Throttle Jockey: High desert getaway


Some pals and I are heading to Southeast Oregon this weekend to do some riding, a trip we look forward to taking at least once and sometimes twice each year.

Southeast Oregon is known locally by several names, most notably as The Big Empty and the Oregon Outback, and those are fitting monikers for this vast, dry, seemingly barren corner of the state. As such, the off-road riding opportunities are just about as vast, which is great, but you can get very and possibly fatally lost unless you have a knowledgeable guide along on the ride. A cell phone won’t save you here.

This is an area where it can hit 110 today and snow tomorrow. In June. It is one of the last remnants of the American Frontier that’s pretty much the same now as it was when the (truly) brave Pioneers pushed their wagons across the wide desert floor and finally through soaring mountain passes. Average elevation is about 4,000 above sea level, and it’s quite possible to roll through the open high desert areas thinking all is well and then suddenly drop into a 70-foot volcanic crevasse. Signs? There ain’t many signs.

Fortunately, our group includes Dave, whose well-kept outpost in a literal one-stoplight town out yonder serves as a launching point for our journeys into the forbidden zone (or the really just-nobody-there-zone). Where we ride may as well be the deserts of Mauritania on the fringes of the Sahara. It’s one of the little pockets of land on Earth still largely unoccupied. And Dave knows the area inside and out.

Dave’s itinerary includes hot springs, rocks covered in ancient Native American hieroglyphics, speeding across dry lake beds, eating at well-loved restaurants in the middle of cattle country (don’t even bother trying to follow your regular diet), and trail riding on jeep track, single track and even some no track as we pick our way across miles of high desert. Good times.

Our mounts for the offroad excursion range from my somewhat portly but competent Suzuki DR650 (up top) to Dave’s burly 1970s Honda XL500R (below) to our friend Bryan’s tip-top KTM 500 EXC that we all not-so-secretly lust after. A few other dirt-capable bikes are in the mix as well.


Off-road riding requires a different set of skills from road riding. It’s a workout, for one, as you spend a lot of the time out of the seat, soaking up bumps with your legs and arms. There will be some sore quads at night, but it’s worth it. And Dave’s home-stilled whiskey helps take the edge off (because: Oregon).

To really enjoy a dirt session like this, learning to slide the bike (back wheel, typically) is a skill worth acquiring, as is a bit of wheeling to pop over a small obstacle. I admit I am no off-road master, but with some tips from some of the guys on this ride who do a lot of dirt riding, I can keep up, usually. And it is great fun.

Being prepared for this kind of riding is important, both in technique and gear. Leg guards, gloves, boots and a sturdy jacket are mandatory. It’s a good idea to pack tools beyond what came with the bike as well. And maybe a signaling mirror as well. You never know.

But between the group, most any breakdown can be dealt with, and we’re all pretty careful. Usually.

It’s always a great trip, and I’ll be back next week with some photos of this year’s offroad fun.