Saturday, June 14, 2014

Three Days in Central Oregon - Day 1

What does it take to be a great adventurer? Bear Grylls is a great adventurer. You know the type: fearless, multi-talented, outdoorsman, skins snakes alive, 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 motorbike payments and deal with a honey-do list that never seems to get shorter. On a good day we can squeeze in an episode of Sons of Anarchy between mowing the lawn and staining the fence.

Many, many motorcycle 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 only require a long weekend in your backyard. Especially if your backyard is Oregon.


In 2014, my Triumph Tiger 800XC motorcycle, Lily (you named your bike, right?), and I left Portland for the wilderness somewhere east of the Cascades. It was mid-June. Our goals were 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 the Barlow Pass. There we turned right and headed southeast towards Shaniko, a real live ghost town.

Mount Hood stands an hour outside Portland and is the most climbed peak in the United States. Covered by clouds for much of the year, it’s easy to forget it’s there. But on this day, around noon, the clouds parted and sunshine lit up Hood’s brilliantly snow-capped peak in all its 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 cold air swept out of the woods and fogged my visor. The highway forked just outside Government Camp, and we turned south, then due east at the next split. As we descended, the dense forests of Douglas Fir up the mountain gave way to thinner stands of Ponderosa Pine in the foothills. Eventually we flattened out onto broad, empty grasslands for as far as I could see.


Maupin’s claim to fame is serving as a put-in point for rafters heading down the Deschutes River. The town is barely three streets wide and lined with coffee shops, and, of course, adventure outfitters. Unsure when I’d find gas again, I looked for a top-up on Google maps. It showed a service station in Maupin, but I was buggered if I could find it. It was then I began to realize that gas was going to be a challenge. Out here the distances between towns stretches out, so I started keeping a more watchful eye on my fuel gauge and odometer.

Leaving town, a few hairpin turns downhill set me alongside the river. I followed that for a bit, eventually turning back uphill. A couple more sharp bends and I arrived in my third ecosystem of the day. Prairie rolled away on either side of me, interrupted only by occasional crags and red, rocky outcrops at the very top of the river’s gorge. With the mountains fading into my rearview mirrors, the scene in front of me was pure Kansas.


Shaniko isn’t completely abandoned. Besides an aging 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.

“How do you pronounce this town's name?”, I asked. “Shan-nee´-ko?, Shan-eye´-ko?”

“Shan´-i-ko,” she replied, “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.” She looked past me and out the door to the south. “I miss California,” she said, a little wistfully.

Quaint as it was, Shaniko had no gas. Just an abandoned garage with a set of rusty 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. Madras, 38 miles south and the county seat, is so big even Safeway has gas there. Since the wind had been behind me most of the day, I did the mental math and headed south. 

John Day

My rough plan called for the John Day Painted Hills that night. That meant I had another couple of hours riding ahead of me. Heading down highway 26 I passed a big sign stating, ‘Welcome to the Crooked River National Grasslands’, I fought the temptation to get off the highway and explore the beautiful rolling hills. Instead, I made a mental note to return when I had time to do them justice. Ahead of me the road rose steadily, winding its way up through the Ochoco National Forest.

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 reared up in front of me and the road apparently dead-ended smack into the hillside. At the last minute a hairpin turn tracking the river wriggled through the folds in the earth and I was through the blockade. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

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. Three miles in a couple of small, layered knolls were just an overture to the upcoming symphony. Pavement gave way to gravel at the entrance to the Painted Hills State Park. Around the corner, visitors are treated to a panoramic view of the brilliantly multi-coloured hills in a wide, natural amphitheatre.

Like a wedding cake, each distinct layer is 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 over me as the sun dropped. A knot that had sat between my shoulder blades all week quietly unravelled as I relaxed and drank in my surroundings.

Ten miles further up the trail I found a Bureau of Land Management campsite alongside the John Day River. A steep winding track led me into the Land That Time Forgot. Big, fist-like projections of basalt and groves of lush deciduous trees loomed under the surrounding overhang of tall cliffs. I expected Doug McClure and a couple of T-Rex’s to jump me at any minute. I pitched my tent and threw my sleeping bag inside. The night was clear and cool and most of all quiet. I slept soundly.

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