Columbus Day Weekend – Day 3 January 26, 2009Posted by dakotabiker in Rides.
Tags: ABCs of Touring, biker, Deals Gap, Dragon's Tail, Georgia, Harley, motorcycle, North Carolina, Rides
Getting my bike packed, I became increasingly aware of one of the obvious differences between riding alone and riding in a group… Getting an early start. Several cups of Days Inn java later, we were ready to find breakfast; after a couple false starts we ended up at the Waffle House.
As time passed, my objectives for the day became simpler: ride the Dragon’s Tail and make it as close to Maryland as I could by sundown. I did add one 16-mile deviation to get an ABC’s photo of Union County, GA to replace my Union County, PA shot of questionable readability. (I was due to collect exactly the number of points I needed to get all the free ABCs crap, and I didn’t want to chance missing it by one point for a bad photo.) Fortunately my new friends were just looking to ride anywhere, so they were fine with the detour.
We finally left Clayton at about 10:30, heading west on US 76W, and I again learned some things about riding in a group — namely that I ride a hell of a lot slower than these guys. They ride together pretty casually, generally just trying to keep each others’ headlights and taillights in sight, but I was clearly the slowpoke.
One of the guys, Tim, rode sweep behind me, so I still had some semblance of riding in a group. They were right about the roads though: good condition, beautiful scenery, nice wide curves. We kept heading west; US76W turned into US76 crossing Lake Burton. Whereas most folks heading for the Tail would have probably taken SR17/515 out of Georgia, we stayed on US76 through Jacksonville, south of which I was able to get my Union County shot. We kept on to Blairsville where we had a coffee exchange at a local gas station. Advantage of riding in a group: drinking coffee and warming up before the next leg isn’t as boring when you have cohorts to talk to.
From US76 we picked up US19 north on the west end of Blairsville. About 4 miles into North Carolina, US19 met up with US64. I think that was the location of a really cool set of markets: woodcarvings, metalwork, furs, food… It was really busy with throngs of people walking about. I tried to get my bearings so I could remember to come back. Disadvantage of riding with a group: it is tougher to stop and see stuff you didn’t know was there when you planned the route. We continued up US19 to Topton where we picked up US129 heading north on to the Dragon.
If you’ve not heard of the Tail of the Dragon at Deal’s Gap, it is a stretch of US129 at the boarder between North Carolina and Tennessee. What makes this road special is that it is a narrow two lane highway with 318 turns in 11-miles. I have no idea why any civil engineer would build such a road, nor why traffic is completely unrestricted (imagine meeting a semi on a road that challenges the manueverability of a motorcycle… or, just check out the below video posted on youtube by Zenbeer).
At the south end of the Tail is the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort. We pulled in admidst a myriad of bikes from little rice burner sport bikes to V8 customs. The resort consists of some long buildings of rooms that would generously be described as rustic. They were more like “camping rooms” from the little I saw through open doors. The remainder of the resort consists of a gift shop selling the “official” T-shirts, pins, stickers, and other Dragon crap and a large cafeteria. There was also a guy set up across the road selling his own brand of Dragon memorabilia.
The weather was warming quite a bit, becoming a PERFECT riding day. Lagging the cold climate back home, the leaves here were just changing color and were still on the trees. The sun was out and the air was mildly breezy. It was actually getting almost too warm to just stand in the sun. I packed in my chaps and heavy gloves and checked out the other bikes. There were three V8 Boss Hogs there: strange gargantuan machines I hadn’t seen before. I don’t know that the photo does justice to their girth — but I imagine being bow-legged would help ride.
The remainder were a bit more “typical” of what you’d see on the street - except that nearly every type of bike seemed to be there – sport bikes, cruisers, dresser; all makes and models. The riders were as varied. There were young men in full racing leathers on performance bikes who were quite obviously there to create the greatest possible challenge for themselves. I guess the biggest problem with doing the Dragon’s Tail like a bat out of hell on a Ducati is that everyone else on the road isn’t. I had been advised by my new friends to just try to ignore them. While this advice is strangely similar to that my mother gave me about bullies in elementary school, it’s actually the right approach. Just focus on the road, the ride, and not hitting anything as you come around the scores of blind corners. Most of the riders, though, were guys just out to test their mettle against the Tail as it is. A lot brought their wives and/or girlfriends as passengers.
The remaining resort attraction, apart from the Tail itself is the Tree of Shame: a living memorial to the victims of the Dragon. It is a large tree hung with fenders, mirrors, crutches, helmets, handle bars, steering wheels, pipes, and other remembrances of crashes. I figured that no part of my bike would look good up there, so I decided I’d better not screw up…
After looking around and hitting the gift shop to pick up T-shirts, stickers, and pins, we were ready to go. I stowed my purchases; donned my jacket, skid lid, and favorite gloves; looked to my posse; and we started our engines. Right about that time was a mini exodus of sportbikes; it was good to have them in front of us rather than behind. We pulled onto the tail and got off to a slow start behind what looked to be a BMW. I was amazed that anyone would be going slower than I. In a tamer part of the beginning we passed him, to again be slowed by a sport bike with a passenger. The rest of my group sped around them. As we got into the tail, I’m guessing the rider ahead was getting his feel and started speeding up, keeping a pace that pushed me a bit outside my comfort zone to keep up – which was perfect. Using him as my pace-car and his tail light as my corning alert, I sped through the Tail. It was amazing. The road is marked 30 mph, but of course it is virtually impossible to sustain that speed. I did manage a few periods over 40 mph (per my GPS log), and more or less averaged 30, which don’t imagine is too bad for a noob.
