On A Dirt Road in Baja, I Almost Got in a Fist Fight with The Gas Gauge

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baja mexico dirt road overlanding nissan frontier

Along the road to progress, late 1980s maybe, the automotive industry decided the gas light was a clever thing to add to the dashboard. I disagree. When the little red orb illuminates, you're supposed to feel some gratitude. But you don't, do you? It's really like getting your final warning: do it now lest you get stranded, butthead. Under the best of situations running out of gas is a downright drag, so a little hey-bro-put-somthing-in-the-tank ought to be a nice reminder; instead it's a bummer, the jig is up. You have to give in and gas up.

Well. As far as running out of gas is concerned, I found myself and my family not in the best of situations.

Depending on your definition, you could marshal the argument that there's not a single road in Baja that's not a back road. That too goes for Mex 1, the one and only narrow strip of single lane asphalt that runs the 1000-mile length of the peninsula. The lanes are narrow, there are no railings and no median, and the outside edge rises above the ground by 24 inches at places—you feel like you're taking your life in your hands when you drive this highway. Even the towns on the highway promise few comforts, and there may be gas or there may not be gas. But the 100-mile trail between Mulegé and San Ignacio was something else all together. So was the experience. The road cut through stark, desolate desert and was so steep and rough that for a full two days we drove in low range. Because we started in the late morning and made a couple of bad turns in search of ancient cave paintings, and then a detour up to an 18th-century mission site, we had to set up a camp just a third of the way through. Every inch of travel costs something in fuel. More so in low range. Even more so when you backtrack in low range. When I wasn't admiring the scenery, studying the map or engaging my family, I was staring at the gas gauge and running the math in my head. Sure, we had another five gallons in a can strapped to the back. Based on my math, it might be enough or it might not. If I hoped for some reassurance in the numbers, I didn't get it.

So what was the reason for driving such a road? It came recommended by a friend in few words, "Simply awesome. Do it." He'd attached a GPS track to the email. Simply awesome was right. Human hands may have never probed this land, aside from this lone road. The mountains were staggering ancient volcanic saw blades, and the views sublime. At night, we had a starry sky, pure sound devoid of anything man-made, and front row seats to a desert sunrise above a canyon. The route began virtually at the Sea of Cortés outisde of Mulege and then ended at San Ignacio, a little oasis in the desert, palm trees and all, with charming local life and a few hotels. As adventure travel goes, a few days earlier we'd been told by a pair of surfers that the best fish tacos they'd ever pounded post-session would be found at a specific orange taco stand in Mulegé. It just so happened to be located where the trail begins. Good signs from the gods everywhere.

On the second morning, we packed up camp and I probed my brother. "How are you doing on gas?"

"I'm fine."

"Hmm. Okay . . ."

I poker faced and said no more.

We loaded and left. The trail descended 1,500 feet, slowly on craggy ground, crossed a dry river laden with boulders and then climbed loose, steep switchbacks once again, peaked out and descended more loose, steep rock for hours. It demanded all of my attention behind the wheel, and it seemed it would never end. I was back to being nervous. Maybe we could siphon every drop we have into Greg's truck now. If we haul ass maybe we can be back by tomorrow night with a couple of gas cans. Weighing the reality of abandoning our truck — yes, way out here in no-man's-land Mexico — in favor of the comfort and safety of my family didn't come as easily as I'd ever expected. Although we were a long way from that.

Along the dry river are a few ranches where people raise chickens and a few sad looking cattle. We passed a man riding a horse with a pack burro following behind. He saw us coming and simply got off the road and kept riding down the dry river bed. It looked like he burdened the poor critter with a month's worth of groceries. That's when the metaphorical ton-of-bricks fell: driving through this place isn't the hard part, living here is.

We stopped to make lunch, and I dumped in the final five gallons of fuel and envisioned myself dropping the can and fumbling to pick it up again before all of the contents oozed out and absorbed right into the Baja ground. That didn't happen, so we kept on driving. Hours went by, the gauge began to dance at the red line. I stared at it. I pleaded with it. Gas was the only thing on my mind and we were still a hazy number of miles from San Ignacio but closing in on it. The predicament wasn't for lack of preparation. We had good maps plus GPS technology. But the roads didn't, as they so often don't in Mexico, obey the damned maps.

