Only a few days earlier, I had started my journey at BMW’s Off-Road Academy, run by RawHyde Adventures at its ranch in Southern California for the “Intro to Adventure” course. I learned the basics: riding tight lines through trees, traversing hills, and going through sand.
After completing my training, I signed up for the school’s Base Camp Alpha adventure ride. This package costs $595 and takes you out into the wild for two days, including camping in the desert. The trip also provides guide service, a support truck with a satellite phone, all meals and beverages, and a tent and sleeping bag.
I couldn’t wait to put all the skills I had learned to an immediate test. The training hadn’t been easy, and I had the bruises to prove it, but I make up in determination for what I lack in size.
Rather than riding the tall Husqvarna TE630 that I brought and kept tipping over during the school, I was able to use one of the school’s BMW G650GSs for the Base Camp adventure. Bikes were available to rent from RawHyde, and ranged from $140 a day for the G650GS up to the $205 a day for the R1200GS. In order to be cleared to take the GS, it would require an hour of practice with Coach Wil before the group headed off.
Our group gathered together, 17 pupils and three coaches from RawHyde, and we headed down the road to the freeway. I was the last rider in the group ahead of the sweep rider, not yet confident on this fresh set of wheels. The first brush with danger was a steel pipe bouncing along the freeway. A few riders ran it over as it made its way through the formation, but everyone stayed on two wheels.
Despite most of my experience having been on street bikes, I was looking forward to heading back into the seclusion of the wilderness, and it wouldn’t take long. After about half an hour, we exited the freeway and made our way onto the first dirt road.
During a small break we ran into some hikers who were walking from Mexico to Canada. Hardcore! We got briefed again on how to handle the sand, started our bikes, and off we went. It was quite a different experience going through sand for an extended period with a group. You want to make sure that you leave the proper spacing between you and the people in front of you. The odds are someone is going to go down, and you don’t want to plow into them and be the next one. I also found that I preferred going at a quicker pace than some of my peers in the sand, because it made it feel more stable. I slowly found myself getting closer to the lead rider when I would overtake someone on the wide road.
There were a few riders waiting at the intersection ahead for the group to catch up, and there were a few bumps in the sand that lead up to them. I knew I needed to keep the throttle on, and I saw the person in front of me fall to my right, and then the person behind him fall to my left. I kept my hand firmly increasing the throttle and made my way up to the coach who was happy to see I had made it through. He said of the last four riders I was the only one to get up on the first try. I think he was also relieved that his judgement call that I could take that GS was a good one. It was rewarding being on a new bike and riding the best I had all week. I air kicked and yelled, “vagina power,” and a guy smiled and said when they made women, they broke the mold with me.
That area ended up being quite the trouble spot for a lot of riders, but landing in sand is a lot softer than the pavement. You also tend to be going much slower in the sand so the falls seem like more of a tip-over. No one was hurt, and there were lots of people trying to help each other out. I never want people to fall off their bike, but seeing other people having difficulty puts into perspective that we are all on this difficult journey together and there is no shame in making mistakes.
The coaches were excellent resources, as I remember hearing one tell a student to look up when they realized she was looking down at the ground. I saw her head then tilt up, and she gave it the right amount of throttle and we clapped as she made it through!
We continued through an area with as many wind turbines as the eye could see. I was starting to feel more comfortable so that I could look around a bit. It’s awesome when the nerves calm to a point where you fully enjoy where you are and what you are doing.
We met up at lunch with the support trailer at a stunning spot of rock formations and lined up all the bikes along the edge of the parking area. I had a hard time keeping my eyes off both aspects of the view. My excitement and nerves still left my appetite as something to be desired, so I ate an orange and made sure to keep drinking lots of water. Hydration packs are essential, so I had picked one up because I enjoy hiking, and the tube format enables you to drink while you have a helmet on. A good trick is filling a quarter of it with ice so that is melts throughout the morning.
Our next destination was moving upward to Burro Schmidt Tunnel. This tunnel, located in the El Paso Mountains, was initially built by the owner to move his ore. He dug roughly 2,500 feet of solid granite using only a shovel, pick, and hammer in the initial section, and then dynamite for the larger portion. Before it was finished, a road was built to service the area, so no ore was ever moved through the tunnel. Regardless, he decided to finish the tunnel, a true definition of a fool’s errand!
