Stick To The Plan
by bj max
I was out front with two bikes behind me as we climbed yet another ridge on Highway 19 in West Virginia. This little two lane, like all the rest we would ride on this trip, was a perfect motorcycling road with just the right mix of curves, switchbacks, hills and hollers to keep things interesting. But, as most of you already know, the mountains are teeming with dangers that are not as plentiful in the flatlands; things like rockslides, fog and the occasional road that simply falls off the face of the earth.
This trip had been in the making for over a month. The plan was to ride from Memphis through Kentucky, the Virginias, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and of course, Tennessee and do it with the least Interstate travel possible. Two lane roads were preferred and that included a snippet of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I did most of the planning using Garmin’s City Navigator and I used the “View in Google Earth” tool extensively. If you’re not familiar with “View in Google Earth” then you don’t know what a great trip planning tool you’re missing. In a nutshell, “View in Google Earth” allows you to view a 360º photo of almost any highway in the United States from the comfort of your home. Just place the scope on any point of almost any road, click view in Google Earth and voila, you find yourself standing in the middle of that road with the ability to look in any direction with the click of the mouse. And, the magenta line that identifies your route is imbedded into Google Earth so you can find yourself easily. This tool has kept us off many an unimproved road and pointed us down some fantastic byways as well.
At the crack of dawn on Sunday morning we met Charlie, Darnel, Buck and Donna at Bob Evans and discussed the details of the day’s route over breakfast. One of the downsides of any road trip is the time involved distancing yourself from familiar territory. So on this leg we decided to sacrifice the back roads for speed, a necessary forfeiture with the limited time available. Our destination today was Danville, Kentucky up near the Cumberland Plateau, about 385 miles.
By Tuesday morning, well into the twisties now, we snaked our way out of Beckley, West Virginia and headed for Gatlinburg. We picked up Highway 19 and began moseying south. It wasn’t long until we were rolling over roads that were unbelievably entertaining. And to make it even more unbelievable was the fact that these were common commuter roads in this neck of the woods. Locals used ‘em every day going to and from work or simply to get a loaf of bread. I wondered if they realized what a treasure they have. As we rode along in this motorcycle paradise a sign popped up that informed us of a one lane road ahead. We naturally assumed there was construction but nope, nothing that tame. The one lane sign meant just that, there was literally only one lane. A ten foot chunk of the outside lane right up to the double yellow had simply fell off the mountain. Chatter on the two-way abruptly ceased as we slowly rolled by, gazed down into that dizzying abyss and silently wondered, what if.
Our plan today was to ride a small sliver of the Blue Ridge Parkway. We would exit US-221 near Boone, North Carolina, pick up the Blue Ridge and ride thirty five miles then jump off near Linville Falls, get back on US-221 and head for the barn, the barn being Gatlinburg. That was the plan. I know, a lot of motorcyclist hate being on a schedule. They had rather turn left when the notion strikes ‘em but having driven professionally for thirty years, I need a plan. I like to know there’s a comfortable room waiting for me at the end of the day with a good clean restaurant nearby instead of some flea bitten pig sty in the middle of nowhere. Call me names but that’s the way I am. Normally.
But this time the Parkway, with its glass-smooth pavement, long, sweeping curves and lack of traffic was tempting even to me, the least adventurous of the crew. So I suggested that we trash our plan and ride the Blue Ridge all the way to its trail head in Cherokee, some 160 miles distant with an additional thirty miles to Gatlinburg. My idea was accepted immediately. But first, we had to have fuel and gas pumps on the Parkway are about as plentiful as solid gold mileposts. But a helpful park ranger said there was gas at the Little Switzerland resort. Great. We can jump off there, gas up and be on our way with plenty of time to make Gatlinburg before dark.
We peeled off at Milepost 334 as instructed and immediately came to a fork in the road. Which way do we go? Hmmm. I was in the lead and with nothing else to guide me I flipped a mental coin, turned right and headed for the pumps. Problem was the pumps I headed for weren’t just around the corner. They were at the bottom of Grassy Mountain some fourteen miles away on one of the most intense roads I’ve ever ridden. One thing about the Appalachians, a wrong turn just might become the highlight of your trip. What a ride. All the thrills of Deal’s Gap without the traffic. (226 Alt off Grassy Mountain N 35 51.021 W82 05.545) Forty-five minutes later we rolled back onto the Parkway with full tanks. Now we can settle down and enjoy the day. What a beautiful ride lay ahead of us. Life is truly good.
Then, just a short five miles later, our reverie was shattered as we rounded a curve and almost plowed into a traffic backup. Sacajawea! Seems a section of the parkway needed paving and the Park Commission decided to do the job during our vacation. We cut the engines and waited impatiently for a pilot car to escort us through. During the delay we got some more good news. A fellow motorcyclist said that a rockslide had the Parkway shut down west of Ashville. Well, that about does it. Its five o’clock and we’re still 150 miles from Gatlinburg. We held a pow-wow and decided to give it up in Ashville, jump on the big road and hi-tail it to Tennessee.
It had been a long day. Deviating from our plan probably cost us an extra two to three hours and it forced us to ride North Carolina’s infamous I-40 gorge that’s known far and wide for traffic backups of Biblical proportion. But fortunately the gorge remained clear and we arrived at our motel around 8:00pm. The office was closed but our room keys were stashed in a mailbox by the door so we checked ourselves in then trudged off in search of something to eat.
Later, sipping iced tea at No Way Jose’s Cantina we laughed at the difficulties suffered during the day. What was aggravating earlier we now remembered with fondness. Or did we? Maybe as motorcyclists we simply refuse to acknowledge bad times. If we did, we would have to admit that motorcycling can be hard work at times instead of play and that would spoil the experience. Yep, best to remember everything as good times else we might get discouraged and take up golf or some other such nonsense.