“Special” Ed leads four of us through his old stomping grounds along the Owyhee River and Reservoir. I’m the only one without a KLR. We find evidence related to a homicide and visit Leslie Gulch before I part from the group for an eerie night visit to Jordan Craters.
Lights wrapped in delicate bubbles of blown orange glass hang from thin wires, casting a warm glow over the block letter menu board. I don’t see what I want so I ask the lady behind the counter, “can you make me a Mexican Mocha?”
“Sure,” she answers cheerfully.
The ride over from Boise was invigorating, my hands like a McDLT,¹ the cold side staying cold, the hot staying hot (I suppose you have to be a certain age to remember those ads²) on the heated grips.
The other four guys venturing out for the day’s group ride sit chatting at two tables near the front of Moxie Java³ here in Nampa. Some of us have ridden together before, some haven’t.
Once we’ve finished our drinks and given anyone who might want to join time to show up, the ride coordinator, “Special” Ed, begins leading west around Lake Lowell¹ toward the arid lands of Eastern Oregon.²
“I grew up in this area,” he explains when we stop to soften our tires for the rough dirt roads ahead. Gesturing, he describes curiosities to be found in these hills — thundereggs,¹ petrified wood² and milky agates³ harboring dark plumes and filaments.
It is intriguingly different from my own boyhood adventures in North Idaho around ponds and forests, giant predatory diving beetles⁴ and plasmodial slime molds.⁵
We turn onto dirt tracks that remain tepid until curving between cliffs that cloister a surprising riparian area along Succor Creek. We each splash uneventfully through the shallow water crossings then pause to regroup.
Invisible rays unimpeded by clear skies bring the welcome warmth of nuclear fusion to our skin. It feels good after the morning’s chill. Some of us shed layers before we continue uphill from the creek to intersect its namesake gravel road. We are a little concerned to see so many trucks parked there. Dust may be on the day’s diet.
Our quintet veers right from Succor Creek Road to continue west on Fisherman Road. A roadside election is held to determine whether we will stay the course down to Lake Owyhee State Park¹ at the water’s edge or follow Upper Tunnel Road to view the dam from above. We decide to see the park.
The road deteriorates as it descends along a tributary to the main canyon. We ride along what looks like the coarse ruins of an old brick building, rocks red and mortar white. These natural stones, though, were fired not in factories but the subterranean furnace that gave this broad area remarkable character.
Our group slowly slinks and leapfrogs down, different ones stopping here or there to view or photograph the strange volcanic world unfurled before us. Palisades across the water are drab indication of molten rock that repeatedly engulfed the world of indigenous creatures leaving land barren and brown.
Drawing near to the park, we splash inconsequentially across a trickle of water that must have raged earlier in the year to wash away half the road. If you’re thinking of driving a truck down here, be prepared for some clever maneuvering.
There is nobody at the park or campground. Given the space, we revert to men’s restroom rules of proximity when parking—not too close.
“Owyhee Reservoir is a 53-mile-long lake, filling a narrow, deep canyon brimming with colorful volcanic rock formations.”¹ From the park, we have only a relatively mundane preview. You must float to see the rest. Or go overland to Leslie Gulch, a complex of what looks to be medieval architecture, flying buttresses, spires and parapets, formed of wax burnt orange, bubbled and slumped.
More layers are shed as we lean against our machines or lounge in the grass to eat a summer sausage or peanut butter sandwich while discussing divinely revealed Words of Wisdom pertaining to KLR health.
“Have you unhooked the fiddleymebip yet?”
“I was thinking of installing the zargamater. Have you tried it?”
And so on.
As we leave the lake behind, Ed uses his grabby clutch to pull up a nice long wheelie across the upper parking lot. It’s that kind of day. Next stop: Leslie Gulch. Ride on.
Apparently I’m still too busy lamenting the loss of a lens filter to notice the wild horses. Some dummy twisted the high speed compression knob the wrong way, all the way to hard, and made a paint mixer of the tank bag where I keep camera gear. At least I know why the trail seemed so bumpy.
It is an unimportant peeve but enough to send me to thought-land instead of savoring the present experience. Ed stops and draws our attention to the three horses standing as sagebrush sentinels.
These areas are home to about 150 wild horses in several herds and bands of various sizes. Historically, these free-roaming animals have lived out their life on the Owyhee Front, feeding, watering, breeding and foaling.¹
Where I would expect only reptiles and rodents, I am impressed these large animals survive, even thrive. I guess life can be hewn from most any circumstance.
