Friday, May 22, 2015

Exploring Oregon, Pt. 1

I'm not too much of a reader. Knowing how to read isn't the issue, but rather I struggle dedicating enough time to the act. I enjoy it, but don't often fit it in to my daily routine. That said I've been slowly making my way through Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon. I'm sure it's a cliche that someone writing a motorcycle travel blog would have that book, but it's still fitting, and I find it a pleasurable read. My point is I came across a quote where a man said he was "hanging off the drop edge of yonder". He was of course referencing death, but I've grown pretty fond of the saying all the same. To me it isn't something so morose, but a reference to that place I'm always seeking on my KLR. That point in which the whole world seems to fall off and you find yourself riding into the void. Heading towards adventure driven by the curiosity of what lies around the next curve.

The list of places I want to explore is undoubtedly a long one, but I decided to dedicate my recent big trip to my home state of Oregon. There's so much country here and I've hardly scratched the surface. I wanted to ride the blue highways here because the idea of "yonder" isn't always so distant a place.
First things first was to call up my dad and get him to go on the ride with me (this took roughly zero arm-twisting). I've ridden with a number of folks over the years, but there are few I can stand on longer trips as much as my dad. Call it genetics, but our pace when traveling is nearly identical, as is our interests in what we'd like to look at. We did the math and it had been over 7 years since our last major ride together. We were long overdue.
He lives in Southeastern Idaho and I'm in Portland so we agreed to meet in Pendleton, Oregon to start our ride, nearly the exact middle between our two houses. I left early and took the Washinton side of The Gorge over. It's a great way to avoid the bullshit of I-84, and a far more exciting road on a bike.
My dad left Emmett, Idaho at nearly the same time on his BMW GS. We'd split the necessary camping gear between the two of us, and planned on picking up food as we traveled. Honestly I was giddy with excitement. I like riding with my dad a lot. He got me into the whole business of motorcycles when I was a little one and I can never thank him enough for it.
Our timing in Pendleton was damn near perfect. I rolled in to find his bike parked downtown. The engine was still warm. Over 200 miles of travel for each of us and we show up within 15 minutes of one another. Now THAT's a good riding buddy.
Of course as luck would have it we had our first of several mechanicals before we had even left Pendleton. He had lost a throttle return spring off one of his carburetors coming up over the Blues. All those years of use the engine vibration had finally worn the spring clean through its mount. Thankfully a nearby auto parts store had a decent enough replacement, and I put my bundle of zip ties to use fastening it in place. It ended up holding for the entire trip. Seriously, zip ties, never leave on a ride without them.

We enjoyed lunch at The Prodigal Son Brewery and then headed south out of Pendleton on Highway 395. Veering East on Keeny Forks Road we ventured into the Umatilla National Forest and found ourselves a quiet spot to camp for the night. Save for a nearby den of Coyote pups, and a few distant cows it was awesome to break away from the noise of city life. It was only the first night and already I found myself returning to center.
One of my terms of going on this trip with my dad was that I would handle the coffee and the roadside snacks. I like good coffee and I tend to get hangry. Plus I had a few surprises planned and was excited to try out some new gear. The following morning was my first opportunity to show off (see my smug smile in the next photo...). Just to have the luxury of heading out on an extended motorcycle tour is something to be immensely grateful for. Not everyone is so fortunate. But since I'm out there I might as well make the most of it, and a lot of the time that means starting the day with a damn fine cup of coffee. Hey, why not?

We broke camp and continued Southeast until we connected with US Highway 26 and turned West towards John Day. Somewhere along the way I'd had a grand vision of riding mostly dirt between Pendleton and John Day through some backroads I'd mapped out. We definitely found our way into a few beautiful hidden valleys in the Blue Mountains, but closed gates and private property turned us around. No worries though, when you've got nothing to do all day but ride your motorcycle, and nowhere particular to be that night what's a few detours?
We had a quick stop in John Day to say hi to a friend of my Dad's, and enjoyed another cup of coffee before continuing West along 26. My leading interest for the day was to explore the Painted Hills, one of Oregon's many amazing geographical anomalies.

Somewhere around the town of Mitchell I was getting some wicked hunger pains so we found our way to the Sidewalk Cafe & More. For those familiar with the Cafe Calendar rating system in Blue Highways I counted at least 4, plus a chalkboard logging the number of milkshakes they'd served to date: One thousand ninety. Additionally there was a ton of Cycle Oregon memorabilia lining the walls which is a definite sign of a good spot in my mind: two wheels good.
My dad settled right in to chatting up the ladies cooking up our burgers. It's probably the biggest difference between the two of us. I enjoy motorcycle touring because it gets me away from people, and he loves it because he gets to meet so many new folks. To be honest I think he had the right idea. I just need to quell my urge to get back on the road, and just sit and chat for a spell. Folks live in these towns for good reason, and sometimes it's interesting to find out why when you're riding through.
After lunch we found our way to the Painted Hills. It's a surrealist landscape in the heart of Oregon unlike most any other place on earth. The delicate exposed soil striations of these hillsides reveals millions of years of geological history, and reflects light in a perpetually changing color palate.

