“The more vast the amount of time we’ve left behind us, the more irresistable is the voice calling us to return to it.”
– Milan Kundera
By now I have adapted to the scramble to simultaneously close my classroom and ready my bike for annual Mild Hogs June ride, seven days on the roads of eastern Oregon, but it’s all worth it once underway. Despite riding these roads for many years, they still call to me across their vast, empty, rolling plains, begging me to return. I dare not disappoint.
Saturday morning, I made the rendezvous with the Wenatchee contingent of the Mild Hogs riding group. Main hog Terry Hammond was on his Aprilia, Jack Larkin on his Yamaha FJR, my step-brother Todd Shiﬂett with his classic 1994 VFR750 and my father Don Edwards on his ST1300. We planned to congregate in Ukiah, Oregon by 1:30 that afternoon with the far eastern chapter of the Mild Hogs, Jeff Pyper on his Kawasaki Concours, Dave Kelley on his FJR and my brother-in-law Trevor Alexander piloting his 2006 VFR800. Our group wanted to be the ﬁrst ones at the rendezvous point, so we decided to push the pace from the start.
If I ever ﬁnd the inventor of heated gear, I will buy him a scotch. The June weather leaving Wenatchee was deceptive; sunny, but with temps in the mid-40’s. With the push of a few buttons, my heated grips and heated jacket made me appreciate the science and engineering majors I knew in college. Little did I know, ﬁring up the heated gear would be a daily theme the entire trip.
We bombed through ﬂat, pretty farm land in Quincy to ﬂat out ugly land in Hanford and Benton City, which made me appreciate anyone who studied irrigation and land management in college. Once in Oregon, we tackled Butter Creek road which, like its name, started out with buttery smooth asphalt, but soon degraded into my nemesis: chip seal. It is a well-documented fact that I attract chip seal like a trailer park attracts tornados. If you ask anyone I ride with, they will tell you that if you follow my taillights long enough, we will, at some point, ride on that evil concoction of tar and gravel. If I could have found the inventor of chip seal in college, I would have forced him to ride a motorcycle on his creation.
Nevertheless, the road is twisty, the weather warms up, my spirits thaw and I decide to take off my heated jacket. After all, it is mid-June, right? Isn’t it supposed to warm up? Big mistake.
We headed south on highway 395 towards our convergence point of Ukiah, Oregon when the rain, sleet and snow hit. How can there be sleet and snow mid-June? I pulled over, donned not only my heated gear, but also my rain gear. Sleet pelted my helmet like someone shooting me with a pellet gun on full automatic. Once fully suited and resembling the Stay-Puft marshmallow man from Ghostbusters, I was tempted to speed up catch the rest of the group. Fat chance. Doing the speed limit in the sleet and snow was not an option. Neither was seeing the road. I was fearful that a log truck with 20 year old wiper blades would come barreling up behind me while I struggled to do 35 mph, signaling a trip to the E.R. and a call to my next of kin. My survival technique was to aim for where there were no trees since I ﬁgured that gap would be the most likely to have pavement. It worked. Mercifully, the sleet and snow stopped after about 20 minutes and when I found dry pavement I used the right twist grip to speed up and dry off. At least, that was my pre-planned excuse should one of Oregon’s ﬁnest decide to inquire.
I arrived in Ukiah to ﬁnd the rest of my group waiting for me and I quickly peeled away layer after layer of Gore-Tex and Cordura. I had to pee for the last 30 miles and the driving rain didn’t help.
When the far eastern contingent ﬁnally appeared in Ukiah, we joined forces and continued south along 395 to ﬁnally get in some real riding. Despite being a major highway, 395 south of Ukiah is as twisty as any eastern Oregon road. Todd, Trevor and I took the lead and started to put some heat into the tires. That is, until a pair of deer put some heat into Todd’s shorts.
Two of the bothersome rodents decided that the middle of the road was a good place to play Frogger. One deer made a wise choice and made a break for the side of the road; the other deer, not so much. I can only assume that the remaining deer was enamored with the technological marvel that is gear driven cams and wanted to observe all three of our VFRs up close. Todd would have preferred otherwise. The road rat ﬁnally changed its mind and made a break for the barbed wire fence, getting wedged mid-way at the chest. Now I felt sorry for the deer, but also grateful that it will spend the next few minutes ruining a perfectly good future set of deerskin moccasins and not playing Frogger with the rest of the group behind us.
