Crater Lake, September 2002

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DAY 1   Top

No retouching of photos required with this spectacle, Crater Lake is stunning to behold and with no cloud on the horizon, its jewel like quality is breathtaking - Photo courtesy the Crater Lake website

A few years back, it had become an annual event to ride across the state either alone or with Ann to go and see friends in Vale, OR. Earlier still, I recall a solo trip to French Glen, a shot of whose empty valley graces the top left section of the Open Road Rider web site home page. Lately, the solo trips just hadn’t taken shape or they were continually postponed. No matter that I might ride most weekends and still manage to get out of town, there’s nothing like the near spontaneous road trip to lift me from the doldrums of the daily routine. With no commitments at home over the weekend and perfect weather in the offing, it was out to the garage to fettle the bike for an extended session at the bars.

On Friday evening, the weatherman was singing my song and I perused the map, still not too sure in which direction I would go. Montana in a day ? Hmmm, doable but most of the trip would be a known quantity. Southern Oregon ? Well, what for ? Then it dawned on me I had been disappointed to miss an earlier group ride to the Oregon Caves ride. On the other hand, there was a group ride to see the fall colors east of Mt. Hood. That would be fun, but I could do that later another weekend (and I did). If the weather was to be as clear as they were calling for, Crater Lake was an obvious candidate. OK then, a chance to catch up on two previously missed ride routes and see Crater Lake in perfect conditions - seemed like a plan.

On Saturday morning, I peered through the blinds to see if a clear blue sky was in place. Check. I made ready for the off. The scenario was optimal - almost zero luggage, video camera (regrettably no still camera), no hotel booked and who knows how many miles ahead. First leg was Favorite Ride #1 - the north fork of the Clackamas to Detroit, which was swarming with bikes and vintage cars. Unbeknownst to me, they were having a car and bike show in town that day. After gassing up, I trundled over the highway to join in the fun. I spent about an hour looking over all the custom rigs and tricked out bikes, all the while taking in the sunshine and the feelgood music blaring from big box speakers set at the side of the road. With no further time to waste, I carried on eastwards on Hwy 22 through Marion Forks and down onto Hwy 20 west for a short spell before it joins 126 going south to Mackenzie Bridge and the famous Aufderheide route to Oakridge.

The Aufderheide stretch was at its best - good road surface, thankfully relatively little traffic and the same sunlit and shadow dappled rollercoaster ride that I remembered from the previous year. This time, there would be no turning back at the halfway point; I had barely started my journey. In Oakridge, no paragon of culinary delight leapt out at me, so I opted for the basics at the local A&W which still had the 50’s style drive-in service stations, now evidently disused. Perhaps the place hops on a Saturday night - it didn’t look likely. In the diner, I indulged my appetite not just for fast food but the smorgasbord of routes the map presented to me for the onward journey. In truth, from that point, it was limited. Drivable roads off Hwy 58 were few and of uncertain destination. Where 58 hit 97 I’d be slap bang between Bend to the north and Klamath Falls to the south. I knew by now I was going to Crater Lake, but where to stay ? Gilchrist or Crescent ? Crescent would mean a slight detour north, Chemult lay south on 97.

As I left Oakridge, still undecided, I was travelling about 50 mph when - splat ! - something airborne and hostile slapped into my neck. Very shortly after, I felt a nasty sting, which made for a hasty stop by the side of the road. Whatever it was, I wanted to know whether it was still on board or was blundering on to its next victim. I instinctively started in on a St. Vitus’ dance lasting about 30 seconds while I pounded my torso like Tarzan, in a frantic attempt at damage control. I felt no satisfying squish of crushed insect, nor did I feel any further punctures. I assumed that was the end of the episode. In my right mirror, I looked my neck over and noticed that whatever it was had actually drawn a tiny pinprick of blood. Wow ! Thankfully, I am not allergic to such things, but I expected it to swell up and so it later did. My flailing activity caused at least one pickup to slow down and check out why I was beating my chest at the side of the road. Perhaps the driver thought I had been overwhelmed by my own machismo and had stopped to make a display of it.

I drove on, stopped in Chemult for gas and realized I had no intention of quitting at 3:00pm in the afternoon. Not least, if I was to make Crater Lake in the morning, I would want to spend time there but still leave enough for a solid ride back home along unfamiliar routes - I was not going to 'I-5 it' on a weekend like this ! My judgement call was to pay great dividends. From Hwy 97 I took Hwy 138 west so that I would arrive on the north side of the crater. By now, I was riding into the sun along the endless straightaway of that road. After a while, I found the turnoff to Oregon’s only National Park and headed south towards old Mt. Mazama. I crossed the pumice desert, with its eerie uniformity of color and apparently groomed surface, populated here and there with trees that had managed to find a foothold in its barren kingdom.

