It’s Sunday morning, and I’m south of Milton-Freewater flying down Highway 11 at 55 mph — wink, wink — getting passed by hordes heading for Pendleton. Half-price day at the Underground Tour? Buffet special at Wildhorse Resort & Casino? Families late for church?
Of course, no cop is in sight.
Wanting to slow down and smell the wild roses in bloom, I turn east on Blue Mountain Station Road and happily head for the “highlands.” No shaggy, long-horned Highland cows here as in northwest Scotland. No Loch Ness and its elusive monster. No red deer, Ben Nevis mountain or waterfalls. No castle ruins. Just rusty farm equipment in rocky corners of wheat fields.
I throw up a dust rooster on the roller-coaster gravel road and then, on the edge of Couse Creek canyon, turn south on Basket Mountain Road. Intensive agriculture abounds. Wheat fields and pastures stretch to the east horizon, where they reach the Blue Mountain forest. Big views and landscapes beckon.
If you like signs, or pavement, or rest areas with flush toilets and free coffee, this is not your road. The only sign I pass warns me the road is closed Dec. 1 to March 31. No signs warn of sharp corners or daredevil cows rambling freely the open range. No guardrails protect the edges of cliffs.
Still for the first while, the road is relatively smooth. The Prius, my version of a mountain rig, makes 20 mph at first. Then slowing to 7, I climb higher into the mountains. The road begins to deteriorate. I’m down to 1 mph, dodging rocks and potholes, when I meet my first rig — a Umatilla County Sheriff’s Deputy out on Sunday patrol. He pulls his large, high-clearance pickup over so the Prius can get past — and kindly doesn’t arrest me for insanity.
The first thing to know about Basket Mountain Road is that it’s not for the faint of heart. The second? You might want a high-clearance vehicle, “a rig.” In a passenger car, like my Prius with about the same amount of clearance as a slug, it takes precision driving to successfully negotiate the obstacle course. But growing up on the ranch, I had plenty of practice with a six-10ths of a mile driveway my dad “improved” with boulders the size of bread loaves mined from the forest.
The farther I go on Basket Mountain Road, the closer I get to my idea of heaven — and the feeling better road must be ahead. Because I’m an eternal optimist, and this road is hell.
Turning around on the ever-narrowing road, even with a car as small as the Prius, would be an exacting challenge. Going back down hill, tail between legs, would take as long, or longer, than completing the loop, I tell myself. So I bump, jar, bounce and jiggle on into the mountains, enjoying a feast for the eyes at every turn.
I keep the windows rolled down for fresh air. It’s the heart of spring, and as I gain elevation, the air gets fresher. Chilly even.
But there are rewards. Occasionally I see and hear meadowlarks, perched on fenceposts, singing their familiar, cheerful song, first whistles then warbles, as they entertain herds of cows. Ribbons of clouds levitate in distant canyons. Typical Blue Mountains features: Thousands of feet of arresting vertical. Forest on north-facing slopes. Open meadows on south- and west-facing slopes. Fields splashed with color — lupine and sunflower-looking florals (some form of balsamroot?) are a treat for the eyes when I dare look away from the potholes.
Up higher, ruts carve a meadow immediately north of the road. Big boys and girls have been here playing with their four-wheel-drive toys. No pickups are stuck in the mud bogs, but evidence is ample that some came perilously close.
Choosing the path of least resistance, I lumber up the road. I dodge the bigger rocks and mud holes until at one point, near the forest, I reach “Lake Superior” in the middle of the lane. I stop the car for a moment’s contemplation — and scouting. No telling how deep the water is, or what road damage exists under the surface. I pick the left side, say a prayer, and hope the Prius doesn’t sink to the rearview mirror. A bit unnerved, I go slow and steady, emerge on dry ground and heave a sigh of relief.
Entering the forest, at last, crossing a couple of cattleguards that rattle tooth fillings, I enjoy a change of scenery. A blue-colored jay gives a robust squawk and flies from a ponderosa pine. A whitetail deer noses around in the underbrush. How many other hidden critters have their eyes on me and my dusty, muddy, sad excuse for a low-flung rig?
Finally, I meet a couple of pickups pulled off to the side of the road. I’m envious of their high clearance and big wheels. The men wear leather boots, and one woman has a buck knife attached to her hip. People out hunting morel mushrooms? Scouting for elk? Aiming for a chance to be a hero and pull a Prius from a mud bog?
Soon the road, now in deep woods, begins to improve. I finally reach “civilization” — a couple of cleverly hidden houses — and then the Elgin Highway (Highway 204) about 10 miles east of Weston. It’s a shock to accelerate back to 55 — wink, wink — and keep up with the flow of determined Sunday drivers.
The Basket Mountain loop takes a few hours. It requires some wrestling with the steering wheel, but adventure awaits those who love the Blue Mountain version of the “highlands” — and don’t mind getting a bit shook up.