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I am known to be a bit of adventurer, a girl who gets on her bike for days (weeks sometimes) and just leaves town often with one destination in mind that morphs from a few days out to well, weeks. I always come back with some great stories, a few photos and mostly in one piece. I’ve been riding this way ever since I took off ten years ago from Portland, OR headed to Washington DC and back again. A trip that took 5 weeks and changed me for ever and absolutely for the better.
This story begins last year – June 2019 – with a plan to ride to the Alvord Desert to meet roughly 120 people I didn’t know for a long weekend of camping on the playa and adventuring into the Steens mountains. It was called the UnRally and promised to be, well, minimally organized and given the three people I DID know were going, lots of fun.
I packed up Lulu (my BMW gsa) with clothes, tent etc, tools, coffee & cooking equipment – fully loaded and set out. As I rode away from my apt. I went through my checklist and realized I was short of one significant need. Food! No matter, I’d go via REI in the Pearl and stock up with a few bags of dried food and be on my way. The day was drizzly and grey and I was looking forward to getting out of town riding first of all to my place in Maupin where the sunshine is guaranteed, and the following day leaving early to ride pretty much as far south as you can go and still stay in Oregon. As I made my turn on to the street that would take me to REI I thought hmmmmm maybe I should have taken the other street, this one is full of old train tracks and looks kinda dodgy. And then I looked again and thought nah, I’m good. I got this. One minute later I was on the ground, bike flipped on the wet tracks and I knew this girl was in a spot of trouble.
If you’re going to drop your bike in a fairly spectacular fashion, do it in front of a building site where lots of guys are watching and then rushing out to help. If you’re in need of help, take a selfie and send it to the one person you know with a trailer. If you need a ride to hospital, it helps to have a friend walk by right as all this happens and goes to get his car. If your luck continues to hold, it’s good to turn up at Emergency when it’s utterly empty and you can shimmy out of your brand new leathers before you get them cut off you, X-ray cat-scan and orthopedic surgeon are right where you need them and a bed is available because oh shit you’re going to be there a few days.
That was the start of a year long recovery. Vacation plans (big ones involving family & a flight to France) got ditched, I learned to ask for help and got it in spades, I looked for silver linings and found them in unexpected places but most of all I refused to wallow in my misfortune. I had taken the top off my tibia, received two metal plates and a lot of screws. I counted the staples when they were removed and found I had exactly 42 which I thought perfect (because we all know that’s the answer to The Ultimate question right?!). I sat in a wheelchair for nearly 9 weeks until graduating to crutches then a walking stick before finally being able to take my brace off around Thanksgiving. My sister became my rehab queen in London marching me daily around Regents Park and the canals, to see the Christmas lights on Oxford St and then the countryside around my Mums house. She made me do things I thought I couldn’t and by the time I got home in early January I knew running was a gimpy possibility.
Riding season started and I tried bending my knee on Bug (Triumph Street Triple) as she’s light and flickable. My knee said – hmmmm NO! So I walked up and down the hill by my house, a LOT, and slowly I gained muscle where I needed it, rode my bicycle more and I started to think about riding Lulu. Lulu is a BIG bike, 565lbs when full of fuel and tall enough that I’m on the balls of my feet with both legs down. I knew it was going to be a matter of time, practice and pushing through my fear to start feeling safe and like I owned that bike again. I thought about selling her and buying a lighter bike, but when I test rode the options they felt too light and too jumpy, and as I rode more I thought less and less about selling; more and more about how much fun I was having and then finally I wanted to do a long trip. Covid-19 had meant that most rallies had been cancelled but not all, a friend had recommended The Devilstone Run in Wyoming months before and I had signed up knowing only her and it was still on. I found a friend to ride with and in early September we were off – a 9 day ride and at least 2500 miles on the map. Three days out to The Devils Tower, three days on the rally back to Old Faithful in Yellowstone, and three days home again. We managed to find a fair amount of gravel and every twisty between here and there. By the time I got home my always troublesome left turns had evened out and I was almost as relaxed as my right turns have always been. I was back in love with my bike and no more thoughts of selling.
But back to the UnRally. It turns out that all the rally’s I’ve ever been to are organized by either bike manufacturers, bike accessory manufacturers, bike apparel makers or bike dealerships (and their associated clubs). The BMW national is massive (mostly attended by old white men looking for each other and more farkles to put on their bikes). I went to the one in Salt Lake City a few years back and whilst I’ll never go to another it did give me an excuse to carry on and visit a friend in Aspen. The Touratech rally in Plain, Washington is one I’ve never made it to, but will one day – also big, but with a bent toward off-road riding it’s all camping in a field and more my jam. Apparel companies are way more interesting, there are rallies organized by women for women and one is ONLY for women. BRO (Babes Ride Out)…. It’s the rally that made me realize I wanted to go every year. It’s the rally that Harriet (my daughter) and I routinely do together, two up on the gsa with all our equipment, in Joshua Tree CA. Three days down, three days there and three days home again. It’s where H & I have a total blast on our own terms and our relationship is only stronger for it.
