Monkey Business in Baja

Story by Lisa Morris// Photos by Jason Spafford
November 15 2017

If you want to be free, all you have to do is let go.

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

“Why, pray tell, can’t I stay in first gear?” I inquired hopefully, en route to the Misión San Francisco de Borja, a Spanish mission located in Baja California. “I like first gear – we get on 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 first voiced such thoughts in the safety of my head.

Jason had countered with a razor-sharp rationale tens of times already, and did so again. Namely, over-revving the engine in “snatchy” first gear prevented me from going a notch faster on sand when I needed to regain balance. Of course he was right, and the subsequent silence hung in space.

Finding Zen

Small Staircase in MexicoAn idea struck me that was so far out I had to repeat it to myself. After I had, it seemed even more outrageous. It stemmed from a Zen story about the villages of Khun Yuam, a small district in northern Thailand, where the locals occasionally ensnare monkeys. The narrative delves into how the villagers chain a ewer – a bulbous-bottomed pitcher with a wide spout – to the base of a tree. They fill the container’s base with nuts and other foodstuffs appealing to primates. Overnight, a monkey ventures over and slips his hand down the narrow neck, grabbing the loot in hand while making a fist. That means it’s now too big to get back up the slender neck, and he’s trapped.

The point being: If you want to be free, all you have to do is let go. Its meaning struck a chord with me, partly because when let loose on rough terrain, I do tend to over-clench my handlebar grips – the left one having been worn down smooth. It was time to go with it, and if I could stay enlightened to that, it might just lead to “Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey.” Fear now ring-fenced, I threw my leg over Pearl, my trusted BMW F650GS, and got going.

A crimson ball of sun 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 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 – cactuses that twisted and turned skyward, like inverted hairy carrots. Careering like wobbling Jell-O over a kilometre of silky sand got Pearl onto the rocky road unscathed, and me off shaky ground.


The scenery intensified. If the desert were the monochromatic start of an old black-and-white film, the landscape had turned to Technicolor. Amid a verdant landscape of saturated greens, the cactuses glowed against the afternoon light – so rich, in fact, that it made the setting look as if it had been cooked on a black-light version of Photoshop. It curbed my concentration every throttle twist of the way and forced me to be mindful while weaving through such visual splendour.

It was a song of an off-road route. The floor invited 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 hesitated not a second in jolting my muscle memory, enabling me to slip back into a groove of sorts. As we embraced the lumps and bumps together, she seemed certain 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 perfectly. Though riding somewhere close to my technical limits, I was in a heady frame of mind, buoyed up by skimming the sand as opposed to drowning below its surface, buzzing at every curve ball thrown my way.

Then bedlam erupted. “Oh my giddy ants! What the – ?” came unbidden from my lips seconds after cornering a blind bend. An oncoming dirt biker sped toward me in my lane, oblivious that anyone besides him 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 rider barely changed his line of direction, squeezing around me akin to whitewater diverging around a rock, 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 even thinking about it I got into a flow, 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.

Having precariously zigzagged a rock-bound course, I dismounted my bike. We’ve made it, I mused, pleased and perspiring. Having removed my glove, I could see the spike of my pulse, heightened by adrenaline, coursing through my hand. I found myself shaking like a leaf and laughed incredulously. A mind-blowing 35 km of wending our way on an undulating, curling track had eventually led us to our destination.

Jesuit missionary Wenceslaus Linck officially founded the mission in 1762. And the knowledge that this region (traditionally referred to as Ádac by the Cochimí people) had a potable 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.

The Mission

Riding a Motorcycle Through MexicoFrom 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, due to false speculation around their alleged wealth being 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, they began to erect the stunning cut-stone church I saw before me, built in front of the adobe one. The mission was abandoned in 1818 due to the Indigenous population being decimated by the introduction of European diseases – there was simply no one left to proselytize.

As far as postage stamp-sized places go, the view was phenomenal. A necklace of rough-hewn constructions dot around 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 comprise 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 an early dusk. Toads serenaded me, putting out their croaking clicks and groans. A few pale stars scattered themselves and twinkled across a bruise-coloured horizon, their light hugging the heavens. I swung gently from my hammock beneath the palapa and watched the mission settle in for the night.

Wide Perspective

Sunrise in MexicoSupernovas exploded and collapsed overhead, punching holes in the galaxy, before luminously retreating into the next world. Here below, on an earthly night 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. As for where such an exaggerated pride or unearned self-confidence came from, I knew not – 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 give myself a fright from whence I came.

“Rockeee AND sandeee!” Jason chanted down the intercom to keep my mood and motorcycle manoeuvring light. “Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream . . .” I sung in response through a 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 small sections, the path oscillated between loose and compacted ground, then gave way to thickening sand, with no signs of relenting for about a kilometre or two. 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

Russian Roulette

Jason’s F800GS fared not so well. Having pushed his luck by letting the drone battery for his aerial photography system suck the life force from the motorcycle battery, the former had left the latter worse for wear. Namely, the bike failed to start every time it died or he turned the ignition off. Jason dropped his bike once, and started it up with the support of mine; again it happened, same drill, and thrice on repeat. His riding style was comparable to Russian roulette that morning: a stop-start game that left Jason 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-tonne weight on a narrow front wheel gave him little traction, let alone much leverage in saving the bike from toppling. Rather, it swiftly sapped his energy in summoning enough strength to push the laden leviathan back up each time.

Coolant started to leak everywhere. I took a moment to think – the remainder of this sortie was going to be a roll of the dice, that was for sure. Squelching in his suit, wet with sweat, Jason knew he had made an error a trained monkey would have avoided: putting Captain Slow in front, letting me assume an unbending snail’s pace. Unhurried speeds were always a no go for Jason, and I suspect for all other competent sand riders. Despite the fact I thought I was going quite fast, harbouring a new-found 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; smiling widely, I was at risk of swallowing my own ears.

Look Ahead

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 spiralling 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, 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 took my last breath soon, I would have known this, a connection with my life, with all of its errors and cockeyed, unconventional successes. Deep in endorphin-fuelled euphoria, a feeling like no other came with getting the hang of sand, washing away my fear. Not quite able to revel in sand, if nothing else, we were no longer wheel-arch enemies. Some inroads had been made in making amends; for all I knew, we had even begun to bond. Sweat-drenched and spent, I catalogued the day’s adventures against the untold possibilities ahead. My plateaued riding ability now abated, I took pleasure in knowing that today at least, I had graduated magna cum laude.



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