Smoky Mountains – A Tale from the Dragon

Story by Roger Parsons// Photos by Roger Parsons and
May 1 2009

Being a motorcyclist in southern Ontario, as I am, one gains a distinct lack of appreciation for the efforts of late 18th century road planners who began to lay out the origins of our grid-like road system.

Of course, the topography of the area lent itself to the construction of long straight stretches of roadway, intersected fairly regularly by other long straight stretches of roadway. The odd escarpment and river valley provide some relief where a few curves can be stitched together. By and large though, to find roads with any sustained entertainment value, one must wade through the congestion of the Toronto sprawl to get to the central and northeast areas of the province–a trip that can easily take several hours, depending on the starting point.

I first heard about the mythical roads of the Smoky Mountains in the southeast U.S. many years ago. Claims of 318 corners stuffed into 11 miles (17.7 km) of road sounded absurd, and further assertions that surrounding roads were almost as amusing, further fired my interest.

Clearly my commitment level wasn’t high enough as, allowing life to get in the way, I found one thing after another got between me and those roads.

Working at a motorcycle magazine has some small perks though. If proposed in the right light, riding to this location to test motorcycles was just part of the job. The plan only became easier and less likely to be sidetracked when I invited the boss to be part of this excursion. Glenn bought it and in the spring of 2008, I could see that this trip was finally going to happen for me.

In the last week of September 2008, Glenn picked up his Buell Ulysses XB12XT test unit (review in January/ February 09) and I, my Ducati GT 1000 (review in March/April 09). Of course, we still had to get out of Dodge, and the quickest route would be the long, flat and boring 400 series highways from Mojo World HQ in Barrie, Ontario to Windsor, and then carrying on down Interstate 75 to North Carolina. No time was wasted taking the scenic route–we had a schedule for fun and the clock was ticking.

Motorcycle travel in the late summer and early fall can be some of the best of the year, with decent temperatures prevailing, making the wearing of proper gear comfortable. And as such, departure date coincided with clear skies and temperatures in the mid-20s–perfect.

Making a late start of the day at noon, we decided that, at 700 km and roughly 7 hours distant, Dayton, OH would make a good halfway point. The 400/401 legs of the ride were uneventful and upon getting to the US customs in Detroit, I figured we would be on the way again quickly. The border guard asked me the usual battery of questions, which I guess were successfully answered. Then as I watched Glenn sail through to the waiting area ahead, the man with the gun asked if I was carrying a gun. Right, carrying a gun into the States. “Does this happen?” I asked, and then chirping in that, “Unless you’re a criminal, you can’t have a gun in Canada.” He took it the wrong way and the bag search commenced. It would have been too easy to just say, ‘No’. Luckily, the bags on the Ducati are fairly small so it didn’t take too long. Worrying thoughts of a personal search were calmed when he told me to move on. When I pulled up to Glenn, he was laughing and asked what sordid events had caught up with me. Nothing sordid – just a big mouth.

As we made our way due south through Ohio, the sun dropped quickly to meet the horizon. All around us, fields of dry winter corn were aglow in the orangey autumn light and harvesters whipped up clouds of dust as they mowed it down. A cheerless reminder that riding season would soon come to a close.

Not to be confused with Iron Butt types, Glenn and I got within an hour of our planned destination and hearing the call of beer & food, we decided to pack it in. Suitably fueled, we checked to see what the next day had in store for us weather-wise. It didn’t look encouraging. The call for a cool start to the day wasn’t a worry, but that we would be on an intercept course with the leftovers of Hurricane Kyle put a bit of a ‘damper’ on it.

I probably should have put on my rain gear when Glenn did, about 2-hours from Maggie Valley, NC because, sure enough, those blackening skies opened up and dropped bucketfuls of driving rain. The Ducati’s abbreviated windscreen was easily overwhelmed by the watery onslaught and I was drenched in about a minute. Soaked to the bone and freezing, all I could think about was getting to our destination.