There are a handful of short hiking trails in the area taking you through some of the key vantage points, and you're just a short drive from the different groupings of red clay hillsides. Geographically speaking the entire Painted Hills area is quite small, but most certainly worth the visit.

My next hope was to cut overland from the Painted Hills into the Ochoco National Forest to find that night's camping spot, but several miles in more private property and locked gates had us retracing our tire tracks. This just meant more time spent riding some awesome dirt roads. We were clearly still winning.


Ultimately we found ourselves in a hotel in Bend that night. We're not above nicer accommodations when we're on a ride, but honestly we hadn't wanted to stay anywhere near the city. Sadly locked gates being what they are things just work out how they're going to work out sometimes. The silver lining to the Bend snafu was a solid dinner and a couple of beers served in frosty mugs at Deschutes Brewery Public House. Clearly we made the most of an otherwise terrible situation. Don't get me wrong, Bend isn't bad, but it it sure ain't no camping trip.

Leaving Bend as quickly as possible the following morning we rode Southeast along China Hat Road. My judgements about the potential racist connotations of the name aside the road leads into some impressive parts of the state as it cuts a dusty line through one of Oregon's most active Volcanic regions. On a map it looks like a whole lot of nothing, but the reality is clearly to the contrary. Needless to say the KLR was right at home on the crushed gravel roads. I had just installed a fresh set of Metzler Enduro 3 Sahara tires before this trip and was enjoying every inch of them out here.
At a certain point China Hat Road straightens out and turns due south, and the Deschutes National Forest opens up into a vast nothingness. Oregon's real high desert. This was indeed the drop edge I'd been seeking. An emptiness so striking I immediately hit the brakes and shut the bike off to take it in. I think in my youth I would have rather thrown myself into a wood chipper than to have to travel along such a straight and vacant road, but on this trip it was exactly what I needed.
Visible for miles is Fort Rock. The hardened skeleton of a long-since eroded volcano from which the nearby town of Fort Rock gets its name. The white rectangles at the base of the rock in the photo below are semi-trucks just for a sense of scale.
Even further south is the town of Silver Lake. Rumor has it that once upon a time there was a vision this place would be the biggest resort town in the West. Townspeople had hoped the masses would flock there to visit the lake (of the same name) to the south and enjoy a vacation away from their busy lives. But things dried up and withered away. Much like Castle Rock everything but interior eroded away leaving a hardened few to carry on in the town they call home. The Ladies running the Silver Lake Market greeted us with warm smiles and offered helpful advice on our purchases of maps, candy bars, and whiskey. Clearly they'd found that hanging on the drop edge suited them just fine. I admire that.
Continuing South the gravel turned a blood red, and the riding got a lot more exciting. The roads suddenly regained their curves as they cut through the desert. Slow rolling hills offered occasional views of sprawling ranch land. Living out here really must be something else.
We cut west through the town of Klamath Falls, and wasted no time in moving past it. Other than a quick stop in an failed industrial development to have a few snacks we didn't have much interest in poking around. The town carries an air of damaged goods. It's tough to put a finger on exactly what it was, but some places just have that energy. Years of a depressed economy made it tired of hanging off the edge and the town simply let go altogether.

We found refuge along the Western shore of Upper Klamath Lake. Most folks seem to want only to high tail it from Klamath Falls to Medford and skip over the little gems in between. We found ourselves in an empty campground away from the noise of the highway. Plenty of peace and quiet to camp: perfection.
The following morning was a cold one. We scraped a thin layer of frost off our motorcycle seats while we waited for the water to boil. I'd brought along an Aerobie Aeropress and a Snowpeak collapsible pourover on this trip and I think it was this morning I realized how much I prefer the cup the pourover makes comparatively. For the record it's not a need for caffeine but a love of the routine. I just like the process. The way freshly ground beans smell, the taste, the warm cup in your hands. It's grounding somehow. You can call me bourgeoisie all you want but yes, that is a fancy-ass hand mill for grinding my Stumptown Coffee beans. I'll decide what I want to make room for in my ammo cans thank you very much.
Several miles down the road the town of Jacksonville welcomed us with wide open arms and a hot breakfast. A very clear yin to Klamath Falls yang. We were surrounded by happy helpful folks as the weather warmed and we stuffed unneeded layers into our saddlebags. Jacksonville is the kind of place you could easily pass every afternoon enjoying front yard BBQ with your neighbors, or lounging in a patch of grass watching the clouds wander by. There's a charming assortment of historical buildings hiding tucked away coffee shops and art galleries. We didn't stay much longer than breakfast, but I'd recommend the stopover if you find yourself in that part of the state.

From Jacksonville we found ourselves on an epic ribbon of asphalt that cuts past the tiny town of Williams before climbing into the mountains. It remains unbelievably paved all the way into Cave Junction Oregon, and offered up some of the top views of our trip. It was a remarkable win on our ride, and apparently Oregon's way of saying "Thanks for visiting. Hurry back soon!" just before we dropped down into California.

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