The route initially started with a loose gravel area with a few sections where larger rocks were embedded in the road. As long as you were moving, the bike plowed up those inclines like a champ. I was still close to the front so periodically we stopped to wait for the other group to catch up. It was a nice opportunity to munch on a granola bar and refuel with water. The pebbles slowly gave way to a mix of dirt and the occasional mid-sized rock as the path thinned. As I went along the trail I realized how important all the slow-speed training had been. If you had shown me that trail before any of the training, I would have said you were crazy if you thought I could do it, but we moved as a team managing our speed and staying on target.
I had brought a headlamp with me so that I was ready to roll when we got to the caves. The best part about adventure riding is that your destinations are places you work hard to get to and reap the reward of getting to explore. While walking through the cave I thought of poor old Burro Schmidt spending his life building this tunnel that ended up being useless. At least it gave him a sense of purpose.
Now we had to head back down the hill so we could head to our basecamp for the night. For me, going up the hill was the easier part, and this confidence lead me to go down a little quicker than I should have. When I reached the part with the embedded rocks, I didn’t have time to slow down and go over the easier part on the right side. The bike twitched out of my control and I went down. It wasn’t upsetting for me because it gave me another important lesson: things can be going well, and suddenly terrain can change and you need to be paying attention to what is coming up ahead of you. I also needed to be going the right speed for my ability.
I hopped back on without taking the right amount of time to reset, and not long after I slid out in the loose pebbles again. It is easy for a mistake to lead to another mistake, so I realized that it makes sense to take a moment to collect yourself and regain some energy after lifting up your bike. It would be my last drop of the day, and once we were down the mountain, it was pavement all the way back to basecamp. Riding on the road had never seemed as easy after going off-roading up a mountain, I could feel myself improving as a rider. I got to enjoy the beautiful views on the windy roads and think how lucky I was to be in that moment.
Basecamp was great! I started by taking off my gear. This was the first time I had worn protective boots, and boy do they come in handy. A few times I had dropped the Husqvarna in training, and the boots had prevented me from having my legs crushed. It is a solid investment to buy well-made gear. It was nice after such a long day to have full mobility again and to shed some layers.
The next day was Wil’s birthday, and the cook surprised him with a cake. It was a cute moment where we all gathered around him and sang him happy birthday! We had a delicious lasagna for dinner and ate the cake for dessert. It was fun to hang around the campfire and relax after our first full day of adventure riding. I truly felt I deserved to relax. On the advice of the coaches, I set up my tent before it got too late. It was the right move. Julia, the talented cook, was kind enough to help me set up, as this was the first tent I had set up on my own.
Then something happened that does not usually happen in the Mojave. Lightning and thunder went off in the distance, and not too long after, it started to pour. Putting on the fly, the waterproof top of the tent, was the one thing Julia had left me to do, but when I looked back at my tent, it was not there. I forgot to tie it down, and rain was pouring into the tent. I ran over and grabbed my sleeping bag and made a few more trips to get the rest of my stuff. I forgot I had taken my boots off and left them outside, but couldn’t see them anymore. Hopefully someone had placed them inside. Then I remembered I had taken off my pants and knee pads and left them on the staircase outside. I ran to get them but they were already soaked. There is a recurring theme of my mistakes turning into lessons, and this one would be to make sure you put all your belongings in one place (oh, and make sure to waterproof your tent!).
After the rain had died down I put the sleeping bag by the fire to dry off, hung up my pants, and took towels to dry the floor of my tent. At least my mistakes were easy to solve, and I went to sleep in a dry place!
In the morning breakfast burritos were being made, and despite how delicious they looked, my pesky stomach was not feeling good. I forced down a yogurt and took an orange with me to go, and we refuelled in town.
We made one pit stop at an interesting memorial we had passed the day before. They had used large-sized action figures of Superman and The Rock, and it was touching to see the effort made in honoring those that had passed. It made me embrace the fact that the past few days I had been pushing myself to the absolute limits and living my life to its full capacity.
It was now time to head into the Mojave, and the rain had left a bit of a crust on the sand, which actually made it easier to ride on, more traction. There were rocks interspersed with the sand, and the scenery was absolutely glorious.
After we followed the coaches into a central area, we parked the bikes and were allowed to do some free riding. Most of the paths looped right back into the center, and if you went down a long straight path for too long, you just had to turn around and go back where you came from. It was a hot day, so at first I decided to hike up to a cave entrance with some folks and hang out in the shade for a few minutes. I was proud of everyone, and despite how tired we were, there was no shortage of laughs.
