The origins of the Chilly Willy are similar to that of a myth. Legend has it that in years past, on winter days just like today, a group of riding buddies would brave the cold and against better judgment, embark on an epic moto camping journey. So goes the story that these friends continued this journey every winter, passing it on from generation to generation - eventually establishing the tradition we now know as the Chilly Willy…more or less. What some might call stupid, we call an adv…actually, we might be on the same page with that one. Riding motorcycles in 30 degree weather feels really cold, like a lot colder than just standing in 30 degree weather. But hey, it’s a stupid kind of fun. The ride began as a test of endurance, the goal was to see if they could withstand the harsh winter weather of north Georgia. When explaining the concept to a friend of mine, they responded: “sounds like pneumonia waiting to happen.” It sure does. Enter the Chilly Willy Ride.
If there was ever an opposite of a “chilly willy” it would be a “warm willy” - which to me takes form in that of a hot dog, and what better way to start a cold day of riding than with a parking lot grill, good friends, and 4 dozen dogs. We began our adventure on a Saturday afternoon in our parking lot, surrounded by a crowd of cool bikes and classic cars, but most importantly, the group of courageous riders ready to take on the 50 degree day (yeah we know, that’s not that cold - but keep reading, it got a little colder).
The plan was simple - take off from Atlanta in the early afternoon and head West across state lines into Alabama with our sights set on the Talladega National Forest. We had a checklist for that day that consisted of the following two items: good times and good BBQ. Unfortunately, we were only able to achieve one of these. After a few hours of riding as temperatures were dropping, we landed at our chosen dinner spot only to find it closed. Though we were quick to point fingers and blame one another, we did in fact double-check their hours before leaving. I guess they ran out of food? After a day of craving warm saucy pulled pork and a Yelp rating of 4 out of 5 stars to boast, disappointment fell over the group.
A quick regroup put us en route to the next best thing besides Alabamian BBQ - authentic Alabamian Mexican food? Margaritas, queso, and enchiladas - the epitome of southern comfort. From there we headed off to set up camp, putting down the last few miles along the winding back roads just as the sun had set.
If there’s anything I like less than setting up a tent in the dark, it’s setting up a tent in the dark when it’s cold. We arrived at our spot for the night and quickly set up shelter. By this point, the weather had dropped into the 30’s and we were still defrosting from riding, so of course a fire was next on our list. If you’ve ever made a campfire before, you know the most essential ingredient is firewood. Apparently wood was a hot (cold?) commodity where we were as it proved difficult to find. Thus, we devised a plan: a few of us stay behind to try and get a small fire started while Jess and Jesse form a search party to secure a larger batch to keep us warm through the night.
Turns out carrying roughly 75lbs of wood in the form of 5ft logs on a motorcycle is pretty easy…at least for Jess. With our wood reserve filled and flames blazing, it was time for the traditional campfire bonding to start. Again, if you’ve ever camped you know what this consist of: smores, whiskey, life advice from uncle David, and more whiskey. And maybe some hijinx. The first one to fall asleep knows what they’re in for. Sidenote, if you’re going to zip-tie a tent shut, make sure it doesn’t have a second door, and if it does, make sure you zip-tie that one too. Sorry, Chris. Jared was the second to head in and I still don’t think he’s realized what we did… After hours of fireside camaraderie, it was time to call it a night and get ready for the day of riding ahead.
Have you ever gotten to the point of being so cold that you’re angry? Not angry at anything in particular, but just angry? Especially right after waking up? Meh, maybe that’s just me. But hey, that’s what the Chilly Willy is all about. Not the angry part, but the cold part. Being cold. But also a lot more than that. But mostly the cold part. The next day we all slowly crawled out of our tents only to be greeted by a beautiful sunrise. A cold morning in the woods wouldn’t be complete without a cup of hot camp coffee. Thanks to Jake, self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur, for bringing along his aeropress and grounds for some pre-ride warmth and fuel. We then warmed the bikes, packed our gear, and headed out in search of great roads. Except for Jesse. His bike wouldn’t start. Though after a little finagling we eventually got it going. It’s a Harley though, so I think it was supposed to do that?
For how late in the year it was, it was surprising to see trees still filled with fall colors. Our route had us headed south along AL-281 through the Talladega National Forest. We had the winding, leaf covered two-lane county roads entirely to ourselves. Amazing riding occupied our morning, each turn better than the last, stopping at scenic overlooks along the way. We eventually made our way to Cheaha State Park for a quick break and to devise a plan for the rest of the day.
A quick leg stretch, search of the general store for souvenirs, and more coffee was all that we needed. Well, I could’ve also used some gas, but they were all out - which was lame because they were the only place in the area that had ethanol free gas and my 40-year-old Honda prefers just that. Oh well. With perfect weather in the forecast for the rest of the day, we set our sights back east to Atlanta via back roads. More twisties, fall colors, and small towns were all part of the experience.
With a few more hours of riding under our belt, we stopped in Carrollton after crossing back over into Georgia. Speaking of Harley’s and not working…After we arrived in town we had ridden over some train tracks and apparently that light vibration proved to be too much for Casey’s bike and snapped one of his clip-ons clean off.
I’ve heard of a suicide shift…but a suicide throttle?
Though we passed at least two Waffle Houses, we for some odd reason elected to eat elsewhere. The food of choice was an Irish Pub, which hit the spot - good beer and a nice hearty meal to warm our willies. We dined and conversed over sustenance as this would be our last meal of the trip. We cleaned our plates, downed our brew, and got on our bikes for the last leg of the trip.
Upon making it back into Atlanta we split up and all went our separate ways - but only after a weekend filled with great memories. With this being the first Official Chilly Willy Ride, it was definitely one to be remembered. One that will be talked about for years to come and passed down from generation to generation. We’re looking forward to the next one, and we hope you are too.
Story by Drew Perlmutter
Photographs by Drew Perlmutter & Jared Erickson