Voices from the Road

Through fire smoke in Oregon to clear Idaho skies: A summer motorcycle trip to remember

Okay, well, remember when it seemed like the whole country was on fire last year? Specifically the West Coast? I left my house on a truly unforgettable day, September 11th. As the smoke was starting to creep into Portland and the fires in the Pacific Northwest grew bigger and closer, with the evac border only about 2 miles away and the end of riding season even closer, I decided that this was the perfect time for one last longer motorcycle trip. So I packed up and told my ma I was gonna come visit her in Idaho. 

I was meeting up with my good friend, a die-hard road dawg named Hide, in Biggs Junction (roughly 100 miles from Portland), then we’d roll down the 97 and 206 to camp maybe in Ochoco. I checked the air quality index (AQI) in the gorge and it was looking clear, so I texted Hide and headed out. Well, at that exact same moment (at least in my mind), Mama Nature decided to change the winds and make sure nice, dense smoke guided us the entire way. I kept saying in my mind, “I’ll be out of it soon,” as it kept getting worse and worse and worse. 

Once we met up and headed south, every turn felt like we were going to be met with flames. We stopped in Ruggs, Oregon (a place that felt like Silent Hill), and decided that we had to change our plans and try to get east as fast as we could. So we booked it up to Pendleton. The visibility was maybe 30 feet in what felt like a scene from Blade Runner 2049, with giant windmills that would appear out of nowhere looking like iron giants and my poor, poor CV-carburetor Sportster having coughing fits every once in a while. Nothing but nervous giggles in our helmet headsets and white knuckles for a few hours. 

We finally made it back up north to Pendleton, where the AQI was at a good 480 still. We decided to get a motel room where they leave the light on for you, instead of camping, because we weren’t feeling too great at this point. I asked for a ground level room (to pull the bikes inside) and somehow—luck of the draw—we got the one with a narrow hallway and vending machines. We put on a free show pulling the bikes in for a bunch of kids and the desk person who said, “I don’t care, I just wanna see you get ‘em in there.” We persevered after the tightest game of Tetris ever and celebrated with takeout from the Denny’s that shared the parking lot.

Blue skies ahead

We woke up feeling like we’d been inhaling campfire smoke—so, amazing, as you’d imagine. But ultimately we had our fingers crossed for some blue sky. Spoiler: nada. So we checked the AQI along some routes toward Boise and Mountain Home, Idaho, to see what would be best. Begrudgingly we took I-84 because it was just the fastest option; it wasn’t looking good in any direction. Home was worse and there was a slight possibility of blue sky ahead. Naturally we chose to keep at it. 

The entire day was just fifth gear pinned and only stopping for gas, really. We slammed out 320 miles in what seemed like both an instant and a lifetime. 

One memorable moment of travel on the way is that around the Boise area they love using grooved concrete highways, and my high-street-cred radial-tread chopper tires love to dance around in those grooves. I came off a bridge overpass that had a slight dip and it was just enough to send me almost tank slapping at 85 mph. I thought for sure my ride was ending in that instant, but I didn’t panic and managed to steady the bike and pull off.

My poor little Sporty was working so hard I had a ton of blowby slathered all over my rear wheel and—yes, you guessed it—my brake. “Easy, just use your front brake,” you say? Ha, if only I had one! 

We were close to Mountain Home at this point, so I shook off the shakes, wiped off the oil, and we took side roads to a skatepark to just maybe have a little fun. 

After a short lived kid dodging session we headed toward Hagerman where we had a small Airbnb booked. The closer we got, the more and more I could swear the sky was looking more and more blue—we both were thinking it but neither of us were saying it. We got to Hagerman right before the sun set and, sure enough, there was some blue sky. Truly a “I’m not crying, you’re crying” moment.

We checked in and decided to get some food at a little mom-and-pop Mexican food restaurant where, like in the movies, as soon as we pulled up on bikes they flipped the sign to “Closed” and stared at us through the windows. It stung a little bit but was honestly comical and fitting of the days we had. So we rode 20 miles to Gooding for dinner. 

Taking a turn

The next day we parted ways. Hide would ride down to Salt Lake City for a few days and I headed north toward Salmon, Idaho, where we would reconvene later. The smoke was still hanging out but considerably better. I hopped on the 26 toward Arco and started my 240-mile ride with some good tunes and good visibility. I was stoked to ride past Craters of the Moon again, truly beautiful lava bed landscapes. Made it safe and sound around 5 hours later. 

Over the next couple of days, we rode around to a few rad sights in the Salmon area, like Williams Lake. We stopped and hiked around the river, just taking it easy because the way out was kind of brutal. Lots of meals and photo time. We even got a clear night for that Milky Way goodness. The scenes out there are beautiful and abundant with all sorts of wildlife. Very easy on the peepers.

So after hanging out and cooking meals for a few days, it was time to come back. In true fashion I was waiting on motorcycle parts before I could get back. The weather was starting to turn, temps dropping and rain in the forecast. We decided yet again to split up. Hide went north to Lolo to camp and hit Lolo Pass on the way back. I’m bummed I missed my shot with this because it was freezing rain the rest of the week, but my parts came in. I packed up and left the next day.

We talked about meeting back up once in Oregon, but Hide was on a roll and crushed the entire 570 miles in one day! I was determined to do the same, spending time winding through Sawtooth National Forest and the beautiful scenery of Stanley and Grandjean (which unfortunately was hit pretty hard by fires of its own), through canyons of Grimes Pass and on through Horseshoe Bend, then onto I-84. If you’ve ever spent time on the I-84 west, you know how absolutely crushing the head winds can be, so I decided to split it into another day. 

I stopped at our old stomping ground in Pendleton and was met with, “This room has a ramp that goes straight to the room so it will be easier for you.” That is customer service if you ask me. After another round of Denny’s finest Beyond Burger and a hot shower, I was out like a light. The next day was smooth sailing for me and most of the smoke had cleared out to a not-hazardous level. Cruising back to Portland by the Columbia River was a true treat that day. 

I rolled into town at 1 p.m. and by 4 p.m. I had met up and picked up a steal of a deal on a 2008 FXDL Harley-Davidson I had my eye on from Craigslist. Let me tell you, there is no better way to end a trip than by buying a new-to-you bike. After putting down over 10k miles this summer on Hissy Fit, my chopped out Sportster, my butt was willing to cash that savings out for some comfort. I cannot wait for spring and summer to chug some pavement on the new bike.

Olivia’s trip

Meet the Roadtripper

Olivia Jane