Well, drat. Drat-drat. And drat.
A snowdrift blocked the two-track trail.
Bill DeLong walked away from his ATV to study it. I followed, frown in place.
Ears flapping, Nora the Schnauzer raced across it and back.
We had expected some snow on the Bureau of Land Management’s high-country terrain.
But not so much.
A second drift lay on the road ahead, across the canyon. It also could be impassable.
Despite an eye-watering, cheek-chilling wind (I wore my windbreaker’s hood up), the temperature had reached the high 40s at about 6,000 feet altitude.
That made the snow loose, extra slippery.
“We’ll have to find a way around or go back,” Bill lamented. His brow furrowed.
I figured the time at 2 p.m., or almost five hours since we first straddled the Honda four-wheelers.
We’d completed more than half of the all-day trip, so Nora and I awaited Bill’s decision.
“I can get back up that,” Bill said as he peered down the steep, rock-strewn route with old, faint four-wheeler tracks
“I’ll go down and pick up the road below,” he said. “I’ll check ahead. If we can’t make it, we’ll have to turn back.”
Bill’s machine crept like a beetle on a wall slowly into the canyon.
On the road again, he zipped past the second drift and dropped beyond the distant ridge.
I snagged my daypack from my ride and followed Nora into the canyon out of the wind.
Nora explored. I leaned on my pack, munched a box of Goobers and waited.
We had started the day in Bill’s pickup, with the two rides on a trailer. We drove westward from Vale to Harper on Oregon Highway 20.
Bill turned north for another few miles, pulled onto a dusty private road and stopped.
So the ATV journey loomed.
Bill and his wife Jewell unloaded the rides.
I didn’t have the heart to leave Nora behind, so I lifted her onto the 2-inch-thick foam pad in the front basket of Jewell’s automatic-shift machine.
Jewell drove away to leave the pickup and trailer for us at Duane DeLong’s place on Highway 26.
“Drive it like a Volkswagen,” Bill called (don’t lug the engine) and sped away at 9:07 a.m. in a small cloud of dust.
I pushed the starter button and shifted into first gear, as Jewell had explained in a tutorial the previous day.
“Hang on Nora,” I said and pressed the accelerator with my shaky right thumb.
Nora stretched out flat with her head up to watch the passing parade.
A scattering of fluffy clouds scudded ahead as we putted along the rutted road. I guessed the temperature at 40-42 degrees with icy 10-15 mph winds. I guessed the altitude at 3,000 feet.
The orange flag on Bill’s machine fluttered a quarter-mile away. I clinched my teeth, shifted to second and third and skimmed the track at 15 mph.
On the wall-steep, rocky or washed-out stretches, I growled along at 3-4 mph.
Bill waited often.
At our pauses, Bill explained what we saw, including Big Poison Butte, snow-covered Elkhorn and Eagle Cap mountains, Swede Spring and so on. He pointed to deer and antelope.
At about 4,500 feet I asked about the many felled juniper trees we passed.
“The BLM cuts them because they use so much water,” Bill said.
Colorful wildflowers bloomed, including big clover, crimson paintbrush, blue lupine and brodiaea.
For lunch Nora and I shared water, cream cheese on a bagel and jerky treats.
In the chill at 4,800-feet, I slipped Nora into her sweater, and Bill spread his wool sweater on the foam pad.
Then we reached the snowdrifts, and Bill scouted ahead.
In half-an-hour he returned to find Nora and me dozing in the sunshine.
“We can pass the next drift OK, and another one we can go around, I think,” Bill said and smiled.
He climbed the hill on foot and fetched Jewell’s ride for me, and we set out again.
Bill zipped past the next drift and waited.
With a scary drop-off on the right, I looked straight ahead.
At the third drift, Bill turned down a steep incline. I followed, for about 10 feet.
The machine tipped forward sharply. I leaned straight back. Nora braced her feet against the front of the basket.
Whoa! I stopped, killed the engine, locked the brake, dismounted and lifted Nora.
We waited for Bill. He walked back and drove the machine around the drift.
The rest of the trip flew by. In a ridge-top windstorm, Bill’s GPS recorded 6,464 feet.
Downhill from there, we stopped often to peruse rock formations, to smell flowers, to hunt ancient artifacts (Bill found, and left, part of a spear point), to watch deer and to contemplate abandoned homesteads.
At a final laser-straight, flat and smooth road, flooded by the sweet scent of lupine, I shifted to fifth gear and cruised at 22 mph.
When we reached DeLong’s place again, we’d put in a solid 12-hour-plus day.
Nora and I enjoyed every minute of it.