We continue south, stopping occasionally while Ed checks the route or points out the interesting consequences of cataclysmically shaped land. It isn’t a place I would call “pretty” but I believe it exhibits a purity and directness befitting beauty.
As we descend again nearer the water, the road becomes a chute between natural stone walls leading to an abrupt drop to rocks below. Ed suggests it could have been a buffalo jump¹ in centuries past. It’s certainly a bad direction to go when pursued.
It isn’t big game lately driven to their demise, however. We peer with curiosity over the cliff at a later model pickup smashed dramatically below, it’s contents spewed around. Accident? Suicide? Theft? There isn’t a scenario that fits the evidence very well but we decide it must have been theft and a joy-ride.
What we don’t guess is the stranger-than-fiction truth, that after allegedly murdering his landlady, Ted Kestner “drove to remote eastern Oregon in his pickup ‘to end his life’ by driving off a cliff … Right at the last second, he jumped out of the pickup (and) let the pickup go off a cliff.”¹
From here, Kestner travelled on foot to a Lake Owyhee cabin and took an older couple hostage for a few hours before fleeing on their ATV and ultimately being captured by “a posse of close to 65 officers.”¹ He is scheduled for a first-degree murder trial on February first.
“I know where we are now,” Ed reports. We’ve enjoyed some two-wheeled wandering to enhance the day’s adventure but from here Ed knows the wander-less way to Leslie Gulch.
Dust billows as we pick up speed on the two-track south. We come up behind three ATVs bouncing grey-haired folk along bumpy hills. Three of us get around but two of us remain stuck behind long enough to formulate another peeve.
We pass a procession of fifteen ATVs in tight formation coming the opposite direction, their riders taking advantage, like us, of what might be the last warm weekend. We nod or wave to each then gladly get beyond the concomitant cloud of dust.
Prefacing the grandeur of Leslie Gulch, formations around us grow taller, orange and red hues materializing from taupe, as we continue south.
The dirt tracks we’ve followed intersect the gravel gulch road just a quick jaunt from the gulch itself. “Ride slowly and look around,” Ed suggests after pulling off at a wide spot. “We’ll meet up at the bottom.”
We crawl individually past the gauntlet of stone giants once molten, now ashen, orange and disfigured, stopping occasionally to ponder different impossibilities. It’s incredible to visualize how this must all have looked as it was formed — super heated ash, fire in the sky.
The rest of the team, the KLR gang-proper, is thinking they’ll make an expedited return home from here. I plotted a possible route to the nearby Jordan Craters in case time permitted. Although a little late in the day, I think I’ll break from the group and make a run for it. Dust-free riding and extra time for photographs sounds like a nice change of pace to end the day.
“Were you thinking of running over Mahogany Mountain?” Ed asks.
“That was all fenced private land last time we tried it,” he warns. “All that land around there is.”
Ed’s local knowledge is likely spot-on but I’m curious to have a go at it nonetheless. I have headlights, heated grips and chutzpah. I’m sure I’ll be fine.
I watch a moment as the others take off, waiting for their dust to settle. Already the day has been dulled by the approach of evening.
Bending mildly at most, Succor Creek to Mahogany Gap gravel roads accommodate highway speeds as I fly further south from Leslie Gulch, further from home. I’ll arrive at Jordan Craters in no time at this rate.
Although Ed warned it would be gated, I follow the line on the GPS off the gravel road up dirt tracks leading to Mahogany Mountain. Maybe things have changed since he was here.
Compared to how we usually use the word in this part of the country, “mountain” is a generous description of the gentle, juniper covered rise above surrounding dry hills.
A fork in the road reminds me of the aerial photos I studied. Both directions should follow draws up the mountain but left looked more interesting. The predicted gate greets me across a couple rises: “No Trespassing.” Darn. Back to the intersection, this time right, brings the same result. Double darn.
I backtrack toward the next option, to follow Mahogany Creek about four-and-a-half miles, somewhat cross-country, to Jordan Craters Road. The only other choice is over twenty-two miles,¹ staying on the gravel all the way east to Highway 95 just to return west on the nearly parallel Jordan Craters Road.
But where the GPS map suggests roads near the creek, I see no way through. I would scout more in that direction but a farmhouse intervenes. I decide to keep going and circle back on another road I see ahead on the map.
The deviation is longer than I expected. I wish I would have tried harder to find a direct path near the farmhouse but at least I appear to be on track. A stretched wire gate reading “Private Property / Please Close Behind You” invites me to head toward Mahogany Creek.
