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R2S: Road to Somewhere

Tail of the Dragon – Day 4

Tail of the Dragon - Day 4

On the morning of our fourth day a few of the guys woke up early and went over to Bob Evans for a bigger breakfast. Rob, Randy and I just went over to McDonald’s for a quick bite instead; a decision that was part financially driven and part sensitivity to time. We had mapped out a rough route last night, but I wanted a route that was a little more concrete. The roads between Lake City and Gatlinburg were a bit challenging in the sense that most roads in that area angled in a northwestern direction leaving no direct route. We’d have to meander through a number or roads and hope for the best. So, I wrote down major turns on a McDonald’s napkin and we saddled up and headed out.

We took Route 441 Norris Freeway to the Norris Dam State Park. The Norris Dam is an impoundment of the Clinch River that was built in 1936. The reservoir is another recreational area and the road that skirted the park itself was very wooded and scenic. I kept making turn after turn onto new roads per my handwritten directions. Surprisingly, I ended up getting us to Sieverville sooner than I had expected with only one wrong turn along the way. Sieverville is the first town off of I-40 when heading to Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg is somewhat of a quaint little area that sits right on the border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along U.S. Route 441. Both areas are very popular vacation destinations. The closest thing we have to this here locally in the Chicago area is the Wisconsin Dells. There are attractions, shopping and a ton of waterparks. I tend to break down every so often and take the kids to places like this, but I can only handle so much of that kind of stuff. I don’t do well in crowds.

There is only one entrance into Gatlinburg, which means all the traffic builds up heading into the area. We were feeling the summer heat that day and sitting as we slowly worked our way into the area. The tarmac was hot, our engines were hot, our helmets were hot and so were we. I thought the guys were going to strangle me for choosing this route, but there really are no other alternatives. The destination was the entrance of the Smoky Mountains where we would be riding up a shaded mountain road along a scenic mountain stream. Unfortunately, we had no choice but to grind through it. We finally arrived in Gatlinburg where we grabbed a bite to eat at yet another barbecue place. There is something about men and barbecue. I don’t know what it is, but everyone preferred that over most anything else. It felt good to get in an air conditioned space and drink a humongous glass of lemon ice water. Just thinking about that glass of water makes me thirsty now.

Some of the Harley riders wanted to head back down and hit the Gatlinburg Harley store. Hitting every frickin’ Harley store became a regular thing for those guys. I think their goal was to get a shirt from every Harley store along our entire route. I wasn’t interested personally (surprise, surprise), but I had no problem stopping at any of those places. I knew it was part of their adventure and that’s all that matters. Rob and I headed back to check out the “Smoky Mountain Moonshine” store that was advertised on almost every other billboard on the ride into Gatlinburg. They were offering samples and had mason jars of various flavors of moonshine along every wall within the place. I waited around for a sample of the unflavored moonshine which was not worth the wait. The whole place was a bit of a gimmick and I wasn’t really surprised that I wasn’t impressed with it.

The Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains

We converged at the entrance of the Smoky Mountain Parkway where we took a group photo. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. The park was named for the smoke-like bluish haze that often envelops the mountains. The Smoky Mountain Parkway connects Gatlinburg to Cherokee, North Carolina directly through the park. The parkway was a former footpath known as the Indian Gap Trail. For centuries, Cherokee hunters (and other Native American hunters pre-dating the Cherokee) used the trail access the game in the forests and coves of the Smokies. US-441 mostly follows that same route today.

One thing about the mountains is that the clouds tend to just hang around all day. You have to be prepared for a passing shower by either riding through it or by gearing up. As we rode up the parkway, we began to see other riders in rain gear coming down the mountain. Sure enough, the rain started to fall slowly progressing from a light drizzle to a steady downpour. We pulled off the side of the road beyond some construction zone pylons and busted out our rain gear. I’ve been asked several times about how I handle the rain when I ride. It is a bit surprising to me that some people think you can’t ride through the rain. I recall one of the things with the motorcycle safety course I took was that classes would happen rain or shine. The instructor made it very clear that riding in the rain is something that happens when you’re on a motorcycle, therefore, it’s almost viewed as bonus instruction when it does rain. When you are riding a motorcycle, especially on longer trips, you just be prepared which is why we always pack rain gear on longer trips.

We pressed on up towards the top of the mountains. The Smoky Mountains are gorgeous and we made several stops to take scenic pictures of the landscape. Eventually, we worked our way towards the higher elevations at Newfound Gap. The Newfound Gap is situated along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. The state line actually crosses the gap. The 2,200 mile long Appalachian Trail also traverses the gap. I had visited the turnout before, but we decided to continue on towards our destination.

