Mexico to Canada travel diary 2

Chris Collard pushes on with his trial to cover dirt-only tracks to Canada and finds himself on the trail of early pioneers who had no choice but to make their own route.

A few slabs of neatly positioned stone placed to the side of the arid track bore the hand-etched words: Destination Unknown. Another: A story with no beginning and no end.

Each bore a contemplative pearl of wisdom. We were on Guru Road, in north-eastern Nevada, and meandering through a museum of contemporary reflection. It was a bit ironic, though.

We knew our destination, the 49th parallel at the Canadian border, but we had no idea what point along its 3000km demarcation we would intersect. And, as for ‘no beginning’, we started at the beginning, of course.

This was the beauty of an overland trek like Border to Border. A few weeks off work, a handful of maps, and the rest was a blank slate. Except for the end: Canada.

To the north lay the flat expanse of the Black Rock Playa, its fissured and desiccated skin stretching out like a sea of alabaster. In the distance, the great Black Rock rose above the desert, casting an inverted shadow across what appeared to be a vast and shallow lake.

At Black Rock’s base lay a hot spring and the decaying remnants of an 1800s buckboard wagon. Stretching north, the weather-faded tracks of the Applegate-Lassen Emigrant Trail. Our target for the night was the Black Rock Springs.

Alkali flats and the trail of death
With the discovery of California gold in 1849, an obsession swelled in the eastern US to go west. From places like Independence, Missouri, entrepreneurs, teamsters and ladies of questionable repute lined up to secure a seat in one of the thousands of wagon trains heading west.

Following the Donner party tragedy, which ended in the cannibalism of three dozen souls after the wagon train became snowbound in the winter of 1846-7, pressure mounted to establish a shorter route.

Prominent California rancher, Pete Lassen, in an attempt to attract settlers to his land, volunteered to lead one of the westbound wagon trains. When his first group approached the normal turnout to the California trail, he veered north along a faint track left by explorer Lindsay Applegate.

Despite the fact Lassen’s route was more difficult and 200 miles longer, newspapers hailed it “a faster way to California”.

In the spring of 1849, there were an estimated 22,000 emigrants en route to California. By August, hundreds of wagons had followed Lassen’s tracks into dry and desolate wasteland, now known as the Black Rock Desert.

Water and grass for livestock was quickly depleted, and, for the late summer wagons, the situation soon became desperate. Without food and water, ox teams began to suffer.

Delirious, they stampeded towards a distant lake – the same mirage we were seeing – only to collapse onto the barren playa, perishing where they fell.

By late summer, abandoned wagons and grave sites littered the desert and the Applegate-Lassen trail would come to be known as the 1849 Trail of Death. We spun the JK’s speedometer to about 120km/h and headed for the base of Black Rock.

Though mid-summer (when the dry lake should be dry), it was quite wet. Not good! I realised, as mud splattered up the side of the JK, we were about to be in deep doo-doo. We were dead centre of the playa and 25km from the nearest vehicle – or winch anchor. I lifted from the accelerator and carved a slow 50km arc towards higher ground. Though the JK was a mess, somehow we made it. At least we’d be sleeping in a camp of our choice that night.

Hot springs, campfires & high rock
We’d originally intended to search for Murder Rock, where Pete Lassen was bushwhacked by Indians, but ended up camping near a large hot spring at Soldier Meadows. It was a moonless night and we were two hundred kilometres from the nearest megamall. The only light in our camp was the faint blue glow of the northern constellations as they swept around the North Star.

High Rock Canyon is the perfect place for an Indian ambush. We entered on a narrow two-track, sheer cliffs rising to the north and south. At times, the valley floor narrowed to less than 20m. Our tyres were following ruts in the limestone ledge – evidence of steel wagon wheels of the 1800s. We’d read accounts that bands of Paiute Indians waited on the high cliffs for wagon trains to enter the canyon – then sent a barrage of boulders over the edge, scattering livestock in a mass confusion. As we made our way west, we couldn’t help but keep a guarded eye on the skyline above.

Mud bogs, rock stars and the backcountry
2160km: Restaurant, Lakeview, Oregon. The guy at the next table leaned over and said, “You two must be lost… no one comes to Lakeview on purpose. That your fancy Jeep out there?” I’d researched the Oregon Backcountry Discovery

Trail, which was designed as an all-dirt, north-south route connecting California and Washington. We were on page one and searching for signs of the trail.