As I pulled up to the viewpoint I realized I had indeed caught the lake at its very best. The afternoon sun threw the ridges, crests and defiles of the 2000’ high cliffs into sharp relief. If it had not been for the deep blue of the lake and vegetation within the crater, it could have been Mars or the Moon. To the west in the far distance, the only cloud I had seen all day was a tiny wisp threatening to fade at any minute. It was a token gesture of the weather system, a reminder that its big brothers would be back as fall set in. I was encouraged to take in all that I could with eyes and camcorder while I had the chance. I cruised the rim of the crater and stopped at almost every lookout to catch the spectacle at every possible angle and observe the nuances of each perspective. I took time to reflect on how it must have looked 7,700 years ago before the eruption. I thrust my hands into the pumice dust and let it run through my fingers till my hand was empty. Time, time, time. Time to get back on the bike.

The road lent itself to some exciting riding, but I had no intention of trading the leisurely absorption of my surroundings for the frenetics of passing slowpokes and dialing in my line. This was where the loping V-Twin was in its element. The hot trek across the pumice wasteland and the hours of road before it had taken the engine to new heights of contentment. At 49,000 miles every operating surface has found its perfect mate. The trinity of piston ring, oil and bore had created a mechanical heaven in the hellish confines of the upper engine and a choir in the gearbox sang under the muted thunder of my pipes. It was loving it and I was there to share its happiness.

As I dropped down from the heights of the extinct volcano, so the switchbacks of the mountain gave way to long and shadowy corridors of evergreens. The evening sun percolated here and there. No rose or gold tinted spectacles could have enhanced the scene. It was perfect. The engine oil had cooled perhaps a few degrees as I dawdled on a whiff of throttle. The gearbox had gone to its ‘buttery’ stage. Easy and with no edge, still agricultural but positive. The engine was so comfortable with its load that a sixth and seventh cog would not have gone amiss. If such ratios had been there, why not just drift along at 1,200 rpm ?

I have never fully understood the different moods that engines can take on. The Virago can be ridden for an hour or more at moderate paces, yet the engine does not feel fully warm and can seem reticent and unwilling at times. At others, on the same day, perhaps a different tank of fuel will take it over the cusp between grudgingly cooperative to laid back and willing. Engine temperature and, I think, even distribution of that temperature is what makes the difference. Air density and temperature are other key factors and last but not least, how well the throttle cable is lubricated. Many is the time I have ridden an engine in a stable state of tune and my entire estimation of the engine’s willingness has been affected by the effort required at the throttle. In 1991, I rode 2500 miles on a Midnight Virago 920 with a stiff twistgrip. There was nothing wrong with the engine, but that alone mitigated the enjoyment of the whole ride and my assessment of its performance.

So much for the virtues of regular maintenance. Now it was time to find a place for the night. A roadside consultation of the map revealed a couple of options. Would I go all the way into Grants Pass or were my glutes sending me signals that I could no longer ignore ? The little towns of Prospect, McLeod and Shady Cove were on the way. Nothing arrested my attention in the first two as I rode through. By the time I reached Shady Cove, I had to stop for gas anyway. At the pumps, the female attendant recommended a place next door where there was a wedding party in progress. A little ways further back in the direction I had come was something referred to as ‘the Roach Motel’. Neither appealed. I thought I would check out the far end of town and see what the road turned up. Just outside Shady Cove is a sister town, Indian Creek. Blink and you’ll miss it, but there I found a small place at the side of the road I thought I’d try.

I swung my weary body out of the saddle and went over to the office. There I was greeted by the huge grin and overt curiosity of the proprietor. I found him a little difficult to understand at first. Some of his conversation was directed at me, but an equal amount to someone in back. ‘We godda room furr this here modaciclist ?’ he yelled, then disappeared for a more detailed consultation. After a moment, he returned. ‘Yer lucky, son, we gotta nice room over the back there - 26 bucks’ he announced, waving to the other side of the courtyard. After the comments of my local advisor at the gas station, it was anyone’s guess what ‘nice’ was going to mean. But he was right. Room ‘F’ turned out to be a double room with all mod cons, spotlessly clean, candy on the pillow, tea and coffee making facilities, the whole nine yards - and fairly quiet, though the motel was located on the highway.

Eat, where to eat ? Handily, there was a steak restaurant just 50 yards away and, by all accounts, one of the best places in the area. Under recent new management, everyone was trying to please. I was placed next to the seating hostess at the till. There was still a fair amount of room, but the place was filling up fast and I figured I had been put there for a reason. The high school senior that had directed me to my table was getting near the end of her shift and obviously wanted to talk to someone not from the local community. A knowledgeable kid, perhaps a little older than her years, she engaged me in conversation until my steak came. Her ankle was in plaster. She lived with her grandmother some way out of town and had to get up at ‘0 dark thirty’ because the school was running double shifts - a neighboring school had recently burned to the ground.‘‘Tis the season’, I remarked. All the students had had to share. She had fallen down the house steps while running for the bus in the early morning.

