The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Category : Motorbikes

Blown Away

The winds’s sudden force brought my attention back from wherever it had wandered.

I had been in the saddle of a motorcycle all day, so wind shouldn’t have been anything new today. But these highlands were no ordinary place. This road, a thin, neglected ribbon of asphalt stretching out across the mountain plateau stretched east and sometimes south until it had forgotten its purpose. A single, twisted juniper clung to the bare landscape in defiance of this elemental tyranny. Its sculpted oddity testified to the one way to live with the wind – to resist when it can, adapt when it must, and to never let go of its identity. My bike and I, and this solitary missionary of individuality were all that stood about the rocky soil. Every other rock, bush, and blade of grass hugged the ground and cowered.

But not this tree. And not me.

I had only just crested a long and dramatic climb near the southern end of Steens Mountain in Oregon, intent on crossing the desert on my journey eastward. I had the road fever, that inexplicable instinctual urge to just ride – no stopping, no sightseeing, just a compelled rush cross the miles to push on. Nothing could stop me. Until this tree. Suddenly, my instincts needed to feel the wind’s own life-force, not this mechanically-generation turbulence.

The asphalt widened ahead of me to one side, inviting me from the intended flow of travel. As the bike’s engine fell silent, the wind’s vector was no longer dictated by the bike’s travel, and so I turned to face it as it swept in from the north.

I don’t know how long I stood, listening to the song this upland desert was shaped by. With no peaks towering over me, no far horizon visible, no shelter of any kind but the bike beneath me, I felt for a brief moment vulnerable to the demands of this dominant force. I turned to my muse, this tree, and listened intently to the story its shape told. It spoke of desolate winters, of despotic summer persecution. And in its shape – the shape and substance of its identity that remained with it after the wind – it spoke its name.

And so I turned into the wind, seeing for myself the phenomenon that had brought out the tree’s own striking beauty. There was only one question to ask of this force of nature, and so I asked it a single question:

Who am I?

And because I cannot sustain myself through such a quest in the manner of scrubby junipers, I mounted the bike again, and fixed in my mind this question, this time addressing the wind along the narrow path before me.

I doubt I will ever know the answer for myself. It will be an answer spoken from me to the world, the forces shaping me in ways seen by others, but invisible as the wind to myself.

But still, I ride into it, being shaped and sculpted into what must be an odd countenance that requires some consideration to be understood – or misunderstood. This is my nature – to ride into the wind, to be tested and formed by it, and to serve as its ambassador.

Highway 140, east of Adele, OR, is a chapel of a different sort, where I don’t ask God for protection, but rather for cleansing.

I feel like a fresh-scrubbed baby.

Fathers & Sons

Father and son

Riding partners for life.

As a kid, my first motorbike experiences were on the back of my dad‘s bike as we toodled around on a Saturday afternoon on the back roads of Southern California.  Those times became so engrained in my memory that it is almost impossible to separate what is purely my own experience now, and what I perceive through the filters of those memories.  I react to something, and sometimes it is my dad‘s reflex that responds.  I choose a wider approach to conditions remembering an accident of his.  I check things because I saw him check them decades ago, and when on the roadside I need it, I smile at the memory.

Whether I am riding with him – and we‘ve had some pretty epic road trips in the last several years – or whether my bike is the only one on the road, he‘s always there somewhere.

And so it is on this Memorial Day weekend.  We take some time to recognize who went before us, and what they did.  In my case with submarines in my blood, it was the courage of the remnants of the Pacific Fleet, nearly decimated by the Pearl Harbor attack.  The US Power in the Pacific was reduced almost entirely to Submarines.  Slower than warships, increasingly vulnerable to Japanese hunting tactics, beset with technical weapons problems, they hurled themselves into the breach anyway, and used what they had to give what they could.

And, against the odds, it was enough to hold off the enemy until the rest could recover, to win key victories whose impact turned the course of the war.  It was a nightmarish existence that I only experienced a fraction of.

