Mexico, Part 4: Mike's Sky Rancho, Sea of Cortez, Coco's Corner

Mike's Sky Rancho

We left Ensenada reluctantly, saying our temporary goodbyes to Mauricio and Abby (and Vini the dog and the '61 Land Rover). Mauricio repeatedly told us that he didn't want us to leave because once we realized how excellent Baja really is, we'd never return to Ensenada. Don't worry Mauricio, we'll be back, we promise.

Our first destination outside Ensenada was Mike's Sky Rancho, a little backwoods ranch popular for dirt bike and off road trips. It's got a long history that we don't really know much about. The winter seems like the off season, as the pool was not full (or clean) and most of the rooms were unoccupied. One medium sized dirt bike tour was at the ranch when we arrived, but other than them, a few ladies running the kitchen, and the Mike tending the bar, we were alone in the woods. The ranch is 31 kilometers in on a decent road with a handful of small, washed out climbs that could be handled by a stock Ford Ranger, but perhaps not by a Subaru Legacy, if that makes sense. Honestly, a Legacy could probably get to the ranch, but might drag a skid plate here or there. We stayed one night, didn't love the price or the accomodations, and left the next morning.

A sweet Ensenada sunset saying goodbye to us.

A sweet Ensenada sunset saying goodbye to us.

The team, animals included, on the morning of departure.

The team, animals included, on the morning of departure.

We could hardly get out of our seats before being surrounded by the folks from the dirt bike tour checking out our pad.

We could hardly get out of our seats before being surrounded by the folks from the dirt bike tour checking out our pad.

Loulou exploring new heights while we peruse the map for our next destination.

Loulou exploring new heights while we peruse the map for our next destination.

4-wheeling with a cat!

4-wheeling with a cat!

We drove through mountains and over small desert passes until we reached the Sea of Cortez at San Felipe. San Felipe is the northern-most city on the Sea of Cortez on Mexico 5, and marks the point where the highway begins to follow the beaches. The town is small, but set up for tourists, complete with a crowded merchant block, and many small RV parks and hotels. We continued south and camped at a forgotten RV resort that never took off. The whole scene was quite dystopian, and even though the security guard was charging too much ($300M) for nothing (nearly no facilities), we spent a nice night and got to cook over a fire, which is always a plus.

The next day we made it to Puertecitos, a small community split nearly 50/50 between locals and expatriates. Puertecitos not only boasts excellent beachside camping, but also a tidal pool hot spring that is a perfect temperature right as the tide is coming in or out. At high tide the hot pools are blown out and filled by cold sea water, and at low tide the pools are hot enough to boil you alive, so the window of opportunity is fleeting and ever-changing.

There we met some other travelers, including one nice Californian who swapped a Chevy 350 small block into his Land Rover. It makes a GREAT sound, and the roar is totally unexpected when you see the rig. We spent New Year's Eve soaking and dining at the community potluck, and headed out the next day.

Desert mixed with beach in Baja California.

Desert mixed with beach in Baja California.

Our camp spot in the forgotten RV resort.

Our camp spot in the forgotten RV resort.

Super slow service at the poolside bar... let it suffice to say that the bartender didn't get a tip.

Super slow service at the poolside bar... let it suffice to say that the bartender didn't get a tip.

Camping and cooking at the forgotten RV resort.

Camping and cooking at the forgotten RV resort.

Free fuel, collected from the beach. The dish in the foreground is a pie plate heaped with coals, acting as a dutch oven to bake the corn bread within.

Free fuel, collected from the beach. The dish in the foreground is a pie plate heaped with coals, acting as a dutch oven to bake the corn bread within.

Our new friend francisco and his Land Rover with a 350! Sounds so good!

Our new friend francisco and his Land Rover with a 350! Sounds so good!

Seaside hot springs in Puetrecitos.

Seaside hot springs in Puetrecitos.

Testing the tidal hot spring water.

Testing the tidal hot spring water.

If you bring your own hose, a convenient water spigot becomes a shower!

If you bring your own hose, a convenient water spigot becomes a shower!

Puertecitos even had a library and a post office! And a yet-unnamed project building.

Puertecitos even had a library and a post office! And a yet-unnamed project building.

