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Jinxed June 8, 2009

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Well, with the exception of the last hour, this leg has been a bit “hard”.  Today I made it from Lillington, NC to Savannah, GA — barely.  I woke to very dense fog setting my mood for the day.  I walked over to the neighboring Waffle House for (guess what…) a waffle.  Then I made the mistake of checking my work email to get embroiled in the crisis of the day.  Three telecons later I was on the road  much later than I hoped.  The night prior I had replanned the trip to avoid I-95 to attempt to catch some local flavor, knowing I was adding time, and despite my late start, I headed out on the revised plan. 

I headed west on US-421 to pick up US-701 south to pick up US-17 into Savannah.  The route was much slower, going through several towns on 2 lane roads.  But the problem was the weather.  Suffocating sultry southeastern humidity with the constant threat of storms — of which I hit 5.  The first three not so bad – though they slowed me up a lot.  I was making horrible time.  Five hours in the leg and I had made less than 200 miles.  When I got to US-17, I started making up some good time, and just when I thought things were looking up, my optimism was dashed by storm number 4; manageable, but it slowed me again. The fifth was devastating hitting me in the I-565 bypass around Charleston, SC.  Being as tired as I am right now, I won’t regale you with the watery hell I endured in the middle of Charleston rush hour with visibility extending no farther than the tail lights ahead of me.  (Nor the pressingly urgent yet futile search for a restroom in the midst of it, hitting three gas stations to find a working lav.)  I have never ridden in such adverse conditions.

Lesson learned: Harley is not a great form of long distance transportation when you are locked into a tight schedule.  I need to be in Florida for the LRO/LCROSS Flight Readiness Review Wednesday morning, and I had hotel reservations in Savannah that I would be paying for whether I was there or not.  If I were on “my time” I’d have stopped in Charleston and maybe found an adventure – instead I pressed on to Savannah.

Storm 5 soaked me to the core, of course without wearing my raingear.  After it was over the rest of the ride was actually not too bad, drying off everything but my boots and my “backside”.  I finally arrived in Savannah looking as though I never did find a restroom.  After a very long wait at the check in with a less than pleasant receptionist I got into my room to find that I had no spare jeans nor shoes.  (I couldn’t pack for two weeks of riding, business, business social gatherings, and beach lounging, so I shipped half my clothes for pick up in Cocoa Beach.  Of course all my shoes and my spare jeans were in the shipment.)  I more or less dried my jeans with a hair dryer and set my boots on the air conditioner.  Getting to the point that my boots no longer squished when I walked, I set out for the streets of Savannah. 

Finally – a relaxing end to a rough ride.   I stopped at Belford’s Steakhouse (a regular destination for me when I find myself in Savannah) and had a ribeye (charred medium-rare) with garlic mashed potatoes and steamed asparagus accompanied by a glass of Mark West Pinot Noir — and for desert a Sandeman’s Tawny Port … which brings me to the start of this post.

After a most excellent meal — I headed out in search of Stogies (a cigar bar I had frequented in past trips) to find it was no more – now a Paula Dean restaurant.  So I am now planted enjoying a Guiness in an eccentric little bar called The Jinx….  it seems appropriate.

Columbus Day Weekend – Day 3 January 26, 2009

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I awoke the next morning surprisingly well-rested.   I still didn’t have my Georgia ABCs photo and figured my new friends could use the sleep, so I headed over to the Post Office to get the shot, and gassed up on the way back.  Wishing seriously for a cup holder, I missed out on the gas station French Roast, and made do with the pale brown water the motel office was serving as coffee.  Heading back to my room I stopped by to roust my fellow riders, who were in the throes of their morning routines. 
ABC Clayton, GA

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. 

Wendy's wet and wild??

Interesting to see a new spin on Wendy's so far into the Bible Belt.

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. 

Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort

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. 

Boss Hog

One of three Boss Hogs.

 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.

Tree of ShameThe 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.

Killboy.com shot of me on the Dragon.

Killboy.com shot of me on the Dragon.

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…

deals-gap-overlook-pan1

3-shot Panoramic of the Little Tennessee River from the Overlook.

…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.

topodrag

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. 

knoxville-detour

A ridiculously frustrating error and detour lost me about an hour of 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.

