Toxic Tour: Adventure Touring on a Yamaha 1971 RT360

"Do I smell something burning?" The First Annual Blue Haze Across America Two-Stroke Motorcycle Tour

By Joe Gresh, Photography by Joe Gresh

One-hundred-thirteen kicks later and the black Yamaha 360 Enduro fired. Godzilla lives. Smoking, hesitating, footpegs and shift lever vibrating, the aged two-stroke shook off years of neglect and coughed up a steaming petroleum hairball onto the rearmost section of the front fender. Things were looking up.

I'm deep into my midlife crisis. I want to be Yamalubed, loop-charged, Torque Inducted and single again. Single as in single-cylinder motorcycle. I've spent a small fortune to purchase this bike sight-unseen on eBay and fly out to Puyallup, Washington. Some guys get a Ferrari. Some guys get a trophy wife. I get to ride this black 1971 RT-1B 360 Enduro home to Florida.

It's a little tight to fit a man, woman and three huge duffel bags--along with enough tools and spares to rebuild the Space Shuttle wing--on an ancient RT-1. Especially in Puyallup. In the cold. In the rain. Reality rears its ugly head. I see no sense in lying about it; I trucked the Yamaha from Puyallup to my brother-in-law's house in Las Vegas where I could repair the bike in relative ease.

Excerpt from my upcoming article in Rental! Van! Madness!:"The late-model E350 box truck easily handled the tight Pacific Coast Highway curves, never touching the undercarriage, even during spirited cornering."

The Vegas house has a tiled garage floor--perfect. Out go the old crank seals, in go the new. The clutch-side seal cocks sideways on installation because I am in a hurry and not using the correct tools. A little more force tears the outer edge, a thick layer of rubber curls out from the seal boss. I rap my forehead into the glossy squares lying beneath the dismantled Yamaha. I am doomed. Rap. I am doomed. Rap. I am doomed. Rap. Rap. Rap.

Removing the seal only damages it further. My wife sticks her head into the garage to tell me Hurricane Wilma has pushed an 8-foot storm surge across our house and cars in the Florida Keys. I can't worry about that now. My midlife crisis expires in three weeks.

A hammer and drift straighten the seal somewhat, and gobs of red silicone seal oozing from the crankcase prevent air leaks--I hope. I step up the countershaft sprocket from a dirtbike-like 13 teeth to a more suitable Then Came Bronson-esque 16. The bike starts in 20 kicks. I leave Vegas under Yamaha power and pull onto Highway 93, fighting a strong headwind all the way to Kingman, Arizona. The bike is weak, barely able to pull 4000 rpm. Revving to 4500 causes the engine to rattle in protest. I putter along at 50 mph, making it to Parker, Arizona, by nightfall.

Normally, there's nothing I like better than an old-fashioned, coke-fueled domestic punch-up, but the tough look of Parker has me scurrying into the best-looking motel I can find. The lobby walls are plastered with cheesy computer-generated signs: No Dogs, No Guests, No Alcohol, No Nothing. Each sign has one of those clip-art dancing stick figures that bears no relation to what you aren't supposed to do. A dancing stick man playing a trumpet tells me not to stay past 10:30 a.m.

The bike felt corked on the trip down from Vegas, so I remove the baffle for inspection. Weld slag during the manufacturing process 34 years ago had closed the slots in the baffle, allowing less than a 14-inch opening for the exhaust gases to escape. No wonder the bike had just 2960 miles on it and a 13-tooth countershaft sprocket. The previous owner must have been so disappointed with the power he never rode it. I throw some rags on the floor of the room and start hacksawing slots into the baffle.

Leaving Parker the next morning I head west. The bike absolutely kicks butt. Cutting those slots released triple the horsepower. Now we are Godzilla. The Yamaha makes so much power that the clutch slips at anything past 4500 rpm. But it still feels giddy, popping and strutting its way past Glamis in through the back door to San Diego. I arrive at my friend Lynn's auto shop, where we replace the clutch plates. The clutch still slips. "Did you try adjusting the pushrod?" Lynn asks. Two minutes later the clutch is perfect. Gas it in first and the front end comes off the ground. This is the widowmaker two-stroke I remember. I take a celebratory ride down to the Pacific Ocean. Like I said, coast-to-coast, Big Daddy."Without valves there is truth," becomes my midlife mission statement. Three days on the road and I smell of oil and gas. I've had the engine apart twice and my right pant leg is turning black from exhaust blowby. My hands have a permanent film of grease and my fingernails are jet-black. I know I should feel bad about the Yamaha's high environmental costs, but at a steady 60 mph I'm guessing it's doing less damage than a large, malfunctioning petrochemical plant ... on fire.

The next day, 18 kicks light off the bike in the motel parking lot. A dried-up old couple loading luggage into their gigantic SUV give me dirty looks. I rev the engine to 4000, then 5000 rpm, keeping it running by blipping the throttle until it settles down to an unsteady idle. Mr. and Mrs. America pinch up their faces and think there's something wrong with the bike. Giving them my best thousand-mile stare, I slowly reach down with my left index finger and check the chain tension. Like George Hamilton did in the first Evel Knievel movie.

Godzilla wheelies out into the street leaving behind a blue fog of oily Castrol two-stroke smoke leaning maliciously on the hood of their big SUV. Eau du lawn care, baby. I know, I'm giving motorcycles a bad name, but at least Mr. and Mrs. America will remember to mow the grass when they get home.