But the evidence of their courage paced like ghosts up and down the passageways of every boat I served on.  It looked out through the eyes of old men.  It hung over equipment with design features that told the tale of engineering necessity.  Every backup valve had a history of another valve‘s failure.  Every weapon had safety features born from disaster.  From the cutting edge technology to the design of handrails and ladder treads, hatch latches, piping layout, all of it was designed from the experiences of battle-hardened men who knew – not just imagined but KNEW – what happened when things failed.  And when things worked.

The Submarine qualification process encompassed those same nightmares.  New Crew members rode with men who‘d met Davy Jones, and defied him in his own element.  They were taught what those men had to learn the hard way.

And sometimes, that knowledge was scoffed at.  Sometimes the lessons lost meaning in the absence of their mentors.  But always, the Sea was there to remind the Forgetful of her treacherous nature.

This Memorial Day, have yourself a celebration of our freedom.  Feast on burgers and dogs hot off the grill, and revel in what you can.  Have a beer.

But at some point in the festivities, turn aside from the company you have, and in a moment of solitude, remember.

Remember hard.

Sort out who YOU are, and how you got here.  Find the good, and trace it‘s source to your fathers.  Follow the memory‘s trail to the hard-won Sacrifice by which you could be who you are with less suffering.  On this one day, KNOW which Sacrifice has been yours, and which is borrowed from your Fathers.

It is only by this that we become something greater:  to remember what came before us.

Rolling Thunder 2018

In the center of the village we call America, there stands a Smithy.  In it, there are several blacksmiths of varying skill and experience.  Most are employed making the tools of trades: plows, craftsmen tools, etc.

But in a corner of the shop, there works a Master Blacksmith.  He speaks very little.  But his hammer rings with a clear peel that is recognized by all.  And his work is different than the others.  He forges the weapons of war.

His work is grim.  He makes things he himself hopes need never be used.  The village works in the daylight, using their tools for life and prosperity in the several occupations we employ as Free Men.  But the Thief and the Marauders are always waiting, to steal from us our freedom, and shackle us for their own gain.  So he works – shaping and heating, purifying, and tempering the weapons of war.  His hammer works iron into the strongest steel.  The very structure of the metal is forever changed.  The Sword, the Axe, and the War-hammer all are forged on his anvil to the highest quality.  

And when the clouds of war loom, the distant storm sending thunder and lightning, his hammer answers with a thunder of its own.  The weapons are imbued with it, they will echo it to the battlefield, and to the watch posts.  They will answer and defend us.

When the battle is over, those of us who remain return to our homes and families, but the unique hardness to which we‘ve been shaped will fit poorly in everyday life.  And so the sword will be sheathed, and the hammer fitted with leather pads, and the axe masked.  The echoes of the forge, the thunder of the master‘s hammer and anvil is muted, and sometimes nearly forgotten.

But the thief and the marauder don‘t sleep.  Their strength comes in waiting for signs of weakness.

They wait for us to forget.

And so, on this weekend, we come together.  We come in from the mountains, and from the Plains.  We ride from the high country, the Deltas, from out of the cities and fields – from every part of this country, those of us who are still able will gather on this field, in this place, to remember.  We remember our fallen.  Their sacrifice – to become forged weapons, to stand to die while fighting for life for others, reminds us of what makes this country strong.  It reminds us to carry the watchfulness onward. 

It must be remembered.

When we meet here, we unsheathed the sword,  unclasp the padded hammer, and the axe is freed from its mask.  In the open air, the thunder of the forge they were born in rings out again. We ride together so that all may remember.

On this day, we let the thunder roll.



Smelling the Roses

There are things that happen on a motorbike you just can’t replicate in a car.  

One of those things is smells.  The grounding sensation of becoming aware of my surroundings at such an instinctual, primitive level anchors me in a way nothing else can.

And so I’d like to share with you a few of the scents that have struck me hard enough to stay with me over the years.  

I’ve made my post-Navy way through life in sawmills.  I can smell a sawmill miles away.  It brings me joy.

And hay fields at first cutting, the ozone from spring thunderstorms across the plains.  A river deep in a canyon in the desert, the sea when returning from a long trip inland.  I smell it 30 nautical miles away at the crest of the coastal range.  You can smell the coolness of the redwoods after a hot summers day run over the mountains.  The dank musk of buffalo in Wyoming, 

Of course, there’s a price:  the stench of hog trucks, the alarming olfactory assault of downhill truck brakes as they rumble past while you climb.  The heavy smell of breakfast cereal in the mid morning air on any given workday in Joliet, Illinois.  The dusty stifle of smog in LA as you descend over the Grapevine – or in fact, the oily smother of any Interstate.

