Riding 740 Miles in 2 Days on a 34-Year-Old 250

Steven Sysum Suzuki GS250
The author’s trusty ’81 Suzuki GS250 with route map taped to gas tank.

“What?! You’re crazy, son. I can’t believe it,” said my dad after he heard my story.

He should know. He’s owned and customized 1,000cc Kawasaki speed machines forever. I’ve seen them in the garage on stands, rear wheels floating in repose like Achilles’ wings waiting to hit redline after redline as they run up through the gears.

But, I didn’t ride one of his bikes from Santa Barbara to Mammoth Lakes, California, for a friend’s weekend wedding in 2015. I didn’t have the experience. Instead, I took the only motorcycle I had — a recently acquired 1981 Suzuki GS250 with low miles and all original parts.

A bike-savvy friend saw an ad for it and said, “Buy it. For $500 it’s a deal.” And, it was!

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A local shop gave it a once-over and I told them, “I’m going to Mammoth, please make sure it’s safe.” With an oil change and fuel system flush they gave their blessing. They didn’t seem concerned about the old tires, chain and brakes.

With a duffel bag and a backpack I left Santa Barbara Friday at noon in late August. Door to door this trip is 370 miles, around seven hours with stops. My route started south on Highway 1/U.S. 101 along the Pacific coast until I turned inland at Ventura. Riding through the dense orange groves in the Santa Clara River valley on Highway 126 filled me with ecstasy. Fruity smells wafted through my vented helmet. My eyes kept drifting to large eucalyptus, creekside sycamores and brown wrinkled hills.

Fellow riders along U.S. Highway 395.

Thankfully I remembered the advice from my motorcycle safety training course: “You go where your eyes go.” To avoid hitting those lovely trees I pulled my eyes back to the highway. I was full of optimism until I penetrated the inland heat as connecting to I-5 south at Magic Mountain.

An hour into my ride I’m parched, and I pull off at a strip mall to hydrate. Sitting and sweating under the oppressive sun, I began questioning my choice to travel alone through the California desert on this small motorcycle during a severe heat wave. It was 105 degrees. So much for paradise.

I rationalized my decision, telling myself “this is a rare opportunity” and “I promised my friend I’d go.” So, I made a plan. Fill my bike up with gas and myself up with water every 60 miles. Don’t exceed 65mph. I’ll get there when I get there.

Steven Sysum Suzuki GS250
Reaching Inyo County on Highway 395 in 110-degree desert heat.

There I was, cruising along Highway 14 through the Antelope Valley, clenching with every crack and pothole the Suzuki bounced over. Then I felt it. My hands tingling from the high revs buzzing through the handlebars. Should I slow down, possibly making myself a hazard to drivers? Or should I tough it out for the next 220 miles? I decide to endure the discomfort to make time.

After the desert crossroads town of Mojave, I began to wonder how far apart the gas stations were. When I connected to Highway 395 and rode north along the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway, I fought fears of disaster with appreciation for the scenery. From my seat in the open air I took in new details not seen from a car. Desert sage, sandy soil and fluttering birds are all more vivid, close enough that I could almost touch them. Here I finally felt like I belonged on my motorcycle. I was making good progress.

Until the climb.

Steven Sysum Sierra Nevada
Small helmet, big mountains, blue sky.

Bishop, a burg within the Owens Valley, sits at 4,100 feet above sea level. Mammoth Lakes, where I was headed, is at nearly 8,000 feet. Me and my little 250 needed to climb nearly 4,000 feet in a little over 40 miles. And I was behind schedule and the sun had dropped behind the jagged Sierra peaks. Though the incline was moderate, it was steady and put the Suzuki to the test. As I went up, the speedometer needle went down. The engine sounded fine. But 200 pounds on top of a 348-pound bike with 36 horsepower meant that 40 mph was the best I could hope for.

Remember that scene in “Dumb and Dumber” when Lloyd and Harry, riding two-up on a mini bike, finally made the climb to Aspen with a long line of cars trailing behind them? Yep, that was me, minus the frozen snot.

Steven Sysum Owens Lake
Owens Lake at sunset.

My feet finally touched down in Mammoth around 9:30pm, the hot engine crackling in the cool mountain air. My hands felt like tuning forks, ringing out their own frequency after nine hours of tingle. My back was sore from the backpack. Hell, everything was sore. And my stomach growled in protest because all I had eaten were protein bars.

But, all of these perturbations ceased once I entered the lit banquet room where my friends and their loved ones reveled in excitement for the wedding tomorrow. My friend was ecstatic to see me! We sipped beer and wine by fireside. Plates of food were everywhere. Laughter and stories from filled the night air.

