A cross-country motorcycle vacation
Last summer, my wife, Bobbi, and I were discussing plans for celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary that August. Bobbi wanted to go on a cruise. I thought that was a great idea, so I started getting my 1974 Suzuki GT750 “Water Buffalo” ready for the ride. Come to find out, her idea of a cruise was on a ship. Silly girl.
Of course, we don’t own a ship, so we had a meeting of the minds and settled on a classic motorcycle vacation. I love riding long distance, and Bobbi often goes with me. Bobbi mapped out a motorcycle tour that would take us from northwest Florida to Colorado Springs, then north to Calgary. From there we’d head east and then drop down back into the states to Michigan, and then south back to Florida, staying west of the Appalachian Mountains to stay cool.
Getting ready for this motorcycle tour wasn’t that involved. First on the list were passports, and since temperatures would range from almost freezing to 110F, we needed to make sure we had appropriate motorcycle riding gear, including lots of Ziploc bags in case of rain. I installed a Garmin Zumo 550 GPS, had the bike wired for our Gerbing electric heated liners and gloves, and I installed a set of fork protectors from a Kawasaki ZRX1100 to protect my fork seals. Oh yeah, and I got some molded speaker ear plugs!
With help from Paul at Performance Cycle and Dave at Finish Line Cycle, we installed a new set of tires, new Hagon shocks, sprockets and chain, a fresh air filter and a new wiring harness.
When I had rebuilt the engine at 84,000 miles, I spoke with Shayn Harkness at www.motorcycle-ignition.com about installing an electronic ignition. Still running points, I was tired of changing or re-adjusting them on road trips. He convinced Newtronics to send me its new motorcycle ignition kit to test on my bike. The kit was an easy install, and it can be quickly retrofitted to the original setup because none of the wires are cut or spliced. I’m not sure who would want to return to the point option, because with this system you’ll never buy points and condensers again. I know I’ll never go back.
With the Suzuki GT750 prepped and ready for takeoff, Bobbi plugged basic points of contact into the Zumo and on Aug. 1, 2009, we rolled out of our drive in Panama City Beach, Fla., heading northwest. Predictably, we broke our our motorcycle riding gear right away as we ran into a rain storm about 60 miles later, and it continued to rain most of the day. The bad thing about rain on the GT750 is the front discs are made of stainless steel, and when wet it takes a few extra seconds for the pads to dry off.
When we rode to Mid-Ohio on the GT750 for Vintage Motorcycle Days in July, we camped all the way. But since it was our 20th anniversary, Bobbi said I had to treat her special, and that meant no camping. She doesn’t mind riding on a 2-stroke motorcycle all day, but she wanted a motel each night so she could wash off the injector oil smell. I guess it was a good thing, since camping would have added a lot more gear to carry.
The next day found us riding into Arkansas, where a light rain helped keep the temperatures comfortable. It was nice just cruising the back roads, looking in the yards of homes for that old motorcycle that someone left outside 20 years ago. The next day was hot as we rode through Oklahoma. It was over 100F and the heat coming off the road was brutal.
We were covering about 450 to 500 miles each day, as we were trying to stay mostly on secondary roads. We made it to Colorado by the fourth day of the ride, and the next day we headed for Pikes Peak. One of my goals was to ride my Suzuki GT750 to the top, but the bike struggled. The air was so thin the bike was wheezing, and I had to pull over about half way up to let the Suzuki cool down for a while. I had to run in first gear as we got higher, but we made it.
One of our few mechanical problems occurred in Colorado, when my left outer exhaust pipe cracked at the flange and started to leak. I logged on to www.kawasakitriplesworldwide.com and got in contact with Barry Boulier in nearby Colorado Springs, who offered to help. I pulled the pipe off and Barry re-welded it for me. I was back on the road and running quietly in about an hour.
Leaving Colorado Springs we wanted to make some time, so we jumped on I-25 north. For an interstate it’s not bad — until you get near Denver, where it’s four and five lanes wide. We were in the second lane from the left when a small car two lanes over decided it wanted in front of me, so they just pulled across all the lanes, missing me by less than 2 feet. We soon decided this was not the place for us, so we got off onto Highway 85 north and rode on to Cheyenne, Wyo.
We were going to go to Yellowstone National Park, but decided to reroute the trip a little and ride to Sturgis, S.D., for the Sturgis motorcycle rally instead. We got to Sturgis the day before a huge hail storm nearly destroyed the rally; some people had to be taken to the hospital after getting hit with hail. Pulling into Sturgis on an old 2-stroke with the back half covered in oil from the exhaust pipes, I felt a little out of place, what with all the V-twin bikes everywhere. But it was amazing how many people stopped to ask questions about the bike, and they were amazed to hear we had ridden there from Florida. The next day we headed west on Highway 34/24 to Aladdin, Wyo. These roads are a rider’s dream, with barely any traffic. Next stop was Devils Tower and then on to Montana.
Montana is very scenic, with lots of curvy roads. The only downfall for my bike was the spacing between gas stations. The tank holds 4.5 gallons, and heavily loaded, we were sometimes getting only 30mpg. We had to keep an eye out for side roads that would loop back to the interstate in case we needed gas. You don’t want to break down on some of the back roads in Montana, as there is nothing out there but you and the wild animals.
Finally, after a week on the road we made it to the Canadian boarder, through customs and on to Calgary. The speed limits are in kilometers, which is fine if your speedometer reads those. My Suzuki doesn’t, so I tried to just stay with traffic. By this point we had covered just over 4,000 miles.
We made to it Calgary to meet up with my friend Allan Tucker. I finally got a chance to clean all the oil and grime off the bike and make it presentable again. Allan rides a 1976 Suzuki GT750, and he took us riding through the Canadian Rockies. It was fun riding with another old bike again.
