Riding the Pacific Northwest with the Mild and the Wild
The sign at the starting point of Idaho’s Winchester Grade should have been a clue, should have served as an early warning that we were riding into a danger zone- “Closed To Thru Traffic. Locals Only.” We ignored the warning. “Aw, that sign’s been there for years,” one guy quipped. “Yeah, just a little bumpy pavement,” declared another. “The views are worth the road,” chimed in a third. I was thinking, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”
There would be no views, “bumpy” was an understatement, and there was still good reason for that sign, it turned out.
As we rolled up the narrow, twisty road, the mist we began in turned to light rain. We had pulled out in two groups, the “Wild Rose Squad” fast boys first, then the rest of the “Mild Hogs” group after. As it happened, I found myself the front bike in group 2, for the only reason that group 1 left me behind. So here I was, at the lead of group 2, on my second day riding the Pacific Northwest, on a still unfamiliar bike (2003 Honda ST1300), riding with a group of guys I’d just met the day before, and now on an unfamiliar road. In the rain. Oh, did I mention the temp was 44 degrees?
The rain thickened, the curves tightened, and we ascended into a low cloud bank, which meant fog limiting our view to barely 30 yards ahead, and to top it off, we crossed a county line. The new county apparently didn’t invest in roads so much as warning signs, as the pavement (if it can be called such) no longer had yellow center lines nor white outside lines, and was pocked with holes, cracks, open seams, and overlay patches. And I was leading group 2 over this. Nervous? Let’s just say I was squeezing the seat vinyl up into my sphincter most of the way.
The pavement … was pocked with holes, cracks, open seams, and overlay patches.
Halfway up, the front group had pulled over to wait on our group, struggling through the worsening conditions themselves. As the whole group, reunited, proceeded toward the terminus of the road on top of the ridge, I followed Jeff “Machine” Pyper from the front group, matching his every move on his Kawasaki Concourse. When he stuck a toe out, I dodged a pothole. When he stood up, I did too, looking forward farther beyond my soaked windshield. We slowly rolled past any normally clear weather beautiful overlooks, with the overcast completely socked in.
We finally reached the top terminus, and turned into a fuel stop/convenience store outside Winchester, Idaho. We all disembarked, formed a line at the coffee dispenser and Ted, with a wry grin asked, “Rob, are you still my friend?” Yes Ted, I’d like to strangle you right now, but you’re still my friend. At least for the moment.
This was but one road on day two of my week-long ride with these guys. The other later that day was a nervous run up the famed Old Spiral Highway, again in the rain. But more on that later.
My friend and fellow Road Dirt writer Ted Edwards had invited me to join him and his riding group for their annual June road trip months before, and after reading his incredible accounts of riding the Pacific Northwest, I knew I had to make the trek. This is the account of one of the most epic road trips of my life.
I flew across the continent from Atlanta, Georgia to Wenatchee, Washington by way of Seattle, and spent a day with Ted and his wife Vicki before we set out on the journey. My steed was a Honda ST1300, offered for my use by one of Ted’s riding mates. Our first day of riding comprised rolling up out of the beautiful Columbia River valley Wenatchee is nestled in, onto the flat farmlands of southeast Washington to meet up with Ted’s childhood chum Dave in Connell. We then rode hard across the plains through Kahlotus, Starbuck, Dodge and Pomeroy, stopping briefly at Palouse Falls, made famous by pro kayaker Tyler Bradt in his record-setting run over the falls, a 189 ft drop, 17 ft higher than Niagara Falls. This was also the first of numerous times I’d be getting accustomed to rolling the big ST over gravel, as the road down to the falls is not paved, and often trod by cattle. Dodged a couple ourselves on the trek to the falls overlook.