I made it. I actually made it.

Steven Sysum
The author before the wedding atop Mammoth Mountain, with the route he climbed behind him.

Saturday came and the outdoor wedding in the mountains was majestic. I took film photos. I met beautiful people, ate great food and danced wildly into the night. It was perfect, and I wished the day would never end. Laying in my bed that night, however, the elation was counterbalanced with one foreboding thought: I must make the same trip home TOMORROW.

Sunday morning I said my goodbyes after breakfast. Before taking off I remembered to check the Suzuki’s oil level. Dry. Good thing I checked. With hands still tingling from Friday I topped off oil and gas and headed out. Despite the day-after-the-day-after back soreness and numb hands I was thankful to be alone with my thoughts. Same plan, same route. Same heat wave.

The heat consumed me. In the open air I could detect subtle temperature changes. It was hot. How hot? Nearing Mojave I sensed the temperature drop maybe five degrees. While filling up I checked the temperature: 108. But it’s a dry heat, they say. It’s a hot heat, I say. And, it stayed that way, all the way to the seaside surf town of Ventura.

I felt the ocean’s lovely coolness and moisture. The heat was gone and I was fully enveloped within the low-70s coastal comfort. North onto Highway 1/U.S. 101 and I’d be home in another 30 minutes. I made much better time and arrived at 7 p.m., just in time to watch the slowly setting sun. I took my exit and stopped at the intersection.

Steven Sysum route map
The author’s 369-mile route from Santa Barbara to Mammoth Lakes, California.

The immensity of what I just accomplished washed over me. I rode alone 740 miles through triple-digit heat in 2 days on a 34-year old 250cc cruiser with all original parts. And no disaster befell me! Not only did the bike survive, but I survived too. Bike and body, pushed to their limits. How many cc’s am I made of? So many thoughts swirled in my head as I entered my driveway. The one that brought me the most delight was, “I can’t wait to tell my dad what I just did!”

27 COMMENTS

  1. Ignorance is bliss. In Sept. of ’63, I set out from Boston (Cambridge, actually) for Falls Church, VA, on a ’63 Honda CB77 Super Hawk. While I had hoped to get an early start, it was just after noon when I departed. No helmet, no gloves, a light nylon windbreaker and I had not really prepped the bike, i.e. checked tires, etc. Obviously, I made it. I have no real recollection today of gas stops, toll booth encounters, much less “rest stops” for food and drink. The Hawk cruised capably at 5,500 rpm (about 62 mph) but I did not have to contend with big elevation changes. Good story, indeed, and a tribute to Suzuki small displacement engineering.

  2. Great story !! I too made a much longer and so eventful journey on a 30 year old 700 Honda vf700s from upstate New York to Billings, Montana and back home in 8 days. Many lessened learned but still enjoy the solitude of solo riding cross country….. so far 4 trips and another one planned for September this year…Ride on brothers and sisters !!!!

  3. I really enjoyed your story! It reminds me of a trip I took from Chicago to New Orleans back in 1995 on my old Yamaha Eleven Special to settle my deceased grandmother’s estate, and put her house up for sale. Please keep writing; you have a wonderful talent for it, and express yourself very well. I look forward to reading more of your articles. Sincerely, Joe Abadie.

  4. Next time you’re going up that high, do yourself a favor and drop your carb needles a couple of notches to lean out the mix (but absolutely remember to put them back when you come back down), and don’t be afraid to tackle the hills in 4th. Those early Suzuki 4 strokes are tough engines!

  5. At 200 lbs you’re ready for one of your dad’s bikes, plan a trip for the two of you on cooler weather. Good luck and continue to ride safe.

  6. Three friends and I did a similar trek in 1966 or 67. I was on a Yamaha YDS-3 (250cc) along with another friend on his 250 Yamaha. The other two were on 305 cc machines a Yamaha YM-1 and a Honda CA-77 Dream. No one told us we couldn’t ride fron San Diego up to Sequoi National Park check the place out and then return home the following week. We camped all the way. Guess we should have had at least 650cc machines but hey, we were none the wiser. Had a great memory filled time! Oh to be that young again!
    Cheers
    Dave

  7. Just before my senior year in high school I drove a Suzuki 450 T from Oxnard California to Mazatlan Mexico I was too young to be scared or know everything I did wrong I do most dehydrated in the Mexican desert but then rain kicked in I visited relatives in the Mazatlan and spent the whole summer there driving back was all so exciting but sad because my journey had ended I have never done anything like that ever again I went almost 30 years without running a motorcycle and now I own a gsx1000f and maybe one day I will take that in the long trip morning with my wife who also rides motorcycles now we are in their late 50s but we love it

  8. Nice story. I grew up in Ventura, commuted to Santa Barbara on a motorcycle for a couple years. I’d rec a bigger bike if you’re going to do moe long rides, but I just bought a 400 thumper to do some solo touring on, so what do I know? BTW, Grip Buddies can help with the hand-tingliness.

