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 worth stopping at. This one did a great job describing the pre-history of the region, its subsequent re-discovery 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. Palaeontologists have since identified 16 sub-species. This being a sunny Sunday, there was no shortage of other bikers around. One of whom, in full Harley tribal gear (bandana, leather vest, white beard and chaps), was grumbling loudly that the exhibition was all BS, that the earth was only 7,000 years old and why were they even bothering since it was all only a theory, anyway? Other patrons made their way around him cautiously - as though he were a scrofulous drunk.

Ever vigilant, I asked a ranger if I could find gas north of here? 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 on a sharp bend one of the finest formations, Cathedral Rock, emerges distractingly over the mercifully deserted road. There’s just enough time to veer off at the blind corner, 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 led me into her restaurant out back by the kitchen.

One of my favourite things about traveling is chatting with locals and other travellers and listening to the stories they share. Turned out my chef/attendant/waitress ran the Post Office in a town somewhere south of Spray for many years. Agribusiness gradually muscled in and started buying up land. It then ploughed the farmsteads into vast grazing fields.Slowly the local population either moved away or died. 

By the looks of things Spray was going through a similarly long, slow transition. Only a few families remained in the little community, but everyone knew each other and gossip was of the gentler variety. The appearance of a young couple and their small, happy baby lifted my mood and gave me a modicum of hope for this little town with its terrific diner.


My plans, such as they were, petered out the night before at the Painted Hills. With a bike that could handle most any terrain and a full stomach, there was nothing to stop me heading towards Heppner and enjoying the twisties along the way. There I joined the Blue Mountain Scenic Byway heading east towards the Umatilla National Forest. The road was sweaty with recent rain. Following Willow Creek, the byway wound for 20 miles through a beautifully bleak and treeless valley. Canyon walls at the far end of the byway rose and deepened and would, I was sure, once again try and swallow me whole. They didn’t. Crossing a bridge, the pavement narrowed as I entered a dark, dense pine forest. My iPhone went ‘ting’ once. My cell signal had dropped, and I was officially off the grid.

Evening was on its way and coming in much cooler. I had unknowingly reached over 5,000’ of elevation. There was no one around to ask advice from and without Google I was reduced to the old school method of reviewing campground information boards for directions. I found a handy Forest Service pamphlet describing the area’s recreational options. Penland Lake seemed to have everything you could want from a campsite.

Heading in what I hoped was the right direction, the forest road rapidly turned from tarmac into a thick layer of newly poured gravel. Imagine you are riding a bike and the road changes from sandpaper to marbles. After two days of asphalt, it took me a few minutes to get used to my rear wheel swimming around. I was glad I had a decent set of Heidenau tyres under me for traction. It felt good. It felt like freedom. 

Penland Lake

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 to get my bearings. Just between the trees ahead of me, I made out a sheen of water. Down at the lakeside the little forest road turned into rough single track. I carried on riding around the lake’s shoreline until I found an open campsite not surrounded by pickup trucks.

Under a thick canopy of fir trees I bumped over a couple of roots barely poking out of the spongy soil and stopped. I hit Lily’s kill switch and exhaled as everything went quiet. Looking across the lake, a stiff breeze dappled the reflections of the hills on the far side. Heavy grey clouds soon disassembled into the pinks and purples of sunset. Wind gusts breathed along the treetops, but all was still at the water’s edge. I wasn’t all that far from home, yet here was all the refuge from life’s daily madness anyone could want. Heaven, for this was my little slice of heaven, is an adventure happily discovered at the end of a brilliant day’s motorcycling.

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