Tuesday, September 30, 2014

TOTD, Day 4

Having spent so much of the previous day traveling, setting camp, and hanging out at Dual Sport Touring, I wasn't able to complete my planned loop which included the Cherohala Skyway - so I made straight for it first thing.

At the foothills of the Skyway, a "last gas for 50 miles" sign and a need for coffee lured me into the "Thunder Mountain General Store and Deli".  I was already enamored before I got off the bike: the pumps had levers on them (no CC slots here!), and the last one contained... gasoline.  Pure, ethanol-free, gasoline - as the hand-written sign reading "no corn liquor" testified.

I was greeted by the owner - Ken, I think is his name - who told me to just pump what I wanted and come in for a cup of coffee when I was done, which I did.  I wouldn't have guessed that a morning gas stop would end up being a highlight of the trip.  He and I chatted for what must have been almost an hour about business, the country, the future, life... I felt an instant kindredness with this kind soul and left with both my fuel and humanity tanks topped off.  "I'm living the dream," he kept saying.  I'm glad I got to share in it for a little while.
Go there.  Buy stuff.

Within minutes, I was on the Skyway proper.  I can't imagine more perfect conditions:  a great road, no traffic, cool weather, sunny skies.  Well, sunny above the clouds, anyway:

It felt like I had the whole road to myself, and I was in high spirits.  This stretch is among the best time I've spent on a motorcycle.
The Skyway is much different than the Dragon.  As it's name implies, it is a scenic route at altitude dripping with awe - 129 is just a curvy road thru the woods.  The Skyway has big, sweeping curves - 129 is full of tight switchbacks.  It cruises a ridgeline - as opposed to climbing and descending a peak.  It is relaxing, calming - 129 is technical and requires a lot of "work" to ride. 
The ONLY problem with being above the clouds is that at some point you have to descend back down thru them, to the detriment of a few overlooks:

About 45 miles in, maybe 10 miles from Tellico Plains, I came up behind some slowsters.  I saw a (relatively rare on this road) intersecting road, so took it with the idea of riding a bit and turning around to let them get far ahead of me.  What I found at the bottom of a paved hill was a bridge across a stream onto a gravel road which led up the opposite side of the valley  (Google tells me this was likely River Road at 35.342377, -84.23094.).  How could I not?
In reality it's no big deal, but riding off asphalt makes me feel like I'm really doing something special.  I followed "Forest Rd / Wildcat Rd" for a while, climbing gravel in solitude on a road GPS didn't know existed.  I tracked thru the woods across intermittently deep gravel (riding on marbles) until I came to an intersection.  With no cue from GPS, I opted to turn right, reasoning that it must be East.  I made a mental note of how it would look coming from the back in case I had to turn around.  The gravel continued long enough for me to start thinking about how often people traveled this road.  If I broke down or dumped and sprained an ankle, it could be a long wait for help.  I started thinking about how much food and water I had aboard.  At some point I intersected a road that was on the GPS, so I plotted a course to Tellico Plains.  Some back roads brought me to rt 68 about 15 minutes south of it, probably about 25 miles from the Georgia border.

I rolled into Tellico Plains about lunchtime, with the idea of finding something to eat, then taking the Skyway back the other way.  I should have followed the signs for the historic downtown, but instead stayed on rt 68, stopping at strip mall to plan.  I searched GPS for food (a Hardee's was across the street), but decided to just keep moving.  Hunger and fatigue were starting to best my judgement.  I stopped at a Bojangles somewhere - I'd have to consult the GPS tracks to know where.
One chicken sandwich with a side of slaw later, I started plotting.  My resistance to going to Hardees had put me far enough from Tellico Plains that I decided to take a different route back.
Another POI seemed in range: the Foothills Parkway.  Before I could leave it started pouring rain.  I let the worst of it break and geared up.

GPS once again pleasantly surprised me with a direct mix of road types until I was back on rt 129 heading for the Parkway.  As the parkway neared, I started thinking about running the Dragon again:  I only ran it one direction and was pretty freaked out having never seen it.   With rain threatening again, traffic seemed very light.  I didn't want to do it just for the sake of doing it.... the POI appeared on the GPS screen (which now had dark shadows from being wet), only 8 miles ahead of my turn.

