story and photography by Ben Getz
What distinction does this nondescript cow town in the arid foothills of Oregon’s northeast corner bring to the table among dozens of similar depots of dwindling civilization? Perhaps only, and all that is needed, is its proximity to Dooley Pass. (Dooley noted?)
Situated in a crook of U.S. 26, Unity lies quietly in wait of passersby. Accompanied by my wife Mari on her 2006 Kawasaki Ninja 650R, we set out for a little two-wheeled togetherness. This “one dog town” has an equal number of gas pumps, which makes the fuel station/general store a welcome sight if one has been playing hard on the “noise handle” of their machine. Only recently under new ownership, the Unity 26 Country Store is a motorcycle friendly haven for the increasing number of cruiser/sport/dual-sport riders who come through, and also has cabins and RV spaces available. A new deck area will be specifically aimed at giving riders a nice place to take a break and enjoy some of the food and drink options they offer.
Filling up on the highest grade fuel available, those who have traveled this way before begin the task of mentally preparing for what is ahead. The one mile of back track on SR 26 for the preamble on SR 245 past the serene blueness of Unity Lake and along the pastoral run of rough road to Hereford (really another cow town), do nothing to prepare the uninitiated for the ruckus that is soon to begin. Rolling sedately a few miles along the 45th parallel, one’s olfactory nerves are plucked like banjo strings between strains of fresh cow dung, wheat grass and the welcome and reoccurring waft of mint. At least the cows have fresh breath.
The turn to the north is actually more like a turn “up.” Upon you as swiftly as the large cougars that frequent these hills, this asphalt ascent, at times narrow and dirty, requires use of not more than two gears on most street bikes. Often labeled as Oregon’s “Little Dragon,” the staccato rhythm of the road throws 188 curves rated for 10-25 mph at the rider in its relatively short run of about 15 miles.
Smooth is the operative word here, which describes both the road’s fairly new asphalt and the steering and throttle inputs required to NOT go hurtling over the mostly unguarded edges of this steep, 5,400-foot mountain pass. Surrounded by thick pine forest not yet logged into oblivion, an occasional glimpse through the trees yields an expanding green vista below, and you really begin to get a sense of the altitude gained.
Once headed down the other side, the gradient is more gradual yet the tight, blind bends just keep on coming! Having ridden this road a few times with novice riders in tow, it can be a bit daunting and exhausting, but there is no better teacher than experience. Eventually the pass relaxes its spasmodic grip on your nerves and flows to a definite tee into SR 7. Here, a turn east will render in less than 10 miles the haven of Baker City and all of the comfortable amenities one can desire if you seek dining and hotel accommodations. We, however, must heed the sage advice to, “Go west young man…err, older people.”
Unlike our previous romp, SR 7 is downright relaxing and soothing in some short sections, thus gladly the pace is sightseeing slow while sailing past picturesque Phillips Lake and tooling up and over one pine crested rise after another. A quick glance at a roadside attraction makes us hit the binders and turn around for a second look. Seeming odd here in the middle of pastoral Oregon, a timely and wise quotation on a monument to famed Chief Seattle gives cause to pause and ponder beside a gently burbling stream.
Back onto two wheels, floating as a newborn spiderling adrift on a strand of silk, our journey continues with an added sense of enrichment. As the road approaches the fork that offers the path toward Sumpter and Granite, SR 7 bears riders southward and immediately arches its smoothly asphalted back to again throw in more curves of the tighter variety until the all-too-soon stop at Austin Junction. The ride down toward the flatter plains offers a fairly spectacular view of the surrounding mountain ranges and valley floor farmsteads, while an assortment of fellow motorcycle enthusiasts enthusiastically share the road.
In the ovenlike heat of summer that often bakes this terrain (maybe how “Baker” City got its name), the watering hole that is the Austin House Café and Country Store seems like a good place to cool our heels for a bit. A wise choice indeed, for inside one finds a warm staff and cold water, all the better to wash down cold, homemade huckleberry ice cream or cobbler.
While cooling the inner coils of the intestines you must take time to soothe your eyes upon the beautiful solid mahogany bar that has resided here since 1959. Created in Chicago in 1864, these mahogany maidens took the long way ’round, via the horn of South America, to get to this resting place. It has seen nearly a century and a half of elbows and was used heavily when Austin Junction was a booming logging town.
Speaking of logs, it is time to add more miles to ours, so after gassing up, we take the eastern heading onto U.S. 26 as it continues to wring its way across this stretch of the Blue Mountains. There are free maps of the entire on- and offroad area provided by www.comeridewithus.net available at both the Austin and Unity stops.
Again we are blessed by a major state route that has been constricted and twisted to conform to the terrain, as it serves up blissfully banked corners amid the cooling pines and firs. Weaving around the congestion of a few state parks and numerous campground entrances, our appreciation of this entertainment is brought to an abrupt end as we are spat out upon the straight, flat grasslands. But wait…there is the turn-off to SR 245 and Unity once again after riding only 120 miles so far…the day is young, and we have become even closer thanks to Unity.
Austin House Café and Country Store (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays), P.O. Box 9, Bates, Oregon 97817; Junction of Highways 26 and 7; (541) 448-2526; www.austinhousecafecountrystore.com
Unity 26 Country Store, 304 Main Street, Unity, Oregon 97884; (541) 446-3636