I enjoy traveling the roads less taken. Often they go through towns that time forgets or at least slows down for. Dogs that don’t need a leash or a fence, porch sitters calmly looking up and giving a nod to the stranger passing through. Small towns where the Post Office is often the general store and the café doubles as the gas station or grain supply. Where at the edge of town, right before the speed limit sign, is a Cemetery Road.
Far from the interstates, these towns and roads are a real highlight for me. Roads that have a personality. That personality changes almost within every mile. Going through coastal fog, searing desert heat, summit passes of the Cascades, or the Coast Range, and on a first day out, I remember coming down out of the Blue Mountains late one afternoon, my shadow getting longer as it led me into Baker City and to the El Dorado Motel for the night.
East of Baker City, Hwy 86 is a favorite of mine. It goes along the Powder River at first, and then it climbs a bit. Sweepers turning into twistys and then coming into Richland you get an eagles eye view of the south edge of the Wallowa Mountains. 10 or 11 miles into the small town of Halfway and there’s a different feel in the air. The Snake River gives off a powerful energy even though tamed at this location. It’s Hells Canyon and Joseph to the north or cross the Oxbow Dam and ride down to the Brownlee Dam and cross into Idaho and meet with Hwy 95, a north-south route that has it all, from the glorious White Bird Pass to the road following closely enclosed canyon walls.
Hwy 395 from Riley down to Lakeview is another favorite road. It’s 110 miles of solitude and beauty. One day, I could see a thunder storm 50 miles away to the west working its way north. The line was cut so definitively I knew I was not in harms way. It was like watching a giant and evolving painting taking form on a canvas far in the distance. There is a tiny pit stop, Wagontire, the only settlement on the road. It fools people sometimes with their gas pumps out front of the café, but they stopped selling gas several years ago. As I passed, spectators had gathered near the pumps and were admiring the faraway artwork as well.
Dozens of miles later through the desert heat and sagebrush you catch glimpses of white. At first you’re not sure what is going on, but then, before you know it, weaving along the shoreline of Alkali Lake a dry desert lake bed, it is white as far as the eye can see. Soon, a brilliant blue takes over as you come closer and hug the road along Abert Lake. Both of these oddities posing as an ocean and a snowfield seem surreal and out of place in the middle of the desert, but somehow, all is right. The wind is warm, the sky is open. The Guzzi purrs with acknowledgement.
Most nights I get a motel. It’s nice to start fresh in the morning, but I’m always prepared to camp. Late one afternoon after getting a checkpoint in northern California, I was heading for the border. It had already been a 500 mile day and a bed didn’t seem in the cards tonight. I recalled a campground somewhere on this road from a previous trip, but couldn’t quite place it. I kept going as it got darker and darker, alert for the turnoff I knew was there. A couple of times I thought I saw reflective eyes shining back at me and I knew I should slow it down in this forested area. One bright light kept appearing and disappearing between the trees yet getting closer each time. I couldn’t figure it out, but soon the roar of a southbound train made it evident.
I found the turn off to the camp ground and it appeared empty. A longer day in the saddle than normal, I just tossed out the sleeping bag next to the bike and crawled in. Nudging up closer to the warm headers, tick….tick….tick I quickly drifted off to the rhythm of the cooling pipes.
Other nights under the stars were to happen that summer. Other roads were explored and had something meaningful to say. Now, approaching winter, there are still residual effects of the open road and endless skies. These are hard to fade and won’t go away easily. The previous years memories are always nice to build on for the upcoming adventures, surprises, and maybe even another story.