Sometimes the beaten path is the better path for the land

By Jayson Jacoby April 23, 2010 02:39 pm

There’s a heap of roads in Eastern Oregon and I’ve gone the wrong way on quite a lot of them.

And sometimes even when I take the right turn I come to a bad end. Usually rocks are involved. Sometimes there are snowdrifts. Always there is profanity.

I have at any rate become accustomed to running into trouble — literally, in many cases — when I set out to cover great distances by motor vehicle without ever putting a tire on pavement.

Which goal I continue to pursue, afflicted as I am with a sort of cheerful stupidity, despite my frequent flirtations with disaster.

I strive to prepare properly for these outings. For instance I own enough maps to wallpaper my whole house. (I have in fact experimented along those lines, but my decorative efforts were rebuffed, and resoundingly, despite their obvious educational value.)

But though I grasp the basic idea behind a map, I am helpless to decipher, with any reliability, the overwhelmingly detailed guides the BLM puts out for the millions of acres it manages in the southeastern part of the state.

These sheets, with their bewildering network of hair-thin red lines denoting roads, look as if a precocious 3-year-old had been at them with a calligraphy set.

Still and all, the prospect of traveling for days and never seeing a paved road exerts its powerful hold on me. The subject reminds me inevitably of a particular anecdote.

Several years ago, while on just such a journey, my dad and I stopped in Vale to fill the fuel tank and procure beef jerky before we headed into the uninhabited — and utterly macadam-free — sagebrush steppe that stretches for more than 70 uninterrupted miles between Owyhee Reservoir and state Highway 78.

The gas jockey, who was otherwise a laconic sort, perked right up when we explained our intended route.

This old fellow, who had a smattering of gray stubble on his cheeks and would have been the perfect subject for a portrait painter if only he had a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, allowed that he had gone that way once, maybe 30 years back.

“Only crossed one highway between here and Reno,” he boasted, his eyes going a bit misty as he savored this distant and apparently singular feat of navigational glory.

I was pretty sure you had to get by at least two highways, but of course I didn’t contradict. It was too rich a tale to foul with cartographic facts.

Given my affinity for off-highway driving, you’ll understand why I was ecstatic when, in the late 1990s, the state Parks and Recreation Department unveiled the Oregon Back Country Discovery Route.

This was, basically, an organized, government-sponsored plan to do what the raconteur from Vale claimed he had done. The main difference is that Reno wasn’t the destination.

The goal, rather, was to map a route that followed existing roads — as few of them as possible hard-surfaced — and by which a driver or motorcyclist could travel through Eastern Oregon between the California border and Washington.

A Bend couple, Bob and Cheryl Greenstreet, rode 2,500 miles on their motorcycles plotting the route.

The trail runs between the California line near Cave Creek, southeast of Lakeview, and the Washington border not far from Walla Walla.

As an illustration of how sinuous backroads are compared with highways, consider that the shortest paved route between those points is about 400 miles (the straight line distance, by the way, is about 300).

The Back Country Discovery Route covers about 750 miles, hardly any of them straight.

The parks department officially “opened” the Back Country Discovery Route in 1999. Since all the roads (a charitable description in certain instances) were already there, the agency’s main task was to install signs at key intersections.

Some of them, anyway.

There are literally hundreds of intersections along the route. And each of these could be described as “key” if by that you mean a place where, if you take the wrong fork, you’re likely to find out what raw sage rat tastes like and whether you can slake your thirst by putting a straw in your windshield wiper fluid reservoir.

Which, fortunately, I haven’t, despite my predilection for unplanned detours that usually involve basalt boulders and concerns about whether the oil pan skidplate is as robust as the owner’s manual boasts.

Although Google will lavish you with information about the Back Country Discovery Route even today, its official life was curtailed rather quickly.

Less than two years after the parks department christened the route, some people who apparently do not share my appreciation for dirt roads accused the agency of violating a federal law by failing to conduct an environmental study.

The state capitulated, and it yanked out the signs.

The critics had a legitimate point, I suppose — although it’s the sort of point only a nit-picking lawyer could love.

Or one of those kill-joys who owns a car only to have a place to put a bumper sticker that proclaims “my other car is a bike.”

Certainly the state would have been obligated to study the environmental effects had it actually built a road.

Except the state didn’t build anything. Including the signs, which must have been a contract job.

The argument, as I understand it, is that by naming the Back Country Discovery Route, and by referring to it in official government records, and of course by putting up those infernal signs, the state made it possible for more people to drive the route, thus degrading the environment.

But if that’s the basis for a persuasive legal case, then why aren’t these same people suing the state every time it prints a new highway map?

And what about all those “Welcome to Oregon” signs at the border?

We’re actually inviting people, practically begging them, to come here and burn petroleum products.


Based on my own experience, though, I’m pretty sure I’d leave lighter footprints, as it were, if the state had left those Back Country Discovery Route signs out in the hinterlands.

In the current sign-free era, if I tried to follow the route — which, fortunately, I’m free to do — I’d probably put 1,500 miles on the odometer rather than 750, just from all the backtracking.

It seems to me the people who fret about motorized vehicles would prefer that I minimize miles traveled rather than traipse all over the countryside, raising great clouds of dust and occasionally kicking a sagebrush in frustration.

I suspect they would rather I just stayed home, or went out into the desert on foot.

Which I often do. Hiking is my favorite hobby, in fact.

Trouble is I have a job. And on the occasions when I get to visit that vast and beautiful land of Southeastern Oregon, where the forests are juniper and the roads are either mud or dust, I like to see as much of it as I can manage.

And for that a four-wheel drive rig is a right handy tool.

Besides which, it’s awfully thirsty country down there.

Just carrying enough water to keep you alive can practically kill you if you have to bear the burden on your back.

Even if you don’t get lost.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.