Desert Sleds

Running WFO in an unauthorized Baja 500, Grubby Clark, Walter Hoffman, Renny Yater, and Gerry Lopez roost through the dirty ’70s.

Light / Dark

In the early 1970s, I was working in Southern California for Dave Rochlen’s Surf Line Hawaii. I spent many grueling days in the garment district of downtown Los Angeles, learning the slick paths of the rag business from manufacturing to retail. 

Dave had also encouraged me to follow him into one of his favorite passions: the world of dirt bikes. He’d set me to wrestling a heavy scrambler up and down the slippery jungle trails of Helemano and Mililani back on Oahu. My dances with that motorcycle were hot, sweaty work. I endured a lot of falls, abrasions, bruises, and  sore muscles. My reward was a tremendous feeling of satisfaction each time I made it up a steep, rutted, muddy hill on  the first try.

From Dave and those difficult trails, I discovered an im- portant lesson about life: By allowing myself the freedom to fail  instead of being defeated by failure, I learned how to pick up the pieces and push on. Often, there was no other choice. Stuck down in the bottom of a muddy gulch, running out of patience, energy, and daylight, I had to get that motorcycle out of there or I was spending the night with the mosquitoes.  

My imagination was also captured by Dave’s stories of long-distance, open-desert rides in Baja, Mexico. As much as I’d grown to love  the Hawaiian mud, I knew I had to ride the desert. So, some friends and I planned an adventure that would be my first long dirt-bike ride in Baja. 

Dave was occupied with business and couldn’t make this run. Grubby Clark, who had the most experience in this area of northern Baja, would lead our expedition. Along for the journey were Walter Hoffman and Renny Yater, who also had done extensive riding in the desert. All of them, as well as a host of their other surf pals, had gotten into dirt riding in the early 1960s.

The desert areas around Southern California and across the border in Baja provided excellent and inviting terrain. Grubby had started in the surfboard industry as a glasser for Hobie Alter, eventually taking over the blank business from Hobie when the surfboard cores changed from balsa wood to foam. Grubby always said Hobie was the best dirt-bike rider of them all, but Hobie had since given it up to focus on his Hobie catamarans and radio-controlled Hobie Hawk gliders. Little Hobie Alter, big Hobie’s son, took up where his dad left off and was already a serious rider with quite a few Baja rides under his belt. Myself and a friend of Grubby’s, Scott Castille, rounded out the group as the least-experienced desert riders.  

Our course wound through some old roads and areas Grubby was familiar with between Tecate and San Felipe, but part of it, he explained, was through an area he had never  ridden. As I later discovered, this was the whole appeal to Grubby. He wanted not only to ride places new to him but to go where no one had gone before. The rest of us were just happy to take a long desert ride where we’d be hard-pressed to see anyone else, except maybe some local farmers or ranchers. 

The plan was for a two-day ride. On the first day, we’d ride from Tecate to San Felipe on the northern tip of the Sea of Cortez. There, we would spend the night, and then retrace our route back the following day. It was close to 400 miles round trip.

We spent several days preparing our bikes for the journey. I had a new Bultaco Alpina 350. Rochlen and I had bought one each from Malcolm Smith’s motorcycle store in Riverside. Dave had sent his back to Hawaii in one of Grubby’s Clark Foam containers, but I’d kept mine in California especially for this ride. Grubby’s Ossa was also a Spanish-made bike and seemed well suited for desert riding. The Spanish motorcycle factories were at the height of their success during that time period. Anyone who was serious about observed trials riding had a trials bike from Bultaco, Ossa, or Montesa. The Spanish were also the first to bring out the new types of trail bikes like my Alpina, which was a cross between the specialized trials bikes and the motocross racers. Walter had his shiny Husqvarna 400 desert racer, the same bike that Malcolm had ridden to many Baja 1000 victories. 

Grubby would tease Walter to no end about his “brush-tuning” of that motorcycle, saying all he ever did was change an occasional spark plug, tighten a loose bolt, and spend endless hours polishing the outside with Pledge Lemon Enhancing Polish. Grubby’s own Ossa may have been mechanically sound but it was a dirty mess next to Walter’s gleaming Husky. I don’t remember what Yater had, but like everything of his, it was in top shape. Pud, as we all called Little Hobie, had a smaller Husky than Walter. The weak link was Scott’s bike, an old Yamaha 175 that had seen better days. 