I was on a motorcycle, almost 700 miles from home, with a famous motorcycle Mecca EIGHT MILES ahead.  I pushed past the Parkway turn.  It started to pour.
The rain stopped before I got to the Calderwood Lake lookout, where two Sheriff's cars were pulled off, the young officers chatting with a BMW rider having a smoke.  They asked me "is it raining down there?"  I wrung out my gloves and said, "it's POURING down there."
Back up the Dragon with far more confidence I took what was likely one of the more spirited rides I've ever taken.  I dragged the edges of my boots several times.  Several times I crossed the lean angle that divides "exhilarating ride" and "momentary terror".   As you successfully negotiate each curve without crashing, your brain starts to allow you to ride at a different level - you dig a little deeper, lean a little harder - and remember that you're not going to "run out of tire."

I stopped at the top of the hill to document my triumph.

Minutes later I arrived at the resort feeling like a "real motorcyclist".  I walked around and took all the requisite pictures.  I went in the tuck shop.  I talked to a big guy with a rashed up last-gen blue 650 Strom.  He had a small pillion with him - I marveled a bit that he was riding that bike, with a pillion, HERE.  He commented on the bike rash... I bragged about having logged over 20k miles without a single drop, mocking fate by saying it out loud.

Killboy got me - 9/17/14, 2-ish PM.  I figured it was right of passage and excused myself for spending a few bucks on pro photos:

I ran the Dragon backtracking, faster yet - locals and track guys throwing their bikes way over back and forth seemed less intimidating now.  I could see where if I lived here, I'd eventually have enough practice to nail it, too.
I turned back on the Foothills Parkway as planned, now a right instead of a left.  If this were the first road I'd ridden here, I would have been blown away.  Having hours earlier been on the Cherohala Skyway, and minutes before on the Dragon, it suffered a bit by comparison.

The Foothills Parkway delivers you to the Little River Gorge/ Fighting Creek Gorge Rd.  - another great twister following a stream, but the low speed limit and heavier traffic put a damper on the riding.  This road is not about covering miles, it's about looking at what you're driving thru.  Spending so much time riding ridges and passes made a road thru a gorge feel "different."  Eventually it brings you to rt 441, the scenic route through the NP which I'd hit on my first day down here.  I looked forward to a repeat.
It was pretty late in the day, which explains what seemed to be a lot of "local" traffic.   As often happens, I found myself stuck behind a parade of slow-moving Harleys.  With increasing frustration, I decided to pull off and let them get ahead, and get my mindset back to an appropriate place.  I swooshed into a large overlook pull out.  Irritated, I pulled quickly up to a spot past an older couple near a pair of cruisers, and decided to K-turn and roll backwards into the spot to avoid having to push out uphill.  While rolling backwards, the bike leaned in unanticipated direction (is counter-steering reversed when moving backwards?)...  The ground wasn't there, as I was sideways on a hill.  My foot touched down just as it occurred to me that I might not be able to save it.... and down it went, just hours after bragging about 20k miles without a drop.
It's hard to hide a drop from a pair of bikers not 20' away.  They came over and helped me pick the bike up.  We chatted a while.  They were a nice couple from Georgia.  The guy had a sweet M109; the woman some flavor of Boulevard.  They shared stories of their various drops to console me, and I appreciated them for what they were trying to do.  I noticed my right wrist hurt more than normal.  I saddled up for the summit, and a missed photo op from two days prior:

I'd hoped to hit Mingus Mill as my final touring stop, then back to camp.  The Mill was already closed.  I drank as much water as I could at the fountain and headed for camp.  I toyed with the idea of going back out to the Casino in Cherokee, but it had been a pretty full day.
Back at camp, I deposited one pannier to the biker's bear box in twilight, and was again the tent and well on my way to sleep before full darkness.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

TOTD, Day 3

An early start on a gray morning delivered me to "Crockett's Breakfast Camp," where the waitress reminded me of Diane... scarily, creepily, so.  I told her she had a twin sister in Pennsylvania.  She told me she was adopted, and her bio father "got around."  I wondered if they really WERE related.

The Breakfast Camp sells the hillbilly thing with mason jar salt and pepper shakers and glasses.   One omelette later, I checked out, loaded up and headed for Bryson City to make camp via rt 441 thru the park.