South of Puertecitos we followed a highway project back towards Mexico 1, and we had about five lanes of space to use. We dodged ruts and washboard as best we could, but it was tiring. We had heard of a fabled spot, run by a guy named Coco, Coco's Corner, and folks had said camping was free if you bought a beverage. How could we refuse?

We found Coco hollering "HELLO! HOLA! HELLO! HOLA!" over and over and over again. He's nearly 80 years old and a double below-the-knee-amputee, so when a car arrives he's a little slow to greet them, but calls out greetings in different languages in hopes that whomever entered his compound will stay and chat. He's fantastically giving, even though at first glance it looks like he doesn't have much. He lives in a well built, although mostly uninsulated plywood home. Most Americans would call it a shack, but its a step above that. Everything in his house is fit for him. The kitchen counters are too low for me but at the perfect height for his wheel chair. His workshop is the same, with workbenches built just for him. His compound is mostly powered by a few solar panels, but at night he fires up the generator so he can watch movies and turn on the flood lights of the lot. He offers help to EVERYONE, and even gave us a round of beers for free. If you're in the area, stop and see him. His generosity will warm your heart. He is a gift from God for the traveler. (And his 80th birthday is February 25th, so if you're in the area, give him a big birthday hug from the both of us!)

Using not only the whole road, but all the roads.

Using not only the whole road, but all the roads.

Signing Coco's guest book. HEY PACIFICO! SPONSOR THIS GUY!

Signing Coco's guest book. HEY PACIFICO! SPONSOR THIS GUY!

Had to draw Little Foot, for all the travelers of the future to see. (He makes you sign the book with your given birth name name and birthplace!)

Had to draw Little Foot, for all the travelers of the future to see. (He makes you sign the book with your given birth name name and birthplace!)

Cooking with Coco. He told me that I am NEVER allowed to open my own restraurant, as I'm much too slow for his liking.

Cooking with Coco. He told me that I am NEVER allowed to open my own restraurant, as I'm much too slow for his liking.

Glamour shot with Coco. He gets around in his chair, but he also walks on his knees pretty well, hence the hefty leather "boots".

Glamour shot with Coco. He gets around in his chair, but he also walks on his knees pretty well, hence the hefty leather "boots".

Do not feel bad for Coco. He's happier than you. Figure out what he has figured out and you will be happy forever.

Do not feel bad for Coco. He's happier than you. Figure out what he has figured out and you will be happy forever.

Little Foot posing.

Little Foot posing.

Heading on south! 244 kilometers to go until... somewhere?

Heading on south! 244 kilometers to go until... somewhere?

You meet the nicest people on Craigslist.

Last week we left you on a bit of a cliff-hanger; lets pick up where we left off. We rolled into Portland's Union station about 15 minutes early, which was good because we figured we needed every second to secure funds to make our next greatest-ever purchase. 

We were busy, but we had time to snap some quick shots. Union station is beautiful.

We were busy, but we had time to snap some quick shots. Union station is beautiful.

Chelsea looked remarkably good for spending a night in a train seat. I didn't.

Chelsea looked remarkably good for spending a night in a train seat. I didn't.

We played physical sudoku on a board Chels picked up at a curiosities store down the block from the bank. Only in Portland?

We played physical sudoku on a board Chels picked up at a curiosities store down the block from the bank. Only in Portland?

We hailed a cab real fast and drove a few miles away to a Wells Fargo bank. The daily manager, Mr. Trevor, was BEYOND helpful. We were there from just after open until just after closing (on a Saturday!) trying to manage access to some of our funds at a different state in a different bank, but alas, it didn't work out. We knew we would be heading to meet a gentleman by the name of Toby to discuss our purchase of a Swiss Army Pinzgauer truck at 2 o'clock when the bank closed, but we also knew we wouldn't have the cash in hand to buy it. The bank could process our request first thing on Monday, but that was two days away. We shrugged, phoned Toby, and (unbeknownst to us) started a GREAT weekend away.

Toby and I (and one of Toby's neighbors who is looking under the truck) checking out the Pinzguaer.

Toby and I (and one of Toby's neighbors who is looking under the truck) checking out the Pinzguaer.

So much shop talk. SO much learning. I was/am in heaven.

So much shop talk. SO much learning. I was/am in heaven.

It drives like a completely mechanical Austrian army truck. OHMYGOSHSOMUCHFUN.

