Monday, September 29, 2008

Riders of the Purple Sage – with apologies to Zane Grey

The Riders!
The ride into Bruneau Canyon Idaho is an adventure no matter how you get there. You can walk (not recommended), raft (only at certain times of the year), drive (pickup or SUV only) or ride a dirt bike.  The latter is the fastest and most fun way to do it.  You can approach from all four cardinal points but I am only familiar with two, North and South.  I can safely guess all are very much the same with the exception of the southern approach.  

From the north, east and west you must travel 30-60 miles of high desert gravel and dirt road to reach it.  The southern route is a few miles longer and you must travel through the tiny old mining town of Jarbridge, Nevada in the mountains.  From all directions you will encounter miles of sagebrush.  Yes, it’s sage of the purple kind. If you have been there before, its sight and smell will alert your senses to impending adventures of the rugged, beautiful kind.

In the mid-70’s, Charlie Brown, Jack Ohl and I were stationed at Mountain Home, an Air Force fighter base about half way between Bruneau Canyon and Boise Idaho.  We were all hospital administrators; “pencil-pushing” medics there doing what was right for God and country.  Well, maybe just country.  

Mountain Home was pretty isolated and flat (as in 50 miles from the nearest McDonalds restaurant in Boise).  In our off time we could either die from boredom or find some activities to suit us and get on with it.  There were, and still are, plenty of great outdoor activities there.  Things like mountain hiking, snow and water skiing, fishing, white-water rafting and dirt bike riding.  We tried many of them together and often included our families. Toward the end of our roughly three year tours there Charlie, Jack and I ended up riding dirt bikes whenever we had a chance.  

“Leadbelly” introduced us to riding.  His real name was Jerry Salsberry.  Jerry was a civilian warehouseman in our hospital supply department.  He was very intelligent and had a deep love for the simple things in life.  As a result, Jerry couldn’t be bothered by advanced education. At one time, he had been married to a PhD and he could spit out high-brow words with the best of them. He wasn’t concerned about climbing proverbial career ladders either.  To him life meant smoking, drinking, singing and riding dirt bikes.

We all kind of took to Jerry in admiration of his love of the outdoors.  He in turn decided to mentor Jack (they were both "box-kickers") first, then Charlie and I in the art of riding dirt bikes.  That meant he would ride like hell into the high desert, through the purple sage, then stop for a smoke and beer while waiting for us to catch up.  Those days were a little before small portable coolers were invented so we would carry drinks and food by improvising with whatever we could.  Usually it was just warm beer that had been getting tossed around in backpacks we wore while we rode.
During a hard ride it was delicious every time.

Jerry would get a little carried away with the beer part once in a while and become accident prone.  That accounted for a few (maybe all) of his barb wire fence scars.  

Jerry also had a great singing voice, low-pitched and in tune all the time.  That's why we called him "Leadbelly" (in reference to the famous blues singer) as testimony to his ability. At campsites, he would hit us with ballads like "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and "Long Black Veil".  His rendition of the "'Veil" would send chills up and down your spine.   
The little horizontal white line you see behind Leadbelly's back that runs off his left forearm is the road descending into the canyon.

We all rode “Thumpers”; Honda dirt bikes with four-stroke engines.  We preferred four stroke engines for two reasons.  First, they were pretty much bullet proof.  You could ride them anywhere, all day long, day after day, week after week without performing maintenance other than oiling the chain and changing the oil.  Most of the time we even forgot those two chores.  We just rode them, fell over with them, lost them down mountainsides, ran them into things and generally appreciated that they bore the brunt of any riding mistakes we made.

The second reason we rode four stroke engines was the sound they made, especially on high torque, low speed climbs.  If you had the right aftermarket exhaust pipe (never the quiet, factory type) you got a “thump, thump, thump” sound that was a perfect match for your testosterone level. This was in pretty stark contrast to the “ring-ding” of a two-stroke.  We knew “ring-dings” were faster but that didn’t faze us.  We wanted to ride the tough sounding thumpers that in comparison sounded meaner and required little to no maintenance; "bullet proof" (Yup, there I have it again for emphasis.)