  9. Great story telling and a very inspirational read! I love hearing of people gettin out there and just getting some. Minimal planning, the unknowing, and the thought of “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it”. Thats what life is made of, the memories that will never fade. I have a 1993 Suzuki Intruder chopped up into a bobber. No windscreen, no bags, just an engine and two wheels. I’m so looking forward to the season again, to make a trip like this for myself! Kudos to you my friend, and all the others out there gettin some too!

  10. Some of the best motorcycle memories are of adventures we never would have started if we had better sense. 🙂 If we survive, we prepare a bit more for the next adventure. Thanks for sharing your adventure.

  11. I’ve been riding since 1958. I remember in the early ’60s, 250 and 350 cc bikes were pretty much the norm in Ireland where I was stationed. Touring on a 250 cc machine is really quite doable. Would I prefer a larger machine? Sure would…. but basically only because at my age a sleeping bag on the ground ain’t as easy as it once was.
    So, ride whatever you want, ride as far as you want. Just enjoy and be safe.

  12. I did a similar California trip last August on a Honda 250 Nighthawk… a modern(ish) 250 has more horsepower than many old pioneer motorbikes, just avoid the big interstates and it’ll do fine. Thanks for the story!

  13. You spin a fine story my friend, and well done! In 1967 a took a weeks leave from the military and rode my 305 superhawk from Phoenix Arizona to central Minnesota. A ride of 1951 miles door to door in about 29 hours of road time. No bags, windshield, etc. Just a quilted black nylon jacket, bedroll and head out. Think I had about $78 dollars in my pocket for the whole trip. Thinking I was kinda a fool to try this ride, I met a just discharged Veteran going from Portsmouth to San Diego on a 50 cc Honda with all his gear on the back of that little bike! I think these adventures are what life is all about. Anyone can do it on a 1000 cc plus cruiser with all the luxury of a full size automobile, but on a little putt putt you have something to tell your grandkids about when your 70 something like I am now. God Bless you all and keep riding.

  14. Hey big guy. GREAT read. Go get some more fantastic adventures and then share them with everyone.
    Consider your next machine a Honda
    PC 800. It would be a great next bike. It’s kinda a cross between a gold wing and a scooter. I love mine.
    I think you may have found your calling,
    Bob D

  15. Motorcycling at it’s best! You ride what you have! Congratulations on a round trip you’ll remember forever. I made a 900 mile round trip with my Dad on a 150 Honda. Two up! That was 1966. I remember it well. My Dad died in 1995, WWII combat Vet, and bike rider from 1930’s. I guess I got my love for motorcycles from him. I’m 69 years young now, blessed to still be riding with my Wife of 48 years. Dad would think my 2013 ‘Wing was alien technology! You and others like you prove that touring doesn’t have to be on a Gold Wing, BMW, Road Glide, etc. I had a friend that road all over the US on a Suzuki Burgman Scooter. Anybody can ride a big comfy tourer 740 miles, but it takes a “hardcore” biker to do it on a 250! Helmet off to you, Sir! Hope to see you on the road sometime! Happy Trails.

  16. I bought a new 1981 Honda XL185 back when I was in the Navy, stationed in Memphis. . I got orders to GTMO and had to attend a 2 week school in Charleston SC. After the 2 week school I would be flying out of Norfolk Va.
    I loaded up the bike in Memphis with my seabag stuffed with uniforms and anything else I could jam in it. Attached the bag to my bike that had just barely 500 miles on it. Took off heading to Charleston on the freeway. Top speed on the little Honda was about 55. It ran wide open the entire trip trying to keep from getting run over by big trucks.
    I made it to Charleston, tired and sunburned but in one piece. After the school, I loaded up and headed to Norfolk Va. Same thing, running wide open the entire trip. This time was riding in the rain, the whole trip. I got to Norfolk and got the bike put on a barge to ship it to GTMO.
    That tiny bike had made that trip without any problems. I did put in Mobil 1 synthetic oil in the bike after it was broken in. That may have saved it, but it may have done just as well on regular oil.
    It was a long miserable ride on that tiny bike, but I still have the bragging rights!

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