**(9/21/09) Updated with new Tail of the Dragon videos. Check them out!**
Loopy De Loop is a cartoon character; but this loop that we are talking about here is a 120-mile loop that “can easily be traveled in one day” as the complimentary map that you pick up at any area convenience store would suggest. But of course, the innocuous description heavily downplays the fact that the “Mile-High Legend” Cherohala Skyway and the (in)famous Tail of the Dragon with its 318 curves in 11-miles are both part of this 120-mile loop on which we are about to embark today.
Andrew and Ed at Turkey Creek overlook (alt. 2,630 ft.), Cherohala Skyway, TN
Caney Creek Village where we have been staying sits right off the loop actually (Hwy 360), so it wouldn’t be hard to find our way back.
(8am~ish) After some tasty fried bologna sandwiches at Hardee’s, we were ready to go. I was nominated to lead since I had some practice yesterday evening and I was excited. For one thing, after experiencing the rush a day earlier, there was just no way that I would be happy trailing behind anyone. I wanted to right there in front, like the tip on a nose-cone of a supersonic fighter jet, splitting through the fresh mountain air molecules, one by one.
Turning left and heading east toward the Tennessee/North Carolina border, the Cherohala Skyway (Hwy-165 on the Tennessee-side) runs along the Tellico River but only briefly, offering an interesting rolling vista of juxtaposing rocky cliffs on one side and cascading river stream on the other, with a twisty, two-lane asphalt road unfolding ahead at every turn. Steadily rising from about 930 feet starting at Tellico Plains to near 4,500 feet above sea level at the North Carolina state line in just 20 miles, the serpentine Skyway offers perfect sweeping turns that beg you to lean from side-to-side. Power down on the throttle just a bit before each corner, line up for the apex, power up as you exit each turn, wind up the throttle going down the straightaway with the speedo momentarily clocking 70-mph before you throttle down in a hurry and prepare for the next turn. Repeat this again and again. Fun! Fun! Fun!
There is very little sign of civilization or habitation along the Skyway to speak of, except for a few carefully positioned overlooks to pull over for some photo ops or to take a breather. I was ahead and had pulled into one of these spots thinking that I would be able to preposition myself to snap some action shots of my fellow riders; but before I could set up, I heard the deep, thunderous rumbles of Chuck’s Harley approaching. They’ve caught up. Guess either I wasn’t that far ahead of the pack, or they were really great on their first runs, or both. At some of these overlooks, for example at Turkey Creek, they even have restroom facilities for those with definite altitude-induced urges (or AIU’s).
Winding our way into North Carolina, the same Skyway changes to Hwy-143 as the hills get higher and higher, all the way up to 5,390 feet at Santeetlah, which is over a-mile high. Denver, Colorado, by comparison, is only 5,281 feet above sea level. The air is cool up here, and the leaves have just begun to turn, showing a hint of crimson.
After experiencing four ear-pops with changing altitudes, we gradually descended to about 2,660 feet at Santeetlah Gap. Shortly after Hwy-143 tees into US-129, where the run up to Deal’s Gap and the Tail of the Dragon unofficially begins, it seemed like a perfect place to stop so we pulled into the Skyway Convenience Store/Chevron Gas Station, which has quickly become one of my favorite stops on this trip. It’s clean, modern, and people are friendly. In addition to carrying Zero % Ethanol gasoline, this station also has the unique “Dragon Fuel”, a 110-octane gasoline, which according to Nina the clerk, is what the crotch-rocketeers and sports car enthusiasts would mix with premium gasoline to make a 100-octane blend, perfect for their assaults on the Dragon (not sure that I understand why but it sounds pretty cool).
All fueled up, we raced toward Deal’s Gap along the wonderful Cheoah River, where we saw people trying their luck at fly-fishing; but there was no time to stop and admire because the ride in front of us was just getting good–fast, long straights with some nice bends, beautiful green hills surrounding us that were just fantastic. Passing Tapoco Lodge to our left, it was time for a quick shutterbug stop at the Fugitive Bridge for a few photos of the Cheoah (“Fugitive”) Dam, made famous by Harrison Ford’s single leap in the 1993 movie The Fugitive.
Crossing over the bridge, we briefly paused at the top of the dam. Ed got off the scooter and went to have a better look and apparently made some friends with a group of dam-admirers. We let him be because he would catch up with us later, I was sure. We continued to ascend, from 1,200 feet to about 1,962 feet along this extremely narrow, tight-turning donkey trail up Waterfall Corner and Wheelie Hell. My plan was to take the group and run straight up the Dragon without stopping at Deal’s Gap, get to the TOD Overlook (about 8.8 miles away) in one shot so as not to lose any of the energy and focus.
We rode at an even pace, trailing two Harley’s up and down the ever-twisting road, and finally reached the Overlook for a quick break. Weather was excellent and the panoramic view over the dam was stunningly spectacular. Chuck continued on with the loop, riding solo down the rest of the Dragon from the Overlook; while Andrew and Jolenta U-turned back up to Deal’s Gap with me following right behind. Halfway up the road we met up with Ed and rode to Deal’s Gap together.
