The last light faded from the horizon hours ago, and a thin strata layer obscured any hint of luminescence from the moon. To our left rose a vertical wall, a mix of boulders and sediment. To the right we stared into an abyss of inky blackness. We knew what was down there-nothing, at least for a hundred feet or so. Illuminated by our high beams, the rutted two-track we were traversing was only visible as far as the next bend in the mountain. Just wide enough for our Jeep JK, the trail had been void of turnarounds for several hundred yards. The thought of a downed tree blocking the road, as well as that of the sheer drop-off just outside Suzy's window, kept my eyes pinned beyond the hood. Somewhere behind us was La Grande, Oregon; beyond the headlights, the Washington border.
A few days earlier we'd said goodbye to our new friends at the Bear Cat Lodge in Seneca, Oregon, and zigzagged through a maze of logging roads in search of a dirt route north. After multiple dead-ends and closed roads, we were forced back onto the blacktop for seven miles, then another nine. This was killing our all-dirt averages, but the Strawberry Range created a formidable barrier, and paved roads occupied the only navigable north-south real estate.
Though we had issues with deciphering the OOHVA maps for the Oregon Backcountry Discovery Trail (incorrect waypoints, no legend for Section 1, and fuzzy print on the topo maps), they were actually a good reference when combined with a DeLorme Atlas and Garmin's MapSource. We were as lost as a vegetarian at a steak-lover's convention trying to get from Seneca to OBDT Section II. But as I like to say, "We are never lost, just exploring a bit!"
I think the last person who told me most of eastern Oregon is a vast desert was under the influence of a controlled substance. Unlike the Sierra Nevada of California, which are bordered by desert on either side (yes, the San Joaquin Valley was mostly desert before modern irrigation), the forest-blanketed mountains of eastern-central Oregon seem to go on for days-in our case, literally. We were smack dab in the middle of two of America's historic boom-and-bust industries, timber and mining. Though the logging industry has harvested billions of board-feet of timber, enough to build the nation (including the wood-framed homes of those who think we should ban logging), the forests appear fairly healthy. The only real signs of devastation are of the economic type-the still-standing skeletons of towns once supported by local mills and mines.
Rolling into the 1890s mining town of Sumpter is like stepping into a 90-year time warp. Faded hand-painted billboards advertising services and sundries adorn weathered brick buildings, and old-style hitching posts line the wood-plank boardwalks. On the side streets, rickety wooden barns lean at precarious angles. An old blacksmith's shop and livery stable are reminders of the areas rough-and-tumble past. Across from a brick ice cream parlor, which is still serving, we stepped into the Elkhorn Saloon. Every head in the place turned to check out the tourists as we swung open the creaky wooden door. It was Taco Tuesday, but we ordered from their menu of forty-two types of burgers. (Good burgers!)
Founded in 1862 by a few South Carolinians en route to the California gold fields, the town began to grow when the railroad arrived in 1897 (population 300). Sumpter enjoyed its heyday between 1900 and 1903, when a population of 3,500 souls extracted an estimated nine million dollars in gold (and this figure did not include the booming timber industry). Today, a massive river dredge still floats in a pond amidst miles of rock tailings.
Mile 1,808, N44º46'30: Cliff Tracks, Snow Drifts, and Walla Walla
Back on the OBDT east of Sumpter, we spooked a herd of two-dozen elk before setting up camp in one of the most pristine and verdant meadows in Oregon. If you've never seen an elk up close and personal, they are magnificent. In the morning, a hunter by the name of Larry, who had lived in the area for decades, stopped by with his dogs to spin a yarn and share a cup o' Joe. As we'd discovered elsewhere along our journey, locals always seem to be the best source of regional information, and Larry set us on the right track.
Between the Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla National Forests lies the town of La Grande. By the time we completed a few housekeeping items-fuel, supplies, and a DeLorme Washington atlas-it was well past dark. Though we were tempted to get a room for the night (and a shower), the darkness called for a night run. The wind was howling like a pack of hungry hyenas by the time we reached the cliff-side track off Owsley Canyon Road (near Mount Emily). As we bounced through freshly filled divots in the road, water splashed off the tires over the precipitous edge and into the void below. Though we didn't encounter any downed trees, we would not see our sleeping bags till 0100 hours this night.
We were in deep snow and winching the first tree off the trail before 0830. The morning was chilly and overcast. After almost 2,000 miles on the trail, this was the first chance to deploy our Warn 9.5ti and Viking winch rope. It was also the first of about a dozen trees we'd wrestle with. We were on Kendall-Skyline Road, elevation 6,000 feet, just a few clicks short of the Washington border. Ours were not the first tracks of the season, but there were plenty of deep drifts and ice-covered waterholes. With the BFG KM2s aired down to 8 psi, we slogged north, pulling a few more trees out of the way before clearing the northern reaches of the Blue Mountains and heading down to Walla Walla, Washington. We didn't see a soul all day.