But still – the fresh perfume of blooming spring in Portland.  The briny salt of coastal Maine.  The crisp alpine air of the Rockies, or the Cascades.  Or Sierras.  They’re all different, and yet you think “Alpine”, for each.  

And on the night air, you can smell dinner cooking in an unseen house somewhere back away from sight of the road, in the woods.  You can smell the animals in the barn, the mist blanketing a low valley.

And laugh if you want, but on a night in Quebec when the northern lights begin, you can smell it.  I don’t know what it is, but before it starts, the night air turns.  It is neither a good nor bad smell – you just know something is happening.  And then, suddenly, you round a mountain corner and from a turnout overlooking the valley below you see the sky gradually big begin to glow green, and vivid.  And you’re ready, for reasons it takes a while to sort through to understand in your mind.

And that’s why smell matters.  It makes you ready for the setting you’re in.  It’s a filter for your other senses to process through.  Scent prepares your other senses – to see, and touch.  The smell of a campfire in the woods reminds me of the dinner I‘ll have when I set up camp.  I find myself sometimes listening, and realize later that it was because I had smelled something first.   

And from the saddle of a motorbike, the world of senses is closer to you than ever.

Breathe in the universe.

Finding yourself at home


The cold air has reached my core, through the layers of leather, and wool, and the copy of the free nickel ads I put underneath my leathers against my chest. I didn‘t feel cold yet, but the cold was there, wooing me with its last breath against the blooming morning.

I only recognize its intrusion when I dismount the bike at an old building adorned with old stuff – a wagon wheel, a giant set of spurs, horseshoes nailed to the exterior wall. The smell of winter road-dust, kicked up by my exhaust, greets me as soon as I pull of the mask protecting my face from the wind. I survey the cafe front, first as a way in, and then as is my habit, as a way out.

It will do for both.

I duck under the dried-out beam of the entry-way, and let the door-hinge squeal out it‘s exuberance at my entrance. The voices inside hush for a brief instant, and then resume their chatter. I scan the interior of this small-town cafe for people and an open table. I find both, and choose a seat where I can see and hear them from a distance

There‘s a television in the place where I‘d have expected an open fireplace in a different town. A fishing show drones on about lures, periodically trying to excite its audience with dramatic music, quick, flashing clips of action and breathless exclamations. By the interaction of the other diners, it‘s only real purpose is to not be the noisy, jangling prattle of big city culture.

Three old geezers, ensconced in their morning Conference Table across the way from me, are holding audience with some out-of-towners seated next to them in the corner. One of them is explaining the architectural wealth of the town, describing in some detail the historic stage coach stop. It was almost as if he‘d been perhaps one of the stable boys, so rich was his memory of it. The other two nodded in agreement with the ancient wisdom, and the travelers listened, wide-eyed, completely caught up in another time. I started to smirk a little inside, knowing full well that, as old as he was, it was highly unlikely this codger had ever seen a functioning stage coach stop. But I didn‘t think harshly of him. This is how tales are told in the thousands of Small Places. I left them to their morning reverie, turning my attention to the building itself, which was busy trying to get my attention, wanting to tell me a similar tale.

Dark stained pine boards lined the room, rough-sawn, worn smooth by backs leaning against them, thighs and shoulders, wiggly child hips squirming in their seats, jackets tossed, purses and bags stashed against them, each one adding to the Tale of this cafe. A pair of horseshoes clinched the Pine frame together around the air conditioner, shelves built over the windows held antique relics to bemuse diners as they waited for their orders.

But there were neither all that many relics to be pondered, nor all that much time to ponder them. A quiet waitress with a disarmingly comfortable smile knew already what I wanted, and merely waited patiently for me to say it. She was pouring coffee. The ordered food seemed to materialize in a matter of moments, and I was already starting in as the travelers gratefully thanked the codgers for the visit, and their troupe swirled out to the bustling cacophony of thank you‘s and have-a-nice-days, the sliding ring of the cash register, the sudden thudding silence of their absence as the door pulled shut.