Almost immediately into the park, wild turkeys lined the road.  A deer crossed in front of me.  I wondered just how dense the wildlife was.  Traffic was very light - I felt I had the road to myself, climbing slowly up into the Smokies, thru some intermittent tunnels, and everywhere fantastic overlooks.  The gray/ cloudy day was putting the "smoky" in "Smokies."

The TN/ NC State line is formed by the ridge.  On top of 'ol Smoky:

Views, views, views.  Pictures... justice... had to be there.

30-something miles later, the park road dumps you out in Cherokee, NC, which has a "sense of place," even if that sense is a little "natives desperately trying to make Cherokee a tourist destination."  On to Bryson City, and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park Deep Creek campsite.  I was happy to be the only person in the tent section, so picked a spot close to the bathroom.  I deployed the North Face mansion, and in so doing was able to shed ~50 lbs of luggage from the bike, freeing me up for riding.

Camp was set by around lunch, then I headed out to run my planned loop of the Cherohala Skyway and the Tail of the Dragon.  Rt 129 appears to have a terminus at rt 19 / 74 so catching it there would allow running the whole length of road.  As a tourist, I'm not really sure what the "good part" is.   Soon I was heading up it, tho, and enjoying it well enough.   Suddenly, a place I recognize from photos pops into view, so I pull in for some obligatory pics.

Soon I mounted up and headed out up the hill on rt 129.  Minutes later it became obvious that I had in fact found "the dragon."  The road turns into a slalom of tight, blind, corners so close together they feel more like gymkhana than road riding.   A few hard corners seem to have a "kink" in them, and there's a fair amount of elevation change all the while, too.  If that doesn't get you unsettled, there's an endless parade of bikes and cars popping out from behind blind corners, which - thanks to a thread on ADVrider.com - I beleive have about a 50% chance of being in my lane when they do.  This really blew my concentration... and even though I figured Killboy would be in at least one of the pull-outs, there's no way of knowing which one it will be.  Having a parked car, tent, and guy pointing a camera at you pop out from behind a blind corner is distracting.  Oh wait, and the locals who have the road memorized are crawling up behind you - decorum requires keeping your eyes open for and using pull-outs... all on a road you've never seen before and know routinely wrecks and kills riders.
All in all, it was far more "stressful" than "fun" but 11 miles later, it was over and I can now add to my "BTDT" list.

Feeling somewhat moto-humbled, I discovered I was only a few miles from one of my POI's, "Dual Sport Touring," on rt 321 near Maryville - so a plotted a course for it.
Upon arrival, I was promptly offered a cold soda which I thankfully took, and was delighted to meet the owner's dogs who were hanging out in the shop.  DST is a friendly, comfortable, familiar-feeling place if you are into dual sports and/or touring.  A small selection of top-notch gear was on display and I got to see, touch, and try on stuff I could only otherwise do via a painful process of mail order purchase.
Soon my pants were literally off being fitted with new 3DO armor.  Before long my jacket got a 3DO back pad upgrade trimmed to fit, too.  It feels weird describing what I received there as "service:"  it was more like "the royal treatment."  What a nice pair of peeps - I wish them every success.  I left after quite a while slathered in armor, stories, and goodwill.  

GPS was performing well so far on this trip, so I let it guide me back to camp.  "Avoidances" set for "shortest route" and "avoid highways" seems to conjure a nice mix of back roads... at least in the Smokies.  A route full of local flavor brought me back to camp in the evening, where I was surprised to find a few other mid-week campers had showed up during the day.  I did some chores and was surprised to find cell service in the tent, so I bantered with command central for a while before falling to sleep.  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

TOTD, Day 2

In the morning, I had a sad continental breakfast and ran into the Florida bikers.  They had taken the Autotrain from FL to VA, and were taking the week to make their way back home.  What a perfect way to stretch the tour - I wish that were an option for me.

I packed up and headed to Walmart for some aspirin and a bike cover, having forgotten to pack either of the two I already own.  With meds on board, but no cover joy, I headed back towards rt 81S.

Again I was pleasantly surprised by the light traffic and smooth air, so settled in for another big day of slabbing.  An unremarkable 200-and-something miles later, I pulled off for a reset just across the VA border at the TN welcome center.  Welcome centers have free maps.

