Monday, June 16, 2014

Three Days in Central Oregon - Day 3

I slept like a rock and awoke a little reluctantly. Unzipping the window of my tent I looked out over the reeds towards the far shore of the lake. It was cool, cloudy and still. Most of all it was quiet, no buzzing, no voices, nothing but the occasional cricket and click of the reeds quietly tapping into one another. There were enough people around that I knew that couldn’t last and roused enough energy to peel off my sleeping bag and start messing about with stoves, boiling water, tea and breakfast. Once that was done it was time to pack up and head home.

Doubling back on my route in, I headed downhill and once again rode alongside Willow Creek towards Heppner, a small town with a tragic history. A cataclysm of near-biblical proportions - a huge  flash flood - nearly destroyed the bustling little place just over a hundred years ago. Coming after a prolonged dry spell the heavy rains that arrived on the afternoon of Sunday, June 14, 1903 were at first welcomed. But the area around Heppner is high desert without much plant life to soak up water and the hills were sodden from rains earlier in the week. Huge thunderstorms rolled in that Sunday and broke over the hills dousing them with rain and hail. Balm Fork and Hinton Creek, Willow Creek’s main tributaries, immediately filled to the brim. Minutes later the flood waters surged out of the gullies into Willow Creek where it converged and formed “…a great pyramid of rolling dirty wool. Projecting from this at every conceivable angle, writhing, twisting, and tumbling but ever moving onward with the speed of an express train, were trees, houses, great rocks and tons of earth.” A wall of water as high as the tallest barn in the county roiled up from the south and smashed through the center of town taking everything in its path northwards. In all 247 townspeople lost their lives. Downstream in the towns of Lexington and Ione a further 18 victims died from typhoid when sewage from Heppner poisoned their water supplies. Striking as it did on a Sunday afternoon, the town was about as full as it could be on the local's day of rest.* 

Thankfully, at the time I passed through, I was blissfully unaware of any of that and turned west across the high plains with their deep scars towards Condon. The wind out of the north blew steadily across my path and there was simply nothing but wide expanses of golden grass for as far as I could see. Occasionally, the road would bend and curve happily as it made its way in and then out of ravines, but for the most part the landscape was straight flat and empty. Condon is named, not for Thomas Condon the geologist, but for his lawyer nephew Harvey, who established the place in 1884. Today it seems little changed. It serves as a center for the county’s agricultural community and boasts an American Graffiti-style main street complete with a retro-looking cinema, the Liberty Theater, and a couple of malt shops. After a quick bite, I carried on south to Fossil, where, of all people, Bill Bowerman, America’s greatest-ever track coach and Nike co-founder, found his final resting place. Fossil has a frontier feel that is only slightly softened by a couple of kitschy antique emporiums and espresso caf├ęs. 

Heading south along the Shaniko Fossil highway and back into prehistory, it was only a few miles to the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. The Palisades is a beautifully distinct outcropping formed from the volcanic mudflows that engulfed and ultimately preserved the remains of four-toed horses, meat-eating creodonts and remnants of the surrounding jungles. 

From there it was on to Antelope, the once and future home of the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his cult members. In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the cult our local rag, The Oregonian, created a nice summary of all the Rajneeshi’s shenanigans a few years ago: Oregonian on Rajneesh. Suffice it to say that even those who believe they have a clear path towards enlightenment may still fall foul of personal ambition and power politics. It still impresses me that 2,000 people were so disillusioned with their lives that they pitched it all in and made their way to a dry patch of farmland in the middle of Oregon, presumably hoping the grass would be greener. It wasn’t. Some locals complain that the TV show ‘Portlandia’ is having the same cult-like effect on a new generation - attracting legions of disillusioned wannabe hipsters to the city, filing off its sharper, more creative edges in the process. 

Mount Hood, like so many of our National Forests, is criss-crossed with any number of logging trails and with a decent compass it’s not that hard to find your way around. Armed as I was with an iPhone I figured that it would be fun to try and find a short cut home. The problem of using an iPhone as a direction finder, however, is that it relies on cellphone signals and batteries which are invariably in short supply deep in the woods. In the end I circumnavigated Timothy Lake and wound up back on Route 26, the main road over the mountain. 

Then just outside Government Camp the heavens opened. This was my first experience of riding in really, really heavy rain on a motorcycle. I quickly understood why so many riders seek shelter under bridges. It’s not so much a traction issue, which itself can be a learning opportunity, it’s more an problem of visibility. Your helmet fogs, other than your fingers your visor has no wipers, and with spray coming off the road you’re all but invisible to other drivers. Fortunately, the cloudburst didn’t last long and I had more or less dried out by the time I arrived home 40 minutes later. 

Three days and 300 million years of wild western history on my doorstep. If ever there was an offset to the hustle and bustle of a middle sized city, the empty spaces of Oregon start less than an hour outside Portland. It’s one of the things that makes this part of the world so wonderful to live in. Come, ride, enjoy! 

*For the complete story of the Heppner flood, pick up a copy of Joann Green Byrd’s excellent account, Calamity: The Heppner Flood of 1903.