We plowed through the rain just as it was getting dark in what would have probably been a pretty ride through twists, turns and tunnels of Interstate 40 as it passes through river valleys of the Appalachian Mountains. Who says that Interstates have to be boring? Upon arriving at the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, we met owner/curator Dale Walksler, who, hearing my chattering teeth, chucked me a nice and dry long sleeve shirt and pointed me to the changing room. Ahhhh.

After spending a day and a half with our host showing us around his phenomenal collection of historic motorcycles, we were back on the road. (Unfortunately, the Wheels Through Time Museum closed its doors in Maggie Valley and will be reopening sometime, somewhere. We’ll keep you posted when we find out more.) In much improved weather conditions, it was a short jaunt over to the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort where manager and fellow Canuck, Ben Steinberg, had arranged accommodations for us over the next few (far too few) days. Ben’s hospitality instinct was spot on, as recognizing our position of requiring beer for the fire pit gathering later in evening, he handed us a dozen cans of Ex from his personal stock. Travellers to the area who wish to have a beverage after a long days ride take note, this is a dry county so it’s best to pick it up before getting back to the resort.

This being a Sunday afternoon, the resort’s huge paved lot was rammed full of hundreds of bikes of every flavour, from sport to cruiser to touring to supermoto to full custom and pretty much every other category. Most of these folks were packing up to head back to wherever they call home. Lucky for us, we wouldn’t have to think about that for four more days. Tossing our baggage into our room, we jumped back on our bikes to take a ride to see what the big deal was about this stretch of Hwy 129 they call The Dragon.

About a mile up the road, we got in line with other bikes behind a sheriff who was apparently a real spoilsport as he rarely even hit the speed limit. Turning back after a couple of miles of playing tail the Sheriff, we had seen enough to know that this was one special road. Better yet, for those of us used to frost heaves and potholes, The Dragon is smooth, well-banked and, more importantly, free of driveways and cross roads to interrupt its flow. Glenn and I decided that rather than mingle with all of the homebound traffic and protectors of society, we would head back to the resort and wait ’til Monday to experience The Dragon.

While enjoying dinner in the resort’s restaurant, we watched Rossi take the race win and championship at the Motegi round of MotoGP on the big screen. The moment was only improved with the sound of revving bikes wafting in through the open windows.

Later, we sauntered over to the fire pit to meet our neighbours and join in some bench racing. Some were from as far away as Texas and Florida, but most of the folks were from about a half days ride away in surrounding states. Good company all. Many of them make several visits a year to the area so we sat back and listened to some great stories and shared a good laugh. It seems that Glenn and I have an accent (a funny comment considering the company) that is recognizable as Canadian(?!) and with the presidential election about to take place, politically charged questions about our systems popped up, such as how we liked our socialized medicine. I told them that I was generally happy with it as every time I break or rupture something it gets fixed without me going into hock. Next question was, “You guys ain’t allowed to carry guns, are you?” Humph. That’s what I told the border guard just 3-days prior. This time I just said no and didn’t ask about their policy on shooting irons.

Monday morning greeted us with brilliant sunshine so we quickly scarfed down a hot breakfast and headed out on the road. Having only done cursory planning of routes before the trip (which entailed scanning the map for roads that looked squiggly), we decided to act on the advice given the night before around the fire. With so many ‘must ride’ roads in the area, we figured that a day spent riding the Cherohala Skyway and returning to the resort via The Dragon would be a great start.

The Cherohala Skyway was all it was described to be; 36 miles (58 km) of full value entertainment among mountain tops peaking at slightly over a mile (1.6 km) high in elevation and eventually descending to the Tellico river valley at 900 ft (275 m). We picked up the Skyway on the North Carolina side at the Santeetlah Gap at 2660 ft (810 m) and quickly gained altitude. We were glad to find that warnings of potential zero visibility due to low clouds didn’t come to pass as the day was clear and bright, though I wished for the heated grips on Glenn’s Buell as the morning was cool.