I awed a bit at having ridden a 650cc motorcycle 500-something miles in about 24 hours, having touched five States and arriving at a welcome center where everyone was friendly and had a funny accent.
The woman working the welcome center actually said, "welcome to Tin-iss-ee!" as tho it were her job.  Learning that I was on a bike, she supplied me with a handful of moto-specific maps and brochures.  I told her I'd never felt so welcomed to Tennessee before and headed out.
Some more locals outside tried to talk me into the dinner theatre in Pigeon Forge.  Dollywood was something I actually had a certain morbid curiosity about, but I knew there was no dinner theatre in my near future.

Welcome woman had directed me to "the Snake" - rt 421 - which is northern TN's answer to "the tail of the dragon."  It being one exit away and only about lunchtime, I figured this was exactly the sort of thing I was here to do and laid in a course.  I planned to turn south on rt 91 on the strength of her reporting that some previous biker had told her that road was terrifying and he thought he would "fall off the mountain."

I snaked my loaded bike across rt 421 to Mountain City before pulling over to figure out where I was. The diversion had eaten up some day, so I gave rt 91 a miss and took rt 67 S towards Pigeon Forge/ Gatlinburg/ a high density of campsite POI's.  Some portion of this leg overlayed rush hour, a food stop at a Hardee's, and some emergency vehicle detours.  More miles had me racing rain and darkness, finally rolling into Gatlinburg near dark and just as it started raining.  I pulled off at the first motel that had vacant covered parking and went in to inquire.
The guy at the counter was a biker and told me he'd just taken his sporty on the Dragon earlier that week.  He hooked me up with a room for $59.  As I was completing payment, a Goldwing pilot entered in full gear and asked me if they had a "biker discount."  I told him that they did, but that they also had a "handsome penalty" and that it had canceled out any savings.  I added with genuine good-nature: "well, that probably won't affect you, though."  He seemed confused, so I quickly retreated and found my parking spot between a pair of Goldwings before he figured it out.  Several other 'wings were present and I chatted with a few of the owners who were gearing up to go out to eat.  I hauled luggage in and marveled that $59 with no reservation will buy you a balcony which overlooks one of the half-dozen or so streams which land in the town, covered parking, and a huge room.

I Cliffed for dinner and dug thru the stuff from the Welcome Center.  A plan was formed:

Tale of the Dragon, Day 1

A week off and months of planning a trip to Colorado, then shifting plans to a Maine/ Vermont/ New Hampshire trip culminated in a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, which were wetter - but a lot warmer - than New England.

Preparations were to be made the week prior to the trip but work ruined that plan.  With a whole week off, I gave Friday to normalcy and all day Saturday to prepping.  A trip to Hermy's netted a new pair of tires, a killer deal on some moto pants, and a clearance HJC helmet.  Cycle Gear sold me a pair of boot covers.  Harbor Freight sold me a tire changer, in spite of which I still managed to get the Wee re-shod by late Saturday night.
Sunday morning packing and final prep finally had me rolling at noon... for about 4 miles... until I turned back to switch windshields and helmets on the strength of "better the evil you know".

Underway with more than half the day already gone, I headed east.  As always, I managed to swap Mountain Road with rt 895 in my mind's map and ended up jerking around out in cow country.  I head for rt 78 to rt 81 S.  This route always buffets me to pieces and the traffic is borderline terrifying, but I need to put some miles behind me.  I promised myself I'd go more rural on the other side of Harrisburg.

On the other side of Harrisburg, the traffic thinned out - so the buffeting did, too.  Not one for inspecting the teeth of a gift horse, I stayed the course.  Soon Pennsylvania ended, and then Maryland, and West Virginia.  I knew this progress was illusory and there was a long slog of Virginia, but it still felt like progress.  In VA, I became aware of the Blue Ridge off to the east.  With it's peaks poking up into the clouds, I knew I was missing a moto 'bucket list' item of riding Skyline Drive all the way down... but that would take days.  I enjoyed the view from the ground and kept moving.  

As a travel day, I had no intention of camping.  An hour or so before dark, I stopped for gas and food and contacted command central to arrange hotel accommodations.  I figured another 60-90 minutes and got moving again.  I checked in an hour later to find a text message with directions to my home for the night in Staunton, VA.

GPS took me there without issue - this was almost too easy.  Another big smile emerged behind my faceshield when I pulled in to park... under a covered entry... behind two motorcycles with Florida plates.

What could be better?  I checked into a ground room floor to be close to the bike, which turned out to be ridiculously close.