The steak was fair and the beers welcome. I figured my budget was doing pretty well with the inexpensive accommodation I had found at the motel. Back in the room, I watched a little TV, then switched it off and settled down to the sound of some distant partying in back and the occasional vehicle passing outside. The insect sting on my neck had indeed swollen up some and a mild headache had developed on one side of my head and neck. I drifted off into a fitful sleep. Kaleidoscope images of ancient craters, metal machines and Native American shamans populated my dreams and I awoke in the morning somewhat disorientated, but already too excited about the coming day’s ride to care.

DAY 2   Top

From Shady Cove, I headed for Grants Pass and covered a couple miles on I-5 before dropping off again at the Merlin exit and getting onto the paved road that crosses the Siskiyous. I would travel through Galice, Agness and finally Wedderburn on the coast, just north of Gold Beach. Making sure I had a full tank of gas - as it appeared to be quite a long haul through wilderness - I set out up the winding canyons and into the forest. Cars were few and far between; I maybe saw a dozen in the 80 miles that separated me from ‘civilisation’.

Up in the hills there were firefighter crews erecting barriers to forest roads where there was still work to be done in the cleanup after the fires that plagued the state’s forests this year. In the fresh, clean air of the upper elevations you could see for miles into the densely forested hinterland of the Siskiyou Mountains. Layers of striated blue wood smoke hovered between the slopes in the distance. Pine at the roadside was scorched to fifteen or twenty feet but their crowns were often intact. The scents and odors of the burned sections were baked mineral, tree sap and campfire. The road had subsided in places, not due to wildfires, more to the ravages of time and the changing conditions of the seasons, more extreme at this level than the temperate conditions at the coast. Above all, once my engine was turned off and I found myself alone atop a lookout above the steep inclines all around, it was gloriously quiet and serene. The light had that special quality that had presumably once been everywhere before we filled the atmosphere with industrial waste and the fumes that I, too, was guilty of generating with my chosen pursuit. Shadows were deeper and where small plants and trees sprouted from fissures in the roadside rock, each one was a work of art, random and unique, making for a place where conflicts resolved themselves and receded to their rightful place.

Caution in the curves was the watchword. As with many of the routes marked as ‘paved’ on road maps, the road was not without its gravel stretches. Many of them were but a dozen or so yards in length, others up to a quarter mile. More importantly, they could arrive suddenly and hide the rilles and rippled surfaces that lay beneath. On more than one occasion, I was taken mildly by surprise and either rose on the pegs or kept hands and feet from the brakes while I rode out a rough patch I had approached a little too enthusiastically. There was nothing hazardous that presented any real danger other than my own gung-ho attitude, but a miscalculation on a lonely road such as this would be a dilemma indeed. Tortuous and a little challenging, the ride was a perfect mix of reflection and reflexes as I paused and resumed this marathon of hairpins and washouts.

At last the ocean came into view. Now came the long haul back to the north of the state. Would I weaken ? Would I cheat ? There was no reason to do either; the weather continued to be impeccable and the cold and clammy experience that I had had going south on 101 ten years ago seemed but a distant memory. Over the course of the next seven hours I rode north through Port Orford, Bandon, Coos Bay, Florence, Newport, Lincoln City, Tillamook and Astoria. Other than a cup of coffee at a gas station, I ate nothing, mainly because I was not prepared to spend time looking, but also because I was on a roll and my ability to concentrate did not seem impaired. Of course, if you’re too tired to make that call, it doesn’t help, but I figured I knew my limits fairly well.

In Astoria it was late evening and the sun was dropping toward the horizon throwing a last blaze of glory over the lagoons and inlets of the Columbia estuary. The choice was now one of Hwy 30 or my old favorite, Hwy 202 through Olney, Jewell and so on. ‘It’s getting dark, you’re tired, there’ll be deer, blah, blah, blah....‘. But the little red guy with horns on my left shoulder won the day: ‘C’mon just one more time, you know you wanna !’ So it was that I set out eastwards on 202. I moderated my pace as the light failed and the cool of night set in. All the way through to the intersection of Hwy 47 with 202, I followed a small white car whose driver was out for a little night riding himself. Eventually, we parted company at the intersection and I drove north to Scappoose.

At night everything is very different and this was a road with many curves. At any moment, I expected to see my headlamp reflected in the eyes of a doe, buck or raccoon cowering at the side of the road, but the beasts of the forest seemed to have retired for the night. I enjoyed negotiating a darkened road that has given me many hours of fun in daylight and I congratulated myself on recognizing each curve.

Around 10:00pm and having covered 984 miles, I pulled into my driveway fully sated but still kidding myself I could have made Seattle if I had chosen to. I wheeled the bike into the garage, actually laid my hand on the tank and said to the bike out loud: ‘Thanks old buddy, you did good’. I listened for a few seconds to the engine cooling down, paused in the doorway for a last look at my ride and thought to myself: ‘I just love that ****ing thing...’ 

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© 2002 Open Road Rider: Tour photographs and article