Missoula MT – Alturas CA
Mon Sept 21, 2020
I wanted to get a fairly early start on the day, but again not so early as to miss all the scenery and much-lauded riding over Lolo Pass. I decided to aim for topping the pass at sunrise around 06:30, since the really epic riding appeared to be west of the pass on the map. I bundled up with heated top and bottoms, left the hotel in darkness just before 06:00, and picked my way south through the empty outskirts of Missoula and nearby town of Lolo. Then I turned west on US 12 into the mountains.
With my brights on, I made short work of the empty road at first, watching for critters. As the temperature continued to drop steadily with gaining altitude, I brought the speed down a bit, watchful of any frost or ice forming on the curves. I was going rather cautiously by the time I neared the top of the 5200′ pass, where I hit a low of exactly 32F. I pulled over by the Idaho state line sign to continue my unbroken string of photos.
The visitor center was dark and deserted but the restrooms were open for travelers to use. I was wondering why the sun hadn’t arrived, then realized that I was crossing into Pacific time and Google must have given me the sunrise in that time zone. I was an hour early for first light! Oh well.
My other reason for stopping in here was to capture another Butt Lite X bonus. I didn’t have the waypoint in my GPS and didn’t feel like breaking out my laptop in the cold, but hoped I would be able to spot it fairly quickly despite the dark. Sure enough, I spotted a low dark outline along the sidewalk and it turned out being the Nez Perce Trail historical marker that I was looking for.
As I turned back on the road to head down the other side of the pass, the temperature began to rise almost immediately, albeit slowly, from freezing. I also began to see the first streaks of light in the sky and the shapes of trees and mountains around me, which takes a load off your concentration compared to riding through pitch darkness.
After an initial series of nice curves down from the pass, US 12 follows the Lochsa River down through the mountains for almost 100 miles through the Clearwater National Forest. You have trees, river views, curves, and not much else. It is a motorcyclist’s dream and the iconic road has been on my bucket list for years.
By the time I entered the Nez Perce reservation, the Lochsa had merged with the Selway River to form the Middle Fork Clearwater River, which was beautifully true to its name. The road had began to level out a bit, with the surrounding hills now often bare of vegetation. The temperature had risen significantly higher than on the pass, so I paused in a pullout to remove my layers. Soon thereafter, I crossed the river into the interesting little village of Kooskia to pick up my receipt for Idaho.
It looked like a real frontier town and seems to cater to the fly fishing crowds, based on the signage. A huge sculpture of a white elk crouched magnificently over main street on the roof of a local hotel. There was a pickup truck parked outside the local diner on Main Street, with two cattle dogs waiting obediently atop the rear toolbox for their owner to come back out to put them to work for the day.
The next 80 miles or so of US 12 along the banks of the Clearwater River to Lewiston were almost as nice as coming down from the pass. The curves were gentler and there was a bit more traffic near the small towns along the way, but there were plenty of passing opportunities and the stunning riverside views were plenty to occupy the mind when having to slow down a bit.
Just prior to the trip, I had been checking frequently on the wildfire information websites and knew there had been an incident right along this road several weeks past. It had been marked as contained, and as it turned out there were no closures. However, I did spot a few blackened areas reaching down to the road to bear witness to the recent conflagration.
Coming out of the reservation lands at last, the terrain opened up a bit more and the roadsides more urban as I entered Lewiston ID. I was looking forward to coming here for another Butt Lite bonus I’d discovered in the rally pack.
The Old Spiral Highway is seven miles of twisty fresh pavement climbing quickly from the city up 2000 ft Lewiston Hill lying to the north. The hill is bare of vegetation except the long grasses of the area, so you can see where you are going and where you’ve been for much of the exhilarating ride – that’s assuming you dare to pull your concentration away from the next curve!
The bonus required a photo taken at the bottom in front of the Kenworth sign, plus another photo of the Lewiston Hill sign at the top of the grade. I got the first photo then took off up the narrow road, having an absolute blast and meeting absolutely no other traffic along the residential road. What a hoot!
