Life is an Open Road
R2S: Road to Somewhere

Tail of the Dragon – Day 5

Tail of the Dragon - Day 5

The day had finally arrived for us to experience the Tail of the Dragon! The “Dragon” is an eleven mile stretch of US 129 that crosses Deal’s Gap at the North Carolina-Tennessee state line. It is a road that’s been on my personal bucket list for quite some time, and I was about to check it off.

The stretch of road is known locally as “Tapoco Road” in North Carolina and “Calderwood Highway” in Tennessee. The name “Tail of the Dragon” was apparently given to this road due to its resemblance to a dragon’s tail on the map. The curves are the attraction for most motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts. But, what makes this stretch of road so special is that there is zero development along the 11-mile stretch. No businesses, no stop signs, not stop lights, just pure uninterrupted paved road. The benefit of this is that there is no danger of vehicles pulling out in front of those with the right of way. This is a real bonus if you ride a motorcycle.

Approaching the Dragon

After a quick breakfast at a local waffle house, we headed down US 129 towards Deal’s Gap. Robbinsville is about 17 miles southeast of Deal’s Gap. You know you’ve arrived at the top of the Dragon when you come upon it. There are two established businesses located at the start of the Dragon where everyone gathers to congregate. One is a motorcycle inn and gift shop, and the other is a small gift shop owned by KillBoy, the infamous professional photographer who makes a decent living on the Tail of the Dragon.

We spent a while perusing the gift shops, taking selfies, checking out the Tree of Shame and talking with people. We were “here” so there was no need to rush; we were taking it all in. There were a boatload of bikers at both businesses, with people walking back and forth between the two establishments.

The Tree of Shame

Group Photo - Tree of ShameThe Tree of Shame is somewhat of a shrine with pieces of motorcycles that were involved in various incidents on the Dragon. The sign on the tree reads “No gain, but a lot of pain!” We, of course, had to have a group photo taken of it to commemorate the fact that the tree would not contain parts from any of our bikes. You can only hope that these were injuries and not fatalities. One thing that struck me was that the majority of pieces are from sport-bikes probably because these types of riders generally ride at a more aggressive clip than the average cruiser rider.

When you ride with a group of guys regularly, you tend to get a feel for the various riding styles within the group. Some riders like to lean deep into cornering a little more than others. Some riders are natural leaders while other riders enjoy bringing up the tail of the group. Some are more cautious on unknown roads, while others just let it rip. Aside from basic group riding rules, which our group is pretty disciplined about, everybody has a riding tendency and you tend to figure out how they fit in over time.

In our group, the boys on the Triumph machines tended to be our faster, more aggressive riders. This includes me and Randy. Dan generally prefers to bring up the rear. Dave would often lead but was generally comfortable anywhere he fell in line. All the other guys would do the same and just fall into line as we headed out.

Even as an experienced group of riders, the one thing you don’t want to do, especially on an unchartered road like the Tail of Dragon, is to force someone to ride beyond their comfort zone or their capabilities. I had done enough research ahead of the trip and had watched enough YouTube videos about this stretch of amazing road that I knew this would be one of the most challenging roads that anyone in the group had ever ridden. The way I described it to the group ahead of time is that it would likely be the most technical riding that any of us had had to date.

What I mean by ‘technical’ is that it would involve more clutch use, braking, shifting, leaning and careful controlling of our machines than what is generally required on a typical road. Additionally, there would be a steady stream of other bikes, cars and trucks heading up and down the road. You have to be aware of potential chain-reactions when riding in line with your group or other groups. Most sport-bike and road bike riders tend to ride at a faster clip than cruisers, so we’d have to have an awareness of when to let someone pass. Conversely, we’d also need to make it obvious – without being road hogs – our intent to pass slower motorcycles or vehicles that we’d like to pass.