We loaded the bikes up between Yater’s truck and Grubby’s bright-yellow Chevy van. It was the most god-awful safety yellow, but Grubby’s reasoning was that no one could miss the bright color and therefore would always see him coming. His entire Clark Foam delivery fleet was the same color. He never had an accident in any of his vehicles, so maybe there was something to it. 

We left late afternoon on a Friday, drove down through San Diego, and crossed into Tecate, a small mountain town on the border known for its brewery of Tecate and Carta Blanca beer. There we checked into a local hotel, ate a great dinner, and went to sleep early.

At dawn the next morning, we drove down the La Rumorosa Grade, which drops from about 5,000 feet of elevation to the desert floor and the dry lake of Laguna Salada. Grubby had a starting spot in mind. We followed his yellow van down unmarked and obscure dirt roads, skirting the bottom edge of the escarpment that runs the length of Baja, north to south. 

Eventually, we parked the cars under some trees and started unloading the bikes. Grubby announced the spot where he was hiding the car keys in case something happened and he didn’t make it back. It wasn’t until that moment that I’d considered the ride to be anything other than fun. I suddenly realized that we really were in the middle of nowhere. If anyone got lost and ran out of water, his life would be very much at risk. Grubby had a book with him by Gerhard and Gulick called the Lower California Guidebook, the premier travel guide to Baja California. Grubby’s interpretation of this survival manual would dictate our course.

Photo courtesy of Grubby Clark.

There is nothing more spectacular than the early morning in the desert. Before it heats up, the air is clear and clean—at its most crisp and inviting. That morning there was silence and solitude, which we soaked in, preparing mentally for the arduous journey ahead. Then we fired up our bikes and moved out after our intrepid leader. 

Desert riding is unique. The terrain is wide open, seemingly endless, and crisscrossed with roads, trails, and tracks. The bikes always handle differently in the sand, and riding it takes some adjustment. Still, except for the rocks and cactus, it’s mainly smooth and forgiving—so a person can ride fast.

To me the landscape all looked the same. I had a compass with me but I was glad I didn’t have the responsibility of leading, because as soon as the cars were out of sight I was lost. And the farther we went, the more confused I became until I knew I’d better not get separated from the group. Grubby seemed to know where he was going at first, and he’s a fast rider, so at times I felt like I was hanging it out to keep up with him. 

After about an hour of playing catch-up, often at speeds that made me a little uncomfortable, I found Grubby stopped by the side of the road with his guidebook out. The others caught up and we took a little break while Grubby consulted Gerhard and Gulick. 

“Okay, I think we go up this little canyon and we’ll hit another road that goes south,” he announced as he strapped  his book back on the handlebars and fired up his bike. Without another word, he roared off. The rest of us started up  our bikes and followed. 

After a while, I figured out that it wasn’t necessary to drive fast enough to keep Grubby in sight. I realized I could follow his dust and tire tracks, which was a lot easier. I started to enjoy the ride more. 

A while later, I again came upon him at another fork in the road, Gerhard and Gulick out again. The book had come with several maps, one of which Grubby was then consulting. I didn’t want to sound dumb by asking him if he knew where we were, but the way he was looking at the map, then looking at the road ahead, made me wonder. Walter rescued me from my embarrassment when he pulled up alongside us. 

“Which way do we go?” he asked. 

Again, Grubby didn’t say a word. He just put the book away, started up, and took off. 

“I don’t know where we are,” Walter said. 

“Just keep following Grubby. He knows his way around.” 

I didn’t want to lose our guide and his  guidebook, so I took off after him. 

Soon, the road seemed to lose its way, appearing washed out in places. I kept following Grubby’s tracks as the road turned into a streambed and started to get rocky. 

It wasn’t bad at first. The rocks were small and spread out. But it got rockier the farther we went into an increasingly narrow canyon. The rocks got bigger and more plentiful until we were in a riverbed bordered by steep canyon walls. The going was slightly downhill, so the riding wasn’t that hard, just slow and tricky. 