Avoiding the tar road, we zigzagged through thick pine forests, dodged cattle and backtracked numerous times before getting stonewalled near the western edge of Hickey Ranch, Oregon. We eventually retreated to the tar road for a few kilometres to get to the township of Adel. Two dusty pick-ups sat outside a rustic and weathered roadside cafe – the only public establishment in the town. Inside, a couple of mud-on-your-boots horsemen helped us with information on the area. After a chinwag and cup of coffee, we parted ways with a new plan.

The tourist entrance to the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is from the north. But our new friends had told us of a little-known road from the south – the Central Oregon Military Wagon Trail (circa 1880). Little-known was spot on; the overgrown switchback hadn’t seen traffic in years. Once on the plateau, the refuge was magnificent. Pronghorn antelope roam in small herds over the sage-covered terrain.

The rains that hindered our progress through the Black Rock left the next 40km rather soggy. Antelope watched from a guarded distance as we slogged through the hub-to-fender-deep water. Temperatures dropped through the night and, peering out from our tent the next morning, everything was white. Our fingers were a bit on the frostbitten side by the time we wrapped up chalet de ARB, stuffed everything in the Jeep and got rolling.

2459km: Wagontyre, Oregon. People of central Oregon are akin to those of the outback – as down-home as can be. Bob and Cheryl James set up shop – the Wagontyre cafe/general store/fuel depot – and, with a town population of two, they stay busy. We grabbed fuel, a burger and hot coffee. The skies cleared by midday and we were heading for the Ochoco National Forest. We’d gone from arid desert to dense forest to waterlogged plateaus, and were now in the heart of Oregon’s timber country. Logging roads created a tangled web of Ys, forks, dead ends… places to get lost.

As you pass through the sleepy burg of Seneca, Oregon, you think you are awakening from a whimsical dream. Pines and firs carpet the adjoining foothills; dogs lay in semi-catatonic states on farmhouse porches, and the occasional cow or bobcat stroll across the street. Bobcat? While topping off the tanks at the general store, a bobcat leapt out of a tree a few metres away, and into a large wooden building. Another feline darted past. Hmmm…?

The bobcats were Big and Bob, and belonged to the character standing on the porch, JW Everitt. JW, an avid dual-sport rider, is one of the most interesting guys I’ve met. A gifted musician, he’d played with Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Jackson Brown, recorded his own titles and is now the owner of the Bear Cat Lodge. Built in a 1900s-era logging bunkhouse, the Bear Cat is one of Oregon’s premier lodges and the only one dedicated to cool overland travellers (yes, if you’re not cool you don’t get invited back). We struck up a conversation, and he invited us to stay the night.

2760km: Rolling into the 1890s mining town of Sumpter, Oregon, is like stepping into a 90-year time warp. Faded hand-painted billboards adorn weathered brick buildings and wood-plank boardwalks line the streets. On the side streets, rickety wooden barns lean at precarious angles. Across from the red brick ice-cream parlour, which is still serving, we stepped into the Elkhorn Saloon. Every head in the place turned to check out the tourists as we swung open the creaky wooden doors.

2892km: Between the Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla National Forests lies the town of La Grande. It was well past dark by the time we filled the tanks, and though we were tempted to get a room for the night, the darkness called for a night run. The wind howled like a pack of hungry hyenas by the time we reached the cliff-side track off Mt Emily. To our left, a vertical wall; to the right, we stared into an abyss of inky blackness. We knew what was down there. Nothing.

The rutted two-track, just wide enough for our JK and barely illuminated by our high-beams, was only visible to the next bend. The thought of a tree blocking the road, and the sheer drop-off just outside Suzy’s window, kept my eyes pinned beyond the hood. As we bounced through freshly filled divots in the road, water splashed off the tyres, over the precipitous edge and into the emptiness below. We wouldn’t see our sleeping bags till 0100hrs that night. Beyond lay the state of Washington.

We were winching the first tree off the trail before 0830 the next morning. It was chilly, overcast and deep snowdrifts lay ahead. After more than 3000km on the track, this was the first chance to deploy our Warn 9.5ti winch and Viking winch rope. It was also the first of about a dozen trees we’d wrestle out of our path.

With the BFGoodrich KM2s aired down to 8psi, we churned north, pulling tree after tree out of the way before clearing the reaches of the Blue Mountains. Ours were not the first tracks of the season, but we didn’t see a soul all day.

