Life and Near Death on the Open Road

Story by Terry Peters// Photos by Terry Peters
August 1 2015

In search of routes less travelled

The quiet of the empty stretch of highway was interrupted by the sound of the approaching truck. As I sat on the paved shoulder checking my map, I kept an eye on the increasingly bigger white object in my mirror. As it approached, the wheels began to stray over the white line marking the shoulder. There was no time to start the bike. The truck filled my mirror and I thought, Shit, it’s going to hit me!

riding through the forest Seven days earlier I was sitting in the border line-up headed south from Vancouver, B.C., to begin a week-long road trip. We were on our way to Northern California, looking for new roads. I was on my 2007 BMW R1200GS and my riding buddy Michael was on his 2004 adventure model of the same bike. We used to be faster, riding all over the western States on our Kawasaki ZRX1200Rs, but had moved on to dual-sport bikes; we were now less concerned with how many kilometres we racked up in a day and more interested in getting farther into the countryside.

The first day started with an enjoyable ride through the Cascade Mountains of Washington State on the spectacular Hwy 20. Towering peaks, sweeping curves and great pavement eventually gave way to the long descent into arid countryside. We arrived in Twisp for lunch before following Hwy 97 south to Ellensburg and catching the start of the amazing State Route 821 as it hugged the winding Yakima River that runs through the rock-walled canyon. We camped beside the river in one of the many state campgrounds for the bargain price of $14.

It was great to begin the next day’s ride in the middle of this twisty road, and after breakfast in Yakima, we headed west on Hwy 12 beside the Tieton River and ancient lava fields before reaching Rimrock Lake. The road takes you over Washington’s White Pass at an elevation of 1370 metres, offering some fantastic views of Mount Rainier.

Off the Beaten Path

At Randle, we turned south and moved from a secondary highway to something less popular. Highway 23 began as a beautiful two-lane paved route that travelled through dense forests. With the branches from the trees on both sides joining together overhead, we rode through this stunning canopy and the dappled light it created as the road narrowed to a single lane, and then the asphalt disappeared. After 50 km of varying surface conditions, we were back on pavement and headed south to White Salmon and the Oregon border.

covered bridge The Bridge of the Gods is a toll bridge built in 1926 over the Columbia River, and I felt like praying to them as the bike twitched beneath me along the 565-metre metal grated surface. The afternoon was getting hot and we stopped to cool off in the east fork of the Hood River. We often stop to swim, finding it refreshes and recharges us for the journey ahead.
At Clear Lake, we turned onto Forest Service Road 42, a lonely stretch of tarmac amidst old-growth forest that served as our own private route through a national park. Service roads were our main focus and we looked for them whenever they might take us in the right direction. You need a detailed map to locate them, like the Butler motorcycle maps I prefer, but stopping at any of the ranger stations will provide info on the immediate area.

The ride to Detroit, Oregon, on Hwy 46 was loaded with great curves and gorgeous views, and we finished the day there with a burger at the Korner Post Restaurant & Steel Wheels Lounge, distinguishable as a motorcycle-friendly establishment by the motorcycles atop its roof.

Waking up to a cool morning and heavy dew on the bikes, we headed south on Hwy 22 and then 126, enjoying the curves as it wound its way down to McKenzie Bridge and then Rainbow. Later we joined Forest Service Road 19, which ended at the little town of Westfir, with its small covered bridge built in 1945.

At Oakridge, we connected with Hwy 21’s smooth surface and wonderful curves, which deposited us at a most interesting swimming location. We’d just gotten in the water when several huge fish jumped nearby. In a flash, Michael had his fishing rod out and bait in the water, but the session amounted to nothing more than casting practice, as none of the monsters showed any interest.

Fire in the Sky

sunsetLate in the day near Union Creek, the sky had turned a rich orange. Sadly, it was due to forest fires in the area. We made camp a short while later in Joseph H. Stewart State Park, where I awoke the next day with eyes irritated and throat sore, as if I’d been leaning to close to a campfire.

We always look for local restaurants to start the day, because it’s a great opportunity to soak up the atmosphere and often leads to tips on alternate routes. In Shady Cove, we found just what we were looking for at breakfast in Mac’s Diner.

Crossing the state line into California, we got onto State Route 96, following the Klamath River and twisting our way toward Happy Camp. A rather ironic title given it was known as “Murderers Bar” during the 1800s, thanks to ongoing clashes between miners and the Native Americans of the Karuk Tribe.
We continued south on State Route 96, enjoying the curves of this road, many of which had been carved out of the canyon walls above the Trinity River.

