Monday, August 24, 2009

Avoiding the 'Tree of Shame'

In the morning, we rode out through the rising mist

Saturday, Aug. 22 -- They call the 11 miles of US 129 at Deal's Gap, N.C., "The Tail of the Dragon." There are 318 curves in that short space. On a motorcycle, riding the Tail is like skiing a slalom course. To do it well, requires a lot of gear shifting, both to slow the bike down entering each turn and to accelerate crisply coming out of it.

On a pleasant summer day hundreds of riders, dozens of sports cars and a few misguided tourists in SUVs and sedans ride the Tail. There was even one guy in a Lincoln Town Car whom I passed on a short straight. Chris said when he saw him the Lincoln was actually parked on the edge of the road on the inside of a hairpin turn while the driver was walking around -- a contender for a Darwin Award.

This huge butterfly shared our camp

We'd camped overnight at the Horse Cove Campground in the Nantahala National Forest near Robbinsville, N. C., where a huge monarch butterfly with a six-inch wingspan shared our riverside campsite. A thunderstorm rolled in just after we turned in. My tent held up well (thank you, Heidi for insisting I seal the seams) but it was quite an experience watching the lightning flash, hearing the thunder claps, the rain beating on the tent and the river rushing by just a few yards away.

Chris' tent slowed the water down, but didn't keep it out. I heard a lot of noise coming from his direction in the night, which turned out to be him turning his air mattress over. One side was flocked with a velour-like material and held the water, while the other was smooth plastic that he could wipe off. Eventually, the rain stopped and we were relieved to awake to glimpses of blue sky through the mist.

We left our gear in camp and rode out on the Cherohala Skyway toward Tennessee. The Skyway winds for 15 miles over 5,400 foot mountains in North Carolina and another 21 miles in Tennessee. Opened in 1996, it has a history not unlike Hawaii's H-3 highway. It took 34 years to complete at a cost of $100 million, making it North Carolina's most expensive highway.

The view of the Smokies from the mile-high Skyway was spectacular

This pole is a launch ramp for endangered North Carolina flying squirrels to glide across the Cherohala Skyway

From the Skyway we found US 129 and the excitement built as we saw highway department signs warning truckers not to use the road and advising other motorists to consider an alternate route. At the "Head of the Dragon" we stopped at a store catering to motorcyclists, checked out the gear and souvenirs. I bought some wrap-around sunglasses designed for riding and some US 129 stickers for the bikes. Then we were off down the Tail.

US 129 stickers are popular souvenirs for Tail riders

We didn't go all that fast, but the KLR and I didn't get passed either -- not that there was much traffic at the time. Chris' lowered Harley Fat Boy wasn't in its element, however. He said he dragged his floorboards on almost every curve.

The scene at Deal's Gap Resort

Wave after wave of riders came and went

At the end of the Tail we pulled into the Deal's Gap Motorcycle Resort. The parking lot, striped to accommodate hundreds of motorcycles but no cars, was almost full when we arrived. The resort includes a motel, dining room, store and gas station, but the highlight is the "Tree of Shame."

Bikers with more enthusiasm than skill who crash on the Tail, are required by custom to hang a piece of their motorcycle on the tree. It's well-decorated but, given the thousands of riders who do the Tail every year, not too gaudy.

We avoided adding any motorcycle parts to the Tree of Shame

Several companies post photographers at choice curves along the road to take pictures of the bikes on the road. Here are a couple of us:

Flanman and the KLR didn't get passed

Chris' Harley dragging its floorboards

After we had our fill of the Deal's Gap scene, we headed back to our camp, packed up and set the GPS for Murfreesboro, Tenn., Chris' home base. We left Robbinsville about 5 p.m. and arrived at about 9:30.

It was time to rest and catch up on my blog.

The blogger at work


  1. John-O

    Thankfully, there's very little green in that tree aside from the leaves. Thanks for sharing the tale of the Tail. An epic spread of bitumen indeed. It reminds me a bit of surfing at Pops though - great, lined-up bowling waves that are a little too well-known and accessible. It must have been nice carving it up on the naked KLR.

    The wildlife details are just great. How can you not grin knowing you're in the realm of honest-to-God flying squirrels. That perch makes you want to pull out the lawn chair for the next show starting at 3:30. Giant butterflies are an instant slow-motion world. And bears in the woods...they're up to something, you just know it. I'm also enjoying your adaptation to the rhythms of the regional weather. Here comes the afternoon shower. Time to set my watch and stow the GPS. What a fine thing to ride through the rain knowing there's hot food and a dry destination waiting.

    If you haven't done so already, it's time to start thinking about a nickname for your tent.

    All is well on Oahu. Angie says howdy. She's admiring your photos over my shoulder.

    Ride safe.


  2. I know you were looking forward to the 'Tail' and it sounds like it didn't disappoint. I gather you did it twice, coming and going? Good idea. j

  3. Come on! Where are you and what are you doing??? Inquiring minds want to know! Where is your next installment? j