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.

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