Life is an Open Road
R2S: Road to Somewhere

Tail of the Dragon – Day 1

Tail of the Dragon - Day 1

The Tail of the Dragon has been on my bucket list ever since I discovered the top motorcycling destinations within the United States. The “Dragon” is a section of US 129 that sits on the southwestern border of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It is one of the most popular motorcycle roads in the United States with 318 curves in and 11 mile downhill stretch. That’s crazy.

There are no roads even close to comparable in the Midwest, especially in my state of Illinois, which happens to be the third flattest state in the United States. The best ride in Northern Illinois is probably the good old Stage Coach Trail that leads from Lena to Galena, Illinois. Aside from that, we have to ride a few hours to find twisty river roads or anything of interest. The relatively flat landscape of our home state is one of the primary reasons that we look forward to trips like this.

So in the spring of 2014, a core group of our regular riders decided to plan another “Big Trip.” The previous year, Dave and I had ridden down to Arkansas to check out the Ozark Mountains. That area had some of the best riding that we had done to date. I still highly recommend that area as a destination for any motorcycle enthusiasts.

Later in that same year, Pete joined us on our “semi-circle tour” of Lake Michigan around the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I say semi-circle because we eliminated the boring interstate ride through Northwest Indiana and southwestern Michigan. Instead, we took the high-speed ferry from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Muskegon, Michigan and then continued the loop counter-clockwise from there. We had a blast on both of those trips. We discovered many good roads in places we had never been before and met very interesting people along the way. One of the reasons we enjoy these trips is discovery of new friends, places, food and beverages, especially microbreweries!

Seek Adventure First

Inspired by the Long Way Round motorcycle documentary, our motto is to always seek adventure and skimp on over-planning. This means that will usually take the road less – or never – traveled versus a road that we’ve already experienced. It also means that we seldom make reservations for accommodations in advance. Lastly, it means that we are always willing to change our itinerary in an effort to maximize our adventure.

The problem with making reservations is that there is always a sense that you have to be to a certain point by a certain time. In our view, this adds unnecessary stress to a vacation that is intended to get us away from the stress of life. When I’m riding a motorcycle, I don’t want to think or worry about that sort of thing, so we simply don’t put pressure on ourselves to be to a certain town or check into a motel by 10pm. Instead, we are free to make choices as needed. What we’ve found over the years is that it always works out and almost always adds color to the overall adventure. Some people don’t like traveling this way, but we sure do based upon our first-hand experiences. Often, the most difficult part of the trip is the most memorable. Removing small challenges such as finding a bed to sleep in takes away from the overall adventure.

We shared our plans to hit the Dragon in mid-June with our fellow riders. First there is Dave who never seems to have trouble scheduling time-away. You might say he’s on a permanent vacation. Then there is Pete, a retired park district director, who joined in once again. Next is Dan, a fellow Illinois High School Association (IHSA) referee along with Dave and Pete. Randy is a colleague of mine whom I’ve known and worked with off and on for many years now. Rob is a younger dude that I got to know while working on contract at a Nokia. All of these gentlemen had been on “shorter” rides with us, and I guess they had enough fun before where they were willing to chance a few more days in our company.

Departure

Dave, Pete, Dan and I live in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. We decided to meet at my place and then head to the Hinsdale Oasis on I-294 to meet Randy and Rob. If you’re not familiar with the area, just know that Chicago traffic sucks. It usually ranks in the top 10 of almost every list published for the worst traffic in the United States. On a motorcycle, it’s even worse. This is why we generally will avoid interstates at all costs. It’s dangerous; people don’t watch for motorcycles, and you always seem to have to play cat and mouse (unwillingly) with inconsiderate or flat-out aggressive drivers.

By the time we rolled up to the Hinsdale oasis, we found Randy (punctual as always) sitting and chatting with other motorcyclists who were gathered there waiting to do an honor ride. In this case, it was a “welcoming home” versus a funeral escort. Either one is an honor, for sure, but I wish they could all be welcoming escorts. Such is life. A good cause that no one in our group has experienced first-hand yet. I’m sure we will participate in one of those rides in time. Rob wasn’t there yet. He was coming from the city and had to deal with Chicago traffic, so he was running a bit late. Having to wait a few extra minutes is not a big deal when you don’t have to be somewhere by a certain time.

