Glacier National Park, MT, September 2003

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Glacier National Park 2003 Route1996 Yamaha Virago XV1100

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DAY 1   Top

Twelve years ago at the top of a long hill to the north of Sedona, Arizona, I swung out the sidestand of a well travelled Tourglide and went over to a couple taking a break and the mountain air at the lookout point. They were standing by their 'His & Hers' Goldwings, the one baby blue, the other cotton candy pink, each with a trailer. They were headed southwest, having crossed the country to Montana from their home in Florida. 'Of all the places you have been on this trip, which one did you like the best ?' I asked. 'Well, we just came down from Glacier National Park and that would have to be it' they told me in unison.'How about you ?'. 'Monument Valley at dawn', I answered without hesitation.

When we were done trading tales of the road and awesome sights beheld, I went back to my ride and pulled a map of the Western United States from the baking confines of my hard luggage. I was due back in Los Angeles at the end of the week and it was Tuesday now. Hmmm, so where was Glacier ? A very long way away, I concluded - not suitable for an impromptu change of itinerary.

Just as the trip to Monument Valley had been a twelve year old ambition, so it was now time to take down another of equal age, like a fine malt from its rack in that great cellar of postponements we all seem to own. For me, fully a third of the joy of a roadtrip is the anticipation. I'd call it planning, but in my case that would not really be fair to the discipline. For a number of weeks before leaving, I would linger over maps in the travel section of bookstores and cruise the Web to find suitable places to stay. I don't have the patience for camping, so anywhere with clean sheets and a spot outside the room for the bike would do.

The route, the season and the resulting weather were my biggest concerns. Would late September still avail me of clear skies and a chance to stay dry for most of the journey ? As late as the day I left, I did not know whether I would achieve my planned destination in the north or opt for sunnier climes by going south. For all the detail that my maps purported to provide, I just would not know until I got there. I decided to leave Portland on a Friday and be somewhere in northern Idaho by sundown. The work week, albeit only a four day one and full of things to do, dragged unbearably. Evenings were taken up with the rituals of maintenance. A pristine successor to the back tire that was toast after a stretch of gravel road back from the coast the previous weekend was put in place. What of the front ? Naw, it would have to go too; a cursory assessment of the distance I would cover in four days would see it out and then some - why take the risk ? Engine oil was fine, but again, the same applied.

Out with the sump plug and filter. In with my favorite brand of synthetic, Mobil One V-Twin. Even allowing for the benefits of regular maintenance, advertising hype and a price from hell that fosters the belief you are buying the best, this oil has paid dividends. It seems to survive the rigors of the hottest days and keeps the gearbox and rear cylinder of my Virago as sweet as ever, even after hours of hot desert have passed under the wheels.

I have a thing about clutch cables. A clutch cable is a much overlooked component, unless you have experienced riding longer distances without a convenient method of disengaging the engine from the gearbox and rear wheel. As the original equipment was operating smoothly and with nary a hint of frayed strands where the cable enters the nipple, it was deemed fit for the ride. Shaft drive oil was good for another couple of thousand. Potential deserters such as the ignition coils under the fork yoke, speedo drive cable connection under the bezel, side covers etc., all of which had worked loose in the past, were visited for soundness and pronounced OK. Battery was a tad under the minimum level in a couple of cells, hardly surprising as I had not looked at it since the beginning of the season. It took me 10 minutes to find the distilled water - not an unusual event in an old garage I have still not fully corralled. A close shave with a breakdown in Central Oregon due to a neglected battery was still fresh enough in mind to pay attention to this silent servant. A few days later, the time spent would turn out to be well worthwhile.

At last Friday rolled around. A peep through the blinds revealed a sullen sky. When I walked out of the back door to sample the air for temperature and general demeanor, it was damp and cool. I debated for a brief moment whether to throw on the raingear, already knowing the answer but hesitating as I overcame my denial. Then, with Tourmaster sissybar bag packed almost logically, I locked the door of the house behind me and walked out to the garage. A well prepared machine stood before me, but I cursed myself for not having done at least a short dummy run with the bag in place. I worked the bag down onto the sissy bar and cinched up what remained of the half dozen belts that had come with it, discarding a few as I went. The underside of the bag, which features a neoprene protective flap, cleared the rear light assembly and seemed to be behaving itself. Next stop would be the local gas station to tank up for the first leg. After topping off, I checked the bag again and noticed it was already sagging ever closer to the back light and would soon be resting on it. I needed the second belt in place at the top; it was still in the garage. So, after a grand total of 0.4 miles had been covered, I was back home. What tales I would tell my buddies of the epic crossing of Portland's Interstate Avenue, the majestic views of little travelled neighboring streets as far as two blocks away from where I lived and the pump attendant who looked on wistfully as I disappeared around the corner to destinations unknown all of 200 yards away.