Most of my limited riding had been on a trials bike crawling over similarly slow terrain, so I stood on the foot pegs and picked my way over the rocks. Miles and miles it went, never getting better. The canyon seemed to eventually spread out a little and the walls weren’t so steep. But I was getting tired. Riding in first gear saps strength, and the day was heating up fast in that small canyon. Grubby could sit on the seat and pick his way along using his long legs like outriggers, so it wasn’t too bad for him. I knew, however, that the others were not used to this kind of rock riding. It must’ve been hard on them, especially for Walter with that big, heavy Husky. 

Eventually, I spotted Grubby’s Ossa leaning up against a rock. Farther on, he stood with his guidebook in hand. I parked my bike and walked toward him. He was standing on the edge of a 50-foot cliff where the arroyo came to an abrupt end. I peered over the cliff. It was sheer. There was no way to get down.

I looked back up the arroyo, but the others were so far behind I couldn’t see them. I could hear their bikes running in low gear. 

“This looks like the end of this road,” I said. “I don’t think those guys are going to be too happy about having to go back up the arroyo we just came down.” 

I figured we’d come about 10 miles over the rocks, and going back would be uphill—a prospect I wasn’t happy about myself. 

“So now what?” I asked. 

Grubby was still looking at his book. 

“I think I know where we are. I’m sure this empties into the Arroyo Grande, but we need to get over that hill,” he said, pointing at a rocky, cactus-strewn rise to our east. It wasn’t a hill to ride a motorcycle up—too steep, too rough. In Hawaii, down in wet, slippery gulches, the only way to get back out is to push and shove, two or three guys on each motorcycle. This looked like the same deal to me.

The rest of our group trickled in one at a time. Walter was red in the face and sweating profusely. Even Yater, normally Mr. Cool, was looking a little beat. Scott came in last with one of his foot pegs broken clean off from falling in the rocks. They joined Grubby and me on the cliff edge and came to the same conclusion: There was no way down. 

“Well, Grubby, you led us here, where do we go now? And don’t tell me we have to go back over those rocks, because I can’t do it,” Walter complained. 

Grubby and I looked up the hill. Everyone followed our eyes. 

Up there?” Walter bellowed. “Up there? You can’t be serious. We can’t ride up there. You led us to this?” 

“Here, Walter,” Grubby said in a calm voice. “You lead.” 

He offered the guidebook to Walter. Walter backed up while shaking his head. He wanted no part of it. We were in the middle of nowhere, and only Grubby had any idea of where we were. The thought of having to backtrack over that horrible rocky arroyo was better than thinking about finding our way ahead. I think at that moment we all realized the true weight of responsibility that Grubby was shouldering in leading us through this desolate area. 

While Walter had backed down from taking the lead, he wasn’t yet finished. 

“I don’t know where we are,” he said, a little more contritely, his face redder than when he’d gotten off his motorcycle. “You got us here, you get us out.” 

We went back to our bikes, and each of us rode out of the arroyo and as far up the hill as we could make it. Grubby got up almost to the top by himself. The rest of us all helped each other push and shove, slowly getting each bike up the hill. It was hot, dusty work. “I don’t think I can make it any farther,” moaned Walter as he lay down on the ground. “Give me some of your water.” 

But Grubby had already warned me about Walter and the water. “Don’t give him any of yours,” he’d said. “Walter will drink most of it and pour the rest on his head.” 

“Come on, Wally,” I said. “It’s not even noon yet. We’re going to need this water a lot more later on. Pace yourself.”

Still, when Grubby wasn’t looking, I poured a little water from my canteen into Walter’s mouth. He gulped it down, grabbing at the canteen for more. But I was a little quicker than he was. 

“Just a little now,” I said. “You can have more later.”

He wasn’t happy, but he at least got up off the ground and went back to his bike. 

When we reached what we thought was the top, there was a small saddle, then the hill climbed up again. 

“Jesus, how far does this go?” Walter yelled at Grubby, who never answered and kept pushing onward. 

Fortunately, it wasn’t that steep; by zigzagging we could ride our way up. The rocks were difficult to negotiate in the soft soil, and the cacti were very prickly, but eventually we all made it to the top. It wasn’t like anything was really on the other side—just more of what we’d come up. But at least it was level, some of it even slightly downhill, so we could ride it slowly. 

Photo courtesy of Grubby Clark.

