Pirate ships and hidden treasures
Crescent City, Calif., Apr. 7—When it comes to sweet roads for riding motorcycles, southern Oregon is a treasure trove of riches. Fifteen minutes from home I can be on a delightful ribbon of asphalt cutting through an avenue of pines and madrones on my way to Hellgate Canyon, whose rugged scenery along the Rogue River has been featured in movies like Rooster Cogburn and The River Wild. One of the most popular roads with motorcyclists in the region is Highway 199, better known as Redwood Highway by locals, an 82-mile stretch that connects Grants Pass, Oregon, with Crescent City, California.
Hearing that the Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain would be harbored at Crescent City for its annual Tall Ships Festival was all the motivation I needed for a road trip to the coast. The two sailing vessels are full-scale replicas with histories that pre-date the Revolutionary War. The original Lady Washington was the first American vessel to make landfall on the West Coast, while its modern counterpart has been seen by many on the big screen thanks to an appearance in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The ships, owned by the non-profit Grays Harbor Historical Seaport out of Washington State, sail up and down the West Coast in the spring and summer, sharing maritime history with visitors in seaports along the way.
For the ride to the coast I was privy to a fine vessel in its own right, a 2018 Indian Springfield. The power of its Thunder Stroke 111 would come in handy on the predominantly two-lane road when the rare opportunity to pass slower traffic arose. Redwood Highway also has more than its share of famously tight turns, a chance for the Springfield’s chassis to shine as the hard-bagged cruiser sports the same cast aluminum frame and swingarm as Indian’s tourers. It’s easy on the eyes, too, from the sparkle of flake in its Metallic Jade paint to the dizzying array of chrome in its engine compartment. The Springfield’s hard saddlebags are deep and spacious, easily capable of housing my standard travel fare, a backpack, rain gear, extra gloves, and camera equipment.
The sense of the day’s adventure heightened with the first chords fired by the monster V-twin beneath me, an infectious energy bellowing out of its big pipes. Before long I’m out of town and banging through gears, enjoying the waves of torque the Springfield’s powerplant unleashes with each twist of the throttle. The Illinois Valley soon opens up ahead of me, the Illinois River and its bounty of the best summertime swimming holes to the right, the peaks of the mountains marking the border between Oregon and California rising to the left. My wife and I make the traditional pit stop at the O’Brien Store, a little market in the middle of nowhere famous for the giant fly that sits atop its restrooms and the old Plymouth police car that sits out front. There are pretty much no patrols in these parts and the running joke among residents is watching out-of-towners get on the brakes when they see the old black-and-white parked roadside.
Redwood Highway literally cuts through the heart of Hazel View Mountain in the form of Collier Tunnel, a 2,000-foot-long tube of incandescent yellow. The Springfield’s exhaust note thunders like the mountain’s heartbeat in the middle of the tunnel. I give the motorcycle’s horn an obligatory honk and cars headed the other direction join the chorus. A handful of miles later the road narrows as the mountains close in. The guardrail on the opposite side of the road bears the scars of bad decisions but has saved countless lives from the deep chasm below. I encounter the first of a series of blind 15-mph turns the Smith River Gorge is known for, and stay tight to the vertical rocky face that buffers the right lane. The closer I get to the coast, the bigger the trees grow as I approach Jedidiah Smith Redwoods State Park. The ancient redwoods hold the course of history in their rings, and this corner of Oregon is the only place in the state you’ll find the earthly giants.
The trip to the ships is worth the ride. Walking on board rolls back the hands of the clock. The complexity of the rigging used to hoist the sails is mind-numbing. Pondering the combinations of sails it would take to properly catch the wind and navigating by the stars at night deepens appreciation for seafaring adventurers of yore. The only thing that could have made the experience better would have been a cameo by Johnny Depp in full Captain Jack Sparrow attire.
With a visit to the ships putting us in a swashbuckling mood, we fired up the bikes and charted a course for Gold Beach, Oregon, a 50-mile romp up historic Highway 101. From February through April, Gold Beach holds its annual Beach Treasure Hunt where it hides glass floats along a three-mile stretch of beach. The floats are fashioned like the ancient mariner net weights used by fishermen. Each week the city hides 120 glass floats in the beach grass and driftwood. Some have tags that can be redeemed at the visitor center for additional prizes.
Just outside Crescent City, yellow signs warn to watch for elk in nearby fields. The air is fresh and salty in the predominantly straight passage between California and Brookings, the first town in coastal Oregon. Beyond Brookings is a roller-coaster ride of elevation changes and big sweepers. The Springfield is rock solid at lean, and it’s easy to see why it has a reputation as the best-handling of the big Indians. Passing lanes are spaced out just enough to maintain a spirited pace. The highway drops from a forested shelf to stunning beaches lined with rocks sculpted by tides, wind and sand. The ocean has been churned to a frothy white by the constantly-crashing waves powered by an offshore storm. Vehicles are parked at roadside turnouts to hidden beaches, tree-lined trails leading to gems like Natural Bridge and Whaleshead Beach.
Gold Beach is hesitant to relinquish its riches, but fortune is on our side as we discover a solitary green glass float hidden deep in the tall grass. The day has been rich in adventure, from pirate ships in Crescent City to treasure hunts in Gold Beach. The final gift comes in the form of the sun overhead and the fact that we get to ride motorcycles through this stunning stretch once again to get back home. 4