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.