Mile 2,046, N 46º00'00: Washington's Bread Basket, Idaho, and Road Blocks
While Oregon brought us 400 miles of forest-lined dirt roads, southern Washington would show us the hard working farmers of America-and hundreds of miles of perfectly groomed fields. Washington is the third largest producer of wheat in the U.S.-90 percent of it exported to countries like Pakistan, Japan, and the Philippines-and Washington growers, 81 percent of which are sole proprietors or partnerships, have perfected the process of dry land farming (irrigated by rainfall only). Unspectacular as they may be, the gravel farm roads did meet our all-dirt criteria, after 100 or so miles of rolling wheat fields, we made a break for the Idaho border.
The road over the dam on the Snake River (near Almota) closes at, uh . . . 1730. Arriving about 1800, we offered the guard a bribe of happy smiles and pleading. "Sorry," he politely said. Parked in front of the locked gate with two hours of driving daylight left, we felt like caged cheetahs. But it's the adventure, right? We set up camp near a boat ramp with a sign that read, "No Camping." The security guy came by about dusk. Rather than kicking us out, he pulled up a chair, shared his life's story, and provided a thorough education on the river's fish species and their migrating patterns. Food for thought: "Bad roads bring good people; good roads bring bad people."
Mile 2,225, N46º44'00, Mile 2225:
Yes, Moscow, Idaho. Entering Idaho, our maps indicated multiple options with regard to dirt tracks north. However, neither the DeLorme Atlas nor Garmin MapSource identifies private land. Most of the region is owned by logging companies-and they like to keep the public out. An array of locked gates and closed roads became our nemesis. After a day of dead-ends and extended backtracking, we were faced with long paved roads to get around it all. We decided to push back to Washington's breadbasket. Nothing against Idaho (beautiful place, really), we just chose the wrong entry point and didn't do our research.
We must have plastered too much mud on the JK in Oregon, or fumigated the cab with excessive dust in the deserts of Nevada and California. Just prior to reaching Spokane, the airbag light illuminated, and a seriously annoying "bing, bing, bing" warning buzzer began. We headed to the Barton Jeep dealership to check it out. After we pulled into the parking lot, Mike, the manager, would later say, "We were in a sales meeting and everyone jumped to the window like there was a gorgeous girl in the parking lot. I looked out and it was your JK." The culprit was an airbag sensor in the steering column. While it was being repaired, I met the Barton Jeep crew of off-road aficionados. They knew northern Washington like it was their own backyard. Several of them who had the day off came in with maps and suggestions. (A big thanks to Walt, the service manager, for getting me back on the road, and to Jeff Bordner and John Berger for the National Forest maps and routes). The "bing" was a blessing in disguise, and the timing worked out perfectly.
We were less than 100 miles from the Canadian border as the crow flies (2.5 hours on paved roads), yet I would log 300 miles and take 60 hours to reach it. After dropping my lovely bride at the airport for a flight home, I returned to the point on I-90 where we got on the pavement. I was on my own at this point. Near the Little Falls River crossing, I was finally out of the flatlands and back in the pines. The route: Spokane Indian Reservation, Springdale, Jump Off Joe Road, Grouse Creek Road, and the Colville National Forest.
According to John and Jeff, the township of Usk would be my last chance for gas before pushing on to the border through the Kaniksu National Forest. I found Forest Road 4347 just before sunset and located a side track to camp on. Of the few people I'd talked to that day, all had a common question: "You camping?" and "Watch out for grizzly bears-and watch your dog." Despite the calm, moonless night and clear skies, Radar and I jumped with every creak and swoosh from the blackness.
It was only 25 miles to Usk, and in an attempt to keep with the all-dirt concept, I ended up on an unused side track near Calispell Lake. After a couple hours in low-range, dodging dozens of downed trees (the area had been heavily logged, and resembled piles of log pixie sticks and Jeep-sized divots), I reached the other end-and a locked gate. Arrgghh. Tracks from a few quads had gone around, and, well-the alternative was two hours of backtracking.
Heading east from Usk, the Kaniksu National Forest is a stunning example of the grandeur of the Pacific Northwest. Towering peaks, seemingly bottomless crystal-clear lakes, and deer darting across the trail are reason enough to come here. But the mix between my DeLorme book, MapSource, and the USFS map was a world of confusion. The main tracks, though they wound around the mountain like a python on a wallaby, were okay. However, I wouldn't suggest attempting to save time by finding that shortcut. I found myself on top of Old South Baldy: dead-end.
