"Got dirt?" That's the bumper sticker for the fast-paced, freewheeling lifestyle of all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs -- the most popular off-road vehicle around. The sticker is usually found on the windshield of a Ford or a Chevy or a Dodge that's packed with toys and headed out to nowhere.
Of course, you also need the ATV (which can easily cost up to $8,000), and the safety gear to ride it (which adds an additional $500) and the 4x4 or some other vehicle (for tens of thousands of dollars more) to haul it, which makes it a real commitment in terms of infrastructure.
CALIFORNIA MOTORSPORT ADVENTURES
One-day ATV tours from about $275 plus tax and one-time $35 "set-up fee." Be sure to ask about passport requirements; (619) 262-1026, www.letsatv.com.
But what if, like me, you don't own a pickup truck or ATV? What if you're a casual off-roader, interested in only occasional trips to the desert, dunes or forest? That's possible -- and for a fraction of the cost -- via various tour companies that don't just provide the ATV and the riding gear, but also a seasoned guide who won't get lost in the wild.
That's what I was looking for -- and easily found -- online. A quick search yielded a handful of companies offering ATV tours. I chose California Motorsport Adventures, based in San Diego, because it offered day trips, in addition to longer adventures, and the company did them in legendary off-road terrain -- Baja, Mexico.
After signing up by phone and paying a 10% deposit, I was instructed to meet at the border parking lot on a Saturday morning at 8:30. Because I live in Los Angeles, and the border is at least three hours away, I chose to drive down the night before and stay in a cheap hotel in San Ysidro -- the last U.S. town before Tijuana.
At 8 the next morning, I was awake and breakfasted when I got a call from the tour guide offering to pick me up at the motel in his van, which saved me the $9 in border parking. I was the first of two pickups, the other being a pair of twentysomethings from the Bay Area who thought four-wheeling south of the border would make a great bachelor party.
Only one of my fellow tourists had any ATV experience, and it consisted of a single day riding an ATV in Greece. The other had never ATV'd before, making me the most seasoned of our bunch, with three entire days of ATV-ing under my belt. California Motorsport Adventures caters to all experience levels, but I found it novice-friendly and conscientious in its matching of riders with similar skill sets (Riders as young as 8 have taken the trips, but acceptance depends on skill and strength levels.)
An hour later, we landed at the Cantamar sand dunes, where three guys were popping wheelies on the ATVs my fellow tourists and I would soon be riding. It wasn't a pristine beach -- there was quite a bit of trash. But the riding area was fairly large, and almost no one was there.
Our guide, Blake, instructed us to put on our gear and saddle our manual-transmission Honda EX250s. Then he walked us through the controls, issued a few riding tips and sent us wheeling through the grit. The next 90 minutes were free form, as we climbed hills, carved tracks, even rode into the water at the edge of the Pacific, kicking up plumes of saltwater with our low-pressure tires.
I felt guilty riding at water's edge, but this sort of thing is legal in Mexico -- as is riding ATVs on the street, which is how our rides got to the taco shack we visited for lunch and the inland trails we'd be checking out later in the day.
The terrain we rode in the afternoon was completely different from the sand we'd ridden that morning. For a one-day tour, that was more variety than I'd expected, and I appreciated the difference.
Unlike the dunes, the trails covered a lot of ground -- about 35 miles -- and most of them were remote and hilly paths consisting of rock and dirt or, more accurately, mud, since it had rained the night before.
In California this time of year, the off-highway vehicle areas are packed on a Saturday, but the trails of west Baja were so vacant as to feel post-apocalyptic. We didn't encounter a single other rider until we got to Pancho's Place -- a shack in the middle of nowhere that offered sodas and an outhouse. And even then, the chickens, dogs and rattlesnakes outnumbered the patrons by 5 to 1.
Ordinarily, I'd have been leery of an 18-year-old guide leading me into the middle of a nowhere with non-potable water, but Blake has been dirt biking in this part of Baja for a decade with his family. He also races the Baja 1000, so he knows this area as if it were his own 'hood. He never consulted a map, relying instead on his own internal GPS and natural landmarks to lead us around various paths, and stopping every so often to shoot pictures of us using our own cameras.
At every stop, he'd ask with a cockeyed smile: Are you ready for rocky road?
The trails were already so rocky that I didn't just wish I'd worn a sports bra. I wished I'd worn two. I really couldn't imagine anything bumpier. Then we got to a road so rocky it should have been called boulder boulevard. It really did push all of us tourists to the edge of our abilities, but Blake was careful to make sure he never lost us as we bounced along.
After three hours of trails, it wasn't just my ATV that was caked in mud. My entire body was covered, to the point that I almost wasn't able to see through my goggles. Then, just as I was getting used to looking through the last little peephole of my plastic eye protection, we were back in the gravel-and-dirt flatlands, meeting the guys who would trailer our ATVs away.
For me, the one-day tour offered the right level and length of riding for my skill set and physical abilities. It ended just as I was feeling like a crash waiting to happen, and landed me back in the U.S. by 6 p.m. and in my own bed by 10. For someone who isn't yet ready to buy into the off-road lifestyle with thousands of dollars worth of goodies, it was a great day. I spent $350 to do only what I wanted to do -- ride.