Of the many known fruitful wastes of time, TDM most prefers the scanning of topographic maps for hints of adventures yet unimagined. This pastime has resulted in many fine fiascos on the land, sea and streams of four continents, and a few other odd locals spread around the globe. The far-flung missions are the stuff of dreams, but it is often the little explorations closer to home that are the most rewarding… and/or painful. You assume so little of them, these token local oddities, yet there is hope for something impossible and perfect; a discovery of a worthy secret, or a new classic that was right there all along, just waiting for someone to notice. One way or another, they sneak up on you, though we’d like to believe it’s the other way around.
Recently some recreational reconnaissance led me to the area around Santiam Pass; a former favorite local for often unpleasant, but thoroughly satisfying boating adventures, and an area that TDM suspected might offer a few thin dotted lines leading whimsically across the countryside. Closer inspection revealed that the countryside was somewhat steeper (and possibly less whimsical) than I recalled, but the lines were apparent, and thus my imagination, which tends to take a seemingly bad idea and twist it into a grand one, began to draft an itinerary for rides to come. There were several options; a quick loop over Echo Mtn, an Epic circuit around the whole area, combos covering various nooks and crannies. TDM leans toward escalation and so was focusing on the mega loop when an enchanting series of thin dotted lines traversing the flanks of a peak known as Scar Mountain drew attention. Folding the map to allow better scrutiny, TDM lost considerable composure as he counted successive topo lines descending the fringes of this mount….the angles looked perfect for ascending and descending…the aspect was inspiring…the forest looked mature. A victory of speculative quality over quantity was declared…Scar Mountain it is.
Of course, as is seemingly always the case, this sublime episode of obsessive map scouting monthly occurred in the middle of winter, so the reader can insert images of frequent pacing here. Finally, TDM (and surely Pinky) could stand it no more, and in early July the Gunnar hardtail and various PB supplements were placed into the sensible and fuel efficient non-rig, and TDM quietly slipped out of town under the cover of a Friday morning. The scene at the trailhead suggested both the wisdom and the folly of the plan. The trailhead appeared rather abandoned, yet showed a perfect and loamy tread exiting into the hillside above…untouched, perhaps, but apparently made for cycling. A frenzy of preparation ensued, and within moments (due in part the motivating effects of listening to The Sword at volume 11) the car was locked and the Gunnar was rolling uphill at top sustainable speeds. The excitement was short lived, however, and these speeds lasted mere seconds, at which point the reality of the steepness of the climb began to set in. A brief map consultation suggested that, given this new evidence, perhaps these angles were in fact perfect for descending, but a bit oversold for enjoyable climbing. A quick retreat to the parking lot allowed TDM to travel up a nearby paved road, using his well-known preference for loops as a convenient rationalization for weakness of spirit.
The road was a grand idea, and for future rides TDM would proceed in this way. Several miles of pleasant paved single-lane logging road gradually ascended amongst bear grass, old growth doug-fir and legions of rhododendron. Bold views were increasingly prominent, including visions of mounts Hood and Jefferson; logging roads are seldom this enjoyable. After about 6 miles the pitch became marginally steeper, then came to a large quarry area at a pass, which maps suggested would be another trail access. Despite a minor shame-hangover from TDM’s initial spineless retreat, the morning was going well, and TDM had not even ridden the trail yet…perhaps The Logging Road Cyclist was onto something here? While sucking in some PB treats the maps were consulted and compared to the surrounding terrain, and after a moment or two the trailhead was discovered…and it looked promising. Clearly no tires, hooves or shoes had been on it in recent weeks, but the way was clear, apparently well built, and utterly enticing….fuck the road, single track it is.
The first climb was steep and rigorous, but the track was reasonably wide and firm, and TDM pressed on. An open slope was traversed in the granny gears, loose rock stalling the Gunnar, but the views and the Scooby-doo abandoned trail vibe kept TDM from noticing. After a short time a mature forest was entered, the trail got loamy and smooth, and this feeling of fresh discovery washed over the author…this trail was SICK, long, and utterly abandoned. There were sections of short downhills, a few switchbacks, and climbs along gorgeous ridges. A few downed trees and small landslides demonstrated a lack of maintenance, but otherwise things were going well…that is until TDM thought to himself, “hey, this is going well!” At that point, of course, the trail suddenly turned strait up a hill and disappeared into a thicket of brush.