There was a moment of silence.

When it settled, the old codgers got back to business. And by “business”, I mean aches, pains, the latest deeds of stupid local kids, and recounting of the winter of ‘62, as contrasted by this one. The Pine boards all around me seemed to nod their agreement, the semi-circular sawmarks standing out as a testament.

There is little to say here in this place that can match the mesmerizing entertainment value of the national news networks. There is little use in them trying to compete for the slick, sophisticated story-manufacturing that happens in the cities, where every aspect of people‘s lives is artificial. The stories of these folk may not always be true, but they always satisfy my worry for humanity. Here, in these dusty places, live people with real things to do – ranching, logging, farming, feeding geezers, and entertaining strangers. I love these people. I don‘t know why, but I do.

As the three codgers break up their morning committee meeting, one tips his hat to me across the gulf between us. And with that simple acknowledgement, there is no gulf between us. I nod back, he tosses cash in the counter the waitress will find when she comes back out from the kitchen, and the three file out to their respective vehicles, explaining their day‘s plans to one another even bough they all already know.

There is a lot of open road between here and my destination. The sun, doing its best from its shallow angle of winter, brightens but only slowly warms the outside. The door, ever-exuberant, squeals again as I depart, accompanied by the tinkling sound of a spoon in a coffee cup behind me. The sounds shift, the diner‘s quiet scrum of people gives way to traveling sounds. A semi-truck lumbers it‘s way through it‘s gears from the town stop sign. In a few minutes, I will be passing this truck as it labors up the grade northbound. The sudden, confident roar of my exhaust moves my mind to these matters of the road.

But I‘ll be back someday. And when I return, it will be like a homecoming. That waitress will recognize me. Those codgers will, lord willing, be sitting there, probably telling the same tales to new travelers. If ever you find yourself looking for a home, this place – and the thousands like it – are here and waiting to take you in. Come as yourself – come honestly – and you will find yourself at home.

Now I lay me down to sleep

Sometimes, when I am getting in late for the night on a trip, I find myself unable to bear the thought of enclosing myself inside a room just yet. My blood is still up, to keep out the cold, to meet the rush of the wind, to do the work that a rider does. These are not idle pursuits that I have. They require all of me, body and soul. And the soul does not always get off when the body does.

It is in these moments that I find myself lingering outside. I step a bit back from the freshly-unloaded bike, and stand in such a way as to admire its lines.

And because my soul is still on the bike, my body yearns to get back on, to continue into the night leaving baggage and gear behind – to just go.

But instead, I consider this bike. I think about what was done today, the mountain passes, the tortuous wending paths that we crossed together.

And I think to myself, “what a Beast”

I see it’s dents, and scuffs, and the bent pipe, and the loose bolts. I see the bug splatter and the road grime, splashed up from below or dripped from the engine. Or both.

I am not tempted to grab a rag and commence to wash. It’s not that kind of bike. We don’t rub one another down. Well… sometimes on a hot summer day, in the driveway when there’s no riding to be done. But not out here. This is a Campaign, the time for touch and feel is another day.

Indeed, what a beast.

And my soul says, ” hey, lemme see”.

And in this way, I entice it off the bike, back into union with the rest of me. And with a heavy sigh, we accept the stifling cocoon of civilized dwelling for a few hours.

Rolling Thunder

From 3000 miles out the sound of one bike rolling through a mountain pass echoed the thunder in the valley below. Where thunder rolls, something important has happened. The sting of rain pelted the rider’s face, reminding him he was still alive. As long as he was alive, there were fallen to be honored.

From a thousand miles out, groups of riders began to appear. The one bike became scattered groups, riding east with intent, to make known their dedication to honor the Fallen, echoing the thunderstorms from the south, and from the west.

From ten miles out, that one lone rider passed bike after bike, groups of bikes making their presence known, to each other and anyone within hearing, gathering tighter, echoing the remaining thunder. The storm had spent itself escorting them in. Now the sound of the gathering million bikes tried its own voice in growing numbers, swarming, gathering, still rolling.