One of the first rules we learned was; “When you are about to crash get away from the bike as quickly as possible.  The bike is made of metal.  It has heavy, sharp, hot, things bolted on it and “it can hurt you.”  One day Leadbelly and I were out for a short training ride of sorts and, while at fairly slow speed… I got a little tangled up.   I was trying to coordinate wheels and handlebars on a slow turn and fell over.  I didn’t react quickly enough so ended up with most of my left leg under the bike.  I couldn’t get enough purchase or leverage on the flat ground to get up so I was stuck.  The bike was pretty hot but I didn’t smell anything (like my leg) burning.

Leadbelly rode over, looked down and asked if I was all right.  I said I thought so.  Rather than help me get out by lifting the bike a little, he laughed and rode away leaving me to figure it out for myself.  Such was the nature of his riding lessons. 

For a couple of years, we rode all over southern Idaho; the Bruneau sand dunes, the old mining town of Silver City (and yes, walked into a bar there), Devil’s Hole on the south fork of the Boise River and of course, into Bruneau Canyon.  All the adventures were great but Bruneau Canyon would end up being first in our thoughts whenever we were able to break away for a weekend.

The Campsite and The Ride In
I peek out of the sleeping bag just as the sun meets the horizon…'damn, I was up too late last night drinking and singing and telling lies around the campfire.  Have to get up though; can’t wait for the day to unfold.'  Start the camp stove and boil water for coffee.  Step away from camp a little for nature’s call to water down some sage.  Shuffle back to the fire and restoke it a little… not too much because we will be heading out right after breakfast.  Squeeze out some paste, hang the toothbrush under the water jug and do a messy job of brushing teeth. Wake up Leadbelly.  He’s the lead cook.  He usually brings butterflied venison tenderloins in a cooler and a jug of sliced potatoes soaking in water.  “They fry up better that way”.   We supply the other essentials; eggs, utensils, plates and condiments.  

The other three start stirring.  Charlie wants to hang around camp and go through some elaborate preparations before departing.  Jack wants to jump on the bike and head out before doing anything else including eating and checking to see if he has any gas in his tank.  He fires up his “Thumper” and heads out to do a little reconnoitering before breakfast.   Jack has one more synapse than the rest of us.  It makes him constantly fired up about getting in the middle of the action as fast as possible, including the ride into Bruneau Canyon this morning.

We calm Jack down a little and he gets the potatoes and onions going.  He can peel and cut up an onion into a frying pan almost as quick as a gunslinger can draw.    

I am not far behind Jack in the “fired up” category. Charlie fusses over something.  I hump stuff for the breakfast while Leadbelly and Jack cook.  I want to be done, clean up the gear a little and be gone… real quick.

When we finally finish breakfast, we get packed up with beer, sandwiches and other essentials and begin starting the bikes.  Either Jack or Jerry will have a problem getting their bike started.  It’s something you can rely on.

While both are damn fine mechanics, neither enjoys working on their own bikes.  So, their bikes break a lot.  No problem though as the four of us sort of build the delay for repairs into our mental agendas.  Finally, all four are running and we head out; eighteen miles to the canyon rim.  It’s an amazing way to start the day.  The route is west into the canyon so the sun is at our back.  The air is crisp and redolent with sage.  The sky is crystal clear. 

There are stretches of old road you can wind the bike up in but much of the trail is strewn with softball to bowling ball sized rocks.  You have to pick your way through many spots.  Well… except for Leadbelly who goes full bore no matter what condition the road is in.  Typically, by the time all of us reach the canyon rim, he has stopped to have his morning beer and cigarette and he still beats us there.  Sometimes he heads down the trail over a quarter of a mile into the canyon before we get there.  We can hear his Thumper echo off the canyon walls as he gets on and off the throttle at various points during his descent.  After a short rest stop at the rim, the rest of us ride in. 

