Well before my dad started riding again, my good friend Brad was pestering me to buy a bike. Brad has been riding since he was 16 years old, and has had a plethora of bikes pass through his garage since we met while instructing in Southern California. After I followed Brad to Horizon and Portland, we hung out a lot but seemed to do little but drink each other's beer. "If only you had a bike," he'd say, "it'd be a gorgeous day for riding." I didn't know what I was missing out on. I was interested in motorcycles but it was too low on my list of priorities to merit a chunk of my limited disposable income. Brad was simultaneously pleased and aghast when I learned to ride and bought a bike only months after moving back to Minnesota.
Since then we've been trying to do a motorcycle trip together. Shortly after I bought the BMW in October 2008, we planned a ride down the east coast for the next spring. That fell through when Brad's father became severely ill and passed away shortly before we were to leave. When my bike was in Portland last year, we did some riding together, including a three day trip around the Olympic Mountains and San Juan Islands after we somehow convinced our spouses to spend their anniversaries on the backs of our bikes. When I started considering a Round-the-USA ride last fall, the inclusion of an east coast trip with Brad in the spring was the major motivation. I bid vacation for the last week of April and rode around the country with that timeline in mind; Brad worked his charm on Horizon crew planners to get the whole week off as well.
It almost all came undone in the silliest way possible on the morning of my departure to Atlanta. I was walking across our living room floor as I was packing, and suddenly collapsed to the floor with excruciating pain to my lower back. I was able to get up and walk only with great difficulty. This has happened to me a handful of times since I injured my back in high school; the pain has always come on unexpectedly and inexplicably, and has always faded within a day or two. I decided to fly to Atlanta anyways and see whether I could ride through the pain. Unfortunately the flights to Atlanta were all packed, so I spent a good part of the day hobbling around the Minneapolis airport bent over like a hunchback, dragging my heavy saddlebag along. I ended up making it south only by connecting through Grand Rapids. It was dark when I emerged from Atlanta's midtown MARTA station; I could barely walk by now, and the four blocks to my friend Jeff's condo were painful and slow. I had real doubts about starting the trip the next day.
Monday, April 26 dawned bright and clear over Atlanta, and I woke to almost no back pain. It returned somewhat over the course of each day, but was completely gone by the end of the week. I set out for Chattanooga shortly after 7AM. Once clear of the rush hour traffic, the riding was good on I-75. I was due to meet Brad in Chattanooga later in the day; his bike was in Decatur and he had a chain problem he needed to sort out before riding up to meet me. In the meantime, I needed to get my engine, transmission, and final drive oil changed. I stopped in Dalton GA to eat breakfast and search for an open bike shop (most close on Mondays); I found one nearby but they work exclusively on Hondas and refused to lend me an oil pan so I could do the change myself. Instead, I rode to the nearest O'Reilly's Auto Parts. They had my preferred oil in stock, let me use their oil pan, and recycled the used oil. I was back on the road in 45 minutes.
I called Brad; he suggested it might be a long wait in Chattanooga, as his bike's chain was definitely not being cooperative. On the prior suggestion of an acquaintance, I swung over to the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, site of one of the largest battles of the Civil War. I spent most of the afternoon browsing the museum and riding around the expansive battlefield, examining the memorials erected by Civil War veterans in 1890 and reading the plaques that explained the flow of battle. For some reason, I've never been quite as interested in Civil War history as other periods of American History, but visiting the battlefield piqued my interest. It is one thing to look at orderly blue and red lines across a map, and quite another to stare up a wooded hill that men fought their way up inch by bloody inch.
It was after 6pm by the time Brad made it to Chattanooga. I had been hoping to at least make it across the Great Smoky Mountains near Robbinsville that night, but that would now require negotiating the Cherohala Skyway in rapidly fading light. Instead, we decided to stop for the night in Tellico Plains TN, at the base of the Skyway. We took several wrong turns on the way there due to poor signage, and then rain started to fall. It was almost dark when we pulled into Hunt's Lodge Motorcycle Campground. Camping in the rain our first night didn't sound too appealing, so we rented a cozy cabin, complete with a bike shelter, for $50. The town was almost completely shut down when we rode back in for dinner; instead we got brats and buns and beer at the grocery store and returned to the resort to use their grill and picnic shelter.
It rained off and on through the night, stopped at dawn, and began again as we prepared to leave in the morning. The skies were leaden and threatening; it did not look like a good day for riding. Due to the late start the prior day, I had hoped to put in some good miles. We lingered, waiting for a break in the rain, then left around 9AM. The first portion of the Cherohala Skyway was good riding despite the wet road, but then we went into the clouds. Visibility was cut to 100 feet, our face shields fogged up, and our pace slowed to a crawl. When we stopped at the crest for a photo, Brad declared he was ready to throw in the towel on The Dragon. He was referring to the stretch of US-129 known as "The Tail of the Dragon," famous in motorcycling and sports car circles for its 318 curves in 11 miles. A rockslide had recently closed it from the west side, but it could still be accessed from the east via a detour from the Cherohala Skyway. If the Dragon was shrouded in fog and rain like the Skyway, though, there was little reason to make the side trip over there.