At Somes Bar, we were forced to change our plans, as the forest fires had closed the road we’d wanted to ride to Callahan. Instead, we went through Orleans before stopping for gas in Weitchpec and finding Bald Hills Road to take us to Orick.
The first few kilometres were paved and loaded with tight switchbacks leading us into a deep forest. The road soon turned to gravel and eventually emerged into open, rolling hills. Once again, we were riding with no other vehicles in sight and had a great time on the loose surface. When the pavement returned, so did the tight curves, and we were leaning the BMWs like our ZRXs when the brake warning light on Michael’s bike came on. He quickly located a loose brake-line connection that was leaking fluid. Tightening the connection stopped the leak, but it needed more fluid.

Roadside Repair

A motorcycle shop in Eureka had the correct brake fluid, and a Walmart parking lot became the repair location. Michael had the brakes bled and refilled in short order and we were on our way – this time with heated vests plugged in, as reaching the coast meant we’d found the cold fog, and riding down Hwy 101 had turned into a chilly proposition. After getting some food, we set up at the campground in Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park.

An early start meant riding in the fog, but soon Hwy 36 climbed up into the sunshine. The road just got better and better as the curves through the hills got tighter. Kilometre after kilometre of exhilarating riding finished off my fuel and we coasted into a little gas station/restaurant outside Platina. It seemed like a perfect combo, until we had to deal with the grumpiest waitress we’d ever met.

Once fuelled up, we back-tracked a few kilometres to County Road 302 (Wildwood Road), a quiet route through gorgeous redwood forests connecting with Hwy 3 and offering some of the best riding of the trip. If I were to make a riding wish list, it would look like that road.

We went through Weaverville and continued on Hwy 3 to Trinity Center before stopping in Callahan for a cold drink and a chat with the owner at the Emporium. The store is attached to an old and very authentic bar, beside which are the remains of a Wells Fargo depot, complete with ancient metal doors and barred windows. Founded in 1852, the once bustling gold rush town now has a population of 50 and is on the verge of becoming a ghost town. In 1947, it was the location of what is the last known lynching in California.

With limited choices from Callahan because of the fires, we rode to Etna and branched off onto Scott River Road. The two lanes became a single track carved into the hillside with a 150-metre drop to the river below. At one point, I rounded a tight corner to come face to face with two small deer standing on the road. Fortunately, caution had dictated slow speeds, and both animals and humans escaped without injury. This road eventually took us into Scott Bar and then on to Hamburg, where we rejoined State Route 96 into Happy Camp, and then headed north back into Oregon on Hwy 199.

Commando Camping

Riding later than planned with no sign of a campground, we pulled off the road in the dark and parked behind an abandoned building in a field. I’m not a huge fan of commando camping, but it’s less risky than dodging wildlife at night.

Packed and on the road early meant plugging in the electric vests again and being thankful for heated grips. Our route took us on fabulous gravel roads through the hills before depositing us at the coast and a chilly ride up U.S. Route 101.

At Reedsport, we headed back inland on Smith River Road, along narrowing pavement through thick forests. We worked our way up to Hillsboro and eventually found a campsite just after dark.

The next morning would be our last together on this adventure, as Michael needed to get home by the afternoon. Since I was in no hurry, we parted ways at Rainier, with him taking the interstate and me getting on Hwy 6.

It was a cool, blue-sky morning, and outside of Raymond I had pulled over to look at my map. Surrounded by farm fields, I’d stopped on a clear section of road and had the bike on the side stand on the paved shoulder studying my route.

Flashing Before Your Eyes

I noticed a white delivery truck in my rearview mirror and divided my attention between the map and my mirror. As the truck got closer, I could see it drift toward the shoulder, and then the tires started to cross over the white line. I let go of the map, grabbed the handlebar and stood the bike up. The truck was on top of me and I thought, Shit, it’s going to hit me! I leaned the bike away from the road as the flash of white streaked past so close that I could feel the truck scrape up against the end of my extended highway peg.

I was shocked to see the truck speed off as if nothing had happened, leaving me charged full of adrenaline, my heart pounding from the incredibly close call. I started the bike and roared off, quickly catching up as the truck drove into Raymond. It stopped in a bank parking lot, and I was off the bike and at the driver’s door before he was outside the truck. I started yelling at him, telling him how he almost killed me. He had no idea how close he’d come to hitting me and likely ripping my leg off. I was furious, but his ignorance of what had happened gave my anger nothing to strike out at. I shouted for a while longer, and this overweight, middle-aged man put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m sorry.” I had nothing left after that.

Just outside of town I had to pull over. I was shaking and the image of the truck going past my face, just inches away, kept replaying in my head. If I hadn’t leaned away, he would have hit me at 60 mph.

Afraid of how my voice might sound at that moment, I chose to send my wife, daughter and several others immediately on my mind a text message, rather than a call, to let them know I loved them and would be home soon.

The rest of the day was somber but the sun was still shining when I rolled into my driveway and put the bike into the garage. I was home safe and sound but I was changed.

I can’t help but feel that some things happen for a reason, and that day my reaction time provided me with a future that was almost taken away. I was left with a feeling that I had a lot more life in front of me, that I had even more faith in myself, and confidence that when challenged I would make the right decision.


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