The Reality of Freedom
Words by Jann Eberharter | Photo by Paris Gore
Two years ago, James Crowe settled into a little slice of paradise. It’s maybe a quarter of an acre and had two small structures on it at the time. One was a derelict prefabricated house that he wasted no time in tearing down. The second was a garage with a small apartment above that needed a lot of work. Naturally, he rebuilt the garage first, turning it into a full-on machine shop, complete with a lathe, mill, CNC machine, frame jig and welding table.
His priorities are as visible in his remodeling choices as they are out of his upstairs living room window, which offers a stunning view of Mount Currie, the pride of Pemberton, British Columbia. He’s only half an hour away from Whistler, the resort town where he grew up and the path that got him here has been one of figuring out what he wanted to prioritize in life, and doing just that.
Crowe is a mellow dude. He carries his lanky stature with confidence and speaks softly with thought. He usually has a bit of leftover grease on his hands, still rocks a flip phone, and, at 32 years old, has a few gray hairs beginning to make an appearance in his light-brown hair.
First and foremost, he’s a craftsman. His skill, style and creativity are visible in the custom motorcycles he’s built over the years, the parts he machines and even the tools that hang on the wall. Scribbled on one of his tool boxes is an Ed Roth quote:
“Imagination is the limit and speed is the need. Everything else is irrelevant.”
Making ends meet solely as an artist can prove challenging though. One pervading trend throughout Crowe’s career has been his ability and willingness to put his head down and grind, focusing on his end goal. He did that for two years in Portland, Oregon, working two full-time jobs. He worked on the oil rigs in Saskatchewan for a summer before embarking on a 10-month journey to South America and back on a custom-built bike. And a job as a welder for the Municipality of Whistler brought him home to British Columbia, somewhere he could settle down and enjoy the surrounding mountains—and the ability to clock out at the end of a long day.
Growing up in Whistler, Crowe naturally took to the mountains. His father groomed the municipality’s cross-country ski trails in the winter, while his mother landscaped in the summers, and between the two, he had plenty of opportunities to chase the seasons. He raced cross-county mountain bikes during high school and skied in the winters. But nothing compared to when he first dug into a combustion engine. His parents gave him a 1990 Mazda pickup two years before he could even legally drive and the truck introduced him to a whole new world.
“I loved all the outdoors things growing up,” he says. “But when I discovered fabrication and welding, that was kind of what I discovered for myself and there wasn’t any of that happening here. I realized really early that making things from scratch with metal, whatever it might be, was where my passion was.”
Once out of high school, he continued chasing that passion. Crowe found a small trade school in Laramie, Wyoming that had a one-year concentrated program for sheet-metal shaping and chassis fabrication. It was exactly what he was looking for. He learned to weld and committed himself wholeheartedly to getting everything out of the experience he could.
“All of a sudden I was in this new scene with all the tools and everything that I ever dreamed of, and the shops and the cars and the instructors,” Crowe says. “I was loving life.”
His ultimate project at school was a 1958 GMC pickup that he rebuilt. It wasn’t quite done by the time he graduated, so he lived out of a storage unit while making the final modifications. From there, he drove straight to Portland, where he’d received a job offer at a high-end restoration shop. It was there, at Steve’s Auto Restoration, that Crowe began tinkering with motorcycles.
As most mechanics do, he’d accumulated a lot of stuff, including an old Ford Model T. To make ends meet, he moved out of his apartment and into his Volkswagen Bus, renting a garage that soon became too packed to even work on anything. He sold it all and bought three XS 650s, which together would, he hoped, make one working bike.
“Once I got the bike running and once I actually started riding motorcycles, it was on,” Crowe says. “Nothing else really mattered at that point; it was just that feeling of what a bike gives you—it’s amazing.”
This was perhaps the first chapter of Crowe’s all-out working binge. He’d grind at Steve’s during the day and then commute across the Columbia River to Vancouver, Washington for a night job at another fabrication shop. Who knows when—or if—he slept. He took his vacation time to ride to Bonneville Speed Week, where he was in full company of fellow motorheads and got a taste of the open road and sleeping under the stars.
Soon after, Crowe and his best friend Jordan Hufnagel rented warehouse space in Portland where they began to assemble their own shop and a space where they could create whatever they wanted. This was after the Great Recession hit in 2008, and Crowe was able to buy various heavy duty machinery (thanks to his two jobs) that came up for sale. Much of the collection now occupies his shop in Pemberton.