Back Roads to Indiana

Eventually, Rob arrived, we grabbed a quick bite to eat, saddled up and headed southward. We took I-294 Southbound to IL Route 394 South. From there, we took the back roads to our second state of Indiana. Indiana was the 19th state to join the Union. It is mostly flat and is known for its amber waves of grain, which essentially means corn fields. I grew up just over the border of Northwest Indiana in a small town called Crown Point which is far enough away from Gary and the steel mills, but not too far away from civilization where you’re in farmland. Our route that day wasn’t taking us through my hometown today though. We had other plans.

True to its motto, “Cross Roads of America,” Indiana has more miles of Interstate Highway per square mile than any other state in the Union. That is an interesting fact, but we weren’t traveling the Interstates! Instead, we decided to take U.S. Route 41, which runs from Miami, Florida to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It hugs the western border of Indiana from the top to bottom.

Just after entering Indiana, we passed through an intersection that I’ve been through many times throughout my life. At this particular intersection, there were shoes scattered all over the place for no apparent reason. I remarked to Dave at the next stop light that I remember those shoes being strewn across that intersection all my life, but I have no idea why. It’s just one of those bizarre roadside attractions that make you go hmm.

Reflection on Don

As we headed South on Route 41, we embarked on the first section of road that was somewhat enjoyable, yet it was nothing to write home about. As I settled in, I peered down at my tank bag where I had placed a picture of my oldest brother, Don, who had recently passed away from liver cancer. I was looking forward to this trip because I knew it would offer me some quiet time where I could do as much reflecting and thinking that I desired. Cancer is a frickin’ ugly, vicious disease that I would not wish on my worst enemies.

It is a horrible feeling watching someone you love go through so much pain. You feel helpless. You feel pissed off. This year has contained some of the darkest days of my life personally, so this trip was something I was looking forward to. Watching Don’s health deteriorate right before my eyes was hard, but he was able to share some special moments with most everyone that was close to him. Man, I am so thankful for those few months prior to his death.

In his younger years, Don was a hippie. I wouldn’t say he had a rough life, but it wasn’t the easiest life. Through all of that though, Don still had a heart of gold. You couldn’t ask for a better friend or brother. Being eight years apart, yet sharing the same birthday, created somewhat of a special bond between us. As a matter of fact, our great-grandmother was also born on the same birthday. In addition, Don’s oldest daughter was also born on the same birthday (queue the Twilight Zone music here).

I created a Spotify playlist to play on my smart phone that contained contributions from various people about the music Don loved. The same playlist was played at his memorial service as background music to a slide show that I had created. “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young is one song in particular that struck emotion. I knew I’d be listening to that song and more over the coming days. And that brought a smile to my face. I’m not sure if I was expecting complete resolution on his passing. But I knew hitting the open road would turn into a bit of a healing road for me personally. I love him, and I will miss him dearly for the rest of my life for certain.

Fowler Ridge Wind Farm

The State of Indiana is host to a number wind farms. As a matter of fact, it is ranked 13th in the United States for power generated from wind. The Fowler Ridge Wind Farm that we were passing by is the Midwest’s largest wind farm and one of the largest in the world. As you approach the wind farm, you can’t help but become mesmerized by the sheer size and number of windmills. Stretching from East to West, it seems like they go on forever. Although we weren’t traveling at night, I’ve been through the area at night and have witnessed the red blinking warning lights at the top if each. That is also a pretty cool site.

Parke County, Indiana

Parke County, Indiana is home to the largest concentration of covered bridges in the United States. This historic county has 32 covered bridges and is often referred to as the “Covered Bridge Capital of the World.” This area was a late addition to the planned route that I thought would be cool to check out on motorcycles. The area sits just about 60 miles West of Indianapolis. I remembered coming here as a kid with my mom who just loved covered bridges. On the second Friday in October each year, Parke County plays host to one of the largest festivals in the nation: The Covered Bridge Festival.