It drives like a completely mechanical Austrian army truck. OHMYGOSHSOMUCHFUN.

Toby picked us up from the bank after waiting for ages. We were very afraid we were shooting his weekend in the foot, and man we felt bad, but he was cool as a cucumber. Over the course of the afternoon (and then the weekend!) Toby told us all about his Pinzgauer.

A Pinzgauer is a breed of Swiss cow, but more importantly, its a highly capable off-road vehicle built by the Steyr-Puch company for the Swiss and Austrian Militaries. They are commonly 4x4s and more rarely 6x6s, and originally powered by air-cooled gas engines, but more recently by turbo-diesels. We found a 1982 6x6 with a rare "workshop" fiberglass box attached to the back listed for sale a few weeks ago. After doing some research and realizing what a find it was, we spent every subsequent day thereafter talking ourselves into and out of buying it. Long story short, it's got low miles, great tires, and a fiberglass house/box on the back. Its drivetrain is designed to be both sturdy and serviceable, it has reasonable gas milage, terrific clearance, and incredible traction. It's well designed, over built, and underused, and that's why we're planning on taking it overland from here as far south as we can go. Mexico? Central America? Tierra Del Fuego? Who knows.

We were sold, and Toby liked the number Chelsea and I offered him (third offer; we totally lowballed the poor guy at first and he took it in stride). The only problem was, we didn't have the cash to back up our talk. All three of us were sitting on the curb thinking when Toby's wonderful wife Nicole walked up (after chasing their dog around the block, whom we had let out of the house by accident). Toby glanced at her sideways, saying something about us finding a hostel, and she cut him off saying:

"Of course they can stay with us."

That's me on the left, Maya the pate queen in the center, and Nicole in the striped pullover on the right.

That's me on the left, Maya the pate queen in the center, and Nicole in the striped pullover on the right.

The symphony plays in the distance as Toby and I talk shop about Swiss/Austrian trucks.

The symphony plays in the distance as Toby and I talk shop about Swiss/Austrian trucks.

The rose garden went nearly completely unappreciated that night. Portland's parks (or at least this one) are beautiful.

The rose garden went nearly completely unappreciated that night. Portland's parks (or at least this one) are beautiful.

What unfolded over the following two days was the most wonderful weekend away that we didn't know we desperately needed. Nicole and Toby kicked off our weekend with a free symphony concert at a nearby park. We had a charcuterie plate that rivaled the offerings of a fine restaurant, homemade pâté, fresh fruit, fresh bread, and fresh beverages. It was freshly excellent. We met some more new friends, and learned that the next day (Sunday) would feature a full-on brunch, and eventually went back to Toby and Nicole's house, fat and happy.

Measuring and dreaming.

Measuring and dreaming.

It has levers! And Rifle holders! (We actually removed the rifle racks and donated them back to Toby, who will be able to use in another vehicle of his.)

It has levers! And Rifle holders! (We actually removed the rifle racks and donated them back to Toby, who will be able to use in another vehicle of his.)

This is about as "American Beauty" as I get.

This is about as "American Beauty" as I get.

Here I am checking one of the ELEVEN fluid levels in the drive train. ELEVEN. That's one more than 10.

Here I am checking one of the ELEVEN fluid levels in the drive train. ELEVEN. That's one more than 10.

The next morning we got acquainted with our new vehicle; Chels started taking measurements of the box and organizing a small portion of its orignial interior outfitting, and I started checking and filling its 11 chambers of gear oil in the drive train (six portal axles, three differentials, a transfer case and a transmission). Toby and Nichole's neighbors are awesome, and we eventually had an audience of onlookers. Apparently Toby's eccentric vehicles are no new thing to his neighbors. We worked for hours, but in the early afternoon we were pulled from our pursuits to have the most outstanding brunch ever.

You're looking at Halibut Cheeks, eggs, fried zucCHinis, fresh fruit, and a newborn dutch baby. Don't worry, the Bubbly is on the Table.

You're looking at Halibut Cheeks, eggs, fried zucCHinis, fresh fruit, and a newborn dutch baby. Don't worry, the Bubbly is on the Table.

