Any motorcyclist with chops living east of the Mississippi River has, or will, ride the Tail of the Dragon, a twisted piece of asphalt, part of NC Route 129, with 318 curves within 11 miles. Despite the wet roads this spring morning, April 25th, it was my turn to conquer the Dragon’s Tail—or the other way round. But this last weekend of April offered much more. I was headed to a regional BMW rally at Fontana Dam. In addition to the Dragon, there was the Cherohala Skyway, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, and lots of great roads from here to there. I left Blacksburg on Boxxer on a cold Thursday morning, but it became mid-50s-pleasant by the time I reached Grandfather Mountain on the Blue Ridge in NC.
My overnight destination was the motorcycle-friendly Phillips Motel in Robbinsville, NC, a popular jumping off spot for Dragon slayers (photo). Ms. Reba, an elegant octogenarian, welcomed me at the motel desk where she proudly displayed photos of herself astride various moto machines. We were quickly on a first name basis as I asked her the origin of the motel internet password (FIFTYONE all caps).
“It was the year I eloped with my husband,” she giggled. “It was the happiest day of my life.”
The Phillips Motel was on Main Street, Robbinsville, one of the few remaining, thriving businesses. The town’s main street was located, sensibly, on a terrace ridge above the floodplain of the Little Tennessee River. But then along came the Tennessee Valley Authority with its dam building program (Fontana Dam), which eliminated flooding of historic floodplains. Thus, route 129 bypassed around the center of town on the floodplain, and, as usually happens, the by-pass became the commercial strip. The demise of Main Street followed. Except, that is, for Reba’s motel and Leah’s Restaurant, a nice local diner with excellent entrées and sweet tea (no alcoholic drinks: this is the last dry township in NC).
Between the motel and the commercial strip was Collin’s Fabrication, maker of all things requiring one-inch steel plate. Johnny Collins was hanging out with 3 of his employees at the machine shop door as I walked by in a steady drizzle at 7:30 am on my way to find a cup of coffee. I stepped under the shelter of the door eve and struck up a conversation about the weather, the Dragon, and the steel littering the yard.
“Be careful up there”, Johnny offered. “Four motorcyclists were killed on the Dragon last week.”
“Thanks for the warning,” I said, “but I intend to die of natural causes.”
I had plenty of time to talk to Johnny because it was 10 am before the last shower passed. I reversed my route to begin with the Cherohala Skyway, followed by Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, then the Dragon hoping that the asphalt would dry by the time I reached it in the afternoon.
The Cherohala Skyway is a 43-mile National Scenic Byway that connects Tellico Plains, TN, to Robbinsville, NC. The Skyway gains over 4,000 ft in elevation to a high point of 5,400 ft. It was at the top where I encountered a blowing rain and dense fog for about 10 miles (I never put on my rain suit soon enough!). While drying out at a coffee shop in Tellico Plains, I met another BMW rider from Atlanta who showed me the strip lights he sewed into the shoulders of his riding jacket. When plugged into his motorcycle, his left and right shoulders light up with his turn signals, and both shoulders light up when he hits his brake levers. I liked that; a typical BMW rider always trying to devise ways to avoid getting run over by a 4-wheeled cage.
I had a nice brisk ride on the Tail of the Dragon, but it was a bit anticlimactic given all the hype. Perhaps my enthusiasm was muted by being spoiled by all the challenging roads I have near home. Nonetheless, I took the obligatory photo with the Metal Dragon (photo) at the top of the run and visited the Tree of Shame (photo), a memorial of sorts consisting of parts of wrecked motorcycles collected from the roadside and hung around and on a large tree.
Do you all remember Harrison Ford jumping down the face of a large dam in the movie The Fugitive? That scene was filmed at Fontana Dam where I camped for two nights during the rally. At night it is lit up and gives off an eerie glow (photo). There were lots of friendly BMW riders at the rally, which was held in the resort adjacent to the dam (photo), men and women alike. I shouldn’t be, but I am always surprised at how far some ride to simply interact with other like-minded folk. Some of the nicest people ride motorcycles.
The beautiful mountain and lake scenery, the twisted asphalt, the Wheels Through Time Motorcycle Museum at Maggie Valley, and the nice local folks made this area a great place to visit. It is adjacent to the Smokey Mountain National Park, and, for those of you who enjoy the solitude and wonder of a virgin forest, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is a real gem. It is approximately 3,800 acres named in memory of poet Joyce Kilmer, best known for his poem “Trees.” You remember that poem from grade school, don’t you?
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.