"Skinner's Mud Hole" is hardly a name civic boosters would use to attract settlers to a new city. But in 1852 that's what everyone called the township Eugene Franklin Skinner established on the banks of the Willamette. Following his first spring there, when the swollen river had turned the area into a boot-sucking quagmire, Skinner sensibly redrew the town's layout and moved it to higher ground in 1853.
Arriving in Eugene in a chill, late-May downpour, I'm reminded of this historical tidbit as the faithful V-Strom plows through inches of standing water in the dark downtown streets. My search for the Excelsior Inn, near Oregon University, passes several houses draped with sodden yellow-and-green "Go Ducks!" banners. Ducks indeed! I park the Strom and squish my way into the warm, welcoming lobby. The room assigned is equally inviting, and soon I'm revived by a nice hot bath.
The next four days are reserved for explorations of Eugene's environs, out among the Cascade foothills, the Santiam Wilderness and the Coast Range, beyond which some of the prettiest sections of Oregon's Pacific shoreline lie.
Day 1: Bridges too Far
The sun makes an early appearance as I load the Strom, but clouds are piling up in the surrounding hills. First stop is Cottage Grove, a small heritage town 18 miles south of Eugene on 99. Blustery crosswinds buffet the bike, inflating my tank bag's rain cover so much it resembles a wayward weather balloon.
As well as claiming "National Heritage Town" status and "Covered Bridge Capital of the World" (a title many towns in the East might challenge), Cottage Grove was immortalized in the 1926 Buster Keaton movie, The General. The town has returned the favor with the comic's moon-faced visage peering out over its main intersection from a three-story mural.
East to Dorena, where I find the first of the covered bridges, a white-painted wooden "shed" thirty-feet long across the Row River. Not intended as shelter for soggy travelers, the covered bridge shell protects the bridge surface from ice and snow, prolonging its structural life. Climbing into the Cascade foothills alongside the crashing rush of the Row, I exercise the DL650's tires over fast sweeping bends. The road narrows and the river shrinks to a number of small creeks as I wind my way through forest clear-cuts into the clouds - and a hailstorm.
I struggle into my rainsuit. With all the hail, steam from the road, and persistent fog misting my visor, I'm riding almost blind. Hazards loom: rocks, a carpet of soggy pine needles, and - of course - deer. Following the signs for London at the numerous small intersections, I slowly descend from the clouds.
The paved goat path ends suddenly at a T-junction and I'm back on fresh two-lane tarmac. It's 12 miles back to Cottage Grove, where I cross 99 and bear down on Lorane. Sunlight breaks through, and I enjoy a pleasant ramble through small communities, forest glades and farmland. In Lorane, I find Siuslaw River Road for a tight, twisting ride in dense evergreen forest and emerge in a clear-cut wilderness of stumps and stubble. At 20 miles, there's the ominous End County Maintenance sign that usually presages gravel; but a Department of Corrections work camp has taken over responsibility from hereon, and I continue over a wide single lane with fresh chip seal while composing mental salutations to the boys in the Big House!
Tracing the Siuslaw South Fork down into Mapleton, a pleasant collection of riverside recreational properties, I turn east on 36 and follow the North Fork back upstream on a real edge-of-the-tire sportbike road. I push the DL further and further down, though I never get near to dragging any metal - just the odd boot. The upright riding position encourages outrageous lean angles, and because it's not a sportbike, I don't feel the need to put a knee down.
Pale shadows lengthen in the lush fields lining the road. I turn south near Goldson, past Fern Ridge Reservoir, into Veneta where I head east on 126 for Eugene. I'm steaming inside my rainsuit, but a hot shower will still be welcome.
Day 2: Seaside Sojourn
The narrow, twisting Lorane Highway winds through Eugene's hilly southwest suburbs toward Drain. I'm looking for Smith River Road, Douglas County #37.
Although it's not actually raining, an unrelenting "mizzle" coats my visor and slicks the road. The sun is struggling to break through, but the clouds are winning. There are 22 miles of superb forest sweepers before the End County Maintenance sign, and a liberal showering of pine needles blanket the potholed tarmac, making the surface extra slippery.