Friday, October 06, 2006

Riding the North Carolina Mountains

Today was to be our first real day of riding the North Carolina mountains. It was supposed to rain until noon today, but the forecast changed and (after a light early drizzle) no rain was anticipated. When Terry and I went down and uncovered the bikes, we met a GoldWing rider from Texas named Don Martin. He was a CMA rider on a three week trek around the south. We talked bikes for a while before getting the gear packed.

Terry led the way out of Maggie Valley bound for Bryson City on US 19. The road was mostly twisty as it wound its way up and down the mountains through the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Terry, towing the trailer, set a steady pace which picked up a bit as the pavement dried. We passed through Cherokee, going by the fancy casinos and the turn off to Gatlinburg. We came into Bryson City along the river and stopped at the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) store to stock up for the evening. A couple of good old boys came out with a pint, climbed in their truck and took a long pull from the bottle before driving off. Luckily, they were going the other way.

I took the lead as we got up onto US 74, the Great Smokey Mountains Expressway, headed for Kickstand Lodge. This was familiar territory and we rolled through the four lane sweepers, turning onto US 28 North and running the short distance to KSL. Pulling into the KSL drive, we were met by several old VROC friends, including Jim Ayers, Russ "Cargo" Argo and Chunk Kiesling, not to mention Fred Kunkel, proprietor and "host with the most". We introduced our riding partners and Terry unhooked the trailer so we could go and find the real twisties.

After letting the gang know we would be back for supper, we headed west on US 28. Since these were roads I was familiar with, I led. I was able to motor along at a pretty good pace, although wet fall leaves on the road called for a little bit of caution. First stop was the Fontana Dam. They have a fine Visitor Center there and, although it was our third visit this year, it was a first for Terry and Patsy. I spent some time talking to the volunteer worker while Sandy showed them the video on the dam construction. Then the volunteer gentleman showed us a trick with a chain that I really can't describe. It looks like his personality was ideally suited to this type of public service.

Coming out of Fontana, we continued on to the Crossroads of Time. This is the gas station/store/ restaurant/motel that guards the east end of the Tail of the Dragon, the 11 mile 318 turn stretch of US 129 that leads through Deals Gap into Tennessee. We prowled the lot for a bit, checking out the Tree of Shame that carries the broken bike parts and gear from those bitten by The Dragon. Although this was also our third time here this year, it is always fun to take someone for the first time and see everything through new eyes.

Sandy and Patsy opted to have lunch in the restaurant instead of taking a run at the Dragon with us. For the solo run, I changed the suspension and we set off with me in the lead. I described The Dragon in a May post, but without a passenger and having more familiarity with the road, I was able to dig a little deeper. To give you an idea of what this is like, here are two videos of Wings, piloted by the esteemed Dragonslayers Yellow Wolf (in the lead) and Fuse (with the camera).

There were some wet leaves in the first few corners, but then it cleared up as I entered Tennessee and I was able to get fairly aggressive. Traffic was light and I only passed one Sportster on the way to the overlook. There was a good crowd there and I met a gregarious fellow from Nashville and a few Quebec riders. Terry rolled in a short while behind me and we chatted for a bit before starting back. Again I led and, part way though, I came up behind a pair of Harley riders two-up. They were all over the road and I waited for the second bike to give way to the right side of the lane so I could pass. I guess they never heard of Dragon etiquette because this guy kept using the whole lane, so I was forced to pass hard in a short straight stretch. The leader got the idea and moved over after another few corners. Then I caught a truck towing a trailer and figured my ride was over. Fortunately, there was a series of open mild S-bends up a hill and I grabbed some throttle and got by him as well. I arrived back at the COT and lit a cigarette while I waited for my hands to stop shaking. Terry rolled in shortly thereafter behind the two HD's and we went to the restaurant to find the ladies and get some lunch.

We left the COT on US 129 East, aka the Mini-Tail of the Dragon. I took the cut-off road through the Joyce Kilmer National Forest (think Trees). The road was heavily laden with leaves and broken pavement but we made it through to the Cherohala Skyway . I miscued because, at the rate the Valk was burning fuel, I realized that Terry didn't have enough fuel to make it all the way across the Skyway to Tellicoe Plains. After a stop, we decided to run up to one of the higher lookouts and then return to Robbinsville.

The Skyway is more open than the Dragon, allowing higher speeds through the sweepers (as long as the Highway Patrol isn't watching) while providing breathtaking vistas of the Smokey Mountains. Here, Patsy is posing for Terry at the lookout where we turned around. Coming back down the Skyway, we continued on into Robbinsville, where I had a room reserved for us at the Microtel. Good thing too, since the town was booked solid. We got checked in and then left town before the Homecoming Parade clogged the main street.

We headed southeast on 129 to US 19/74 and then northeast through the Nantahala Gorge. Here, the gang stands on a footbridge to get a look at the kayakers and rafters working some white water.

From here, we continued on 19/74 to US 28 and back to KSL where I spent time visiting and Terry took some time out to wash the bike. His rides are usually spotless, a habit I never seem to have gotten into. Bob "Joker" Denny of Florida and Bob "Judge" Oglesby of Georgia were just getting ready to leave, so it was good to get a chance to see them even if it was only for a few minutes.

As the sun set, Fred and Mo cooked burgers, brats, beans and slaw for supper to feed the assembled masses. We hung out and visited some more. Grampoo, of the Pacific Northwest Chapter, was in the area on business and took time out to visit even though he was without a bike. The temperature dropped as it got dark and, eventually, we put on warm clothes for the night run to Robbinsville. Leading, I thanked Honda for the excellent headlights on the Wing as I kept an eye out for Bambi and his relatives. We got into Robbinsville without incident, found odd corners to park in since the lot was filled with bikes, had some pre-mixed White Russians we picked up at the ABC, and turned in for the night.

This was an exceptional day of riding and seeing old friends, exactly the kind of experience that keeps us out here on the road.

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