We finally pulled in about 7:00pm to the Snake River Rendezvous, the meet up/jump off point for the annual ride with the Wild Rose Squad (named after a cabin they all shared once on a road trip) of Ted, Dave, Trevor, and chase car Miata driver Aaron, and the Mild Hogs guys of Ted’s dad Don, Terry, Jack, Dave K, and Jeff “The Machine”, in time for a barbecue ribs and potato salad dinner. Mild Hogs might be a misnomer- none ride Harley “Hawgs”, and these older chaps ride any way but mild. These guys have been making annual treks across the Pacific Northwest together for over 25 years, even as elder statesmen retired out and young bucks joined up. There are fathers, sons, and grandfathers in this group, their families connected to each other across miles and decades. I was honored to be among them. They all welcomed me immediately, and I looked forward to touring the tri-state area with them. After the group mapped out the next day’s routes, it was off to bed for me.
Entertaining side note: In the field adjacent to Rendezvous, three horses were grazing near the white fence. Ted brought some nacho chips over to try and coax them closer, reaching across with his tasty offerings. As the horses ambled closer for inspection, I joined in, extending a hand with morsels as well. Suddenly a shock wave zapped through my arm, knotting my hand into a tight fist, and crushing the chips in my palm to powder. I instantly drew back, crumbled chips scattering about, Ted howling with laughter. “And some have to touch the electric fence to see if it really is on,” he quipped, loosely quoting Will Rogers. “At least I didn’t pee on it,” I replied, correcting his quote.
Rain settled in across the region overnight, so the first full day of riding all together would be wet and cold- unusual for this time of year, even for the PNW. We donned our rain gear, which for me was the Sedici Marco Mesh gear I’ve been testing, that I had been very comfortable in the day prior as we crossed the state in 90 degrees and sun. Liners zipped in, layers underneath, the gear would be tested in rain and low 40s temps this day. After breakfast, the group rolled back through Asotin and up to Clarkston following the glorious Snake River Road, across the Snake into Lewiston, Idaho to ride the Winchester Grade, as referenced above. Unwise choice, but we all made it unscathed.
Turning back toward Washington, the rain eased just enough for Ted to suggest several of us make a quick run up the fabled Old Spiral Highway before returning to camp. This tight, technical road was made famous as the inspiration for the old classic song, “Hot Rod Lincoln”, so I was in complete agreement on this choice. Still in light drizzle but otherwise remaining dry and comfortable in my Sedici gear, we wound our way up, albeit somewhat cautiously myself, considering the wet surfaces and still relatively new bike to me. This road is well-surfaced, with spectacular overlooks across the Hell’s Canyon valley. I was picturing the scenes referenced in the song (my fave is the Commander Cody version) as we ascended, and at the summit, we parked together for some photo ops. No sooner had we snapped a few, when heavy clouds closed in and dropped sheets of sleet on us. We opted not to descend down the Spiral (thankfully), but took State 95 back into Lewiston, crossed back into Washington, and followed the Snake River Road 17 miles back out to Rendezvous. Honestly, that road itself was one of my favorites, for its stark, beautiful canyon walls on either side, and its sweeping curves hugging the river. And no sleet.
Rolling Into Oregon
We packed up and rode out of Snake River Canyon, then south out of Asotin down Highway 129 toward the Washington/Oregon state line. Below Anatone, we soon hopped on the tight, twisty descent known as Rattlesnake Grade, through intermittent drizzle and sunlight, with spectacular views across the Grande Ronde River basin. The guys rode down to breakfast at Boggan’s Oasis by the river, but I kept stopping to snap photos, the beauty was so incredible. I finally arrived, a hot cup of coffee and souvenir t-shirt awaiting me.
Following breakfast, we rode up to the misty Hell’s Canyon overlook, then proceeded south, climbing in elevation across Siskiyou Summit, 4310 ft. Temps dropped to 36 degrees, summer snow was scattered about on the road, in the trees and across the hills, but the sun began to peek through the further south we rode. Eventually Route 3 opened up and the landscapes provided long views across rolling high prairie farmlands to mountains beyond. We dodged thick clouds dark and heavy with rain, stopping in Enterprise before riding west on 82 through Wallowa, Elgin, Imbler, and Island City, refueling in La Grande.
