Roads of Dreams: Motorcycling North Carolina

North Carolina was made for motorcycling, with some of the best roads in the country, including the famous Deals Gap Dragon, Route 129. From the December 2004 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine. By Dennis Pernu.

The boiled peanuts were surprisingly tasty, given their uncanny resemblance to otter scat. As for the sickly sweet peach cider with which I washed down another fistful of the soggy brown roadside delicacies, surely its sole purpose is to strip enamel from teeth.

A botched exit led us to this produce stand along U.S. Interstate 26 in Saluda, North Carolina, and by our reckoning it would add 60 miles to our day. We'd also be late for our real dinner at the Crooked Oak Mountain Inn. On our second and last night at this bed-and-breakfast overlooking Asheville, some 30 miles to the north, our borderline chronic tardiness also included 11th-hour reservations and a late check-in. Bear Strelec, Crooked Oak's barrel-chested and amiable co-owner, sussed us out that evening. "Do you guys usually do a little more planning before you go on one of these things?" he asked with a hint of amusement.

As the bruschetta and crab cakes expertly prepared by Strelec's wife and business partner, Patti, affixed themselves to our ribs, we confessed we were, in fact, working from more of a spontaneous concept than a plan. After poring over maps and guidebooks back home, it became apparent one could spend the entire summer riding western North Carolina's legendary asphalt. With only the Fourth of July weekend at our disposal, we decided to hop on a pair of V-twins sprung from the loins of American industry and just ride. If there was a better way to explore the notion of freedom, we couldn't think of it.

Even our antiplan guaranteed miles of unrivaled riding—including an obligatory joust with the Dragon—plus four days and nights to indulge in all-American pursuits like artery-hardening barbecue, gin-clear trout streams and the national pastime, minor-league style. Two nights at the Crooked Oak would coincide with the Asheville team's home schedule and leave day two wide open to check out the local riding. Days three and four would be strictly by the seats of our pants.

The barbecue, brown trout and baseball materialized to lesser degrees than planned, and we encountered midsummer weather that turned on a dime, but the riding was exactly as advertised—the western one-fourth of North Carolina is a several-thousand-square-mile combo platter of sweepers, twisties and ear-popping elevation changes.

Eat A Peach

Because summer is North Carolina's rainy season, spring and autumn are considered the best times to visit, especially for motorcyclists. "You need to come back in the fall," manager Doug Bisnette suggested after setting us up with a Road King and a 1200 Sportster from his Carolina Harley-Davidson rental fleet.

Located 15 minutes west of Charlotte in Gastonia, Carolina Harley-Davidson moved into its present space in January 2003, and as of this writing it is the manufacturer's largest licensed dealership east of the Mississippi. Inside, classic bikes from the collection of owners Click and Diane Baldwin were on display, along with poster-size archival photos and glass-encased memorabilia. A custom shop run by builder Jim Bortles was visible through a garage door on the north end of the sales floor. The resulting vibe was almost museumlike. "We didn't want it to look like a Wal-Mart," Bisnette deadpanned.Born and mostly raised in Canada, Bisnette has lived in North Carolina long enough to exhibit just a hint of laid-back drawl.

Bisnette suggested a mostly two-lane route leading west into South Carolina on Highway 11 before peeling back into the Tarheel State on Highway 9 and into Asheville via Highway 64/74A. As Bisnette promised, SC 11, like all of North Carolina in the summer, was intensely green, rolling past kudzu and orchards. The fruit trees brought to mind another Canadian expatriate, Neil Young. In '76, after abandoning Steven Stills midtour, Young wrote Stills a legendary quasi-apology suggesting his pal "Eat a Peach." At a roadside stand in Chesnee, South Carolina, we took Young's advice, forking over $1 for two peaches and two nectarines. Natasha, the girl tending the operation, clued us in to Rainbow Lake Road, a shortcut to NC 9.