The view from the top was lovely, despite the thick wildfire smoke lying over the valley. Much as I would have liked to ride this road several more times, I had long miles to make today and opted for the quick (and much straighter) way down from the hill on US 95 back into Lewiston. I headed west on ID 128 north of the river to avoid the city traffic and crossed into Washington opposite the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake rivers.
The river then loops northward while US 12 climbs away from it up to higher semi-arid grasslands, which seem to account for a large portion of eastern Washington and Oregon landscape.
Ten miles or so up the highway, I reduced speed into the isolated town of Pomeroy. I was looking forward to a coffee stop at a local place I’d spotted at complete random while looking over the route on Google Maps weeks ago. First, however, an unexpected mufflerman statue caught my eye and I had to pull a uey to record it for posterity. This guy definitely has the west coast vibe going on!
Continuing through town, I pulled into the gravel driveway of the tiny Twisted Wire Coffee Shop just past 10:00. The place looked closed down, but there was an Open sign in one of the windows. Based on some handwritten signage, I determined that they were only offering drive-up service at the moment due to Covid. Knowing I wasn’t skillful enough to balance a cup of coffee while navigating my bike across the gravel lot, I parked close to the road and walked up to the window with a mask on and gave a rap-tap to see what’s what.
A friendly young woman appeared. I asked for coffee and inquired about what food options they might have. She mentioned a breakfast burrito and I said “that’s the one!” She got the coffee for me, which included a chocolate-covered espresso bean on the lid (for good luck?) and I walked back over to my bike to await my food. I ate the bean (yum!), then sipped some delicious coffee in the sunshine, though there were no tables or chairs provided.
I only saw one other customer come through while I waited 10 minutes or so, then she waved me over to get my burrito. I settled down on a landscaping timber close to the roadside and enjoyed my hot breakfast, looking at the mural on the town’s grain elevators just across the street and watching the very light traffic as it went by.
Ken and Marc pulled in as I was finishing up, so I clued them in on the ordering protocol and recommended the burrito. Then I mounted up and continued on my way west out of Pomeroy.
My speed was up a bit, probably from my recent caffeine infusion, and my radar started beeping right as I spotted a state trooper SUV approaching from the other direction. I braked hard and continued, looking in my rearview as I saw his brake lights come on just before I went over the next hill. I spent the next mile watching, but he never ended up coming back around for me, so I counted myself lucky and resolved to be more watchful. I hadn’t really seen much traffic enforcement at all in the past two days.
US 12 soon made its turn to the south and while passing through the town of Dayton, I spotted the Jolly Green Giant outlined on the hillside to my right. I later learned that this area had been a huge source of asparagus for the Jolly Green Giant food company, with a large canning plant, before much of the growing began to be sourced from South America. The town kept the giant as a landmark and a remembrance of more prosperous days.
Another 20 miles or so of grass and farm lands, and I was exiting onto the mean streets of Walla Walla, to secure my receipt for Washington state. After a quick stop, I picked up WA 125 south out of the city and almost immediately had to bang a uey to pull in at Melody Mufflers, for a photo op of these very creative muffler musicians, which reminded me of the trophies presented at the Rock n Ride Rally each spring.
I wove my way through the heavier traffic leaving the city and pulled over at the Oregon state line, where OR route 11 begins. The landscape remained mostly open flat farmland to the horizon, with what looked to be a lot of hayfields, until picking up US 395 in Pendleton.
The route would now pick up another road I was anticipating, US 395. This national scenic byway winds south almost 400 miles across the entirety of Oregon into California. Shooting directly through the heart of one of the least populated areas in the country including a few national forests, it was another epic road that did not disappoint.
