by bj max
On a recent trip to the Smokies, we; we being myself and Sugar Booger plus three other couples, decide on a little side trip down into the Carolina’s. Two of our group, Brad and Kindra, both manage Home Depot stores up in Kansas. They also happen to be NASCAR fans and since The Home Depot sponsors Joe Gibbs Racing (yes, that Joe Gibbs) we decided to take a little 400 mile side trip to North Carolina and say hello to NASCAR Champ, Tony Stewart. Won’t he be surprised?
The normally packed streets of Gatlinburg are virtually deserted on this crisp but clear morning and it was a strange feeling to ride through town unencumbered by traffic and pedestrians. We peeled off the main drag onto US-321 at the eastern edge of the city and rode the eighteen miles to Cosby where we stopped long enough to don more clothes. Light jackets just weren’t enough at 58 degrees. After thawing out, we motored onto the short section of the Foothills Parkway. In minutes we had covered its eight-mile length and, almost before we realized it, we were unceremoniously flung into the morning maelstrom of I-40’s infamous Gorge.
The Pigeon River Gorge is a beautiful ride, but don’t let its beauty suck you in. Make no mistake about it; this is one of the most, if not the most, dangerous sections of I-40. Known simply as “the Gorge” by truck drivers, this part of I-40 cuts an eastward path from the Tennessee state line to Waynesville, North Carolina, all on a 6% downhill grade. It is narrow and crooked for an Interstate, and fast. Speeding vehicles and thick fog tend to plague the area and it has become notorious for its severe, and many times fatal, accidents. It is said that a person is twenty times more likely to die on this section of I-40 than they are to win the lottery.
When you fall off into the Gorge, if you want to stay alive, you must crank on more power. Lots more. And forget the left lane. It’s not an option because it’s full of trucks. Big trucks that are only a Jake Brake away from 400 miles an hour as implied by the runaway truck ramps that dare them to hasten their pace. Thrilling just doesn’t do this piece of road justice. Remember that scene in Trains, Planes and Automobiles with John Candy and Steve Martin? Uh-huh. You’re way ahead of me, right? Need I say more?
Our eastbound pass through the Gorge was typical. At mile marker 73, we noted road construction and backed-up traffic on the opposite side. I made a mental note to find a detour on our return trip.
The Garmin 2610 I was navigating by did its job beautifully. I had never been to Huntersville, a sort of suburb of Charlotte, in my life, but we never missed a turn and rode right into the parking lot of Joe Gibbs’ shops. Impressive hardly describes this “Shop”. It looked more like a corporate headquarters for some Wall Street potentate and made us realize that NASCAR was not a sport, but a lucrative business. We dismounted, took a few snapshots, then strolled inside where we found a whole bunch of trophies and, why was I not surprised, a stinking gift shop. No Tony Stewart, no Kyle Bush, no Joe Gibbs, not even a lousy mechanic to greet us. No coffee pot, no coke machine, no place to rest our weary bones. Needless to say, we did just as the planners envisioned and didn’t hang around. I felt the boot in my a$$ as I walked out the door and I swear I heard Joe Gibbs laughing. What a rip. A 450 mile ride to visit a stinking gift shop. Aw well, I never liked Tony Stewart anyway and I don’t like the Redskins either. Stick it in your ear, Joe Gibbs.
After lunch at a nearby Friendly’s restaurant that looked suspiciously like a KFC, we began making our way back to Gatlinburg. The mental notation made earlier to avoid construction in the Gorge came to mind and we began searching for a detour. At mile marker 85 we found it. We jumped off on Highway 222 and rolled south to Rutherfordton, then picked up Highway 74 towards Ashville. The detour forced us to ride twenty miles out of our way, but the curvaceous country roads that led us through picturesque little communities like Bat Cave and Chimney Rock made the long way around the highlight of our day.
About half-way through the detour, a news flash on the radio informed us that there had been a big pile up in the Gorge. So, before jumping back on I-40 we pulled into a gas station, fueled up and sought more information and our worst fears were confirmed; there was an accident. Details were skimpy and we couldn’t find out if both directions were closed or just the east-bound side. We wrestled with trying to get through or get off at Waynesville and sneak into Gatlinburg through the back door. A long ride, but still better than being stranded in the Gorge.
As we sipped bottled water and pondered our situation, a mechanic described how bad it can be in the Gorge by relating a situation he and his pardner’ found themselves in a year earlier. Seems they were transporting their small racing operation to a show in Kentucky and got trapped in the Gorge. He said they were stranded for almost ten hours but, unlike some folks, (me for instance,) instead of wringing their hands they decided to make the best of a bad situation. They had a grill on board so they dragged it out of the hauler, fired it up right there in the hammer lane of I-40 and started cookin’. Said they cooked everything they had, plus what other folks donated and fed anybody and everybody til’ they ran out of food. There was plenty of donated beer and soda, too and according to him they had a rousing good party for the next six hours or so. But still, his advice was to avoid the Gorge whenever possible.
After a short conference, our thinking was that the mechanic was probably exaggerating and we decided to take our chances. We jumped back on the Interstate and the instant our last chance exit flashed by, we were suddenly riding all alone. Not a car or truck in sight. It was an eerie feeling and we just knew we had screwed up, big time. The mechanic’s tale haunted my thoughts. Why didn’t we listen to him?
After ten miles of empty Interstate, we caught a line of trucks with a few cars mixed in straining to climb out of the Gorge and this was our first indication that maybe, just maybe we might be able to get through. Shortly thereafter, the emergency radio broadcasts materialized into the reality of an overturned tractor trailer in the opposite lane and it really had things jammed up. As we cruised slowly by, I noted that the cab looked survivable so maybe there were no fatalities. The rubberneckers slowly began pulling away and we were soon back up to cruising speeds.
The backup stretched over ten miles. I remember looking into the faces of some of those unfortunates staring back at us and feeling a deep sense of empathy, but at the same time thanking my lucky stars that it wasn’t us. Those poor folks would probably be there all night and when I crawled into bed later that evening, I thought about ‘em, shivered, pulled the cover up tighter and thanked the Old Master for a safe day.