Sunday, June 15, 2014

Three Days in Central Oregon - Day 2

The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is one of many National Park Service centers around the country, all of which, in my experience, are really worth stopping at. This one did a great job describing the pre-history of the area, its subsequent rediscovery in the late 19th century and how it rose to national importance. Quite honestly I had no idea the surrounding desert was at one point a sub-tropical jungle overrun with hundreds of animals that I’d never heard of. America’s first horse, the Eohippus, a dog sized creature first appeared just out back behind the washrooms 50 million years ago. The paleo-bone guys have since identified 16 sub-species. This being a sunny Sunday, there was no shortage of bikers around, too. One of whom, in full Harley tribal gear (bandana, leather vest, white beard and chaps), was grumbling loudly that the exhibition was all BS and the earth was only 7,000 years old and why were they even bothering since it was all only a theory. Other patrons made their way around him uncomfortably - as though he were a noisy drunk.

I asked a ranger if there was gas north of here, and she said I’d find some in Spray. Spray? Yes, Spray. Cool! Outside in the brilliant sunlight I looked up at the jagged peak of Sheep Rock and admired its clear strata. I wondered what it would be like finding seashells near the top of a mountain and what a wild ride it must have been to get them there in the first place. Turning north along the river you ride through a primordial landscape once covered with palm trees and crocodiles. (You know this because you were paying attention in the exhibits.) The river gets prettier by the mile and then, thanks to millions of years of erosion, coughs up spectacular geological formations. Sitting right on a sharp bend one of the finest, Cathedral Rock, looms distractingly on the mercifully deserted road. There’s just enough time to squeeze off at the blind corner and then double back for a few photos before the next truck appears.

Spray boasted a couple of lonely, but functioning gas pumps outside the general store at the town’s main intersection. I filled up and paid and asked what was cooking? The lady serving me said she was frying fresh chicken and there were homemade beans as a side. That’s all I needed to hear and she showed me into the restaurant in the back by the kitchen.

One of my favorite things about traveling is chatting with locals and other travelers and listening to the stories they share. My chef/attendant/waitress turned out to have run the Post Office in a small town somewhere south of Spray for many years. Agribusiness gradually muscled in and starting buying up land, which it then plowed into farmsteads into grazing fields. Slowly the local population moved away or died. By the looks of things Spray was going through a similarly long, slow transition. There seemed to be only a few families left in the little community. But everyone knew each other and the gossip was the gentler sort. The appearance of a young couple and their small, happy baby lifted my mood and gave me hope for the little town with a terrific diner.

My formal plans, such as they were, had run out back at the Painted Hills the day before. But I had a bike that could handle most any terrain and, along with a full stomach, there was nothing to stop me enjoying the twisties heading northwards towards Heppner. When I got there I decided to take the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway east towards the Umatilla National Forest. The Byway follows Willow Creek for 20 miles through a beautifully bleak and treeless valley. The walls of the increasingly deep canyon were, I was sure, going to once again swallow me up. Crossing a bridge, the road, sweaty with recent rain, narrowed as I reentered a dark, dense pine forest.

Without Google I was reduced to the old school method of reviewing a campground information board for bearings and inspiration. There was no one around to ask advice of, but a handy Forest Service pamphlet described the area’s recreation options. Penland Lake seems to have everything you could want for a decent place to camp for the night. Heading in what I hoped was that direction, the forest road immediately turned into thick layer of newly poured gravel and I was glad to have a decent set of Heidenaus under me to grab onto things. After two days of mostly asphalt riding it took a few minutes to get used to the sensation of my rear tire swimming around. It felt good. It felt like freedom.

Evening was on its way and it felt distinctly cooler, mainly because I’d unknowingly reached 5,000’ of elevation. Thanks to the rain the first campsite I came across was all slippery mud and tree stumps, and completely empty. Voices floated up at me as I paused and I could make out a sheen of water between the trees. Down at the lakeside, the little forest road turned into single track and I carried on riding the shoreline until I found the first open site not surrounded by trucks. Under the canopy of fir, I bumped over a couple of roots poking out of the spongy soil, hit the kill switch and exhaled as everything went quiet. Looking across the lake, a stiff breeze rippled the reflections of the hills on the other side. The heavy clouds were starting to break up into the pinks and purples of sundown. Wind gusts sighed at the treetops, but all was still at the water’s edge beside me. I wasn’t all that far from home, yet here was all the refuge from life’s daily madness anyone could have wanted. Heaven, for this was my little slice of heaven, is an adventure happily discovered at the end of a brilliant day’s motorcycling.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Three Days in Central Oregon - Day 1

What does it take to be a great adventurer? Bear Grylls just became a spokesman for Triumph. He’s a great adventurer. You know the type: fearless, multi-talented outdoorsman, skins live snakes, never sleeps by the same river twice, dashing and completely unhinged. Most of us aren’t that person. Most of us have responsibilities like work that allows us to make bike payments, along with a honey-do list that never seems to get shorter. On a good day we can squeeze in a clandestine viewing of the Sons of Anarchy between mowing the lawn and staining the fence. Many, many riders have repressed a primal desire to drop everything and head into the hills - forever. Yet, so powerful is that impulse, that ignoring it will quite literally make you blind. The good news is that not every motorcycling adventure requires you to sell your house, quit your job and commit to two years of the squits in some fly-blown backwater. Sometimes the best adventures require only a long weekend in your own backyard. Especially if your backyard is Oregon.

