A discussion with friends that turned to must-ride roads laid the groundwork for a solo ride that will not soon be forgotten.
The title does not refer to my age; for this boomer, that milestone is well back in the rearview mirror. While packing for this year’s journey, my thoughts returned to my first lengthy outing on a bike. ‘Wow, it’s been thirty-five years since that trip . . .’
Perhaps other readers can recall their first long road trip on their motorcycle and may smile at the memory; I certainly do. In July 1978, at the age of twenty-four, I bungeed an old army surplus duffle bag to the passenger seat and a vinyl overnight bag to the gas tank. Then with youthful naiveté, I pointed the front wheel of my new Suzuki GS750 to the open highway and rode off for distant horizons.
Times change, and so did my appreciation of bikes, riding and camping gear. Long gone are the hiking boots, blue jeans and thin leather jacket; also history is the ten-dollar orange nylon tent that soaked up rain like a sponge. Anyone can be cold and miserable, that’s why I now have modern camping gear keeping me warm and dry in downpours. Waterproof boots, Gore-Tex, heated seat, grips and vest keep the wet and cold at bay. No, it may not be hard core, but warm and dry beats shivering and wet every time.
On a cool Sunday morning in late August, I rode off and met two long-time buddies, Ron and Alastair, in Claresholm, Alberta, for breakfast. They had returned from a rally in Oregon several weeks earlier and highlighted several back-road must-rides in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California. Their recommendations dovetailed nicely with my intended path, and suitably informed, I rode off on the latest two-wheeled adventure.
The afternoon ride along Highway 3 between Blairmore, Alberta, and Cranbrook, British Columbia, was a harbinger of the great weather that accompanied me for this entire holiday. There is something soothing in the fresh scent of the mountain pines that confirms, for me, the wisdom of seeing the world over a set of handlebars.
Over the years, I’ve determined that the second day on the road is the best of the trip. The first day is last-minute packing, trying to remember not to forget this or that and re-establishing your touring rhythm. Waking up on the second day brings a big smile; I’m a day’s ride over the horizon and it’s time to have fun. Leaving Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, I took Route 97 along the east side of this long and sinewy lake, and the dozens of tight curves managed to plaster a huge grin across my face. Before long, motion sickness from swinging to and fro made itself known, but as the road left the lake behind, I soon felt good again.
At St. Maries, State Highway 50/Saint Joe River Road hugs the banks of the Saint Joe River, and the wooded mountain valley is a treat. The first half of this ride is picturesque, and then the valley narrows for the second half. Clawed from the side of the mountains, the road follows a route that is torture for big trucks but a dream ride for motorcyclists. It takes you to the tiny hamlet of Avery, where you can enjoy fantastic homemade ice cream at the general store.
Route 3 becomes Route 6, and it climbs up and down through the Panhandle Forest. South of Julietta, the country begins to transform from rolling hills to scrub, desert-like terrain and the temperatures climbed into the mid 30s. I camped at a state park in Washington on the banks of the Snake River just west of Clarkston. The night sky treated me to a spectacular display of stars while I sat on a picnic table, contemplating life.
Along Route 12, the small farm towns gave evidence of the scarce opportunities for young people from the numerous boarded-up stores and houses. In spite of that, people still flew the Stars and Stripes in the front yards, no matter how humble the house might be. I admire that spirit and hope the day is not too distant when America recovers.
South of Pendleton, Oregon, Highway 395 begins climbing up into higher country to reach the summit of Battle Mountain at 1297 m elevation. The road is smooth and full of dozens of 35 to 45 degree sweepers, a flatlander’s delight. From the lookout, one can see for miles in all directions, and the road repeats the fun on the downhill run. At the town of John Day, Hwy 395 continues south and the temperature was again in the mid 30s; drinking plenty of water kept me going. The interesting roads were coming to an end, however, and at the town of Burns, I rediscovered just how inhospitable the landscape in this area of Oregon actually is.
My goal for the day was Lakeview, Oregon, and this road would challenge my will to actually get there. Highway 395 out of Burns runs through a hot, dusty plateau, and in places, the highway aims arrow straight for twenty miles to the far horizon. A blast-furnace wind blew without mercy from the west and rolled thorny tumbleweeds across the roadway. Several times I stopped in the middle of the road, shut off the bike and looked in both directions without catching a sight of humans or even buildings. I set the cruise at 130 to cross this forbidding place, and at times even that felt as though I still wasn’t moving. “They fought the Indians for this place?” was the constant theme of my thoughts during those long hours.
In northern California, Highway 299 led me into the high country and mountains once again. Mountains mean good riding roads, and I was not disappointed. At the junction of 299 and 89, I followed the signs pointing to Mt. Shasta and was soon rewarded with spectacular views of the 4316 m tall mountain. Even though the temperature was in the low 30s, the snow atop the mountain was dazzlingly white. Soon enough I was in Weed and chuckled, wondering what the original inhabitants of the town would think of the connotation the name has in today’s society.
