Sam leads three of us on a day-ride around the Owhyee Uplands Back Country Byway. We encounter a little weather at the highest altitudes while Toni and Heath on their smaller bikes pursue a more exploratory route. They show up later muddy and disheveled.
“This is high desert scenery at its finest. From Jordan Valley, you’ll pass by irrigated hay meadows along Jordan Creek, and then climb into the mountains through stands of juniper and mahogany. You’ll journey across broad, rim-rocked plateaus that are covered with sagebrush and bunchgrass, spotted with aspen, and dissected by the canyons of the Owyhee River. The horizons are framed by the Jarbidge, Bull Run, Santa Rosa, Steens and Owyhee Mountains.
“You will pass through several different vegetation zones. Take time to get out of your car and experience the Owyhee Uplands–look at, touch, smell, and listen to this special area.”¹
This is from a nice brochure provided by the Bureau of Land Management detailing the Owhyee Uplands Backcountry Byway that four of us chose to traverse over the Memorial Day weekend.
Sam, Toni, Heath and myself rode the route opposite the direction described in the brochure, starting the byway in Grand View and ending in Jordan Valley. Sam describes the ride and shares his photos at Adventure Rider.²
We cut across the military range from Boise to Grand View Road. Not much to report of that other than Sam’s new tires carving a nice gravel wake. There’s little if any traffic so you can travel whatever speed you’re comfortable with. We stayed subsonic.
On the highway to Grand View with the mountains ahead of us there were signs of a meteorological miscalculation. Where was that sunshine?
We stopped for a final gas-up before beginning the 100 service-less (no Twitter!) miles. Were I given to premonitions, I might have had some advice for Heath.
I wondered at the reason for not calling it a scenic byway.
We passed first by limestone hills, “deposits from ancient Lake Idaho, a Lake Ontario-sized series of lakes that stretched from present-day Twin Falls, Idaho, to Baker, Oregon, and filled the valley from the Boise Front to the Owyhee foothills with thick layers of ash, clay, silt, sand, limestone and gravel. Fossilized plants, fish, clams, snails, and mammal bones are common in these old lake sediments.”¹
BLM, p. 16
It is strange, I think, to imagine water once lapping the ancient shoreline now well above the roadway. Perhaps in 50,000 years, the Idaho Adventure Scuba Diving Club will notice traces of a road deep under water and wonder at the ancient travelers and their primitive ways.
A sprinkle of rain began to dot our visors as we entered green foothills rising up to shrouded peaks. Blue skies seemed increasingly unlikely. I was glad that the morning sunshine hadn’t tricked me into leaving my rain liners behind. I almost did.
“Precipitation can make the road treacherously slick, so use caution during inclement weather,” warns the brochure.¹ I guess Mud Flat Road was an obvious appellation. Imagine the conversation: “What do you s’pose we should call this flat muddy road?” And while it would have been fun to get a few pictures of the mud and sleet we endured as temperatures fell to 40°F while climbing a couple thousand feet, it was even more fun not to fall on my head while trying to steer and hold a camera with one hand. Oh, and also more fun to keep both hands on the heated grips (which the other guys didn’t care to hear about). So no mud pictures.
BLM, p. 1
About when we gained our maximum altitude of some 6,200 feet, two of our group, Heath and Toni, decided on a side-trip to Battle Creek to pursue a coveted Idaho Adventure Motorcycle Club Challenge Site¹ accomplishment. “Battle Creek is named for a fight between Bannock Indians and Euro-Americans that occurred near the creek in July 1864. Among those killed was Michael Jordan for whom Jordan Valley, Oregon, and Jordan Creek are named.”² I must say, it didn’t sound like Heath and Toni fared much better than Mr. Jordan. But that’s a later story, one well told by Toni himself.³
While Heath and Toni embarked on an epic struggle of good and evil (not sure who was who), Sam and I continued to warmer climes and a roadway firm enough I thought I could probably unzip the camera from the tank bag and fire some shots on the fly without crashing into a heap of blood, mud and metal.
Without that need to focus intently on discerning the best line through roadway mud, Sam and I could relax and enjoy the scenery.
We rolled over hills and around bends on the dustless dirt road, meadows unfolding their green carpets before us, outcrops offering cheerful knuckle bumps as we passed.
