Tyson and I ride our big bikes through the desert from Boise to Juntura, Oregon with a gnarly stop in Dry Creek Gorge. Dinner at the Oasis caps a day that ends with us flying home on the darkened Interstate.
“Could you bring me a piece of foil,” I ask our genial if frumpy waitress.
“Sure,” she answers, hustling away.
Experience¹ tells me the remaining half of this bacon avocado breakfast burrito will make a nice snack later today in the middle of nowhere.
Across the table, done with his “I don’t even need to look at the menu” plate of food, Tyson² asks the returning waitress, “you think you could bring me some glass cleaner?”
We have a long desert way to go before the next fuel stop, even for buxom bikes, so we decide to top off our tanks before leaving civilization.
From the gas station, we roll down a long stretch into Middleton, one of several dusty towns out here on the Snake River Plain.¹ I’m curious at the goings-on as we enter town and make a quick turn in along parked cars at the edge of a field of old trucks and tractors.
“I thought I’d get some of the local flavor,” I explain to Tyson as we pull to a stop.
“Sure,” he answers. “I’m all for that.”
Rows of rusting equipment seem an odd attraction and I say as much. “I think it’s an auction,” Tyson explains. Of course. We mosey a minute before he adds, “I’m ready to hit dirt.”
As we return to our bikes, Tyson points out a mysterious spigot cobbled onto one old tractor and an open seated harvester to which the window from a house has been attached as a windshield. “Farmer engineering,” he calls it.
More than once we’ve relied on a strap, hose clamp or zip tie¹ to get home from a ride. Scrappy solutions get a lot of respect in our books.
We leave pavement at Succor Creek Road and pull to the side to relieve some tire pressure. That done, we haven’t far to go on the gravel before turning up Fisherman Road (I’m grateful to “Special” Ed¹ for introducing me to this direction last fall²). Now the real ride begins!
Shorter than the sage brush, I almost don’t notice the herd of sheep beside us until I cast a curious glance at the solitary man wandering aimlessly overland and see dingy wool in motion all around him.
I am a little surprised. No trees and little greenery seem the wrong conditions for game or grazers. “We cannot even find willow to make a raft still less scarcely a sufficiency to cook our victuals” noticed Peter Ogden as he explored the area in 1826.¹
“Oh, when shall I view, once more, a verdant landscape!” complained the pioneering polymath Riley Root when he arrived here in 1848. “One thousand miles of naked rocks! Landscape without soil! River bottoms with scarcely enough grass to support emigrant teams.”²
Only a few years later, in the late 1860s, ranchers were nonetheless finding ways to sustain herds of sheep and cattle on the same abominable land in order to feed the influx of miners pursuing newly discovered Owyhee gold.³ Today, the gold is gone but shepherds continue to tend grazing flocks.
Yellow, orange and sage decorate the few dry hills between Succor Creek and the Owyhee Reservoir. Perhaps partly from exuberance at the year’s first ride, I’m soon absorbed by the subtle beauty of the place forsaken by many.
The lower Owyhee subbasin is located in an area that is both remote and beautiful. The Owyhee River cuts through deeply incised canyons with walls towering overhead. The area is home to a wide array of wildlife and birds. The visible cultural history includes Native American petroglyphs and abandoned pioneering structures ...
The Great Basin area of eastern Oregon has been inhabited for more than 13,000 years … Collected or excavated artifacts … include lithic scatters, projectile points from many time periods, ground stone, house pits, petroglyphs, rock alignments, and some pottery.¹
I pull to the side at the first spot overlooking the reservoir and watch Tyson descend the hill to join the perspective.
“The headwaters of the Owyhee River are in Nevada. After flowing through Idaho, the river crosses the Owyhee uplands of southeastern Oregon, eventually flowing into the Snake River. … The Owyhee offers breathtaking towering cliffs, above the river, picturesque multi-colored geological formations of basalt flows interspersed with sedimentary rock and fossil deposits.”¹
As we stretch our legs and shed layers I notice a plastic guard hanging loose by the rear wheel. “It’s there to hide scratches as much as prevent them,” I confess. Tyson lends me the needed allen wrench when I don’t find one in my tool kit (no ride is complete without tools coming out).
