Hells Canyon – Hess Road (June 14th)

I awoke from my slumber to the sound of everybody else already puttering around. Slowly I pulled myself out of my tent and began the process of waking up. Somebody offered me some coffee, which I gratefully accepted, and I offered him some sugar from my spice kit in return. As I worked out the stiffness in my back from sleeping on my gear, I mentioned my predicament, and lo and behold, Russ/Got2Moto offered up his Big Agnes pad for me to have, if I liked. He said that it wasn’t right for him. AWESOME! Thank you!! I told him I’d give it a try. Gotta be better than sleeping on lumpy gear, right?

Eventually plans condensed and a lot of us left in one big group. I wasn’t entirely sure what the route was, but I figured it’d be fun anyways. After making our way through the town of Enterprise, through the pastoral countryside past Joseph, we turned onto a small, winding forest service road. For a while, we stayed mostly in a somewhat cohesive whole, but the further we went down the forest service road, the more spread out we became. We ended up splitting into at least two groups, and I was in the slowest one. The forest service road was very fun, lots of twists and turns, many hairpin 15mph curves, with bumps, lumps and potholes aplenty: exactly the stuff I go slow on.

Eventually it was down to three of us. Mark/s1marks rode ahead, found somebody else who told him what they thought the “fast guys” were planning, so he suggested that we go down Hess Road to catch up with them. There was some confusion about what was going on, so we ended up going back and forth a bit. I was mildly annoyed at the miscommunication and planning, but it’s hard to stay mad with a beautiful day and gorgeous views.

When we got to the turn off for Hess road, there was freshly graded gravel. Mark advised me to make sure I stayed in the ruts – the built up parts could be deep and would mean the death of my traction. Needless to say, this was scary, but I held on and made it through.

Hess road wandered through the trees, then broke out and became a series of hairpins dropping in elevation along the steep slope of the mountain. The views were phenomenal. I rode my brakes a lot, because I have issues with building momentum on downhill slopes, the thought of careening over the cliff an ever-present threat. Both of the beemers’ rear brakes stopped working effectively, and only later returned once they’d had a chance to cool down. Thankfully, my brakes stayed intact.

Spot the bike!

I stopped frequently to rest/stretch my clutch hand and take photos. I was terrified, but extremely excited to be out here doing this road. I felt that if something were to happen, at least I wasn’t alone – we would fix whatever went wrong. It was comforting. I probably would not have attempted this road solo, but I learned a lot.

I really like this one because it shows just how steep the road actually was…


Toward the end, the last mile of Hess road got a lot more challenging. For the most part, even though the road was hairpinny and had small rocks and gravel, the corners were navigable. In this last mile, the corners were full of fist-sized rocks, making it extremely difficult to turn sharply while maintaining traction, especially because I was too afraid to stand up. I managed to get it done, dabbing once or twice as the bike started going where I didn’t want it to go.

We made it to the bottom, the road became flat and washboarded. There were a number of campers along the river, and we dodged a few pickup trucks barrelling down the road toward us, kicking up lots of dust.

We got to the gas station in Oxbow. They didn’t have any regular fuel, so I took a look at my fuel level and decided to chance it. I had the unfortunate experience of trying to remove underlayers in a port-a-john (the day had started quite chilly, but I was now overheating). I don’t recommend it.

After discussing routes, Mark decided he was going to go back up Hess Road. The other gentleman decided he was going to go back on pavement. I was not yet ready to call it a day, and we had no idea where the fast guys were. I weighed my options, and decided, well. Fuck it. I might as well go right back up that scary mountain.

Most of the experience of going uphill was a lot easier than going down it. Mark alternated between following me and jetting on ahead, riding at his own pace, only to wait for me later on.

We were passed on the way up by some guys in the fast group.

I was able to actually cruise along in first and occasionally second, except around the corners, where I used the clutch to creep myself along below first. The rocks in the first mile were definitely the worst part of coming uphill, until I almost got stuck in a rut. I had been paying too much attention to the area around my front wheel and not enough attention on picking the route ahead, and the shade hid the rut. Stupid.

I stopped the bike, and managed to not drop it. Ineffectively wishing that my legs were a few inches longer, I paddled and yelled back to Mark, asking what he thought I should do. He advised to go forward, but I knew I didn’t have enough traction, the bike would just fishtail and fall over. I slowly, ever so slowly backed it up to the area before the rut, and then slowly, ever so slowly, pointed the bike in a slightly different direction than the rut and gassed it forward in short little bursts, gaining a few feet of ground between sliding backwards. If I had more confidence, faster speed, or had been standing, this rut would not have been a challenge at all, but stability is not the best when you’re creeping along.

Once we got to the top, past the fresh gravel (which was fairly harrowing going uphill too), we stopped for a bit to relax, hydrate, and had a pretty awesome conversation. Mark decided that he wanted to try exploring the dirt road near the lookout, where we’d begun venturing earlier in the day, as he’d heard there was a route down there somewhere that led to Imnaha.

We stopped and appreciated the view. The mountains in this area seem to go on forever.

After Hess road, I didn’t find this road nearly as scary, and actually managed to make it up to 30-40mph here and there along the gravel, standing up in places as I tried to mimic Mark’s riding. There were a few areas where he gestured for me to slow down, the traction was worse. This road wound down among the trees, lots of half-buried rocks and tree roots, occasional puddles of mud.

We found the end of the line, and decided to venture on a couple of horse trails to see if we could find the route he was thinking of. One effectively ended a few hundred feet down the line, necessitating a truly embarassing dozen-point u-turn. I eventually gave up and got off the bike to push it around. The next one we tried had these huge, terrifying rocks. A bit larger than fist-sized, if they’d stayed still it wouldn’t have been an issue, but it was like riding in a dry creek bed, constantly shifting. At my low speeds this Was Not Working.

Eventually we gave up on our quest and decided to head back to camp. The forest service road was quite fun, and I pushed myself a little bit more around the corners. Mark gave me some advice about not fully leaning in, leaning the bike but staying more upright myself, which I found helped me a bit. Especially in the lumps and bumps.

I got phenomenal gas mileage. Apparently this bike likes going slow, even if I’m working the engine harder to go up mountains, because I got almost 60 mpg.

After we got back to camp, Mark took a look at my tires, which had cupped a lot over the day. I’d known they were a softer compound, I believe they were 90%/10% dirt/road Kendas, but he expressed concerns that the tires were not going to get me home. I found it odd that they hadn’t shown much wear over the 90mph day, only now that they were used for their intended purpose. Rocks and debris I guess? I decided I’d keep an eye on them and see how bad they were at the end of the rally.

I felt pretty proud of myself that I managed to go through the day without dropping the bike, falling headlong over the cliff, or caving into my fears. I am very grateful to Mark for babysitting me all that day, I know that I am much slower. He assured me that he was the same way not that long ago, that it just takes practice and eventually I would be as good as he is, helping out somebody else who’s new. He also took a bunch of photos and video of me, which is great, because I mostly tend to ride solo and don’t get many pictures of me riding.

There was a fire and everyone enjoyed the blaze for a bit.

I slept well that night. The Big Agnes pad was a miracle after so many nights on the hard ground.

After much futzing, I finally managed to cut the footage Mark gave me into a video! This is my first attempt at editing, haha. I had to update the video drivers, but eventually Windows Movie Maker came through for me. Enjoy!

1 Comment

  1. kirk Maxson said,

    July 12, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    My grandfather Melvin Hess built the Hess Road, in 1955 as a logging road I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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