The Great Baja Quake of 2019

There aren’t earthquakes in Baja. At least, we don’t think there are.

Well, to be honest, we have no idea whether there are earthquakes or not. But what we do know is that the camper is not supposed to move like that. 

It was a day like any other in Baja. We were camped inside the semi-chain-linked fence of a welding/mechanic shop just inside the La Paz city limits.

Not an ideal campsite

Several stray dogs had already found their way through the fence to urinate on our tires. Classy. But we’re used to that by now. 

We had noticed a terrible screeching sound coming from the rear of our truck every time we drove over any sort of hole or bump in the road.

In Baja, these are frequent. So the noise became troublesome to us. 

At our first chance, we searched through our iOverlander app to try and find reputable mechanics in La Paz who could fix what we thought was an issue with our rear shocks.

Knowing what we know about vehicles, which is limited to what we have learned after a dozen breakdowns between here and Alaska, we were quick to think that swapping out the shocks would fix the issue. 

The first shop we passed was absent a mechanic.

We timed our errand right in the middle of prime siesta time. So it wasn’t Noe’s fault that he wasn’t in his shop when we pulled up. 

On to the second shop, just a few miles down the rather bumpy road that persisted in reminding us that there was something wrong with our rear suspension. 

When we arrived we were greeted by an older man I would come to know as “Papa” from the repetition of the word by the two other men in the shop.

I grunted a few words in Spanish to Papa, in true caveman-ish fashion, pointing to where the shocks were and hoping Papa would understand.

He didn’t.

There are few times in traveling through Mexico when knowing Spanish is a good idea. I imagine talking your way out of jail is one.

Explaining a mechanical issue would be a second.

When the explaining was done, “Junior,” as I would come to know him only by the name on his father’s cell phone as Papa called him to translate for us, arrived and spoke English.

We explained our hypothesis to Junior and, without a moment of proper diagnosis, he was on the phone locating replacement shocks for us. 

As we waited for the new shocks another man showed up with a handful of wrenches and a broken-down cardboard box.

He threw the box on the ground beneath the rear of the truck and then crawled under and began dismantling the shocks. 

We visually inspected the truck during this time. I think half of it was wanting to actually inspect the truck.

The other half was wanting to make sure this guy was doing things right. Of course, with what I knew about repairing trucks, who was I to object to anything he did.

In a moment the old shocks were out and we were waiting for the new shocks.

Then we noticed it and simultaneously smacked our foreheads with our palms. 

We had broken two leaves in our leaf spring suspension pack.

Lindsay mechanic shop
Our broken half of one leaf spring

Without getting too technical about things I really don’t understand, a leaf spring is the first line of defense for trucks bouncing around on Baja roads.

Coupled with shocks and, in our case, additional airbag suspension, the leaves help absorb an up-and-down motion. 

As we had just completed a serious off-road adventure we’re not exactly sure when one of these bumps might have cracked the leaf.

But we do know by looking at it that every time we hit a bump from that point forward there would have been an ear-aching metallic screeching identical to the sound we heard that made us think our shocks were out in the first place. 

Also in this time Papa inspected the shocks and told us, at least as I interpreted his Spanish, that they were not entirely bad.

But they weren’t good enough to put back on either.

He wanted to fabricate and weld a special bracket that would hold these old, but not bad, shocks side-by-side with the new shocks Junior was bringing us. 

As I looked around the shop I saw no fewer than 8 carcasses of Baja 1000 trucks and buggies in various forms of rebirth.

If Papa and Junior could breathe life back into these machines that took the most brutal beatings perhaps of any vehicle then I could trust him with our shocks. 

Papa also made several calls and told us that he could not locate replacement springs for us.

What felt like victory soon turned bittersweet.

We could fix what was not really broken in reinforcing the shocks. But we couldn’t fix what was actually broken without new leaf springs. 

Then Papa took out his measuring tape and quickly jotted down the dimensions of the broken leaf. When that was done he casually walked over to an older F250 in the front of the lot, kicked some trash aside, and squatted near the rear leaves of the truck. 

Turning to us stoically, he told Junior to tell us these springs would work. 

We were back in business. 

Except it was already 5 pm on the day before New Year’s Eve. 

Junior asked if we could leave the truck with his father for the night, as Papa would work until 9 or 10 that night.

We explained that our truck camper was our home and that we could not leave it anywhere without us. 

Junior looked around in similar fashion as Papa when he walked over to the old F250. 

He then turned with the same stoic expression on his face and told us that we would camp in the parking lot so his father could would on the truck and we could stay with our camper. 

Sure thing.

This sort of story happens to every overlander who travels for any length of time through Latin America.

I felt it was almost a badge of courage I could wear from this point forward that would tell other overlanders: I too camped inside a semi-chain-linked fence of a welding/mechanic shop in Mexico

I bought Papa a 2-liter of Coke and a 6-pack of Tecate, unsure of which he would prefer.

Mexicans, it seems, drink plenty of one and none of the other. So it was 50/50 with Papa and I aimed to impress. 

He told me, in simple Spanish words, that he preferred the cerveza because he had given up drinking Coke many years ago.

I think he was being funny. Or he was making fun of me.

Either way, he erupted into laughter and slapped the shoulder of another man who had seemed to magically appear in the shop. 

With that, Papa worked until nearly 11 pm.

Papa worked tirelessly through the night

We could hear grinding metal and the zapping of the welding equipment until our eyes finally closed for the night. 

We woke to the strange sensation of the camper rocking and periodic banging coming from beneath the floor. Papa and his colleagues had not wasted much time getting started on the repairs. 

Everything was fine for the first 4 or 5 hours.

But sometime in that 6th hour, as we were seated on our couch inside our camper, the earthquake happened. 

Lindsay nearly fell to the floor.

A cabinet over my head opened and I could feel things falling on my head.

Everest whimpered.

The whole camper tilted sideways and things continued to fall to the floor. 

After checking with Lindsay and the dog to make sure they were ok I went outside to see what had happened – knowing full well, or at least thinking so, that earthquakes don’t happen in Baja. 

I was greeted with Spanish words I recognized, but dare not say. They were the kind of words you learn as a kid and giggle when you say them because you’re cussing, but in another language so it’s not really cussing. 

These were cuss words, in Spanish.

And I knew why as I looked at our truck, tireless, and leaning over from where the jack had given way. 

I knew there were no earthquakes in Baja. 

Over the course of the next hour Papa directed Junior and two others as they used wooden blocks, old tire rims and small hydraulic jacks to pry the truck and camper level again.

Broken truck in La Paz
Our “earthquake”

A few hours later and the truck was entirely reassembled – complete with new, used, leafs and a hybrid new/old shock system mounted to the rear. 

We had earned our stripes this day. Not only for having spent the night in a Mexican mechanic shop.

But also for having watched our entire lives flash before us in the moment of the Great Baja Quake of 2019. 

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