WCRM (2006.5)

Of Dead Trees and Dirt Roads

STN members get together fairly often, especially considering that we generally live hundreds of miles away from each other. Eager to have one last fling before winter set it, another Meet was scheduled, this time in Baker City, OR. What was unusual about this gathering was that a few riders were planning on going off-road – intentionally. It’s a great bike that can transport you hundreds of miles on pavement and then give you pleasure on another hundred miles of dirt once you get to your destination, all in great comfort.

September 22 ~ September 24, 2006
Total Miles: 1,120, 3 days
Seattle, WA to Baker City, OR
Map Link

I had permission to leave work at noon in order to reach Baker City, OR before nightfall. I had estimated that it would take me about 6 hours to cover the 400 miles of mostly Interstate and wanted a good start. That didn’t happen. I had forgotten the plug to my heated jacket and knowing that the nights got cold and I had a couple of mountain passes to cross, I wanted the safety and comfort of the warmth that it would provide. So instead of hitting the open road at high noon, I headed for home. And spent an hour looking for it, but to no avail. Disappointed at my late start, I gave up the search and bundled up under my stitch. I was finally on my way.

Not content to subject myself to 100% mindless slab, I routed my BMW towards Mt Rainier and took advantage of the graceful curves and enticing scenery. Not to mention the construction. The 5 minute construction delay (and a quick stop for the two photos below) would be the only time I stopped the bike over the next 4 3/4 hours and 285 miles. I was dismayed to see that the northern Pine Bark Beetle had made its way so far south. I knew that it was ravishing BC’s southern forests, and had seen hints of it along the North Cascades Highway, but the views I saw that afternoon of decimated hillsides south of Mt Rainier alarmed me.

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Pine Bark Beetle in the Cascades

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Close of up the dying trees

I stopped for gas near Echo, OR and was then again on my way to Baker City. The weather was brilliant and clear except for a small column of smoke rising in the distance. As I neared it I wondered if it was a controlled burn or heavy industry. I was intrigued and kept an eye on it, my curiosity more than satisfied when I saw actual flames flaring up in an uncontrolled brush fire not more than 100 yards from the Interstate. The smoke lent a soft light to the setting sun and I was tempted to stop for a photo. Instead I kept on going, the temperature dropping with the sun and I had 100 more miles to cover before I could stop for the night.

I finally pulled into Baker City around 7:30 that night and wasted a few more minutes riding around trying to figure out where I was supposed to be. I finally found the motel I was to share a room at and was looking forward to dropping off my gear and having my first meal of the day. My roommate, John, hadn’t arrived yet but my name was on the registry and I was given my room key. The desk clerk was also helpful enough to let me know where the rest of the crew was meeting for dinner, at which point I promptly got back on the bike and jumped off the curb in my haste to get there (the desk clerk was impressed enough with that move to comment on it twice over the next two days). I was late, but not too late to eat, and I ended up conversing with my fellow riders until well after 11 that night.

Breakfast wasn’t going to be until 8:30 or so the next morning, but the phone woke me at 6:50am. I had a bad night’s sleep, as the room heater would make random noises and I got up about every hour to turn it down, until I gave up at 3:15am and simply turned it off. Therefore this early morning phone call caught me in a deep fog, something that didn’t help when the caller identified herself as a chaplain at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane and that my friend had been in a motorcycle accident. She immediately followed up saying that he was ok, in stable condition but he had broken his leg. I took down as much information as she could give me and hung up the phone. It was 7am and there was no way I was to get any more sleep this day.

I met up with some riders, shared the news and then did the only thing I could really do: plan my ride for the day. We ate breakfast and discussed various options for the day. Kurt had planned out some interesting roads to check out west of Baker City, taking advantage of Oregon’s extensive selection of unpaved roads. It sounded like fun, so five of us mounted our bikes and headed off into the chilly sunshine.

Because I wasn’t leading, I didn’t have a map and quite honestly, I didn’t care; I have no idea where we went. The best I can guess is we went “west” and through the towns of Sumpter and Granite, and explored parts of the Oregon Backroads Discovery Route. All in all, it was about 80 miles of dirt roads, some better than others, some with sections I wouldn’t (couldn’t) take my car through. We hit everything from pea gravel, mud, rocks, ruts, dust, hard packed dirt, tree roots and puddles. We visited two lookout towers, saw evidence of massive forest fires and dozens of hunters camped out in the woods. Our bikes ranged from a KLR 650 to a new GS1200, and they all did quite well in the dirt. There was even a new Buell Ulysses in the pack that held its own, at least until it got about 5 miles from the motel and the shifter linkage lost a bolt.