This is a road less travelled (some sources claim under 100 vehicles per day) with only an occasional car or bike to share the experience with. Not unlike the Blue Ridge Parkway, this well-maintained road offers sweeping curves set amongst gorgeous mountain scenery for as far as the eye can see. These vistas are best enjoyed from one of the many pull-offs along the route. Spending too much time sightseeing while riding here could find one on an airborne excursion akin to some of Evel’s finest work. While mistakes can be costly for those pushing the limit–or simply not paying attention–riding the Cherohala at speeds vaguely similar to those posted provides huge grins with a wide margin of safety.

On the final stretch of the Cherohala, just outside Tellico Plains, Tennessee, we found a comfortable riverside restaurant which gave us the opportunity to chaw about the ride and fuel up. Back on the road and heading towards the north end of Hwy 129, we found a road not marked on our maps, so, without any pressing appointments, we explored the back woods. Time seemed to have taken a breather here and the feel of generations gone-by permeated the area. I thought I heard banjos when we pulled over to take a photo of the rusting hulk of a very old truck so, with shot quickly taken, we continued on our way.

Finally on Hwy 129, and headed toward the all important 11-mile section, we found ourselves tracing the Little Tennessee river near the Chilhowee Dam. Due to repairs made necessary by erosion at the base of the dam, the lake behind had been drained, exposing the bed that hadn’t seen sunlight since the area was flooded in 1957. Curious to see what might be exposed, we pulled over to have a look. While there, we chatted to a well-aged fellow who reminisced about the time before the dam was built. He showed us the now exposed, original roadway that he drove those 50-plus-years earlier. Seeing our bikes, the old-timer told us to be careful if we were heading to The Dragon. The Dragon. Of course. Time’s a wastin’ – let’s go and be careful out there.

Before hitting the road, I clamped a camcorder to the handlebars of the Ducati so that I would have something to look back on over the bleak winter months ahead, and off we went.

My hopes were exceeded as we found this stretch of road to be tighter than a witches wotsit and twice as tricky. Whereas the Cherohala Skyway was sweeping and open, this ill tempered serpent coils back on itself while shrouded on thickly wooded hillsides, only occasionally offering a view of the river valley below.

Appreciating the lack of distraction, I focused on the order of the day, which was scrubbing the tires of my trusty Ducati. The GT’s 1000 cc V-Twin dished up all the torque needed to keep a frisky pace while the frame and suspension kept everything lined up and stuck like glue for the most memorable ride of my life. Arriving at the resort, Glenn and I looked at each other, sweating from the effort and shook our heads in disbelief. Hands down, this is the most entertaining road that we had ever touched tire to.

The road isn’t particularly narrow, but shoulders are minimal at best and trees stand just beyond. Some kind soul had taken the time to write ‘SLO’ before the entrance to many of the more tricky corners warning the inexperienced of looming lessons in physics just ahead. That the black stripes left by skidding rubber point to uncomfortable landings also let the challenger know that this is not a road to be trifled with. In fact, the ‘Tree of Shame’ back at the Motorcycle Resort bears the fruits of many a hard landing in the form of smashed and gouged bike bits.

We were warned that the local wildlife such as wild boar(!) and bear(!!) sometimes make stimulating obstacles, but perhaps the hardest to explain would be the 75-foot (23 m) tractor trailers that take up both lanes as they attempt this route. On a side note; the morning that we were to leave, our plans of one more pass were thwarted by just such a truck which, having gotten stuck on a switch back the previous night, blocked all traffic until well past noon. GPSs are wonderful things until it tells an unsuspecting truck driver that The Dragon is a short cut to his final destination.

Over the next few days we sampled other area roads and found there to be a wealth of great rides available. Even the 18 km trip to local attraction; the 720 m long, 146 m tall Fontana hydro-electric dam (the biggest Dam east of the Rockies), involved a road that would leave most drooling back in flatland Ontario.

