Chopper Charlie: A Wintery Spring

Article and Photos by Charle Weisel

Traveling by motorcycle in the early spring is always a gamble. It’s that time of year when the sun starts to peak out from behind the clouds, the temperatures creep above freezing, and the bird’s melody sounds sweeter than ever before. It’s a trick though, a trick I fall for every year. March rolls around, and suddenly the forecast is showing 70 degrees for two days the following week, and I’m packing my bags. I’m watching the road conditions over the Rockies and the first clear window I see, I’m kickstand up and rolling out. The problem though is that inevitably that window closes, and you find yourself on a snow-packed road due to an overnight storm someplace and questioning why you did this to yourself again. Every year this happens, I feel like I should know better by now. Like clockwork, I found myself in this position once again. You may recall lasts months article where I talked about the challenges of conquering the Burr Trail in Utah, here is the rest of the story…

It was the morning after my day in the dirt; I had opted for a hotel in Tropic, Utah as a shower was very much in order to wash the thick layer of red dirt from my face. I woke to find my bike with a light layer of snow on the saddle and tank but didn’t give a lot of thought to it as the road was clear and dry; it was cold though, barely above freezing. I sucked down a fewsmall cups of vanilla flavored coffee from the hotel lobby, and after a brief conversation with an inquisitive local, I took to the road. The crisp air, immediately reminding me that it was still only March, hit my face like a block of ice and wide awake I immediately became.  After giving myself a few miles to settle into the saddle and find my happy place I started to give it some gas and began hustling down the road at a moderate clip, I had nearly 500 miles of backroads to cover today. I honestly couldn’t remember much about this stretch of road as it had been a few years since being on it and this lapse in memory is what led to my near future demise. Had I remembered that immediately west of Tropic was a small mountain pass I would have chosen to cross it the day before and spend the night elsewhere, but that unfortunately was not the case. As I weaved my way through the first corners and the grade began to increase, I started thinking back to that snow, I found on my bike and wondered if that was a sign of what was to come. As I was thinking this, midway through a shadowy curve, I spotted my first patches of ice on the road. Throttle back, I told myself.  I slowed to 40 miles per hour and began scouring the pavement, still mostly clear at this point but obviously not great in the parts of the road that rarely see the sun. The next corner was dry, leaving me hopeful that I was in the clear. But, like the flip of a switch, the following curves and every stretch of road following for the next 30 miles turned into an ice-skating rink. I quickly began to downshift,trying to stay smooth and not make any sharp movements.

Easy on the clutch I reminded myself. Third gear, second gear, first gear. I was now crawling up the pass at fifteen miles per hour on glassy asphalt, concerned drivers stacking up behind me.  Fortunately, they could all see the predicament I was in and gave me plenty of room. As I crested the top of the pass, the road flattened out, but the ice and snow persisted. It was that crystal-clear ice that is almost hard to see, so I carefully pulled into the shoulder and came to a stop to assess the situation on foot. I dismounted my bike, waited for the cars to pass then walked into the road to see just how slippery it was. Too slippery for anyone with a brain in their head to ride on, I thought to myself. I stood there for a few minutes running through my options, which were limited. I basically had no choice but to carry on or freeze to death standing there. Considering the shoulder had a thin layer of snow on it I opted to ride through that. I’ve learned from experience that snow provides slightly more traction than ice, plus, with the speed, I would be moving I wanted cars to be able to pass me easily. I should note here, that being passed by an 18 wheeler on a snowy two-lane road while doing 15 miles per hour in the shoulder is one of the more nerve-racking experiences imaginable. I carried on like this for nearly two hours until finally, the pavement began to dry out and I soon found myself back up to a normal speed.

I was exhausted.  It wasn’t even lunchtime, and already I felt completely worn out. My goal for the day was to reach the warm desert outside of Kingman, Arizona, where I would meet a handful of friends for a night of camping at an event, called the West Coast Rendezvous, I was determined to get there. It is amazing how quickly adverse conditions can exhaust the body and mind and how quickly Mother Nature will remind us that she still holds the power. In my mind, once I cleared the high passes of the Rocky Mountains, it would be smooth sailing, how wrong I was. Surely in the back of my head, somewhere deep in the archives of my memory bank, I knew this would happen. This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself in a place like this. If I’m being honest with myself though, I love the challenge, and I love the feeling of getting through conditions like that. It’s the same reason I had chosen to ride the Burr Trail the day before.  Besides, if it weren’t for these insane adventures what would I write about?  No one wants to hear about a five-mile ride to the local bike night.  I think the point of this story is that springtime is a double-edged sword. We are awoken from a deep winter slumber with blue skies and warm temperatures only to be sideswiped by yet another frosty storm. I always give a special wave to the other determined moto-travelers I see crossing the mountains in March, usually riding solo as I often do because I know that they are a special breed of traveler, the ones who don’t back down from a challenge and scoff at the concept of “unrideable” conditions. 

For more photos of this trip and others, please follow me on Instagram @charlietravelingchopper


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