15 November 2008

Two roads to Riggins

This is the final post detailing the ride that I took back in July to Central Idaho. The first two posts "A positive experience" and "If I was Calvin and Hobbes was a tall green bike" told of my experiences with the gentleman on the Harley from Mountain Home, Idaho and the confused fly-fisherman as he watched me exiting the wilderness like I was Sasquatch or some other strange critter. This post is a little more lengthy than I would like but, I really wanted to get it finished before next July.

I sat there on my bike smiling, idling in the middle of the road, my left hand holding in the clutch lever and my right index and middle finger gently pulling the opposite lever for the brake. After what must’ve been at least a good hour or so of riding a quiet, meandering two lane highway through the woods of Central Idaho, I arrived at an intersection in the middle of nowhere. I was smiling because of the two signs that divided the Tee in the road; the upper sign, pointing to the left and showing the way along a continuation of the same paved road that I had been navigating read, “Riggins-62 miles”, the lower sign pointing to the right and showing a more primitive route along a well groomed forest service road read, “Riggins-28 miles”. I have seen a lot of different things in my travels, but this is the first time that I can recall seeing something like this. Maybe it’s more common than I realize maybe it’s common in those places such as this, where towns are far and few between and the roads all lead to the same destination? Two obviously different means to an end, and I had to make a decision.

The sun had passed the halfway point in the sky and had begun its descent to the west, my G.P.S. displayed that the time was 1344 hours, more importantly, the distance from where I stood there idling on that quiet forest highway to my driveway was 203 miles away. I had the G.P.S. set up to measure straight line distances, “As the crow flies” if you will, but crows seldom fly in straight lines and neither did my bike and I, simply put, I was long way from home and I had to be back to work tomorrow. I didn’t know exactly where I was but I did know where Riggins was, it was either 62 miles away or 28 miles away depending on how you read the signs. I knew how long it would take me to get home from Riggins once I got there, but I had to get there first. If I turned around and went back the same way that I came, all adventure was lost, If I turned to the left, staying on the paved road, I knew that I could be in Riggins in roughly an hour or so, if I turned right, there were a lot more variables. Missing forest service signs allowing me to lose my route, rough terrain, or closed roads, any number of things could prolong my “28 mile” route. Turning around was already discovered territory, turning left was a pretty sure bet at an accurate ETA, however, turning right was one of the reasons I bought my KLR. Without hesitation, I turned right.

The Forest service road had a fresh layer of pea sized gravel on it, which in most cases would have made for a pretty comfortable ride; the loose gravel however, made things a little squirrelly for me initially. Perhaps this was magnified only because of the pampering that I received by the previous 70 miles of perfect asphalt. For the first ten miles or so, I had my attention solely on how the bike and I were reacting and adjusting to the gravel, after that, I settled down a bit and began to enjoy the ride.

Traveling in a Southwesterly direction, it was becoming more and more evident that I was leaving the thick forests that I had been riding through for most of the morning and steadily approaching Hells Canyon, the scent of pine was giving way to the pungent aroma of sagebrush and within a half an hour I was rolling out of the forest and across the high prairie on the northeastern slope of Hells Canyon.

Hells Canyon is roughly a ten mile wide canyon that is located on the Eastern Oregon, Western Idaho border. It is the deepest river gorge in North America at almost 8000 feet in its deepest areas. I was not exactly on the eastern slope of the main canyon, the most widely accepted part of what is known as “Hells Canyon” lies farther south-southwest, I was descending down the spine of a hogs back shaped slope at the southwest corner of the Camas prairie into one of the side canyons that most locals may or may not recognize as the beginning of the canyon, depending on who you talk to; things definitely start to go downhill from here though and regardless of what it was named, it was indeed a canyon.

It can be difficult to remember, sitting here at my computer in the middle of November, what may have occupied my thoughts at that specific time as I made my descent into the broad mouth of the canyon. My journal offers my best recollection as to what I was observing while I rested for a moment in the shade of a small stand of fir trees.

“Water break: temperatures I would guess to be right around 85 degrees, a little too warm for my favorite jacket, just about right for my ventilated mesh gear. There is a slight breeze out of the south, really feels quite pleasant. The base of the canyon looks extremely hot, I can see the heat radiating below me, rising up from the depths, refracting the view of the steep prairie slopes on the opposite side. I can see the thin black silhouette of Oregon to the south and Washington State to the Northwest. The sky at this elevation is a brilliant blue and nearly cloudless save for the thunderheads building up to the north near Grangeville. Don’t really look forward to going down into that canyon, it looks really hot down there, but it’s the quickest way out. I can see White bird grade from here, my way out, looks to be a good five miles away straight across on the other side.”

