The Best of the Western Slope

Why go from A to B in a straight line? How boring! That’s not how an adventure tourer rolls. Recently I had to travel from Sandy, Oregon to Diamond Lake, Oregon. There is a boring A to B way to get there, and there is a route more appropriate for a Two-wheeled Astronaut.

My goal was to travel along mostly Forest Service roads along the western slope of the Cascade mountain range. After poring over topographical maps and consulting Google maps, I picked a route. I would stay one night at Diamond Lake, then retrace my steps back home.

To start, I rode on highway 224 from Sandy to Ripplebrook ranger station, then south on NF 46 to Detroit, OR. Familiar stuff. The air was getting thick with wildfire smoke, some from as far away as British Columbia, but the most was from the nearby Whitewater fire east of Detroit in the Jefferson wilderness.

After getting gas and a snack in Detroit, the next leg took me along highway 22 into Sisters, Oregon. I stopped at a Chevron station for a quick break. The station was busy, and had nearly two dozen bikers on cruisers, revving their engines and blasting their stereos. The next leg would take me on highway 242 up and over McKenzie Pass.

This was new territory for me, and I regret not having ridden it before. The scenery was incredible! High, jagged lava rock walls lined the narrow road. The road itself was narrow and twisty in parts, especially on the western slope of the summit. At the summit itself was an incredible view of the Three Sisters.

The western slope of highway 242 winds its way down through primeval forest, with many switchbacks. It was 2nd gear heaven.

Highway 242 merged into highway 126. I stopped in the community of Rainbow for a snack before catching the Aufderheide Drive (NF 19) headed south. This road memorializes a beloved Forest Service manager that passed away in 1959. It follows the western shore of Cougar Reservoir before heading up into the forest. The road had excellent pavement, wonderful curves, and more trees. It is a fantastic riding road.

NF 19 ends in the small community of Westfir, which lies a mile west of Oakridge, on highway 58. I pulled into Oakridge and got gas, then ate lunch at the very busy Dairy Queen next door. The temperatures and wildfire smoke were both high so it was nice to get inside and enjoy some air conditioning.

The next leg was my biggest concern for the trip, as I had the least amount of information about the route. I took NF 21 south along Hills Creek Reservoir, a familiar pattern before heading up into the hills. The road was in good shape and the scenery was nice (mostly forest), but the route itself wasn’t as clear. I saw some signs that indicated it was the Diamond route, or something. NF 21 turned into NFD 2145, and began to climb elevation. Once I was over 4,000 feet, the pavement ended.

The gravel road was covered in washboard ripples that got deeper and more aggressive, jarring my bike’s suspension. My GPS was unsure where to take me, and after stopping to consult my topographical map, I realized I likely had 60 or more miles of that nasty washboard road to go before I hit highway 138 north of Diamond Lake.

At this point I had ridden 34 miles into the wilderness after leaving highway 58 in Oakridge. I could press on with an uncertain outcome, beating myself and my bike to death on a gravel road with worsening conditions, or I could backtrack and take the paved and safe but long way around.

It was already after 4 PM, and I didn’t want to get stuck on back roads with an uncertain route after dark. I erred on the side of caution and backtracked to Oakridge. There, I caught highway 58 east over the Willamette Pass, then highway 97 south. I gassed up in Chemult and chugged a bunch of water, as I was getting dehydrated from the long, hot day. A dozen miles down the road brought me to Diamond Junction, where I rode up to the lake and my rest for the evening. I didn’t get there until 6:30 PM.

The next morning, I left Diamond Lake at 7 AM and rode into Chemult where I had an unappetizing breakfast at the Pilot gas station and adjoining Subway sandwich shop. At least the trucker coffee was good. I backtracked up 97 and then 58 to Oakridge, where I filled up my gas tank. I headed north on NF 19, the Aufderheide Drive.

The air was getting thicker by the mile with wildfire smoke. It became apparent that the fire was nearby. I came around a bend and saw a fire crew truck with two firefighters in reflective gear and hard hats, stopping traffic. The young man told me the road ahead was blocked by fire down to the pavement and they wouldn’t let me go through. I could either backtrack or take a gravel detour up into the hills.

The firefighter was nice enough to give me written directions for the various Forest Service road junctions, but he cautioned, “It may take you an hour.” He wasn’t kidding.

I left the pavement and headed up into the hills along some steep gravel roads. I was standing up on the pegs the whole time, and rarely got into second gear. The smoke was thick, but soon I was above it. The wildfire smoke settled half-way up the valley, and once I was above it, it looked like a field of white snow that I could have walked across. It had its own beauty … when I wasn’t trying to topple off the narrow, jagged rock road.

I eventually made it back down into the smoky valley floor and back onto pavement. After looking at the map back home, I estimated I’d made a four mile detour that took an hour to travel.