Our group rolled into the tiny town of Prairie City, Oregon shortly afterwards, likely doubling the town’s population. As we constructed burritos for dinner, Todd decided that he wanted to assuage his brush with death by eating as much as humanly possible for the rest of the trip, starting right the heck now. His burrito was so big that one tortilla could not contain it, so he wrapped a second tortilla at an angle around the ﬁrst one, like a bias-ply tire, thus inventing what the Mild Hogs now call the Bias-Ply Burrito. An upgraded belted radial version is in the prototype stage. Todd, Trevor and I attempted to work off dinner with a game of horse on the shortened basketball hoop mounted in the gravel driveway. None of us are very good, and we had indulged in way too many burritos and single malt, so despite the hoop being only 8’ off the ground, we could hardly make a basket. Or ﬁnd the hoop. Or keep score. How do you spell horse again? Nursing the inevitable food and scotch induced coma, we put ourselves to sleep watching Dust to Glory on Netﬂix. Best movie ever.
The temperature Sunday morning was 31.7 degrees. Did somebody forget to notify Oregon that it was mid-June, not mid-January? After much stalling, guzzling of coffee (and a few aspirin) and Todd perfecting the steel belted version of Bias-Ply Breakfast Burrito, we headed for dazzling, twisty and terminally ﬂawed Austin Junction, a.k.a. The Cow Chip Highway.
I have never been on The Cow Chip Highway and not been caught in a cattle drive. Anyone who believes that the old west is dead needs to ride here. Most riders negotiate blind corners and anticipate oncoming cars, maybe a deer playing Frogger, but on The Cow Chip Highway, its cattle drives right down the middle of the asphalt. Usually I can ﬁnd a path through the cattle herd without pissing off the bull (a skill not taught in your typical MSF course). Not this time. On this day, the herd we encountered was so thick and so many cattle were being forcibly mounted so often that the group wisely gave way and bid retreated to a nearby pullout. Or, as my ex-Marine dad would quote, “We didn’t retreat, we just advanced in the opposite direction”.
Except Terry. He wagered that the large tailpipe on his Aprilia did not too closely resemble a mounting point for the horny bull in the herd and hugged the shoulder to make his way through. However, I would have paid big money to hear him explain to the local Aprilia dealer (of which there are none in eastern Oregon) how he got bull semen into his Aprilia’s exhaust. Terry was now on one side of the herd with us on the other. Terry rode off, abandoning the group, never to be seen again until the end of the day.
We stick together for brotherhood and safety in this rugged and remote land. We count heads at every stop because no one wants to be left by the side of the road with a broken bike or a broken body. Terry’s abandonment would be a bone of contention the rest of the trip. We all agreed to not let Terry babysit our kids at a swimming pool.
After the herd passed, we let loose on The Cow Chip Highway. Or should I say, got loose. There is enough loose chip seal (did I mention that I attract chip seal) and cow pies that I thanked my dirt bike roots. It did not take much throttle to break the back end loose and I hung off the bike as much as possible to take away lean angle and keep the bike upright wile accelerating out of each corner. The back end wiggled enough under just mild throttle that Jeff commented on the frequency of the back end of my VFR stepping out. Occasionally, both ends slid and I maximized my focus on good throttle control (thank you Keith Code). Focus, throttle, and pucker.
Cow poo was everywhere. It covered our tires, rims, brake calipers, fender wells, clogged our radiators and even ﬂung on my jacket and helmet, my penalty for following Trevor too closely. Yet, we high ﬁved, celebrated and could not wipe the s#@!-eating grin off our faces, pun intended.
Next, we turned south on 395, then west through Long Creek, Monument and Kimberly, then on highway 26 back to Prairie City. Once there, Todd, Trevor and I washed the cow pies off the bikes, jackets and helmets and joined the rest of the Mild Hogs by the ﬁre. The company of brothers, a glowing ﬁre, good burgers, single malt scotch, a cheap cigar and a toast to fallen brothers provided the perfect answer to the unending question of why we do such bizarre things.
That night, the Netﬂix motorcycle movie of choice was Road, the documentary about the Dunolp family. It seems to me that if your last name is Dunlop, you are born with your right hand in the shape of a twist grip followed by a spectacular but painful road racing career ﬁlled with death and victory, sometimes only a few days apart. This is my reminder to focus on the present and why I ride.
Monday was bitter cold again. This is June, right? Time to ﬁre up the heated gear. Given the weather, Todd, Trevor, my dad and I decided to do a short loop with less miles and more sightseeing while Jeff, Jack, Terry and Dave waited for a good weather window to head south. Our destination took us east on highway 26 to investigate the ghost town of Whitney. Hard to believe, but one house in the abandoned town was actually for sale. Go ﬁgure.
