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Same State, Different Worlds

It was an early morning departure. Dew was still clinging to the blades of grass and wide maple leaves. The quiet was briefly interrupted by the Vintage engine coming to life as I pressed the starter button, then the low rumble chug chug that took over seemed to be a perfect match with the rising sun.

I was riding north and west. As the sun at my back warmed my spine, the road ahead unfolded and warmed my anticipation for the day. I’d chosen a smaller and more meandering Oregon highway, and riding along I got thinking about how diverse and how many different worlds were contained in this state.

I’d just completed the last Rose City Grand Tour checkpoint earlier that week in a barren, yet beautiful section of Eastern Oregon, and was winding my way back home. Just days ago leaving the harsh spectacular wide open spaces down there I was smelling sagebrush and miraculously not squashing little fuzzy tailed rodents darting across the asphalt. Breathing in deep the arid desert wind felt therapeutic.

Most bridges spanned, what looked like, long forgotten and abandoned rivulets, dry channels with rounded rock, the only evidence of rushing water once upon a time. Perhaps this was only because it was summer, and everything will be transformed, turn alive and energetic when the winter snow melt from the distant mountains makes its annual flowing migration towards the sea.

I rode by the estuaries of many such accumulated waterways a week or so earlier, starting with the mouth of the Columbia as I crossed the border bridge into Astoria. I heard foghorns and saw seagulls feeding from the brackish water. Gaps in the fog revealed brilliant patches of blue sky and then were swallowed up almost magically only to reappear in a different shape in a different place. Later that afternoon seeing the mouths of the Alsea River at Waldport and the Siuslaw River in Florence empty into the ocean made me think they too had their diverse sights and meandering journeys along the way.

I soon turned inland taking Hwy 126 leaving the coastline and following the Siuslaw. Within a half an hour, everything was different. The briny air had transformed into to the rustic, earthy scent of a river and wafted pleasantly up into my helmet. Any trace of the sea was erased, and 30 minutes more, the fragrance was of forest, and the sights were of tall Douglas fir trees and leaning into the corners flanked by the river, I had ridden into another world.

I maneuvered over the Coast range and into the southern end of the Willamette Valley. It was thick with vineyards, hops, and Christmas tree farms.  I crossed the I-5 corridor quickly and was soon gaining altitude on the western slopes of the Cascades and hugging the curves of the McKenzie River right alongside me.

In what seemed like no time, I’d crested the pass, and Highway 242 was traversing blacktop cut through ancient lava fields, unchanged and frozen in time for 80 thousand years. As I descended, spread out below, as far as the eye could see, was the high desert landscape of Deschutes County. The snowcapped Mt Hood rose majestically in the distant north. It was crystal clear. Pine trees were getting fewer and being replaced by Junipers and sagebrush. Could this possibly be the same state of foghorns and seagulls I remembered from what seemed just a short time ago?

Having left that beautiful barren area of my last checkpoint of the season, an area where sparsely scattered little towns and clusters of trees were a welcome oasis between the vast and wide open distances, it was time to point the Vintage towards home. Soon, the world beneath my wheels changed once again and I was weaving and echoing my way through great canyons and ravines carved by powerful water that satisfied the thirst of the far-reaching acres of farmland I next encountered.  Later, I was beginning to recognize roads and certain favorite corners. The days and the diversity behind me solidified my appreciation of this multifaceted state. As I continued to ramble home, that earlier glow of warm anticipation seemed to renew itself thinking of next year’s yet undetermined and different worlds that lay ahead.

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Under a Globe of Stars

I was 40 years old before I owned my first tent. I wasn’t a boy scout, and on my mother’s side we didn’t camp. On my father’s side, summer visits as a kid led to many nights spent high in the Sierra Nevadas with nothing but a ground tarp and a sleeping bag carried in on our backs. We were often sheltered on three sides by downed trees as I fell asleep under a globe of stars so vast and brilliant it made me dizzy. I awoke to the sunrise and mountain air, crisp and fresh. It was always hard to leave the comfort of the sleeping bag and get the fire started. That was usually a simple task as there were always red hot embers still glowing under a blanket of grey ash residuals from the night before. During these summer hiking trips I remember thinking how claustrophobic it would feel being zipped in, sheltered and unaware of the stars and the moon and then of the breaking dawn right outside the flap.