My foolishness and a mild irritation at lost road time behind me, I dropped down onto I-5 and headed north toward the glowering clouds the other side of the Interstate bridge. For all that a drizzly mist was already settling on my visor, I was bursting with excitement that I was finally on my way with no accommodation booked and an uncertain, weather-dependent itinerary in mind. As WA Hwy 14 slinked past Camas and rose into the Gorge, the clouds rolled in and a light but steady rain began to fall.

There is no time at which the Columbia Gorge is anything other than magnificent. I feel very fortunate that it begins just 20 miles from my home. Even now as my inadequate footwear began to absorb the water picked up by the front wheel, I cast an occasional glance over to the forested cliffs of Oregon. Wraithlike wisps of vapor hung in attendance as a lordly procession of low clouds rolled over the bluffs and down canyons towards the river. To my left, the grasses and crevice loving flora dripped onto the somber basalt cliffs that soar above the corniche. Looking to the sky, an occasional rogue sunbeam would enter my world obliquely, crowning gold a distant hilltop or rock face, only to disappear a moment later. Now level with the city of The Dalles, the rain had relented but no blue sky greeted me. Still on Hwy 14, I carried on to just beyond the turnoff to Goldendale and pulled in for gas.

As I joined the eastbound traffic, I found myself behind a semi moving just below my desired speed. Ahead lay a rollercoaster of smooth blacktop with an inviting dotted line on my side. As I moved out to pass, several liters of diesel engine pumped out a plume of black smoke in an overt challenge to the hubris of my manoeuver. 'OK, then...' I thought and wound the big twin up to the stop as the road dropped into the first dip. A pleasing rush of speed ensued; the obstacle was cleared safely and a fast approaching curve enjoyed as I cranked the machine over and completed the transaction. Settling down to a less hurried pace, my unwelcome follower was not going to let it be and kept the tempo up to just above my cruising speed of choice. At times we were the only vehicles on the road in both directions, a re-run of the movie 'Duel' unfolding in the lonely stretches of eastern Hwy 14. One moment he would fall back on steeper inclines and disappear behind a curve or hilltop. Another his cyclopic eye would break the horizon and glare at me from the distance against a background of barren brown hills and gray skies. Always the eye drew nearer till it was all but at my shoulder. After 30 miles or more of this silly game I put sufficient distance between us to ensure we didn't meet again.

Eventually, Hwy 14 came to an end and it was time to cross the bridge over the Columbia to the Oregon town of Umatilla. Famous for having one of the world's largest stashes of chemical warfare agents, Umatilla is the gateway from the state of Washington to northeastern Oregon. If the sirens go off here, stick your thumb in the air and ride like the devil against the wind for all you are worth. That's not a public service announcement, just an observation based on survival instinct.

At the gas station I realised the sun was finally out and after the surreal events of the last 80 miles, the warmth ushered in the next leg of the trip. Hwy 730 is a quiet road that hugs the southern bank of the river from Umatilla until it swings north across the state line back into Washington and Hwy 12 to Walla Walla. Here the river was no longer the murky brown or slate gray of the western Gorge. Under the azure skies of this sleepy corner of the state, the watery expanse was a deep sapphire blue, dwarfing the road that ran so close to it. The scene was strikingly simple in composition: road, river, hills, sky. No cars on the road, no craft on the river, no signs of life on the sundrenched escarpments, no clouds in the sky. No beginning, no end, just the moment.

As the road took its leave of the eerie valley, it wound its way east into farmland and, a little over half an hour later, the university town of Walla Walla hove into view. An interesting mix of the urban and rural, downtown Walla Walla is a neat and focal point in the fabric of farms and vineyards that surrounds it. Much of the architecture is either traditional or rebuilt along traditional lines and the atmosphere that day was relaxed and inviting. Needing just enough sustenance to maintain brain glucose without inducing an unwelcome tendency to nap, I stopped in at the local brew pub and ordered a sandwich and coffee. As I sank my teeth into the pastrami, my cellphone rang and drew me abruptly back to a minor crisis unfolding in Portland. The caller, assuming I was just around the corner, wondered if I would swing by to look into it. I would not, nor would I be doing so anytime soon; for I was in Walla Walla, sitting in a sidewalk cafe on a sunny day, with my legs stretched out before me and my head in a map of Idaho. Be gone, dull care ! (and see you later...).

