San Ignacio stands out in my Baja memories pretty strongly. At first glance, the small town square and handful of restaurants might lead one to think there’s nothing to do, nothing to see. But the town, a beautiful oasis situated in a deep arroyo in the Vizcaino desert filled with palm trees, offers endless and amazing possibilities.
The mission at the west end of the town square was built in the late 1700s. The lagoons just south of town are UNESCO heritage sites where grey whales come every winter to birth and nurse their offspring. In mountains surrounding the area you can find cave paintings dating back 7,500 years.
On the last tour I led into Baja, our group rode up to my go-to spot right on the corner of San Ignacio’s town square after a day meandering up the Gulf Coast. We were making our way back to the California border but still had four of our 14 travel days left. The rougher off-road riding we’d done earlier in our trip was behind us, and asphalt paved our way home. We were buzzing with the accomplishment of many long days in the saddle, some spent balancing on the pegs in challenging terrain, acknowledging the genuine coolness of what we were doing without the air of cockiness so common in the motorcycling world.
Photos: Kerri Dougherty.
As the waiter delivered our giant glasses of limonada mineral, three adventure riders rolled in and parked next to our bikes. One of them was rocking the CityBike-favored CRF250L Rally and had just ridden it through the entire continent of Africa. He was bouncy and excited, having long ago fallen into his perpetual long-distance-motorcycle-living stoke, and very much exuded the buzz we were only just starting to get a little taste for. The Rally rider possessed a casual comfort and knowledge of where they were, and what they needed before getting back on the road.
The other two, on very large, very expensive, very adventure-y motorcycles, were grumpy and exhausted from fighting their enormous bikes on roads and terrain they knew dangerously little of.
Baja’s wildness and danger is alluring, making it a mecca in the off-road and adventure riding world. I’m all about not over-planning, and into flying by the seat of one’s pants… but doing so responsibly. Unfortunately, a handful of folks don’t quite understand the dangers they’re creating for themselves. Roads, paved or not, are rough, incredibly isolated, and very unforgiving. Much of the peninsula is desert; many lives have been taken by exposure alone. But don’t forget it’s not just the sun you need to worry about: the land is filled with rattlesnakes, scorpions and cougars. Many areas are rarely traveled and it’s quite common, especially on the unpaved roads, to not see another vehicle for the entirety of your ride. Conditions change rapidly and radically and the peninsula is a magnet for hurricanes.
A fellow rider is a fellow rider, right? When you’re traveling and you encounter another traveler, there’s an automatic understanding and acknowledgement. But as my friend Surj has so eloquently said: “just because we’re into the same things, it doesn’t mean we’re gonna be friends.”
The three riders sat at the table adjacent to ours, with perfect views of the mission and our motorcycles. After the standard conversation starters like “Where are you coming from?” “Where are you headed?” “How long have you been on the road?” and “How do you like that bike?” things got more personal: “How long have you been riding?” and “What do you do for a living?”
The question of how long one’s been riding has always rubbed me the wrong way. There are plenty of folks who have been riding since they were children, but only touch a bike once a year, and others who first swung their leg over a bike only days or weeks before setting off on long distance world travels. The length of time you’ve been “riding” is irrelevant.
So we scoff past the judgmental, mundane question of hypothetical years in the saddle and get down to the nitty gritty. I list my seemingly endless mashup of job titles: running a motorcycle tour company for women, teaching people how to ride motorcycles through the CMSP program, writing for a motorcycle publication, doing freelance design work, managing a bar and bartending.
We learn that the two grumpy riders are brothers, originally from South America, who have been in the states about as long as I’ve been alive. They had met the third rider, another South American expat, at a gas station in Northern Baja, after getting their bikes fixed. They apparently both broke their mammoth adventure motorcycles on the same washed-out bridge the first day riding south of the border.
“I don’t think that people should be discriminated against based on their sex, if you are qualified to do something, you should just be able to do it.”
The statement came out of nowhere, and its tone immediately alerted me to the changing character of the conversation. I wholeheartedly agreed with the spirit of the sentiment, but my fellow motorcyclist saw an all-women group as a discriminatory practice. Falling from his view was the rest of the culture and society we live in.
This is a person who does not understand that movements for equal rights throughout history weren’t for people wanting more rights than those in power, but quite literally for the same rights he’s benefited from for his whole life. He went on to complain about people being hired based on their race or gender and not on their skill set. I responded with how often people of color and women are discriminated against in hiring practices.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by their ignorance, their total disconnect from the realities of the daily lives of the disenfranchised. These brothers were men with very high incomes, dressed head to toe in new adventure gear, lacking the skills required to keep their bikes safe and functional but possessing big enough wallets to fix any issue on the fly as long as willing help was available. They enjoyed the luxury of shipping their bikes to wherever they’d like to ride for a week, flying home as their motorcycles were brought back for them.
