Just Mighty & me III: Oregon, best of

Crater Lake and the best road in the Pacific Northwest
Published October 29, 2010
I: O, Fortuna II: 25k to Shasta III: Oregon, best of IV: Lost in Washington V: 500 mile days

Photographs planted Crater Lake like a seed in my brain, projected with the impact of an M1 round, wedged near to my conscious where it tickled daydreams for a year and change. Though Seattle was the ultimate destination for my trip, the real inspiration behind my 2,500-mile motorcycle escape was Crater Lake. If pictures dominated my waking thoughts, how might I react to the real thing? Just one way to find out.

July 19, 2010

I woke up in a Klamath Falls hotel and spent the morning routing the day’s ride whilst devouring the remnants of the previous night’s Bing cherry binge. I’d been two days away from television and all the worst of our modern world, but I couldn’t help tuning into terrible politics before vacating the city. Which had been already thoroughly vacated before me. Klamath Falls, for a town with such fripperies as a historic downtown, a massively modern public courthouse, two colleges, is disturbingly uninhabited.

I gassed up early and remembered Oregon’s bizarre laws that require a station attendant hand me the gas nozzle, and which I always ignore while employee protest goes unheard outside my ear-plugged head. The bike and I were still floating at elevation and I wondered what effect the rich running might have on fuel efficiency. Just 75 miles for nearly two gallons of gas, by far the worst mileage I’d seen since giving up the GTO and its V8 thirst.

Routing through central Oregon to avoid dull roads is an impossibility. I tried, stretching Google Maps to its limits in search of bends but came short, nought but straight lines through flat, dreary, unemployed towns lined with weedy yards and rusty cars.

Highway 97 stabs north and separates Klamath Lake from bug-filled farmland to the east. Heavy traffic results in countless tiny collisions and insect deaths as the green flying things hop between water and food. Midway through the fray, I stopped to wipe clean my visor. It was hopelessly plastered moments later.

Closer to Crater Lake, the traffic dispersed and the trees turned massive, reaching, hulking spires, sentinels scrutinizing the intent of those that might disrupt the nature beyond. Klamath Lake is a handsome attraction, and I worried Crater Lake might be just the same. Klamath appeared, I gawked, and I was gone.

Another round of elevation changes brought the Ninja back to wheezing struggle. Up, up, but where’s the lake? I can’t have missed it.

And like a ton of bricks whipped into my gut. Behind a chain of traffic, I crested a hill and Crater Lake stunned me. Parking and removing my Shoei would take too long so I just stopped in sight of the lake and stared, mouth agape (really), for a quick fix and instant buzz. More awesome than photographs can convey.

I peeled myself away to park and brought out the camera gear to shoot my best lie. The camera captured the light, but not the majesty. Comments from other travelers were similarly understated. “Spectacular!” You think? “Looks like a painting.” No artist could dream that feeling.

Crater Lake is otherworldly. An unmolested sheet of glassy blue at the bottom of a gaping, retired volcanic mount. I tried to imagine discovering the wonder before anyone else. If I hadn’t confirmed it in Wikipedia, I wouldn’t have believed what my eyes perceived. Crater Lake doesn’t make sense on Earth.

Running the circular perimeter of the lake is Rim Drive, a two-lane ring of pavement that’s only halfway motorable for much of the year. In planning the trip, I romanticized the thought of running a lap of the rim, but the reality of a limited gas tank and elevation-spoiled mileage concerned me. A park guide mentioned that the east side of the rim had just been cleared of snow and debris the previous week. I sort of had to do the lap. If a dry fuel tank left me deserted, so be it.

Less traveled corners of the rim revealed fresh views. Further east, Rim Drive passes behind hillsides that hide the lake but provide a canvass for rushing falls of melting snow.

Lap completed, I was ready to bid farewell the lake. And bid farewell altitude. I wanted back to a place where carburetors play well with the air, so I turned east onto Highway 138. The arrow-straightest miles I’ve ever had the displeasure to ride.

Once I’d reconnected with Highway 97, civilization and gas stations weren’t far ahead. I’d done everything I wanted at the lake without suffering a crippling petrol fiasco. Now I’d suffer 100 more miles of 97, droning behind big rigs in file at a state-mandated 55 mph until Bend.

