Water Please

Sep 14th, 2021

This article first appeared in the March 2021 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.

It was Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. It had been 34 days since I left my home in Lake Tahoe, California, and nine days since my 65-pound mountain bike “the Beast” and I crossed the border into Mexico. Every day I wondered how my battered 54-year-old body could continue riding through this hostile environment. I battled doubts with every rotation of my pedals whether I was ever going to reach my final destination, the Bay of La Ventana at the bottom of Baja Peninsula.

In Nueva Odisea, I filled up on water and bought an apple, an egg, and chocolate milk. The road started climbing away from the Pacific, and it soon came to beautiful boulder-studded slopes. I liked it. I stopped for lunch at a beautiful vista point, looking back down toward the Pacific. It was definitely getting hot during the day. I was concerned whether I’d brought enough water for this part of the ride. I could survive out here, I thought. I could find water in cacti. There are fruits I know I can eat. I’m resourceful. I was returning to my optimistic, confident self, not considering that I could be fooling myself.

Pedaling into a tight spot in the Mexican desert
The cirios (right) and cardón cacti may be lovely, but they offer little shade on the Cartaviña plateau in 106°F afternoons in Baja. 
Alenka Vrecek

Arriving at the next plateau, I saw a growth of pitaya dulce (organ pipe) cacti with large golf-ball–size red fruit hanging off the many branches. I dismounted the Beast and took out my Leatherman. I opened the knife blade to cut off the fruit that looked young and soft, thinking this had to be the perfect one. The flesh of the fruit was soft pink. It looked inviting, and so I cut it open with my knife and bit into it. Suddenly my whole mouth, my tongue, and my gums were full of laser-thin needles. I couldn’t even close my mouth. I was gasping like a fish out of water. The needles were sticking in my lips as well, and they were stuck all over my bike gloves, penetrating into my fingers. Bad idea! First, I struggled to take off my gloves to retrieve my tweezers out of my first aid kit. I started the slow process of removing the hardly visible, fiberglass-like slivers. First out of my fingers, then my lips, tongue, my gums. Many of them broke off, and I was hoping they would dissolve in time and not cause an infection. I felt foolish thinking I was so full of knowledge and confidence. I couldn’t even use my gloves anymore. Humbled, I got back on my bike. My tongue kept searching inside my mouth, finding tiny bumps swelling everywhere.

I later learned that the fruit you are supposed to pick has to be dark red, and the needles have to fall off if you just touch them and the fruit has to snap off the branch without effort, only by tapping it lightly. That is how you know pitaya dulce fruit is ripe.

The temperature reached close to 100°F, and I was down to two bottles of water with 60 miles to go. I finally crested the last summit, and the rough road started to descend. I was excited to go downhill when something started making a funny noise in the back of my bike. I ignored it, planning to deal with it when I stopped. It got louder and louder. I slowed down and found the water bottle holder mounted on the back hanging on by single zip tie. Miraculously, the water bottle was still in it. I’d been saving every drop, and this was my last full bottle.

Pedaling into a tight spot in the Mexican desert.
Entering the magical land and the golden light of the Cataviña at dusk.
Alenka Vrecek

The light began to paint a magical evening rose glow on the edges of the horizon, and I found myself surrounded by cirios and cardón (Mexican giant) cacti. The silhouettes of the mountain ridges and cacti of all different sizes and shapes around me were etched into the skyline. A singular mountain was glowing bright gold still, lit up by the setting sun. It looked as if I’d entered a fairytale. From afar the cirios looked like giant smooth carrots with soft white tufts of flowers decorating the tops, like a toupee stuck on the head of an old man. When I rode closer, I noticed the trunks were covered with leaves and needles, which sprout profusely after the rains. Some cirios were thick, some thin, and some split into multiple trunks either sticking up in different directions or curling back down to the earth, as if they were bowing before me and greeting me into their solitary desert magic. No two alike, each possessed the personality of a slightly tipsy soldier standing next to the sergeant cardón, which had a uniformly straight, thick trunk, often with two arms lifted upward next to the main body.