Motorcycle riding in my 20s, I’d often take advantage of a free weekend and good weather and just tie an extra jacket and sleeping bag to the back and head out down the road. Today, I wonder how it was ever so simple and uncluttered. I’d sometimes stay at friends or relatives, when just dropping in somewhere was normal and acceptable. Other times I’d find a parking lot behind a church or business in a small town. I also can remember just lying out on the earth a short way down a small road off the main highway in the Arizona desert, a vacant piece of lakeside in Oregon or an unoccupied beach somewhere in Northern California, all under those same glorious stars. Being a solo rider, I could stealthily come and go with barely a tire print.

Later I started riding Moto Guzzis. Still afflicted with that travelin’ bone but not too keen to join groups, I maintained my primitive ways, although by now occasionally grabbing a cheap motel. Over the next several years I met other Guzzi riders and even subscribed to the national newsletter. There, I discovered a special family feeling and common thread with these riders and the events and rallies held across the country honoring our brand and its linage. I started planning a ride to one of the events. While researching them, I noticed all these campouts had the grounds peppered with tents and some not 10 feet apart. I realized this was a gathering, not just one man’s journey and adventure. I could have it my way enroute, but once I arrived, I was part of the flock. I decided that was ok though, after all, a field full of snorin’, burpin’, fartin’ motorcycle riders is probably best left under shelter and canopy privacy. So, I bought my first tent.

During the next dozen years or so, while not abandoning my solo rides, I did use the tent 4 or 5 nights a year attending some of the Guzzi campouts over the summer months. Even with that relatively light usage, by now it had started to look saggy and dated. So, I bought my new tent.

The last Guzzi campout of this season was my first night inside. I’d pitched it among a smattering of others, under tall pine tress and cloudless skies. Its green color blended into the woods better than the blue. The poles and clips had improved; it went up almost without effort. Also new was a sort of mesh skylight that made a small window of stars visible, and pocket pouch inside that kept my flashlight within easy reach. The zippers had authority, and it stood more taut and confident than its aging sibling. New and improved, better, sleeker and it still had that new tent smell.

At daybreak, I woke to the different color hue around me. I unzipped the fly, poked my head out and watched a squirrel scramble up a tree. Someone had already stirred the embers back to life and started the coffee. There was something reminiscent about those aromas in the air as I pulled on my boots. Tented or exposed, all those miles covered and those years gone by, some things never change. Greeting the new day from your own little spot claimed on a patch of earth the night before remains a simple, yet important pleasure that can never be replaced.

Just Part of the Adventure

I had the Vintage safely strapped down in the back of a U-Haul truck as I was heading north on Hwy 97. My mind went back to the previous 2 days since leaving Whalen Island and the 20th annual Jim Brandes Memorial Campout. Last year it had rained almost constantly, so we were all happy that this year it was merely threatening most of the time. It’s always a gamble going out in May, but it’s all just part of the adventure.

My first real ride of the season, I was happy it immediately felt comfortable and natural as soon as I got off the ferry boat in Bremerton and started making my way to the North West Oregon coast. Displaying that threatening stance all the way, but never producing, the sky revolved through a dozen shades of grey and even once in a while revealed the hope of blue, fleetingly, before being swallowed up by one of those tones.

Since learning a few years ago about the tiny, 9 car, 10 minute Wahkiakum Ferry that crosses the Columbia at Cathlamet WA and Westport OR, I’ve wanted to ride it but never made the slight detour required until now. The first day out is a good time to put things in perspective and realize the lesser road traveled is often more enjoyable and the different viewpoints that can emerge are refreshing. I ran into fellow Brandes attendee Richard Caulkins at the dock who has obviously learned this long ago. As much as I love the graceful and majestic bridge at Astoria 30 miles west, this peaceful, Huck Finn-like crossing set the mood and pace for the rest of the day and stayed with me for the arrival at the campout later that afternoon.

While we had a dry if chilly weekend on Whalen Island, and early Sunday morning at daybreak I woke to the sound of heavy raindrops on my tent. Hot coffee and warm farewells to the other early risers, I was on my way, continuing down the coast. It rained lightly, it rained heavily, and all points in-between until I reached Brookings late that afternoon. Sometimes it cleared up for several miles and exposed the rugged beauty of the Oregon coast. The two blues of the sky and water matched perfectly with the whites of the sand and the crest of the waves. Riding in the rain isn’t the most pleasant thing, but I was dressed for it and it was all just part of the adventure.

