Continued from Triumph Dragon Raid 2015: Day 0 – Southbound (part 1)
When word made its way around the office that my “big trip” to the Dragon Raid this year was upon me, most folks told me to be careful, especially during Labor Day traffic. I appreciated the kind words, and told most folks that I planned on taking a route that would provide for as much solitude as possible for the duration of the trip down. That statement proved to be pretty true until we passed the Nada Tunnel and arrived at the Shell station in Slade, Kentucky, for gas. As I just mentioned, Red River Gorge is loaded with good motorcycle roads, moreover is a huge camping and hiking destination; the Slade Shell station is the only operating gas station for miles, and it was obvious on Labor Day weekend. Sweltering in the afternoon sun, Jon suggested we make a break for the next station down the line.
Fortunately, the five gallon tank on the Speedmaster had enough to spare so Jon and I could continue south to the next station near Beattyville; at which point I was reminded just how “remote” certain parts of Eastern Kentucky can be. I typically “pay at the pump”, especially when riding a motorcycle, considering the convenience. As one can expect, credit card readers become less and less available as you venture into the mountains. This random station on the side of KY-11 was the first of many I would encounter in the following days. While inconvenient, there’s something to be said for walking into a filling station and talking with the locals. Stepping through the door I was politely greeted with a southern twang that I affectionately appreciate in this part of the world. Standing in line I noticed several elderly locals sitting around talking like old friends, something you definitely don’t see very often in Dayton, Ohio, a reminder of how things used to be.
Back on Kentucky Route 11 I caught more views of other Red River Gorge destinations that I didn’t realize existed further south of the Red River, including various restaurants and Torrent Falls climbing adventure. I’ve got big hopes for a weekend trip back down this way perhaps later this season, or next summer at a minimum, there’s just too many good roads and local fare to pass up.
Not long after leaving the more touristy sections of KY-11, Jon and I found ourselves enjoying the curvy Kentucky backroads to ourselves. We didn’t see another soul for miles; I actually found myself thinking: “this might be a really crappy place to break down.” Despite how much I was enjoying the solitude on the roadway, at a given intersection a pickup truck pulled out in front of us. It was bound to happen, at some point I was going to find myself stuck behind a car, unable to pass for miles; however that’s not at all how things turned out. After a couple miles I began to realize I was almost struggling to keep up with this obviously local driver in the “red pickup”; before long I actually thought to myself “hell, I’ll fallow this guy to the Tennessee line!”. I mention that because it almost never happens to me, more often than not, you and your riding buddies are clipping along and grandma pulls out in front of you in her Buick sedan. Despite horse power and experience, traffic conditions (and laws…) prevent you from getting around the land yacht. Fortunately, not this day, thank you Mr. Red Pickup, way to break the stereotype; never underestimate the local’s ability to absolutely rip it when they want to.
Ninety more miles down the road, another gas stop in Barbourville, Kentucky, where we merged onto US-25E. A stark contrast from the secluded twisty two-lane of KY-11, US-25E is a four-lane highway that would take us through most of Tennessee. Despite being a “highway”, 25E is actually a really nice ride, with steep changes in elevation, big sweepers, great views of the mountains, not to mention the tunnel. Cumberland Gap Tunnel is another notable landmark worth seeing. I posted video of the tunnel from my ad-hoc trip this spring, but for those who don’t know, the tunnel along 25E is a 4,600 foot, four-lane, dual-tube tunnel, bored through the mountain connecting Middleboro, Kentucky, to Cumberland Gap, Tennessee. While 25E doesn’t pass through Virginia, I’m told the nearby connecting two-lane roads where the three states converge at Cumberland Gap is well worth exploring on two wheels.
Routing from Dayton to Deal’s Gap almost always leaves you with one compromise, how to get around Gatlinburg, Tennessee? I hate tourist traps. As of today, I have never been to a tourist trap as drawn out as the Pigeon Forge – Gatlinburg run along US-441. That being the case, you’re basically limited to biting the bullet and running through 441, taking the west pass through Knoxville and across US-129 (The Dragon) or the east route along Interstate 40. Normally I’m the first person to say that riding on the interstate sucks, but I know of at least two exceptions: I-77 through West Virginia, and I-40 through the Pigeon River Gorge. While I personally feel that 77 through West Virginia is probably the twistiest section of interstate this side of the Mississippi River, 40 presents some steep competition. Gassing up in Newport just off 25E, and already considerably east of Knoxville, we were obviously taking I-40 through the gorge and into Maggie Valley, North Carolina. Similar to the filling station in Kentucky, the locals were extremely friendly, especially as we joked about the “impending weather”. Up to this point, Jon and I had remained completely dry, but after studying the radar, I was doubtful that trend would continue through this last leg. Jon insisted that we’d successfully dodge the storms as we swept wide along I-40 and back west along US-74 toward the lodge. With fresh memories of last year’s monsoon, I battened down the hatches and prepared for the worst; so much so I asked Jon take the lead with his waterproof Garmin.
Getting off the freeway, eleven hours in, we were finally on the home stretch, US-19 through Maggie valley and Cherokee, then a hot skip across US-74, and finally North Carolina Route 28 into Stecoah to the Lodge. To Jon’s credit, I counted about 12 rain drops on my visor, a good lesson in optimism. I snapped a few photos along US-19. Unlike the Gatlinburg corridor, it’s very obvious that the tourist destinations of yesteryear have closed; many having fallen into disrepair. In the following days I was often reminded that Americans don’t “road trip” anymore, which is a shame, there’s so much nature to see down this way.
Pulling into the Lodge I felt a mix of relief, disappointment, and excitement. I was looking forward to getting the dead weight off the back of the bike so I could really carve into the twisties, yet disappointed that the riding day was over.
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