At the Tail of the Dragon

Active & Adventurous - Let Me Out!

Unexpected Twists and Turns

Zipping and zooming through mountainous twists and turns is the raison d'etre for many motorcycle buffs. Whether alone or in groups, they seek out the twisties like teenage girls seek a mall.

Frequently, they’ll even gather together for a weekend of twisties and cycle talk. They choose a location near remarkable riding routes, and spend the day chasing thrills.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend several such meetings, in search of the winding roads and company. At the most recent event, however, the twists and turns were primarily of a different sort.


Eastern Owners Meeting Yamaha FJR 1300

Eastern Owners Meeting Yamaha FJR 1300

The 2009 gathering of the Eastern Owners of Yamaha FJR 1300s was held in mid-September at Johnson City, Tennessee. I went not on my own bike, but two up, as a passenger on an FJR. The pilot is an experienced biker, with over 40 years of safe, near-flawless riding, but with enough of a thrill-seeking bug to be exciting. And since I had recently watched a Travel Channel program on thrilling rides, I was ready to be titillated.

As we headed out on a cloudy Thursday morning, we knew the weather forecast looked iffy, but we decided to take our chances. An online examination of radar seemed to indicate that the southern route, through Danville, Virginia was our best bet. And it WAS dry, for maybe about an hour and a half. Much of the rest of the way was wet, but only misting, and we both have water resistant riding gear, so that was okay.

Oh, but I forgot to tell you about the distance. Before you can begin your weekend of thrills, you have to get there. The distance between Richmond and Johnson City, taking appropriate motorcycle roads, is nearly 400 miles—longer than I’ve ever perched on a motorcycle. Now, I’m not sure I realized that when I signed up for this trip, but I try to carry through with all commitments. Besides, what do you do four hours into a trip when you’re tired of riding but you still have four hours to go? Eight hours! My longest motorcycle ride yet!

By 5 that evening, we got there, and dried off, and saw that the rain had stopped. We hung out in the parking lot with the other hellions—umm, I mean middle-aged balding men and the occasional passenger—and I learned of our riding plans for Friday: Tennessee’s Tail of the Dragon.

Now the Tail of the Dragon is one of the pinnacles of Eastern U.S. riding challenges, with 318 curves in 11 miles. I’d already seen people wearing the T-shirts, “I survived the Tail of the Dragon,” so I knew it was a big deal. I’d heard that they have photographers sitting on the side of the road taking photos, and that some of the photos include spectacular crashes. In fact, there have been 28 deaths on the Tail of the Dragon since 1995, including 6 in 2009. There’s even a Tree of Shame, made up of parts and pieces of wrecked motorcycles. The North Carolina side of the route, at Fugitive Bridge, offers a view of the Cheoah Dam, where Harrison Ford jumped in the movie The Fugitive.

So despite the threat of rain when we awoke, I was psyched. And the patches of blue sky soothed any worries I might have. I zipped up my gear, put on my helmet, climbed aboard, and rode—and rode, and rode, and rode. Now on my previous experiences, the mountain roads aren’t far from the group’s hotel. In this case, we stayed on a secondary highway for a while—quite a while. Eventually, we turned onto a back road, and I began to get psyched. Till we pulled up behind a slow driver, and I noticed that even this back road was well populated with homes, and Grandpa making his way to Safeway. We’d turn again, onto a highway, then onto a mildly scenic back road—but always with enough traffic to keep the driving sedentary.

Then we turned onto another major road—but that was okay, because it was lunchtime, and this road had plenty of restaurant choices. It was only after lunch that we realized where we had landed: at Pigeon Forge, the home of Dollywood!

Do you know Dollywood, the amusement park founded by none other than Dolly Parton? How about Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg? Do you know that they are filled with such glamorous attractions as the Black Bear Jamboree, Dixie Stampede, Smith Family dinner theatre, Tennessee Shindig, the Comedy Barn, the Titanic, wedding chapels galore, and that’s just the beginning! So try to imagine the traffic—now slow it down by about 25 mph, and you’ve got the picture! But hey, it was still dry!


On the Way

And soon, we turned away from Pigeon Forge, onto a moderately unbusy road, drawing ever closer, to The Tail of the Dragon. Finally, we got to the final turn. The signs told us we were almost there, telling us, “Warning! Use caution!” Ha!

Ah, the thrills! If you’ve never been on such an excursion, you can compare it to going to your favorite ride at King’s Dominion. It’s like making your way through the theme park, to arrive at the Anaconda—only to realize that on this beautiful summer day, everyone else has decided that it’s a good day to go to King’s Dominion! So you wait in a really long line. Well now the line was almost over—our turn was here!

At the top of the Tail, we came to a scenic pull-off. It was crowded with motorcycles, and a contingent of sports cars—MGs, Austin Healeys and others. All were getting ready to wind their way down the Tail. So the Tail of the Dragon is popular. Which means lots of riders—of all skill levels. And people in old cars, in the out-for-a-Sunday-drive frame of mind. You know how at Kings Dominion the resort employees keep the stream of passengers moving smoothly along, so each rider gets the best experience possible? here are no attendants at the Tail of the Dragon!

On top of all that, as we crested the mountain, getting ready to wind down the Tail on the eastern exposure, the rain began—slowly, but enough to wet the roads. I know you know what that means.

We wound our way down through all 318 curves—behind a string of wisely cautious drivers, being cautious ourselves on the wet roads. Yes, the professional photographers took our photos—but we weren’t even close to scraping the pegs on the pavement! By the time we got to the souvenir shop at the bottom of the Tail, I knew I didn’t deserve any “I survived” T-shirts!

But we did it, and nobody became a statistic.

I won’t belabor the rest of the day. I won’t go into details about how we had to pull into a church parking lot only a few miles past the Tail because it was pouring so hard that we couldn’t see the road, or about the flooded streets of the next town we drove through, or the rain that stayed with us the rest of the route. I will only highlight how all of the motorcyclists in our group—people who prefer scenic roads to highways—cared only about the quickest way home, right through Asheville, and drove without a second glance past the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I won’t describe any more of this wet, 450-mile, 12-hour pilgrimage, or getting to the group’s Friday evening banquet when only a few scraps were left in the bottom of the pans, or the chill that permeated our bones.

But I will say that we warmed up—that we really enjoyed a cold beer afterwards—that we rode The Snake on dry roads the next day—and that we made new friends and had new stories to tell. Our twists and turns weren’t simply literal, they were figurative, too!

Would I do it again? Not knowingly! Do I regret it? No—then I wouldn’t have another good tale to tell!



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