3273km: While Oregon brought us 600km of forest-lined dirt roads, southern Washington would show us the hard working farmers of North America – hundreds of kilometres of perfectly groomed wheat fields. Washington is the third largest producer of wheat in the US – 90 percent of it exported to Pakistan, Japan and the Philippines. As spectacular as they may be, and the gravel roads did meet our all-dirt criteria, after a hundred kilometres we made a break for the Idaho border.

Entering Idaho near Moscow (yes, Moscow, Idaho), our maps indicated multiple dirt tracks north. However, neither the DeLorme Atlas nor Garmin Map Source identifies private land. Most of the region is owned by logging companies, and an array of locked gates and closed roads became our nemesis. After a full day of dead ends and extended backtracking, we were faced with taking the tar roads or heading back to Washington. The decision was for Washington and the city of Spokane.

After dropping my lovely bride at the airport, I returned to the place where we got on the pavement. Alone at this point, I was only 150km from the Canadian border (2.5 hours on paved roads), yet I’d log 500 clicks and 60 hours before reaching the 49th parallel. Near the Little Falls River I cleared Washington’s farmland and was back in the highlands.

The township of Usk would be my last chance for fuel before pushing on to the border through the Kaniksu National Forest. Just after sunset I located a side-track in the thick trees to camp on. Of the few people I’d talked to that day, they all shared a common question: “You camping?” and “You’d better watch out for grizzly bears – keep an eye on your dog.” Despite the calm, moonless night and clear skies, Radar and I jumped with every creak, crackle and swoosh from the blackness.

Heading east, the area is a stunning example of the grandeur of the Pacific Northwest. Towering peaks, bottomless crystal-clear lakes, and deer darting across the trail are reason enough to come here. But my mix of paper and digital maps was a world of confusion. The main tracks wound around the mountains like a python on a wallaby – I wouldn’t suggest attempting to save time by finding that short cut. By late afternoon I’d made little progress, and I found myself parked near a fire lookout tower on top of Old South Baldy; another dead end.

“I must have missed the turn, it was that other left.” Closer inspection revealed the Forest Service sign lying in the bush. Ah, victory! The problem was a very large tree lying across the trail. I grabbed my snatch block and unspooled 30m of winch rope. After multiple pulls, repositioning the line, strap and attachment point each time, there was just enough room to slip around.

An hour had passed and the sun was heading for the horizon. I loaded up my gear and … 200m round the bend was a *&#$% dead end.

4289km: Smackout Pass, Harrier Creek and Quinn’s Road are the direct dirt routes from Ione to Northport, save 20km. This night is where my final push for the border got interesting. The only apparent route to Northport was on an overgrown track over Black Hawk Mountain. It was about 2200hrs, I snatched yet another tree out of the track, then another. Abandoned for some time, the native flora had reclaimed the route, leaving only two parallel depressions in the grass. Somewhere on the lee side of Black Hawk, a faint quad track appeared and became my guiding light. But did it come from Northport or from where I just came? Had I missed the tracks?

A left turn put me on another tree-shrouded, cliff-side road. The quad track was gone. Should I continue on? I could see lights from a ranch house in the valley below. Two hundred metres in, forward progress ceased; a washout. With zero room for error, I begrudgingly slipped the JK into reverse and cautiously backed out, stopping several times to reset my mirrors (after branches knocked them out of position). Beat-dog tyred and a little nervous (okay, scared), I retreated to the Y-junction, located the quad track again and followed it down to the valley. Camp that night was on a boat ramp of the mighty Columbia River. The Canadian border would be mine tomorrow.

4416km: The US-Canadian border, which shadows the 49th parallel for nearly 2000km, is an extension of boundaries set forth in the Treaty of Paris (1783) between the British and French. With the tightened security after 9/11, I was expecting sound-sensing equipment in the trees, border patrol officers creeping around in the bush, floodlights… something!

My first attempt was a bust – 200m short; several three-metre divots and a US Government warning sign. The second attempt was the ticket. I wound around a clear-cut area to a landing at the top of a ridge. Beyond lay Canada. I was completely alone, bar Radar, my dog. There were no warning signs, border patrol agents or helicopters. I waited, expecting some new friends with badges and guns, but no one showed up.

The journey or the destination
It may be cliched, but the axiom, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, holds an undeniable truth. The destination may be a remote peak, or simply an imaginary line in a forest. The views may be spectacular and the air clean and clear, but often it’s just a place, a waypoint on your GPS or coordinates on a map. However, when you look back, it will most likely be the journey remembered; people along the way and travelling mates. While the destination motivates us, it’s the journey that fills life’s palette with colour.

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