After passing through the Battle Mountain Scenic Corridor and state park, I came out onto a high wide open plain area and saw an unexpected sight up ahead – a rider atop a horse standing broadside in the road. I began easing off the throttle to slow down and gradually realized it was an honest-to-god cowboy. In fact there were two of them, plus three cattle dogs and perhaps 20 head of cattle that they were working to maneuver across the road. This was awesome!
Once the men saw that I was coming to a complete stop, they immediately set about working the cattle again, using the amazing teamwork with their smart dogs to keep the herd together and moving in the desired direction. It was beautiful to observe and after a couple photos, I just sat and watched to take in the experience.
A few other cars pulled up at a respectful distance behind me and also ahead in the oncoming lane. Time seemed frozen a long while, but it was probably just a few minutes before they finally got the small herd across the highway and moving off to wherever cows need to go at this time of day. I shifted into gear and glided back up to speed, elated at this close encounter with western tradition.
A short distance later, I passed the junction with OR 244 (Ukiah) and found myself riding through a beautiful canyon next to Camas Creek. There were a few slow moving cars ahead of me, but I passed when I could and just enjoyed the scenery when I couldn’t. There was plenty of wildfire evidence on some of the hillsides I rode by here.
More miles of canyon alternating with open high plans. Fire smoke definitely muted the views, but it was still incredible riding. I came down into the John Day River valley, the first real populated area since Pendleton. I stopped to get my Oregon receipt at a small station in Canyon City, then continued on my way.
Soon thereafter, road began climbing again out of the valley into the Malheur National Forest, passing through the tiny village of Seneca and following the picturesque Silvies River.
Exiting the national forest through a narrow canyon spit me out on to much flatter and drier landscape near the city of Burns. Route 395 jogged west here for a few miles in conjunction with US 20 before turning south on its own once again.
As I approached what looked to be a very large lake on the GPS, the heavy wildfire haze and low water levels kept the view of actual water hidden from view until the road comes quite close to the shoreline. The view of salty Lake Abert was beautifully monochromatic. The heavy smoke filtered the western sun and reflected it all off the lake water, making it look like milk. The final stretch along the lake has a nice high plateau framing the lake in the foreground (the wiki article has a nice photo to show it without the haze).
It was now just another half hour or so of easy riding on 395 to reach my destination for the night in Alturas, CA. I did managed to capture a California sunset just before getting to town, though there was no ocean nearby to really turn up the intensity.
Alturas was blanketed in haze, making it look like no more than a crossroads in a fogbank. I secured my California receipt at the Chevron station then headed over to the Modoc Inn around the corner, where I’d booked for the night.
The motel owner lives on site and was friendly and efficient in getting me checked in. The room was clean and somewhat modernized, with bare floors and everything I needed. The mattress ended up being stiff as a board, however, not exactly my preference!
First order of business was to check the bike’s oil level. I’d noticed a slow leakage from the top area of the right cylinder head back on the first day of the trip. The constant highway speeds had blown oil droplets back onto the right shin of my Klim pants and the bike’s right saddlebag over the course of the past couple days. I’d re-sealed the cover gasket last year, so I assumed it was just seeping through again. I wasn’t too worried since the amount was so little, but figured this would be a good opportunity to check it with some daylight left and a gas station close by.
The level was indeed low, only just showing in the bottom of the little window with the bike on center stand. I moseyed over to the Chevron for a quart of appropriate oil and a couple paper filters. It took almost half a quart to fill back to the upper line and I also noted an uncommon amount of oil around the filler cap itself. Since I’d changed oil just before the trip, it was also possible the seepage was coming from there, so I made sure to tighten it well this time.
Maintenance complete, I chowed down on a sub from Subway while arranging for the next night’s hotel in Page AZ. I was hoping to get there by around sunset if possible, to have a quick look at the Glenn Canyon dam before darkness set in. It had been an epic day of riding today and I was hoping for a similiar experience through much different landscape tomorrow. I got to bed as soon as I could, but still only left myself time for a five hour snooze at best.