Prior to the trip, I recommended that others join me for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Advanced Rider Course (ARC). The Basic Rider Course (BRC) was recommended to me when I first got my motorcycle and it was a great experience. I highly recommend that course to all new riders. I knew the ARC would provide an opportunity to sharpen our riding skills, especially with respect to cornering which was a crucial skill needed for riding the Dragon. With many years behind me now and a better understanding of the physics related to motorcycle riding, I believe cornering is the single-most important skill that you can develop as a rider. Motorcycle rider error remains one of the leading causes of single vehicle motorcycling accidents.

Three of us signed up for the ARC, but because of my brother’s deteriorating health, I ended up canceling and rescheduled my class for this coming fall. Dave and Dan ended up taking the course and had remarked more than a few times during the trip how it had helped them. When it comes to motorcycle safety, there is always room for improvement for any rider. One of the worst things a person can do is think they know it all because they’ve had a motorcycle or motorcycle license for years. The fact is, there are physics that change the behavior of a motorcycle when it reaches certain speeds. You can think of the front wheel as having the feel of a gyroscope. Understanding things like counter-steering can be the difference between life and death.

I personally believe a lack of understanding this key concept – counter-steering – is the reason most single-vehicle accidents involve cornering. In a panic, a person might steer the handlebars away from the danger, but in reality they are driving themselves right into that danger. Counter steering is a strange phenomenon, but it is worth the investment of time to understand.

Enter the Dragon

Since I had led most of the way over the past few days, I wanted to give Randy – my fellow Triumph rider – an opportunity to enjoy the road without the restriction of anyone in front of him. He and I both ride at slightly faster speeds around corners. So, I asked him if he wanted to lead us down the Dragon. He obliged and I lined up immediately behind him. Everyone else fell into line as expected and we headed out.

The insanity begins the moment you hit the first curve. The road is so curvy that I knew I wouldn’t be able to snap as many photos, although I did leave the tethered camera around my neck just in case the opportunity presented itself. I did capture a few photos at the beginning though. Randy led just as I had expected: far from slow, but not crazy fast. Randy is very much into motorcycle racing. He’s taken a course where you ride your bike at high-speeds on a flat track. You can tell he’s learned about cornering by the way he corners. Most notable is his forward-lean and position of his inside leg around corners.

Randy proceeded to head down the road mastering every corner he took. I followed suit closely behind him. I wasn’t sure how close the other fellows were behind me, but I was in a zone for sure. Considering the speed that we were traveling and the number of corners on this road, there simply isn’t a lot of time to peer into your mirrors. Most of the time, whatever appeared in your rear mirrors was only for a split second. At times, it felt like I was too close to Randy, so I would catch myself and back off a bit.

We witnessed a steady stream of motorcycles and sports cars heading up the Dragon in the other direction. You can catch glimpses of riders in front of you, but they disappear out of view almost as soon as they come into view due to the curves. At one point, my Cramp-Buster throttle-grip cruise control helped me test my Anti-Lock Brake System (ABS). My hand that was resting on throttle-grip coming into a curve. I decelerated and applied my brakes evenly into the curve, but that particular curve required much greater deceleration. This mean I was somewhat accelerating into the curve. The feeling of ABS on a motorcycle is definitely different than in a car. The tires performed series of small skids as I applied the brakes, but I never lost control of the bike. When ABS engages, it’s just an unsettling feeling that gets your attention real fast! I didn’t realize it at the moment, but thinking back on it now I should have removed the device entirely from grip. Later that day, Dan would remark how he thought he saw my tire skidding. Lesson learned for me.

About halfway down the mountain, we passed KillBoy and a couple of other photographers who were camped out along various outer curves. They make their living by sitting under a canopy tent with their massive zoom lenses snapping pictures all day long. Later on, they process the digital images and upload them to a website where you can buy them. It’s really a cool concept because how else would a motorcyclist enthusiast get an ‘action’ shot on such a cool road?