About 2:30pm I crossed into Idaho and started on the journey north via ID Hwy 95 to Coeur d'Alene

From Walla Walla I took Hwy 12 north. The road was supposed to be impassable due to repair work, but a tip from a friendly pump attendant indicated there would be no problem getting through if I were prepared to be patient in a few places. We've all been the victim of 'sure thing' advice on the road, but this time the information was good. Over the undulating Skyrocket Hills and through pasture land and wine country the route took me to Waitsburg, a picturesque little town in the Touchet Valley. Construction mayhem filled the downtown area and, under a hot sun, traffic made its way past hotter tar machines and an army of flaggers smiling behind the customary tan, cigarette and wraparound reflective shades. A lazy hour passed and further on, in Dodge, I turned north again to cross the Snake River at Central Ferry.

Originally concerned that this would be a dam that the Corps of Engineers had closed to the public after 9/11, it turned out to be a bridge and I drifted on in the general direction of Spokane on State Hwy 127 to Dusty (el. 1683' and population likely somewhat less), Hwy 26 to Colfax, Hwy 272 to Palouse and Hwy 6 to the Idaho state line and Potlatch Junction.

In the Junction, I joined ID Hwy 95 which runs up the western edge of the Idaho panhandle. On my way, I rolled the dice as to where I would lay my head that night. I was not tired and the journey was developing nicely into a long day's ride where thoughts roll by with the scenery and ponderings on the universe meander with the curves. The sun was slowly sinking in the west as I gained altitude, passed through Tensed and Worley and neared Lake Coeur d'Alene. Unfortunately, Hwy 95 does not run close to the lake itself and after many miles of anticipation, I caught barely a glimpse of the water as I cruised through town looking for a roadside motel.

To the north of the town, I found a place called Silver Lake Motel on the main highway. They were asking a little more than I felt like paying, but an enquiry as to other possible locations elicited a quickly proffered 10% discount. I parked up, went into my room and immediately disturbed its tidiness with the contents of the sissybar bag which was holding up well and working its way into my good books. After a short snooze, I ventured out to a nearby mall looking for a bookstore and, finding none, stopped off for fish and chips and half an hour's idle people watching from my restaurant window seat as a Friday in Coeur d'Alene drew to a close.

DAY 2   Top

Breakfast in Sandpoint, ID. Panhandler Pies delivers a mean short stack with a bacon side

'A hundred miles before breakfast' was my mantra as I peeked around the drapes and was greeted with bright blue skies. My spirits soared and a involuntary pump of the right arm nearly sent my helmet flying from the table. Although all but committed to the northern route, I could still head south. There was no need. Outside the room, the air had a chill to it but the temperature was still well above freezing with no likelihood of ice.

Five miles up the road, the story was a little different. Visibility was down to 100 yards or less in places and a clammy cold did its best to infiltrate my layered apparel. From time to time there was a hint of sun off to my right somewhere, then the scene would revert to Tolkienesque forest lined roads where slow moving vehicles emerged from the mist and scurried off, pulling into roadside taverns and diners where local goblins served up their fare.

Thus it was all through the towns of Chilco, Granite, Colcolalla and Westmond until shortly before Sandpoint itself, where the mists parted and I was presented with a pretty lakeside town awash with fresh air and morning sunshine.

For choice of breakfast venue, there were really only two criteria: good pancakes and coffee and a handy window to keep an eye on the bike with all my worldly possessions aboard it. The Panhandler Pies restaurant right in downtown Sandpoint fit the bill. Warm and cosy inside, I spread my maps out across the booth table, set my plate over the southern part of Idaho (where I was no longer going) and peered at yet untravelled roads in the panhandle and northeastern Montana. My rapt study of the map was only interrupted by the steady train of heavy fuel that was finding its way past my lips at a rate bordering on the vulgar.

As the time approached to get up and leave, I fell into conversation with the waitress who seemed far too young to be approaching retirement, but that was what she told me she had in mind. The kids would be gone soon and then she and her husband planned to get Harleys and get going across the USA. 'Great idea' I encouraged, 'This would be a very good place to start'. Looking at the growing wad of gas bills in my wallet as I paid, I reflected I would not be retiring any time soon. Was I thinking about work again ? For shame !

