For New England natives like us, certain things become a fabric of your being. Using the word “wicked” without talking about witches, for example, or understanding that “dunkin” is a place as well as an action. And you become intimately familiar with cold weather.
A note from Spurgeon: I've been reading stories by Ari Henning and Zack Courts in the motorcycle press since before I was in the business myself. While I meet a lot of interesting people, there are very few that I refer to as my friends, like Ari and Zack. So I am proud to welcome them as our newest Common Tread contributors. The following is the story of their latest episode of Throttle Out. See the full 27-minute video at MotorTrend On Demand. You can find Ari and Zack on social media at @arihenning211 and @zackcourts.
As motorcyclists, living in the northern states also means being familiar with the agony of winterizing your motorcycle, which is a big reason we both relocated to sunny Southern California years ago, the hallowed land of year-round riding.
Even though we opted to avoid winter altogether, there are in fact hardy folk in the two-wheel community who square up and confront the cold. We learned about one particular group that for the past 23 years has gathered at the base of Washington’s Mt. Rainier in January, to camp out and go on a motorcycle ride — weather be damned. They call it Snow Camp, and we thought that riding up from Portland, Oregon to meet up with these winter warriors would be a fitting way to revisit our frozen childhoods and perhaps pay some penance for wearing nothing heavier than a hooded sweatshirt through SoCal winters.
First, we needed bikes. What does $4,400 get you on Portland Craigslist? A rusty Subaru Outback with a Grateful Dead bumper sticker, or two vintage dual-sports. We obviously opted for the latter, and ended up with a surprisingly clean Yamaha TW200 for Ari and an especially haggard Kawasaki KLR650 for Zack that we bought sight unseen. True to their bulletproof reputations, both engines wheezed to life with just a touch of choke, and with our camping kit lashed to the passenger seats we set out through Bridge City under quintessentially cloudy skies.
A good KLR650 doesn’t exactly have superbike-spec brakes to begin with, but these were frighteningly bad — probably because the fork had barfed its oil all over the caliper and disc. The TW’s drum brake wasn’t much better, but at least it only had to slow down a seven-eighths-sized machine. We stopped at Voodoo Doughnuts for lunch then meandered away from the Willamette River, through the suburbs, and out to the Columbia River Gorge. The river valley was teeming with clouds, granite cliffs shrouded in fog, waterfalls pouring over snow-spattered stone, and before long our gear was shedding full-fledged raindrops. The wind whipped away body heat and we struggled to see the road through misty visors.
We crossed the Bridge of the Gods into Washington state, gaining elevation as we climbed into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The foggy sky darkened to a degree that suggested the sun had finally set, and the slurry falling from the sky turned from mostly rain to entirely snow. With each mile the white stuff grew thicker on the road — pretty soon there was no avoiding it. We skated, slid, and spun our way up the road, and while it made us laugh at first, the novelty wore off once we realized how far we still were from our hotel. Riding in the snowy darkness, we flipped on the KLR’s misaligned fog lights to help us see through our foggy face shields. It didn’t help much. We’d already been cold for hours, and with night setting in things were getting dire.
Our frigid bodies were tense, our reaction times were slow, and our “waterproof” jeans had long since soaked through and were now funneling water into our boots. We didn’t fall down, but we came close on a few occasions. Even the Toyota 4Runner we had trailing us with the camera crew was struggling to keep it on the road and the hotel was still more than an hour away. Abandoning your machine is the last thing any motorcyclist wants to do, especially when you’re being filmed, but it felt like we were putting our whole trip in jeopardy to push through the icy conditions. So, after a few minutes of deliberation and a heavy dose of two-wheeled shame, we parked the bikes on the side of a snowbank and crawled inside the already cramped camera car. When we finally climbed the stairs to our hotel room — clutching the railings and wobbling like newborn deer — we had a clear illustration of how quickly riding in cold, inclement weather can go from adventurous to dangerous.
Luckily, the machines were still there the next morning, albeit with a fresh blanket of snow keeping them camouflaged. The previous night’s struggle made some things very clear. Namely that numb, stiff fingers don’t make riding a motorcycle any easier. Knowing warmer hands were key, we scrounged some reflective insulation from a hardware store and fashioned hand guards to keep the wind, rain, and snow off our mitts. They looked goofy but worked great, and without pouring rain we made good time. As we approached Snow Camp we were sick of asphalt and intoxicated with the beauty of Washington state, and so we veered into the foothills of Mt. Rainier to put something softer under the KLR and TW’s tires.