Finally, we saw a road up ahead. It might as well have been an oasis after what we’d just been through. Grubby was waiting with his helmet off. He didn’t even look that tired as he consulted his guidebook. We all made it to the road in varying degrees of fatigue, pain, and thirst. Walter had already drained both his canteens and was begging water from the rest of us, who were reluctant to give up our dwindling supply. 

“Come on, you guys,” Walter pleaded. “Somebody give me some water.” 

Grubby, who hadn’t even taken a drink since we left the cars, slowly pulled out one of his canteens. Looking at Walter, who had his own eyes fixed on the full canteen, Grubby slowly unscrewed the cap, took a swig, swished it around his mouth, then spit it on the ground. 

I thought Walter was going to explode. The only thing on his mind was water inside his mouth, and Grubby was spitting water out. 

As we all watched in silence, Grubby surprised all of us, especially Walter. He offered Walter the rest of his canteen. “Here,” Grubby said, “have all you want.”

Walter grabbed that canteen like a dying man and guzzled down half of it in one gulp. Grubby just watched as Walter made a pig of himself. When Walter was done, he handed the now almost empty canteen back. Grubby didn’t say a word about it. He just turned to the rest of us and said, “Okay, you guys ready to go? I know where we are. This road leads right into Arroyo Grande.” 

The little rest had perked us all up, and we put our helmets back on and fired up the bikes. 

We rode down the road for almost an hour. The wind in our faces was cooling and the riding was easy and fun. Finally, up ahead, we saw Grubby waiting by a scraggly barbed-wire fence he’d unfastened and was holding open. He motioned us through and we rode into a steep-sided gully with a soft, sandy bottom. 

“Okay,” he said as he refastened the fencing, “this is Arroyo Grande. Just follow it until we come to another fence like this one.” 

I thought we’d been riding in sand the whole time, but riding in the arroyo was a whole different experience. The sand was so soft that to even get going the rider needed to get as far back on his bike as he could, his butt just about on the rear fender. The sand wanted to suck down the front wheel. If the rider wasn’t careful, it did just that and down he went. Walter and Yater were having a little trouble adjusting to the difficult terrain as well. Little Hobie went by all of us, his ass on his rear fender as he shifted up to third gear and zoomed off, with a big rooster tail of sand flying behind him.

Once up to speed, it was almost like surfing. I didn’t turn with the handlebars, instead using leg pressure against the side of the bike. In third and fourth gear it really started to be fun. The arroyo twisted and turned, so there was never a dull moment as we wove our way through the canyon. I learned to look for little rocky sections to ride up on to get some traction and speed before I dropped back down into the sand, where the bike would bog down the instant it hit the soft stuff. 

Walter, on his fast bike, was out ahead. After what seemed like a little over 10 miles of this tricky sand riding, he found a rocky shelf that was shaded by the steep canyon wall and pulled over to rest. We all pulled up to regroup and were surprised when we saw Scott coming  in on Grubby’s bike. When he stopped, he explained that he couldn’t ride with just the one  foot peg on his own bike, so Grubby traded with him. Soon after, Grubby came along on Scott’s beat-up Yamaha. It had been rough going for him in the soft sand, but he’d managed quite well. 

We all noticed when the light began to go soft. I started thinking about the riders who didn’t make it in by dark and had to dig a deep hole in the sand to keep warm as the temperatures dropped, keeping their eyes open for the snakes attracted to body heat.

“We’re about halfway,” said Grubby. “Walter, you lead and wait when you get to where the road ends.” 

Walter took off, and the rest of us followed. Riding this arroyo took complete concentration. If my attention wandered for a moment, the front wheel would dive and I would eat sand before I knew it. But there were brief straight sections where I could glance ahead. The canyon walls were red clay, and it was quite beautiful. In the turns, I had to watch where my front wheel was going—or else. Finally, when I’d just about had enough of this intense riding, the canyon opened up. 

There was another barbed-wire fence that Walter had opened, and I rode through to the road. Parking my bike near the shade of a manzanita bush, I realized I was covered in sand from head to toe. I brushed myself off, but sand had gone down my back and into my riding pants. Oh, well, I thought. This is just a part of desert riding, so live with it. Grubby was the last to arrive, and he looked a little weary from having just ridden 25 miles through soft sand while holding one leg up because there was nothing on the Yamaha to rest his foot on.