Pictures shared and places mentioned by Ed “trailrider383”¹ inspired me to explore this way, to the reservoir and westward. “There is actually a really loose, rocky, steep downhill,” he warned of my plan, “right as you drop into the canyon on that route.”²
As we depart the overlook, I share the warning with Tyson then, nodding toward the gentler alternative, suggest, “we can go that way. It has some tunnels. I was kind of planning that way.”
“You know me,” he answers immediately. “I’ll go for gnarly.” If you’ve followed his adventures,³ you know Tyson isn’t shy about a challenge.
“Ed must be a pansy,” I think to myself as we start down the switchbacks. Then the track turns straight down hill on what seems like marbles. After some stressful moments, expecting to end up in the weeds, I manage to stop and watch Tyson enjoy the same semi-controlled slide.
When finished in 1932, the Owyhee Dam was the tallest in the world.¹ I saw a picture² of someone able to park their motorcycle on the shore below its base so before continuing west we circle around the campground trying to find the way through to that same big view of the dam neither of us have seen before.
In 1928, the board of the Owyhee Ditch Company began work to replace the loose rock dam with a new concrete diversion dam in the river. By October, the first train used the completed railroad to the construction site of the Owyhee dam. In the following months, power and telephone lines were extended to the dam and the fifty buildings of the permanent camp for construction workers grew to include a school with 40 students, a hospital, and a movie theater which showed movies twice a week.³
All we find today are weeds, prohibitive signs and a park ranger throwing eye daggers at us from a hundred yards. We aren’t that desperate for the shoreline view so retreat to pavement for the quick jaunt to the top of the dam.
Even up here we can hardly see the dam without disregarding some signs. We scramble together down a steep path until the high pressure plume comes into view near the bottom of the massive concrete face.
We stand a few minutes taking in the spectacle of nature and engineering that few come to see then return to our bikes, swing by the now-high-and-dry “glory hole”¹ and head back down across the river to continue west.
Uncertain morning haze has finally relented. We put the Owyhee River, appearing like a silver ribbon etched into desert rock, behind us and head for terra incognita.
We ascend a sandy road from the river past successive palisades to high desert hills above. It is still and barren save for a lone coyote running flat-out from hills on the right across the road and out of view.
“Morning on the desert, and the wind is blowin’ free, And it’s ours jest for the breathin’, so let’s fill up, you an’ me. No more stuffy cities where you have to pay to breathe— Where the helpless, human creatures, throng, and move, and strive and seethe …
“‘Sagebrush ain’t so pretty?’ Well, all eyes don’t see the same; Have you ever saw the moonlight turn it to a silv’ry flame? An’ that greasewood thicket yonder—well, it smells jest awful sweet When the night wind has been shakin’ it; for smells it’s hard to beat.
“Lonesome? well, I guess not! I’ve been lonesome in a town. But I sure do love the desert with its stretches wide and brown; All day through the sagebrush here, the wind is blowin’ free. An’ it’s ours jest for the breathin’, so let’s fill up, you and me.”¹
The terrain is muted, no longer sharp and angular. We ride faster, faster, to keep it interesting. I think Tyson is enjoying his new knobby tires. I’m in the lead following the line on the GPS. I see him in the mirror, catch up then fall back, catch up, fall back.
From a distance I notice steep tracks up a short, chalky hill aside the road. I approach, click to second, scan for ditches, rumble up, then position myself to watch Tyson’s inexorable ascent. Behind helmets I know we’re both grinning.
Unending days without difficulty are dreary, I think. When last I rode,¹ I had a job that paid well enough, provided good benefits, had nice co-workers and a short commute—no complaints. Kind of like this road we’ve been on: fairly fun, sometimes interesting, but not quite inspiring.
I quit that job a few months ago and soon we’ll quit this road for a little known gorge I found on the map south of the day’s route. (I am grateful to Josh Irwin¹ whose pictures shared in Google Earth² drew my attention to the gorge and who shared advice when I contacted him.)