Columbus Day Weekend – Day 2 November 2, 2008

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I awoke the next morning in my tiny euro-styled Microtel room.  Rain gear and leathers were still draped about and all dried.  Flicking through the TV stations, I found a local weather report.  I and my upcoming ride were right on the sunny edge of a rainy front.  Today would be South Carolina and Georgia. (I had seriously toyed with the idea of pressing on to Alabama – but fortunately came to my senses.)  If I could make good time heading west, before dipping south into SC, I figured I should avoid any rain, and the temperatures should be reasonable.  I repacked my saddle bags, cold gear at the bottom, rain gear on top, and got the bike packed. 

Pulling out I glanced at the nearby Waffle House thinking a waffle and coffee would be a good warm start on the chilly morning, but I still was still kind of full from last night’s rib-eye.  I headed out in the wrong direction following the bad advice of the hotel clerk who sent me 5 miles out of my way looking for the road I was already on.  After getting my bearings, I headed back, passing the hotel and turning south on NC27 through Lilliington and then west on to Charlotte, NC.   The whole route was spent riding straight for the edge of the weather.  On my left, ominous grey clouds; on my right, perfect blue skies.  The ride was pleasant enough, though generally unremarkable.  I rode though a lot more depressed areas and more cotton fields.  In Charlotte, I picked up US29 which took my to I-85.  The scenery gradually improved as I headed west, with more hills and forests. 

I rode into South Carolina on I-85, stopping briefly to get my ABCs Touring picture, and soon left the interstate for more local roads.  Near Gaffney, I got off I-85 and onto SC11, the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway, continuing west.  Definitely well-labeled as scenic, this road was a great ride, and I had made it sufficiently far west that the weather line was no longer much of a threat.   The temperatures were up and SC doesn’t have an helmet law (over age 21), so I stowed the jacket and helmet and had a wonderful ride though the South Carolina countryside with the wind in my hair.

Monument at Cowpens Nat'l Battlefield.

Monument at Cowpens Nat'l Battlefield

I stopped at Cowpens National Battle field, a Revolutionary War site where the South Continental Army defeated the British in 1781 in a battle that (according to the visitor’s center) turned the tide of the Revolutionary War causing the British to give up on attempting to take the south.  In the gift shop I bought a “Passport to [my] National Parks” – yet another “collection” activity in which one collects date-stamps from National Parks across the country.  As if I needed a reason to ride… I now have another.  I also bought a copy of George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation, 110 little maxims of advice that are generally as true today as they were in 1746, when the 14-year-old Washington wrote them down from French translations.   The battlefield had a short loop ride which looked pretty much like the rest of the countryside.  The walking tours would have burned a little too much daylight, so I circled through on the bike and kept heading west on SC11. 

About 5 miles west of Chesnee I happened upon a large orchard and farmer’s market with such extravagant signage, I thought I had actually entered outskirts of the town of Strawberry Hill.  I pulled in for some fresh local produce and was greeted by a very friendly stout woman who was quite proud of their harvest.  She had me try the Asian pears – which besides apples and pumpkins appeared to be the only thing in season.  I had never seen or had one before.  They looked more like apples than pears.  They were very firm, but juicy and sweet with a subtle pear flavor.  She had me sold on them and I bought a bag, along with a pint each of strawberry and blackberry ciders (which I am just finishing up as I type.)  I shuffled things around in my bags to make room without bruising the pears too badly, or cooking them with my exhaust pipes, and kept riding west. 

Such happy, stylin', and patriotic fruit in S. Carolina.

Such happy, stylin', and patriotic fruit in S. Carolina.

The scenery just kept getting better and better; forests rising up into mountains, beautiful rock faces overlooking shaded lush valleys.  Riding the ribbon of asphalt through the beautiful fall countryside is what biking is all about, and I started thinking about tomorrow… There was no way I would even try for Alabama and comfortably be home in time for work on Tuesday.  Fortunately I was able to replan my route without focusing at all on Tuesday, only that I would be in my own bed on Monday, and that all the time from now until then would be spent however I pleased and wherever the bike took me.  I knew I’d make it to Georgia and head straight north to pick up my Tennessee point and head home.  I also knew that route would put me right on course for the ultimate ride in the southeast — the Dragon’s Tail.  It felt good to live the ride. 