Bruneau Canyon
At the canyon floor, we are all captivated by four remarkable natural features; the river, the canyon, the hot springs and the jasper.  The Jarbridge River is typically pretty shallow in the late spring and fall and we time our runs to fit.  This way we can usually find spots that are shallow and narrow enough to ride and hike through.  It has beautiful, clear water and you can see trout lounging around in its holes although they are usually not too interested in bait.  The canyon has steep walls that rise as high as 800 feet. In most places we explore, the floor is half or less as wide.  It is actually 60 miles long but we cover maybe a couple of miles of it in our explorations… we are happy with that. 

“Indian Hot Springs” emerges from the side of a slope about 100 feet above the canyon floor.  From there, steaming hot water flows into the cold river. If you investigate you can find a comfortable water temperature just a few feet downriver from where the two merge.  In fact, after a hard day of riding and exploring we would often lay in the river at that very spot.  With our backs pointed upriver and without changing position, we could use our arms as rudders to guide the flow. We did it by moving our left arm out to draw in more hot water and right out to draw in more cold water. 

After hanging around in the canyon and at the camp a couple days we were always sorely in need of a bath.  As it happened, there was a bathtub in a small niche in the canyon wall about 15 feet from the hot springs.  We figured some old miner had brought it in.  Whoever had done it had also cleverly placed an aluminum rain gutter on the premises.  We could put one end of the gutter in the hot springs and one end on the bathtub to fill it up. This provided a mini-aqueduct that worked pretty fast.  After waiting a while for the water to cool off, we could then take a hot bath.  We could also wash out some trail clothes.
Two hand polished specimens...
approximately 5" each across at the base.

The most intriguing part of Bruneau Canyon is its jasper veins.  They produce a one-of-a-kind combination butterscotch and tan pattern known as (of course) Bruneau Jasper.  The jasper was formed thousands of years ago by mud dripping into gas pockets in molten lava, becoming super-heated and then solidifying into a swirl-pattern. On a small plateau about half way up the canyon wall there was a mine that was occasionally worked although we rarely saw anyone there.  The jasper was typically mined using dynamite to free the geodes.  We soon figured out we could score by searching in the blast tailings on the canyon floor below the mines so we hit all nearby ravines. In the course of several trips, we each picked up some fine specimens.

Just before sunset, we would do a mad dash back to the camp site.  We usually had backpacks filled with rocks and they would beat us up a little bouncing around on our backs but we had no complaints.  Our main objective was the camp site and some ice cold beer, a camp cooked dinner, some singing around the campfire and swapping some tales that grew taller as the evening wore on.

So that’s who we were, modern day “Riders of the Purple Sage." To me, this is the best way to make your bones in the motorcycle world.  Sure you must take safety classes as well but you also need to cultivate some instincts for counter steering, rapid evasive maneuvers and getting away from the bike when a crash is a certainty.  If you get to learn all this in southern Idaho, in the company of the Riders of the Purple Sage, you are truly a fortunate person. 

Not a grey hair in the bunch.  Damn, them there were the days!
L-R - 2018 update: Tom Campbell, Major, USAF, MSC, Ret; Jerry Salsberry, GS (RIP), Jack Ohl, Captain, USAF, MSC, Ret, Charles W. Brown III, Colonel, USAF, MSC, Ret

A few years after Charlie, Jack and I and our families went our separate ways with Air Force career assignments, we learned Jerry had passed away.  He was in his mid-fifties but I think we would all agree he packed two or three full lives into his time. This one is for you Leadbelly. We miss you.


Ripper1 said...

In the last picture Charlie holds arguably one of the finest specimens of Bruneau Jasper ever unearthed on the trips. It is now displayed in the foyer of his home in Monument, CO. He always said he only wanted one good piece.

TomC said...

Thanks for dropping a comment on here CB! Those were truly the good old days. I can Hear Leadbelly laughing and saying, "Yeah, they were stealthy too!"

bd said...

Thanks Tom! you really brought back some memories. I rode dirt bikes in Tulsa along the Arkansas river for a few years with some of my buddies and miss it greatly. Now in Denver a weekend rarely goes by that I don't think about picking one up for some of the great trail riding that I've heard about in the mountains. Momma says not until I get rid of my windsurfing gear that I brought from Florida (for some ridiculous reason) LOL!

Take care and keep up the great stories.