To make time, the group slabbed it on I-84 into Baker City, then while the rest of the group made for our 2-night home in Prairie City, the Wild Rose Squad boys wanted to take me across Route 245, known as Dooley Mountain Road, another Upper Left “Tail of the Dragon” style pass. Heeding the warnings of occasional gravel and steep canyon walls, I eased my way up the snaking hairpins, Ted watching over me from behind. It was fairly nerve-wracking for me on a large, top heavy sport tourer, but I negotiated the pass without incident, save the tractor trailer rig pulling a flatbed with a huge backhoe aboard that we had to squeeze around near the high point.
Route 245 soon opens up into wide, fast sweepers as it continues southwest through Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, with posted speed limits of 45, then 55, and 65. Meaning for riders, well, you know. We took Route 26 west to Austin Junction, the sun poking through and bathing us in welcomed light and warmth. We pulled into the roadside Austin House, met a few ADV riders, then blasted south toward Prairie City, stopping at a historic marker for one of the most beautiful vistas I have ever laid eyes upon- a green, verdant valley and the Strawberry Range beyond. Have you ever viewed something of such spectacular magnificence, that tears filled your eyes? I had a moment, right there. Neither pictures nor words can truly capture it.
We continued on into town to our home for two nights, the restored old western lodge of Prairie Rose Guesthouse. This home was first built in 1889, and the town itself posts a population just under 900, so there is a decidedly Old West feel here. We roamed the town and met a local racing legend with a small automotive/cycle shop named Ingo Wedde. Hailing originally from Frankfurt, Germany, Ingo has lived in Prairie City, Oregon for 40+ years, road racing motorcycles all over North America and Europe in his younger days. He even rode for a factory Triumph team for several seasons. We each took turns riding his homemade electric bike around town, and enjoyed nosing around his shop admiring his collection of luxury cars, old motorcycles, and various sculptures he’s made of automotive parts. If you ever visit this town, look for his shop behind the grocery market, Prairie City Motors-Cycles, and drop in for a chat. You’ll be glad you did.
Monday brought more bad news of rain across the tri-state area, but wandering downtown, we found another motorcycle shop on Main Street, run by a guy named Rob (ironically) Tygret and his wife Tesha. Only in town for two years and already friends with Ingo, the Eagles In Flight motorcycle shop moved down from Concrete, Washington, near the Canadian border, and has been embraced by this warm little community. After hanging out with them for about an hour, we found a window forecasted to open over us around 1pm, so everyone raced back to suit and fuel up. We rapidly lit out for Sumpter, the location of the Sumpter Valley Dredging Historic Site, up the wide, fast sweepers of Route 26, then left on equally thrilling Route 7 through Oregon high country to Sumpter on State 73. The gold dredge dug $4.5 million at $35 per troy ounce before being shut down in 1954. This was fascinating, but I wanted to get back on the road, because the fast ride to get there was more fun than we anticipated. And with any rain that floated through finally gone, the ride back to Prairie City was even more brisk than before. I was getting quite comfortable on the big ST1300.
Arriving back in town, most of the group settled back in at the guesthouse, but Ted, Dave, Trevor and me decided to take a chance (the weather appeared to be holding) and make for State 395, the John Day Burns Highway. Running south out of Canyon City, 395 is miles of fast sweepers up a gradual incline, with posted speed limits of anywhere from 30-60 mph, and those speeds are easily exceeded on this well-paved tarmac. But you didn’t hear that from me.
The surface was drying, very little gravel, and lean angles were deepening. I was thinning the chicken strips on the ST. After reaching the high point of the road, which then arcs down behind the Strawberry Mountains, we swung back and rode the whole thing in reverse. Whatever moisture remained on the surfaces had dissipated by our plunge back down, and I found a rhythm in the descent, arcing wide entering turns, diving late into apexes, and straightening to accelerate out, setting up for the next turn down the mountain. It was a thrilling run. We stopped and rummaged through a “mantique” shop in Canyon City, and I picked up three old license plates from the states we’ve been riding. They’ll hang proudly on the wall in my man cave.
These were merely the first four days of our epic road trip. Next week, we’ll share the rest of the journey, with all the grandeur, beauty, thrills and chills of riding “God’s Own Racetrack” known as the Pacific Northwest.
*photos & footage by Aaron Whiteman, Ted Edwards, and Rob Brooks