We'd been talking about this trip for months. Endless hours spent drinking countless beers, pouring over dozens of maps, plotting out dozens of different routes and destinations; soon it was actually going to happen. The flatlanders were riding to the Dragon! Eight days of mountain roads, twisting pavement, and scenic vistas. Eight days of rural motels and changing scenery. Eight nights of reliving the days ride over cold beer and greasy burgers. Our biggest ride of the year was finally about to happen.
The plan was to ride from Tallahassee, Florida to the mountains of North Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. We we're going to ride the Dragon, the Cherohalla Skyway, the Foothills Parkway, and over Newfound Gap. I had visions of riding my bike around endless curves, taking us past small farms and over giant forested mountains. This was certainly going to be the best ride we'd ever done. And it almost was.
Neither Bill nor I had ever ridden in the mountains, or much outside of Florida for that matter. What passes for a twisting road around here is a highway south of us that runs by a state prison and has about five hard turns in less then a mile. We had zero experience on mountains or twisties but since we're both pretty cautious riders and have V-twin cruiser instead of crotch rockets, we weren't too intimidated by the prospects.
I spent my time preparing for the ride by watching Youtube videos of sport bikes flying through the Dragon. I watched hours of riders dragging knees and floorboards as they zipped through the turns. I also watched lots of crash videos and saw the infamous Tree of Shame. I especially liked the pictures I found on a Deals Gap website that showed huge trucks taking up both lanes as they tried to negotiate the Dragon.
Like all good rides, this one started with a plan. We were going to hit it hard the first day and try to make it to Dillard, Georgia, where we had a free place to stay. From Dillard, we would take a couple of long day rides, then head toward the Dragon and spend the next two nights on the road. We planned to be back in Dillard by Friday night and take two days to get back to Tallahassee. I'd just had my RoadStar serviced, bought a new tank bag and installed a luggage rack. Bill had his slow oil leak fixed and actually bought a new set of tires. (His old tires were so bald he was banned from riding with our local group until they were replaced.) We were ready to go.
On all of our other long rides over the years, we always had what we referred to as Plan B. Plan B was what we would do if the worst happened. If one of the bikes broke down or one of us went down, Plan B would be put into effect. It was a simple plan, we thought; rent a truck and take the bikes home. All it requires is a credit card. We joked about Plan B for years; nothing like that could happen to us!
We left on a cool Sunday morning in April. I packed all the cold weather gear I owned because I was sure it was going to be cold once we got some altitude. We decided to stick to the two lane roads as much as possible and stay well east of Atlanta. We left Tallahassee going north on US 319. We bypassed Thomasville, Georgia on a good two-lane road that took us all the way to Camilla. We decided earlier to ride hard in the morning and do at least two hundred miles before we stopped for a real rest.
We gassed up and got some home made beef jerky at the Salt Lick in Warwick, Georgia and left the four-lane road at Cordele. We rode through a dozen small towns until we got to Eatonton, Georgia, where we gassed up again and had breakfast. We did 230 miles with only one stop and were feeling pretty proud of ourselves.
From Eatonton we rode northeast on 44 to 77, then threaded our way north on Highway 22. This part of the ride was better then I expected. We rode through dozen of little towns with great old courthouses and nostalgic looking main streets. My favorites were Maxeys, Lexington and Danielsville. We finally got to US 441, near Taccoa, and headed north into the mountains.
Never ride up 441 without stopping at the old overlook at Tallulah Gorge. This is one of the deepest gorges in the east and a great spot to take a break. When the new four-lane US 441 was built, it bypassed the overlook, so you need to watch for the turnoff to Old Historic 441. The overlook is an old building hanging over the gorge, with a nice view of the gorge and a great gift shop. They sell lots of old tourist crap you can't find anywhere else. I bought a Moon Pie T-shirt and a Peach Nehi. They also have an interesting selection of books about the region, including a couple of books about motorcycle roads in the area. It's also a good place to get local maps.
After a couple more Nehi's, we got back on 441 and continued north to Dillard, Georgia, where we planned to spend the night. We arrived late Sunday afternoon and the only open place we could find to eat was a barbeque joint that I will not name or recommend. Furthermore, you can't get a beer in Dillard on a Sunday so I had to wash my barbeque sandwich down with ice tea.
After dinner we got our first taste of riding twisting mountain roads. The house we were going to stay at was in Sky Valley, which is a lot higher then Dillard. The road was fairly straight for a time, then started to climb dramatically and switched back on itself about six times. Not knowing the road, we were pretty conservative and didn't drag floorboards or make any sparks. I was feeling pretty good about it until we got to Sky Valley. The grades there are far steeper than the county roads and the house sat at almost 4000 feet. This was a totally new experience for us and I have to admit, we grannied our way up. The night ended by watching the sun set over the mountains while polishing off a few cool ones.
