Last Spring, I began a series of posts to which I never returned. I'd envisioned a grand tour of the Smokies and surrounding environs all through the summer with episodic posts detailing my traveling exploits. My plan to supplement these ramblings with picturesque shots of mountain highway ultimately fell through. Instead of a summer throwing the bike into languorous curves, I spent a week in the hospital and another month in outpatient therapy, my vacation time whittled down to nothing more than splinters.
So, I'm returning to my grand vision now, a little more humble in scope. Better late than never, right? Well, maybe. My brief foray into the eastern Tennessee mountains nearly ended in disaster and disaster of my own making at that. But I'll get to that a little later.
From my earliest days of touring, back when I darted about the state on a 440 KZ, I preferred motorcycle camping to staying in motels. At first, camping was simply a matter of necessity. A $50 motel room meant less money for gas and, ultimately, a shorter period of time on the road. Spending $8 for a campsite allowed me to range farther afield. Then there are those times when I've paid nothing for a spot to throw a tent up after a day cruising lazy back roads. I've camped behind abandoned buildings, in vacant lots, and in farmer's fields, with their permission of course. For a starving college student on a shoestring budget, these situations are a dream come true. My motel experiences have always been dubious. I've rented rooms for $25 dollars and been treated like royalty. On the flip side, I've forked over $90 dollars and been ready to pack up in the middle of the night and slink away like a bad dog. By contrast, rarely have I had an unpleasant stay in a $30 dollar nylon dome from Target, and the experiences have always been memorable. I woke up in the middle of the night at Carter Caves State Park on a humid Wednesday in late June several summers ago to watch (and smell) a pair of skunks knock a plastic box containing donuts off of trees the next site to mine. Which just goes to show, all creatures love donuts.
In my mind, motorcycle touring and camping share many of the same traits. So many similarities, in fact, that the idea of staying in a motel after a long dusty day in the saddle, feels alien by comparison. Motorcycles embody freedom. Some would say freedom incarnate, really. The experience of freedom in the magnitude that motorcycling rewards demands vulnerability. As riders we're subject to the unpredictability of the elements. We're at the mercy of other vehicles, as well as the whims of the idiots who pilot them. A bad breakdown in a remote area often means hitching a ride or, more likely, a long walk to the next service station. Crashing, God forbid, usually results in a trip to the hospital. Our gear sits in plain view. I believe motorcyclists offer more fox-hole prayers than any other population. Riding into Atlanta during rush hour I recall myself saying, "Please, God, if I live through this, I promise I'll never do anything this stupid again."
These "drawbacks", as most motorists would call them, generate our solidarity. Stranded by the roadside with the whistle of a punctured front tire for company, cars whizzing by, its always comforting to hear the stumbling gait of a motorcycle engine gearing down as its rider prepares to slide onto the gravelly shoulder to offer, if nothing else, moral support. Motorcycle camping enhances this experience, indeed, can sustain the sensation indefinitely. At least, as long as one is willing to go without a hot shower.
I sometimes prefer the solitude of remote camping, as I described in Part One, to mirror a 450 mile day alone on the bike. For my latest excursion, I chose the possibility of a social venue by camping at Hunt's Lodge Motorcycle Resort. The southern Appalachian mountains are unique for motorcyclists in the respect that these types of campgrounds are plentiful. Hunt's Lodge offers sleeping cabins or free-range camping, hot showers, coffee, and the pleasure of company as a group of old road dogs relax around the fire pit swapping lies. In spite of the amenities, the spirit of freedom and the sensation of vulnerability required to sustain it, are preserved.