“Hey, Walter, will you ride Scott’s bike for a little while?” Grubby asked. “You’re the best rider in the group, and I’m pretty tired.” 

“You brought him,” Walter answered as he got on his Husky. “You ride his bike.” 

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t think I could ride the bike with one foot peg missing, and I didn’t think anyone else wanted to either— including Scott. 

“Come on, Walter,” Grubby tried again. “Don’t be such a prick.” 

“Screw you, Grubby,” Walter said as he started his bike. “Which way do we go?” 

Grubby didn’t answer. He just started up that crappy old Yamaha and headed down the road. Walter took off next and I followed. As we went along, Walter started trying to pass Grubby, who moved over in front of him every time. It was a narrow little road lined with manzanita and cactus, so Walter couldn’t get around him. I was right behind both of them and could see it all. Walter made a move to the right and Grubby just veered over to block him. Walter then swept to the left, and again Grubby cut him off. On and on this went down that little road. 

I was kind of giggling to myself because I knew Walter was getting steamed up, while Grubby, with one leg dangling off that tired old Yamaha, kept closing the door on Wally’s big Husqvarna desert racer. Finally, Walter faked one way and gassed it the other way. Grubby was a little slow to respond and Walter was even with Grubby when Grubby moved over to block Walter. I watched in horror as they locked motorcycles and went down in a big heap and cloud of dust, Grubby and the little Yamaha on top of Walter and the big Husky. Eventually, they slid to a stop and slowly began to untangle themselves. 

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Walter yelled. He was livid as he leapt up from the wreck. “If you screwed up my bike, I’m going to punch you in the nose.” He was beside himself with rage as they started pulling the bikes apart. “Get that piece of shit off my bike.” 

The rest of us were all stopped, watching this unfold, biting holes in our lips to keep from laughing out loud. Walter got his bike up off the ground and everything looked fine. Huskies were the best bikes in the world, after all, built to take that kind of stuff. Walter was still steaming, though, as he got his bike upright and put down the kickstand. Just then, a drop of blood dripped onto his seat. “Wait a minute, wait a minute…I’m bleeding. You asshole, you’ve hurt me,” he bellowed. “Yater, Yater, come here and check me out, see how bad this is,” Walter said as he walked over to Yater sitting on his bike. 

Yater looked at Walter, wiped the dust off his nose where it looked like the blood was coming from, and announced somewhat sarcastically, “Walter, it’s only a pinhole.” 

“What do you mean it’s only a pinhole?” Walter screeched in anguish. “I’m bleeding, can’t you see that?”

I took a look at Walter’s nose and saw a cactus spine sticking out of it. It was indeed a pinhole. I got out my Swiss Army knife, pulled out the tiny pair of tweezers, plucked the thorn from his schnoz, and showed it to him. 

“Just hold your finger on that for some pressure and the bleeding should stop,” I told Walter, who was still muttering, convinced something worse was going on. 

Meanwhile, Grubby was trying to start Scott’s bike without success. The crash had killed it. He checked the fuel line and changed the spark plug and tried again. Nothing. He took the spark plug out and checked for spark. There was none. The little Yamaha was dead. Grubby beckoned to Scott to come over and help him roll it off the road, then they hid it behind some bushes. 

“We’re going to have to ride double,” Grubby announced, “but I know where we are and the roads aren’t that bad. We should make it okay. We can come and get the bike later.” 

It was already late in the afternoon, and we were still a long way from San Felipe. So again we all deferred to Grubby’s leadership as he took his place at the head of the column and we headed out, a little slower and a lot more carefully. All we wanted to do was just make it to San Felipe, where there was dinner and a comfortable bed waiting for us. 

The day had started to wane—the sun had been behind the mountains for a long time—but we all noticed when the light began to go soft. I started thinking about the stories of riders who didn’t make it in by dark and had to spend the night out, digging a deep hole in the sand to keep warm as the temperatures dropped, keeping their eyes open for the snakes attracted to body heat.

We were still on the dirt and night was near. My bike had a headlight, but the beam was so pitifully small that it didn’t really do much good. Grubby’s was the only other bike with a headlight. A subdued Walter tailed him closely to take best advantage of the light. 