As I stowed my journal and water bottle back in the saddlebag, I pulled out my point and shoot camera and took a quick picture from the saddle of my bike. With the naked eye, I could follow the road that I was on, from where I was perched, nearly to the base of the canyon; it was all down hill from here to the bottom. With the camera secured in the tail bag, I nudged the transmission into neutral and gave the bike a gentle push and we were moving again, coasting quietly into the canyon, powered only by the gravitational pull of the eastern slope; the only sounds were the wind across my helmet the crunching of the gravel beneath my wheels and the buzz of my chain against the sprockets. Occasionally my tires would pick up a few pebbles and throw them into the fenders or out ahead of me and my bike. About halfway down, the heat began to lick up under my helmet, reminding me why I escaped into the high country earlier in the day, by the time we reached the bottom, the heat was stifling, I turned on the ignition, shifted the bike into third gear, let out the clutch and we were off, cruising along on engine power once again and desperately looking for the nearest ramp to get up onto Route 195. It was obvious to me at this point that I must have made a few wrong turns, one of the indicators was my odometer had indicated an additional 10 miles to the projected 28 that the sign pointing the way to Riggins had shown. The other was that I had not made it to Riggins, instead, I found myself arriving in the small community of Lucille, a few miles north of my intended destination. Basically this meant that it had taken me ten miles farther to travel to the closer town, go figure.

There isn’t much to the town of Lucille; nestled at the foot of the White bird grade, I would guess the population of this community to be maybe 50 to 100 inhabitants max. Tucked in firmly where the east and west slopes diverge, there is little room for expansion in this town, corralled by the canyon walls, the only direction to look any notable distance is up. A few tightly grouped homes, a small post office with whitewashed cedar lap and a brick saloon made up the whole of Lucille.

Nothing stirred at this hour and in this heat; a few late model pick-up trucks parked in the driveways were the only evidence that maybe I wasn’t alone in this community. The heat was absurd; every breath reminded me of the rush of hot air that follows when you open the door to a woodstove, exposing the coals, instinctively forcing you to withdrawal from the flame, the air was very hot and dry. Finding the on-ramp to 195 at the far end of town was my ticket out of this furnace, it was time to head north for home.

Shifting through the gears, we accelerated onto the highway merging into the left-hand lane and staying there, passing the long and slow caravan of Motor homes and Semi-trucks clawing their way up the grade over in the right-hand lane. Carrying me confidently on her back, my bike climbed out of the radiating depths of Hell’s canyon like a Homesick Angel. Every foot in elevation that my G.P.S. added, I could feel the subsequent drop in temperature and I actually began to feel the chill of my sweat under my helmet and riding gear as we made our ascent up the grade, it was wonderful! Something else that comforted me was that the temperature gauge on the bike in this triple digit heat while climbing a 6% grade never exceeded the half-way mark.

The closer I came to the rim, the darker the skies had become. Those thunderheads that I had noticed during my break on the eastern slope were now a large thunderstorm, no doubt, I was going to get wet.
As if almost on cue, the moment I exited the rim of the canyon and leveled out back up onto the Camas prairie, the first drops of water began streaking across my face shield.

Thinking back, I don’t know what left its broadest imprint on that moment of the ride; whether it was the cooling effect of the road spray on my exposed neck, the scent of the lavender fields that I found myself riding through at that same moment on the western slope or the metallic taste in the air created by the sudden summer rainfall against the hot asphalt of the highway; maybe it was the combination of all of those things.

The remainder of the ride from the southern tip of the Camas prairie back home to my Palouse country was the familiar routine that I always descend comfortably into at the beginning of any long leg of a trip. Settling the bike into a smooth canter; my right and left index fingers eventually find themselves resting atop the clutch and brake levers, my lower back arched, coaxing my chest gently into the wind and my feet perched comfortably up on the pegs with the heel of my right boot always seeming to find itself resting against the bracket of the rear brake reservoir, and my imagination wandering off to countless places during the course of the ride and following no particular order.

14 hours from the time that I began my ride that morning, I pulled back into my driveway and dismounted the bike. My body was shattered from the prolonged heat and I was looking forward to spending the rest of the evening in the air conditioned comfort of my house with my dog, a Rib-eye steak and a baseball game. I took a step back to look at my bike one last time before going inside. She ran pretty much non-stop for the past 14 hours and was covered with 450 miles of road grime and tar and over 100 miles of Central Idaho’s finest dirt, through it all, she didn’t miss a beat. I was done for the day, but the bike sat there poised on her side stand like she was ready to go for another 14 hours. I love that bike.

As I made my way to the front door of the house, jacket unzipped and helmet off, I reflected on the various moments of the ride. With every step towards the house I thought of a different experience; every step reflected back to the man on the Pearlescent white Road King, and of thick forest canopies, and bewildered fly-fisherman. With every foot fall, my memory returned to the descent down the eastern slope of the canyon, the stifling heat at its base and the escape out the other side, out onto the western slope of the Camas prairie, of lavender fields and the blessing of a summer’s rain. Walking up my front steps to my door I thought to myself just as I turned the handle and pushed the door open to be greeted by my German shepherd, “Today was a good day.”

Ride well