Greenhorn Ben joins me for an overnight ride along Hell’s Canyon on our way to North Idaho, me for a high school reunion and Ben to see family. We enjoy a beautiful view of the Seven Devils from our campsite on the lip of the canyon.
“Closed is closed” is all she would tell me.
I knew Falls Point Road (443) was officially closed because of a slide but called the Red River Ranger Station¹ wondering, “do you think a motorcycle with camping gear could get around it?”
I am still tempted to try but if we can’t get from Elk City to the Selway River we face a long highway detour. Many mountain roads have been made impassable by slides or snow left to linger by an unusually cold spring.
I have had my heart set on the Selway, “Idaho’s most private Wild and Scenic river,”² but it seems hope of forest camping while riding north to my twenty-year high school reunion requires a different route.
I play with permutations and settle on the western edge of Hells Canyon. It was reconnoitered a few weeks ago¹ by local club riders Ryan, Phil and Mark so I know it will be passable.
When I decided to make this an overnight trip I put up a note to see if anyone cared to join the ride. Ben, who I rode with once before, took the bait and we’ve arranged to begin with breakfast at the Star Country Café. “I used to live just a block over that way,” he gestures as we meet in the parking lot.
Inside, we sit on worn bench seats and watch over hot plates of eggs and hash-browns as our lone waitress gets grouchy about the flood of customers. I push my empty cup to the edge of the table and catch her eye more than once but nothing happens. “I don’t think she likes us,” I suggest.
Finally I walk to the front and smile as I hand her my cup. “Sorry,” she says as she fills it with coffee. That’s better. Now I can ride alert.
Ben and I follow the meandering highway to Emmett then Payette and north. Our motorcycles, a KLR and GS, are fairly comfortable on asphalt or off. Traffic is light as we rumble over hills separating the small towns along Highway 95. We could follow more dirt but I have an afternoon appointment tomorrow and want to get some distance behind us.
At Cambridge we turn west toward Brownlee Reservoir and Hells Canyon. Highway 71 is an enjoyable series of predictable curves—lean, accelerate, lean, accelerate.
In the middle of one fast turn I am surprised by a doe standing at the road’s edge. I pass feet from her before I can react. My mind races for a means of alerting Ben, maybe ten seconds behind me, but we’re both safely past before I think of anything.
That polite reminder of mortality is reiterated just a few curves later by a black half-helmet balanced atop a flower festooned cross. The makeshift memorial is an ironic invitation to share the same fate as I momentarily fixate on it, requiring a mid-turn steering correction.
Unhindered by traffic, we quickly reach the canyon. At the bottom of the grade, we turn into Woodhead Park¹ and spend a few minutes hiking to a promontory overlooking the reservoir.
This is what I enjoy most about riding: how much you experience flying in the open air a few feet above the road—sights, sounds, smells, subtle changes of temperature—and how easy it is to follow a whim to stop and experience still more, to connect with a place.
The last of Highway 71 is entwined with ridges and inlets along the reservoir. We slowly twist and turn the five miles to the dam then cross the river below into Oregon onto the straighter Brownlee-Oxbow Highway.
Above Oxbow I turn where I think we can view the dam there but a gate keeps us from going far. We step off and look around the power station but aren’t motivated to walk the mile to the dam itself, hidden around the bend.
Down the hill in Oxbow we pull up to a picnic table in Copperfield Park¹ to eat the lunches we packed. It is humid and temperatures have risen to the mid-90s. Neither of us is especially chatty. We eat without much comment, eager to be back in the wind.
As we follow the gravel Homestead Road north of town we pass several pull-outs and camp sites along the river. I wish we would have had our lunch there. I bicycle to work along the Boise River and know it can be ten degrees cooler at the water’s edge.
Hess, which climbs quickly from the river to above the canyon, is one of those roads that becomes impassable with rain or snow. “Anyone know if Hess is open?” is typical spring-time club conversation. Today it is smooth and dry. Ben and I easily zigzag up with views and wildflowers growing grander with elevation.
I stop for a picture at the crest of a hill where flowers stand at the edge of the road like colorful spectators to our motorcycle parade. Lucky that I do since only then do I notice Ben’s KLR lying in the road behind. It was a slow tip over and everything is fine but he isn’t pleased. “I’m so mad at myself for that,” he says.
In a half-mile we’re onto the paved Wallowa Loop Road (part of the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway¹). We breeze past crowding conifers a few miles then detour to see the Hells Canyon Overlook.² It starts to rain as we wind our way up the short road past departing cars.
The overlook is mostly evacuated when we pull up by the benches at the head of the footpath. I can’t tell if the clouds will pass or get serious. Whatever they do won’t change our plans so I guess it doesn’t matter.
