ODESSA, Wash. – The canon that boomed Sunday at 9:30 a.m. triggered a buzz and rumble over the sage-covered desert as though Rommel had zeroed in on Lincoln County. The roar accelerated down a sweeping hillside into a billowing dust cloud from which scattered bodies were crashing to the ground.
The 38th annual Desert 100 dirt bike race unleashed about 780 motorcycles on a 53-mile course studded with boulders, badger holes, basalt outcroppings, dirt bogs and plank-board bridges over a swollen Crab Creek that swallowed more than a few hapless riders.
The Sunday race followed a Saturday “poker ride” of up to 78 miles in a somewhat slower family-style event that involved more than 2,600 riders, said Tom Jesmer, race spokesman from the Bothel-based Stumpjumpers motorcycle club.
“I couldn’t ride today if I wanted to,” 14-year-old Cragen Ray, of Boise, said Sunday morning. “My hands are so sore from riding Saturday, I can’t squeeze them.”
The Desert 100 sprouts from an instant weekend city of roughly 5,000 people who set up camp off State Highway 28 seven miles west of Odessa.
“This camp is about six times bigger (in population) than Odessa,” said Jason Schumacher who was selling his local company’s sausage and brats from a tent among the RVs. “It’s the spring jump-start for our business, our second biggest event next to the Deutschesfest.”
“It’s absolutely the busiest day of the year for us,” said Dr. Linda Powell, Odessa’s only physician. “Our physician’s assistant and nurse practitioner, we all work this weekend because we see more cases in these two days than we normally see in a month.”
Broken clavicles are among the most common injuries, she said, noting that “most of them say they couldn’t see through the dust and then went flying over their handlebars after hitting a rock or something.”
Powell said about 30 injured riders came through the Odessa Hospital over the weekend, but others were air-lifted by helicopter directly to hospitals in Moses Lake and Wenatchee.
“And some of them just limp home without seeing anybody,” she said.
Even Kevin Parker of Cle Elum, winner of the two-lap 106-mile event, said he wiped out four times during his three-hour ride.
“It was wild out there – I had a bunch of deer running in front of me on the first lap,” said Parker, 26, who has won three consecutive Desert 100s.
The Stumpjumpers started the race in 1969 in the Mattawa area. But they’ve had to move to several venues over the years as state and federal land-use polices got more restrictive until they found a home on the Wes King Ranch five years ago.
“We keep getting bounced off of public land,” Jesmer said.
Gary Schoessler, who participated in the race in the ‘70s, agreed to let the event expand onto his property after buying range land next to the King Ranch.
“I had to force my opinion on a few things to make it safer on my land,” he said. “But I think the club is doing a good job this year.”
While the race leaves deep scars and dust lanes on the dry range land, Schoessler said he’s not concerned about weeds or other impacts. “I just want them to be safe,” he said.
Riders finishing tended to describe the race as either “awesome” or “brutal.”
Northwest MedStar helicopter staffer Kirk Brubaker had some more valuable advice for the rider he comforted and joked with until he was stabilized and ready to be strapped on a board and loaded into his helicopter.
“All my buddies who race have joined our club,” he said, referring to MedStar’s critical care transport insurance program. “For $150 bucks, you can go for three years and not have to worry how much this is going to cost.”