The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Category : Ride Reports

Getting Lost

I don’t always get to ride just to ride, without some end destination in mind. Today’s ride was about riding until I decided to turn around. I didn’t find that destination for about 30 miles. Along the way, I lost a lot. First I lost speed, because of the 25mph corners. Then I lost my knowledge of where the road I was on was going, when I turned onto a road I’d never been on, and didn’t really know where it went. Then I lost the oncoming lane – the road turned into one of those one-lane roads where people just figure out how to get past each other in the unlikely event that they meet someone. finally, the paint on the roads disappeared – just a flat piece of asphalt, no markings, no signs, nothing. And right about then I began to realize that losing stuff can be the greatest feeling in the world. And I began to give up things voluntarily. The sound of my exhaust is a low, loud rumble that is somewhat unique – a little different than the usual Harley sound. It’s tempting to hold back a little bit, but when you let go of that internal resistance to the sound, it fills you up, holds you up, and your whole being is powered by that vibration. I gave up my interest in going fast, 40mph was as fast as I felt like I needed to go. Last, but not least, I gave up my expectation of getting somewhere. each moment, each corner, every straight stretch, tree, river, hill – each one became just a moment unto itself. Its funny how when you get to where you need to be, you realize you didn’t need to go anywhere particular to get there.

 

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It was an early summer Tuesday, and I needed to cover 500+ miles, two mountain ranges, 15 large rivers, two major rivers, 1 large metropolis, and a world of memories.  And all of it needed doing on a motorbike.
It was going to be a fine day.  Here’s the report:

I decided yesterday early on that a beaten path is an abused path, and that I wanted no part of such violence. So I set out to stay off the interstates as much as possible.

I left Coquille, Oregon heading north, swinging through Coos Bay and on from there, through towns familiar to me from years of traveling this coastline. The town signs are old friends of mine, and I greeted each one: Reedsport, Florence, Yachats, Waldport. Depoe Bay. Newport, Lincoln City – and the half-dozen or so small villages in-between them. The route is among the best scenic drives in the country, passing the dunes of Florence, the rocky cliffs of Cape Perpetua, sand bluffs dotted with cottages, the fishing harbors of Depoe Bay and Newport, and the wide beaches where vacationers fly their kites in Lincoln City. I rode through 200 miles of coastline, these communities each serving travelers from all over the world. I know of nowhere else where so much can be experienced in so short a space, and yet be held together with one common theme.

When Lewis & Clark drew near to the end of their westbound quest, the smell of salt air was a portent that lifted their spirits, and pushed them through the final leg of their journey. At the mouth of the Columbia, they saw nothing but mist, sitting in their boats in the midst of this brew of seaweed, salt, fish, and the vibrant life brought together by this confluence of the collective worlds by the river, held by land, and accepted by the sea. They saw nothing, but they could smell what they had been searching for for a year and a half.

Salt Air.

Once you’ve been to Sea, its smell becomes the badge by which you recognize your home, the connective tissue that binds you to those who served with you, before you, and around you. No man survives the sea alone. No man, once baptized in its brine, ever entirely leaves the sea behind.

It was through this place that I rode through the morning, my senses drinking in the sun, the ocean spray, the cool salty breeze, and the rush of wind through my helmet.  I soaked in these senses until I reached the marker that pointed me inland. There, by arrangement, I met my dad on his bike, and we traveled through the low-lying coastal range from Lincoln City, through the rain forest with its rich undergrowth, giant trees, and the smell of ancient presence, growing in deep silence. Each tree is home to dozens of species of plants and animals. Even the wide branches have soil on them, formed by the one driving force beneath everything that happens here – constant, steadfast growing and dying, over and over. Everything is connected by life and death.

My brother and I, once when we were young, cleared a patch of underbrush in the forest behind our house. By the next year, it was completely overgrown again, you couldn’t tell that two kids with machetes had ever been there. It is through forest like this that my dad and I rode today, over the hills, and starting on their eastern flanks began one of the country’s most fertile valleys.