Back in Rainbow, I stopped for gas and a much needed snack break. This time the air was clearing a little bit. I headed east, past where 242 branched off toward McKenzie Pass, and continued north to where highway 126 merged with highway 20 and then highway 22 north to Detroit. The further north I travelled, the thicker the smoke became.

I stopped in Detroit to top off my gas tank, and then boogied up NF 46 toward home.

The first day of my trip, I rode 434 miles and was on the bike from 7:45 AM to 6:30 PM. That had been my longest riding day ever, in terms of hours, and maybe even in terms of miles. The second day was 356 miles, but I was only on the bike from 7 AM to 3 PM.

My bike now needs new tires, a new chain and new sprockets. It’s covered in dust and is resting comfortably in my garage.

It was a tiring trip, and I’m thankful I stayed upright and never got lost.

Adventures only suck while you’re having them.

Too much snow

Ripplebrook Ranger Station, 1,500 ft. elevation

It has been a snowy winter in the Western states, and I’m not looking forward to the late melt-off on my favorite mountain roads. This past weekend proved my fears to be correct: there is a lot of snow remaining.

I rode my 2007 Suzuki V-Strom 650 up highway 224 to Ripplebrook Ranger Station and discovered just how bad the situation is. The ranger station is at approximately 1,500 feet above sea level, and there is still at least a foot of snow in the trees, and more in less sheltered areas.

At Ripplebrook, highway 224 ends and NF 46 begins, heading south toward Detroit. The highway department maintains the road for winter travel on highway 224 but not beyond that. This means we may have to wait until June before the snow finally melts and allows through-traffic to Detroit.

This is frustrating for people like me who enjoy NF 46. The highway department would need only a single truck to push through and plow 46 once there is no more chance of snowfall, say in April sometime. This would open the road. What often happens is a 1/4 mile or 1/2 mile section remains snowed over, with bare pavement on either side. Four-wheel drive trucks will sometimes push through, but they sometimes get stuck, and the ruts they create are too deep or narrow for motorcycles to get by.

A snowplow could come in and get rid of it in a matter of an hour. Done.

Bike Camping in Eastern Oregon

I recently took an overnight trip on my 2007 Suzuki V-Strom (DL650) to eastern Oregon. Although the premise of the trip was to meet some friends at a remote hot springs, I was also using it as a shake-out trip to sort out gear and methods for bike camping. The former didn’t happen, and the latter proved to be very informative.

To start, my route from Gresham to Tygh Valley was uneventful, taking familiar paths of highways 26 and 35, to NF48 through Wamic. Once in Tygh Valley, I took highway 216 past Sherars Bridge over the Deschutes River, and up the dramatic east side road to Grass Valley. The climb out of the river canyon on 216 is twisted and dangerous, with no guard rails and zero room for error. Survive it, however, and you’ll have great memories of the experience. Riding a motorcycle is like that.

From Grass Valley up highway 97 to Wasco, then southeast on 206 to Condon, I rode through some incredibly beautiful scenery. It is almost exclusively wheat fields and wind turbines, with views that include Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood in Oregon and Mt. Adams and Rainer in Washington. The road surface is in fantastic shape, and follows the rolling contours of the land as if Vivaldi composed it himself.

Lunch spot

I gassed up in Condon–which sells ethanol-free premium unleaded–and continued south on highway 19 to Bear Hollow county campground south of Fossil. There I parked the bike, busted out my MSR Pocket Rocket stove, and made lunch from freeze-dried Mountain House beef stew. There were a few house flies bothering me, but otherwise it was a pleasant stop.

Whenever the road dropped in elevation, the temperature rose. By the time I stopped at the Thomas Condon Interpretive Center near the junction of highways 19 and 26, it was downright hot. I filled up my water bottles, merged onto highway 26, and rode east to Mt. Vernon for gas at the Chevron station.

By this time, it was nearing 4 PM and I had somewhere to be. My goal was Ritter Hot Springs, which was north of Long Creek off of highway 395, just across the middle fork of the John Day River. The stretch of 395 north of Mt. Vernon has some incredible high prairie views that make you say, “Wow!” inside your helmet.

I found Ritter Road and took my time following its tight curves ten miles west from 395 to the hot springs. The road is in rough shape and matches the contours of the middle fork of the John Day. When I arrived at the hot springs the first sign I saw said, “No alcohol on the premises.” I had purchased a six pack in Mt. Vernon to share with my friends. Sorry, not allowed. I pulled into the hot springs parking lot and was disappointed at how run-down the place was.