Photo courtesy of Grubby Clark.

But Grubby had more mischief on his mind: In the middle of a turn, he turned off his headlight. I heard Walter yelling at him over the roar of the motorcycles. Undeterred, Grubby kept doing this over and over until Walter went hoarse. It was pretty funny and harmless. The long day’s ride had put us in close touch with our bikes and none of us fell down anymore. 

After almost two hours of night riding, we reached the pavement and could see the lights of San Felipe ahead. Grubby was still playing with his headlight and Walter was still yelling, but not as loudly as before. Grubby led us through the town and stopped at the hotel. We peeled ourselves off our bikes, stiff and sore, but stoked to be in civilization and not out in the desert. 

We checked in at the front desk. The restaurant was in the same room, so rather than going to our rooms first, we just plopped down in our dirty riding clothes and ordered dinner. Walter ordered two dinners for himself. A couple at the table next to us got up to leave and Walter noticed that the wife hadn’t eaten much of her dinner. Without skipping a beat he slipped into her seat and started eating off her plate. He noticed all of us looking at him. “What are you going do?” he said. “Waste all this good food?” It did look pretty good to me, and none of us had eaten all day. 

Eventually our own dinners arrived, and it was as good as it looked. Afterward, we staggered off to our rooms. I took a quick shower and dove into bed. The next thing I knew, it was morning, and we had a long ride back. We ate a hearty breakfast and then went to the gas station, just a small place with some drums of gas that they hand-pumped into our tanks. We added a little two-stroke oil, shook the bikes to mix, made sure everything was tied down, and finally headed out of town. I don’t remember much about the ride back except that we didn’t stray far from the paved road. In fact, we rode a lot of the way on it. It was still a long haul, and we got back to the cars late in the afternoon. Grubby, Little Hobie, and Scott took off back to San Felipe to get Scott’s bike. 

Meanwhile, Yater, Walter, and I headed back toward Tecate as the sun went down. Yater was driving and I was in the middle. We could barely keep our eyes open and we were going back up La Rumorosa, a steep road cut into the side of the mountain with sheer drop-offs. Walter said he was wide awake and could drive, so Yater pulled over and changed seats with him. But Walter’s driving was so bad that suddenly we couldn’t close our eyes out of fear that he would drive us off the road.

“Talk to me,” Walter said as he swerved sickeningly. “Just keep talking to me.” 

At one point we came barreling around a corner to find a federale roadblock. But because it was night and there wasn’t much traffic, the cops were all sitting down on the side of the road. Walter didn’t even slow down. He aimed for an opening between two of the barricades and blitzed it. I could see the federales jumping to their feet with rifles in hand. Before they could do anything, though, we were already roaring off into the night. I don’t know if they fired at us or not. That kind of woke Walter up a little more, and his driving settled down. 

It was the first of many more Baja rides with the same crew and other variations. A deep affection for the area grew in me, and I would go down there at every opportunity. I even made the Tecate 500 Enduro an annual event on my calendar, until they finally canceled it after too many injuries and some deaths. 

All of us are still riding dirt bikes today. Not as much as we did back then, but with the same thrill. We all still tease Walter about the pinhole, and he comes back with the claim that his Husky 400 was the finest bike he ever owned and that it was a sacrilege that Grubby would knock him down with a shitty old Yamaha. Walter’s double dinners became legendary, as did Grubby’s Gerhard and Gulick guidebook. 

Grubby also became the go-to expert whenever anyone had a question about that area of Baja. In one instance, he was instrumental in the rescue of some friends and fellow riders who’d gotten lost near where we’d parked our cars. They had been forced to spend not one but several dreaded nights out, running out of water and abandoning their motorcycles before being rescued. Grubby pinpointed their location by knowing there was only one place where they could get in trouble: an old, steep road down the face of the escarpment known as the Stairway to the Stars. It was a near-death experience for a group of experienced riders who had simply gotten lost in the vastness of Baja. It was also a realization to all of us that riding the area is not a lark, but a serious journey that involves a great deal of preparation, planning, and forethought. 

Many more people go through that area now than on my first trip, but it remains the same. To some, it’s a hot, dry, rugged land. To us, it will always be a place of solitude, quiet beauty, and wide-open country.

[Feature image by Monti Smith]

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