The Willamette Valley not only is home to Oregon’s largest and most productive agriculture, but is also the center of its densest population. After miles of riding through farmland, the towns began to run together, and all too soon completely merged to form the Portland metropolis. The tone of the ride changed from curving, wandering roads with light traffic to city driving – stop and go, constant attention to the developments ahead, people shifting lanes – it becomes little more than survival. But…this is how I get to Busters Barbeque. The trip through the city is worth it when it involves a stop at Busters.  Happily, I had business to conduct on the far side of town, so through the metropolis I went.  My dad and I had our usual, and then parted ways, he returning home, and I carrying on eastward.

Leaving the city to the east, as the buildings are replaced with fields, and the traffic thins, there’s a game I play – guessing which of the immediate traffic is commuting, and which traffic will continue on into the Cascades with me. I seldom guess wrong, though I can’t tell you how I do it. There is, I suppose, a certain vibrancy in the attitude of the long-distance traveler, the anticipation of liberating oneself from the city life. How that vibrancy is communicated to me, I don’t know. Maybe it’s an empathy for freedom. One by one the commuters turned off, the sidewalks disappeared, and the buildings were replaced by trees. The road began to climb, and a sense of adventure settled in over me. In the distance the dormant volcano loomed above the tree line, its peak covered in snow. The city could be seen behind me in the mirror, framed by the gap in the road between the encroaching trees.  Late afternoon shadows cooled the air, and sometime shortly after the 2000 foot altitude sign the city smoke and dust was replaced by a crisp alpine scent. At a highway junction , the last of my fellow travelers turned to other destinations, and I was left alone with my machine, the road, and the mountain.

This particular road loops around Mt Hood, slipping over a gap between it and the next southern peak, and then dropping down an old Indian trail.  Before it was a road, it was a trail was used by pioneers to get to the Willamette valley as an alternative to rafting down the treacherous rapids that would, generations later, be converted to a dammed lake. The Barlow Trail, as it was called, was crossed by use of chains, snubs, teamed oxen and the blood, sweat, and sometimes tears of the men who dragged them over this pass. I pulled to the side of the road, and listened to the sounds of the birds, the stream in the canyon below, and the gentle whisper of the wind through the trees. In my mind, I added the clank of chains, the shouts and grunts of men laboring with their equipment and teams of oxen, the snort and puffing of struggling animals, and the disjointed creaks and groans of heavy-laden wagons being dragged unwilling through this alpine wilderness. The thought always leaves me amazed at the determination of those pioneers.

I mounted my bike, pressed the button, and with a twist of my wrist sped off down the winding, paved descent.

Returning again to civilization in Hood River is, from the mountain, another kind of awakening. From the wild backlands to orchards perched on plateaus overlooking the Columbia, working life was settling in against the long shadows of evening. The aquatic smells of fish, algae, and fresh water hung heavy in the air over the last plateau. At the bottom lay the river, not just a river of water, but of life – goods and people flowing back and forth, connecting different cultures together – the farm and range land of the east, and the city to the west. I turned eastward again, and chased my shadow upstream, up the interstate for a short stretch to The Dalles, with the sun sliding into the horizon behind me.

All too soon I had to leave the river again, crossing a steel bridge over the tumbling water freshly spilled through the gates of the dam, climbing the steep river gorge walls to the north.  As I climbed, night fell, and within 20 miles of the river, night had emerged. I stopped, put my heavy jacket back on, masked my face against the evening cold and bugs, and slipped warmer gloves onto my hands.