The buildings were constructed in the 1800’s, and looked as if they haven’t been upgraded or repaired since then. I used the restroom and had to tell some very large spiders to get out of the way. Walking around the main building and the pool, I checked out the grass tent area. It was crowded asses-to-elbows with tents, and the only space remaining was on a steep slope. My tent would have been within arm’s length of another. I walked back to my bike and noticed a sign on the pool fence, “Pool closed until 8:45 PM Saturday.” I recalled reading that the hot springs were owned by devout Seventh Day Adventists. It made me wonder if the Creator of the Universe and Lord of Hosts would smite me if I dipped my toe in the water at 8:44 PM.

Shaking the proverbial dust off my sandals, I suited back up and rode away. My friends hadn’t arrived yet, I would not be allowed to enjoy a cold, well-deserved beer, and I couldn’t enjoy the pool until after dark. Plus, the crowded camping situation had me longing for solitude. I headed south on 395 back toward Mt. Vernon.

My campsite

Somewhere between Long Creek and Mt. Vernon, I found a gravel road and headed up the hill into the Malheur National Forest. After riding about two miles up to the 4,200 foot elevation mark, I found a flat spot in the grass, parked the bike, and made camp. I had the woods all to myself.

I was glad to be at higher elevation. The temperature was much cooler than it was at the hot springs, although it was still warm enough to be in short sleeves. There was no rain in the forecast so I didn’t worry about putting a tarp over my Eureka Backcountry tent.

After dinner and cleaning up, I gave myself a sponge bath with a couple of baby wipes. I felt somewhat foolish standing in the middle of the woods stark naked, running moist towelettes over my arm pits and nether regions, but after the sweaty ride getting there, it was the best I could do. There were no creeks or lakes nearby. Once that was done, I changed into fresh clothes and laid down in my tent to read on my iPad. Prior to departure I loaded up a few new books. The iPad is great because you don’t need a flashlight to read. That helps if night comes and you’re still not tired enough to sleep. It had been a long day, I was tired, and I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep.

Alas, that was not to be. Although I don’t know why, I didn’t fall asleep until sometime after 3 AM. My sleeping bag was comfortable and I was never cold. My air mattress was comfortable. My pillows were comfortable. I think my brain just didn’t want to shut up. Once I fell asleep, I slept well, but it wasn’t nearly enough. I was awake by 5:30 AM. At some point during the night, I got up to relieve myself and was amazed at how many stars were visible. The Milky Way was brilliant. I also heard a lone coyote yipping and yowling about 100 yards away during the night.

Despite my lack of sleep, I felt happy when I got up and made breakfast. I started with a cup of hot coffee (Starbucks singles). Then I followed it with Mountain House blueberry granola. You only add a half-cup of cold water and stir, no heating required. It was surprisingly good. Once that was done, I cleaned up camp and loaded everything on my bike. Other than my lack of sleep–which was the fault of my brain and not my gear–it was a fantastic camping experience. The solitude was especially nice.

I left a few minutes after 7 AM and rode down the gravel road, out of the forest, and onto highway 395. I got to Mt. Vernon and filled up my gas tank, then got a proper breakfast at the Silver Spur Cafe. After I ate, an older gentleman from the area chatted me up outside as I suited up. We talked for about 20 minutes and had a great conversation.

The wind between Fossil and Condon and Grass Valley was intense, but the scenery going in the opposite direction was more than worth it. Any good road should be ridden in both directions to get the full experience.

By the time I got home, the round trip had been 700 miles. My gear worked perfectly, the weather was great, and I saw some amazing scenery. Eastern Oregon has some wonderful motorcycling roads and a lot of beautiful country to explore.

Thinking about my trip, I had a realization about loneliness. Although I spent the night alone in the woods, without any sign of people or civilization, I never felt lonely. In fact, I quite enjoyed the experience. The only time I feel lonely is when I’m by myself around groups of people I don’t know. If I had stayed in a campground surrounded by strangers, I would have felt lonely indeed. It’s odd, but I don’t feel lonely when I’m alone, only when I’m around other people [that I don’t know].

A new book and new tires

The Taesian Chronicles, paperback

In personal news, I recently published my trilogy of fantasy novels in a single paperback volume. It is entitled The Taesian Chronicles and is available for sale from Amazon.com or directly from me if you want an autographed copy.

In other news, I just put a new set of Shinko 011-Verge tires on my 2012 Suzuki GSX-R750. I got a little over 6,000 miles on the previous set. Their chicken strips were less than 1/4″ wide and the wear pattern was very uniform and round; no squared-off center strip at all. I am very impressed with the Shinko’s.

As the previous set lost tread, their traction degraded gradually. I backed it into a few corners and was impressed with how gracefully it happened. There were no sudden losses of traction or pucker moments.

When I got the new set put on, and properly broken in, I was amazed at how much grip the new tires have. I’ve been focusing on building up my skills in fast cornering situations, and despite increasing my cornering speed, the tires have responded reliably and with great confidence. It’s as if the Shinkos are saying, “Is that all you got? Bring it, Rossi-wannabe! We can handle a lot more!”