At around Devil’s Fork State Park, SC11 turned south, bringing me to US76 which I took to keep moving west toward the northeast corner of Georgia.  Near Westminster, SC I stopped for a quick break and figure out where in Georgia to spend the night.  I tried asking the clerk whether Taccoa or Clayton would be the better place for a drink and dinner, but his dull stare and shrug wasn’t particularly helpful.  I saw a couple of older gentlemen and a younger man near the cafe counter and walked back to get their opinion.   At first they were about as helpful as the clerk – the two older men thinking neither place was a particularly great stop.  The younger man just sat staring with a cold non-emotive intensity, as one may imagine a young Charles Manson looked before he put the Manson Family together.  Well, if Manson were wearing a John Deere baseball cap that is.  Then the opinions started coming together, and I was advised that Clayton would be the better choice.  

It was getting a little chillier as the sun fell lower in the sky, and Georgia has a helmet law.  So I pulled out the leathers and skid lid, and headed up US76 to Clayton.  Crossing the Chatooga River into Georgia, the bridge had no safe place to pull over for my Georgia ABCs point picture, so I pressed on to Clayton.  I arrived pretty early in the evening with a good amount of light left and immediately found the Days Inn.  Again reticent to stay in a chain, but wanting to be close to food and drink, I circled around a bit before resigning myself to the Days.  I checked in, and was given a ground floor unit in the back, near a group of motorcycles. 

As I was getting unpacked, two other bikers were getting their bikes set for the night.  They were from Macon, up to ride the local area.  Apparently, the southern half of Georgia doesn’t offer a great riding experience, but up here there is “not a bad road anywhere”.  This was apparently their normal starting point for their weekend rides.  We talked for a while as I unloaded.  They gave a thumbs-up recommendation for the Mexican restaurant there in the same building as the motel.   We talked about rides – the Dragon, the Cherohala Skyway, my journey for steak and ABC points… I gave them a couple of my Asian pears, and headed out in search of a decent watering hole, figuring I may see them in the Mexican place later that night.

The bar I found was a gas station — literally.  It had been converted with minimal changes.  Most of the seating is in the repair bays.  The bar is where the counter would have been.  And the business-side of the bar is where the office and storage would have been.  The restrooms are the original station commodes, outside at the back of the building.   I ordered a beer and sat out front where an assortment of concrete benches and patio furniture populated the area where gas pumps had once been.  It was a pretty cool place — but I sensed the food would be less than “fulfilling”, and the Mexican place I heard about earlier was working its way into a craving.  The evening was just beginning to get dusky — cool but very pleasant.  I sat watching people and enjoying my beer, then headed back to the motel. 

Overexposed cell phone picture of the Station.

Upon my return, the bikers I spoke to before were just returning from a supply run at the local liquor store, and asked me if I’d like a drink.  I grabbed my emergency bottle of Jack Daniels from my saddle bags (you never know when you’ll be stuck in a dry county) and a coke from the vending machine and headed over.  There were three of them in their group.  We hung out in front of the rooms drinking and talking about bikes, rides, life, and work until the sun disappeared, then headed over to the Mexican restaurant.  I guess Georgia is not the best state for good Mexican food — but I was hungry, so it was good for me at that moment.  After filling up on two baskets of chips and salsa (which had to be doctored with their hottest hot sauce), some (way too mild) enchiladas, a couple of corona’s and a mediocre margarita – we headed back to our motel drinking positions for a few more drinks and conversations.  They offered to join me on the Dragon’s Tail the next morning, and I was happy to have guides.   We decided not to set a time, but whoever was first up would wake the others. 

Back in my room, I was so ready to go to sleep.   Stepping in I found the light was burned out, so I fumbled my way in the dark to the light near the bed.  Turning it on, I startled a cockroach on the wall who, quick as lightening, jumped onto the night stand, onto the alarm clock, and down into one of the buttons.  Hmmm…. Mental note: be wary of mediocre motels that share buildings with mediocre restaurants.  Knowing there is never just one, and realizing there was no reason to suspect any other room would be any better, I called the front desk and negotiated a discount.  Also thinking the worst thing would be for me to leave with roaches in my luggage, I took the pears out of my bag and moved them to the other end of the room.  

As I lay in bed, I wondered if my six-legged roomie was content to stay in his little clock radio house, but then my mind drifted to the ride.  I was kind of awed by trip:  that just two nights ago I was home in Maryland; that just last night I was gorging myself on steak in North Carolina; that I had roamed the countryside of South Carolina to be here in Georgia having drinks, dinner, and conversation with three new friends; and that tomorrow I would ride the infamous Dragons Tail.  Through it all my biggest concerns were the road in front of me, the weather over my head, and where I was going to rest.  Life is good on the road.