My suggestion is to begin slow and inexpensively. A $30 tent from Target will keep you just as dry during a thunderstorm as a $400 tent from your local plush outfitter. Which is to say, you'll be wet. Take extra cash with you for food in case that state-of-art cook stove refuses to light in the wind. Or in case you throw it into the woods in the dark and can't reacquire it. Buy a sleeping pad; its less expensive than a chiropractor. Don't skimp when it comes to sleeping bags. Make sure your cell phone is fully charged; plugs do not grow naturally in the woods. Above all, experiment. Take a brief trip to somewhere close by with several options in case things don't go as planned. This is a good way to test gear, to find out what actually works well. When you're sitting in the tent pondering what on earth possessed you to purchase that combination can opener-signal whistle-flash light, you won't regret as much tossing it in the dumpster on your way out than you will if you're deep in the forest and realize that this amazing device took up the same same space as a drybox of matches.
While camping at the Blue Ridge Motorcycle Campground several summers ago, a BMW rider approached me and said, "I see that you're as compact as I am," meaning that I had developed over many years of stupidity, luck, and trial and error the ability to carry everything I need for several days on the road with limited need for human interaction. I couldn't help but smiling. That line from Spaceballs crossed my mind, "I see that your Schwartz is as big as mine."
Oh, and don't forget to enjoy yourself. See you in the woods.
The famous US 129 has reopened to traffic from the North Carolina side of the highway. According the article from Clutch & Chrome, motorcyclists may enter the corrider at Robbinsville, NC and turn back about two miles before the rock fall. Be careful out there, folks. I imagine that with the road only accessible from one direction, emergency services will have a more difficult job extracting injured riders.
Prior to my departure for the Cherokee National Forest, a fellow rider from work asked me what I was going to do there with the Dragon closed. I had to explain to him, with a more than a little sarcasm, that other roads do wander through that region of the country. Case in point is the beautiful Cherohala Skyway, a 36 mile highway bridging North Carolina to Tennessee. It crosses through two national forests, the Cherokee and the Nantahala.
Where the Dragon epitomizes the technical, riders on the Cherohala can expect solitude and some of the most profound scenic vistas to be found on any road in the region. During months like March, weather on the Cherohala can be unpredictable, and I've found that the best way to approach riding not just the Cherohala but the entire region is to dress for a wide variety of conditions. Being a fan of textiles, this usually isn't a problem. Temperatures in the Tellico River valley were near 75 degrees by noon the Saturday I started my climb into the mountains. Temperatures near the Cherohala's highest points favored snow. Even in the valley during the early morning hours, the temps can drop into the freezing range.
What I appreciate most about riding east Tennessee during the early part of the season is the lack of crowds. While I don't mind sharing stories by the fire with a few of my fellow travelers, the last thing I desire while trying replenish my spirit and take in the view is to constantly glance into my mirrors for the next rocket-boy attempting to race his way up my exhaust pipe. The Cherohala offers a clean ribbon of tarmac uninterrupted by commercial traffic, the glitz and glare of billboards, and stoplights. Plenty of pulloffs provide opportunity for photographs and space to stop and allow faster riders to proceed without the risk of dodging into oncoming traffic.
Home to the Over-the-Hill tribesof the Cherokee prior to the arrivalof white settlers
The Over-the-Hill Cherokeewere so named due tothe fact that this wasthe terrain one needed to crossin order to make contact with the natives
The natives treated the peaks and valleys of east Tennessee and western North Carolina as sacred. It only takes one pass through the Cherohala's sultry curves to connect with that sense of spirit, one moment to fall in love with this long, quiet highway.
I recently returned from a brief foray to the Cherokee National Forest, one of my favorite places on earth to ride and camp. While the entire area serves as a Mecca for motorcyclists, one road draws riders from all over the world more than any other in the region. US 129, named the Tail of the Dragon, actually refers more specifically to an eleven mile stretch of highway sporting 318 curves spanning east Tennessee and western North Carolina. The road crosses through Deal's Gap, a pass in the mountains likely named after white settlers, but used by Cherokee natives centuries before the arrival of white explorers.
A rock slide occurred on March 14 and Tennessee authorities closed the infamous Dragon at the state line on March 17. Efforts are underway to reopen the road, at least from the Deal's Gap Motorcycle Resort to the area of the landslide.