We turned south on Highway 17, then west on 180. This road runs past Brasstown Bald, the highest mountain in Georgia. There's an observation deck on the top of the bald with a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains. It's a steep ride up, but well worth it.
We stopped at the Sunshine Country Store for some boiled peanuts to fortify us before we began the ride up Blood Mountain. Highways 180, 60 and US 19 make a complete circle around Blood Mountain. It's a very popular run and on weekends you'll see plenty of bikes. The road starts out narrow with many very tight turns. It goes uphill almost all the way until it intersects with Highway 60 at the little town of Suches. Suches is home to the famous Two Wheels Only (TWO). TWO is a campground, restaurant and gathering spot for motorcycles. They take their name seriously; no cars are allowed unless they're pulling motorcycle trailers. They have a spacious deck overlooking a creek, which is a great spot to hang out and meet other riders. The restaurant reminds me of a dining hall at summer camp. Don't pass TWO up; stop and stick a pin in the map.
The rest of the ride is mostly down hill, with nothing but turns. We were getting better at the turns but were definitely not going fast enough for the guys on the crotch rockets. We got passed once by a rider going so fast, I thought my bike was stopped. We saw one guy that passed us, came back the other way and passed us again in the space of about 5 miles. These riders obviously have skills but sometimes I wonder if they have brains
We stopped at the old WPA building at Neel's Gap. It's now a hostel for hikers on the Appalachian Trail and sells all kinds of high end hiking gear. Before we leave, we decide to take Highway 348 over to Helen. This is the Richard Russell Scenic highway. It runs along the crest of the mountains for about 10 miles and the views are spectacular. Don't miss this road; it's probably the most scenic road in Georgia.
Our next stop was the fake Alpine town of Helen for lunch. About thirty years ago, someone in Helen decided to transform the town into a Bavarian village. Even if you know nothing about Germany, Helen can't be mistaken for the real thing. We stopped at a "German" restaurant for lunch. I had a German cheeseburger and Bill had German nachos. We washed it all down with that famous German beer, Busch Bavarian. An hour later, I was hungry for power. It wasn't all bad though; it had an outdoor dining area that fronted on the Chattahoochee River.
We headed back to Dillard by way of Lake Burton. This is an extremely tight and twisting road that winds past some of the most expensive homes in Georgia. Even a shack on Lake Burton costs in the millions.
We messed around so long that by the time we got back to Dillard, all the restaurants were closed except for the same crummy barbeque joint we ate at the night before. It didn't get any better. We ate and rode back up to Sky Valley just as the sun went down.
We had breakfast at a drugstore lunch counter in Highlands, then rode north on US 68 through the Cullasaja gorge. This road winds through the bottom of the gorge and follows the Cullasaja River. The river is wild and beautiful and there are dozens of waterfalls. We pull over to admire one of them and suddenly it starts to rain. We put on our raingear and get back on the bikes. US 68 is a fairly busy road with lots of commercial traffic. We piss off dozens of truckers by riding slowly out of the gorge. Actually, I didn't mind because Bill was riding behind me and took all the flack.The rain continued all the way through Franklin, North Carolina and back down to Dillard. We pulled into a Pizza joint in Dillard that had a covered deck. I'm ready to eat and get out of the rain, but it's closed of course. We hang out under the deck for an hour or so, waiting for the rain to stop. It wasn't a total loss, however. We run into a local who recommends a restaurant down the road in Clayton. We suit back up and ride to Momma G's Italian Restaurant. Momma G's was the best find of the ride so far. The food was great, the beer was cold and Poppa G was a good host. We head back to Sky Valley after having our first good dinner in two days.
Our plan for the next two days was to ride to Tellico Plains, Tennessee and ride the Cherohala Skyway and end up at the Deal's Gap resort that night. We were to ride the Dragon the next morning, then take the Foothills Parkway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once in the Park, we would ride Little River Road to Newfound Gap and over the mountains to Cherokee, North Carolina and back to Dillard. The bikes were running well and we were ready to test the Dragon.
We left early, running west on US 76 from Clayton until we got to Highway 11. We turned north and rode 11 to US 64 in Tennessee. Although the traffic was heavier than we had been used to the previous three days, it was still a very pleasant ride. After riding about 120 miles, we stopped for gas at a station in Ducktown, Tennessee. We stopped and took a water break and checked the next leg of our ride. We were going to ride north on Highway 68 to Tellico Plains and from there we would pick up the Cherohala Skyway.
Highway 68 turned out to be a very good road. It was twisty but not so tight. After a few miles I down shift to second gear to negotiate a turn; when I straighten out and roll on the throttle, the engine coughs a little.