I am a  huge  fan of strangers. (sorry for the mishapen heads…panos don't always play well with moving objects)

I am a huge fan of strangers. (sorry for the mishapen heads…panos don't always play well with moving objects)

Straight up: brunch was nearly as excellent as the Pinzgauer parked out front. The whole conversation, hours of it, was spent on talking about traveling. From Asia to South America to Europe, it turns out we had found some new, very well-traveled friends. I left knowing two things: Halibut cheeks are superb, and there is a beat-up motorcycle named "The Chupacabra" that I need to rescue in Panama. Hopefully both topics will feature in further posts.

Reading up on important stuff.

Reading up on important stuff.

We acted like good gelato wasn't a big thing for us. Its a big thing for us.

We acted like good gelato wasn't a big thing for us. Its a big thing for us.

Walrus time!

Walrus time!

Later that evening Toby and Nicole took us on a tour of downtown Portland. We hit up Powell's used book store (you gotta go) and then Pinolo Gelato, and man they both were amazing. Check 'em out. We bought a book on camping, seeing as we'll be doing only that once we move into the Pinzgauer full time and start traveling.

Amazing food. New Friends. Austrian/Swiss vehicles. Really well designed furniture. God, is this heaven?

Amazing food. New Friends. Austrian/Swiss vehicles. Really well designed furniture. God, is this heaven?

Just killer food. Nicole can cook.

Just killer food. Nicole can cook.

Dinner was as good as brunch. more Halibut (yessssss!) more fresh bread, more delicious salads, all set before a fantastic backdrop of European design, retro American art, and Austrian vehicles. I want to take this moment to well and truly thank Toby and Nicole. You two are unparalleled in the world of my travels. I sincerely hope we can stay friends, if only for more of Nicole's cooking.

Happy dance at a rest stop!

Happy dance at a rest stop!

The next (Monday) morning, Chels and I ran to the bank and waited eagerly for them to unlock the door. We secured some funds, took some selfies, packed the Pinz and headed off for 600+ miles of straight driving back to the headquarters of Montana Raft Company. We both had work the next day, and couldn't dilly-dally. We would have loved to stop along the shores and vineyards of the Columbia river valley, or explore some of the side towns and rivers, but alas, those weren't on the docket for today. We had to boogie.

If you don't need hearing protection when you drive, you're driving the wrong vehicle.

If you don't need hearing protection when you drive, you're driving the wrong vehicle.

Toby was with us every step of the way. (That's him on the phone with me as I attempt to mess with the timing.)

Toby was with us every step of the way. (That's him on the phone with me as I attempt to mess with the timing.)

We drove and drove and drove, until I heard a rattle that I couldn't ignore. Something didn't sound right about the Pinz, but it may have been the hours and hours of driving ringing in my ears. I phoned Toby to rule out the possibility of pre-ignition (pinging can damage an engine fast), and we decided everything was probably OK. With a little confidence, we drove on into the night.

11 is a lucky number. Always stop/pump at lucky number gas pumps. Its doesn't cost extra.

11 is a lucky number. Always stop/pump at lucky number gas pumps. Its doesn't cost extra.

Where is that rattle???

Where is that rattle???

We drove further until the rattle darn near drove me nuts. I couldn't imagine that the sound I was hearing wasn't causing trouble, so Chels and I took the seats out (so easy) and removed the doghouse covering the engine (also easy) to make a diagnosis. It's real nice having the engine in the cab because it's totally covered and you can work on it from a standing position. We figured out that the only belt on the engine was vibrating laterally under a specific RPM, and probably needs replaced, but luckily it could wait until West Glacier.

As we were waiting, a gentleman by the name of Steve Hannah walked up to us, blown away by the coolness of the Pinzgauer. I was tired, beat up, and a little scared that the truck I had just spent a lot of money buying was already rattling itself apart. That attitude didn't last for long, as Steve bombarded us with compliments and positivity. In a kinda dark moment, Steve was the kick in the pants we needed. He told us that we gave him his biggest smile in five years, and kept exclaiming, 'Who does that?," but not in a condescending, parental, critical kind of way. His cries were those of someone who understood what we were doing, and loved it, but loved it in a way of just now realizing that a dream could come true. 

And so that's that. Our dream is to drive all over the place. We want to travel overland, for a long time, cheaply. We don't need a $350,000 EarthRoamer or custom Unimog. We need a sturdy truck and pocketful of dreams, and now we have both.

Give it all up and adventure all over the world. Who does that? We do, and so can you.