The bikes’ worn knobbies were noisy on pavement and slippery in the snow, but in the dirt they finally felt right. The TW’s monster-truck buns never wanted for traction and the KLR did what KLRs do: hammered over or through everything in its way. Under a canopy of dripping evergreens, we bounded up a rocky fire road that narrowed to muddy double-track, then tapered to single-track, and finally fizzled out at the top of a quarry cliff. The effort of wrangling our machines warmed our bodies and brightened our spirits. Compared to the frigid, slick sufferfest of the night before, this riding was pure joy. We could have kept at it for hours, but we still had miles to go to get to Snow Camp.
On an obscure stretch of two-lane tarmac running through a valley of sky-scraping pines, we turned into the entrance of a quiet campground. We rolled in wondering if we were in the right place, but soon felt more at home than we had in days. Under the sopping trees we saw a handsome example of Honda’s XR650, an airhead BMW propped up next to a simple tent, and even a Suzuki Gladius with knobbies. The group of people we found lounging around the fire pit were what you would expect — bundled up, smiling, and talking about bikes.
The campers stuffed us with homemade comfort foods and gave us a slice of the ceremonial cake that is devoured each January. We caught up with Rolf, a German emigrant and the messiah of Snow Camp. He modeled the get-together after the Elefantentreffen, or Elephant Rally; a motorcycle gathering in the dead of Bavarian winter that attracts thousands of people eager to show winter that it can’t stop two-wheeled fun. Rolf started Snow Camp in the 1990s with a handful of friends, and they’ve continued the tradition for more than 20 years. A dozen other conversations showed the eclectic nature of the group, each with a different background and profession, but huddled away from the drizzle in a desolate campsite shelter for the same love of riding motorcycles.
As chilly as it was at Snow Camp 2019, there wasn’t any actual fluffy stuff, but the campers pointed us toward a network of roads and trails that they said would land us in proper snow. They also clued us into a Snow Camp tradition that entails studding one’s tires. So the next morning, armed with a cordless drill and 175 sheet-metal screws, we rode out of camp and followed a soggy ribbon of gravel up in elevation. After climbing for a few miles, the snow banks grew to the point of spilling onto the road. Soon enough, the sky was full of fat flakes and it was pure white in every direction.
We pulled over and deployed the screws, running one into every other knob in the KLR’s worn tires. The Kawasaki’s weight and shoddy tread meant it had been struggling more than the TW with its balloon tires, so the extra traction from the screws helped. Occasionally, the frozen wheel tracks would soften and the bikes would wander and aim toward a ditch, but in general it was surreal fun that kept us working hard and plenty warm. We came to a clearing and stared at what would have been a view of the valley, but was instead a swirling abyss of fog and snow. There are probably riders out there who would scoff at our piddly little victory, but we felt like we had just made it to the top of Mt. Rainier itself.
We had conquered winter in style, participated in Snow Camp, and reconnected with our thick-blooded New England roots. It did us good to remember that cold is not just a feeling to know, it’s a relationship we form. It’s understanding that the worst part of fingertips going numb is when they thaw, and that licking your lips only makes the chap worse. We relearned essential cold-weather riding wisdom, such as the fact that waterproof gear is only truly waterproof if it's rubber and having a spare pair of gloves is a great thing when the first pair gets soaked and that the colder the weather, the warmer the camaraderie. Getting to the top of a mountain near the end of the trip makes for a better memory, but also shows that there are two ways to ride in the winter. It’s easy to end up in a bad situation by suffering through cold as we did on the first night, leaving us whimpering desperately for soup or the Pearly Gates, whichever came first. You might even say we were wicked cold.
Sending screws into the tires and climbing up a snowed-over road was awesome in part because we were comfortable, and much safer than freezing on the open road. Most of all, though, we were warmed by the fact that we had gone on a motorcycle ride when we should have been inside, with the bikes in a garage, under covers with their batteries gently charging. The machines were a little worse for wear, and so were we, but it beat bowling or watching TV.