Two Lifelong Friends Strafe The Undulating Roads Of East Oregon
Close your eyes and visualize Oregon. What does your mind see? Picturesque lighthouses standing watch on jagged coastlines? Liberal urbanites of Portland? Westward expansion along the Oregon Trail? Tall timber forests full of battling loggers and protesters?
No matter what your mind’s eye sees, you are both right and wrong. True, Oregon is all of those things but there is, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story.
The conestoga wagon memorial outside Prairie City, Oregon commemorates those hearty enough to homestead in Oregon’s wild country. Some died of dysentery on the way. At least that’s what happened every time I played the computer game.
Oregon’s beauty belies its harsh upbringings. Alluring mountains of the Cascade Range are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire that helped forge this land and these sleeping, snow capped mountains still hide cauldrons of lava in their bellies. Out of Oregon’s 40+ volcanoes, Crater Lake, Mt. Hood, Newberry Volcano and the trio of mountains known as The Three Sisters appear on the U.S. Geological Survey’s “very high threat” list. For frame of reference, number one on that list is Hawaii’s Kilauea. Dormant volcanoes? Maybe. Or maybe they are just silent, patient hunters.
The Cascade Mountain Range splits Oregon down the middle and to the east, hidden in plain sight, scattered everywhere like prized golden eggs, are roads. Glorious roads. The best roads in the United States are here, tossed about on the east half of the state like spaghetti on a table as they undulate over Oregon’s mountains, though canyons, alongside forests and past rolling farmlands with few towns around. Stunning and wonderful, this is God’s own racetrack.
Eastern Oregon is all I can think about after weeks of being homebound. I try to satiate my vagabond spirit by working in the garage and fixing issues with the 1966 Mustang, playing with the welder and fettling the motorcycles. I have nowhere to go and can’t go anywhere.
Every day the bikes are with me in the garage, staring back at me, monumental reminders of their potential for adventure. Sitting still and twitchy, they are coiled tight like sprinters waiting for the firing of the starter’s gun and I want to pull the trigger. I know what they are thinking: like wayward sons, we all want to return to eastern Oregon.
This view of the Strawberry Mountains south of Prairie City is not unique. Painfully pretty landscapes repeat themselves endlessly through eastern Oregon.
So I pull the trigger.
I present a plan to my cousin Dave “White Girl” Wensveen. White Girl is an ironic nickname since he is half-Dutch, half-Mexican (try finding that combination on your census survey) and how he earned the nickname is its own story for different time. Also, he is technically not my cousin but explaining that truth is, well, its own story for different time. It’s complicated. All that needs to be said is we have both been into motorcycles since we were kids cheating each other during all night Monopoly games. He is a lifelong friend and an ideal riding partner. So I ask and he is in.
We decide to moto-camp to isolate ourselves and stay in John Day, Oregon, putting all of eastern Oregon within striking distance. Hwy. 395 leaves town to the south and, despite being a major highway, succumbs to the ethos of the eastern Oregon road. We don’t waste a second. Within thirty minutes of unpacking our gear, we take off.
Southbound the road hugs appropriately named Canyon Creek and is camberless, smooth asphalt with a speed limit of 65 mph which on a road this tight is not a limit, it’s a goal. A 25 mile teaser of the future, it’s a perfect match for our bikes.
I have never been to eastern Oregon and not been stopped by a cattle drive. Macy, the teenage cowgirl on the right, was rather bored with the herd’s progress. So were we. After a long staredown with the bull of the herd, we crossed our fingers and rode through the middle. And yes, the fact that our VFRs are “charge at me” red did cross my mind.
Dave and I both ride Honda VFRs, mine a 1998 and his a 2001. In numerous ways, the 5th generation Honda VFR produced from 1998-2001 was the first modern sportbike: fuel injection, partial digital display, a single sided swingarm pivoting through the engine’s rear crankcase, side mounted radiators, gear driven cams and a V-four engine, many technological innovations that trace their roots to Honda’s racing development. When ridden properly, it displays it’s HRC genetics and on this 25 mile canyon sprint, the VFR talks to me.