It was only for a second, and I ignore it. The next time I downshift, it happens again. Still not too bad. After a few more miles, the bike is coughing and missing every time I shift or accelerate. By the time we ride the 35 miles to Tellico Plains, it's running like crap. We pull into a convenience store and Bill tells me I've been blowing white smoke since Ducktown. I shut the bike down and can hardly restart it. I diagnosed my trouble as fouled plugs because I recently put some baffles in my straight pipes without re-jetting. I bought the least restrictive baffles I could find and had about 300 miles on them so I figured they were just slow to foul my plugs. (As many of you have probably already figured out, I'm not a mechanic. I don't do any of my own work.)
We consult a telephone book and discover that the nearest Yamaha dealer is in Alcoa, Tennessee, about 60 miles away. A local tells us that there's a bike shop several miles up the road. Since I believed this to be a minor fix, I decide to give them a try. By this time, my bike has had enough and almost refused to start. Once I get it started, I have to rev the crap out of it to keep it going but we do manage to get the 5 or 6 miles down the road to the shop.
For three hours we sit on folding chairs in the "showroom" and talk to the owners. Once in a while a car drives by and one of the boys tells us who that was and where they're probably going. I examine the gravel in the parking lot a dozen times. Bill and I debated on which of the six used cars in the lot across the road is the best buy. We try to figure out what kind of plane it was that just flew over us at thirty thousand feet. We talk about where we would be right now if the damn bike hadn't quit.
Finally, Daddy and another son arrives. We talk. He asks questions and says it sounds like fouled plugs. I really start to worry when it takes him forever to remove the gas tank to get to all four plugs. He even tells me that he never worked on a Yamaha before. They eventually get the gas tank off; the plugs in and the tank back on. I can tell that they don't like the fact that I'm standing next to them in the shop and looking over their shoulders at everything they do but I don't care.
When they get it cranked up it sounds a little better but not fixed. Junior tells me that it needs an octane booster. He test drives it and says that it's still not right and he needs to look at it some more. By this time I have totally lost what little faith I had in their ability to diagnose the problem, let alone fix it. One of the boys in the wheelchairs suggests that Daddy drain the gas tank. Daddy's not sure that's the problem, but he's willing to try. I've had enough. I decide to try for Alcoa and a dealer. We say goodbye to our newfound family and head up the road. If it sounds like I'm making fun of these folks; I'm not. They could not have been friendlier. If we would have hung around, I'm sure they would have fed us dinner and put us up for the night. They treated us like they'd known us all their lives. After four hours hanging around the shop, we felt like we'd been there all our lives.
By the time we ride five or six miles up the road, it's clear we're not going to Alcoa. The bike is barely running. We limp into a cheap motel in Madisonville, Tennessee, and grab a room. We're both exhausted and hungry and decide to forget about the bike for the rest of the evening. We find a down-home restaurant within walking distance and order the meat and three. (If you're not from the south, you'll probably have to look this one up.) Then we retire to the room and get half drunk on the pint of rum we were saving for the Deal's Gap Resort.
The next morning it's raining like hell. I kill the battery trying to start the bike. The continental breakfast turns out to be stale doughnuts and coffee and the magic has pretty much been sucked out of the ride. We throw in the towel and decide to put Plan B into effect. We are beaten.
We soon learn that Plan B is going to be tough to implement. The nearest truck rental is in Sweetwater, about ten miles away. There are no cabs in Madisonville and Bill has no passenger seat on his bike and probably wouldn't ride two up with me on the back if he did. I'm about ready to kill the next person I see when the whole tone of the day starts to change.
People we never met before started helping us. A young employee of the motel gives me a ride to Sweetwater to get a rental trunk. I have to force the kid to accept the money I hand him to pay for his gas. The manager of the hotel lets us leave our things in the room way past check out time while we get the truck and the gear we need to secure the bikes. Two guys driving by stop and help us push my bike up the ramp into the truck. We offer beer money but they decline. A guy at a carpet store nearby lends me tools when I discover I don't have the right wrench to remove one of my highway pegs.
We finally get the bikes loaded and tied down and start the long drive back to Sky Valley to get the rest of the stuff we decided we didn't need just for an overnight ride. By the time we get to Clayton we opt not to try to get the rental truck up the mountain at night. We then made one of the best decisions of the whole trip. We grab a motel across the street from Momma G's and proceed to stuff our faces and drink too many Sweetwaters. Poppa G remembers us from our previous visit and we talk. The waitress even bought us a beer. We stagger back to the room and crash for the night.
The next morning we ride up to Sky Valley and get the rest of our things. We have a six- hour drive back to Tallahassee to think about what went wrong with our ride. The more we think about it, the better it gets. The good parts get better and the bad parts seem more like a practical joke than a trip breaker. We decide that we had a good four-day bike ride and a good two-day truck ride instead of the eight days we'd planned. I'll take six out of eight any day.