The geologic story of Hells Canyon National Area is a tale of fire and water … of molten lava erupted from volcanoes and oozed through cracks in the earth … of rushing water, erosion and sedimentation … of building up and wearing down … of folding and faulting and tremendous pressure under the earth’s crust.³
We stroll by blue, yellow, red and white wildflowers while looking across the great canyon, the deepest in North America at 7,993 feet, to sheets of rain hung above the Seven Devil Mountains beyond. It’s spectacular.
As the clouds begin to break up, I sit on a bench, stretch my legs in front, close my eyes and listen. This sure feels nice after the heat in the canyon. I hear trees sigh in the breeze, the buzz of insects and chatter of birds—a serene symphony.
Then I hear cars and think for a second people have been drawn out by the sunshine but of course that isn’t possible. It’s too far for anyone to have driven in the last five minutes.
“How are you guys doing?” asks an approaching park ranger, clipboard in hand.
“Just great,” we answer.
“Where you headed?”
We explain our intention to go next to Hat Point, maybe Buckhorn Lookout, and camp wherever.
“Hat Point just opened yesterday,” she says. It’s good news but she looks troubled. “Where are you guys coming from?”
“Boise, up Hess,” I tell her.
“Oh, if you made it up Hess you’ll have no problem.” She glances at our motorcycles. “We don’t see many bikes like that.” I am so used to adventure rides, where all the bikes are like that, her statement strikes me funny. “Enjoy your trip,” she says before moving on.
While she was talking, an 80s era cruiser loaded with hodgepodge camping gear pulled up nearby. A fellow steps off who looks to be about our age. “That’s a nice bike,” he says, walking our way and nodding to Ben’s KLR.
We chat a few minutes about our comings and goings. Ben and I mention the brevity of our trip and the fellow says, “I’ve got all the time in the world.” His woeful tone makes me think of the movie One Week¹ about a man who, against the wishes of family and fiancée, sets off riding cross country following a cancer diagnosis.
Riding—no doubt like rock climbing, hang gliding, deep sea diving—turns our attention inside-out. Were we to stay inside our head, thinking about the issues of last week, the plans for next, we’d likely end up with our own roadside memorial. A good ride brings tranquility even when the trail is turbulent.
Part of me envies the freedom of the other rider but even more so, I’m excited for my destination, the company of friends and family. “Solitude is a sublime mistress but an intolerable wife” ().
Ben and I descend from the Hells Canyon Overlook¹ back to Wallowa Loop Road, that nice ribbon of asphalt wrapping through Eastern Oregon forests around foothills and creeks. The air is refreshing, the ride exhilarating.
After a few miles, we leave the pavement to continue following the Imnaha River on gravel.² We’re in a beautiful valley of quaint farms surrounded by small pastures and hay fields. The smell of cut grass and occasional cows fills the air.
I feel wistful looking at decades old machinery and modest homes. They remind of my early childhood on the small farm in Troy, Idaho—drafty barns of white weathered wood tinged with smells of old tractor grease and animal habitation. Sometimes I miss that simple life but I’ve come to enjoy the amenities of town, the many diverse people to ride with and places I can get to from Boise.
The town of Imnaha is a few squat buildings and a cluster of homes in a grove of trees along the river. “Need anything?” I yell through my helmet as we stop at main street.
Signs warning of hazardous travel lead me to expect (and hope for) challenges but Hat Point Road is 22 miles of easy-going gravel. Grand vistas of gorges, knife ridges and jagged peaks, both east and west, make the ride pass quickly.
Hat Point, 6,982 feet high, and balanced on the west edge of Hells Canyon, overlooks the deepest gorge in North America. The Snake River, elevation 1,276 feet, and Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountains, over 9,000 feet in elevation, are both visible from the vantage of Hat Point.
The name Hat Point originated from a cowboy losing his hat in the brush while riding an unruly horse. The hat hung in the brush for some time and the stream, Hat Creek, was named for it. This high point near the headwaters of Hat Creek was also named after it.¹
The view from the Hat Point lookout tower is vast and awesome. From here the Snake River and Seven Devil Mountains are infinitely far, above and below, and yet infinitely close. I feel as if I can reach out and touch them.
Ben and I stand on the lower then upper lookout deck quietly watching the overcast afternoon play out to the golden light and growing shadows of evening. A tradition beginning indeterminate decades ago decorates the hill below—brown rocks arranged into large letters, words, messages of love and being, legible only from our position high above.
How boundless the day seems as we revel in these storm-beaten sky gardens amid so vast a congregation of onlooking mountains! Strange and admirable it is that the more savage and chilly and storm-chafed the mountains, the finer the glow on their faces and the finer the plants they bear.¹
Meditations of John Muir, sec. 34.