And finally, at the appointed place and time, the million bikes came together in one mind, one storm, rolling like all the thunder in the country through the Capitol to remind all who heard that honor was still alive.

And while honor still lives, it will create more honor. The country it serves will remember its best, forgive its worst, and create better.

Ride Report: La Pine to Crescent City

Thunder rolls up from beyond the bay, across the bar.

Blown in suddenly from the south-west, out of the sea and over the Cape. I turn from a vivid western sky laying its sun to rest, to watch this new cooling rain washes away the tracks of today‘s ride, and it somehow satisfies me to rest now, to step aside and watch from the protection of my overhead cover, while the wild forces have their raucous celebration. It gives me a chance to look back in my mind’s eye to the those tracks, to commit them to memory, quick, before they are washed away.

They started a long way back.  Hours ago, but it seems like weeks…

The first tracks of the day were laid in a cloud of red dust, dirt tracks in the volcanic rock of Central Oregon. The dirt road leads reluctantly out of the wood, winding its way across a meandering river toward the only highway it knows. By the time I reach the long thin ribbon of asphalt ten miles off that drains away to the south, the heat of the day and the engine was already wearing on me.  I twisted the throttle like a drowning man in need of rescue.

Highway speed: that speed that pushes enough hot air over and through and around you that you begin to feel a little relief from the heat. Today’s highway speed was fast. Danged fast. A mad dash straight into the enemy, jaw set. Fate be cast aside.

For an hour I charged. For an hour the desert highway threw what it had to throw at me. For an hour, grim-faced with my mind set on conquering, I pushed through the heat. When finally I reached my junction, the air above the pavement rippled a nod, a tacit acknowledgement that this wasn’t over, we would meet again. There is no winning. Only surviving. I turned west, and throttled up, away into the mountains.

At 5000ft, it still took the sudden jolt of raindrops on my bare arms to unset my jaw, and relax my grip on the throttle. Just a few drops from a wayward thunderhead, but enough to disengage from the battle. My pace slowed, and I took in a whole new scene, the alpine forest of the Cascades. Green was everywhere, on either side, above me, even up against the road‘s edge. The bike splashed through the dappled shadows on the road like a spring foal. It held tight and steady through the mountain twists and turns, and dove over the summit eager for the ride down the other side. The sense of freedom ducked around every turn and rise like a will-o-the-wisp. Always there, never there, leading away to where my spirit was meant to go.

On the other side of the mountains, waiting like a Hatfield cousin, was another kind of heat. I entered this 7th level of hell knowing it would be there, ready to endure again. I opened myself to this heat, let it flow into me, and basked. knowing this was the only way through it. I left the main highway for smaller back roads to work my way over to Grants Pass. It was beautiful farm country, mostly hay and horses, but hotter by far than the desert air. The occasional river provided short spells of relief, with shaded groves and waysides, but I knew that to truly escape I had to get over one more range of mountains, and find the comfort of the sea. So I pressed on.

With Grants Pass and the Rogue Valley behind me, the temperature finally began to drop. Passing Cave Junction, and later smaller sister town of O’Brien, felt a little bit like leaving civilization for good. the houses thinned out and disappeared and the road finally hopped over the summit to begin the twisting descent to the sea by way of the Smith River.

The western side of these mountains are steep, rugged, and inhospitable to the Lazy. The River starts as a stream deep in a ravine, and the road narrows and hugs the north side of the canyon. The rocky slope comes in close against the west-bound lane, its grass and blooming plants only an arms-length away as the bike weaved its way down the winding descent. This narrow road feels intimate, and gives me a sense of belonging to this place. But the reality of belonging comes with a price. Respect must be paid to the deep gouges in the asphalt, especially on the inside turns. The realization that these deep pits are the marks of giant boulders that have fallen from above, and that there are plenty more waiting for their time up above me, weighs darkly enough to remind me not to stop here, not get too acquainted with its charms.

Instead, I find a rhythm in the sweeps and turns. The rock gouges form the percussion section of a powerful symphony of movement and space, lines drawn across each other, highway and this canyon.