“Trail brake me so I can turn quicker,” the bike says, “and slide that butt cheek off the seat. Dig that outside knee into the gas tank. Get your torso down. Yeah, that’s better.” Ridden this way, the VFR reacts differently, revealing the racing roots in its family tree. It is neither track weapon nor soggy tourer, but a sport bike just comfortable enough to spend all day on. Freed from the garage it is as happy to gallop as the nearby horses looking up from their afternoon hay.
At the end of the road, we turn around and ride the whole thing again back again, arriving at camp just before a lighting storm rocks our world, a blunt reminder from eastern Oregon that we are not in charge here. The trip could end now and if it did, we could cry victory.
Morning comes with blue skies left still by the passing thunderstorm. We head north, then east though rolling farmland, forests and towns with populations smaller than most elementary schools. As we roll though them, Dave and I debate whether we are riding though an actual town or just a loose conglomeration of barns.
The sparse nature of eastern Oregon demonstrated by the population chart. White Girl and I agreed that some of the numbers were a bit optimistic.
Out here there is little difference. Land is plentiful and fertile, spreading farm and cattle operations randomly throughout the landscape until they are everywhere and yet nowhere, always around yet separated by tens of miles. Tiny towns spring up occasionally only as places for the farmers and ranchers to congregate, talk, and resupply. The town of Fossil, Oregon is one of those places.
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument towers over the road from Fossil to Antelope.
Named for the nearby John Day fossil beds, Fossil has a store, a gas pump and movie theater information written on a scrap of paper then scotch taped to a window, even though the movie has been out of most theaters for a while. It’s 473 residents don’t seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere or do anything. Like me when I was sequestered in my garage, they have nowhere to go but anywhere. I look at them and wonder if they have any idea they are sitting on the starting line of an asphalt beast.
I guess the movie starts when people show up?
I’m about ready to start the Fossil Highway and I have butterflies. I’ve daydreamed about this moment for weeks while sheltering in my garage, grumbling as I dismantle Mustang doors or weld plant hangers. Physically I’m in my garage but in my mind, I’m leaving Fossil. White Girl and I gas up and head out.
At the beginning, it’s typical Oregon farms with hills, fast pavement and wide sweepers. Then a 2nd gear hairpin jumps at us out of nowhere with a banking like Daytona. Setting the tone, it’s a wake up call for the game.
So it begins. For 35 miles westbound towards the hamlet of Antelope there is a never ceasing buffet of black curves that relentlessly alternate. A left never follows a left, it’s left-right-left-right and on, and on, and on, every curve reassuringly cambered with few straightaways. Slightly rough tarmac gives us all the grip we want and chews the edges of our pricey tires to pieces in exchange. It weaves through dry brown hills and around deep green fields beneath painfully blue skies. Tiny black cows endlessly dot the roadside pasturelands like someone spilled a giant vat of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Sometimes, they even stop chewing and raise their heads to look at us.
This is what I see when I daydream about a perfect day on the bike.
We don’t dare look back. White Girl and I are working hard to strafe curves that seem to get shot at us like we are still and the Earth is rotating beneath us. It’s sight our entry point, wait a bit longer, then hard on the brakes, hit our mark and trail the brake off gradually as we gain lean angle, then pick up the bike as we add gas, then quickly switch to the other side of the saddle and repeat it again, rolling on the gas at the exit to make wonderful music.
About that music. There are sounds every gearhead should agree as the greatest of all time: the roar of a Packard V-1650 Merlin engine in a P-51D Mustang, the scream of a Formula 1 Ferrari 3.0L V-12, and the Honda V-4 at full song.
Our twin VFRs ditched their stock exhausts long ago and when we exit a corner together, the combined baritone roar echoes off the towering walls of the John Day fossil beds and out into space, a deep, barky howl where most expect a shrill scream. The tandem roar of our half-a-mini V-8s are a concert of gasoline become noise and speed. Sometimes, I wish I could stand by the side of the road and hear us both pass by. The sound is so addicting that I refuse to upshift, I just want to imbibe the vibe.
We thought you might enjoy this as much as we do.