We didn't have to descend very far down the eastern side of the Skyway before we popped out of clouds, and little bits of blue sky had even started to poke out between the clouds by the time we stopped at the turnoff to the Dragon. We turned off the bikes and nearly talked ourselves out of doing it - "The road will be wet, we won't be able to ride it like we wanted, we might detour only to find it fogged in, we're already running late," etc - when my "when in doubt, adventure wins out" maxim started bouncing around the back of my mind and I knew I'd later regret skipping the Dragon. "Argh, we came this far," I said. "Let's go see what all the fuss is about." We started the bikes and headed down the road past Santeelah Lake.
The Dragon is but an eleven mile stretch of curvy road - one of many in the area - but it has an outsized reputation among bikers. It's a self-perpetuating legend, actually: everyone sees the YouTube videos and hears the stories, many come to ride it with macho determination to "slay the Dragon," and a portion of these exceed the limits of their abilities or their luck, further adding to the legend. I was a little hesitant to take on such a notorious road on a rainy day, but the combination of weather and the rockslide served to minimize the Dragon's real hazard: traffic. We saw only three bikers - slow-cruising Harley riders who graciously pulled over to let us pass - and a couple of tricked-out Mini Coopers in the area for a Mini convention. The road has very good, unusually sticky pavement that didn't seem to be any slipperier for being damp. I was riding fairly conservatively, but constantly throwing my 630-pound bike around 22 miles of tightly twisting turns was still exhausting work. Brad patiently followed behind me; my pace was using but a fraction of his late-model FZ-1's amazing performance. In the end, the Dragon was well worth the detour, but not necessarily any better than a half-dozen other fantastic but less well known roads I've been on over the course of this trip.
North Carolina Route 28, nicknamed the "Moonshiner 28," was an unexpected treat with nonstop fast, sweeping turns. I really enjoy this sort of road; the K100's heavy weight isn't nearly as noticeable as it is on snarly roads like the Dragon. After about 20 miles, the road straightened out and widened to four lanes; then we joined US-74 into Cherokee. We stopped here for lunch before heading to the start of the main feature of the trip, the Blue Ridge Parkway. From the time we starting riding the Dragon until now, the day had turned sunny and warm, but in the time it took to eat a six inch sub sandwich, dark clouds again covered the sun and began spitting out rain.
We still had our rain gear on from the morning, so we didn't pay the rain much attention as we rode the few miles west of town to the start of the Parkway. At first, there was only sporadic drizzle, not enough to really wet the road. In these conditions, the start of the Parkway was immensely enjoyable. I was somehow expecting a tight, slow winding mountain road and instead found a wide open, sweeping road just built for speed (albeit posted at 45 mph for its entire length). After twenty miles, the rain returned with a vengeance; we were at higher elevation now and it was definitely colder, but I didn't think it was anywhere near freezing. Then, we turned a sharp corner onto the exposed side of a ridge and the rain instantly turned to sleet. The slap of pellets against my faceshield so surprised me that I didn't see the half-inch accumulation of icy slush on the road until several seconds later, right about the time my rear tire started sliding sideways. I stood up in the pegs and eased off the throttle, the tire caught traction again and fell in line, and I rolled to a halt just as Brad exclaimed "ice, ice, ice!" into my helmet. He had seen it as soon as we rounded the curve, but our intercom system was in standby mode and took three seconds to wake up. I very gingerly turned the bike around on the narrow, slippery road, and we retreated a few miles back down the road to US-19.
I had really hoped to do the entire length of the Blue Ridge Parkway, 469 miles in all, but it was obvious that at least the section between here and Asheville would be impassable for the day. We rode the forty miles of US-19 and US-74 into Asheville, then stopped to gas up and discuss our options. The rain wasn't constant but the heavy showers were not getting any less frequent and more threatening clouds appeared over the ridge to the northwest. The section of the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Asheville has elevations over 5000 feet, which was where we had encountered the sleet further south, and there was no easy way off the Parkway up there. We could bypass the Parkway on US-221 - but hadn't we come here to ride the Parkway? If we pressed on further for the day, the miles were sure to be cold and wet, with only the promise of cold, wet camping at days' end. Brad had a cousin in town; he called her and she immediately invited us to spend the night. A warm, dry bed sounded great, but I couldn't help rueing our lack of progress thus far. I didn't have any plan set in stone, but I had a 2300 mile route in mind that would take us up the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive into Virginia, then across central Pennsylvania to New York's Adirondacks, Vermont's Green Mountains and New Hampshire's White Mountains, through rural Maine to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, then down the coast to Boston. With two days gone and not 400 miles up the road from Atlanta, the math wasn't looking promising.
I tried to put that out of mind as Brad's cousin Daphne showed us around Asheville. Once I figured out the layout that had so confused me when Dawn and I rode through a few weeks prior, I found it to be a really charming, inviting town that seems to have a ton of stuff to do if you'd stick around for a bit. With only one evening open, though, we settled for our second favorite activity after motorcycling: quaffing craft beers in several of the town's 36 microbreweries and brewpubs. Asheville only recently overtook Portland Oregon for "Microbrew Capital of the US." When we came back to Daphne's apartment, I noted with some satisfaction that the rain had done a passable job of washing several thousand miles worth of dirt off the Beemer. I went to sleep to the sound of rain on the roof, hoping for better weather in the morning to put some decent miles under our wheels.
To be continued....