The River itself is not a kind place. The water tumbles and falls through cuts in the exposed rock bed of the earth 100 ft below the highway.  This is no place for asking forgiveness. This is a stern river, not interested in accommodating the frail human body. I pass a creek named “Hardscrabble Creek”, and with one glance I believe in its name. I can picture the old prospector, using language as hard as the land, on a mule equally toughened, asking no permanent place nor easy life here.

The canyon widens, and begins to serve as a gathering place for other ravines, and other creeks. From the left and right, I can see the land ahead and below me like folded fingers, interlocked ridges drop in from the high mountain lines on either side of the River. The sense of the eventual sea begins to impose itself on the western horizon, shaping the light through an indolent afternoon haze.

Only just below me now, I catch the scent of a familiar place, a place where Monarchs reign. The highway draws away from the River, drops altitude, and instead of riding on top, looking down on the path ahead, I find myself in it, escorted on either side by high, close walls. I have entered the realm of the giant redwoods.

These trees have lived here for longer than any kingdom of mankind, sustained by this unique combination of soil and fog. They live only here, in this one inconspicuous, out-of-the-way corner of the world. I ride into the gathering darkness, and as my eyes adjust I see the Giants all around me, standing watch, guarding an ecosystem as complex and old as any on earth. The trees themselves are gigantic.

I suddenly feel very, very small.

And quiet.  The idea of “quiet” has been far from my mind for hours, but now it knocks, insistently, on my sub conscience

I relax my grip on the throttle, trying to use as little as possible. The whole grove that I’m riding through seems enormously quiet. But as the bike winds its way through the giants, it seems that it‘s not the volume, but the pace of life in this insulated world that makes the difference. The stillness calls out, I can sense the dissonance between the life in this woods and my own furious westward charge. Slowly my mind finds itself wanting to rest here amongst the trees. There is a knowledge here that can only be expressed in a sense of time. The urge to stop is nearly irresistible. The call to park, and walk away from the bike, and just stand and hear Life being lived, to change my pace to match this place pulls hard at me. I dare not stop though. Something inside tells me how the scene would play out.

I can imagine myself stepping through the the forest floor, climbing over a log, and looking back to realize the road has completely disappeared. Reaching an open spot amidst the trees and looking up into the coliseum of Life. There is no clamour, only patience. Conscious patience waiting on me to reach for it.

And me, stretching my arms like a child, an expression of hope, knowing I cannot reach that patience today, but in time.

And planting my feet, like thus.

And then, maybe, that would be the last anyone would hear of me. Unless they too quietly strode into a forest to wait.

And maybe this old human body would change to a young sapling of the same age. And in a thousand years. if such things still mattered, I might begin to think I understood what it means to be.

At Peace.

But today, in spite of my instinct, I ride on.

Perhaps it is because I’m not ready for Peace.
Perhaps my soul has more to gather before it rests.
Perhaps it is because I’m destined only to be a minstrel, not a King.
But that peace now follows me, hovering like a stationary mirage, calling out once in a while, just to remind me of its voice.
And it leaves deep tracks that are not so easily washed away in a summer thundershower over the bay.

The Place for Me

Colfax, Washington:

In the wee, pre-dawn hours the lights of Main Street shine on the wet pavement from last night’s storm, the twin rows of darkened brick buildings, and little else. After 5 blocks, one light shines from a window, and a cluster of pickups line up, parallel parked in front of a glowing sign.  Clusters of Pickups at this early hour in a small town like this can only mean one thing.
This is the place for me.
Breakfast smells float out the door to greet me as I open the door.  The old men stop for a moment to inspect the outsider, and shrug off the intrusion.  The stocky waiter slides a cup of coffee into the table where I’ll be sitting once I get my gear off.  The chill that surrounds me swirls, catches his attention, and he asks me where I’m going, what I’m doing out so early.  His voice is the voice of a man who’s been out there, someone who can tell a fake answer from a real one.
My name this morning is “bud”.  Not “Hon”, or “Sweetie”.  Just “Bud”.  It’s a welcome change from the truck stop waitresses jonesing  for a a bigger tip.  He speaks like a man who is serving you from his own personal grill, who won’t accept anything less than you leaving full, satisfied, and adequately caffeinated.
Jackson Brown comes on the radio, and in the back, he belts out the lyrics, drowning out the small-town blather of the old men.  It was to be only a short  stop, coffee and a quick basic breakfast, and as I suit up, he’s moved on to singing with REO Speedwagon.  It’s gonna stick with me for a few miles longer than the breakfast itself, I’m afraid.
The light of day is on the street outside now, and I’m itching for the wind.  But I hope places like this never disappear.  This – in between the miles of open farmland, mountains, plains, and River roads – this place where I take brief respite from the Open Road, this is the place for me.