But the real allure of this trip for me was riding the fabled Dragon and if having survived a spirited pass down Hwy 129 qualifies as having ‘Slain the Dragon’, then I have accomplished that feat. However, not unlike a ratty, leg humping terrier that tries to lock itself on, it is The Dragon that really sunk its thumb hooks into me. I can’t shake the thought of getting back as soon as possible. I shoulda’ done this long ago. MMM


Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort

Want to stay at the heart of it all while visiting in the Smoky Mountain area? Offering clean and comfortable accommodations smack dab in the middle of some of the most entertaining roads in North America, the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort is the place to be for motorcycle junkies.

Sporting 14 rooms and plenty of camping space, Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort is a great place to start and end an amazing day of riding. Each bright and clean room comfortably sleeps 3-4 people, and is equipped with fridge, microwave and TV (great for watching home videos of heroic Dragon slaying at the end of the day). The 65 seat, on-site restaurant offers hearty grill fare from breakfast right through to dinner hour at very reasonable prices.

Bench racing sessions seem to start anytime in the late afternoon when the communal fire pit gets lit up. Grab a pint, saunter over to the fire and get ready to hear some great tales from new friends about impossible escapes, close calls and personalities of mythic proportions, and always of the motorcycle variety.


A Road With History

Nestled amongst the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains and forming the southwest border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one will find US Hwy 129. The original occupants of the area were the Cherokee, but beginning in the 1700s, European hunters and trappers began moving in, and by the early 1800s the clearing of crude roadways began to replace the original trails that forged their way through the rugged terrain. It was earlier in this time frame that a family by the name of Deal were pulling up stakes in Louisiana with the plan of moving on to Tennessee. Stopping for what was meant to be a short rest, they ended up setting up a trading post on the site of the current Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort store. Eventually, following through with their original intentions, they continued on to the northwest and settled in Tennessee – but the name stayed.

With predictable friction resulting from increased European westward expansion into the area in the early 1800s, conflict arose leading to a sad chapter of American history. Native Indians (including Cherokee men, women and children) were relocated from the southeastern U.S. westward to Oklahoma, resulting in the death of thousands on a forced march in appalling conditions in 1838 also known as the Trail of Tears. The path through and the rugged terrain around the area of Deals Gap was used to evade government forces bent on the removal of the Cherokee people from the only home they knew.

Seventy years later, surveying by the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) to assess development potential of water resources, led to decades long development of dams and powerhouses and, of course, access routes in the surrounding area. But it was not until 1931 that the road known officially today as US 129 (and less officially as The Dragon) passed through Deal’s Gap from Tennessee to North Carolina, closely following the original Indian trail.

Still for decades, the road was little used except by hunters, moonshine runners and small numbers of motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts. Wide spread recognition of Hwy 129’s challenging curves didn’t come until the early 1990s with the advent of internet chatter and through stories published in national motorcycle magazines. Now motorcyclists from all over the US, Canada and around the world come to try their luck on The Dragon.


On the Big Screen

Upon returning home from my trip to Deal’s Gap, I started to research the history of the area. Some of the first references on my internet search were the movies shot on the famed road. To my surprise, one of my all time favorite B movies – a 1971 musclecar-centric release called Two-Lane Blacktop, had scenes shot in the area. Immediately digging up my VHS copy of the movie, I checked and found the road scenes plus a lengthy scene that was shot at what is now known as the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort where Glenn and I stayed. Too cool.

Another easily recognizable scene from this movie shows a backdrop of the nearby Cheoah Dam, which also shows up in the1993 movie The Fugitive where Harrison Ford’s character leaps to almost certain death in churning waters to avoid capture by Tommy Lee Jones’ character.

But even earlier, a movie about backwoods moonshine running released in 1958 called Thunder Road which featured Robert Mitchum had scenes shot on Hwy 129.

How was this place kept secret from the general public for so long?


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