So I summoned all the energy, mojo, juju, good vibrations, hope and the best exercise of a light foot I could. Anything I thought would work. As if my good behavior could make it rise a good quarter tank or so just because I really, really wanted it to do so.

And then the gentle light appeared with little fanfare. Blink.

"The clock's ticking, now," I radioed to Greg. But what was there to do but drive? My daughter was konked out and surely dreaming of playing in the coral blue waters of the Sea of Cortés. I hoped to be there, too. And I knew that I owed my family an ice cream and a hotel with a bed. And a pool if possible. But it was questionable if that would happen any time soon.

Like a sign, our scratch in the desert that was our only road for the last two days connected with the mild torture of a wide, hasn't-been-graded-in-a-coupla-years washboard stripe. The San Ignacio lagoon road; go right, and eventually the town will appear. It didn't provide all the relief I desired, but it restored my sense of humor. "God helps those who help themselves."

We pulled over to the side for a celebratory pee break. I faced east, unzipped and unloaded right in the middle of the trail, looking at the tough land we just went through. Greg said, "My gas light just turned on. How much further to San Ignacio?"

"In a straight line? 12 miles. But you know how these roads are."

"Yeah." He laughed.

"And the gas station is on the far side of town."


+3 / 0
# Loren 2011-11-15 21:56
Mark, as you my recall, I drive the V8 e-150 van that loves to gulp gas. Watching that %$@!! gauge is the worst. We have 8 days planned for the Baja over Christmas. Likely only going 1/2 way down. Open to on/off road suggestions. Good story.
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0 / 0
# Mark 2011-11-17 07:20
Yep, Loren I remember well. You have a great many choices in the upper half. Going to email...
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Jason | BodesWell
+4 / 0
# Jason | BodesWell 2011-11-18 04:44
post those GPS tracks ;)
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+3 / 0
# Brenton 2011-11-18 05:35
Excellent read. We'd love some GPS tracks or more info on the "simply awesome" trek.
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Mark Stephens
+1 / 0
# Mark Stephens 2011-11-18 09:55
I'll hook you fellas up.
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+5 / 0
# Kyle 2011-11-19 03:39
Great read... Diesel Mark... Diesel! :)
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+2 / 0
# Mark 2011-11-29 23:06
You have a point there.
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+2 / 0
# Robb 2011-11-29 22:09
Ha, ha, ha.. Yes the dreaded gas light. You should be lucky though, our "big" van doesn't have a working gas light. That or they didn't make them back then. I just get to watch the needle drop every time I step on the gas pedal to heavily...

BTW... I wish I had read this before this last weekend. I would like to see the road on the map. I think I know it, but you know how that goes.
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+3 / 0
# Mark 2011-11-29 23:01
Okay gents and ladies, here's the GPX file:
Mulegé to San Ignacio back road

That work for you?

You're going to love it. Wicked awesome scenery out there.

Yeah, Robb it's all marked in the Almanac.
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john gratian
0 / 0
# john gratian 2012-10-02 15:15
Loved reading your story. I just tried to get to the Mission from the Magdelena road and spent a day being amazed by the scenery and a filling of not quite knowing where we were. Ended up on top of a mountain with a local rancher laughing at us. Is it possible to get the directions to the mission?
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+2 / 0
# Michelle 2012-11-29 10:59
My fingers are tensed around an imaginary steering wheel as I'm reading. I had a similar gas fright after an all-night scooter gallivant around Bermuda. Obviously it's much more civilized and inhabited, but we completely did not factor in all the petrol stations closing at dark!
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0 / 0
# Anthony 2013-11-20 13:54
I'm planning my own trip to Baja soon and am looking for info on interesting roads, can you share the gps file you were using?
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Mark Stephens
0 / 0
# Mark Stephens 2013-11-25 09:02
Anthony, yes, the .gpx file is here: adventureparents.com/.../...
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