After a brisk ½ hour ride into Crescent City for a Grand Tour checkpoint and breakfast the next morning, the rains had moved on. I swung up Hwy 199 back into Oregon to Grants Pass. After a brief 20 mile stint on I-5 I got off near Rogue River and made my way east to Hwy 140. Keno was my destination, another checkpoint. 

The Keno checkpoint was closed when I arrived so I snapped a picture and continued into Klamath Falls about 15 miles away for the night. I decided in the morning to backtrack the 15 miles to Keno to get the stamp and also breakfast. It was a fortuitous decision because after returning to Klamath Falls and pulling in to gas up, I heard the stomach-turning, unmistakable sounds of bearings gone awry. The sound was accompanied by the ammeter lights dropping like Christmas tree lights at a drag race, and just as quickly the battery gave out and I was dead in the water. At that point I assumed it was the alternator bearings because of the noise and not being able to charge. I was 1,000 miles into this ride, leaning into curves and seeing the landscape go by from a perspective only us riders know. It looked like the next 500 were going to be another story and another viewpoint.

During the 6 hour drive to Portland up 97 and over 26, I went through many familiar areas previously negotiated on two wheels and the wind. It also gave me time to ponder and evaluate the many positive things in this scenario. That I wasn’t in the middle of nowhere, in fact if I hadn’t returned to Keno that morning, and hadn’t chosen to ride the Wahkiakum ferry that first day out, I would have been at least 60 miles up Hwy 97, truly the middle of nowhere. That it was in the morning and I had all day to deal with it. That it was dry after all the rain the previous days. That the U-Haul was just blocks away. That Rick and TJ at Moto Guzzi Portland were generous enough to stick around as I inched my way through Portland rush hour and then delved right into it the next morning. They discovered the starter hadn’t disengaged or had re-engaged at one point, caused possibly by being mucked up inside or the return spring had broken. The high current continued sucking up the battery and the alternator had no hope of keeping up.

Maybe the most positive thing is it really wasn’t even summer yet…we still have a great big full season ahead of us, and that I can take stuff like this in stride and realize it’s all just part of the adventure. 

Waiting for the Spring

I won’t write another sad shadowed story about how I’ve missed riding along with the breeze. I’ve already said how much of a joy it has been. I’ve already expressed how nice it is to see the highway through windblown and happy eyes. I’ve already confessed I have wanderlust and a need to lick my lips and taste the sea and mountain air. I’ve already mentioned the mystery to me of never tiring of the next sweeping corner bordered by rivers and railroad tracks. I’ve already thought about all the miles gone by and how long ago and far away they now seem. No, I won’t pine the void, the emptiness and vacancy. It only crosses my mind just before sleep and right after waking and sometimes when the sky is gray.

Memories that go unnourished get hungry for reminders. Thoughts of yesterday’s roads begin to fade, merge and are embellished. It seems it was a southbound highway where I saw that breathtaking expanse, or possibly it was another road I chose that day where the sky and the distance were indistinguishable. And on that same afternoon, above me, a cast of hawks played in the updraft flap-less and flirting.

It could have been a Tuesday leaving a small town catching site of a freshly tilled parcel of land. A tractor idled peacefully at the far end of perfect geometric rows. Its dust cloud had dissipated into the air and the only sound was my motor and the wind. As I rode by, I smiled because I knew I would remember this scene and others just as rustic and picturesque.

It really doesn’t matter what road or which day. As sure as the winter will blend into spring, fresh memories of new rides will soon mix together. I know all those upcoming site and sounds are all lined up, ready to burst upon the scene. Like the birds in the trees, they’re poised and waiting in the wings like me, just waiting for the spring.    

Ridin’ the Storm Out

Ahead of me, to the south, the sky was black and punctuated with bolts of lightning. To my sides, distant dark gray clouds were rolling and tumbling forward into the blackness. And glimpsing back, over my left shoulder towards Burns, the sky was brilliant blue like a finely polished agate. 20 minutes and 20 miles ago it was 90 degrees and the wind was just picking up. Now, it dropped to 60 and I was riding into what felt like, the eye of the storm.