We blitzed through more great roads to Sumpter to check out the historic gold dredge. The remote and rugged town, named after the Fort Sumpter of civil war fame, once had a population over 2,000 in its gold mining heyday, but now has about 200. The mining dredge is a stoic reminder of the boom times and looks like a wooden steamboat from hell, complete with heavy iron buckets, wrist-thick steel cables and enough pulleys, pipes, wood and iron to confuse their purpose and yet, only one tiny ﬁre extinguisher. OSHA would have a ﬁt. In its lifetime it extracted over 126,000 ounces of gold, so something must have worked right.
As hard as it was to leave that mammoth machine, the mythically evil Dooley mountain road lay in wait for us. With 180 turns in 18 miles, it is our Tail of the Dragon and it sounds like a sport bike rider’s dream, but it is as beautiful and deadly as a rattlesnake defending its territory. Defend it does, baited with gravel-lined hairpins and lethal drop-offs. This is one road where you absolutely do not make a mistake. The reward for lack of focus here is a log truck coming the opposite direction, trailer crossing center stripe into your lane. Or, a mandatory 100 foot drop off leading to pine trees sticking up like Vietnam era punji sticks. There is no shoulder, no room for error, just great pavement, a pocket of mid-corner gravel, then a sheer drop. Focus, good line choice and ﬁne throttle control are the way through. Trevor’s focus lapsed for a nanosecond entering a hairpin and he butt-puckered enough to pull the fabric in his new Corbin seat up into a volcano shape. Time to dial it back and focus, all of us.
Tuesday morning was cold, again. With drizzle, again. Because it’s June, so why not? Did I already mention how much I like heated gear? We arrived that morning at Baker City for breakfast where we ﬁnally convinced Todd to get his front tire headshake resolved. He had been nursing the wobble since day one of the ride and was trying to ride around it, but the imbalance had reached critical mass and needed to be dealt with. Todd, Trevor and I split from the group and found a local bike shop where the teenager gave us a massive middle ﬁnger saying that they will not balance a tire that was not purchased from them, citing liability reasons. In other words, you didn’t buy your tire from us, so we won’t help you out. However, it seemed to me more of a liability to send a bike that actively wants tank slap you into oblivion back on the road for another 1200 miles of high speed twisty roads.
Our riding group has our own tire changer and balancer that we use regularly. We all mount and balance our own tires and have likely done more tire swaps than the teenager who shooed us away. Not to mention that Todd Shiﬂett (a.k.a. The Carb Whisperer) has been a professional power sports mechanic from birth. He was seen TIG welding in his ultrasound, and can mount and balance a motorcycle tire in Indy Car pit stop time with a beer in one hand and cigar in his mouth. I have witnessed it ﬁrsthand. Impressive stuff.
Fortunately, our next attempt at a nearby shop revealed real mechanics. They tossed Todd some DynaBeads and an air hose and let him do his magic in the parking lot. I offered chocolate as payment into their greasy hands, which they didn’t refuse. My kind of guys.
The rest of the group had gone ahead without us, so once ﬁnished, we used our delay as an excuse to exercise the top of our power bands. All 3 of our VFRs howled a V-four exhaust note that made roadside cattle turn their heads and inspired them to make a cow pie or two. Fine by me, as long as it doesn’t end up on the road. From Baker City to Brownlee dam to Cambridge, Idaho, the 3 of us fell into a perfect symphony of sound, spacing and focus as we ate miles and annihilated corners. We could not wipe the grins away.
Our pit stop in Baker City took over well over an hour, but I know we made good pace since when we found the rest of the group at McCall, Idaho I asked my dad how long they had been waiting for us. He silently pointed to his convenience store coffee he was drinking. He had just taken the ﬁrst sip.
It felt good to have the group reassembled for the run into Fred Deal’s cabin in Warm Lake, Idaho. He facetiously describes it as a cabin, but log home dream mansion is more ﬁtting. It also happens to be at the terminus of one of the best kept motorcycle secrets in the northwest: Warm Lake road. Pure sport touring heaven, its perfect pavement, banked hairpins, and zero shoulder makes sure you focus only on the present; not the past corner, not the next corner, just the corner you are on Right Now. Here, conﬁdence in your level of grip and your skill set is needed to eradicate fear. However, what happened after we arrived really put the squirt in my shorts.
There is only one lodge at Warm Lake, accessed mainly by dirt roads. Since our group had already ridden the dirt road into Fred’s remote cabin on our sporbikes, none of us were anxious to remount. Fred, Milt Herman (who was staying with Fred) and the other ﬁve riders, piled into Fred’s small car like college students packing onto a Volkswagen Beetle. This left Todd, Trevor and I with the unsavory options of riding our trio of VFRs like dirtbikes, walk, or starve. That is, until we spotted the unsuspecting quad in the basement. Nothing good happened next.