Eleven miles of curves ridiculous, but also crazy fun. After about 10-15 minutes of crazy riding, we came to a large turnout near Calderwood Dam where a number of motorcycles and sports cars were gathered. Randy and I pulled off and I got the camera out to snap a few pics of the other boys heading in. Just then, Rob came around the bend smiling ear-to-ear, followed by Pete, followed by…..a couple of sport-bikes! Apparently, Dave and Dan had gotten passed on the Dragon. Shameful? Probably not. I’m sure they thought the two road-bikes were riding too fast and I’m sure the two road-bikes thought they were riding too slow. In either case, both were riding where they should be riding. The only thing that would be shameful would be if a rider riding beyond their capabilities were to add a piece of their bike to the Tree of Shame.

After a brief stop, where we were all high-fiving each other, we continued down the road. There was another mile or so remaining and then the road completely flattened out. Of course, we just had to stop at the Harley store at the bottom of the Dragon to appease the urge – yet again – of some of our riders to buy more t-shirts.

So, we accomplished the ride and we could now all check-off that bucket-list item that stated, “Ride the Tail of the Dragon before I die.” It was a great feeling, but we were minutes away from checking the box a second time…this time for the ride up!

We rode at a much slower clip on the way back up probably because our adrenaline levels had receded to within normal range. I tried to snap a picture of all three photographers on the way up. Touché, Mr. Photographer man! (I would later find out that my photos didn’t turn out). I wonder if they’d be interested in buying an action shot of themselves?

A few times on the way up, we would pull off to let us pass and one we pulled over to let someone else pass. You never want to be “that guy” who spoils other people’s fun. Having ridden down the Dragon and then up again, I have to say that my favorite was definitely the downhill ride. I’m glad we did both though because each way is unique. I wouldn’t know it until later, but the uphill photos that the photographers took were better than the downhill photos.

Once we reached the top of the hill and spent some more money in the gift shops. I couldn’t help but think about my youngest daughter Lauren and her incessant love of dragons, so I bought her a cute little dragon from one of the gift shops. One of the items on my packing list was tie-straps that could be used to secure things in the event of an emergency. This wasn’t an emergency, but they did come in handy. So, I strapped the dragon to the handlebars of my bike just behind the wind reflector, snapped a picture and texted it to my wife to show my daughter. She was thrilled. “Jack the Dragon” (the name it was eventually given) would enjoy the riding along with me from here on out. Over the course of the next few days, I’d make a habit of sending her pictures of our traveling adventures together. My wife said Lauren was so excited that she said it felt like Christmas.

The Road to Nowhere

We headed out NC Hwy 28 – Fontana Road towards our next destination, the “Road to Nowhere” in Bryson City. The guys wanted to do the road in honor of this motorcycle blog, “The Road to Somewhere.” The story behind the road is a bit interesting. The short version is that Swain County got screwed by the Federal Government when it reneged on its promise to build an alternate road for Old Highway 288. That road disappeared with the creation of Fontana Lake. The replacement road, Lakeview Drive, was to have stretched along the north shore of Fontana Lake from Bryson City to Fontana.

Construction of the road halted when it fell victim to an environmental issue that was ultimately resolved. However, the US Government never completed the project that they had promised to complete. In 2010, Swain County was awarded $52 million in lieu of having that road built. Today, it remains the road to nowhere.

The road itself is fairly twisty and scenic. However, it comes to an abrupt end just before a tunnel. We road past the barricades and headed towards the entrance. The tunnel looked about a ¼ mile long or so and we could see sunlight through the other side. Randy decided he’d test his Bonneville and slowly rode through the dark tunnel to the other side. For a while, all we could see was his headlamp while he was snapping pictures from the other side. He would eventually find his way back to us to give us a report. The tunnel was unpaved, muddy, dark and damp. There was no road on the side to speak of. In other words, we didn’t miss much.

Nantahala Brewing Company

Riding back into Bryson City we decided to stop for a bite to eat. We pulled into an Irish pub, but they didn’t serve food. A beer sounded good, but we were getting hungry. We headed back to the other side of town and saw the signs for the Nantahala Brewing Company. Bingo! And although they didn’t serve food either, they did share a wooden deck with a neighboring pub that did serve food. So, we decided we’d grab a craft beer from the brewery, order food from the other place and sit outside on the deck.