The Lay of the Land

Let’s go back in time a couple years – and a few millennia while we’re at it.

January ride report – 2012:

The Dalles, OR.

Those who know anything about the history and geography of the Columbia Gorge will understand the pivotal influence this town has for the region. The Dalles lies at the western end of the Oregon Trail.  The ghosts of Wagon trains still scent the air, assembling in a spirit that almost can be heard in the roaring spill-water of the modern dam.  They once gathered there – in a very different river – for breakdown, to be turned into rafts for river travel through the wild River highway of the Columbia Gorge, or to be fitted for the even more insane route over the rugged Cascades, depending on the mind of each wagon owner.  Each way was treacherous, and the expectancy of peril can still be felt, if you step away from the interstate just a little way.

Now, the area is central to the flow of grain, livestock, fruit and nuts from their sources in the vast range, farm, and orchard-land to the markets down-river. On top of the drone of nature’s historic obstacles a rhythm of commerce drives daily life up and down and around the River.  No one moves here but to its beat.  The Dalles is its heartbeat.

Riding up the Gorge last night from Portland, I began to feel something I often feel when leaving the Big City – that sense of the real world coming out from behind the mask of urban protection. There is something Vital that is lost on those who dwell in the sanctuary of the City – a place that is a refuge from the harsh reality of nature. The open-ness of riding the motorbike unseals the mystery of how the world is made, and why we develop the way we do into cities, towns, ports, and villages. I rode last night out from the lights on either side of the Freeway into the black, unlit road, and the blacker river beside it.  The loneliness of being out there, away from People, on my own without the support of the corner hardware store weighed on my mind like an adventure.

This ride from Portland to The Dalles, or more usually the other way around – it was, long ago, the ride of a lifetime. Not by road, there was no way to build a road on the steep edges of the Gorge, but by raft. The westward Overland Oregon Trail ended at The Dalles, and from there folks either went over the Cascade mountains, or down the river rapids by raft. There was no way to travel overland through the Gorge with wagons. One did not just ease down the interstate. There were no dams, no road, hardly even a path, and the river was a wild maze of rapids.  It was not unusual for a raft to leave The Dalles and pass silently as splintered debris past the wide waters of the Willamette River delta – and the burgeoning insulated city of Portland.

Into this history I rode, between the two cities.  One city protected, insulated from the elements, fed by a lush lowland valley, and the other closely tied to the fickle quirks of nature: geology, the comparative frailty of the human body, and the stout tenacity of a different sort of people who prized their freedom more than the ease of urban life. The lights of the Bonneville Dam seemed meager compared to the giant mass of black night that surrounded it. As the road darkened, so too the City’s languorous apathy dimmed and my senses quickened.  The traffic dwindled to the occasional semi, and I was left, for the most part, thinking about what I knew by day of the shapes I could only identify by silhouette in the night.  I knew this highway well, and it only took occasional recognizable landmarks to place myself in its full landscape.

I rode on this way, white dashed lines tolling beneath my feet until I came around a final shared bend in the river and road.  There, before me, was the blazing pocket of lights against the endless horizon of darkness – the port they called “Grandes Dalles de la Columbia”, the Great Rapids of the Columbia. Seeing it like that, at night, and in its function to me as a harbor for the night, a harbor from the Great River and the adventures coming west from the Outlands, made me more keenly aware of how it fit in to the landscape that usually was just a blip on an interstate. And that awareness hung with me through the night, and into this morning.