Just west of NC 9's endpoint, Margaritagrille seemed to rate at least a mention in nearly everything written (and there's plenty) about North Carolina riding. Located near the southernmost tip of Lake Lure, the renowned motorcycle hangout was slow on that Thursday afternoon, but their sweet-potato fries alone were worth the stop. After polishing off two plates, we continued along the twisting shore of Lake Lure to Chimney Rock Park, 1000 mountainside acres named for a looming 315-foot monolith at the end of a winding three-mile mountain road. From there, an elevator shaft carved inside the mountain conducts visitors 26 stories to the top. The park also features the 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls, site of the climactic fight scene in the '92 Daniel Day-Lewis vehicle The Last of the Mohicans.

With our frequent stops making that night's ballgame unlikely, we humped the final 25 miles to Asheville. The first half of that stretch was flawless and the day's most intense ride, with twisties following the course of the Rocky Broad River leading to a climb up the Eastern Continental Divide. A series of hairpins bring riders down the divide as popping inner ears offer a reminder that mountain riding means up and down as well as left and right.

Reaching the Crooked Oak required another climb up scenic Town Mountain Road. Arriving well past the game's start time, we crossed ballpark tube steaks off our agenda. Bear immediately volunteered to throw a pair of ribeyes on the grill. The Strelecs are ideally suited to run a B&B.; Bear is a former general contractor, and Patti has spent 20 years working every angle of the hospitality industry. They also have an innate sense for which guests prefer the privacy of the patio overlooking the city and which like to chew the fat until midnight. Bear is as comfortable discussing the inn's rhododendrons, songbirds and twisted 200-year-old namesake as he is Colorado elk hunting or how he once highsided a Gold Wing.

The Strelecs also appear to be insomniacs. Since taking over last December, they've relandscaped, remodeled the kitchen and added five guest-rooms. Considering the welcome wagon's tire tracks have barely been washed from the stretch of gravel leading to their driveway, Bear and Patti are also amazingly knowledgeable about the area.

The next morning, Bear pointed us in the direction of a favorite trout stream and suggested a route incorporating local roads and a portion of the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway. This 469-mile stretch traces the crest of the Appalachians and links Virginia's Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, hammering home an advantage of visiting North Carolina during midsummer: relatively light traffic. The Blue Ridge Parkway, off-limits to commercial vehicles, boasted nearly as many motorcycles as automobiles. We soon realized why—the riding is so fluid it renders the frequent dramatic overlooks unenticing.

Soaked and standing beneath thick kudzu alongside Bear's trout stream, further attempts to wait out the rain were pointless. We geared up and exited the river valley to find sunshine and dry roads punctuated by more torrents and oppressive sun. The effect of this fickle weather on riders encased in rainwear made rehydration crucial. By the time we found ourselves eating boiled peanuts in Saluda, we were looking forward not only to Patti's dinner, but also to dry clothes.

Sitting on the Strelecs' porch that night with a steady rain soaking the hilltop, we took consolation in the fact that another missed ballgame had no doubt been a rainout, when Bear emerged from the kitchen carrying a fresh pot of coffee. "You know, just because it's raining up here doesn't mean it's raining down there," he said, nodding at the city lights below. "The game's in the bottom of the third."

Much of western North Carolina is actually considered rainforest, and locations relatively close to one another record annual precipitations differing by a foot or more, trumping even the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii. As it turns out, the very mountains that are the chief reason for North Carolina's famously stellar riding conditions (mild freeze-and-thaw cycles and thus less pavement upheaval also help) in no small part influence this wildly unpredictable rainfall. We pondered this fine piece of irony as we rejiggered our plans for day three.

Enter The Dragon

We left Asheville early July 3 after charting a loop to the Dragon and back. July 4 in Charlotte would be the last leg of the trip and our final shot at a ballgame. Asheville to Charlotte represented a more reasonable Independence Day ride.

Catching I-40 to Highway 74 out of Asheville, we followed Blue Ridge Parkway's last 26 miles from Balsam Gap to U.S. Interstate 441. This happens to be the most technical stretch of the entire parkway, and after curling and banking up through pea-soup fog and Alpinelike features and temperatures, we descended to its southernmost point. There, we shed our rainwear and merged north on U.S. 441, which bisects Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The fact that this is the most visited National Park is evident in the surface condition of I-441 and its maddening traffic. The surroundings are spectacular and the road anything but straight, but poor pavement, steady rain and a sampling of the park's 9 million annual visitors conspired to make I-441 more laborious than it might have been.