The ride is a sustained adenaline rush. Of the 11 mile length of the tail about 9 of which is to the overlook where we stopped. An average speed of 30 mph means of 18 long, contiguous minutes of life-or-death concentration from the resort to the overlook. I had about three “oh shit” moments, feeling some brief skids and general instability, but even in those situations, you are afforded only seconds to contemplate your error and what you narrowly avoided before your concentration is forced onto the hazards immediately ahead of you. With each turn, a little more adrenaline pumps into your system, and which each close call… a lot more. Stopping is not an option. Any safe harbors come up and go by so fast that when you see someone actually parked you can’t help but think “How the hell did they see that in time to stop?” and “How the hell are they going to get out of there without getting hit?” No, in this way the Tail is like hell: When you find yourself in the middle of it, keep on going…
…Until you arrive at the summit. The overlook at Deal’s Gap is beautiful, made even more so by the fact that you are hopped up on adenaline and not wrapped around a tree. I can’t remember the last time in the last decade I was so viscerally stoked. I felt the thrill of facing real danger and riding through it. It didn’t (and doesn’t) matter how many others ride that road — that was my experience, my risk, my rush, my achievement. It was incredible. I was feeling top o’ the world.
My friends had made it to the overlook not too much before me. We walked to the south side of the road to relax on the short stone wall overlooking the Little Tennessee River just upstream of the Calderwood Dam. The sun was bright and the wind a bit gusty. It was a great place to let the adenaline subside, taking in the broad landscape. We talked for a while, and said our good-byes. They headed back down the Dragon to go ride the Cherohala Skyway, while I finished the last (easy) mile and a half of the Dragon heading north. I pulled over along a wide part of the Little Tennessee to plan my route. It was bit anticlimatic and solitary sitting in a gravel parking lot by the river thumbing through the Atlas. I was still a little stoked about the Dragon and I would have preferred to ride the Cherohala and finish the day with a few beers in good company. But exploring the country alone on my bike is how I ride, and I settled back into that reality.
My plan was to get as close to home as I could manage before sundown, and at some point before leaving the state, get my ABC shot of Tennessee for my 66th and final point of 2008. I figured I’d continue north on US129 to US411, and take that east until I could pick up US66/SR66 north to I-40. I thought that would be my best nearly-direct route out of Tennessee and completely avoid Knoxville. (Not that I had a problem with Knoxville; I needed to make good time and avoid city traffic.) It was a good plan — until I decided to attempt a short cut taking SR338 to SR66 but instead took a wrong turn and ended up on US441 north, straight into Knoxville. Going with the flow, I figured I could pick up I-40 about a third of the way into the city and still make good time… NOT. The I-40 east bound ramp was closed and I was set on the most asinine detour, taking me straight through to the north side of Knoxville via I-275, then clockwise around the city on I-640 until meeting up with I-40 on the east end. I was so pissed. I was stuck in packed urban interstate traffic and losing daylight.
By the time I got moving on I-40, my shadow was getting long , the temperatures were falling and my tank was getting empty. I continued on picking up I-81 near Dandridge pressing north. I only made it to Bull Run (which was more of an exit ramp than a town) when I had hoped to be in Virginia. And to make matters worse, I didn’t pass a single official sign denoting that I was in Tennessee: not one ABC photo op. I ended up staying in what I think was a Super 8 on the Bull Run exit. I asked the clerk if there were any bars in the area. He named a place a few miles west on US11E, but warned me that it was “a little rough”. I told him “So am I” and headed out only to find that it was closed on Sundays. But by the looks of the place and the mountain of cans in the dumpster, I’d say he was probably right.
I headed back to the hotel and sought dining advice. Of course on an exit ramp, the fare tends to run along the lines of chain-food. But there was one promising sign — Tony’s Barbecue. The hotel clerk said that the food “won’t kill ya”, which at this point was the best I could hope for. I rode up the lane to find the place; only it was more than just a restaurant. It was a combination restaurant, towing, and auto wrecking business. Given my penchant for local flavor, I thought things were looking up.
The place was a friendly little dive which seemed to only be accidentally frequented by the occassional weary traveller. (I was one of two patrons.) I’d guess the service staff was Tony’s kids, and the cook was probably his wife. I placed my order, opened my Atlas and contemplated yet again how bizarre and freeing it is on the road, and how fortunate I am to live a life that allows such experiences. My waiter was sociable and keen to ask questions about my ride until my food was ready. I had a pork barbecue sandwich with beans and sweet tea. I admit, it was the best pork barbecue I had ever had in an auto wrecking yard, and true to the hotel clerk’s word — it didn’t kill me.