by Mark DesCartes

A couple years ago, I was following the back roads toward home after a visit to the excellent aircraft museum in Liberal, Kan. Somewhere north and east of the town of Pratt, I pulled up on a guy standing over his parked FZ Yamaha.

“Need any help?”

“I think I’m outta gas”, the rider replied.

I looked he and his bike over. He was in his late 20s, wore a leather jacket that was too big, jeans and work boots. A pair of good motorcycle gloves complemented the shiny new helmet. His well-maintained, late model bike wore a set of throw-over saddlebags repaired with duct tape and a faded tank bag. What I guessed to be a tent and sleeping bag was bungeed lopsidedly across the passenger seat and saddlebags. I saw myself, from 20 years past.

“You flip the petcocks to reserve?” Time and miles have taught me to always check the obvious first.

The rider blinked at me. “Petcock?”

Crap. I was revealing my age again. His bike was fuel-injected. Newer rider. Likely never dealt with petcocks.

I recovered quickly, “Your FZ is fuel injected, right? Does your low-fuel light work?”

“Yeah. I saw it come on a while ago. I was hoping to make it to Hutchinson.”

I offered to ride to Hutchinson, pick up some gas and return. We traded cell phone numbers and I took off.

As I rode the 20 miles to Hutchinson, I remembered all my blunders with bikes and gas. First a history lesson. Before fuel injection, most bikes relied on gravity to get the fuel to the carburetors. You had a valve each side of the gas tank that you, the rider, had to manually turn to permit fuel flow. If you ran out of gas, you could turn the valve to the “reserve” position that would let you get the last bit of fuel on that side of the gas tank. Some bikes had a petcock on each side of the gas tank.

Many new riders were afraid to go more than 50 miles from home or let the tank drop below half full.  When I rode with a cruiser crowd, I quickly grew tired of stopping every 50 miles. After meeting Lyle, who would become my riding friend, I switched to BMW twins and grew obsessed with riding the tank out. Soon, I could tell within miles when I would need to turn the first tap to reserve. When that ran dry, I would flip the last tap to reserve, knowing that I still had 15 miles of fuel remaining.

With experience, when you ran out of gas while underway, you could reach down with your left hand, turn the petcock 180º, count one…two…three… and have the engine roar back to life, all without stopping. It was a skill I came to master and is still very satisfying.

Trouble could arrive on a road trip if you forgot to reset the petcocks to the “main” position when refueling. Two hundred miles later, when the engine sputters, you reach down to turn the valve and realize with horror that you have been running on the “reserve” setting the entire tank. Crap. Now you are beside the road without a drop of fuel remaining and need to come up with a plan.

This happened to me a long time ago running west in the California Sierras. I had cleared Idyllwild on California Highway 74 and thought I had enough fuel to make Hemet. I sputtered to a stop midway.

Pulling off on a small clearing, I checked the tank. Both taps had been on “reserve”; not a drop left in the Moto-Guzzi’s tank. Operator error. Crap.

As I looked at a map, trying to guess the shorter walk, a battered pickup pulled up.

“Need any help?”

“I think I’m outta gas”, I replied.

The rancher said nothing as he climbed out of his Chevy, reached into the back and offered me a gas can.

“Not much in there, but it’ll get you to Hemet, about nine miles ahead.”

I willingly accepted his offering and poured about a half gallon into the Moto-Guzzi. I held the can for a good long time, trying to get every drop. It was going to be close.

I returned the can, and as he turned to put it back in the bed of the C-10, I pulled out my wallet.

“Put your money away, son. You save it for the gas station.”

“Well, I’d like to repay you for your kindness.”

“You’ve already thanked me. If you want to repay me, do the same for someone else down the road.” With that, he pulled out and headed up 74. I gathered my things and quickly caught up to him. When he turned off, I honked and waved but kept my slow pace, so as to conserve fuel.

Just as I had made it to Hemet that day, I made it to Pratt.  I bought a 2-gallon gas can and filled it with 91-octane. After sending Mr. FZ a text, I quickly retraced my steps and found him. He was happy to see me.

I hung out as he refilled his tank. I didn’t want to leave until I heard the Yamaha run.

He had some money in his hand and self-consciously thrust it my way.

“Put your money away, friend. You save it for the gas station in Hutchinson.”

“Well, I’d like to repay you for your kindness.”

“You’ve already thanked me. If you want to repay me, do the same for someone else down the road.”

I have both needed and offered help on the road many times since. Be kind to each other, for we all need a hand once in a while. Check your fuel level often and never pass a gas station when out west. See you down the road.


1 Comment

  1. I used to ride with a buddy who always “tested” his bikes’, mostly Yamaha 650’s, fuel capacity. He ran out of gas, at least once, almost every time we rode for more than 500 miles. He was always trying to convince me to do a cross-country trip together, but I prefer to keep going in the direction I’m aimed, not backtracking every few hundred miles to make up for someone else’s poor planning.

    Running out of fuel in a fuel-injected machine is risky business. Those plastic fuel pump impellers don’t last long without fuel acting as a lubricant.

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