Crotch-rocket, dual-purpose, and supermotard riders were out in full force, as were the Harley, Gold Wing and BMW riders on this pretty Monday. We even saw a group of vintage Cushmans and a Helix rounding the curves and having a good time. However, this widow-maker of a lunatic was very self-assured of his Dragon-slaying riding skills and somewhat impatient to say the least, rode right up within inches of Ed’s rear tire and hung there for a while. Ed smartly pulled off to the right just a bit when he saw it was safe, and the guy simply crossed over the double-yellow (the entire TOD is a no-passing zone I believe), shifted his body to the left and to the right a couple of times and then he was gone! I found this sort of behavior to be quite typical on the Dragon; but for us Dragon-beginners it was very confusing and it did feel as if someone was trying to run us off the road (it happened to me too a day earlier with a knee-draggin’ crotch-rocket girl in full racing leather). Hate to bring it up here; but the fatalities on the Dragon are well-documented and 2009 has already cemented itself as an average above-average year with two three deaths already.
2009 – Three deaths as of August 4. June 27, HD rider from Miami went off road in the Chicanes, reason unknown (possible heart attack). Friends and LEOs searched several hours before finding body. Female HD rider off road Carosel Corner in July. Female rider off road Carosel Corner in August.
Down at Deal’s Gap, it’s all commerce. The gift shop sells anything and everything imaginable with a Tail of the Dragon theme; at least three photo websites have camera persons staking out strategically at various locations to take your heroic Dragon-slayer-type action shots which could be subsequently purchased at their roadside tents; gas stations selling versions of Dragon fuel and more licensed Dragon paraphernalia; area inns, campsites, cabins and lodges all catering to Dragon-fans and pilgrims alike. In fact the term “Tail of the Dragon” has been copyrighted and trademarked so using it without authorization may infringe on the rights of certain company named Tail of the Dragon, LLC. It’s nothing but a racket, some would call it.
It’s sad but plain and simple, with area unemployment rates somewhere between 12.5% (Etowah, TN) and 17.9% (Robbinsville, NC), way above the current US national average of 9.7% as well as both states’ unemployment rates of 10.8%, (Dragon-) tourism seems to be the only draw for this part of the country and the sole remaining lifeline of its economy. If you read the reports, the only thing that seems grow around here would be the loss of jobs. After seeing restaurants which still appear on the GPS mysterious shut down one after the other, we started asking around and people would tell us that they have been closed for quite some time now. Similarly, coming up to this area, we noticed as we rode through town after town starting around Lawrenceburg, TN that, dotted across the landscape, thousands upon thousands of acres of sad, dried-up cornfields with nothing to harvest, and perhaps not worth the fuel it would cost to mow them down, either. This area is going through some tough times, and not even an infusion in tourism could resuscitate it in its current conditions, I am afraid to say.
With two “practice” runs this morning already under our belts, we were set for today’s final run down the Dragon. This one would take us through the entire TOD, from Deal’s Gap, passing the Overlook, all the way to Tabcat Bridge–11.1 miles, 318 curves and a total drop of 1,085 feet. Beyond the bridge, we would continue on US-129, following the Little Tennessee River, turning left on Hwy-72, then another left at US-411, stopping somewhere for lunch, and finally hooking up with Hwy-360 again for a scenic ride back to Tellico Plains. At least, that was the plan.
I hooked up Andrew’s flip mino HD camcorder on the brake reservoir of my MP3, turned on record (or at least I thought that I had turned it on) and we were off to “Slay the Dragon”! Looking down at the camera moments after departure and I noticed that it was off again (Dang)! So with one eye trained on the dangerous, fast-approaching turn and the other on the camera, I somehow managed to reboot the mino with my clumsy gloved fingers, and the video was saved (whenever it’s ready for prime time, I will link it and show it to you all)!
Update: They’re ready! Thanks, Andrew! So quick and nice head-banging music, too!
The euphoria experienced after completing the entire TOD must have taken me over. I rode to the Tallassee Store by the Foothills Parkway all alone like a man possessed (or as Bruce would say “rode it like I stole it”) and left the rest of the group minutes behind.
Regrouped, we cruised on to Vonore, the intersection of US-411 and Hwy-360, and had a splash of fuel. Andrew said that there was a restaurant named Dragon’s Pit, as suggested by the GPS (and with “Pit” in its name it can’t be good), so we headed north on US-411 toward Maryville looking for this Pit. If you have caught the drift already, you would know, as we would come to find out later, the place had long been closed. Bummer! So for the next few minutes (it seemed) we wondered around the countryside before finally heading back to Vonore. By that time, Jolenta had decided to ride back to Tellico Plains alone; and three of us, Andrew, Ed and I followed a local woman’s advice to this place called Countryside Café and and enjoyed a decent meal. Nothing fancy or special about it, just good country fare. A young, charming, bespectacled waitress said that she’s a half-Texan and her mother is from Abilene. Hands off, Ed! I see a ring.
The ride back from Vonore to the cabin in Tellico Plains along the pastoral Hwy-360 was relaxing and a fitting end to this tremendous day. We’ve done it. We rode the Dragon! We looped the Loop!–Lorenzo
*P.S. More photos from our trip to Tail of the Dragon can be found on Flickr.