Story and photography by Ben Getz
“Athena, hand me my kilt and go saddle the wombat!” Now there’s a visual for you; straight from a late night, over-spiced, Haggis gone bad perhaps? No, merely a line possibly heard in the small Oregon township of Athena during the sweaty days of summer. The second weekend in July hosts the annual “Caledonian Games,” an entire weekend of all things Scottish that have been held since 1976. Even if Tartan and pipes are not “your bag,” if you have never experienced this type of clan gathering it really must be tried once.
Additionally, two weekends before the games you will be treated to another important event, the annual Hodaka Days celebration. The brand that gave the world a model lineup sporting such names as Combat Wombat, Road Toad and Dirt Squirt was based here in tiny Athena. With a rich history and rabidly strong owner/fan base, Hodaka wholes and parts are now sought after items around the globe. This event brings aficionados from near and far abroad to see and hear the machines and often celebrity speakers in the world of offroad riding.
If you’re not interested in slices of either of those pies, there is another sweet side to Athena that certainly endears it to many—excellent roads for two-wheeled exploration. So exploring we go, striking east from Athena and crossing SR 11, bound for nearby Weston as we carve out a 190-mile loop astride my trusty 2005 Kawasaki ZX-10R “Nekkid” Hybrid. Boasting notoriety as the third-oldest township in Oregon, Weston has some interesting restored historic buildings to gaze upon, yet tarry not long as SR 204/Weston-Elgin Highway lies but one turn away.
Railing riders steeply eastward on a fast and forested climb across Tollgate Pass, the increased elevation punctuates itself with a steady drop in ambient air temperature with every curvaceous mile ascended. One can leave mid 90s in Athena and see refreshing 70s at the summit, yet this also means that early or late in the season snow and ice can lurk in the shaded corners, so use caution.
Near the summit, for adventuresome dual-sport riders or those who don’t mind rattling loose a part or two from their street bikes, a short side jaunt to Jubilee Lake might be an option. Enduring eight miles on washboard gravel, riders can visit this cerulean alpine lake and camping area. Motorized boats are not allowed, which only adds to a restful, idyllic atmosphere while one takes a break from summer’s heat.
Continuing southeast on 204 and finishing off Tollgate (as delicious as the cookies of that variety), you pass through another diminutive Oregonian colony, Elgin, to pick up the turn southward onto SR 82. Running from Elgin to LaGrande on rather sedate asphalt, it eventually bisects the latter town and allows easy access to Interstate 84/U.S. 30. Now, I am not one for recommending freeways at all unless absolutely necessary; however the next 30 miles are actually some very enjoyable interstate.
Roiling quickly away from the flatter terrain around LaGrande, it climbs playfully while surrounded by tall pines on fast, sweeping turns through national forest. Dodging a few semis and their inherent hazardous leavings of separated retreads, its wide lanes and pleasant scenery quickly transport you to Cabbage Hill Summit. Also known as Emigrant Hill, there are sections of the Old Emigrant Highway that are accessible. However, while much twistier and with much less traffic, the OEH can be piebald and potholed enough that you may prefer staying on I-84.
Another side foray option is afforded at the exit to Meacham, where a few miles of nicely laid curves deposit you in this historic pioneer hamlet where you may or may not find food, fuel or lodgings…these amenities are transient. A historical marker is at least a constant attesting to the fact that on July 3, 1923, Meacham was the “Official Capitol of the United States” when President Warren G. Harding stopped for a day (I’d wager they had food then!).
Heading north again on I-84 we are treated to an exciting plunge into the Pendleton Valley. Though short lived, more sweepers combined with a 6 percent grade make the downhill slalom nerve-racking for 18-wheelers, but giggle inducing for two-wheelers…and did I mention the temperature rises with each yard of travel? A cool respite is soon available as you roll into Pendleton, famed home of fine woolen products and the infamous Pendleton Round-up Rodeo.
“Old” downtown Pendleton is a charming place to visit and holds a few surprises for all, even noncowboy types. In a rather “you have to see it to believe it” way, Hamley’s (famed maker of saddles for rides of the one horsepower variety since 1883) tops the list. Between the amazing art collection and period authentic decor, to state-of-the-art wine cellar and 500-seat Slick Fork Saloon, the entire establishment is a real jaw-dropper.
Tearing oneself away from the visual and gastronomic treats of Hamley’s, there are still a few tarmac treats in store. Steering north toward the Pendleton airport and onto SR 37, settle in and hold on for a splendid panorama of rolling wheat fields as you climb steadily up the Pendleton-Cold Springs Highway. Always warming to my heart, the Cold Springs road bucks and romps while its smooth asphalt stimulates the pleasure center of the brain; a road so nice you’ll want to ride it twice.
Ending at the Columbia River’s Hat Rock State Park, there is ample turnaround room; after doubling back you should look for the signage onto local roads back to Athena via Helix, or if you miss that, a few miles later proceed straight through on the Athena-Holdman Highway. Either route, though mostly straight, playfully rises and falls across the agrarian terrain through mixed fields of wheat and fragrant mint interspersed with signs declaring this an “Escape Route.”
With the proximity to the west of both the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and Umatilla Chemical Munitions Depot, these runwaylike back roads were deemed as potential salvation for tens of thousands of local residents needing to beat a hasty retreat in a worst-case scenario. For riders rolling back into Athena, however, they provide a much less ominous escape-from-reality route, one that never fails to bring a smile to the lips. Haggis anyone?