Jack Mahler was asked if he got any strange looks when he crossed the United States-Mexico border on a unicycle.
“Well, I get funny looks pretty much everywhere I go, so…” Mahler responded.
Yes, most folks take a second glance when they see somebody riding a unicycle. Riding 1,600 miles along the Baja Divide on a unicycle is something else altogether.
Mahler, 26, completed the route in 50 days (45 days of riding and five rest days), starting on Dec. 18 of last year and finishing on Feb. 6.
Along the way, he was treated to beautiful sunrises and sunsets while passing through endless desert mountain ranges, remote ranchos, fishing villages and historic Spanish mission sites.
The Baja Divide is a rugged, off-pavement bikepacking route that crisscrosses the Baja California peninsula, from San Diego to San José del Cabo, Mexico.
Mahler, a landscaper in Bend who has free time during the winter, started planning the trip shortly after completing the 750-mile Arizona Trail on a unicycle in the spring of 2016. While the Arizona Trail is mostly singletrack, the Baja Divide is mostly four-wheel-drive dirt roads.
“It’s a longer journey, but similar difficulty because it’s on a little easier terrain,” Mahler said of the Baja Divide. “That’s pretty much what it turned out to be. It was twice the distance but not as technically difficult. It didn’t wear me out until near the end of it.”
Many of the roads along the route are used in the Baja 1000, an annual off-road motorsport race in Baja California. Mahler’s trip included 92,000 feet of ascent, but he noted it was not as steep as the Arizona Trail and he did not have to walk many sections.
Mahler downloaded a GPS file from bajadivide.com that he could use to stay on the route. He started in San Diego then rode up into the Otay Mountains, before descending to the border crossing in Tecate, Mexico.
He rode the northern section of the route alone, before meeting up with his girlfriend, Annie McCormick, of Bend, in San Ignacio, Mexico, about halfway through the trip. McCormick rode a Surly mountain bike while Mahler unicycled.
“It was weird because it was like two different trips almost,” Mahler said. “I had all this solo time during the northern part. I only ran into a few other people who were bikepacking and the local ranchers. It was a lot of solitude for the first half and way more social for the southern half.”
Mahler — a graduate of Redmond High School — began road bike racing and mountain bike racing in his teens.
At 16, he started unicycling after watching online videos, calling it a “random hobby that I decided to pick up.” He was frustrated with how difficult it was at first, so he put the unicycle away for a couple of months.
When he tried it again, something clicked. He was able to ride significant distances, and he began riding mountain bike trails near Bend and his parents’ home in Tumalo.
Eventually, he advanced to multiday trips of 20 miles or more.
Unicycles have one handlebar extending out from the saddle with a hand brake.
His unicycle weighs 16 pounds, compared with the approximate 30-pound weight of the typical mountain bike.
He carried food and water in a backpack, and in a saddlebag fashioned to the seatpost of his unicycle.
“The most I had to carry was 8 liters of water,” Mahler said. “At all the towns there are purified water sources. You can get a liter for 7 pesos (about 35 cents). In the bigger towns I would stock up on the basics, and I got snack food at smaller stores along the way — canned tuna or some kind of meat. I was pretty much just trying to get in calories however I could.”
For camping at night, he used a bivouac with a sleeping bag and foam pad. During some rainstorms he would set up a pup tent, which helped shed the rain and avoid condensation.
Mahler said he speaks functional Spanish so he was able to converse some with locals. He said they were friendly and would offer him meals or ask for stories about his adventure.
What stands out most in his memory is the mesmerizing sunrises and sunsets in Baja.
“One section by the Pacific was a big salt flat that was super firm,” he recalled. “It was 360-degree views because it was so flat. There was a lagoon to one side and the Pacific on the other. It was this big expanse with the sky just lighting up.”
Mahler encountered all sorts of cacti and used a tubeless tire to help prevent punctures. He broke several spokes along the way but his unicycle stayed intact to the end.
He said he saw lots of coyotes, wild horses, a lynx and only one rattlesnake.
From La Paz on the Gulf of California, the route finishes with a loop down through San José del Cabo and back up to La Paz. When he finished on Feb. 6, Mahler boarded a flight from La Paz to Tijuana, Mexico, then rode a train home to Central Oregon from San Diego.
Mahler averaged about 35 miles per day of unicycling, which required about 10 hours per day.
He said most two-wheeled bikepackers complete the Baja Divide in the same amount of time that he did, but they ride just six to eight hours per day because they can ride faster.
“I like exploring on the unicycle, because I feel like it’s a good speed to see things,” Mahler said. “It’s a nice middle ground between hiking and biking. Sometimes biking is too fast because you’re flying by things.”