Consultation of the map suggested that a roadwas nearby to the North, but a combination of curiosity, a love of fiasco, and a 40 ft cliff deterred that pathway, so instead the hike-a-biking began. The initial hill climb was too steep for TDM to climb under any circumstances, but was only mostly unpleasant on foot. The brush yielded more easily than appearances might suggest, and so after a short time and 300 feet of elevation gain I began to ride some portions by brail as it traversed along the north-east side of Scar Mtn proper. Once back in the trees the foliage was only armpit high, and the tires could actually feel the trail a bit, so I kept churning up the Mountain, coming into a rocky clearing 100 yards from the top, where cliff-bands, paintbrush, and a clearly defined singletrack hinted at a more appealing future. At the top more food was taken as the map was checked. Viewpoints were discovered, and TDM can verify that Scar Mtns namesake is based more in the existing south facing escarpment of loose soil and rock than from the psychological damage the approaching trail might exact. After taking in the geology TDM briefly documented several vistas and trail views before descending what was assumed incorrectly to be an extended downill effort. 200 glorious yards later TDM was looking up at a rising line of hike-a-bike switchbacks, and formulating sentences with exclusively four letter word componentry. Feeling that there was maybe a pattern here, and recognizing with some horror that TDM’s energy and psyche levels were beginning to dip, the map was once again consulted and a decision was made. An escape via a cowardly little road paralleling only 100 yards to the North seemed the wise choice. TDM was getting a bit weary, and with a long way yet to go a little more road time might pay dividends later on. This move proved wise, leading TDM directly to the top of the first major descent of the day; The west ridge of Scar Mtn.
Along with the legs, TDM’s vision of perfect Oregon trail riding had faded a bit, and it must be said that he paused at the top of this hill and calculated the odds that this section would be as ill-advised as the last. The facts were this; the trail had promise, but as yet had not delivered on that potential. To make things worse, up to now most of the finer moments of the day had occurred on roads…bloody sacrilege. The thought occurred that there was still time to revert the nearby Mckenzie trail, but that seemed a poor substitute for where I now was…there was still a mystery to be solved, and the first major clue lay at TDM’s feet. Plus, the trail here looked a little different. Narrower, yet a bit more defined. Different aspect, different forest…more ferns…TDM likes his ferns…fine. Let’s shred.
And…relief at last… this part of the trail was as amazing as TDM had dreamed. There was a great rhythm, the forest was gorgeous and remote, the riding was classic Oregon high country, and within 30 seconds the buzz was back. There were moments of doubts…a beautiful ridge of volcanic rock where I lost the path for a bit…a few trees down…some bear grass covered sections where I went back to 100% brail guidance, but overall this was what I’d hoped for; backcountry cascades gold. After about three miles I came to an intersection of trails where I had the choice to continue descending well down into a valley, or climb up another ridge on switchbacks. I was running out of time and energy, so after a brief scout of each spur ( about 1 mile on each…both good fun) I decided to head back the way I’d come. There is always a bit of fear that the rolling descent is actually a grind once gravity switches teams, but the climb back out was actually rather casual, and TDM took a few moments here and there to shoot some photos of the vicinity. Back at the top the decision was made to skip the rustic middle section, and use the roads to return to the quarry, where the map suggested I could put in a short punchy climb, then descend for about five miles back to the car…yum.
The gravel road had great views and in fairly short order TDM was back on the trail twisting up a climb that seemed like way more than the estimated 500 ft of vertical gain; must be late in the day? At the top I got my act back together (more maps, more PB, the last of my water), and wondered what the descent would hold. This was the reason I’d come…a rarely sampled descent ending near a small lake. A ridgeline with views in three directions, big trees, and what appeared to be classic CCC singletrack, wide and firm. I thought about the other loops in the area…this next few minutes would likely determine whether I would bother coming back to explore the other offerings…I wanted this to be good, I wanted to have more mysteries worth solving. I wanted to trace more lines on a map and dream of the next summer, but the sum of the day to now was a draw, and this next section had to have the romance to keep me coming back.
The first 200 yards were steep, technical, and would have been some fovorite of the day, if not for the downed trees every 20 yards. Not little trees, mind you. Big, disrupting beasts. I cut my calf on a stub. I scratched my arm on a branch as I broke it off. I thought of turning around, but kept going…TDM needed to know the final verdict. The next section was similar, but had better views, and the trees were less of an issue. The doubts remained, but the fun increased, and then, quite suddenly, I realized that I was going mach 11, flowing down an amazing trail covered in slippery sticks and pinecones, but launching off of rocks, natural berms, and rolls, and hooting to nobody but the elk, and that this stuff had been happening uninterrupted for several miles now.
Scar Mountain was probably more pain than it was worth, but it hinted at something, and TDM is hopeless against that promise. Addiction is built partly on scarcity in that the reward of the activity/drug/behavior must come infrequently and exactly the right time…just before giving up. Golf and gambling rely on this principle, and so do adventures. This final descent, both glorious and flawed was the reward and the reminder that there is gold in these hills, and with some pain, and some mistakes, one might yet find a ride worth spewing about. As for this day, by the time TDM rolled into the parking lot, plans were already being laid for a lifetime of loops around every dotted line in this section of the cascades.