By now my rear tire was about worn out, so Allan called Rick Best at TJ’s Cycle in Calgary. I pulled the rear wheel and Rick changed it out. Rick is also a Suzuki nut and has a mint GT550, and TJ’s has a ton of vintage bikes out back. We spent a couple days riding in Canada, but it was soon time to take off again. We thanked everyone and headed back to Montana.
We were going to stay near the top of Montana and cross east that way, but it was cold and rainy, so we headed south until the rain quit, then turned east. We were starting to run low on injector oil and stopped at Central Montana in Lewistown. They didn’t have the oil I wanted on the shelf, but the owner, Dan Killham, went back to the service department and poured me a quart out of a gallon jug and gave it to me, free of charge. Good people.
We gassed up the bike there and headed east on Highway 200, a very lonely road. We rode about 65 miles and came to a little town and decided to gas up again. The station was closed, but luckily it had a 24-hour card pump. It was 76 miles before the next town that had gas. Good thing for the card pump, because we wouldn’t have made it otherwise. We found a nice restaurant and decided to stay at a motel. About an hour after we got there the wind really picked up. We turned on the Weather Channel. It showed 41mph winds. It started to hail sideways. Luckily, I had the bike cover on.
The next day we loaded up and headed toward North Dakota, jumping on I-94 to make up a little time. We rode across to Minnesota, where we stopped at the Aerostich factory in Duluth. I wear an Aerostich suit and wanted to get my wife one for our anniversary, which by this time was only four days away. I thought it was a nicer idea than a new toaster or a necklace that wouldn’t do anything to keep her comfortable on the bike! Well, you can guess how that went over. I think Bobbi didn’t want one because if she had, she might have to do another ride like this. Instead, she bought me another Aerostich suit, a lightweight version of the Darien 2-piece.
I met Andy Goldfine, the head of Aerostich, after he walked in asking who owned the “Water Buffalo” outside. I answered it was mine, and we got to talking about old bikes. Andy likes and rides vintage bikes, and gave us a tour of the factory.
Leaving Duluth, we got onto Highway 28 and rode along Lake Superior toward the Upper Peninsula. Highway 28 is another lonely road, with very few cars. We eventually turned south and headed for the Mackinac Bridge. Crossing the bridge is fun, as you can ride on the grated part and look down at the water.
Our next stop was Traverse City, Mich., for a birthday party for Rick Brett, who probably has the largest collection of Kawasaki 2-strokes in the world. Rick’s been collecting these bikes for the last 30 years, and his garage is full of 2-stroke Kawasaki triples. I think he has every color and year of the Kawasaki S1 250, S2 350, S3 400, H1 500 and H2 750. He had to remove four motorcycles from the bedroom we slept in, but he did leave a beautiful 1975 Z1 900 for me to wake up to each morning. The next bedroom had five mint Kawasaki H2 750s from 1972-1975.
After three great days we headed down to Imlay to visit Lisa and Terry Davis and meet some Suzuki GT riders. After a great lasagna dinner, we got back on the road, as we wanted to get south of Detroit before Monday morning. We hit a huge rain storm in Ann Arbor, so we decided to stop for the night.
The next day was nice and sunny as we headed south through Ohio on Highway 23, which is very hilly with great scenery. If you like to rubberneck like I do, riding past old houses and looking for vintage treasure, it’s a great route.
We followed Highway 23 down through Kentucky and into Virginia. Once we got into North Carolina, we decided to head over to Deals Gap and the infamous “Tail of the Dragon” on Highway 129 just outside Robbinsville, N.C. With 318 curves in 11 miles, it’s the most curves you’ll probably ever see, and a great place to help round off that flat center on your rear tire from riding on the highway. Bobbi wanted a “Tail of the Dragon” shirt, but I told her we had to actually ride all 318 curves before they would sell her one. She agreed (though she knew better) and we headed up the hill to put the GT to the test. We took it nice and slow as the bike was heavily loaded and I was carrying precious cargo (Bobbi) behind me. Bobbi tried to film a short video of us riding the Dragon. It came out OK, but she made herself dizzy hanging to one side of the bike as it zigged and zagged through the turns. (Look for the video at MotorcycleClassics.com) We rode up to the overlook and then turned around to head back to get her shirt.
Leaving Deals Gap we rode south on 129 toward Georgia until it started to get dark. We stopped just outside of Canton, Ga., for the night, and it started pouring rain again. The next morning the sun was out and the temperature and humidity were up. We were almost home, but even so, we took side roads to avoid the Atlanta traffic. The last leg of the ride was nice and the weather held up as we rode to Phenix City, Ala., then south to Dothan, Ala., where we caught Highway 77, a mostly two-lane back road, for the final 85 miles home.
All told, we were on the road for 22 days and covered 7,943 miles, riding through 21 different states and into Canada. The GT did fine, and it now has over 113,000 miles on it. The cost of fuel for our adventure? $560. Cost for hotel lodging? $1,920. Spending 22 days on my motorcycle with my best friend and wife? Priceless! MC
• Make sure everything is lubed and tight.
• Check all suspension bushings and wheel and steering bearings.
• Never leave on a trip with worn tires. If you think you will need them before you return, replace them before you leave.
• Carry plenty of spare parts. For this trip I carried spare brake and clutch levers, fuses, electrical tape, a spare voltage regulator rectifier, fork seals, brake pads, throttle, clutch and rear brake cables, bulbs, lenses, spare inner tubes, tire tools and some RTV silicone.
• Be able to fix a flat tire. I carry a hose that screws in place of a spark plug so I can use my engine as an air compressor if I get a flat tire.
• The back roads are scenic, but lack gas stations. It doesn’t matter if you just filled up 30 miles ago, if you see another gas station, fill up again.