“The motorcycle scene was really taking off at that time and I got really lucky to just meet the right people at an early time,” he says. “There was all this momentum growing to where all the sudden everybody wanted motorcycles.”
It was at this time that he started machining parts and operating under the moniker Crowe Metal Co. He designed and produced custom handlebars, levers, lights and even reinforced frames. He built up a custom BMW R series camper cruiser and CB 750 that caught the eye of enthusiasts all over. The bikes are works of art that also happen to cruise at 70 miles per hour, a visible extension of Crowe’s style and interpretation of what a motorcycle should be.
Being pent up in a workshop results in some impressive productivity, but it also leads to some wild ideas. Sometime during this phase, perhaps in the early hours of the morning, or over a few beers (probably both), Crowe and Hufnagel dreamed up the idea of heading south. Both feeling a little burnt out on working all the time and still being broke — and with a couple of XR 600s in the garage — they decided they needed to hit the road. Logically, in 2011, they set their sights on South America, perhaps the longest possible continual ride from Portland.
“Often, it’s more about building the bikes than actually riding them,” Crowe says. “But the trips test the build.”
And test them they did. Crowe took a year to finish up his businesses in Portland before heading to Saskatchewan, where he spent the summer working on an oil rig. He returned with relentless determination and plenty of time to prepare their bikes for the journey, reinforcing the sub frames, expanding the gas tanks, increasing gear capacity and minimizing breakability. Then, they spent the better part of a year riding dirt roads and mountain passes to the southern tip of Patagonia.
“You go where the road takes you,” Crowe says. “You’re kind of heading south, but you’re trying to ride as much dirt as possible, so you’re trying to follow routes you don’t know much about. At the end of the day, all the amazing memories I have are from the little tiny towns when we were lost and the places we got to go that had no significance [on the map].”
An experience like that—seeing the world firsthand—is enough to make anyone think about what really matters.
For Crowe, it was definitely motorcycles, but also the luxuries of the mountains and a place where he could craft and create with metal.
During the trip, he and Hufnagel established West America, a brand of sorts that embodied their lifestyle and travels. They sold gear to offset their travel costs, connecting with a following who lived vicariously through their photos and frequent updates. When he returned to Portland after the trip, Crowe tried to keep the West America dream alive through travel opportunities and commissioned fabrications.
He went on a two week bike-packing trip to Bolivia and built custom bikes for brands, but all the while felt the lack of authenticity that they had when documenting their riding in South America. He doesn’t mind admitting that he overcommitted himself, and the stress of trying to follow through on everything took a toll.
“It was a huge learning experience of what I actually cared about, which is making things with my hands,” Crowe says. “I love photography and I love storytelling, but not for other people. When I came back, I thought that I could live this fairytale life of building motorcycles and traveling and balancing those two things. The reality is, to do something genuine takes genuine time and if you spread yourself too thin, then pretty soon everything sucks—something’s getting sacrificed.”
For Crowe, one of those sacrifices was his marriage. It was a tempestuous few years, and in 2015 he headed home to Whistler, where he was offered a full-time heavy duty welding job for the municipality. In many ways, the move was contrary to so much in his life up to this point in time—fixed hours and upper management had never been his style. Not long after, he migrated north to Pemberton, where he plans to be indefinitely.
On a different level though, accepting the job was what Crowe needed to do at the time, a resolution that he’s equally familiar with. Just like working around the clock in Portland, or on the oil rigs of Saskatchewan, the motive of this job was in how it would set him up for the future. He figured out his priorities and put them first.
“It was something I avoided my whole life,” Crowe says. “Getting a nine-to-five, that was like, ‘The world’s going to end if I have to get a real job.’ But the reality is, the last two years, I’ve never had more freedom.”
His machine shop hadn’t been assembled since the Portland days, but now it’s fully complete and meticulously clean (although that might change), ready to churn raw steel into whatever beautiful piece of art Crowe decides. Orders continue to trickle in for the pieces he designed to take those BMW R series bikes to the next level and he’s happy to indulge in some architectural fabrication for contractors in the Pemberton Valley.
A short ride north of his spot delivers unreal opportunities for backcountry missions on his XR, while a few minutes’ pedal brings Crowe to the base of Pemberton’s venerated mountain bike trails, which he rides regularly on his Chromag hardtail. In the winter, he’s a short sled mission away from multiple backcountry skiing stashes.
Here, Crowe has found a balance in his priorities, one that clocks 40 hours a week and is far from the backroads of South America, but still delivers genuine time. It’s a place where he’s got his machines and his mountains, and together they provide the good life.