Todd drove and Trevor rode on the back rack of the quad which unweighted the front wheels, eliminating that thing we take for granted called “steering”. Since that seemed important, I sat on the front rack in an attempt to regain steering control. Evidently, my left handed-ness makes the left half of my body signiﬁcantly heavier than my right, enough to make Todd panic shout, “She’s pulling to the left!” I slid to the right, which also had the added beneﬁt of allowing Todd to see where he was going. Pure panic set in on the ﬁrst attempt to negotiate a corner until we discovered that Trevor and I needed to lean like monkeys in a sidecar to get the quad to even remotely think of steering. More yelling ensued at the ﬁrst muddy patch of road and Trevor got caked with mud, for which he ofﬁcially labeled Todd a sunofabitch. I soon realized that if I didn’t hold my legs straight out in front in a plank position, the giant lugs on the quad’s mud tires would’ve sucked in my motorcycle boots, with me not far behind. Todd informed me that should I get sucked under, he could stop the quad, but only after the dreaded thump-thump that would signal my trip to the E.R. and a phone call to my next of kin. I was more afraid on that quad than I had been on any part of the trip.
After we miraculously arrived at dinner unscathed, Todd continued his theme of eating his way through brushes with death and ordered a burger called The Captain Kirk, with Trevor following suit. The Captain Kirk is a burger made from an entire cow. Simply ﬁnishing the whole meal, fries and all, allows you to sign the lodge’s book of fame. Only 3 people had done so that year. Remarkably, both Todd and Trevor polished off the meal and signed the book. Todd, to prove a point, then ate the rest of someone else’s meal. Impressive stuff.
Remounting the quad for the trip back, amongst more squeals of joy and panic, we decided that should a hungry bear appear, it could easily have caught our overloaded quad. Todd and I concocted a plan. Should a bear appear, we would simply shove Trevor off, curing both the problem of speeding up the quad and feeding the bear in one masterful stroke. Pure genius. I am sure Trevor agreed.
Wednesday morning was cold, again. The heated gear went on, again, but with June-like blue skies that promised hope. We had an excuse to wait for it to warm up as Dave Kelley made a sprint into McCall to make duplicates of his newly broken key which he had amputated itself into his locking saddlebag. Dave played the odds and had 4 sets of keys made in McCall, 3 of which actually worked when he got back.
Leaving Fred’s log home oasis was painful, but Warm Lake road awaited. Again, all 8 of us slalomed together in perfect spacing, pacing and motorcycle harmony, until I pulled over to turn on the GoPro.
Todd and Trevor, being a good shepherds (hear that Terry?), pulled over and waited for me to make sure I was okay. I rejoined them after a GoPro mount changeover and luckily recorded what transpired next. At speed (and I do mean Speed) a particularly chunky robin, who must have lost all will to live, made a Kamikaze run into the left fork tube of Todd’s VFR. The fork tube won the encounter but Todd reported that the post-impact explosion of feathers came over the top of the fairing, around the sides of the bike and even up through his dash. The only clue Trevor and I had about the incident was riding through the massive snowstorm of feathers. The next day, Todd would still pick feathers out of his radiator. It made me wonder what would have happened if we pulled into a certain shop in Baker City and asked to replace a left side fork seal and steering head bearings after a bird strike. I can picture them saying, “I am sorry, we didn’t sell you the bird, so it is a liability for us to help you out.”
Once turned north, I was painfully reminded that I attract chip seal. The chip seal construction stretched from about Riggins, Idaho to White Bird, give or take. The endless miles of chip seal and road construction had the combined effect of not only making us all do 35 mph behind R.V.s for an hour, but also pissing us all off, so we took out our frustrations on White Bird grade.
White Bird grade is yet more banked switchback heaven, with enough sketchy pavement, cows and no center stripe to make you focus Right Now. Evidently our roaring group of riders shredding the pavement earned us the right to all be labeled assholes by the locals. I failed to remind them that while we are all indeed assholes, Todd is technically a sunofabitch, according to Trevor. Huge difference.
We entered Clarkston, Washington and headed 22 miles south along the Snake River to our destination for the night, the Snake River Rendezvous. The remote group settlement has several cabins that are little more than four walls with concrete aggregate ﬂoors, a toilet and upper sleeping lofts. There is no internet, no cell service, no phones and no one else in the camp except us. It’s just the way we like it, and we made our own entertainment.