Our intent was to exit I-441 and follow Little River Road to U.S. 321 and Tennessee's Foothills Parkway, which would take us to U.S. 129 and 11 of the most revered miles of asphalt anywhere: the Dragon. Instead, we missed the turnoff at Sugarlands Visitor Center and were deposited on the main drag of Pigeon Forge, a Tennessee burg that appeared to be the twisted brainchild of Walt Disney and the town's most famous daughter, Dolly Parton. Along with Dollywood, Pigeon Forge boasts what must be the nation's highest per capita number of multilevel go-kart tracks. Despite this detour, we reached the Foothills Parkway and the Dragon by way of a relatively easy, if longer, stretch of 321.

The Dragon is often inaccurately referred to as Deals Gap, which is actually the name of the 1962-foot mountain pass over which it climbs on its way across the state line to North Carolina. There are no signs marking either end of the Dragon, but Tabcat Bridge is its northern starting point. If you enter the Dragon here, pull off onto the gravel picnic area about a half-mile past Tabcat, turn off your bike and listen. Echoing off the hillsides and the surface of Tellico Lake, bikes scream toward you out of Rocket Corner a half-mile away.

Each accolade written about the Dragon's 318 turns and absolutely pristine surface is matched by an admonition, often of draconian law enforcement, totaled bikes, annual deaths (two as of June '04) or greenhorns who entered and were never seen again. Before it was even known as the Dragon, this engineering marvel and the remote scenery through which it winds made cameos in gearhead film classics such as Thunder Road and Two-Lane Blacktop. It's tempting to rubberneck, but Rule No. 1 is to pay attention. Ride within your abilities, stay in your lane and let faster riders pass, but above all, save any sightseeing for one of the pull-offs—and cross your fingers that the four-wheeled motorists sharing this public byway do likewise. Most riders check out the Calderwood Dam Overlook 2.5 miles from Tabcat Bridge, where diverse bikes and license plates attest to the allure.

Not surprisingly, sportbikes were well-represented, but around 5:00 p.m., when we arrived, the pace was tapering off, with cruisers outnumbering knee-draggers. It's all fun to drink in, but don't forget why you came. Allow yourself time to ride the Dragon more than once, because the north-south attitude is much different from the south-north. If the Dragon completely drains you, or if you can't get enough of it in one afternoon, Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort at mile 11, back in North Carolina, sells rooms, riding gear, food and beverages. Draped with pieces of bikes the Dragon has claimed over the years, the Tree of Shame stands watch over the scene, always awaiting another chrome or carbon-fiber sacrifice.

Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort is also a great place to pump fellow riders for knowledge of the local roads. We took the advice of one such rider and followed NC 28 west. With the sun setting behind us, it was a pleasant surprise. Lined with cabins and more resorts geared toward motorcyclists, 28's downhill sweepers carried us out of the Great Smokies to U.S. 19 and on to a more southern stretch of U.S. 441 than that which we had endured earlier in the day.

Back in Asheville, we checked into the Mountaineer Inn, a motor court with a 40-foot neon hillbilly overlooking the parking lot and character to burn. Our room evoked about half of the Tom Waits discography, the perfect place to lay low if you were in arrears with your bookie and had just shagged his girlfriend to boot. As he took my Visa card, the elderly proprietor spoke a Beat-era patter with a Greek accent, repeatedly addressing me as "Doctor."

Sweet Home Gridlock

The next morning we breathed in the mountain air that at one time made Asheville a booming resort community (hence the ball club's nickname, the Tourists). The most ostentatious reminder of this tony past is the 250-room Biltmore Estate, completed in 1895 as a "retreat" for George Vanderbilt and his proto-bling-bling cronies. Today, Asheville has a rep as the sort of town with its fair share of hirsute men wearing Tevas and patchouli, and SUV-driving soccer moms sporting the latest haircut.