Early morning alongside Lake Pend' Oreille named for the tribe local to the area. Below: Big Country and Big Sky ahead, the edge of the known universe

With that inner glow that follows a hot meal after a spell outside in the cold, I walked out to the bike and set off for the furthest point north, Bonners Ferry, just 20 miles south of the Canadian border. Between Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry the 95 is also the 2. Hwy 2 then parts company and is the road to Montana and the next larger town, Kalispell, about 120 miles east. You can take a break in Libby, roughly a third of the way there. That town came almost as a surprise after the empty road that leads there. After Libby, a marked sense of yet greater wilderness and isolation set in. As the road rose to a hogsback that went for many miles, an increase in cruising speed was swallowed by the width of the broad, perfectly surfaced road. Along the way, I stopped the bike to take in my surroundings. In the same way, my machine's engine which normally sounds reasonably masculine in town (stock mufflers aside...) sounded puny and irrelevant as it idled at the roadside while I fiddled with my camera or leant on a barrier taking in the view. On those occasions when I turned it off altogether, the silence likewise engulfed this tiny island of mechanical noise. Other than the sound of a faint breeze in the treetops, there was nothing to be heard. Hardly surprising then, that the cough of starter motor engaging and engine firing up came as a welcome assurance that the journey could proceed. It is in places like this that unfamiliar sounds from below the tank or seat are somehow magnified. Is that a squeak or rattle ? Was it there before ? Does it only occur at certain revs ? Hmmm...

Ownership of a motorcycle over a period of years brings with it an intimate knowledge of its foibles and deviations from normal operation. For all the thrills I've had on straight fours, the reason I have settled on the V-Twin configuration is that, for me, it has the best blend of power band, torque and mechanical feedback. Acceleration and indicated speed are a short term buzz but on the street there has to be more. The burble that kicks in about 1100 RPM, the rumbling in the footpegs at at 3900 - 4100 RPM, the steady drone (or roar, with slashcuts) at 6000. All these are idiosyncracies which are functions of design, current carburetion and mileage. Whenever something out of the ordinary occurs, it has you cocking your head to one side like a dog suspecting the presence of a cat lurking in the undergrowth. How many roads have I ridden where scenery goes by, but my mind's eye is scanning a microfiche of the engine's internals or the bevel gears meshing in the shaft drive. For these and other reasons, I have never lusted after dashboards covered in stereo controls and other gew-gaws - a man of simple pleasures, I guess.

In Kalispell, I quickly found the nearest Motel 6, threw any unnecessary chattels into the room and figured that at about 2:00pm I would have enough time to cruise the park and complete the loop that ran around its eastern flank. My host at the counter told me I could expect a pleasant afternoon up there although there had been flurries of snow earlier in the week. The park was not yet quite back to its routine after a series of fires which had plagued it. After gassing up in Whitefish, I found my way to the ticket office at the entrance to the park to be handed an anticipated guide brochure and an unanticipated free pass to the park for the week.

As I started in, the sun was out and everything was in its late summer glory. Picnickers were pulled to the side of the road. Folks with backpacks were coming back from longer hikes, some were leaving for a short one, perhaps to walk off their overindulgent lunch. Just a mile or two down the road, thick cloud cover made it look as if the sun for that day was over and the sky seemed pregnant with rain. A few drops fell, but the blacktop stayed dry and as clouds parted and then regrouped I realised I was in a very mobile weather environment and that the rules of a different domain applied.

The speed limit on the Road is 25 mph, not exactly a canyon carver's paradise if you're looking to stay legal. However, if you plan on hurrying through this park, you should stay at home. There really is not much road surface to be shared by all and it pays to remember that your eyes will frequently drift from the task in hand toward the dramatic vistas beyond the token 15" high wall. 'Uh oh, I think I screwed up' is likely the last thought you'll have before you plummet to certain demise many hundreds of feet below. Vehicles longer than 21' are thankfully banned. Environmentally friendly, propane powered red buses ferry sightseers who would rather not drive up and down the tortuous trail. Hank Hill would be ecstatic.

The Road was built for tourism. When the automobile became more widespread in the early 1920's, visitors would attempt to tour the attraction and began to ruin the very country they had come to see. Work started in 1921 and continued through to the early 30's. The construction crews were of many nationalities and three men died before it was finished. Looking at the end result, it was a minor miracle. Parts of the road were built at the same time as others, then joined, hard human labor sometimes going to work where machines were not viable.