I set out on this last ride of the season a few days earlier, when Seattle was foggy and there was drizzle in the air. I made quick work of Snoqualmie Pass and was soon breathing the dry and warmer air on the other side, although it still didn’t feel like I’d quite broken free until getting off the interstate at Vantage. There, I crossed the bridge where the Columbia River runs north to south, and then followed it for 30 miles or so where we parted ways. It, lazily making an eastbound turn and I continuing south.

Crossing the Columbia again the next day I was well into North East Oregon. The Wallowa Mountains are dominant here as they watch over unassuming and serpentine roads that weave in and out of their shadows. My timing was perfect. I learned later I was an hour behind every rain shower. The only evidence was a residual puddle in a low spot, and dampened cobwebs in a tree that caught the sunlight just right as to glisten and surrender their camouflage.

It was never hot during this September ride like I knew it could be here. The sky teased and toyed with me and constantly changed from ominous to promising. The next couple of days I rode my way south by southwest, always missing the recent rains. Riding down OR 395 towards John Day, the highway alternated between forest and high desert and the roadside flora seemed confused whether to be pine trees or sage brush. At some elevations, right at that sweet spot, they were intermingled. Above, the hawks soared and the clouds turned less menacing. They were willowy and white now and revealed just a little blue sky. With the Strawberry Mountains as a backdrop, it looked like a picture from a glossy magazine.

I came into Burns from the north, and again missed their showers by an hour. I exited to the south and the desert outside of town hadn’t quite absorbed the downpour. It was odd to see muddy puddles alongside the road where I’ve only ever seen hard, dry and cracked earth in this area. The air was filled with that sweet aroma that only a summer shower in the desert can bring. A dozen miles later it was starting to get darker and clouds were filling in where just a short time ago, I had unlimited visibility. It seemed my run of luck was about to shift. Just as the temperature hit that 60 degree mark, the first drops began to fall and the normal highway wind turned unmistakably to gusts and began to buck me. The rain got heavier and the bolts of lightning were closer and lit up the sky as if Thor himself were at the helm, hammer in hand. I could feel the sharp drops through my Kevlar and my helmet became a kettle drum. Great thunderous booms exploded around me. It was exhilarating, it was breathtaking, it was intoxicating. I knew I should stop but I couldn’t, I was hooked on the fury like a joy junkie. I knew it would all be over in short order though, I could see that brilliant blue sky again straight ahead. Like coming out of a tunnel, I emerged from the storm into the light. The temperature rose, the sweet aroma returned and only those unnatural mud puddles remained.

I was dry and bug free but thirsty as I pulled into a little café for some cool water just a mile later. The owners and a couple of customers were out on the wooden porch under the overhang and had watched it all. Everyone noted how fast these can come and go, I nodded in agreement thinking of my fortunate timing these last few days on the road. A short time later with the blue sky reflecting in the puddles, I rode away. Of course I couldn’t know that my timing would be just as good over the next few days as I made my way home.  

When the Sun Came Back

Turning the ignition key for the first time since the sun came back felt warm and pleasant. A faint and wispy trail of a cobweb trapezed from the left grip down to the floorboard. That’s where my gloves and my boots were soon to be re-claiming their proper space. Before pressing the starter button, I looked in the mirrors and reflected on the long and drizzly winter now gone. The Vintage motor cranked once, and then roared to life as if the last several months didn’t count. As if there were no lonely, dank nights alone in the garage, and as if when we put up for the last time, just before the rains, we would be out again the very next sunrise. Of course we weren’t  and with each passing week, as the clouds got thicker, memories of summer rides and those sunny morning starts began to diminish into a distant horizon.

I twisted the throttle and let gently out the clutch. We started to move and it felt different than during that patch of winter when locomotion could be sluggish and limited. Now, it was fluent and flowing where balance became a dance and the warm wind a partner.

Passing by a deciduous forest full of bloom, I remembered stopping there on a winter’s day. Maybe it was the shortest day, huddled against a different wind, then cold, whistling through its stark and skeletal outlines. Meanwhile, when no one was watching, the trees sprouted small buds and were now robust and dense.

We picked up some speed and leaned into a corner. A little steeper lean than necessary, but I wanted the new tires to know just what we were getting into during the upcoming summer days. They gripped the blacktop with enthusiasm and confirmed to me they were ready. As I shifted into fourth gear, the winter months were fading fast in my mirrors, and in my mind.