Vacillating but vapid, we twine taupe hills a little farther before turning south to more primitive tracks, their cow pies and sagebrush belying any dramatic conclusion. I am beginning to wonder if this direction is worth the time when a final hill reveals serrated stone teeth spread like a dark grin across the land.
My heart beats faster when I see the steep, rock strewn trail we’ll need to follow into the maw and I know we’ve come the right way. For a moment I think we’ve encountered the first thing ever to give Tyson pause then I realize he’s giving me space so that he doesn’t also run me over should the rocks knock me to the ground.
We stop half-way to the bottom and agree with nervous laughs, “it’ll be interesting getting back up this.”
Sight of the verdant laced, languid creek cut narrowly between auburn cliffs soothes worries. As we bounce to a stop near the water, I’m ten years old again, eager to scramble on rocks and find things that might be hidden.
Glassy obsidian sparkles darkly all around, something I haven’t seen before. The creek runs wall-to-wall so after a quick lunch (compacted bacon avocado burrito for me) we hop carefully across stones above burbling water to follow a possibility along the opposite cliff. With hands and heavy boots we climb until mortality comes to mind.
“The area’s diverse topography and expansive landscapes of varied canyon-cut terrain dissected by a mixed density of networked dirt roads offers recreating visitors a plurality of outdoor recreation settings and experiences. Within much of the area a person can readily experience a sense of aloneness in substantially unaltered natural settings …
Dry Creek Gorge [Area of Critical Environmental Concern] comprises 16,082 acres west of Owyhee Reservoir along the Dry Creek drainage from its confluence with Owyhee Reservoir and upstream approximately 15 miles. Relevant and important values in this deep canyon include scenery, special status fish (redband trout) and amphibian species (Columbia spotted frog) and associated habitat, and rare geologic features.¹
“I’d like to see what’s around the bend,” I lament after our retreat. “Maybe we could take our boots off and wade.” We argue with ourselves a moment, whether wet feet or something left unexplored will feel worse.
“I’m gonna do it,” I say as I bare my feet to step in. “Not too bad,” I report. I don’t feel the icy cold until I’ve taken several steps on winter-soft feet that slip randomly on the slime coated, angular rocks. “Ouch!” I cry.
I think Tyson is crying too but I’m too busy feeling sorry for myself to notice much. The irony of coming so far to face the elements only to find a few inches of chilly water unbearable isn’t lost on us. But oh, our soft feet!
Tyson finds a nice place to recline by a swimming hole while I curse and mutter my way a little farther on rueful feet to understand the shimmering shadows we see.
I find sunlight teasing delicate ripples (cattle caused slime notwithstanding) before dancing across gnarled cliffs speckled yellow and orange that, like a veil, obscure the past and future leaving us ensconced in this tranquil moment.
Traveling through the open air across uninhabited lands reminds me always of my transience. Ten-thousand years ago, ten-thousand years from now, the form of these rocks and water endures. The thought makes me glad. Division by zero, the present is infinite and infinitesimal.
Hoped-for numbness never setting in, the return walk is no less unpleasant. We endure with laughter and cajoling until we reach our heavy boots and socks. They never felt so comfortable.
“We should always bring sandals,” we assert indelibly.
I look around for a small rock to memorialize this stop, is as my wont, in this case a bit of obsidian, while Tyson checks our location on the map. Then we stow our things and make mental preparation for our imminent ascent.
We stop to collect our wits a moment, Tyson and I, at the base of the trail leading up out of the gorge. Uncertainty about how this will go is something I know we both enjoy about these rides. Good or bad, it’s bound to be entertaining.
The first section is easy: over the bigger rocks of a drainage, not too bad, then a longer section of loose rubble. Suddenly the front careens off a rock, points me off trail and leaves me lying against the bank. I look back to see Tyson stopped at the drainage, looking up to see what I’ll do next. I think we’re both surprised when the GS finds its feet to carry me onward and upward.
We are relieved to make it out with little trouble.
I stay a moment here at the rim of Dry Creek Canyon while Tyson rides a roost of dirt and dust hard ahead, back to the main road.