Going to the Sun Road. Arguably built as the result of 'rational exuberance', this masterpiece of construction affords fabulous views into breathtaking country. Below: mounting (or is that 'mountain' ?) excitement as a sign for the fabled route is sighted for the first time

The changing skyscape actually played to my advantage. From one second to the next, colors changed radically, the shadows cast by scudding clouds drifting over stone, grass and evergreen in a vast natural kaleidoscope.

Every turn in the road brought something new along with the curiosity to know what lay around the next curve. Another stunning view ? Another rock wall that would defy perspective and challenge the eye to focus ? From time to time a foretaste of my route came into sight and the scale of the endeavor on which I found myself assumed its proper place in the overall scheme. A thin line traversed the mountains' majesty and headed eastward and upward to an elevation of 6646' to cross the Continental Divide at Logan Pass.

Looking north from the approach to Logan Pass. A mountain stream starts out for the valley floor

You can stop at the lodge at Logan, but I still had many miles to travel and wanted to cover them in daylight. The outer reaches of the park's loop road were less travelled as the sun coursed downward. I was disinclined to ride the road at night, especially in case of wildlife, but, more importantly, I did not want to miss the spectacle of a low sun angle on the way back to Kalispell. My haste was rewarded. Nevertheless I had to stop to take in a meadow in the foothills, the play of light on rocks with absurdly juxtaposed and exotic hues. The two rock faces depicted below were not truly that close together and are shown for contrast. In fact, they were seen within a mile or two of one another, a testimony to the fascinating geology of the region.

Looking west from the lookout at Logan Pass. The lodge is to the right. The weathered trees and hardy flora of the hillside were enjoying a brief respite from the bitter winds and snow of winter, not many days away.

Heaven for rockhounds. It's better (and slightly more legal) to take pictures than samples. These are mudrocks; the red is pigmentation from the mineral hematite (Iron Oxide), the green from chlorite (Iron Aluminum Magnesium Silicate Hydroxide). You had to ask.

After Logan, the road descended steadily into meadow and grazing land, first running by the northern shores of St Mary Lake before leaving the official park area at the little town of St Mary. Here the Road joins Hwy 89, a leisurely tour through sunny fields on one side and forested foothills on the other. All the while the fortress of rocks that stood as the defender of the beauty within changed in hue as the sun drew ever lower, at times silhouetted, at others gold, green and purple in the evening light. Vehicles were few and far between as I rumbled on to the home stretch through Great Bear Wilderness and Flathead National Forest.

Without doubt, this particular section of the trip had a special magic all its own. The sweeping landscapes inside the park were awe-inspiring but the solitude of the backroad with its early fall tints, deep blue skies and golden grasslands were a special privilege. As I emerged from the loop road and found myself back at the intersection which would take me back toward Kalispell, I had covered a little under 400 miles that day. No marathon, but a solid journey of contemplative cruising liberally sprinkled with 'Wow' and 'Check that out' moments.

The day's events had drained me of any desire to explore Kalispell proper. My motel was about a mile from downtown and it quickly became apparent that anything with four walls, whether it looked like a private house or an actual temple to Mammon, was in fact a casino, i.e. licensed for gambling. Deciding I wanted something a little more substantial than fast food, I eventually settled for a casino restaurant. As I entered, the windowless architecture led me down corridors past an almost empty sports bar to the eatery somewhere in the building's core. I was the guest of honor in a scene I knew all too well. The formula decor, busy carpet and rows of tables set for the next day made up the typical backdrop for the late evening arrival of the business (in this case, pleasure) road warrior. A waitress nearing the end of her shift suggested I might like to take the small table for two at the side of the room. The sounds were the usual ones: Frank Sinatra singing 'Strangers In The Night' over the muzak system, a sports commentator's muffled excitement emanating from a TV somewhere down the hall, clanks and bumps from the kitchen as the staff tidied up for the night. At the entrance to the dining room, a sharply dressed senior couple shuffled by in their comfortable cream leather shoes, either on their way to the slots or off to bed after a hard day's work putting their children's inheritance into a machine. Back at the motel, five minutes of TV promised me the car deal of a lifetime several times before I finally hit the kill button and drifted into the realms of the Great Spirit, where grizzly bears, soaring eagles and iron horses populated a mineral wonderland.

DAY 3   Top

Flathead Lake

At around 8:00am I left Kalispell having decided I would take the route south down the west side of Flathead Lake to Lakeside, Rollins and Polson at its southern tip. Weather was cool but dry and sunny. Here I was on the third day of the journey and still not halfway home. I had no problem with that.

