Motorcycle Touring Nowhere, Nevada

A quick motorcycle ride to grab a cup of coffee turns into a four-day jaunt into the distant reaches of Nevada. From the June 2005 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine. Story & photos By Tad L. Hetu

"I'd rather ride into the middle of nowhere than pose in front of any Starbucks on the planet." So said my buddy Helvetia Forester in his personal contortion of the famous Steve McQueen quote. This was his response when I'd rung him up to see if he wanted to zip downtown for a few hours. I had a short morning outing in mind, but Helvetia suggested something different.

It was with this motivation that we pulled out a map and located what looked to be a really remote and unpopulated area. Helvetia said he was tired of strip malls, long lines, loud pipes and subwoofers that shook our machines at stoplights. He wanted to take a ride to somewhere where they only had one flavor of coffee: black, and one grade of gas: lucky to get some. So we stuck a pin on Denio, Nevada. Nothing special about Denio; never heard of it—in fact, we'd never been anywhere near this remote northeast corner of Nevada. It was hundreds of miles from anything. You had to intend to go there, not just pass through, and that alone represented an adventure.

So what had begun as a quick ride to grab a cup of coffee ended up as a four-day jaunt into Nevada.

We left Portland, pointed our bikes southeast and headed over the Cascade Range toward the high desert. With each passing mile the hustle and bustle of the metro areas seemed to melt away. It was amazing how desensitized we had become to stop-and-go traffic, the noise, sights, smells and congestion of populous areas. Each mile made us more aware of what we had been living with and gave us more appreciation for the backcountry. By noon of that first day we crested the mountains and descended on the high desert plateau that covers much of the northwest states 3000 to 4000 feet above sea level. If you are a geology or ecology buff, stop at the High Desert Museum in Bend. Great outdoor exhibits give you a concentrated taste of what this high desert is all about.

However, we only stopped in Bend to grab a bite to eat and gas up. We were on a mission to drive toward the pin we put in that map, so instead we found state Highway 20, which pointed southeast. Heading farther and farther from civilization, we were in no hurry, and when we saw something interesting we stopped. Along the way we often saw abandoned homesteads, and we stopped at one such spread to investigate. At its center were the charred remains of a burned-down ranch house. Sprinkled around were ranch outbuildings bleaching in the sun. Looking as though they had been standing that way for hundreds of years, we wondered who lived there and what dreams had burned away along with the house. We thought about the harsh winters and brutal summers and what kind of person it took to stake out a living and make a home in this country. It was a nice break to get off our bikes and walk around. We made sure to leave the area as we found it. Silly as it sounds, it seemed almost like a shrine to those who came before us and put in the hard work to make this country what it is today.

There's something addictive about desert roads, at least for me. Helvetia and I are not sportbike guys. We love twisty roads as much as the next rider, but a long straight stretch of desert road is almost meditative. With vistas as far as you can see all around you, your bike and your mind can almost go on autopilot, allowing you to soak in what motorcycling is all about. Deeper and deeper into the high desert backcountry we drove, passing places such as Palomino and Horsehead Mountain and into the city of Burns, population 3000. We spent the night there and enjoyed our last respite in a town with more than one restaurant before turning due south toward Denio.

Out of Burns is one of the best roads I have ever ridden. Highway 205 is a freshly paved ribbon of pavement that hugs Jackass Mountain on the west and a broad highland running to Steens Mountain on the east. It takes you through the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, an area encompassing more than 187,000 acres. In the middle of this high desert you'll suddenly find yourself in wetlands teeming with birds and other wildlife. As there was no one around or in sight, it seemed odd that a wildlife refuge was necessary, but the view was spectacular. We continued on, riding over a 4800-foot pass through Jackass Mountain, briefly stopping in the town of Frenchglen.

Frenchglen was named after Pete French. French was the big man on campus there in the late 1800s and established the French-Glenn Livestock Co. in 1872. His "P" Ranch covered 150,000 acres at the base of the Steens Mountain in what is now known as Frenchglen Valley. He also had a questionable reputation and was unarmed when allegedly shot and killed in 1897 over a fence dispute. About the only commercial establishment left in Frenchglen is the historic Frenchglen Hotel. This cozy two-story wooden-frame hotel was built in 1914. The hotel is open mid-March to mid-November and has eight rooms and no televisions, telephones or air conditioning, with dinner served family-style in a communal dining area at one sit-down gathering each evening; if you miss it, you go hungry. This place is definitely on our list of return points to visit and spend time.

There was no gas available in Frenchglen, so we tanked up on coffee instead and continued south. We had been on the road for about 80 miles since we last filled up our gas tanks, and after another 70 or so gas-station-free miles, we knew we were in trouble. It's easy to forget you can't bank on gas stations every 20 miles in this part of the country, especially away from the main roads. We stopped at the first sign of life to ask about fuel and found out the only gas for sale within 90 miles was 30 miles behind us. Everyone hates backtracking, but we turned around and headed back to Fields, Oregon, back near the Nevada border.

Fields was established in 1881 and today consists of a store, caf, gas station, post office, campground, hotel and a few houses. To give you an idea of its size, one family owns and operates all the businesses in Fields. There's also a school to serve all the kids from remote ranches. The Fields school was established in about 1900 and began as one room. Today the school has been updated and now has two rooms.Whatever Fields lacks in size it makes up for in hospitality. We were tired, hungry and pleased to not have to siphon gas into pop cans to get us down the road. We decided to put our feet up and relax awhile. The first menu we read described a feast of gourmet roadkill, stating, "Eating food is more fun when you know it was hit on the run." Featured menu items included centerline bovine, flat cat, chunk of skunk and rack of raccoon. We hoped the menu was a joke and ordered cheeseburgers and shakes. Maybe it was our level of hunger or maybe it was the ambience, but it seemed like they were the best cheeseburgers and fresh fruit milkshakes we had ever consumed! We didn't care what the meat was.

With our stomachs and gas tanks full, we again took off south; next stop Denio! We were hundreds of miles from nowhere on a road I can't imagine anyone picking as a route to simply get from point A to point B. But what a loss had we not selected this road and made this trip. The first September rains in the desert had brought it to life with vibrant colors. The thundershowers we skirted painted the sky with clouds you could almost reach out and touch. The mountains in the distance had a light dusting of snow on top, and the grasslands were recovering from summer parching, with their golden color becoming almost dazzling.

We finally pulled into Denio in the afternoon. According to census data, Denio has a population of 57, but we didn't see a single soul. Lots of abandoned buildings, a closed service station that looked to have been shut down in about 1952, a few scattered houses and a couple of ranches in the distance.

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