Article By: Chopper Charlie
Originally Published In The June-July 2020 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine
The weather was warm enough when I left Primm, Nevada the morning after watching the historic Mint 400 trophy truck races. It was not balmy by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly not the bone chilling arctic temperatures I’ve grown accustomed to in the past few months. I was pleased with the moderate, almost soothing, air brushing against my skin as I pushed my way through the swinging door of the Buffalo Bills Resort and Casino and immediately looked forward to a nice long lonely day on the open highway. Though it was only 6 am, the sun still not poking holes through the dark night sky, the confident tail wind urged me forward. It was an infinitely enjoyable exit from southern Nevada as I began my 850 mile journey back towards the wintery climate of northern Colorado. I sailed through Las Vegas, its neon lights and flashing signs still enticing the gambler even in these early hours of the day.
Vegas never sleeps. Billboards displaying every sort of show imaginable begged you to stay a while to enjoy the music, magic and mischief. Not me though, it’s not my scene and I had places to be. My headlight shown bright, now fighting against the slowly brightening sky. Sunrise revealed a blanket of grey dense clouds looming overhead. My compass pointed north as my altimeter clicked up and up. The higher elevations quickly brought dropping temperatures. At my first gas stop, 120 miles north of where I had begun, I realized that the future was looking grim. In the time it took me to evacuate my morning coffee the pavement had turned from a dry asphalt blanket to a shower t curtain polka dotted with moisture. A glance towards my intended direction revealed a dark ominous cloud, a glance I immediately regretted. Trying to stay positive and ignoring the fact that the temperature had dropped 20 degrees since I left, now hovering around 40, ignoring the fact that I was almost guaranteed to find rain in the near future and ignoring the fact that I would still be gaining considerably more altitude, I cranked up the heated gear and hit the road. After getting a bit sideways on a wet steel cattle guard, I opened up the throttle and merged onto Interstate 15.
The rain came down in sheets and the deep ruts from heavy truck traffic became rivers. As visibility worsened, edging on dangerous, I slowed to 50 miles per hour. My altimeter was still clicking up and up. It wasn’t long before the thunderous drumming of rain drops on my visor went silent; snow is considerably quieter than any rain. The temperature was now at 30 degrees, my breath quickly fogged my visor with every nervous breath. Cracking the visor open a touch, as that’s the only solution to defogging, is a double edged sword. The gain in visibility comes at the cost of icy cold moisture on your face. Soon the torrent rut rivers I had been avoiding were now my safe zone. They were the only tar colored stripes on the road. The rest had turned white, and white is a no go zone. I pressed on, relentlessly wiping snow from my visor as the flakes were now thick and heavy. Ice was building up on the front of both myself and my motorcycle. Occupants of passing cars stared in disbelief as they adjusted there climate control and cranked up Celine Dion’s newest album. Soon, through the white of everything around me, I spotted the green sign declaring that I had crested the top of the pass and subsequently signaled my soon to be drop in altitude which I assumed would bring some relief. I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
The interesting thing that I’ve learned over the years is that if you are going to be riding in temperatures in the 30’s and 40’s and have to choose between rain and snow, always choose snow. I know this sounds counterintuitive but it is actually considerably warmer. I’m not saying you will be breaking a sweat, but you will ultimately stay drier and therefore a touch warmer. Plus, on the more heavily traveled roads, it is unlikely to create a slippery situation at those temperatures. I, however, had the unfortunate situation of crossing over from rain to snow and back again for the next 400 miles. As I would climb a pass, snow would fall. As I descended a pass the snow would transition its way back to rain. I did this 6 different times. One of the passes was tall enough and long enough that snow was actually starting to accumulate to a measurable depth. It was nerve rattling to say the least. It wasn’t until near the Colorado state line, later that afternoon, that I finally caught some reprieve. The roads dried from the sun making its late debut and the gale force side wind, which would normally drive me nuts, was no bother at all after what I had just gone through.