As you ride through the area, you can’t help but wonder: why did they build covered bridges? It turns out that the reason they built covered bridges back in the day was to protect the wooden structural members from the weather elements. Uncovered wooden bridges have a life span of only 10 to 15 years due to the effects of weather. Covered bridges, on the other hand, were more likely to stand the test of time. I guess the fact that they are still standing today is a testament to that engineering.

The first bridge that we discovered was the Wilkins Mill Bridge built in 1906. This bridge is 120 feet long and spans Sugar Creek. It sits just a few hundred yards or so off of Route 41 on Cox Ford Road. We didn’t realize that we’d be riding on an unpaved road, but it didn’t seem like loose gravel so we pressed on. We knew it would only add to our adventure. It was pretty cool riding “through” a covered bridge on a motorcycle. However, you had to choose your riding line carefully as the bridges had been designed with tire slats for four-wheeled vehicles (not necessarily two wheels) that ran perpendicular to the wooden slats of the actual bridge structure. A few pictures later and up around the bend my fellow Triumph rider, Randy, and I led the other Harley riders as they headed up the unpaved road. When we got to the top of the hill, we noticed that there were no other riders behind us. After a few minutes, I turned around and drove back down to see what the holdup was. It turns out that we had our very first incident of the trip (remember that part about seeking adventure?).

Rob had somehow negotiated the curve a little wrong – at low-speed fortunately – and dumped his bike. From what I understand, it was more of a slow motion incident where he just couldn’t get his footing. After hearing how it happened and realizing there were no injuries, we quickly resorted to laughter and pulled the camera out for the sake of memory. Poor Rob. From that point on, we decided as a group that we’d nominate at least one person a day for the rest of the trip as “Clown of the Day.” Not because they were as stupid or anything, rather, they made us laugh. Deep down, each of us knew that we’d have more than a few chances to qualify as the clown of the day.

Up the road we discovered our next covered bridge, the Cox Ford Bridge, which was built in 1913. This bridge is 192 feet long and also runs over a branch of the same creek. Sugar Creek is one of Indiana’s most scenic rivers. It flows right through the heart of Turkey Run State Park which is yet another area that my family frequented when I was in my youth. I have many great memories of this area. The trails blaze right through sandstone canyons, which most people don’t associate with Indiana, or for that matter, the Midwest. At several points in the trail system, you have to climb up or down massive wooden ladders to continue the hike. I thought we might do a quick hike there to stretch our legs, but we opted not to pay the $5 entry fee and continued the ride southward.

Rockville, Indiana

We headed South on Marshall road which led us into the heart of Rockville, Indiana. Whenever I see this town on the map, I wonder if R.E.M.’s song “Rockville” is about this place. Riding into town, we found a restaurant (and watering hole) called the Hog Pit. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were eating our first of many barbecues during this trip. It’d only been about three or four hours of riding, but it felt good to sit down and plan the route for the rest of the evening.

Waiting on Pete

As we left the restaurant, everyone saddled up. Waiting on Pete is a common occurrence when we ride together locally. Apparently, this trip was going to be no exception. No matter how much he tries, Pete just can’t get saddled up as quickly as the rest of us. It’s not a race or anything; it’s just the way it is. He’s always messing with his headphones and iPod. Dave and I are constantly laughing about it. We’ve started a tradition where we just sit and honk our horns. Pete takes it in stride and just waves us off.

 

More Bridges!

Heading southward, we discovered our next bridge, Crooks Covered Bridge, built in 1856. This area was probably the most scenic area that we had stumbled upon. This particular bridge is placed out in the country where it crosses Little Raccoon Creek. At 154 feet, it is another long bridge. When we came out the other side, we discovered a picturesque view of Indiana’s infamous “amber waves of grain” just as the sun was beginning its slow descent for the evening. We all turned off our bikes, dismounted and walked around admiring the beauty of the scenery. It was quiet, picturesque and downright beautiful. Looking out into the fields, Rob commented on how he’d take this over mountain scenery any day. I’m not sure I agree, personally, but man it was indeed gorgeous.

A few more miles of gravel roads and we came upon our last open bridge, McAllister’s Bridge, built in 1914. This bridge also crosses Little Raccoon Creek. I turned the GoPro camera on in an attempt to capture the feel of riding over a covered bridge on a motorcycle.