The Seven Devils behind ...
Once our senses are sated with splendor, we backtrack the few miles to Saddle Creek Campground¹ and begin setting up camp in the one spot with an open view to the canyon and mountains. “Wow,” I remark, “this is the most scenic campsite I’ve ever stayed at.” Ben agrees.
Growing gusts and a broad line of dark clouds marching menacingly from the west make me anxious to have my tent up and gear inside. I unroll, flatten, attach poles … now where are the stakes? I can’t find them anywhere. Did the kids borrow them? My wife? I’ve known them to do such things. Oh, that makes me grouchy. I really need to stake the tent down in this wind.
I get the knife and Sven-Saw from my bag and begin making six stakes out of tree branches. “I can’t find my stakes,” I explain to Ben when I scout near his tent for good branches. He just looks at me quizzically.
I work quickly with the energy of agitation and soon have the tent staked out. Ben comes over to the picnic table to join me in making some dinner and sees what I’ve been up to. “Oh, you don’t have your stakes,” he realizes. “I thought you forgot your steaks, your dinner.”
I laugh. “No, it’s not meat I’m missing. I still have my dinner—just noodles.”
I pour a little scotch from its shatter-proof bottle and recline with my spicy, just-add-hot-water noodles by the fire. A stiff wind works the flames into a frenzy. “Glad it’s been raining,” Ben comments on the far flying sparks.
The sunset behind us is golden, then orange. Billowing clouds above the high mountains ahead turn pink then purple and flash with occasional lightning. A bright gibbous moon peeks shyly from behind pine boughs that wreathe heaven above. I can but smile in awe as we sit and watch this world turn dark.
How grandly do the great logs and branches of your campfire give forth the heat and light that during their long century-lives they have so slowly gathered from the sun, storing it away in beautiful dotted cells and beads of amber gum!¹
Meditations of John Muir, sec. 43.
We stay up late for the full effect of darkness, bright stars and slumbering mountain silhouettes. Remembering last year’s near perfect record of overnight camping storms, I caution Ben, “it’s probably going to rain tonight.”
Bright sun filters in through the plastic window I arranged to face the canyon and mountains. I think I would sleep a couple more hours if not for that glare. I look at my watch: 4:30. Hmm. Well, I did want to see the sunrise.
I slip on my rain gear and hat against the morning cold and begin gathering wood for a fire. It’s calm and doesn’t look like it rained any more last night. I cajole a mound of damp twigs to produce a tiny troupe of dancing flames. Without the evening’s quickening winds, larger pieces just smoke and smolder.
With that begun, I walk to Ben’s tent and say in a low voice, “sunrise if you want.” Imagining rock faces made brilliant and forests cast in stark relief by the horizontal rays of morning, I asked him last night to wake me if he was up for sunrise. Since I’m up first, I offer the same.
I settle in with a notepad by the fire and face the rising sun to jot down observations, quotes and ideas to help journal the experience. My mind this morning is like those reluctant lumps of wood at my feet—not a lot of fire. Stymied, I trade notepad for sips of scalding coffee, allowing my mind to go blank in the white light washing over the earth.
Ben rises a short time later and we slowly prepare our breakfasts then begin packing up. As I stuff my tent in its sack and begin folding its footprint I notice a little something nestled in the dirt below: a small bag of aluminum stakes. Oops. “I’ll have to apologize to my wife for being mad at her,” I tell Ben sheepishly.
The prominent spur off the road, a couple miles down from camp, piques my curiosity. We turn from Hat Point Road through trees to Granny View Point overlooking the deeply incised Imnaha River Valley and soaring Eagle Cap Wilderness¹ beyond. It’s over by those snow capped mountains that I’ll be spending next weekend with my family, mom and brothers for our annual reunion at Wallowa Lake.
Ben and I walk down the short footpath to elaborately constructed viewing platforms. Constellations of flowers erupt all around from lichened lumps of stone, their small petals inscrutably bright against the morning sun. Before us, rumpled earth yawns and flexes to far horizons.
As we resume our descent from epicurean heights, I’m glad for the mix of singable (to me) songs I added to my player before leaving yesterday. I thrill to forest beauty and a swift ridge road, voicing loud song of country roads that take me home, hurricanes that rock me, bricks in the wall, country peaches and more. Volume and velocity rise together.
We will go our separate ways today, Ben and I, me to my high school reunion up north, him to his brother’s farther west. Paths merge and diverge in this fluxing, ephemeral web of life. Therein, I think, is much joy—traveling unpredictable paths. The circumstances of my life today are not what I expected twenty years ago. I hope twenty years hence is just as surprising, that adventure continues.