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Fixing Adam’s footpeg

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Wade on his 1200GS

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Kurt and Jim

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Sumpter, OR general store

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One of many map-checking stops

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Coming up the hill

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Good roads

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Adventure-Touring bikes

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This is the way to ride

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Fun back roads

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Early view

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View from the lookout (grounded)

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Lookout tower

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Men asking for directions

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Perfect riding

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Evidence of a ten-year old fire

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Kurt takes my picture

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Kurt kicking it up

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Views for miles

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The road we came in on

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Fall colors

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New growth

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The group catches up

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Sunny Oregon riding

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Roads not yet taken

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Dropping down in elevation

Once we were back at the motel we scattered to our rooms, cleaned up a bit and then re-emerged to visit with other riders who had taken other routes and seen other things. A lot of parking lot chatter and excited stories of the day’s activities ensued before we wandered off back to the restaurant for dinner. There we enjoyed more conversation, this time amplified by beer and a hearty meal. I was wiped out, as was apparently just about everyone else, as we headed back to our rooms at the almost embarrassingly early hour of 9 pm.

The next morning I was able to sleep in until 7 am, but at least felt like I had had a full night’s sleep. I took my time packing up the GS and it wasn’t difficult to convince me to have breakfast with the guys before I took off for home. Because John was still in the hospital in Spokane and I didn’t have much else planned, I thought it would be nice to stop by and see him. I guessed that it would be about 4 hours to Spokane from Baker City and left right after breakfast, thinking I’d slip into the city just after noon. Instead, it took me 6 1/2 hours to get there and it was after 3 pm.

For the most part, it was a very enjoyable ride. I debated for quite some time on which route to take, seeing as none of them were very direct. It was only 300 miles to Spokane, but they didn’t appear to be very fast miles. As I headed north toward Grand Junction I pondered taking some apparently dirt roads that would shave off miles but add minutes for a slower pace. However once I turned east on Hwy 82 I decided that I didn’t need any more dirt – this road was perfect! It wove along the north side of the snow-capped Wallowa Mountains, following the brilliantly blue Wallowa River before losing me in the town of Wallowa. I stopped for a quick gas station break before searching for Hwy 3 to lead me north out of Oregon and into Washington. I had no expectations from this road, as it showed as a straight line running north across the border. Was I ever in for a surprise! The pavement started out gently weaving back and forth between gently rolling farmland. The furrows gave way to fields and those eventually gave way to forests. The ride was pleasant and fast with no traffic and clear blue skies. I stopped at the Joseph Canyon overlook and read a bit about how the Nez Perce lived here peacefully for generations before the settlers moved in. But I didn’t have long to ponder the injustices of the past, for before me unfurled an awesome sight: the road carved into the side of the hill, dropping down forever into the distance.

For sixteen miles I hugged the side of the gorge as it dropped down to the Weneha River and then back up the other side. Not one house populated this entire stretch. And right in the middle, along the banks of the river, was a small store with a hand-painted sign that proclaimed “Homemade Pie” – why hadn’t I heard of this road before?? I stopped for many pictures, none of which fully do it justice. Sixteen miles of what I have christened “Deals Gap West”.

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Joseph Canyon

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My first view of “Deals Gap West”

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She’ll be comin’ around the mountain when she comes

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Looking up to where the road cuts into the hillside

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Curvy road

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Another look, this time further back up the canyon

Once the heavenly road returned to the heights of the highlands, it also lost a lot of its flavor. The curves became minimal and infrequent while the farmlands gave little to look at. The towns passed by me: Asotin, Lewiston, Uniontown, Colfax, Steptoe and finally, Spokane. The hospital was easier to find than trying to figure out which door I should use, so I finally gave up, parked in a no parking zone and went inside. As luck would have it, I was in the right place and the receptionist said I could leave my bike right where it was. I found the nurse’s station, asked if John would accept my visit and was escorted to his room. He was very groggy from the drugs but still managed to eek out a meager conversation. There was nothing for me to do for him, so I bid him farewell after wishing him a speedy recovery. The nurse told me that his prognosis was could but she didn’t know when he would be released and sent home. I gave her a shirt that the STN crew had signed from the restaurant to give to John later and then took my leave.

It was now 3:30 pm and I had the entire state of Washington before me. Two hundred and eighty miles of Interstate to be crossed with little hope of distraction. As it was, I amused myself by passing cars and trucks and reading incorrect crop signs hanging from the fencing. The sun was setting as I crested over the Cascades and it was just becoming dusk as I pulled into the driveway. It had been a long day, a long weekend, even, but it was definitely a good one.

Tell me what you think! I want to know!