The view is rich with irony. A landscape rended by cataclysmic forces is now the still, almost desolate, home to dwarf trees, delicate flowers and meandering streams. Molten giants who long ago ended their assault on the earth now lay in motionless heaps across the countryside. I tried to imagine all the scenes that had played out there over the eons.
I have, as time permits, been using Netflix to get through Ken Burns’ “National Parks” documentary.¹ While I agree sometimes with those who accuse it of peddling “eco-porn,” I’ve been more impressed with the human story, how quickly noble ideas are transmogrified by ambition and how much the mind of man needs to experience wonder and tranquility. For me, the joy of riding comes in large part from satisfying that need.
“The sagebrush plateaus teeming with wildlife, streams filled with fish, and camas meadows, made the Owyhee Uplands an attractive land for ancestors of the Shoshone and Northern Paiute Indian tribes.
“The region also offers evidence of the Euro-American exploration and settlement: homesteads, cabins, rock walls, cairns, historic cowboy and sheepherder camps, and Basque carvings on trees and rocks.”¹
BLM, p. 9
Looking out across this valley, I half expected Clint Eastwood to crest the hill, spitting wry remarks out the side of his mouth.
Although a platypus of a machine, I’m happy with this mode of transport that allows Jessica and I passage to wide-open, remote places, with fuel and gear to stay a day or three. Panniers were unnecessary for this ride but I’d mounted and loaded them in preparation for a following morning camping departure. Ride and ride again.
The older I get, the more I eschew the audacious for subtlety—subtle flavors, subtle beauty. A shaft of light playing upon a bit of stone and a spot of moss in the back yard is reason to stop and wonder. Senility? Sometimes I give Jessica reason to think so but not yet, I hope.
This Owyhee Upland is a place of subtlety. Sometimes you have to stop (or at least shift down to first gear) and look a moment, and look closely. There are countless micro-landscapes where rocks, water and plants have come together in unique ways. Stoneman Creek, with its stand of aspens, is one of those places.
With somewhat less controversy than wolves, it seems, “beaver were reintroduced to Stoneman Creek in 2000. They have thrived in this habitat and created a number of beaver dams. The dams have raised the water table leading to an increase in native vegetation and attracting songbirds and other wildlife.”¹
BLM, p. 9
We passed many small meadows guarded by stands of deciduous trees.
Lucky for Sam’s feet, I recognized the flying thing as a sandal liberated at speed from his pack.
“Along the roadside on rocky, fire-resistant sites are the twisted forms of old-growth juniper which have survived the elements and wildfire for over 500 years.”¹
BLM, p. 7
Native Americans and later Euro-Americans hunted and rested under diminutive trees still standing these hundreds of years later to watch us pass astride vehicles built on the other side of the world.
The road turns northward to the town of Jordan Valley as it descends from the uplands and approaches the Oregon border.
The road from this direction twisted its way down to the small bridge over the North Fork of the Owyhee River.
We stopped at the North Fork Crossing campground to see if Heath and Toni would catch up.
After fifteen minutes or so we decided to ride on to Jordan Valley to continue our wait in the comfort of a café.
Long stretches of road on big motorcycles meant we might find ourselves going … well, fast.
The final few miles into Jordan Valley were paved and pretty.
With relief at the imminent prospect of hot coffee and a meal, Sam and I pulled into the lot of the cozy J-V Club Café.
A lifelong resident sat at the bar clutching a beer, quick to strike up a cheerful conversation from under his ball cap and hair once another color. He and Sam exchanged stories of local history, such as that of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau,¹ son of Sacagawea, and Michael M. Jordan,² for whom the town is named. Having little to contribute to the subject, I listened with interest.
After a meal and ample time for stories, we were starting to be concerned for Heath and Toni. They should have been there. The prospect of backtracking sixty miles to look for them wasn’t pleasant. Happily, as we were still ruminating on that, the two of them pulled into the lot.
The bikes told the same story (Heath went in with two good blinkers).
The stragglers were glad to sit down and eager to eat. Having been there long enough to build several friendships, we felt we should apologize for the mess they were leaving.
That’s all Toni.
Sam and Toni were deciding on a place to camp and an interesting route home while Heath and I had obligations calling us back that night. After some ways on the highway homeward, Heath disappeared from my mirror. Low on fuel he’d had to go on reserve, perhaps having leaked in the mud tumbles. We rode at fuel friendly speeds to the first available gas and parted company.