If after three nights you forget Asheville is in the mountains, I-40's huge downhill sweepers out of town and runaway-truck ramps are effective reminders. Stopping for a splash of petrol in Marion, we decided on a sidetrip 23 miles north on U.S. 221 through Pisgah National Forest to Linville Falls and back south on NC 181 to Morganton and I-40. It was a good call. NC 181 offered the trip's last truly great riding. The rest of the day involved NC 321, which was straight as a country preacher, and Interstates 85 and 77 into Pineville, a strip-mall suburb of Charlotte.

In an age of billionaire athletes, it's not difficult to understand the appeal of minor-league baseball. North Carolina and eastern Tennessee alone are home to 16 clubs, ranging from rookie leagues to Triple-A. And while players at the Triple-A level make decent salaries, they are, after all, clawing for the opportunity at a cup of coffee in the majors, which we can all relate to at some level.

The Charlotte Knights, the Triple-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, actually play their home games over the state line in South Carolina. In '03, the Knights drew an average of 3800 spectators per game, but their Fourth of July tilts and fireworks typically attract more than 15,000. This made for both a mind- and ass-numbing commute to and from Knights Stadium. It was, however, utterly necessary—baseball, after all, was a key component of the original antiplan.

Waiting out the postgame gridlock with haze from the fireworks hanging in the thick air, we witnessed our 800-mile southern tour grind to an unceremonious end at zero mph on the flattest, most congested expanse of asphalt we'd seen in four days. As two young women loudly argued the relative merits of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, the opening riff of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Sweet Home Alabama spilled out of a pickup cab two rows over, arousing hoots and raised fists from clusters of tailgaters. Famously written as a rebuttal to Young's Southern Man, the song reminded me of sleepy Chesnee three days earlier and the rest of Young's "Eat a Peach" note: Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way.

RESOURCES

What to ReadIf you're going to buy one book before putting two wheels to North Carolina asphalt, it should be Motorcycle Adventures in the Southern Appalachians by Hawk Hagebak, $14.95 from Milestone Press. It not only offers a mind-boggling number of routes all ridden by the author, who happens to be an ex-Atlanta motorcycle cop, it's also an entertaining read.

RentingWe found no Gastonia hotel advertising shuttle service to and from Charlotte Douglas International Airport. But before you hire a cab from the airport to Gastonia, inquire about the fare. It's only 15-odd miles, but once you're out on I-85 your driver may inform you that intercity services incur a flat fee considerably higher than what the meter will rack up. Instead, you can make arrangements with Carolina Harley-Davidson rental manager Doug Bisnette to have someone on his staff pick you up. Call (704) 867-2855.

For more descriptions of our favorite motorcycle rides and destinations, visit the Rides and Destinations section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

Getting lost has its benefits. This stand in Saluda, North Carolina, was 30 miles off our intended route (we still aren't sure how we ended up there), but the payoff for our unplanned sidetrip was a snack of surprisingly tasty boiled peanuts and fresh fruit ciders. Photography by Lee Klancher.
The main attraction in Chimney Rock Park is this outlook, known simply as "The Chimney." The 315-foot monolith offers a great view of Hickory Nut Gorge. Myriad hiking trails lead from the Chimney.
The entrance to Chimney Rock Park spills out into Chimney Rock Village, a cluster of restaurants and touristy shops that lies in the shadow of the 1000-acre park.
Highway 129 on the North Carolina- Tennessee border, known to motorcyclists as Deals Gap, offers 318 turns in 11 miles. This tightly twisting stretch of road, aka the Dragon, may be the best-known motor-cycle road in America.
The infamous Tree of Shame lives at the base of Highway 129 in the parking lot at the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort.
Asheville's Crooked Oak Mountain Inn was our headquarters for the trip. The bed-and-breakfast offers earthy but elegant dcor and home-cooked gourmet meals.
This sinuous side trip, Town Mountain Road, is in Asheville's city limits. Finding sweet roads in western North Carolina is hardly rocket science.
The Charlotte Knights are the only game in town for area baseball fans, and the immaculate stadium was packed with nearly 15,000 fans for the Fourth of July.