Trevor and I attempted to inﬂate a basketball for a game of horse rematch, but the ball failed to hold air. Next, we decided to break into the abandoned school bus on the property, but despite my best efforts I failed to get it started, which was probably for the best. What other mayhem could we invent? Hmm, the electric fence looks entertaining. Maybe not. But we did ﬁnd big, ﬂat washers and some ﬂat plywood with holes. Cornhole time! And cornhole we did, for hours though dusk and into the night. For half time entertainment, we observed a bighorn sheep grazing across the river with a full curl. As the halftime grand ﬁnale, Trevor and I went to the lower terraced lawn and did a two man interpretive dance of Terry abandoning the group on The Cow Chip Highway, which the group rewarded with a standing ovation and rave reviews. Look for it on Broadway.
We competed, laughed, trash talked and high-ﬁved into the night until only Jeff, Todd, Trevor and I remained with our single malt, cigars (both of which are banned at the Snake River Rendezvous, I might add) and fading light. We all agreed that this throttle therapy among a band of brothers in remote locations is soul regenerating stuff that puts life in perspective.
Thursday is cold and drizzly with a 70% chance of rain and heated gear, because that is June, evidently. So, to wait out the weather, we rode to nearby Dworshak dam for a full tour.
Dworshak dam is massive, beautiful concrete dam with a huge crack. That’s right, a giant crack. It even has a pipe to pump put the 350 or so gallons a minute (!) pouring through the crack in the concrete. I would fancy to think that the engineers who built the dam were better at solving problems than me, but it turns out we are all men when it comes to solutions. Dam cracked? Ah, just let it drain out. Sounds good. Who wants Bias-Ply Burritos for dinner?
We must have been the worst tour group ever: eight men acting like children, side conversations, crude remarks, squeezing against each other in the elevator, spitting over the edge of the dam and no shortage of dam jokes. So, after endlessly irritating our tour guide and easily overstaying our welcome, we turned our attention to the glory that is P1. Headed uphill, this road served up mile after relentless mile of banked switchbacks on shoulderless road with trees ready gather us after our mircosecond of inattention. Time again to focus on the present. No past, no future, only this corner Right Now.
And it didn’t stop there. Making time toward our overnight digs at Terry’s condo on Lake Coeur d’Alene, I was introduced to Idaho’s highway 97 for the ﬁrst time. More tight hairpins on more narrow roads and more peg scraping lean angles required focus and good throttle control. By now, this was paradoxically remarkable and routine, and there was nowhere else I would rather be.
However, riding this way for 6 days in a row had taken its toll. After full bellies of motorcycle stroganoff (a Mild Hogs rite of passage) we were shoved back into the shock and reality of things like cell service, billboards, and television news of shootings. It did us in. We all collapsed into our own little worlds at different rates as conversations stopped and we stared blankly at glowing smartphones. I tried to watch the Catalunya round of MotoGP on my tablet but fell asleep in the middle.
Friday morning, it was time to go our separate ways home. Don, Terry, Trevor and I pounded straight, perfect pavement with plenty of shoulder and grassy run offs all the way into Wenatchee. It was so boring I got nostalgic for the forced focus of imperfect roads with no margin for error and dangers multiplied by speed.
When watching Dust to Glory the previous Saturday, one of the racers explained that after cheating death for 1000 miles of unpredictable roads, cows, cactus and crowds, the stresses of life are not a big deal when put into perspective. We can relate. Nothing in life increases your focus more than piloting a motorcycle, because nothing else in life is a bigger rewarder of skill or a more severe punisher of inattention. Brake just a nanosecond too late after seeing two deer in the middle of the road? That will make your butt pucker enough to tear the seat fabric. Even worse, you could go home in a body bag.
Upon returning home, the little irritants of daily life manage to creep back; being rejected for a job, someone cuts you off in trafﬁc or a car breaks down. Who cares? You just almost died six times from riding your bike off the road in a sleet storm, hitting a deer, riding through a cattle drive, surviving a bird strike, having a massive tankslapper near a concrete dam, or being launched off the road into trees at 80 mph. So what if Starbucks messes up your coffee order? Tiny things compared to the way a motorcycle can change your life in an instant. A motorcycle recalibrates your perspective on life. It’s why we ride.
The famous author Milan Kundera understood this psychology. He said, “The man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present… he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future… he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.” Except sleet, deer, cattle drives, cow chips, quads, mid-corner gravel, sheer drops, trees, chip seal, tankslappers, fractured dams, broken keys and bird strikes. Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Algos means suffering. So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return” – Milan Kundera