We reflected on certain terrain we found challenging, or joked about particular spills we had or saw. There were people from different countries or states, and everyone had something new or unique to bring to the table. Some people had come because they were planning to do their own off-road adventure soon, and some others had just bought an ADV bike and wanted to expand their abilities so they could be more adventurous. I knew that I wanted to travel the world and see some beautiful places that paved roads didn’t go, and now I know I will able to do that.
When I got back from the hike, I decided to free ride with coach, Adam. I told him that I would follow him, and he said that he had been all over the area and wanted to follow me. I thought that was great – the coaches want to push and support you – and we went up and down several paths until we saw that it was time to group back up and head out to lunch.
As we were leaving, there was a deeper area of sand and a person went down, and I hadn’t given myself enough space where I could find a good place to slow down. I reduced speed quickly, felt the bike tip and… darn, my first drop of the day. I’ll blame the desert heat for scrambling my brain! I knew better.
The meals where I had eaten like a bird and then proceeded to burn a ton of calories on the trail was finally catching up to me. I felt drained of all my energy when we met up with the support trailer. I am usually perky and talkative, so when Adam noticed I wasn’t eating and sitting quietly by myself, he took it upon himself to get me some Gatorade and peanuts. I could tell that he cared about my well being, and he even filled up my hydration pack again. I sat down for a few minutes and could feel the energy boost from refueling. The coaches noticed the dark clouds in the distance, so we decided to get back on the bikes and move on.
We headed back out on pavement briefly, and our next stretch of dirt would be going up a mountain pass. This was fun and challenging. There were lots of bends, sand, and inclines, but I was finally using all the lessons I had learned from my mistakes. Leave proper space, keep the throttle on while going through sand, and look at where you want to exit when heading into a turn. I got up to the top of the mountain without dropping my bike, and I had passed a fair number of downed bikes as I continued my ascent.
I had spent so much of the weekend being scared, and now I was at the top of a mountain I just climbed on a motorcycle! I took a moment to reflect on how much of a badass I was becoming. We gathered the group together and took a picture to commemorate the last piece of dirt we would ride on before heading back to the ranch on pavement. Not one person quit, not one person hurt themselves badly, and not one person was unpleasant to be around. We were a team, and we made it there as a team.
We got back on our bikes and went down the mountain through wonderfully windy turns, and I passed a snake crawling along the road. This trip was everything I had hoped it would be and more. We stopped one last time to put on rain gear as we had felt a few drops, and unfortunately I had no rain gear to wear. I had been a last-minute addition to the group, and living in Southern California sometimes makes you forget water can drop from the sky. We headed back out to do more twists through the base of a mountain, and that’s when it decided a downpour was in order.
I could feel the water soaking through my armor, through my pants, and start dripping down my boots. I began to shiver but maintained focus on keeping the proper speed when going around corners and making sure not to change gears or brake while doing so. There were no guard rails along the edge of the road, and you could see the drop-off was unforgiving if you lost control. One perk to being from Toronto is that I am very experienced at riding through the rain, so I took it to be the last hurdle this weekend would throw at us! After about 30 minutes in heavy rain, it started to back off, and once we exited the winding section I saw the rest of the group pulled over at a sunny area where we gathered up our group again.
The sun never felt so good, and I was dried off in no time. The last stretch of our trip would be on the freeway, and being surrounded by so many cars, my usual M.O. on two wheels, suddenly seemed foreign. We would try to stay in our tight packs, but cars would find their way in, but we were always able to find each other again. By this point we were a well-oiled machine; a unit.
As the exit neared to get to the ranch, I knew this would be our last moments together. I parked my bike and was sad after I got off of it for the last time you become attached to your partner in crime. This bike took me places that as a new rider I never imagined I would go. The versatility of the GS in being such a comfortable street bike but amazing off-road left me wishing I could take it home with me.
My time with RawHyde Adventures and the BMW Offroad Academy was a life-changing experience for me, and I could not have asked for a better team of coaches, riders, cooks, or mechanics. All I could think of as I reflected on my trip was when could I do it again!
The next morning as I was about to leave, I couldn’t find my hair elastic, and ladies, we know how much of a tangled mess it is to have free-flowing hair flying out of our helmets.
“Hey Phil,” I asked the on-site mechanic, “do you have an elastic for my hair?”
“No,” he replied, “but I have something else,” and he quickly placed four zip ties in perfect intervals to keep my locks in one place. I got home and realized this is the best option I have ever used to keep my hair in good shape after riding motorcycles.
You can learn something new every day, and I couldn’t think of a more humorous note to end off my journey with RawHyde!
Michelle Christine is a motorcycle enthusiast, comedian and writer originally from Toronto and now living in Los Angeles.