Thank Bend for 3G. And pizza. It was late afternoon when I rolled into the city and all day I’d only eaten the bag of cherries in Klamath Falls. I parked up the bike downtown and found a source of suitably familiar food, my first real meal since breakfast in Red Bluff the day before. Copped a corner seat by a window and dismantled my armor suit enough to sit comfortably without feeling comfortable. In truth, I felt out of place in the city. I’d just come from one of the world’s most shocking natural wonders, still covered in the grimy dust of Rim Drive, smuggling a camera dripping ineffable blues, sure I’d just seen God. Air con and soda fountains, waiter and tip jar. And filthy me in the corner. Get me out of the city.

A few miles of good riding altered the chemicals draining between the cracks in my brain

A quick survey of Google Maps helped me optimistically aim for a campground south of Estacada via, thankfully, roads with twists in ’em. Northwest on Highway 20 to 126, and as the tarmac got bendier my spirits lifted. The difference a road can make. Amid the torturous hours between Crater Lake and Bend, I was ready to call it quits for the day. But a few miles of legitimately good riding altered the chemicals draining between the cracks in my brain. If the sun weren’t packing it in, I could go like this forever.

Though society was left in Bend, I was kept company by cheery mountains introduced by thoughtful road signs that uncannily point out the mounts just a fraction of a moment before they swing into view from behind tall evergreens. Mount Washington, Jefferson, and the Three Fingered Jack took turns exclaiming hellos, but I didn’t catch their goodbyes. Before I knew it, Mighty and I landed in Detroit (not Michigan) for what should’ve been my last gas stop for the day.

The trip was a celebration of breaking routines, but some routines are helpful. For example, the gas-up routine: Set aside tank bag, get out wallet, swipe card, fuel up, shake nozzle free of caustic drips, and pack it all back up. But the old town station in Detroit runs on cash, not debit. I handed the teenage attendant a wad of ones and, in a hurry to avoid a handful of pennies in change–I despise pennies–I bolted before the lad came back from his register.

Turned north onto Breitenbush, the last road of the day, to bury some miles and find a campground before the sun set. I’d started the day with the very best of Oregon and ended with what might be the finest ribbon of asphalt in the Pacific Northwest. At first a glowing green, a veil of thinly-dressed branches filtered the low sun to jade-tinted sepia that washed the road and the untouched nature around it. No one but me, charging deeper into the forest as the sun crept lower, overhang grew denser, slicing divine corners carved by faultless tarmac. I wanted photos to prove the memory, but wanted to keep riding even more. No time to stop. Don’t want to stop. Keep pushing.

After swapping national forests, the secluded highway mimes the curves of the adjacent Clackamas River, bobbing and weaving with the soothing flow of hurried water. Scouting for potential camp sites, I spotted a photo op I couldn’t pass. After meticulously positioning the bike with the river as its backdrop, I reached for my camera inside my tank bag. Except the tank bag wasn’t there.

Fuck me. Routines can be tiresome, but routines can also spare me the error of thoughtlessness. I’d hastily escaped Detroit to ditch a pocket of pennies and ended up ditching my tank bag and $1,500 worth in camera equipment. And because I was too pressed for time to stop for a photo, I didn’t catch my bungle until 45 minutes too late. The drooping sun pressed me for a decision: Set up camp in daylight and leave the camera overnight, or tear arse back down Breitenbush, hope the bag wasn’t lifted and settle my bed after sunset.

The mighty 250 loves to hustle. The unsympathetic urgency of time pushed me beyond the limits of law, pressed me to snap open the throttle and hold it pinned to 90 mph in the straights and drop the bike into corners at double the advised velocity. I retraced the 35 miles south to Detroit within half an hour, a pace nearly 50% faster than the spirited ride north. Mad, angry riding, the motorcycle wailing against a 13,000 rpm limit, my knees gripping the tank against braking Gs, the sound echoing against stout tree trunks lining the path.

The bellowing announced my approach and the young gas station attendant met me outside with the bag in hand. Definitely not Michigan.

Though daylight only barely remained, I savored my third run of Breitenbush. Halfway to Estacada, I found riverside camping and set up my tent with just a faint blue glow emanating from the river canyon. Checked in with the camp host and we shared our mutual affection for small motorcycles. I nervously inquired about the local wildlife, but was assured raccoons were all I’d encounter. Oh then he s’posed there was a recent report of a cougar. G’night.