“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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”