I felt as if I had landed on a different planet. I may not have known their language, but I felt welcomed, so I greeted them back. “Hola amigos!” I yodeled. There was no echo like I used to experience when I’d yodel back in the Alps as a young girl. A vast and arid desert swallowed my voice. Suddenly the whole day’s effort had paid off. Now I just had to find the right place to camp for the night. I passed a dry arroyo, and just up the hill from it was a group of trees, a fire pit, and enough light left to set up the tent. I leaned the Beast against a tree and got tangled in the branches, which were covered with needles I hadn’t noticed before. I pried my sleeve loose, but then my hair got caught by the same branch, and as I was trying to untangle my hair, I pricked my gloveless hands and they started bleeding. “Let me go!” I screamed at the tree and pulled away from it, finally freeing myself. Looking like a madwoman possessed by evil spirits, I ran off into the desert. Realizing how stupid that was, I stopped and started picking some wood for the fire and headed back to camp. The tent wasn’t going to set itself up. The light was fading, and the desert was quickly cooling off. I built a small fire, and the process of doing something, anything, allowed me to calm down. My soup was cooking over the fire while I inflated my mattress pad. One cup was tonight’s ration. I had to save water to ride the next 60 miles. Using my headlamp and my skewed reading glasses, I began removing the fine needles from my gloves. My mouth and my lips were swollen and tender.

I let the fire die down to embers, which gave me plenty of warmth but allowed enough darkness to watch the Milky Way stretching directly above me. Bright stars flickered, unspoiled by any ambient light, and I gave in to listening to the grand finale of the bird symphony as they finished in unison before they retired for the night. It came in the form of the loudest crescendo I’d ever heard. Then in an instant, all was quiet. The sky was blood red, and I was bloody tired. My rice noodle soup was overcooked, the noodles all soggy and clumped together into a slimy consistency. I forced myself to eat it all. It was the only source of calories and liquid I had. I gulped down some tepid chocolate milk, hardly taking a breath between long, thirsty sips. I used no water brushing my teeth, retreated into my tent, and zipped it down tight.

My frustrated scream drowned the morning birdsong: ‘I am so thirsty!’

The roads I’d been riding on were lonely and very remote, and I hadn’t seen a single vehicle the whole day. I passed only a couple of remote ranches that displayed no signs of life. But wouldn’t you know it, at 1:00 AM, a car passed right by my camp. I woke up in full alert mode, watching the red lights retreat through the mesh of my tent. With my head raised, I was holding as still as a lizard. I listened to make sure the engine kept moving away. I couldn’t tell, and soon, all was dead quiet again, but I could hear my heart loudly thumping in my throat. Did the car stop and turn the lights off? Did they see me? I stopped breathing. In my mind, I kept going over my escape plan, which direction I would run, and what I could quickly grab to take with me. One hand rested on my Leatherman with the knife blade open, the other on a half-full water bottle. I was ready to bolt. My breathing was shallow now, and I felt like a trapped animal. Long after the car passed, I noticed I was still holding my breath and my knife. I put my head down and tried to relax. I could feel the adrenaline flowing through my veins. Somehow, I drifted back to sleep. In the morning, birds greeted the day. I was relieved to be alive, still holding onto the knife, its blade reflecting an early morning light.

As I did every morning, I sent a message to my husband Jim via satellite. Packing up and ready to hit the trails. All is well! After allowing myself to heat up a cup of cocoa to complement my breakfast, I checked out the maps on my Garmin and my iPhone. I’d been carrying this egg securely wrapped in napkins and foil in my tin cup, which hangs on the back of my bike. It was a very precious egg. I heated up the tortilla on the rocks and the egg sizzled in the pan. Olive oil was used to coat the pan, my face and hands, and saddle sores as well. Some of the sores had scabbed over on my butt and my crotch, leaving the skin feeling rough, but new ones appeared daily, even though I was trying to constantly shift my sitting position on the saddle. My skin was dry, and my lips were cracked. I tightened the Velcro belt on both sides of my waist on my riding shorts. Warming up my toes on the rocks, which were hot from the fire, I managed to kick my cup of hot chocolate by mistake, and the damn thing spilled into the fire before I got a chance to catch it. Party’s over! My frustrated scream drowned the morning birdsong: “I am so thirsty!” A guttural cry escaped into the void as I rechecked my water supply and my maps yet again, perhaps hoping that by doing so, the distance would somehow shrink.  