My Tiger 800XC, Lily (you named your bike, right?), and I left Portlandia for the wilderness somewhere east of the Cascades. It was mid-June. Our only goal was to find new roads and explore the John Day Fossil Beds - a place whose very name exudes discovery. We headed out on state highway 26 towards Mount Hood and the Barlow Pass where we’d turn right and head southeast towards Shaniko, a real live ghost town.

Standing an hour outside Portland, Mount Hood is the most climbed peak in the United States. It’s easy to forget it’s there, covered as it is by clouds for so much of the year. But on this day the clouds parted around noon and sunshine lit up Hood’s brilliantly snow-capped peak in all it’s glory. By now most of the highway’s winter grit had been swept aside and things were drying out. Nevertheless at several turns along the winding road enough cold air swelled out of the woods to fog my visor. The road forked just outside Government Camp, turning south and then due east at the next split. As we descended, the dense forest of Douglas Firs on the mountains gave way to thinner stands of Ponderosa pine in the foothills that eventually opened out onto broad, seemingly empty grasslands.

The little town of Maupin’s claim to fame is as one of the main put-in points for rafters heading down the Deschutes river. It’s quaint with lots of coffee shops and outfitters. Not sure when I’d find gas again I looked for a top up on Google maps, but I was buggered if I could find the gas station. It was then I began to realize that gas was going to be a challenge - out here where the distances between towns really stretch out - so I started keeping a more watchful eye on my fuel gauge and odometer. A couple of sharp turns plopped me down by the river, then a couple more brought me up into my third ecosystem of the day. Prairie rolled away on either side of me, interrupted only by the occasional crags and rocky red outcrops at the very top of the river gorge. With the mountains fading into my rearview mirrors, the view in front of me was pure Kansas.

Shaniko, isn’t completely abandoned. Besides the old hotel and dilapidated, weatherbeaten barns, there’s a small antique emporium with a deli manned by a fellow who makes a damn fine turkey sandwich. After I ordered I wandered around the bric-a-brac and chatted briefly with a woman about my age, only she was in better shape. “How do you pronounce this town's name?”, I asked, “Shan-nee´-ko? Shan-eye´-ko?” “Shan´-i-ko,” she said, “and it's not really a ghost town. Bodie, California is a real ghost town. Now that's a place to visit. It's a state park now. You can 't go in the buildings anymore because people stole things in the early days. I miss California.” She looked past me, out the door to the south, a little wistfully.

Quaint as it was, Shankio has no gas. Just an abandoned garage with a rusting set of pumps. “There’s a guy up the road selling cans of gas for $10 bucks a gallon if you need it.”, the deli guy said. Since the wind had been behind me most of the day I did the mental math and decided to continue south to the county seat, Madras, instead. Madras is so big, even Safeway has gas there.


My rough plan called for the John Day Painted Hills that night, which meant I had another couple of hours riding ahead of me. When a big sign said, ‘Welcome to the Crooked River National Grasslands’ I had to fight the temptation to simply get off the highway and explore the beautiful rolling hills. Instead I made a note to myself to come back when I had time do them justice. Slowly the road rose and for the next 30 miles wound its way up through the Ochoco National Forest. Finally at an elevation of 4,100’ the Ochoco Pass tips over and you find yourself gliding down big sweepers and gentle twisties into what I later learned was the original west coast of America. Canyons rose up in front of me and hills dead-ended the road. At the last minute sudden hairpin turns tracked alongside the river and my route weaseled its way through the folds in the earth. I wasn’t in Kansas any more.

John Day Painted Hills Unit that way the sign indicated. Turning off the highway as the sun dropped,  the golds and greens of the scrubland steadily intensified. A couple of small knolls three miles in were just an overture to the layered symphony that are the Painted Hills. Pavement gave way to gravel at the entrance to the state park where visitors are treated to a sweeping view of the multicolored hills in a wide natural amphitheater. Like a wedding cake, each layer is distinctly separated by a fossil rich limestone frosting. It was about 7:30PM and golden hour was almost on us. Humbled by my surroundings and feeling more than a little insignificant in the face of millions of years of geological history, I spent a quiet hour wandering the trails taking pictures. Long shadows drew in and over me as the day’s hues shifted darker. A knot that had sat between my shoulder blades all week quietly unraveled as I unconsciously relaxed.

Ten miles further up the trail I found a Bureau of Land Management campsite alongside the John Day River. A steep winding track dropped me into the Land That Time Forgot. Big, fist-like projections of basalt and groves of deciduous trees lurked under the overhang of the tall cliffs surrounding me. I was nervous that Doug McClure and a couple of T-Rex’s were going to jump out at any minute. The night was clear and cool and most of all quiet. I slept soundly.