We attract attention from more than just baby cows. Around here, people are used to tall, silent adventure bikes or popping herds of cruisers. Our pair of touring sportbikes are a throwback to a motorcycle category that, like the plants and animals turned rock in the John Day fossil beds, is (mostly) extinct. When a pair of fast, red, growly bikes shoot by, heads turn and people wave.
Everyone here waves. Even though we ride like hooligans, the locals wave with glee. People on tractors wave, pedestrians wave, even drivers of cars in our lane wave us by so we can pass. It seems there are so few people here that when another human being is sighted the excitement is so overwhelming that everyone waves.
We reach the terminus of the road in Antelope and the air smells of heated rubber laced with the acrid tinge of hot brakes while we first bump, sigh and get a drink with few words exchanged. Our riding speaks for us. Happily exercised VFRs rest on their kickstands and cool down while Dave and I scan for any of Antelope’s 48 residents. We see exactly one.
Long since abandoned, the Antelope Garage’s patina speaks of better days.
It wasn’t always this way. Antelope is the sight of what has to be the strangest episode in Oregon and possibly U.S. history. In 1981, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh uprooted his commune from India and transplanted them in this desolate part of Oregon, overrunning Antelope. What happened next goes from strange, to bizarre, to terrorism, then assassination attempt and nearly war. Captured in the documentary “Wild Wild Country”, the history plays in my mind as I stand in the playground of the abandoned school.
Happy children once played here on the slide, swing and merry-go-round, outdoor relics of another time since these toys are now considered dangerous. I spin the rusty, splintered merry-go-round and it wearily creaks to life like an old ghost. Oh the stories this equipment, the school and the town could tell. Like everything eastern Oregon, they are rugged, isolated survivors. Nothing weak lives for long out here.
The schoolhouse in Antelope where Rajneesh and town resident’s differing cultures collided, almost violently. Everything here is constantly worn down by the weather but ironically-and not surprisingly-the American flag is brand new.
We speed back to Fossil, then to our camp for cigars and drinks by the fire with stories told late into the night. When Dave and I were small, who would have guessed that many decades later we would still be together, riding matched bikes, navigating this wonderful terrain. The world is a strange place.
Next morning we traverse east to Dooley Mountain Road. Dave has never been so I give him the warning: Dooley Mountain can eat you. Oregon’s “Little Dragon” has over 170 turns in one 15 mile section and in typical Oregon tradition, is not for the feeble.
Smooth banked curves hide mid-corner gravel. Seductively tight turns line cliff edges where trees stripped of their greenery by forest fire poke up like deadly toothpicks waiting to skewer bike and rider like cocktail treats. Go too fast here and risk becoming shish-kabob.
Dooley Mountain Road, waiting for victims.
At one of the rare pullouts I stop to take a photo and turn my head as my ears hear Dave’s hustling VFR rev-match a downshift. He rounds a left at full lean, hugging the wall with nothing to the right side but open air. This is when it hit me.
We are balancing machines with over 100 horsepower, barely over 500 pounds on only two contact patches the size of a pair of credit cards. We sprint at stupid speeds towards cliffs only to grab a handful of front brake at the last second and flick the whole thing over to avoid a very long flight into nothingness with plenty of air time to consider what the hell went wrong. We roll the dice like this hundreds of times a day. And enjoy it. This is not normal behavior.
As I watch him, it is the only time during the tour that I feel afraid. Motorcycling, like Oregon, can be both lovely and cruel. Dooley Mountain Road, like the dozens of volcanoes in Oregon’s Cascade Range, is beautiful but could kill you if it wanted to.
Singer/songwriter Mat Kearney is from Oregon and his ode to his home state, “Coming Home” plays in my headphones as we strafe back to camp for the last time. As it fills my helmet, his lyrics seem to be written for this moment:
The Northwest air brings the fast boys to town.
Be like fire on the Cascades
When our feet touch the ground.
I’m coming home to the place that I remember
Back to the land of my first love.
Would you spread wide your arms for this wayward son
I left my heart in Oregon.
This land has been in my heart for years and now it is in Dave’s. Once discovered, it stays with you always.
Then White Girl and I went home. And left our hearts in Oregon.
I’m sure East Oregon could get better, I’m just not sure how.