"I must have missed the turn, it was that other left." Closer inspection revealed the Forest Service sign lying in the brush. Ahh, victory! The problem was a very large tree lying across the trail. The words of Willie Worthy came to mind (Willie is a fellow journalist who did an all-dirt border-to-border run for Four Wheeler 20 years ago). Willie said, "Don't head north without a chainsaw." Wise words! I again pulled the winch line; I grabbed my ARB snatch block (which is designed for use with nylon winch rope) and Viking recovery rope and tree saver, and went hunting for a suitable anchor. After multiple pulls, repositioning the line, strap, and attachment point each time, there was just enough room to slip around. An hour had passed and the sun was heading for the horizon. I loaded up my gear . . . and two 200 meters around the bend was a flipping dead end: #*&^$!#!! Eventually locating Squaw Valley Road, Radar and I cleared Pyramid Pass and made our way to Ione via Dry Canyon Road.
Mile 2,681, N48º44'27: Ione, Washington
Smackout Pass, Harrier Creek, and Quinn's Road are the direct dirt routes from Ione to Northport, save 25 miles. I was less than 20 miles from the border, and this night is where my final push for the border got interesting. The only apparent route to Northport was on an overgrown track called Bodie Road near Black Hawk Mountain. It was well past dark when I snatched the next tree out of the track. With no traffic, native flora had reclaimed the route, leaving only two parallel depressions in the tall grass. Somewhere on the lee side of Black Hawk, a faint quad track appeared and became my guiding light. But did it come from Northport-or from where I just came and I didn't see their tracks?
A left turn put me on another tree-shrouded, cliffside road. The quad track was gone. After pulling a small tree out of the track and pushing another over the edge, I thought, "Should I continue on?" I could see lights from a ranch house in the valley below. Two hundred meters in, forward progress ceased-a washout. With zero tolerance for error, I begrudgingly slipped the JK in Reverse and cautiously backed out, stopping several times to reset my mirrors (after branches knocked them out of position). Beat-dog tired and a little nervous (okay, scared), I retreated to the Y. Locating the quad track again (yeah), I followed it all the way down to the valley, through a few cattle gates and pastures, and finally to-a road (dirt, of course). I camped that night near another boat ramp on the Columbia River. The Canadian border would be mine tomorrow.
Mile 2,760, 49º00'00, 1140 Hours: Somewhere West of the Frontier International Border Crossing
The U.S.-Canadian border, which shadows the 49th parallel for nearly 1,300 miles (the entire border is more than 4,000 miles in length), is an extension of boundaries set forth in the Treaty of Paris (1783) between the British and French. Originally, I was hoping to find an official dirt crossing, but Willie Worthy had said there were only a few, and they were in Montana (someone please correct me if there is one in Washington). I'd need to hit the 49th on my own, and on a dirt track.
With the tightened security after 9/11, and after my run-in with a half-dozen INS agents at the Mexican border, I was expecting sound-sensing equipment in the trees (which I'd been told existed everywhere along the international line), Border Patrol officers creeping around in the brush, and floodlights-or something. My first attempt was a logging road near Northport. Six hundred feet short, at N48º59'91, it was a bust. Several ten-foot divots in the trail and a federal "Warning" sign halted progress. Route #2, another logging track, was the ticket (off Big Sheep Creek Road, if you're interested). I wound around a clear-cut area to a landing at the top of a ridge. The GPS registered 49º00'00. Beyond lay one of our northern neighbor's vast and forested canyons. I was completely alone, just Radar and me. There were no warning signs, Border Patrol agents or helicopters. I waited, expecting some new friends with badges and guns, but no one showed up.
Was "Border to Border" an epic trek, or an expedition? When I think "expedition," I think of Shackleton, Hillary, Cook, and the like. Was it all dirt? Well, as much as we could muster. Of the 3,000 miles that we put on the JK's odometer (adjusting for tire size), about 2,700 were on dirt roads, trails, or two-tracks. We could have driven down the shoulder on some sections, but that's not very practical or safe, and would just be a play on words in our all-dirt story.
The axiom, "It's not the destination, it's the journey," while a bit clichéd, holds an undeniable truth when it comes to overland trekking. The destination may be the heights of a remote mountain peak, a distant saltpan in Africa, or simply an imaginary line in the middle of the forest (N49º, for example). Once there, the views may be spectacular and the air clean and clear. But often it's just a place, a waypoint on your GPS or coordinates on a map. However, when you look back, it will most likely be the journey remembered; people along the way, traveling mates, and the miles you spun on to your odometer. Remember, the destination gets us going, but it's the journey that fills life's palette with color. What's next? Maybe "Coast To Coast"-if we can bum another JK from Jeep?
Gear That Works
There are a lot of options when it comes to recovery gear.