I always ride some of it solo as H can only take so much time off work, so I either ride down on my own and pick her up at a more local airport, or I ride home having dropped her off. This year it didn’t happen, but that was good because it made way for the Devilstone Run which is also organized by an apparel maker – Go Fast, Don’t Die. Words to live by. Lastly there are the dealerships and their associated clubs. I have nearly always owned a Triumph motorcycle and I’m really close to the all the people that run my local dealership, the clubs surrounding it and I love riding with them. Every year we have a run to Baker City and I’ve been doing that run nearly every year for about 8 years now. It’s a long weekend of excellent riding, all the roads in Eastern Oregon with dinners, beer and camaraderie in spades afterward. This rally didn’t get cancelled either, so two days after getting back from my 9 day trip, I hopped on Bug and headed out again with my friend Wendy. I had originally planned to ride most of the way with her but head off to visit friends on a ranch just outside Lostine, but a dead battery in The Dalles (saved by a local dealership) and a check engine light en-route meant that I did after all go to the rally because I knew there were lots of people there who could trouble shoot with me. Next morning the problem solved, but encroaching smoke from all the fires in NoCal and SoOr made for bad riding conditions and so Wendy & I headed to Lostine and the ranch where the air was slightly better and the company most excellent.
And so…. Finally the UnRally. Only this year it’s the Un-UnRally. Not at all organized, set of co-ordinates given out on the FB page to all those who had previously signed up for the cancelled rally back in June. Come if you’d like, this is where we’ll be, a few sofa’s, some tequila and a couple of porta potties but nothing more. I mentioned it to Jackson, my son, who has the camping truck to die for and a love of wild camping. He was in. I mentioned it to my friend Chris who’d joined me on the Devilstone Run and he was in – with his RV and trailer – and well, it’s not an adventure until something goes wrong, right??!
We set out, Chris & I at 6.30am from Portland, first down to McMinnville where the RV and trailer were. We were taking Lulu (565lbs) and his dirt bike (maybe 300lbs). Jackson had left from Portland and our routes converge west of Burns on the 26. We stopped for lunch at a rest area and Jackson has a look at the trailer and notices that one tire has uneven wear. As we roll through Burns my phone lights up – you’re showing wire! Luckily there’s a Les Schwab in Burns and they have a tire that fits, we are quickly on the road again and going fast as we need to hit the desert floor before nightfall. The last 20 miles or so is washboard gravel road and it’s getting dark, we know we won’t make it before it’s pitch black, and then Jackson texts again – I’m nearly out of gas! We arrive at the Alvord Hot Springs and I text my friend Greg who had arrived earlier. He’s got a jerry can full of gas and a willingness to come find us, which it turns out was crucial not just for the gas but also knowing the route onto the desert floor. We arrived to find a camp of loosely spaced vans, trucks, tents, planes and more. PHEW! We’d made it! We set camp, cooked dinner and then walked over to a large tarped area with sofa’s, a bar and sounds. More friends were there and we hung out for a bit before crashing early after a really long day.
Dawn broke early – well in my world it was really really early! I looked out to the Steens Mountains and knew I needed to be out there to see the sun rise over the Owyhee hills to the east and watch the light hit the Steens mountains to the west. It was spectacular. Jackson and I get breakfast going and we are all sitting around drinking coffee, anticipating eggs, bacon and potatoes when we start to notice the wind is blowing sand fairly fast up the eastern edge of the desert. As we start to eat we realize it’s actually a wall of sand and it’s coming at us fast. Inside the RV, quick! We sit and watch the storm eventually begin to ebb and then flow again, looking at the weather report and understand this is going to last all day. We had planned only to be on the playa for one day, heading back home on Saturday so it didn’t make sense to stay and sit out the storm.
We looked for hot springs and found one we could all agree on – Juntura – so we packed up and headed out, via Fields for gas and their world-famous milk shakes. Juntura Hot Springs are exactly the kind I love, a bit difficult to get to (down a heavily rutted unfinished track to three camping areas) and you have to wade across a knee deep stream to get to an island in the Malheur river that has a few ponds of cold water running over hot sand. We had it to ourselves for the hour or so we were there and then it was time to get some dinner going and call it a day.
Saturday morning was a slow start so after coffee was drunk we all packed up and started the long journey home. We checked straps, they looked good, although the front bracket was bending up, and we needed to find a way of keeping Lulu from bouncing so hard that the other side didn’t unhook. We made it out of the camp site and on to hard tarmac and started for Portland. It was an uneventful drive except for one last bit of excitement. Coming out of Warm Springs on the 26, I was driving and heard a strange sound come from the back, possibly the trailer. Checking my mirrors I nearly had a heart attack as Lulu was leaning FAR out – almost off the trailer completely. I had heard a strap break and if it hadn’t been for Chris using all the extra strapping to wind around both wheels and rails when we loaded up, she would most definitely have come off the trailer and be strewn on the road behind us. The bikes didn’t get ridden all weekend, but they came back so full of sand it took four power washes to get Lulu clean. I had a large drink, thanked my lucky stars and told myself, I’ll be back to the Alvord – on two wheels – another day. It’s spectacular down there!
I am both a Realtor and Interior Designer. I have transitioned from simply selling homes to selling what makes homes beautiful.
©Suze Riley 2013