I stopped in Grand Junction, Colorado to evaluate my time and remaining distance. The decision to either press on to home or stop for the night had to be made right there and then. I had lost an incredible amount of time fighting the elements throughout the day, the sun was low on the horizon and yet another curtain of rain loomed in the distance. All rational logic pointed towards stopping, but logic isn’t my strong suit. I chose to press on, immediately charging into yet another unforgiving torrential downpour. The road now twisty, rutted and littered with pot holes, thanks to a harsh Colorado winters, made for a white knuckle, spine tingling and soggy ride. I made the fateful error of thinking I could get over Vail Pass before the sun rested below the eastern horizon; my nemesis of all passes. I watched the mile markers through my wet visor, it was like staring through a fish bowl, clicking down the miles to the base of Vail Pass. Glenwood Canyon proved to be especially difficult as the road narrowed with encroaching neon orange construction barrels covered with a blackish layer of slushy snow thrown from the tires of passing cars. The Colorado River ran rampant just feet from the steal guard rail to my right. Rain mixed with snow made the tarmac a frothy, oil laden and icy cold river of road spray to my face. I carried on. I paid no attention to the elements doing their damnedest to put a damper on my mood. I smiled through the suck. I flashed my grit covered teeth at dark clouds and shook a happy fist at the rain.
Welcome to Vail. At least I think that’s what the sign said. At this point reading signs was proving to be difficult. In fact seeing anything was proving to be difficult. It was darker than the soul of a serpent and the rain was reflecting obnoxiously through the million lumens of my headlight which made a lethal cocktail of zero visibility. I slowed. I slowed almost to a crawl near the base of Vail Pass as the realization of defeat coursed mockingly through my veins. I was done for the day. I knew damn well there was no way I would cross that pass at this time of day, with this amount of moisture, without getting stuck in the snow halfway up. Carefully removing myself from this volatile situation at the next exit I shifted into first gear and brought myself to a stop in front of the nearest hotel lobby. Guests armed with skis and snowboards cast confused stares in my direction. It was time for a burger, a warm bed and a fresh start in the morning. I didn’t bother setting an alarm for an early start, I knew I had to wait until mid-morning to give the Pass a chance to unthaw. I woke slowly, poured some warm coffee down my throat and brushed the snow from my bike that had fallen overnight. I loaded my bags, wandered around the parking lot for a bit to get my blood flowing, got bored and decided to give it a go. Once again, I merged onto interstate 70. East bound.
The lemon in the sky poked through the clouds threatening to make for a pleasant day. The roads were wet, but it wasn’t raining. The glossy spots led me to believe that ice was still present. There were areas of slush. With all this at play I knew I had better take it slow. I tucked in behind a heavily laden semi-truck, far enough back to not eat its road spray. I was eating enough road spray of my own that was was coming off my unfendered front tire. Actually the spray back was awful. The slush, snow melt, mag chloride, sand and salt combo coated everything. I was quickly covered, head to toe, in a muddy, salty, chemical filled layer of filth unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It was absolutely gnarly. My helmet visor was quickly destroyed from trying to keep it clean. There were now deep scratches from every wipe of the grime. Now with my visor up, I was taking this retched concoction directly to the face. I focused solely on avoiding patches of snow, ice and potholes until I reached the 10,603 foot summit. I finally made it! After my slowest Vail Pass summit in history I finally reached the sign that I hoped would mark smooth sailing to my driveway. It did.
After a quick break in Frisco to get my head back on straight, I meandered casually through the Eisenhower Tunnel, downhill through Georgetown and Idaho Springs and finally back onto the front range where the comfort of my own home was waiting. What I thought would be an uneventful ride to southern Nevada and back proved to be anything but. Sure, the ride there was easy enough, but the return trip proved to be considerably more challenging than I anticipated. But that is what motorcycle trips are all about and it won’t deter me in the future. In fact, it only motivates me to aim higher, up the stakes and dream bigger. I Love every minute of it. “Smile through the suck.” As always, you can follow along in real time on Instagram @travelingchopper and read more adventure stories at roadsareforjourneys.com