North Carolina

It wasn’t long before we entered our fifth state of the trip. North Carolina leads the nation in furniture, tobacco, brick, and textile production. The state motto is Esse quam videri, meaning to be rather than to seem. That motto reminds me of a verse from a favorite Rush song of mine called “Limelight”:

Living in the limelight

The universal dream

For those who wish to seem

Those who wish to be

Must put aside the alienation

Get on with the fascination

The real relation

The underlying theme

It happens that North Carolina has the largest state-maintained highway system within the United States. The state’s highway system currently has 77,400 miles of roads and we were about to cover our fair share of those miles. North Carolina has 1,500 lakes of 10 acres or more in size and 37,000 miles of fresh water streams. It is one of the few states where the mountains and ocean just hours away from any point within the state. For this reason, it remains one of my top relocation spots. We pulled into Cherokee to get some dinosaur juice. Cherokee is the headquarters for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. It is located in the Oconaluftee River Valley around the intersection of U.S. Route 19 and U.S. Route 441. Cherokee Indians are a Native American Indian tribe that settled primarily in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and East Tennessee. In the 19th century, historians and ethnographers recorded their oral tradition that told of the tribe having migrated south in ancient times from the Great Lakes region, where other Iroquoian-speaking people lived. I’m hoping to make that same migration at some point in my life. Although I can’t prove it, I’ve been told I have Cherokee blood in my lineage somewhere along the way. Then again, it seems like most everyone brags of that, so I take it with a grain of salt. We contemplated getting a place for the evening in Cherokee. Pete was interested in hitting the local casino. He’s our gambler guy and he seems to be pretty good at it. I personally suck at gambling and, therefore, do not waste my time or money. I hate it when you have to “pay to learn.” Besides, everything is so obviously stacked in favor of the casino anyway. It’s a business and they’re in business to make money. Have you ever heard of a casino entering bankruptcy? We continued south and westward along Route 74 towards our destination for the evening, Robbinsville, North Carolina. For some reason, I envisioned Route 74 being more of a twisty, rolling mountain road, but it wasn’t. Instead, it was a four lane separated highway with a steady flow of traffic coming on either side. We stopped to check directions, confirmed the route and then continued on. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I had a different vision of this road in mind.

Robbinsville, North Carolina

Eventually, we rolled into Robbinsville. The area is an obvious motorcycle haven due to its proximity to the Tail of the Dragon and all the other awesome motorcycle roads in the area. We didn’t realize how spoiled we were about to become with respect to the quality and quantity of roads in the area. There’s no wonder it is a top motorcycling destination. We rolled into town and pulled up into the local Microtel. Although we had heard the chain caters to motorcyclists, we had more of a rustic cabin in mind. There was good wireless connectivity, so a quick Google search helped me locate the Simple Life Campground.

This campground had a number of cabins available and they really cater to the motorcycle crowd. Once again, I explained that we had six grown men each with an interest in having his own bed to sleep in. Sharing quarters is one thing. Sharing a bed is quite another. The lady told us about the “Big Dawg’s House” which was a cabin that slept six. We told her we wanted it for two days, which was the minimum stay anyway. No one attended the campground and the owner – whom I was speaking with – lived out of town somewhere. She told me where the key was hidden and we headed on over to the cabin. A short drive later and we were pulling up an incline where our accommodations were located. The lower part of the hill had a number camping sites for tents and trailers. A narrow concrete trail led up the towards where all the cabins were. We pulled under the covered parking and immediately got a sense that we had hit the jackpot. This place was exactly what we were looking for! We opened the door and found three sets of full-size, steel framed bunk beds! We were like little kids calling out our beds. The place was pretty basic, but had everything we were hoping for: air conditioning, fresh linens, kitchen, bathroom with shower, running water, a deck with a fire pit, and covered parking for our bikes! Everyone in the group was thrilled and we immediately booked the place for a third night. If you ever head to the area for motorcycling, I highly recommend the Simple Life Campground. We ran into town to get some food and beverages. We roasted hot dogs and brats on the open fire for dinner and reflected on the day. We shared a little of the bourbon that our friend in Kentucky had given us as a parting gift. Everyone remarked how good the trip had been up to this point. Sitting around with good company and conversation was the perfect way to end the day. Riding the Tail of the Dragon would soon become a reality for each of us tomorrow. The real treat, however, would be the endless selection of awesome roads we were about to discover. We had no idea how much better the riding would become over the next few days. A ride that has been on my personal bucket list almost since I started riding. Life is good, but now we were onto Day 5….

States Covered:

  • Tennessee
  • North Carolina

Key Attractions:

  • Gatlinburg
  • The Great Smoky Mountains
  • Cherokee

Mileage:

  • Miles Covered: 177
  • Odometer: 8,077 through 8,254

Road to Somewhere

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