The conversation changed gears again, and suddenly they were recounting their morning. Having left a small fishing town, a description which can be easily used for most of the towns throughout the 760-mile long peninsula, they took a road of mostly deep, soft sand, the likes of which I’ve intentionally avoided all of these years because of my deep disdain for sand and the fact that I’m on a motorcycle that weighs over 400 pounds without luggage.
I suddenly understood their less positive demeanor. One of them admitted to biting it. I had butterflies in my stomach at the ghost sensation of riding the deep stuff and going down. Ironically, these were the same two who attempted to diss their new friend by calling his Rally a “girl’s bike.”
They pulled out their map and began discussing their options to get down to Cabo, mentioning towns and roads we had passed through very recently. They inquired about one of the unpaved roads connecting the Pacific and Gulf coasts; we informed them it was dry and a little rocky. They inquired, hopeful and curious, about the flatness of the road, and I was secretly glad to inform them it was not. Did they not know there were giant mountain ranges throughout Baja? I didn’t actually ask if they understood where they were, but they stopped asking about towns and roads further down the way.
With our lunch in front of us, again seemingly out of nowhere, one of the brothers claimed that my company is racist. I smiled, suddenly seeing where this was headed.
I calmly asked if he meant to call my company sexist, since we had never once broached the subject of race, then explained the difference between the two. Before he could answer, I continued, letting him know I understood his feelings that my company is sexist, but as I am unfortunately lacking the societal benefits of being male, my company could not in fact be sexist. Since women and people of color in the US are disenfranchised, it is quite hard for either to be sexist or racist, as they are not the ones with power.
With a smile on my face the whole time, I went on: if you’d like to consider my company prejudiced, that would be much more accurate. But take into account the motorcycle industry as a whole, where most motorcycle tour companies refer to women only as passengers. This has improved a bit in recent years, and some companies now offer one all-women tour a year, but much of the industry in general still doesn’t take women seriously even though we are a growing demographic helping to keep the industry alive. It’s still “shrink it and pink it.”
The other brother mumbled something about me being Donald Trump. Since he had so meekly mumbled such a bizarre, inflammatory statement, I could tell their masculinity was at risk. I let him have that one without argument.
We turned back to the task at hand: stuffing our faces with totopos and guacamole. Silently, we ladies communicated with our eyes, using all our might to keep from laughing.
“Why do you only teach women?”
They were apparently still miffed about this subject, and now, suddenly, I only taught women—information that had never been disclosed to me. All this time I thought I was teaching all genders, but apparently I was the leader of a man-hating lynch mob.
So many more public conversations are happening about power dynamics, about gender, sex, race and culture, in larger and louder forums. I do not ever suppose to have any answers, nor to speak for others, and though I’m thrilled by this progress, we are not quite there yet. These are the beginning stages of attempts to reach true equality.
For those who have not had to think about or experience discomfort and disenfranchisement, what a shock it must be. I think this is what leads people, like these two brothers, to lash out, to bark loudly and communicate like toddlers, leaving others to again hold the weight of experience and force us to use that experience responsibly, taking the higher road and sometimes holding their toddler hands through the process.
So I metaphorically took his hand, explaining that I didn’t only teach women. After a brief explanation of the California Motorcycle Safety Program (CMSP), he interjected, appearing disappointed. It seems he was interested in my invented focus on teaching only women, specifically for his wife. Straight-faced and apparently unaware of the ironic shift in the direction of our conversation, he explained how he wouldn’t allow her to ride motorcycles to begin with, but admitted to finally permitting her to get licensed.
His anger returned when he spoke of her free will and strong desire for a motorcycle of her choice, a Triumph Bonneville. He’d warned her that this motorcycle was much too big for her and was frustrated she went with it anyway. After a story that sounded pretty standard for new riders—something spooked her and she went down at low speed, likely due to target fixation or an abrupt grab of the front brake—he closed with: “She’s just too nervous to ride.”
It seemed strangely sweet, his being supportive and looking for ways for his wife to get more training and feel more confident about riding. But that sweetness felt negated by his continual stories of how he told her she shouldn’t ride, that she couldn’t handle the bike due to its weight, and certainly based on the way the entire lunch conversation had gone.
I offered a few suggestions regarding rider education and smaller bike options, while more silent communication passed between me and my cohorts.
We finished our lunch, and while the three adventure riders geared up to continue on, we strolled around the square and headed into a nearby museum.
As we walked, a Vox interview with Kate Manne, author of “Down Girl, the Logic of Misogyny” came to mind. In the article, “What We Get Wrong About Misogyny,” Manne says of changing power dynamics: “When people are attached to positions they believe are their birthright, you get huge amounts of backlash. When men think women are taking opportunities and privileges away from them, when they think women are challenging male dominance, you get backlash. But we have to deal with that. Women cannot — and should not — internalize patriarchal values and give and give and give until we’re nothing.
“What would need to change is for men in positions of power to accept that women can surpass them without having wronged them.”
Kerri is the founder of Motobird Adventures, a motorcycle tour company for women riders, run by a woman rider. Find out more at MotobirdAdventures.com.