From trail to two-track to gravel, we ride faster and faster.
I considered a peak at Warm Springs Reservoir, just over the hill, but we’re only now at our apogee — the ride home still ahead — and in need of food and gas. Instead of the reservoir, we maintain a lively pace along Juntura-Riverside Road into town. The gravel road winds across foothills through stubby evergreens around sandy knolls, the view and pace both pleasant.
The little Oregon ranching town of Juntura comes slowly into view as we emerge from the hills. Its Oasis Café came highly recommended¹ (whether for the food or lack of alternatives) so Tyson and I pull in at the side of the highway, glad at the prospect of dinner.
Inside is the typical small town café — worn linoleum, dusty trinkets, booth seats and handmade signs. We are just starting to relax when a thin lady with wispy white hair and pointed features approaches our table to offer us a gospel tracts. “I don’t usually accept these,” Tyson explains after she walks away, “but for an old lady …”
As a teen, I delivered gospel tracts door-to-door and stood on the sidewalk preaching sin and salvation. As an introvert and skeptic, I did so not from proximate desire but out of allegiance to the idea of a divinely ordered world, everything in its place.
I experience jamais vu watching the lady approach and then leave our table, her motivations both familiar and alien. Increasingly I prefer the world unembellished—vocation, photography, ideology. Hold the varnish, the platitudes, the HDR¹ for those not satisfied with things as they are, for those who “are still unaware that reality contains unparalleled beauties. The fantastic and unexpected, the ever-changing and renewing is nowhere so exemplified as in real life itself.”²
Perhaps religious ideation is a type of aesthetic. To theists, giving up the notion of the divine might be intolerable because the universe would look ugly, incomplete, and meaningless. To them, giving god a place in the perceptual construal of the universe yields a good gestalt.³
Faith can embellish the angst and anxiety inculcated by a culture of material anticipation with a pleasant veneer, platitudes of the possible instead of real life itself.
“I was told we had to eat here,” I tell the lady behind the counter as she looks for our ticket after Tyson and I have finished our deliciously greasy meals.
“Where you guys headed?” she asks, smiling.
“Back home to Boise,” I answer. Not wanting to seem like a city pansy, I continue: “We came by the Owyhee Dam and dropped into that Dry Creek gorge.”
“Oh,” she says with a little surprise. “You must be on dirt bikes.”
“You guys be careful,” she warns. “Been a lot of deer along the highway.”
“S’pose I’ll let that other guy ride first,” I answer. She laughs.
She wasn’t kidding! Tyson and I fly around the curves of Highway 20 then decelerate by herds of mule deer in draw after draw. There must be hundreds of them, a dramatic contrast to the original state of this land.
Owyhee pioneers “Townsend and Ogden have many entries devoted to the lack of game”¹ from the early to mid-1800s, not long after the Corps of Discovery crossed the Bitterroot Mountains. In his 1834 trip to the area, ornithologist John Kirk Townsend lamented, “we have not seen a deer, antelope, or any other quadruped larger than a hare, since we left the confines of the buffalo country.” “The best hunters are out,” reported John Work, “but as usual did not see a single animal of any sort.”²
Bud Baltazar rode all over the area to catch the horses. He recalls that in ‘the early 1900’s there were very few deer and antelope in the Owyhee Country … You could ride the range all day and never see a deer track so when you’d hear a rider say, ‘I saw a deer track on the mountain today,’ that was news.’
Without enough gas to get home and none available back at Juntura, we are glad to find the one pump in Harper still open. Inside, a chest-high stack of boxes separates the bar from the store within the small, dimly lit room. A couple people are bellied up to the bar while a couple more lean against the wall behind them. There’s not much room for anyone else.
A car pulls up and we’re asked, “is that one of those motorcycles that can go on road and off road—a Mercedes?”
The easiest answer seems to be, “yep.”
While stopped, we add some air to our tires for better highway handling. The fitting on my pump is letting more air out of the tire than is going in so again I borrow from Tyson. With that sorted, we hurry on our way.
Night falls as we ride the highway and then interstate home, alone in our helmets like proper Owyhee pioneers.