Wallowa County doesn’t have a single stoplight, but that’s not going to stop me from appointing myself traffic reporter for the Chieftain, starting right now.
There are a few regional peculiarities to driving in and around the Wallowas. So, in the interest of safe travels during this busy season, let’s review some of the unwritten rules of the road specific to our little corner pocket of Oregon.
There are no rules at all on the Loop Road at the present time. It’s a knife fight out there. Forest Service Road 39, known to friends and travel brochures as the Wallowa Mountain Loop, takes you to and from Joseph and Halfway via miles of tight curves, beautiful country, several world-class pothole gauntlets and views of straight drop-offs down to timbered canyons below, unobstructed by guardrails.
It’s a gorgeous, memorable drive enjoyed by all manner of people on wheels. We got packs of bicyclists churning up those hills. Hells Attorneys and Hells Accountants motorcycle gangs are fond of the 39.
You got your regular cars. Trucks brimming with firewood. Trucks pulling stock trailers. Then there’s motor homes, some of which aren’t much bigger than regular homes that don’t move.
I drive the Loop Road every work day, down to the fish weir on the Imnaha River. The majority of drivers so far this year are being good about sharing the road –– if the ditch counts as part of the road. “I’ll take my half out of the middle” is the best description I’ve heard for how most RV captains portion out available asphalt on the 39 Road.
Meeting an RV on a corner is a lot like a bear encounter. RVs behave similar to a mother bear and instinctively protect their cubs.
The cubs in this case being the entire road. Getting between an RV and the whole road on a corner often results in a “bluff charge,” where the mama motor home tries to establish its territory by initially swinging toward you rather than veering away.
It’s important to stand your ground. Survival experts advise making yourself appear large, and the best way to do this is just not drive off the road. Fleeing may trigger a prey response and pursuit by the enraged RV.
Cayenne-based aerosol repellents are not effective when being charged on a corner by a motor home. You have to spray it out your window, so most of it just blows right back and burns the eyes something terrible.
In the event you are pursued into the ditch by an aggressive motor home, curl into a ball and protect your head and neck. In most cases the RV will cover you with dirt, branches and their insurance information to perhaps come back and feed later.
Another popular trend this year is for bicycles and motorcycles to just stop right on the road. Sometimes on a corner. To rest, stretch, get a drink of water, turn my hair white.
I’m not exactly sure why standing in the road seems like a good idea –– or would be an idea at all –– but I know for sure that many two-wheeled vehicles seem to regard pullouts and road shoulders as if they were lava.
Gravel is the best theory I’ve heard for this otherwise baffling refusal to get off the road. Little rocks must be heck on narrow bike tires and apparently make for poor footing with a motorcycle kickstand.
I may go out there on my days off with a pushbroom and sweep some pullouts, if that’s what it takes. Might have to lay carpet and pad down on the wide spots to convince some of these folks it’s worth the trouble to get out of the way of oncoming traffic.
There’s your traffic report for the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road. Take it slow and be ready to dodge and weave. Next time we’ll discuss how holding an ice cream cone gives you magical powers to walk right into traffic on Main Street in Joseph, how it’s OK to divide the speed limit by half when you’re looking at pretty mountains and the fine art of waving at a rig going by that looks like somebody you know but isn’t.
Everybody be safe out there.
Jon Rombach is a traffic reporter for the Chieftain.