Johnson City’s Southern Dozen

Twelve Rides

The Snake Ride. Howling Wolves, Stars & History. Vinegar Pie. Two Rivers, One Mountain, and 10 Million Trout Eggs. These are the enticing names of four of the Southern Dozen.

Let me explain. In the upper right-hand corner of the parallelogram that is the State of Tennessee, there’s a mystical, untrammeled, hidden green spot where nature overwhelms you with sweet blossom smells. The friendly local folks want you to know about it. They want you to bring your motorcycle (or if you must, your sports car) and visit for a spell. Why? Principally because in a region of already noteworthy roads, the roads here are something else entirely.

Johnson City is at the heart of it all. The college town is home to East Tennessee State University, but somehow a visitor gets the feeling that it’s more about what’s nearby than about the town itself. Sure, it has pleasant, wide and clean streets and a downtown awaiting revitalization. It has nice bars and restaurants and all the trappings of modern American small cities. But it’s surrounded by gems—gems of emerald and asphalt.

So to help riders explore, Johnson City’s Convention and Visitors Bureau pieced together the Southern Dozen, an assemblage of named, charted rides starting from the town center. Each ride has a special flavor, sampling lakes, mountains, historic sites, using venues, and other attractions.

In the late spring of my visit, the universe of Appalachia bursts forth in an explosion of sparkling green, starting with the grass and moving upwards through the shrubs and into the trees, all of it edged in the purples, pink, oranges, and white blossoms of the tulips, azaleas, honeysuckle, wild rose, and most noteworthy, rhododendron.

Our hosts, Chuck Mason and Tallie Shelton, set forth a course on his Harley-Davidson from Bristol for The Snake Ride. We rumbled over Lake Holston and Holston Mountain down into Shady Valley, a placed rimmed by glorious mountains. The rural two-lane highway was a perfect fit for my aged Honda Pacific Coast, with smooth pavement, graceful flowing curves, and scant traffic. At the US-421 General Store, I spoke with a couple of riders from the Finger Lakes area of New York. They told me they come to the central Appalachians every year to partake in the scenery and exhilaration. One commented, “The roads around home are nice, but they’re nothing like here.” Inside the store, in the restaurant seating area, there were scratched helmets and broken motorcycle parts wired to the ceiling—the wreckage of riders who underestimated the hazards of having too much undisciplined fun on the local roads.

Back on the road, we amped up our throttles and scuffed-up the edges of our tires on our way through Mountain City and Laurel Bloomery into Damascus, Virginia. The road slithered through the forests like a rattler through tall grass, with tree branches almost meeting overhead. Blissful!

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant and ice cream bar that clearly sees its share of motorcyclists, bicyclists (from the adjacent Virginia Creeper Trail), and hikers (from the adjacent Appalachian Trail). I spoke with some folks touring together on a variety of motorcycles. They were Internet buddies who met each year to explore the middle-Appalachians. One offered, “The Rockies are great, but the variety of roads around here, and the beauty of these mountains, all cloaked in green, puts the taller Rockies to shame.”

We drove back and forth through “The World’s Shortest Tunnel” at Chimney Rock, where we took the obligatory photos of this natural oddity. Then we looped around the second of the day’s two lakes, Watauga. It shimmered brightly in the gentle afternoon breeze, accented by mountainous, tree-cloaked shorelines.

This picture-perfect day stood in contrast to what had come only four weeks before. We motored down a country lane where only two weeks earlier a rare tornado—”unheard of” according to our hosts—swept through during the awful April outbreak, killing several people in the area. One couple was in a mobile home, the porch and foundation of which stood forlornly beside the twisted wreckage of what formerly sat atop it. Tallie told us that one man found a cow in a tree and was determined to rescue it. When a neighbor tried to convince him the effort would be futile, the man countered that before the storm he had 200 cows and this was the only one left, underscoring his emotional, if not financial, urgency to save it.

At dinner, Tallie explained how the local tourism officials had become aware of the benefits of luring the motorcycle riding crowd to the area by recent rallies of the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America and the Harley Owners Group. Now they were purposefully reaching out to the greater riding community. “Motorcyclists aren’t seen as hoodlums anymore; they’re respectable people looking to enjoy themselves,” she said. I thought maybe I’d set her straight, but…

The next morning, our group of six riders assembled for an excursion south and east over the border into North Carolina, on a ride dubbed “The Top of the Roan.” The countryside was more rugged than the day before, with the valleys tighter and more steeply confined. The zenith of the trip, literally and figuratively, was the road up at Roan Mountain, which topped 5500-feet in elevation. Roan is famous for its expansive rhododendron fields, said to be the largest in the world. These rhodies would not bloom for a few more weeks, but up at the pass we experienced blissfully cool temperatures. Not eager to descend into the rising heat of the valley below, we lingered, admiring the scenery and chatting with hikers.

I’m a bit of a Luddite as far as my motorcycles go, but Chuck, fortunately, carried an Internet thingy, and he learned that there was an increasing chance of severe thunderstorms moving in. With the damage we’d seen the day before, the notion took on a whole new urgency, and we were pleased to arrive back at the hotel just before the first raindrops arrived.

The next day, I departed for home, much too soon. After all, there were still ten rides in the Southern Dozen awaiting my explorations! mc

Maps and descriptions of the Southern Dozen can be found at

Michael Abraham is the author of three books, including Harmonic Highways: Motorcycling Virginia's Crooked Road.

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