Thursday, June 5, 2014

So I arrive in San Diego, which has the most beautiful airport in the world in my experience. Blue, blue horizons, cacti, poofy sunflowers, palm trees and none of that opaque accompaniment of gunmetal gray you get in every other western city. As I stand waiting for my luggage I have an urge to run outside, rent a deckchair and a hammock and just stay here for five days.

Anyway, I’ve been set in a good mood. I make my calls as I watch for my bags on the merry-go-round. I’m supposed to be met by Nikki but she’s not there. I suppose I should panic, but the environment just plain chills you. Then I get a giggly call. “This is Nikki. From now on you can call me Baja Nikki!” It seems she’s on her way. “Got me a big green racer bike in the back. Can’t miss it.” Oh, and that her mom is in the bar next door. And just as I’m reaching for my bag off the carousel, I smell strong sweet perfume mixed with agavé liquor. Mezcal or Tequila. I feel a soft female hand on my neck followed by a light, lipstick-y kiss on the cheek.  Right there, instantaneously wrapped around me in a manner that’s much more friendly in manner than lascivious, is a deep-tanned middle-aged, square-jawed Cali blonde, Terry Nolen. Nikki’s mother.

I guess I must look shocked. I’m unused to western ways. “Oh no,” she says. “You are Steven?”

“My middle name,” I say. “Most people call me Ivor.”

I tell her I’m thirsty and she pulls me over to the bar by the forearm, which really is next to the baggage claim. I tell her this will be my first time and she says she’s not sure if this will be her 31st or 32nd. We do the math, because she’s a bit drunk, and she began, she says, in 1971. 43 years, not 32. I still don’t get it, though, because I’m a bit slow. “You’ve been going there for 43 years?”

“No,” she barks a little. “Riding.”

The Baja 500 Diaries I: Baja Babes

Oh wow! Silly me. A woman racer from the real all-macho days! Her story right there. “It was tough then,” she says.

“Can we talk about that?”

“Talk all you want. Just no names.”

She taps at her glass with long, lacquered French tips. How do you drive with long nails?

“I can tell you stories that will surprise you.”  She says it like one of Tom Robbins’ heroines. “Like a female samurai, I can surprise you.”

Nikki arrives then. Side by side by sidekick with her friend Kristin Matlock, who looks not so much physically like Terry, but has the exact same Cali-type conditioning: deep tan, French nails, platinum blonde hair down almost to her ankles. Hard to get any kind of handle on Nikki because she’s a buzz-saw of activity. Wiry and petite, oily black gear head hands throwing tires and luggage around in the back of the truck. `Moving this way and that. “Yes Steve, you too can call me Baja Nikki.”

All three it turns out are career Baja warriors. All three are participating in the race. Although Terry doesn’t drive any more, she will be a spotter. This means, fundamentally, that you are the navigator and spotter—the very eyes and ears of a driver—with little of the recognition. All guts, but no glory: It’s a cliché but no one seems to mind using it.

The Tijuana border, which I haven’t crossed in 30-odd years, has changed a lot and their border guards look handsome, starched, and ironed with a paramilitary edge. We pay our fee and Nikki commences straight up spectacularly, bombing it along the Pacific Coast Highway. There’s the desert and the sea, which is the sum opposite of the spectacularly manicured city of San Diego. Now and again hints of the vivid blue Pacific Ocean on the horizon, but otherwise its sharded boulders and rock from hundreds of controlled explosions and, every now and again, like happy accidents, the same thing, only smoother and rounder from nature itself.  A road built by stubborn human will and dynamite! And as it gets later and later and we take the trickiest of hairpin bends in her big yellow custom ‘Baja Babes’ truck, the land looks like the moon on a ramp, the axle bumping against the bottom of holes that would crack a military armored Hummer intro a thousand pieces. We zigzag gradients and my heart thumps. At some points the zipper-like highway is so enervatingly narrow that you feel the heat of a whisper as cars pass ridiculously close, careening in the opposite direction toward where the vice is at in TJ.

All along the way are scores of other trucks headed with us like Pharoah’s army, emblazoned with their own team logos. A big steely silver one is worth a million bucks, another, the color of a dollop of American shiny mustard is worth a cool $650,000.

“Beat her last year!” Kristen says of the passenger of one vehicle that looks like it’s out of the Road Warrior. She’s got a Cheshire Cat grin going on under her Cali tan.

The Baja 500 Diaries I: Baja Babes

Later, in the deeper dark of ten o’clock, before we stop, Kristen shows me pictures of her kids. “Kristen Matlock, world’s numero uno female road racer is showing off pictures off her kids!” Baja Nikki jokes as Cali Kristen shows me pictures of her gorgeous, square-jawed, blond handsome kids, a mother like any other, albeit with superb orthodontics all around

By the time we reach Villa Fuentes for some eats it is close to 11 p.m. The food and drink is fabulous. My deep-fried winks at me, I swear, and I wink back before eating each orb so they can no longer make gestures in my direction.

Meanwhile the waiters all love Baja Nikki. She gives out stickers. Hundreds of bumper stickers that are a kind of third currency people use here. Indeed, the stickers get us our desserts, coffee and after dinner cognac gratis.  “We love you, Nikki!” our waiter Desidero says. “¡Baja Nikki es numero uno!”

The guy at the table next to ours is with his family. A stocky little indio with horse chestnut eyes, he gets her to autograph a sticker with a sharpy. They have driven all way from Veracruz to actually see the race in Ensenada for the first time. “I saw her on tele-vision,” he says with difficulty. “Me cayó en gracia” – I took a liking to her.

The party goes on and on. The mescal is very, very good. The worm at the bottom of the bottle is an old friend. Will we ever get to Ensenada? Will we make it to my room and my bed?

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