts. After the expulsion of the Jesuits in the mid-18th century because of the false speculation surrounding the alleged wealth, they kept from the King, the Franciscans waltzed in and took charge for five years. Their legacy was a sizable adobe mission church. When responsibility was transferred to the Dominicans in 1772, preparations began to erect the stunning, stone church I saw before me in front of the adobe one. The mission was abandoned in 1818 due to the indigenous population being decimated by the introduction of European disease-there was just no one left to proselytize.

As postage stamp-sized places go, the view is phenomenal. A necklace of rough-hewn construction dots around achingly off-white structures, the outlying mission buildings and ruins that have survived perforating the cactus gardens and thick desert vegetation. Today's custodians of the mission include just one family (headed by caretaker José Gerardo), a paddock of working horses, a small herd of goats, two charming little dogs pining for food and affection, and scores of howling coyotes on the periphery.

Not a single cloud adorned the bright sky. As the sun traversed westward on its afternoon journey, shadows stalked across the mission. Bands of burnt orange and pink gathered to greet dusk. Toads serenaded me with their croaking clicks and groans. A few pale stars began to appear scattered and twinkling across a bruise-colored horizon, their light hugging the heavens. I swung gently from my hammock beneath the palapa and watched the mission settle in for the night.

Supernovas exploded and collapsed overhead, punching holes in the galaxy before luminously retreating into the next world. Here, from the desert humming with desert critters, I glimpsed a falling star streak across the sky. It was that sort of place, that sort of night. Jason's face sailed quietly across the dark oceans of sleep, lit by a soft glow spilling from the moonlight.

I emerged into the new day astride Pearl with enough hubris on the first stretch of sand to believe I could do this. Where this exaggerated pride or unearned self-confidence came from, I didn't know-perhaps the tectonic plates of my universe were shifting, having taken a giant leap of faith. More likely it came from my plucky old bike. I didn't dare look back lest to give myself a fright from whence I came.

"Rockeee AND sandeee!" Jason's voice chanted through the COMM to keep my mood and motorcycle maneuvering light. "Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream…" I sang in response through the shower of sand. I ran the sight of it through my mind once more to ensure my longing to ride sand hadn't monkeyed my vision. Satisfied, only then did I surrender to emotion, unchain my feelings, and let my heart soar.

During a handful of short sections of trail, the path oscillated between loose and compacted ground to thick sand with no signs of relenting for about a mile. I could feel the intense concentration written on my face. I hadn't catapulted or capitulated, which was comforting. Sure, I was more wooden spoon than gold medal, but between one heartbeat and the next, I fishtailed down the trail. I have to admit, I was amped.

Jason's F 800 GS didn't fare as well. Having pushed his luck by letting his drone battery suck the life force from the motorcycle battery, the former had left the latter worse for wear. Jason dropped his bike and then jump-started it using mine. Then it happened again, and then once more. His riding style was comparable to Russian roulette that morning: A stop-start game leaving him down and out before he even had the chance to start playing.

The bike took a beating, as did Jason - parched and panting under an unyielding sun. Vertically challenged legs straddling a tall, quarter-ton of weight on a narrow front wheel gave him little traction, let alone much leverage in saving the bike from toppling. Instead, it swiftly sapped his energy by summoning enough strength to raise the laden leviathan up each time he fell. As coolant started to leak everywhere, I realized the remainder of this sortie was going to be a roll of the dice.

Squelching in his gear wet with sweat, Jason knew he made an error a trained monkey would have avoided; putting Captain Slow in front and letting me set an unbending snail's pace. Unhurried speeds were always a no-go for Jason, and I suspect for all other competent sand riders. Despite believing I was riding quite fast while harboring newfound respect for sand in second gear, my doubts began to resurface. We pressed on, determined to see this thing out.

"Lisa, you're riding like an absolute pro today; I can't believe you don't need any persuasion. I'm so proud of you," Jason said in a voice freighted with kindness.

As his spirited words continued, I wanted to grab handfuls of them out of the air and stuff them into my mouth, feeding off them like a praise-led pubescent. Happy emotions swirled around me as I smiled so widely I put myself at risk of swallowing my ears. Then, in a sudden reality check, I felt my arms tense up as I was about to lose control in a drift of sand.

Jason intervened, "Look ahead! Look where you want to go, and the bike will follow." Fighting a tumult of spiraling thoughts, I rallied, kept going, and staved off any fissions of fear. The best white-knuckle ride of my life ensued, by the seat of my pants.

After my enlivening Mexican cocktail of pitching over washboard corrugations and yawing through pillowed sand and watermelon-sized rock, I was present, perhaps for the first time all day. The moment was extraordinary. I realized that if I died at that moment, I would have known this connection with my life, with all of its errors and cockeyed, unconventional successes.

Deep in endorphin-fueled euphoria, a feeling like no other came with my success of dealing with the sand that washed away my fear. While not quite able to revel in the sand, if nothing else, we were no longer wheel-arch enemies. Inroads were made, and for all I knew, we had even begun to bond.

Sweat-drenched and spent, I cataloged the day's adventures against the countless possibilities ahead. My plateaued riding ability now abated, I took pleasure in knowing that, today at least, I had graduated magna cum laude.


Born and bred in Great Britain, Lisa Morris has sunk into various continents over the last two decades instructing and co-running scuba diving trips around the watery globe with her partner, Jason Spafford. Currently wending their way around the world on two wheels, Lisa is a spirited advocate for women riders and adores telling tales on the trails for motorcycle, overland and travel publications. Jason meanwhile engages his passions as an Adventure Travel, Underwater and Wildlife Photographer, a drone pilot, filmmaker and stock footage producer. Their skills as media professionals are superb, and sites such as twowheelednomad.com and Facebook, as well as Instagram alongside More Instagram have tied into their life of adventure and earned them a loyal following.

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