The Nantahala Brewing Company was a pretty cool establishment that had a pretty little bartender who was working that day. She was very helpful in selecting our beverage. For a microbrewery, they had a wide selection of brews available. She gave us samples of any beer we asked about and we each picked the one we liked. I personally fell in love with their Dirty Girl (not the bartender, but the beer). I’m still amazed at how many places don’t serve samples. Instead, they make you order a craft beer that you may or may not like. We were instant fans of the Nantahala Brewing Company.

Moonshiner’s Run

With full stomachs and our thirst quenched, we headed on out westward to pick up a stretch of Route 28 called Moonshiner’s Run. It was supposedly one of the major runs for moonshiners during time of prohibition. The road is just as curvy as the Dragon but without the elevation drop. The speed limit is 55 mph through most of the stretch so you can move at a pretty good clip. Being the 5th straight day of non-stop riding, our riding skills were pretty sharp and we all moved along fairly fast.

We navigated our way down Moonshiner’s Run towards Highlands, North Carolina. Our first waterfall to stop at was the Cullasaja Falls. The scenery in this area is stunning. We snapped a few pictures of the falls and then continued on. Just a few miles outside of Highlands, we spotted the Dry Falls waterfall Cullasaja River. We heard it from the road and Dave and I immediately signaled the boys to exit into the parking lot. I hopped off my bike and headed towards the trail to the falls with my camera where I was immediately rewarded with a spectacular view. The trail led right behind the falls and circled around to the other side. It was a beautiful site. Eventually, Dave joined me followed by most of the other riders. We all snapped a number of photos and then headed back towards our bikes.

Our Sixth and Seventh States

As we worked our way into Highlands, we rode down a divided Main Street where there were antique shops, art galleries, cafes, restaurants and inns. This area was designated by its founders back in 1875 as the intersection of two major trading routes: Chicago, IL to Savannah, GA and New Orleans, LA to New York, NY. Cruising down the main drag gave me a sense that I’d like to return here with the family to spend more time seeing what it has to offer.

We then continued on 28 South to Georgia (our sixth state). The Chattooga River is the dividing border between Georgia and South Carolina for about 10 miles. We followed the Chattooga Ridge road which parallels that border. We ultimately circled back US 76 West to US 441, and then we picked up NC 28 again. The sun was setting at that point, so we didn’t realize that we were taking Moonshiner’s Run again….this time in the dark! It was pitch black and the road was insanely curvy going the opposite way from earlier that day. What a rush! Our confidence level was pretty high and we were cruising along at a fair clip. Dave was leading with me directly behind him. Our headlights are pretty bright, as is Dan’s. However, the other guys’ headlamps were mediocre at best. With the LED lighting out there today, I think it is well worth the investment to upgrade. The ability to see at night is crucial in most circumstances, this being no exception.

As soon as Dave would disappear around the corner, he’d reappear for a brief second. It was easy riding for the most part, but just different. I guess the guys with the dimmer headlamps had a more difficult time. Again, everyone in the group was intelligent enough to not ride beyond their capabilities. Later that evening, we would learn that some of the riders experienced some loose gravel on Moonshiner’s Run that evening. To me, riding at night is a bit like night-diving with scuba. It’s not for everyone, but man what a rush it can be. That ended up being one of the highlights of the day for me personally. Dave and I came to the next intersection awaiting the other riders and we immediately high-fived each other.

We eventually made our way back to the Simple Life Campground where we would eat, sit by the fire, reflect on the day and just generally enjoy each other’s company. This is a pretty good group of guys and everyone gets along very well. Dan and I smoked a cigar and Randy his pipe. Tomorrow, we’d be checking out the Blue Ridge Parkway and Sliding Rock in the Pisgah National Forest. Day 5 was complete, but we were already looking forward to Day 6.

States Covered:

  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Georgia

Key Attractions:

  • Tail of the Dragon
  • Moonshiner’s Run
  • Dry Falls

Mileage:

  • Miles Covered: 275
  • Odometer: 8,254 through 8,529

Road to Somewhere

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