I follow tracks that fade into a hay field mowed flat and gold. Where now? Straight across would be logical but the creek there meanders into a marsh the length of the draw. I test it on foot — ankle-deep mud.
I ride tentatively around the edge of the empty field as if trying to conjure a memory that wants to remain buried. Every direction is the same.
On my second perimeter pass I notice a faint ATV trail through the green marsh grass—not quite confidence inspiring but the right direction. I hope to go over the hill onto Jordan Craters road but instead the winding wisp flows back to Mahogany Creek beyond which no trail is evident.
“I hope this comes out somewhere,” I think to myself as I splash through the water to become a red, roaming bovine cutting my own casual trails through the dry grass and sagebrush.
Wondering if this whole direction will come to naught weighs more heavily on my mind than terrain technicalities. I’m therefore quite relieved when finally I see evidence of the road ahead, a line of dust rising from a passing car.
I am a little worried when I don’t see a gate in the stretched barbed wire. The sagebrush is thick here so I walk the fence line rather than crashing around on my red bovine. Still nothing. It must be on the other side of the creek. I hope.
I dip across the creek to sweet relief. There it is, a gate. It’s a bugger to open but in a moment I’m on Jordan Craters Road, putting the big boxer motor to use as I hasten to reach the craters while light remains.
A carpet of mellow greens and golds stretches to distant horizons brilliantly pink and yellow. With no sign of another soul in any direction, it’s somewhat thrilling to imagine I have this vast spectacle to myself. In spite of my haste, I’m compelled to stop and witness.
Wonder and curiosity enliven minds big and small. A herd of antelope turn in unison to marvel at my passing after running indifferently down a draw to cross the road. Rabbits seem to play a dangerous game, in three places darting across the road between my fast moving wheels. It’s a surprise each time they make it.
While descending the short access road to Coffeepot Crater, I see someone walking across the gravel lot below. When I get there, though, I find myself alone—no cars, nothing.
Stretched before me are miles of dangerously contorted black rock scabbed over a deep wound in the face of the earth. If there be specters interested in aberrant existence, this would be a favored haunt.
The 27-square mile olivine basalt lava ﬂow is estimated to be between 4,000 and 9,000 years old, based on the degree of lichen development on the rocks. An 18-acre ﬂow within the ﬁeld is thought to be less than 100 years old because not even lichens have begun to colonize it.¹
I climb the crater’s cone to look out under the half-light at the surprising expanse of “well-preserved vents and striking flow features.”¹ I wish I would have arrived sooner. It will be completely dark in a matter of minutes, no time to explore.
A cold wind comes with the night. I close my eyes and consider the space all around, empty and scarred. It seems so alien, so lonely.
With a half-glance upon the sky At night he said, ‘The wanderings Of this most intricate Universe Teach me the nothingness of things.’ Yet could not all creation pierce Beyond the bottom of his eye.
He spake of beauty: that the dull Saw no divinity in grass, Life in dead stones, or spirit in air; Then looking as ‘twere in a glass, He smooth’d his chin and sleek’d his hair, And said the earth was beautiful.¹
Only with a flashlight can I see the distance scale on the lens. Once set, I do my best to stand frozen at the focused distance for a twenty second self-portrait. I never get it quite right but decide the indefinite result is fitting.
The beam sweeps across smooth green skin as I stoop with flashlight in hand to collapse the tripod. What was that? A frog? Salamander? But up on this mound of crunchy rock? I flick light around but find no culprit.
Coffeepot Crater is a heart-shaped tephra cone constructed of numerous overlapping lobes … The walls of the crater show good evidence for a fluctuating lava pond which appears to have broken through and rafted away portions of the northeastern and southeastern crater walls … Additional material was vented from a series of … trending spatter cones.¹
I wouldn’t mind hanging out here a while longer but I’m already out past my curfew (dark) and I have no phone service to check in.
The evening’s mysterious onlookers no doubt chuckle to see me fumbling flashlight, air pump and gauge to fill the tires for the hours of asphalt ahead.
Darkness is palpable beneath the cloud obscured crescent moon. I took advantage of the rising cinder cone as a target to adjust my lights but they seem nonetheless overwhelmed by gloom as I trace my isolated return on dirt and gravel.
A flash of eyes draws my attention to a coyote standing near the road with head low, observing. It slips into darkness when I return the gaze.
The way home is tenebrous not tedious. I rumble fluidly along gravel, highway and interstate. I am joyed to glide along in quiet darkness after a day of uncommon grandeur.