Every night it's the same routine: Fill the Yamalube tank; the threads in the filler opening are stripped, so I use the ROC (Rag Over Cap) sealing method. Next, lean the bike onto its kickstand and lube the chain. That's it, total maintenance required for an unrestored early '70s Japanese two-stroke putting in a solid 10 hours of street duty per day. I avoid the interstate because the RT prefers two-lane back roads. Breaking down is an issue we don't discuss any more.

In the morning it's 39 degrees F. My high-tech thermal underwear never lets me get so cold that I cannot urinate correctly--my personal definition of too cold. By the time I get the bike started I'm nice and toasty. The Yamaha and I head downstate to run along Highway 9 on the southern border of New Mexico. This road used to be one of the most desolate highways in America. Now every 5 miles or so a military vehicle is positioned cannon-barrel toward Mexico. I stop at a checkpoint to use the Porta-Potty and dump my spare gallon of gas into the bike. As the gas gurgles into the black pinstriped tank, the soldiers behind the cannon watch me. Maybe they will shoot me, maybe not, but they're not going to let a guy on an old two-stroke get the jump on them.

I gas up in Del City on Highway 180 at the only station between El Paso and Pecos. The old man there is full of chat and I find myself spilling my life story. If I had an undescended testicle I would have told him. We go on for 10 minutes and I leave thanking him for just being open. I am starved for the milk of human kindness; my travel out West is a lonely affair.

I roll into small dusty towns, stab my credit card into the side of the pump and somewhere in Bombay a computer awakens.

I take on 2 gallons of gas and roll away, a $6 charge on next month's Visa bill the only evidence I exist. I make Pecos by evening.

Today the wheels fall off. The 360 is burbling along Highway 11 toward Bakersfield, Texas, for a short rendezvous with Interstate 10. All is right with the world when a slight rattle tells me the bike is running low on fuel. I pull over to dump in my spare gallon--and all hell breaks loose. Thorn bushes wrap around my front and rear wheels, puncturing both tires. In Texas they mow the roadside thorns, allowing a thin covering of weeds to remain. In this manner they are able to conceal nature's perfect spikes beneath a carpet of green.

I limp into the Bakersfield gas station on two flats and proceed to patch both tubes, all the while cursing Texas, George Bush and the Alamo. When I tell her how it happened, the lady behind the counter shakes her head and says, "Never pull off the road in Texas, honey. If it doesn't stick you it'll sting you."

The next morning I crank the RT up to 5000 rpm and leave it there all day long across Texas' plains, making up time from my tire debacle. After reeling off a flawless 350-mile run we pull into Jasper. The rear tire is still leaking, but it's a manageable 10-psi-a-day leak.

In Jasper I hit up the local Wal-Mart for another load of Castrol made for air-cooled, oil-injected, two-stroke motorcycles. NAPA is the other place you can find the stuff from Valvoline. I am usually cleaning out the last two soiled jugs on the shelf. An extinct motorcycle searching for extinct lubricants made from extinct animals.

From Jasper east you enter the hurricane zone. All the hotels and motels are full of Katrina/Rita victims or Katrina/Rita workers. I cross the Mississippi River on a ferry boat and keep riding east through countless burgs and burgettes. On and on the Yamaha pops and stutters through wrecked towns that smell of rotting garbage. In the evening I start checking for rooms. Every motel has the same story: No vacancy; try going north.

I head east as night falls, a fine rain mixing with the bug guts on my faceshield to prevent all light from entering my helmet. The Yamaha's 6-volt headlight waves a flaccid beam into the gloom. I lose the road completely in the dazzle of oncoming headlights. This ride has become the Bataan Death March.

Finally, a break. I run up the back of a bunch of pot smokers in a bent-up Honda Civic and follow them for 30 miles. They merrily weave across the road at 45 mph as the smell of burning socks wafts out their windows. I settle in safe behind them. They have headlights and will take the impact from the seemingly inevitable head-on collision. I use the dopers as a stoned immaculate battering ram until they turn off onto a dark dirt road. The mist stops falling and the night clears. I ride 450 miles to Mobile, Alabama, before finding a motel with an available room.

Five kicks and the big two-stroke is rasping away once more. The farther east I go the easier the bike is to start. Is it the thick humid air, or has the contact point rubbing arm worn to achieve the correct ignition timing? In Crestview I pull up next to a young woman in a Toyota Prius at a light, the 360's rpm surging fast and slow before settling down to a loping environmental catastrophe. Inside her car she sniffs the air as if to say, "Do I smell something burning?"

Cross City, Florida. The miles roll by fast and furious because I'm now on home turf. No need to stop and smell the roses when you've run over 'em a hundred times before. The RT responds to the challenge by putting in a 530-mile final day. That might not seem like a lot to Gold Wing fanatics, but at a steady 60 mph it's the most I've recorded on the trip.

Back home, the 360 sheds its touring clothing and becomes the only working transportation we own. It carries my wife and I hither and yon until a rental car can be procured. Touring bike to grocery hauler, the sturdy 360 never falters, and by virtue of its stellar performance it earns a permanent place next to a slowly rotting V-Max in the palatial Gresh family tool shed.

My midlife crisis? It disappeared sometime during that rainy night in Mississippi. I beat it using a steady diet of petroleum products, incompletely burned. Ten days of droning along with not a care in the world but keeping the bike running and finding gas has erased my mind and reset my mental breakdown. I'm done. Finished. Sated.

Although, heck, I did see an early Suzuki GT750 water buffalo on eBay today. Very cool bike. Truthfully, I need something a little bigger than the 360 if I want to take a long ride. -MC

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