Gregor Halenda had been running scouting rides through Eastern Oregon and was teasing us with the imagery from each one. Roads that tripped over themselves with switchbacks, forest trails littered with downed trees, a river crossing and mountain passes still capped with snow — truly the perfect mix of tame and wild. It was his final shot, though, that had me — a close-up of a once-knobby rear tire, worn to borderline slick-like conditions. This trip, which Halenda was guiding Bryan Campbell and myself on, wasn’t going to be a leisurely two-wheeled cruise between points of interest. This would be a week of hard riding.
Rolling out of our hotel early on Memorial Day Monday, it took less than 30 miles for my mild hangover to fade and the fun to begin. The four-lane blacktop of Portlandia’s urban sprawl quickly morphed into empty stretches of winding, tree-lined B-roads. As we breached the city limits, the front tire of Gregor’s custom-built all-wheel-drive KTM went skyward before dropping like a green flag. With over 250 miles on today’s docket, we lit the wicks and woke the woods, burning off the slipperiest layers of fresh, dual-sport rubber, sussing out eachother’s riding style and getting to know our bikes for the week.
Gregor’s AWD machine dug in and devoured the dirt, roosting the rest of us right off the hop.
Our first foray into dirt would take place after lunch, just outside of Sisters, OR. Route 4 of the Oregon Backcountry Discovery Route (ORBDR) links the quaint tourist destination of Sisters to the eastern town of Seneca. We wouldn’t be tackling its entirety, but a solid 70 miles lie ahead and we were all itching for a chance get slideways. The ORBDR is the longest trail system winding through Oregon. With some 1,500 miles connecting Washington to California and the Pacific coast to Idaho, there is limitless potential for off-piste adventure throughout its five interconnected routes. Our itinerary only took us through portions of Routes 4 and 5 in Oregon’s Northeast quadrant, but their scenic backdrops and challenging terrain provided more than enough reason to start planning a trip back to the Pacific Northwest. Gregor’s AWD machine dug in and devoured the dirt, roosting the rest of us right off the hop. We each followed suit, spooling up a less impressive one-wheeled rock-slinger of our own, and quickly shot through the Willamette National Forest towards Mitchell and the Painted Hills.
I was the first rider to go down. Water hazards seem to be my Achilles’ heel (on bikes and golf courses alike). Despite crossing dozens without incident, they toy with my psyche every single time. I tense up when I should be riding loose. I know it stems from my first off-road ride. Hammering through a trials-like course in Northern Ontario, on a Yamaha WR250 dirt bike, I was launched and somersaulted over the bars and onto my ass when my front wheel slipped mid-puddle. The bike careened into a tree. I rode away from the incident mud caked and grinning, but I’m old enough now to know it scarred me nonetheless. The dirt lining the bottom of Route 4’s pools was as fine as chocolate icing when dry, and oil slick when wet. I came into the water a touch too hot, and inches from Bryan. When I attempted to scrub speed and got off the throttle, it convulsed the bike forward, pitching it into a slide that was just beyond my abilities to retrieve. My white V-Strom and I, clad in an equally bright Rev’It suit, were both baptized in the bog and I had some more real-world crash testing under my belt. At least I’d gotten it out the way early.
The riding and camaraderie only got better from there. After camping for the night outside of the Painted Hills, our group made tracks for John Day and Prairie City. Most of this day would be on road and less grueling, but that didn’t make it a sacrifice. The winding tarmac with quick dips in and out of dirt proved the perfect pathway to explore the green tapestry woven between the Ochoco Forest, John Day Fossil Beds and Mount Vernon. This was unreal, unbounded exploration — and the best was yet to come.
Climbing from 3,100 feet to 6,800 feet through the Malheur National Forest, and undulating within those limits everywhere between, Route 5, Section 3 of the ORBDR is an awe-inspiring way to spend a morning. Gravel, rocks, hardpack and downed trees made best attempts to keep our eyes pointed downward, but the panorama on display demanded all the attention we could afford. At a stop overlooking the valley, we all quietly tried to capture images and wrap our minds around where we were.
His appearance may not have broadcast his genius, but the guy at the visitor’s center knew what he was talking about. “With those bikes,” he said, looking at our mud-stained rides, “you need to take the Kleinshmidt Grade. Three miles down the road, on your right.” Of course, we blew right by it. Technically in Idaho, the Hells Canyon Road slithers alongside the Snake River for 23 miles of motocross worthy double-track, ending at the hydroelectric dam re-linking the two states. We scouted out the route on our way to the dam, but all bets were off heading back up.
The signs may have read 35 mph and 25 mph, but our speedometers certainly didn’t.
The pace was already aggressive considering our tires, but it quickly progressed to lunacy. Gregor shot by my left side and then quickly passed Bryan. With no other souls on the road ahead, throttle stops were warped, bodies were tucked, double yellows disappeared and apexes were hunted. The signs may have read 35 mph and 25 mph, but our speedometers certainly didn’t. I didn’t think any tarmac could top the Dooley Mountain Highway, but this did. Our post race reward was a dirt-track hill climb — the Kleinshmidt Grade — to an expansive overlook marked by a cross. We drank from hydration packs and soaked in an epic sunset closing in over top of Hells Canyon. It was better than any champagne bath Valentino Rossi could remember.
The final day of our saga continued to the beat of the same Buddy Rich-pounded drum. Trails cutting through the heart of plush greenery and asphalt punctuated with expertly banked sweeping corners and closing radius hairpins. Even the roads that lead to the roads spoiled with vista views and unblemished, meandering tarmac. The journey culminated with lean-angle exploration along the incredibly technical Rowena Crest, before we split volcanic uprights and rode in the shadows of Mounts Hood and St. Helens through the Lolo Pass.
At the end of our adventure, showered, clean and straddling a bar stool we spoke about the journey. Specifically, we talked of why the motorcycle is often the best choice for tackling this style of road trip. Sure, any CUV equipped with a modicum of ground clearance and all-wheel-drive could populate the same trails and roads we explored along the way, but on bikes we were cocooned by the entirety of our surroundings. We became a part of the landscape. The thick, damp cedar forest air and the thawing, mud-scented musk of the ground permeated us — even when we weren’t crashing into it. Gear was soaked through with the sweat of fear and exertion and each bike very much became a close friend, and I’ll take two-wheeled risk and reward over dual-zone climate control and a Febreeze vent-clip any day.
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