The geography of this area is immense, and very much in your face about itself. The mountainside on the north side of the Gorge shows its sharply defined sediment lines like an experienced bodybuilder, competing for your admiration.  It shows how it used to be buried before it pushed up and into the light. At one place the lines cant crazily down into the river, in others they act like level tide-marks from another era. I studied these lines as I sat at breakfast at a country Inn.  The lines read like a story to me, a mystery that I would have to ride over to understand.

And so the morning began.  Breakfasted, and geared up against the brisk winter morning air, I warmed up the bike in my usual manner – partly at rest while I checked my rigging, and tires, and lights – and partly in a moving meditation of thoughtful riding, listening to the bike‘s mood, the road‘s mood, the timbre of the wheels over the tarmac, sensing the grip of the tires, and the balance of the load on the back.  Finally, with everything satisfied and ordered in my mind, I turned the bike across the steel bridge that passed in front of the Dam‘s spill-water, and eagerly began my day‘s journey.

The climb began immediately.  Up this wall of history my road climbed, pulling me epoch by epoch out of the Gorge and the past, and dropping me on top of the landscape and present, in the form of rolling volcanic hills. To the west, the volcanos themselves loomed in a row with snow capping their now-silent craters, but everywhere there were the reminders that this landscape was, not that long ago in geographical terms, a violent, dangerous place to be, where the very ground moved and fumed and if you were slow, would kill you.

I reached my first pass, between Simcoe Butte and Lone Pine Butte, and took a moment to look behind me. The climb hadn’t seemed so hard, but looking back south the rugged drop-off is startling, brought into stark contrast by the looming Mt. Hood on the far side, which looked ready to hop a creek to come after me, but which was actually 60 miles behind me on the other side of the river. Lone Pine Butte became the gate that cut me off from the Gorge, dropping down into the valley below and leaving the giant icons out of sight, and out of mind.

For the rest of the day, I climbed, dropped, transited, and just rode. The balance of the bike beneath me was a sensuous dance that drew me into my surroundings so naturally that I forgot the difference between bike, rider, road, and the land around me.   Buttes, Bluffs, valleys and basins, canyons, gorges, Plateaus, heck, I think I even punched through a Draw at one point. I was going upstream, in every sense of the word. Portland sloughed off of me like a too-small skin. I went up the river, from whence came the people, the water, the crops, from where the city gets its comfortable life. I found where the water came from, and could see how and why it came from there. I sensed how the ranchers and farmers found these places so ideal for growing their crops, herds, and orchards, and how everything funneled into a larger and larger system, reaching the denser populations in the lowland cities, where life was easier, and often taken for granted. A farmer wouldn’t last a week in the rat race of the city, but a flatlander would struggle to cope with a world where the corner market, the salon, coffee shop, Home Improvement Center, and amusement parks weren’t all within a few miles, heck, aren’t even in the vocabulary of the locals. “A few miles” up here, at the Root of All Things, doesn’t hold much in the way of convenience.

If understanding is what you seek, if you want to see how the world – both the geographical and our human culture – is put together, spend a day, or two, or three, riding north. Ride out of the Big City – any city – upstream. Ride through wild places, look at what you pass over, and between, and through, and into. Leave the gorge where the rapids are so epic they bear names the French Canadian Voyageurs used. Ride over a bluff so big it merits its own elevation sign at its peak. Slip onto a back highway with the name of a smaller gorge, using the deepening purple shadows of the impending gloom at the end of the short winter daylight as your guide, and follow the freezing and frozen river up the steepening walls of the canyon until they are sheer, and the only way out is up through to the headwaters, where the floor of the canyon rises, and gradually disappears into a draw, and then into bluffs, and finally a vast plateau, where yet another world awaits. Ride the full circuit, understanding that all that goes on down below, all that you’ve left behind, now lies what used to be weeks worth of travel. Feel the distance in the culture when you stop for gas at a lonely outpost, and stand drinking the cup of coffee they offer while you chat with the person at the counter. Enjoy the vile brewing methods, and appreciate that at 27 degrees without wind chill factor, any coffee is good coffee, and anyone who makes this coffee for you is good people. And then ride on, into the dark, until your motorbike is nothing but a wake rippling under the falling blanket of darkness, streaking across the Plateau toward another Adventure.