The morning brought cool air and exitement at a change of scenery. We could see clearly from the directions that sandy forest trails were going to carry us over the Oregon section with a few hills and lakes thrown in for good measure. It was my navigation day and things started well with positive trails and simple navigation through some beautiful forests. We should have guessed that things were not going to stay quite so positive by the last few days news reports of huge storms and forest fires raging through the southern Oregon counties. The trails Sam had laid out were often small and easily blocked and diverted according to the whims of the forest rangers. Further, the maps looked great, but it was a nightmare figuring out exactly where you were as the sizes of the roads marked on the rabbit warren of a map bore little resemblance to the various motorway to animal sized tracks on the ground. Despite trying my best we were soon lost and navigating on dead reckoning and good old fashioned contours. Despite the fact that the maps had no heights on them it was clear that the route passed to the south of a big mountain. I made up the tracks as long as I could until we were deep, deep into virgin forest and I could follow my chosen course no more. I stopped the bike and took off my helmet. I had failed to find a motorway sized trail running parallel with us and worse had missed a paved road running across our estimated route. When Stef and Jon stopped I was pretty dejected. We formulated a plan to push as far as we could on our route and took a photo of ourselves looking lost. We were just remounting our bikes when a familiar sound reverberated through the trees. A CAR! I stood and listened for the direction, it got louder, and louder, and louder. Finally it passed no more than 15 yard in front of us and disappeared out of view. We all looked at each other a little foolishly and rode forward. There in front of us was the road, to our right no more that 30 yards was our motorway sized track that I had clearly been following without seeing it for a considerable distance. In front of us was a clear sign indicating exactly the route we should have been on. It was an important lesson, search patterns in forests needed to spiral, not just run in straight lines, visibility seemed good but at ground level you could probably miss an Olympic swimming pool at 10 yards! We moved off aware that the ball game had changed.
We were a little behind our ideal schedule but moving well when we saw the first evidence of burned forest. It had obviously been a huge fire as we could see large tracts of blackened trees disappeared into the gloomy distance and this was a frequent occurrence for many miles. We had been concerned that this would hamper our progress or prove problematic to us but it was not this that proved to be our days nemesis. Frequently struggling to navigate the obviously varying tracks and trails we began to see more and more storm damage. This was normally in the form of fallen trees which had been cut up with a chainsaw to allow passage, but could be in the form of vast swathes of decimated forest blown flat by unimaginably strong winds.
In this environment, and with my track record, it was only a question of time before we found that the roll map directions didn’t quite match the trails that we were riding. If you were negatively minded you could say that this would be a euphemism for ‘we were lost again’, but we were perfectly used to the situation by now and it bothered us very little. As a correctional measure we stopped and had an on bike jousting competition, and I congratulated Jon on the appalling state of his bike. The chain was totally ruined, the sprocket looked as if it might get another 100 miles before it started to strip teeth, the back tyre was almost totally devoid of knobbles and he had a large dent in his front rim (the dent was caused as an experiment after Fred Hink of arrowhead motorsports claimed that he knew someone who had bent a front rim without puncturing their tube. Jon being Jon, had to give it a try..). We made an executive guess about the correct direction out of the woods and set off along ever varied forest trails.
Despite the dust the scenery was beautiful and the shelter provided by the trees helped keep the temperatures to manageable proportions. As we crested and followed a spectacular ridge line I prepared for a right turn. I reset the odometer two tenths of a mile before the turn, and rolled on the map instructions to check the next distance and junction. I closed my throttle and dropped a couple of gears checking the road ahead. I wiped my GPS to clear the dust from the surface double checked my bearing and turned the bars. In front of me only a few yards after the turn a huge tree had collapsed across the trail and was not going to me moved by any force we could muster. We all stopped and were clearly considering a detour or cancellation when Jon suggested the obvious, ‘Why don’t we just ride around it?’. To the right was a drop off of huge proportions through dense pine forest. To the left was a steep bank leading into a confused jumble of fallen tree trunks. Left it was then.
This was to be the first of many such detours during our afternoon, at one memorable point it took us 1 hour to ride half a mile. The detours required technical, heated, and vicious riding involving many burning rear tyres and uncomfortable falls onto dry spiked tree stumps. It was a relief to us all when we finally began to see clear stretches of road in front of us and could pick up speeds to the 50-60 mph we had hoped to maintain for most of the day.
With only 7 miles to go I pulled up at a junction and waited for Stef and Jon to appear. It was late in the afternoon and the smell of dust and burning hung in the air. I would be glad to reach our motel for the night, I was dehydrated, tired, and hungry. As I waited I listened to the noises of the forest as it squeaked and groaned all around me. I wondered how many animals had been killed or injured in the recent fires, we had seen fewer animals in the last few days than at any other time during the trip, even in the desert. It was clear that they were probably far more aware of the seriousness of the situation than most humans and had made their own plans to move on and seek pastures new.
After 10 minutes I became worried by the lack of my travelling companions and headed back up the hill to hoping to find a simple solution to any problem and not a serious injury. I had been worried many times in the trip when I lost sight of Stef or Jon and was often to be found sitting baking in the sun hoping and praying that there had been no serious accidents. Luckily they had always turned up fit and well and I hoped for a similar outcome this time. To have an accident this late in the trip would have been needlessly tragic.
I found the two bikes parked neatly by the side of the road, Jons looking more like a low riding Harley than a KTM640. ‘What’s up?’, I questioned. Jon explained that he had jumped over a water break I the road and upon landing his bike had dropped six inches at the rear wheel. Investigation showed a lack of mounting bolt holding the rear shock to the frame, it time for another diversion to my hotel dream. Stef and I walked hundreds of yards up and down the track fruitlessly searching for the missing bolt but had no success. It was going to have be a quality bodge and fix job from the team who knew how! One hour later after too many cooks had almost spoilt the broth Jon’s suspension linkage emerged like a phoenix from the ashes. It is amazing what you can do with a 5mm Allen key, some duck tape and two cable ties! Jon initially rode the bike gingerly hoping to reach the evenings stop without problems, but as no parts were available in Gilchrist he continued on with the bodge in place. The next I saw of the Allen key was when it arrived back in the UK by post from San Francisco. I should definitely have been a bike designer!!!!
Gilchrist was a great place and on arrival I couldn’t help tormenting Jon with stories of the great jumps and bumps along the last miles of the trail. He had been uncommonly restrained for all of it and was clearly suffering from this lack of ability to express himself. A few swear words were heard but overall I was quite impressed, Jon was not renowned for mature behaviour on this scale!
Although we could find no motels for the night because of the 200 transient volunteer fire-fighters staying in town we released our secret weapon to help with the matter. Jon eased himself into a posh looking motel, he was filthy and stinking yet we expected nothing but the best of results. As usual he emerged smiling and confident to inform us that for one evening we had just rented the last garaged three bedroom house in town. For this luxury we would be charged the unbelievable rate of 60 dollars. Quick maths told me that this was less than my rent in Manchester! I am nothing if not fickle, and within two hours I was blissfully happy and chewing my way through some strange brand of chocolate cheesecake and wondering who might be in the bar next door.