The plan was to take in Missoula and leave the great state of Montana for an afternoon trek across central Idaho. I had a vague idea of how long it would take me but had no knowledge of the terrain or notion of where my next overnight stop would be. The unknown has its greatest appeal on a solo trip and fosters the adventure and serendipity missing from everyday life.

The turning point just outside Missoula, MT. 700 miles of highway lay between them thar hills and home in Portland, OR.

Aw shucks, 77 miles of winding road. What an imposition. Note to self: Write to Congressman about this outrage...

The road from Polson to Missoula was a more travelled proposition than the lonely stretch from Bonners Ferry to Kalispell. Eventually the road, which runs parallel to the western flank of the Mission Range, flattens into pasture and the plain in which Missoula lies. The timetable and, not least, the urge to experience Lolo Pass which traverses central Idaho kept me from exploring Missoula. It was here that I joined the freeway for the first and only time during the whole trip, about 15 miles in all. Sorry, freeways are for other folks, not me. I had imagined the town to be set in mountains, but figured I must have been thinking of Butte or Bozeman as it was totally flat as far as I could see. Perhaps I would do Missoula justice another time.

Heading south onto Hwy 93, the bike took a big gulp of fuel shortly before turning onto Hwy 12 and a long gasless haul through the twisty forest roads of the legendary Lolo Pass. Here I was lost in the rhythm of the road as it ran under my tilting wheels. I kept a steady pace, backing off just sufficiently to maintain some semblance of footpeg for my personal comfort during the rest of the journey. The road surface was for the most part excellent and conditions perfect with little traffic and a true sense that it was mine for the taking on a beautiful afternoon I will not soon forget. Approaching the little town of Lowell, one of those 'blink and you'll miss it' places slap bang in the middle of the forest, the ride became less intense and followed a lazy route alongside the Lochsa River. Gas was getting low in Lowell, so I stopped and filled up on 92 octane and a little local information.

Around 20 miles west of Lowell lay Kooskia, pronounced 'Kooskie'. The road took a turn south onto Hwy 13 to Grangeville, the largest burg in the area. Beyond Grangeville, I was back on the southern portion of US Hwy 95. Here the highway climbs to the top of Whitebird Pass at just over 4200'. From the summit I descended through well surfaced sweepers into the valley and onwards another 130 miles through Riggins to New Meadows at the intersection of 95 and Hwy 55. I hoped the town would offer somewhere to take an overnight break and so it did, just a few yards from where the roads meet.

Lowell tracks its citizens meticulously. Someone either decided to quit the farm or buy it
The view from the top of Whitebird Pass, the start of an outrageous set of long lazy curves

After a long day in the saddle, the Hartland Inn, on the east side of the road as you come in from the north, looked very inviting. I parked outside, creaked my way up the wooden steps of this well maintained traditional Bed & Breakfast and took one of the motel rooms adjacent to the main house. It was pleasant and comfortable with a peaceful yard in back where I sat at a wrought iron table and wrote postcards to various places around the world. I had bought the cards at a gas station in Kalispell and now made a bet with myself that they would have no 70c stamps for an airmail postcard at the local post office. I would find out the following day.

As darkness fell, I strolled down the main street, found the restaurant where I would eat that evening, where I would eat breakfast in the morning and the post office. Pleased with the efficiency of my reconnaissance, I sat down in the corner of the Sagebrush BBQ, struck up a conversation with an itinerant logger at the next table then sank a very welcome beer and steak as I planned the last leg of the trip back into Oregon and home. The stretch of 95 on which I had just come into town runs to the east of Hell's Canyon over by the Oregon-Idaho state line. There are very few paved roads to choose from to re-enter Oregon at this point and now I had to decide where best to cross without going all the way south to Weiser or Ontario.

I was tempted to cross at Ontario. That option would take me onto the eastern end of Hwy 26 (or 20). I then would have a choice of returning through Burns or John Day and Prineville. I knew both routes from previous trips to Eastern Oregon. They are both long roads and can be tedious in parts, Hwy 20 from Burns probably taking the prize in that department. 'Ways as yet untravelled' being the motto, I opted to cross at Oxbow Dam by taking the 95 south to Cambridge and checking whether there was a clear road over the Snake River at that point. Now that I had a plan in place, I walked back through the rapidly cooling evening air and slept the sleep of the just.