 

Our very last bridge was a closed bridge, the Bridgeton Covered Bridge, built in 2006. Closed bridge simply means it is not open to traffic, but you can walk through it. Two of the guys stopped to take pictures because there was a small waterfall (yes, a waterfall in Indiana) underneath it that the rest of us missed. This completed our covered bridge excursion.

Bloomington, Indiana

Now that we had completed the Covered Bridge tour, we decided to high-tail it to the cabin in Nashville, Indiana. It turns out we had much longer to ride than we expected, so that meant riding in the dark. Some in our crew were not too thrilled about that. Dave, Pete and I ride in the evening all the time back home, so we weren’t all that concerned about riding at night. Some of the other riders mentioned the fear of deer and other nighttime creatures crossing the road. I know it happens, but I’ve never had a close call personally with an animal while riding at night. I make a habit of constantly scanning the road left to right and back again regardless of the time of day. That said, I realize that riding at night is not for everyone, but at the end of the day (no pun intended), we had no choice. Again, it was all part of the adventure.

When we rolled into Bloomington, Indiana it reminded me of the days when my older sister, Connie, attended Indiana University. I remember coming down here more than a few times, and it was cool to see the campus and football stadium from the road. I wondered if the dorms that I was looking at were the same ones where Connie stayed. Memories. Being familiar with the area, Pete knew exactly where to buy packaged liquor. We picked up a small selection of beer to drink around the campfire that evening and continued Westward via Indiana Route 46. Along the way, I saw the signs for McCormick’s Creek and Racoon Lake which were also places that my family frequented when I was a child. It felt good revisiting an area that allowed me to recall times from the past. The road between Bloomington and Nashville, Indiana was pretty nice even at night. We rode under a full moon. Banked curves and hills abound as we approached the Northern edge of Brown County State Park.

Nashville, Indiana

We arrived at the Last Resort RV Park about 10pm local time or so. Renting cabins was the way to go because she could sleep multiple people in accommodations at reasonable rates. My thinking was that we shouldn’t put our money towards a bed, rather put it towards other things that wanted to do on the trip. In other words, the trip wasn’t about sleeping. We could do that when we returned home. The trip was about adventure. In truth, we might end up sacrificing a little comfort over basic necessity, but necessity is where adventure resides. If we had stayed at a Hampton Inn (which I love personally), we would’ve paid a premium for a bed to use for 8 hours….plus we wouldn’t have been able to sit around a campfire and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow riders. As it turned out, we spent a whopping $15 per person for those cabins. They were nothing to write home about, but they were more than sufficient.

My Little Flask

My Little Flask

My Little Flask

Sitting around the campfire that evening, I decided that I’d break out my “little flask” that my wife, Rachel, had given me for Father’s day. She also included a 750 ml bottle of Captain Morgan’s Private Stock to fill the flask with. I told the boys I was going into the cabin to get my “little flask” and returned to share it with them. They burst out laughing when they saw the size of that monster. What a hoot! I thought a few of them fell off their chairs laughing.

I grabbed the top bunk that evening, Dan just below me and Dave on the full-size bed. Unbeknownst to me, Dan must have gotten chilled during the evening ride and needed to warm his bones. Apparently, his sleeping bag was insufficient, so he proceeded to turn on the space heater in the cabin….in mid-June, mind you. I woke up about 3 am – on the top bunk where heat rises – gasping for air. It was so frickin’ hot, but I just couldn’t figure out why. I jumped out of bed to get some fresh air outside and let some of the heat out when Dave awoke saying, “I just turned the frickin’ space heater off!” It was a sauna in that cabin. We all survived, but Dan quickly became nominated for “Clown of the Day” as we were technically in Day 2.

Continue to Day 2…

States Covered:

  • Illinois
  • Indiana

Key Attractions:

  • Parke County, Indiana – Covered Bridge Capital
  • Bloomington, Indiana
  • Nashville, Indiana (Brown County)

Mileage:

  • Miles Covered: 320
  • Odometer: 7,284 through 7,604

Route
TOTD 2014 – Day 1

Road to Somewhere

Road to Somewhere motorcycle blog is the personal journal of Christopher J. Vezeau. I am a writer and a rider.