I packed up my gear, which always took a while. I was on the road before 8:00 AM, before it got too hot. I needed to ride as far as possible using as little water as possible. I allowed myself the first sip at 10:00 AM. To prolong the satisfaction, I held the water in my mouth for a long time before swallowing it. The temperatures were rising, the brightness of the noonday sun was blinding, and I was down to less than one bottle. I was afraid to look at the temperature, and when I did, it was 101°F, and it soon crept up to 103°F. No more checking. I had 40 miles to go. Every time I wiped the sweat out of my eyes, burning with crusty salt, I’d see a picture of my body being ripped apart by turkey vultures. I needed to take my mind off the water crisis. “Oh, how big ears you have, señor!” I’d yell at yet another giant cardón I passed. “They are to hear you better, honey,” Cardón would answer. “How big eyes you have!” “To see you better.” I would hear the cirio, with its large wide spread arms reaching out to grab me. I was losing it. A laugh of desperation escaped me.

Drained of energy, dehydrated, and now feeling scared I might actually die in this heat, I sought shade under a giant cardón, which was probably over 300 years old. As soon as I stopped though, I was inundated with flies and bobos, these tiny pesky bugs that invaded my mouth, nostrils, ears, and eyes. I gobbled down my crackers and a can of sardines, hurrying as much as I possibly could without eating too many bugs. Licking the can, I made sure not a drop of oily, salty liquid was left. A piece of a cracker got lodged in my throat. Trying to wash it down with small sips, the water disappeared in my mouth before any of it even got to my parched throat. My tongue was compressed, and I could feel the indentation of my teeth in it. It was still full of tiny bumps as well, a result of the pitaya fruit adventure from the day before. I contemplated waiting for things to cool off a bit, but then I’d have to ride in the dark, which I didn’t want to do. I was scared. I was running out of my options.

Pedaling into a tight spot in the Mexican desert.
The author among the boulders of the Cataviña plateau in northern Baja.
Alenka Vrecek

Out of the blue, a pickup truck passed by and I saw a full case of delicious sweet water in the bed of the truck riding away from me! I jumped up and waved and screamed frantically like a woman chased by the devil. The truck finally skidded to a stop, sending a cloud of dust into the air. The Beast and I caught up to it.

Two guys dressed in camouflage pants jumped out of the truck.

I froze. Well, I’ll either die of thirst, or these two guys will do the job, I thought.  

I was scanning them and assessing the situation.

“Hola!” They greeted me with a friendly smile. I relaxed.

“¿Tienes un poquito agua, por favor?” I pleaded for water, full of hope. My mouth was hanging open, and I held an empty water bottle in their direction, feeling like a very desperate Oliver Twist. The guys just stared at me in bewilderment and started filling up every water bottle on my bike and then gave me an ice-cold bottle of lemon-flavored electrolyte drink, which I downed, hardly taking a breath. It turned out they were a support vehicle for the Baja 1000 race, which was starting in a few days. They were scoping out the roads and setting up resupply areas. I just stood there gulping warm but refreshing water. We chatted for a bit, and it turned out they were the ones who drove by me in the middle of the night.

“There is water in the arroyo not far away, but it’s not drinkable,” they told me. They took pictures with my bike and me. They marveled over its setup. “You are a very brave woman riding through here by yourself!” They took off wishing me good luck and safe travels.

Pedaling into a tight spot in the Mexican desert
There is always something blooming (crystalline iceplant) if one looks carefully.
Alenka Vrecek

Again, I’d been saved by total strangers. I stood there for a little longer, drinking more of the precious water and marveling at my fate.

When I got to the arroyo, the slimy green water was infested with bugs and wasn’t even clean enough to wash my hands. I was glad I didn’t need to filter that muck, but I knew I would have done it if the guys in the truck hadn’t saved me.

“We got this, Beast!” I said out loud. We both needed encouragement. My bike has become a living extension of me, and I talked to him more often than what might seem normal. “We can ride as far as we want now that we have water.”

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