I’ve had several fast runs to Detroit lately, and have really upped my riding game. I still have a ways to go, however, and am always working to improve my skills.

Back to basics

Recently, I went on a group ride with some riders on sport bikes and sport-standards. Other than one guy, I was the youngest of the group, with ages ranging up to 67. These gentleman all have a lot of experience on two wheels, and really know their stuff. Needless to say, I got schooled in a big way.

I won’t talk much about the route, because it’s not the point of this post, but I will mention it was 75% on roads that were unfamiliar to me. They were very familiar to the other riders, however, and that played into events to a certain degree.

I started off third in the line of seven riders. The leader set a fast pace in the corners, but wasn’t overly speedy on the straights, both because it was unnecessary and we wanted to avoid tickets. Without realizing it, I started off with ego in my helmet since I was the FNG and I wanted to make a good impression. Only one of the other riders was on a pure sport bike — a 2013 Kawasaki ZX-10R — I was on my 2012 Suzuki GSX-R750. Everyone else was on a sport-standard or hyper motard.

Overlooking Highway 142 and the Klickitat River, WA

We soon got onto roads that were new to me, and I was doing everything I could to stay in the group. The two riders in front of me never seemed to use their brakes. Instead, they engine-braked into turns and flowed through them with ease. I became flustered by their pace and started making little mistakes. Those mistakes began to stack, and soon I found myself running hotter in corners than my comfort zone would allow. I made the additional mistake of braking too heavily, which stands up the bike and makes you run wide.

When we made our first piss stop, I hid my frustration and kept a smiling face. When we started off again, I waved everyone past except the guy on the 520 cc single-cylinder thumper. I figured there’s no way he’s going to pressure me. Boy, was I wrong. It turns out he was not only the oldest guy in the group (aged 67), but also the most experienced. He was on my tailpipe everywhere but the longer straights (where my 750 easily exceeded his bike’s top speed).

The rest of the day’s ride seemed to stack my rider errors. Ultimately, however, they all stemmed from my focus on keeping up with more experienced riders instead of focusing on my own riding. I was turning in too early. Mid-corner, I’d use too much brake and stand the bike up, making me run wide. I was target fixating on the pavement in front of me, looking for gravel and tar snakes, or I was target fixating on the line or the outside of the turn. My brain was wondering how much traction I had left in my tires, partially expecting them to break loose at any moment.

I grew frustrated at how smoothly and easily the other riders entered and flowed through corners at speeds much higher than me. I had to really gun it to catch up to them in the straights. To their credit, they never expressed any visible signs of frustration at waiting for the FNG to catch up. The difference in riding performance was all in my head, and I was becoming my own worst enemy.

By the time I got home, my clutch hand was in a lot of pain and my whole body was knackered. I was mentally exhausted, and I felt very disappointed in myself.

The next evening, I watched “Twist of the Wrist II” by Keith Code, on DVD. I’d watched that video a half dozen times before, and even though I intellectually had a pretty good handle on the techniques Keith teaches in the video, I felt a fair bit of shame at how miserably I failed to follow the given advice. There is a section where Keith talks about riding failures, or SRs, and I realized I had violated the majority of them.

A great deal of my failings came down to a couple of key principles. First, I made the cardinal mistake of worrying about keeping up with others rather than focusing on my own technique and pace. Second, I was riding beyond my ability for the season. I’ve had little time on the Gixxer so far this year and haven’t spent much time practicing my technique. I was rusty, and was riding beyond my ability at the time. Third, we were riding on roads the other riders have memorized but were brand new to me. If I had remembered that, I would have started in the back of the group from the start and not worried about trying to keep up. That fact alone would have made a huge difference in my riding.

I have contacted several of the riders since then and apologized for lagging behind. They were very supportive and encouraging, saying it’s much better to wait a few extra seconds for the FNG to catch up at the next junction, than to have to go back and rescue a downed rider. Three of the most experienced riders in the group gave me very good feedback and advice. They also gave me perspective, mentioning the wide experience gap between myself and them. It’s not feasible for me to expect to keep up with them, as they so rightly pointed out. Finally, they mentioned the fact that we were riding roads that are very familiar to them. That’s a big advantage.

My lessons learned are that I need to focus on my own pace, and not let ego push me beyond my limits and the limits of the conditions. I need to practice and reinforce my attention to the fundamentals of proper riding technique. Specifically, I need to look through the turn, work more on proper turn-in points, and not braking in the middle of the turn (which stands the bike up and makes me run wide).

If money and time allowed, I would really like to take some more classes. Attending the California Superbike School, or something similar, would be ideal. That’s not in the cards at the moment, but it’s a goal. Meanwhile, I intend to go on rides where I practice something specific each time. Head position, turn-in point, etc.