Outdoors

Roger Phillips: Whether to ride or drive? The choice is now clear

I had to schedule my spring vacation last fall, and I ordered a new motorcycle in February. How did the arrival of both coincide so perfectly or imperfectly in April?

I picked up a brand-spanking-new KTM 1190 Adventure from Carl’s Cycle Sales in Boise on a Friday morning. The odometer read zero. I like to break in a motorcycle before embarking on a long road trip, but after a few quick miles, the odometer still read double-digits.

My annual vacation to see my family in Oregon started the next day.

I had 500 miles ahead of me, and I faced a daunting choice: drive or ride?

I weighed the pros and cons.

There are few guarantees in life, but one is it will rain in Oregon during April. Driving was a safer option weather-wise. Riding could be a scenic, soul-inspiring road trip or a cold, drenching ordeal, especially in the Cascade Mountain Range that separates Oregon’s sagebrush and juniper plains from its coastal rain forests.

I pictured myself driving in the warmth and comfort of my truck, and then sitting at my Mom’s house, fidgeting, anxious and filled with self-loathing because my new motorcycle sat home alone because I was too chicken to ride it.

I checked the forecast. The short-term looked cool-to-warm and mostly dry. Beyond that it was hazy.

My new-toy enthusiasm overcame my weather worries. I hit the road the next morning.

Riding a new motorcycle is a special experience. It’s an exciting mix of fresh and familiar because each motorcycle has its own personality.

Both my Triumph Tiger 800s, which the KTM is replacing, are designed for riding pavement and dirt and gravel roads, so I can take them about anywhere a Jeep can go. That makes them perfect for touring Idaho and other places in the Northwest.

The Tiger has a smooth, tractable engine that is so quiet at low rpms it almost sounds electric, then it whirs to a turbine whine when you crank the throttle. It’s easy and fun to ride, and it gets a lot more exciting when the tach nears redline.

The KTM has a throaty rumble at idle, then growls and launches when you bump the throttle. It’s so arm-pulling powerful that computer brains adjust the power to keep its 150-horsepower engine manageable.

I quickly learned the KTM is a giggle factory that makes a mockery of Oregon’s 55 mph speed limit. If I abided by it, I would never feel the upper half of the motorcycle’s six-speed transmission.

But this ride was no spin around the block and watch for cops. It was an all-day road trip, and while the KTM’s power was clearly not an issue, I wondered how an over-grown, over-powered dirt bike would feel after nine hours in the saddle across Oregon’s outback.

I conservatively guess I’ve crossed Eastern Oregon at least 50 times in my life, and so I know it’s never a short, quick trip.

I particularly dread the stretch of U.S. 20 between Burns and Bend, which is 130 miles that’s so straight and flat that if you fell asleep at the wheel, you’d as likely run out of gas as drive off the road into the sagebrush. I am exaggerating, but only a little.

A straight road on a motorcycle is like dancing to the beat of a metronome. A 130-mile, straight road? Like they say in Jersey, “fuhgeddaboudit.”

I detoured onto U.S. 26 at Vale, which is a longer route across Eastern Oregon, but it’s a curvy, scenic hodgepodge of mountains, river canyons and red rock.

I settled into the KTM and let it run. Twisty mountain roads made me and the bike feel like a seamless man/machine team. My brain seemed hardwired to the engine and my arms, hips and legs a part of the suspension and steering. A gentle lean sent the bike into a graceful arc.

When a road sign signaled a 25 mph corner, I dropped a gear and heard the engine growl as it grudgingly slowed enough for me to pitch the bike into a tight, g-force-inducing turn followed by the engine howling with joy as I cracked the throttle and crossed the safe side of the apex.

It was exciting and a little scary learning the bike’s quirks in the twisties without turning the lesson into a crash course.

But there was much more than adrenaline at play. I also sat back and watched roads snake up mountains and descend into picturesque meadows spotted with wildflowers. I felt chilly morning winds turn into warm, fragrant, spring breezes that hugged my soul.

People ask what I think about on a long, solo ride. The truthful answer is nothing, which feels like a luxury. Whatever is immediately in front of me commands my full attention, then instantly slips from my consciousness into a rear-view-mirror memory.

It’s that blend of raw power, adrenaline and soothing tranquility that makes a riding a motorcycle long distances so cool.

The hours and miles slipped away, and I saw the landscape change from the high desert to the Cascades. Although mountains threatened rain, they never delivered.

I crossed the green threshold and rode among the cathedral pines and firs of Western Oregon. After the trip across the wide-open desert, it felt like riding in a tunnel.

I topped the 6,000-foot divide between the Umpqua River and Rogue River and started my final 50-mile descent into the Rogue Valley, where I could almost smell the steaks my brother was grilling for my arrival.

Despite my hypothermic fears, I stopped and shed a layer of clothes as I hit the valley floor, and I finished my long ride caressed by a perfect 75-degree temperature.

Ride or drive?

Now the answer seems so obvious.

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