DAY 4   Top

The morning 'drape check' revealed that another gorgeous day was in the making, but even from the warmth of the motel room it was clearly a lot cooler outside. A classic high desert night had passed, close to freezing and warming up only slowly as a low sun made its first feeble attempts to clear the mist. The bike's saddle told the story graphically. I decided to tackle it after I had the warmth of a short walk and a short stack inside me. First stop was the Post Office. Rural post offices are a pivot point for small communities. The staff knows everyone in town, what sort of mail each gets and what they send. How now when the guy with the funny accent walks in wanting to send postcards overseas ? The good ladies of the USPS virtually turned the place upside down in search of the right postage, even accessing the venerated safe in the hope of forgotten inventory. 'Don't get much call for those' they agreed and other denominations were found. Having won the bet with myself, I thanked them for their trouble and walked smugly down the road to the local diner.

The sun was at my back as I looked west along the straightaway leading out of town toward the state line. I had been through Oxbow ten years before but I was carbound and only made a token excursion into Idaho from the Oregon side. I was looking forward to a bracing start to the day and the steady climb from freezing to 90° F that characterizes fall in the desert.

In the diner I was greeted with the America I have come to love. An old timer in a plaid jacket sat off to one side sipping on his coffee. Someone in back was cooking up a storm, presumably working on the orders placed by half a dozen truckers occupying the booth next to where I chose to sit. A petite waitress worked methodically taking care of business and shouting instructions to the kitchen after she visited each table. I placed another bet with myself that one of the great bears of men that were my neighbors would be wearing a Caterpillar baseball cap. Sure enough. Although I was faintly amused by this predictable observation, I found myself suddenly overly sentimental. This place, as simple as it was, was typical of thousands across the States on any given morning. I could imagine soldiers and travellers returning from stints across the seas walking in here and revelling in 'downhome'. Clichés had no place here. It was simply somewhere good to be.

As I drew on my coffee and savored my pancakes, I could not help but be amused by the banter between the truckers. Their conversation drifted in and out of my own thoughts. Everyone took their turn on the receiving end of cutting remarks about their manhood, their rig, their girlfriend, wife, dog or other chattel. Yarns of encounters with law enforcement were many. The unspoken protocol of speaking, eating and interjection followed by a chorus of derisory laughter was a pattern that repeated itself until it was time to hit the road. I paid and walked out into the sunshine. A train of cattle transports filled one side of the high street. My guess is they were headed for Boise. I was going the other way.

After loading up the bike and scraping the ice from my saddle, I had a premonition I would need to be careful about how I started up. As I turned the key in the ignition, all the lights came on and I put the choke on full. On hitting the starter, the engine was decidedly sluggish and did not catch first time. The battery was well down and the oil was too thick for this low a temperature. I'd probably have two more shots at it, then I'd be pushing the big twin down the road. I have had to do this but once before and it was a draining experience. I did not relish the thought of it in full cold weather gear on flat streets. Thankfully the engine fired up on the second go and idled uncertainly on no throttle at about 600 RPM for 30 seconds or so. I slowly eased the throttle open with the choke still full on, then backed the choke off slowly until it was clear the machine was warming up. No problem.

It was cold for the first 40 miles but was very pleasant by the time I reached Cambridge and stopped for gas. I asked if Hwy 71 was open through to Oregon and was told that it was. I had the lonely desert road that leads to the Snake almost entirely to myself for the 30 miles to the dam. From the Idaho side I dropped down over the brown hills to the river and crossed into Oregon. This part of the world is owned by Idaho Power and crews were busy installing vast pylons along the river. There was a 15 minute delay as trucks manoeuvered backward and forward. Finally, we were allowed through and the road followed the placid river for several miles until it eventually pulled away from the Snake onto the winding Baker-Copperfield Highway, a.k.a. Hwy 86, that leads to the little town of Halfway. The first place in the world to earn a .com extension, when the Internet boom receded, the '' signs at the edge of town came down and reverted back to just plain 'Halfway'. I skirted its edge as I pointed the bike south and then west on 86 all the way to Baker City.

The roadside was a mix of evergreens and autumnal shrubs against a backdrop of bleached blond grass and lichen covered boulders. The light was especially clear and bright as it is only in the desert. Shadows were dark and sharp. For a moment, I mentally stripped my visible world of its vegetation; it could have been morning on any of a million moons.

Baker-Copperfield Highway - on the way to Baker City

In Baker City, I pulled over for a liquid lunch in the form of an almond mocha from a coffee hut with a handy little deck where I could stretch my legs. I decided to take one more turn south out of the last big town I would see for several hundred miles and take Hwy 7 through the Elkhorns. The 7 goes west and south toward the Middle Fork of the John Day River and then joins Hwy 26 on its way to Prairie City. As I needed to start at last turning north, I took a right onto County Hwy 410 which runs out to Sumpter.