The afternoon became interesting after I got on the highway at Gazelle to ride west into the Trinity Alps Wilderness. To quote an old country song, “I guess I took a right when I shoulda taken a left.” At Callahan, I missed the turn south on Highway 3, and innocently headed southwest. For the first hour, the riding was fantastic on the deserted, winding mountain roads. Without warning, the two-lane road abruptly degenerated into a poor imitation of a paved goat trail. “Surely this won’t last much farther . . .” led me to a place on the map marked as Cecilville. There, I presumed, one could get directions and buy water and groceries for the evening camp. A crude, hand-painted sign nailed to a tree announced my arrival in Cecilville. Stopping for a moment to look into the forest immediately brought to mind the theme music from the movie Deliverance. It wasn’t clear if this settlement was a religious cult, a survivalist commune or a large grow-op, and I had no inclination to determine which. Quietly making my way away from the tarps, old buses and warning signs, the goat trail seemed my only means of salvation. Against all odds, the trail became even tighter while clinging to the mountainside high above the South Fork Salmon River.
My energy and spirit was fading miles later when a National Forest campground unexpectedly appeared. I set up camp in this primitive spot and prayed to see another sunrise. No other campers arrived, and for most of the night, no vehicles even passed by. I broke camp in the morning and petulantly decided not to pay the five-dollar fee for having to navigate such poor roads. Eventually, I arrived at the hamlet of Forks of Salmon and discovered where in the blazes I actually was. Speaking of blazes, the ride to Etna took me through a smouldering forest fire where several miles later, the fire crews looked at me in astonishment when I putted out of the forest. What is that old saying about God looking after fools and the less fortunate?
Arriving in the San Francisco Bay area brought the discovery that the Bay Bridge was closed and traffic rerouted to the Golden Gate. Bumper-to-bumper traffic is not my idea of a good time, and I only stayed one night before heading north on famed Highway 1. It was the September long weekend, and it seemed every car driver in the Bay area wished to join me. I just gritted my teeth – the road still served up loads of twisties until at Bodega Bay, traffic finally thinned out. Then the fun began in earnest and the highway demonstrated the reason it is one of the world’s best roads for motorcyclists.
The road scaled one side of a bluff, then swooped down hundreds of feet in sharp curves to sea level before repeating the exercise over and over. Signs warn large vehicles and those towing trailers to find an alternative route; that leaves the road uncluttered and open for fun. By late afternoon, I was tired from laughing so much over the sheer joy of being alive to ride this fabled road. The day now ranks as one of the top ten riding experiences of my forty-plus years of motorcycling. Superlatives to describe the experience of riding this highway can never convey the reality of actually doing it, so get out there and enjoy it, my fellow riders. It should be on every rider’s bucket list and I, for one, will be back again. At Leggett, I succumbed to behaving as a tourist and rode through the “world-famous” Chandelier Redwood tree. That afternoon, the temperatures climbed into the 30s again, but along The Avenue of the Giants on Highway 101, it was nearly ten degrees cooler. The trees grow to heights of up to a hundred metres; it is humbling to view something that large that, unlike a mountain, is actually alive and breathing. I walked through some of the shaded groves and the hushed solitude rejuvenated my hopes for Mother Nature. One must-see town in California is Ferndale, which has been restored to Victorian-era splendour. At the charming Victorian Inn, it was my pleasure to devour the best omelette I’ve ever dined on – which includes omelettes consumed during my travels in France.
I gratefully gave the waitress $20 to pay the ten-dollar bill, while expressing my gratitude. The coast highway along much of southern Oregon is straight, and the winds off the ocean were strong. Much of the day was obscured by heavy damp fog as well, which kept my attention focused on road conditions rather than sightseeing. Where the fog did dissipate and the sun shone, the views of the coast are absolutely spectacular. My last night in Oregon was in the state campground at Fort Stevens State Park. In years past, Fort Stevens was a large army artillery fort on the southern bank of the mighty Columbia River. I rode into nearby Astoria just before sunset to walk along the downtown park paths and watch the ocean freighters heading upstream to Portland, over one hundred miles inland. In the morning, I toured the Astoria tower and took in the amazing view of the coastal mountains. Riding across the famous Astoria-Megler Bridge on a windy day is not for the inattentive or faint at heart. The bridge rises 59 m above the river to allow ships safe transit, and on windy days it requires a strong grip on the handlebars. The coast highway through Washington State is not terribly appealing in my opinion, and in many places, it is far inland from the coast. Of interest, at least to me, is the Lewis and Clark/Fort Canby interpretive centre at Cape Disappointment, Washington. I enjoyed a leisurely afternoon exploring the old fort and hiking around the lighthouse there. My trip came to a conclusion far too quickly, but that is the case with all good times, it seems. The march of time probably precludes another thirty-five years of touring. However, I have already decided on next year’s journey!