It didn’t take but another mile or two, and it was as if we were never apart. My feet were expertly massaged by the comforting vibration of the road and my hands were soothed by the feel of the motor through the frame. It was an overall pleasing effect, highlighted by the unique characteristic of moving air not confined by a window. The sway and the camber of the road unfolded and unveiled sights, smells and sounds only experienced from the saddle. Coming up and out of a corner, a great meadow was revealed and the aroma of fresh field dirt and wild grasses filled the air. The wind fluttered and whispered sweet nothings in my ear.

It was hard not to be lulled into the serenity of this ride. My mind was respectful of it, yet receptive to its seductive power. The rhythm of the road was starting to intertwine with the tempo of my breathing. In and out, a regular cycle, and small beads of sweat appeared on my brow. The cadence of the motor chugged out an ode to this highway. The road then turned into another one and different clouds appeared above and the meadow became a mountain. Somehow, that first ride, the day when the sun came back with recollections and cobwebs, got dissolved by the months and the miles. I was riding on another day and down a different path. The new tires fully broken in now and comfortable like an old pair of jeans. The dust on the paint and the crinkles around my eyes attested to the experience. It was hotter now, but soon the leaves would change and a crisp bite would be in the morning air. I was the seasoned rider giving advice on this road or that, and telling tales of sweeping corners and clear mountain passes, and when long ago how warm and pleasant it was, when the sun came back.

Mosaic

Gotta get up, gotta get going. Rise and shine it’s a new day breaking – oh yeah. With an unconscious swagger and smile, I’m walking towards the waiting Vintage. The motor gets purring, and the spokes are shining, reflecting the sun of the morn. The chill is gone as the tires get warm with revolution. My shadow is long and leading me comfortably down a westbound highway out for the day’s adventure. By the time I hit fourth gear, the aroma is sugar maple and the breeze is an old friend.

Straightening out after a series of ambling corners, a bridge greets me – a cantilever. It was well tended to, agreeable and a proud family member of the small town it overlooked. As I crossed it, the river below was still strong from the winter snowmelt. The beams, alternating between light and dark with the sun and shadows, echoed back an alien sound, a mixture of wind, water and motor.   

On the outskirts of most any small town is a Cemetery Road, dirt or gravel, leading up to weathered yet undisturbed plots of land where tombstones were brought in by horse and buggy 90 or 100 years ago. Young trees now grown strong and majestic, names etched in the tilting granite blocks of founding fathers, schoolteachers and shopkeepers, who by fate or by fortune never left the valley where they lay buried.

Entering the town, the flavor is a relaxed one. As I rode down the tree lined Main Street, it lazily meandered along with the course of the river beside it. Houses of brick and clapboard had swing-sets, gardens and pitchforks in the front yard. Businesses were opening up, and townsfolk seemed intent on making this day better than the last.  I gassed up and had a look at the map, more out of pleasure than necessity. There was one road out of town. As I glanced side to side for revenuers, the speed limit signs gradually increased, and I followed suit. In no time I was back out on the highway, settling in and absorbing the moment. The tires hummed along with me as I belted out a road song under the helmet confines. Sour notes were forgiven and blended in with the mood.

By noon the sun was sizzling high and only the occasional car passed. A mailbox on a post or a cattle guard in the dirt was the only evidence of a farmhouse or homestead hidden well off the main road. One stray cloud had outlined its shape on a butte far in the distance. A freight train, a mile long, stretched out beside it. Rolling silently down the tracks, it could just barely be discerned. Sometimes a cluster of trees, oasis like, would warn me of a settlement ahead, and nearing it, the water tower or silo would tell me just which one. 

As I motored on through-out the afternoon, the road changes personality. Sometimes gentle and beautiful, laid back or wistful. Other times busy and full of information, but it was always honest and never greedy. We shared the same space, if only fleetingly, and each understood the other. The end of a days ride was approaching and a small breeze kicked up. A slight change in temperature and the sky turned a cobalt blue. As I pulled in for the night, my head was full of the sights, sounds, and smells of the days ride. I thought of the people met and miles covered, in a similar yet different order and circumstance than yesterday. I was already looking forward to the next morning as a flush of satisfaction washed over me and a wayworn but pleased sense of accomplishment made it all fit into place.