Sumpter's history is that of the classic boom town. In its heyday at the end of the nineteenth century it was home to the Oregon Gold Rush and the Transcontinental Railroad. Alive, then, with the sound of busy saloons, blacksmiths' shops, general stores and stables, you could call it an icon of the Wild West. By the early 1900's activity was much subdued and in the summer of 1916, most of the town was destroyed by fire.

The author toasts an old but still lively friend on the occasion of its 60,000th mile. What a place to party..

I'd have stopped to take a closer look but the hills and a serious ride beckoned. At Sumpter, Hwy 410 leads to Hwy's 520, 24, 73, 51 and 52, making up the Elkhorn Drive National Scenic Byway. I felt confident I had sufficient fuel for the Byway, but somewhere in my mind's eye, I had thought that the next stop of any significance, Ukiah, was about 25 miles beyond the little outpost of Granite, OR. In fact it was more like 65, but what a ride it was. Though the map shows it as little more than a paved backroad, the surface is, for the most part, perfectly serviceable. As it rose into the foothills of the Elkhorns, which actually lay on my right to the north, the purity of the sunlight and near luminescence of the dark and light greens of the open forest were quite uncanny. Rounding a curve, a swarm of a thousand freshly hatched butterflies engulfed me. It was a pretty sight only until immediately before impact. When I was done, it looked as if I had been seized by a giant sneezing fit with no Kleenex to hand. Oh, well...

In those 60 or so miles I saw but three vehicles and never lacked for empty blacktop almost all the way into Ukiah. Once there, I gassed up on Regular (for which I was grateful) and took in my surroundings.

The proprietors of the local facilities left the visitor with no doubt in his mind about where the government (presumably of any color) fell into their scheme of things. My experience is that folks in the country don't take kindly to paying taxes of any kind, let alone to distant authorities such as the state or feds. The town is a long way from anywhere and, standing at its crossroads in the now hot sun, its strong sense of independence was hardly surprising.

Of course, there were other more important concerns. As I filled up, I learned that hunters were out looking for elk and able to bring them down, but tracking wounded animals was difficult without snow. I hoped that whatever shooting was going on was not near the road !

In Ukiah I debated whether to take Hwy 53 across to Heppner, but still with many miles to go, I opted for the shorter route on Hwy 395 through Pilot Rock to Pendleton, where I sighted I-84 for the first time in several days. Gassing up in town, I hopped it again and rode north on lonely Hwy 37 through the town of Holdman, on my way to rejoining Hwy 730 and the Columbia River.

The Holdman route is typical of the tributary roads that lead from the wheatfields of northeastern Oregon to the Gorge. It was late afternoon now and the Virago bounded through the valleys and over the rolling hills where some fields were already plowed under and the occasional whirling dervish of a dustdevil formed for a moment then vanished.

Back again at the same Umatilla gas station I had patronized four days before, I filled up in anticipation of the long dry stretch which is the eastern section of Hwy 14. I crossed the river and settled in for the 200 mile journey home with the sun gleaming at first silver, then gold and orange over the great river. No mechanical behemoth pursued me on this homeward journey, just the pleasure of a road I plan on haunting when the big ride of life comes to an end.

At around 8:30pm I rode up the ramp to my garage and kicked the sidestand down for the last time on this marvelous ride. I took inventory of the minor mishaps along the way. After 6 years of impeccable uprightness, I managed to miss my footing at a roadside stop in Glacier and drop the bike onto its rear turn signal - easily replaced but irritating. In New Meadows, I noted that the chrome cover to the fuel pump behind the rear cylinder had cracked and joined other debris somewhere along the way. Last but not least, my new visor picked up scratches when it fell off the mirror I have the annoying habit of using as a coat / helmet hanger. Compared to everything else I had enjoyed in the last four days, all this was small beer indeed. The engine had performed flawlessly for 1,796 miles and was running just as smoothly as when I left and, even with 60,000 on the clock, I could see no obstacle to at least another 20,000.

I have a Japanese friend, Taka, with whom I used to play squash. Before play, we would stand in the service boxes of the court, face each other and bow. It was tongue-in-cheek, of course; nevertheless, I always found it a very satisfying and appropriate gesture. I wheeled the bike into the garage, pulled it onto its center stand and made for the door, then turned, faced the Yamaha and bowed to the design team. 'Most honored', I intoned - and meant it.

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© 2003 Open Road Rider: Ride photographs and article