The road continued to climb, even after reaching the top of the canyon walls that frame the Columbia. The air, already much-cooled from the midday heat, developed cold pockets which I burst through like spill water. At the pass’s peak, I paused for a few minutes to take in the descending gloom. The forest had thinned, and before me on the eastern slopes it disappeared completely, leaving an arid landscape. The twilight, spilling over the western horizon, was still fading, only the first stars had emerged as I mounted up again. I rode northward, with the rose- and orange-hued embers of sunset still simmering on the horizon. Before me lay another descent through a wide valley. Below and across the valley, silhouetted against the gathering night, was the razor edge of the naked, far rim of the plateau, over which one more descent dropped into the town that was my destination tonight. I twisted the lever for a little more speed, and my headlamp bulldozed a small wake of light across this vast expanse. To my left, above the simmering cauldron of the unseen Sea, the sky glowed turquoise, dotted with the brightest stars, and faded to a vibrant black above. To the east, the newborn midnight sky still lay in its cradle of evening eastern gloom, slowly shedding its swaddling of the day’s dust, and evening mists. But above me, glowing like a righteous prophet, was a band of clear, bright sky, ablaze with its stars, still vibrant after shedding its old skin. I felt so separated from the rest of my race, standing alone on a stage meant for a production of much, much larger scale, but relieved to be free of the intrigue and deceit we humans invent.

My bike and I dropped into the valley through a wending path that shadowed the caroming mountain river for a time, and then spread free across the widening expansive bowl that formed this wide basin, our small presence feeling lost in the palm of the earth, and I wondered to myself, with the stars above me, if anyone, anywhere up there could see my passing. I gazed upward, engine droning its persistent rumble and wind swirling past me, overwhelmed by the comparison of the universe. And out of that infinite blackness came a soft chuckle, a smile of good-hearted condescension, whispering in a tone that was deafening to the frailty of my own ability to translate the scale of its spectrum,

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” You are noticed, little brother”, it said, and smiled a smile that could only be heard.

 

And I smiled back, despite the condescension, despite the patronizing pat in the head. Like any child, I clung to the important part of the conversation. The universe had noticed me, and had called me brother.
 

And then, lifted over one last rise, as the city lights below came into view and I was drawn back to the world of reality, I took a deep breath, and plunged back into the turmoil of human life, thinking to myself,

“Maybe I stay up too late riding sometimes…”

 

 

Night Rides.

The light of the day drains into the west as the sun passes the horizon, taking with it the din of the visual world, the noise of the city, the highway and its traffic, and of the emerging beauty of rugged landscape as the bike and rider climbed the grade leaving the business of the day behind. The bike’s powerful rumble shifts from harmony to strong, purposeful melody. As the world of light shrinks and the day’s energy fades, the single headlamp slowly rises to its purpose, marking the grey track before it, calling attention to the single most important bit of information the rider needs to continue on. City lights fade in the southern distance as fast as they flicker on, and on the northern horizon nothing can be seen but the vague silhouette of the next distant mountain range, illuminated by a thin sliver of moon through the broken clouds. Soon, even that outline disappears, and the world is reduced to three – the road, the motorbike, and me. A voluminous sense of peace settles into its nightly rhythm, the only thing that can be heard over the sound of the motorbike’s engine drone. We ride alone together, we three, and the whispers of stories catch my ear. The bike and I do our best to get the road to tell us its stories.

The stories that emerge are but tales I already know, thoughts that have been stashed in pockets of my mind for the chance to give them their due when the time is right. The thoughts that have been drowned by the brilliance of the day, now sparkle from the shadows like gems in the pavement ahead of me. They are of a different stock than the thoughts of day, they are connected more closely in this smaller realm rolling through blackness held back by one shaft of light. These stories – of other riders that have passed this way, of truckers hauling their freight from dock to dock, men crossing the country to rejoin their family, of families with their children migrating, scurrying over this untamed wilderness to a new life – these are also my stories. This rhythm that I’ve settled into, after cresting the dark mountain pass’s twisting climb, settles into a long stretch across these highlands with slow, sweeping corners. The people in the stories of this road are individuals, not the throbbing masses of humanity of the city, I can see their faces sometimes, they look back at me with the recognition of one human to another. While the bike’s headlight searches for meaning ahead of me, my mind’s headlight does the same.

And so, the tales are told, the highway’s wind whistling past, the bike’s engine thrumming like a piper’s drones, and sometimes, like tonight, even the night itself stops what it’s doing and listens in.