Passing through the villages of Behnam and Lynch, I was captivated by rows of antiquated brick buildings; boarded up and abandoned decades ago. More accustomed to images northern Appalachian rolling hills, nestled deep in the valley on the very southern edge of the Kentucky border, Benham and Lynch felt foreign. Lynch, a company-owned coal town built by US Steel, was once a borough of 10,000 people in the 40’s. Today fewer than 800 people call the sleepy town of Lynch home. Winding up the mountain on Kentucky 160, the forest swallowed up the last of the old village remnants. Leaning into endless curves as I headed up I dodged a distinct, tar-like substance in the middle of the road. Leaning through half a dozen more curves, a lightbulb lit up. “Dude, that was bear shit!”
After battling three tropical storms over the last two years during my annual pilgrimage to Deal’s Gap for the Dragon Raid, I’ve struggled to publish content about the trip that made those journeys unique and entertaining. With that, on the last day of the rally last year, I departed the Iron Horse Lodge in a huff at 4 AM to escape the ominous arrival of Hurricane Florence. I had already battled tropical storm Gordon just to get to the rally, I go caught multiple downpours that week, and then the Park Service decided to close the North Carolina trail systems well ahead of the storm. I was fed up with being cold and wet and it was time to go.
That feeling was so strong that I had my mind made up before Christmas that I was going to schedule my vacation for that same week, load up the bike with camping gear and just ride wherever I saw sunny skies. If things worked out, I might drop by the rally Saturday night for the party. A true, unplanned, unscheduled, ad-hoc adventure. In an unexpected turn of events, my dad sent me a text early this spring, saying he wanted to go ride The Dragon and attend the Raid. Understanding that time on this earth is limited, I threw the “ad-hoc plan” out the window and made arrangements for us to stay at the Iron Horse for the week. There was simply no way I was going to pass on a motorcycle vacation with my dad (even if he couldn’t get the entire week off work).
Sunday, September 8th: “Piqued”
Twisting up Kentucky Highway 160 (that before mentioned mountain road), I couldn’t agree more with previous sentiments about endless twisty pavement. I’m sure I mentioned before, I’m a bit of a nerd about visiting the highest points on various states. Considering the Bluegrass State is the home of my kin and a place I see as my “moto sandbox”, Black Mountain should have been a priority a long time ago. I’m not sure why I hadn’t put in on the Moto Bucket List, I assume because it’s actually part of the Kentucky Adventure Tour, which was my original plan had I not decided to return to the Dragon Raid again this year. 2019 has been all about flexibility… but that’s a story for another time. Passing the big green sign, “elevation 4,145 ft”, I had arrived after 10 miles of some of the best mountain views I’d ever seen in the Bluegrass. I’d even checked my map multiple times to make sure I was still in Kentucky; the peaks of the mountains were far more reminiscent of Tennessee than the typical Appalachian foothills I’m accustomed to in Menifee County.
While I was captivated by the rich history and vistas leaving Lynch, Highway 160 unwound epically as I passed over the far side of Black Mountain toward Appalachia, Virginia. I don’t know when I said it, but I know at some point I mentioned my interest in riding more of Virginia’s mountain backroads. I got a small taste of that earlier this summer, in a story I have yet to finish, but these remote Appalachian farms along the western edge of the commonwealth brought a deeper and renewed appreciation for rural Virginia.
I had planned this route weeks in advance, from Black Mountain down through Virginia then on to Iron Horse. At the time, I struggled to find a suitable pass over the mountains. Rever had warned me multiple times that various roads were closed, so I had to fuss with the best path that didn’t go so far out of the way or too close to civilization. As luck would have it, when I arrived at the first pass on VA-70, I found a roadblock. No, not the 3 sets of “Road Closed” signs I (allegedly) went past, an actual tree laying across the road. I’ve said before when the plan goes awry, the adventure begins. With little to no cell service, I had to peck around on my Garmin and try to follow the horribly marked detour. I didn’t want to follow the exact detour, as they are typically meant for tractor-trailers and will take you around the entire county sometimes. At any rate, after a 12-mile “extension”, I made my way over the next pass on VA-66. For the sake of brevity, let’s say that VA-66 wasn’t in much better shape, and as I suspected, the record rainfalls of the spring had caused some serious landslides throughout the area, hence the reason I struggled to find an open mountain pass. Fortunately, Rosie is still “skinny” for a pig, so we were on our way to the next highlight, North Carolina Highway 209.
When I realized how far east the route would have to go to reach Black Mountain, I knew it would open endless opportunities to ride new roads. A friend of mine said years ago that I needed to ride NC-209, “The Rattler”. I debated riding it on the way down a couple of years back but balked at the added time to the journey. Flying solo has perks, which usually means I skip sit-down meals and space out bathroom breaks to add another hour of riding. Arriving in Hot Springs, NC, I veered off US-25 to enjoy 25 miles of, mostly, uninterrupted mountain bends. Sunday afternoon traffic was a bit heavier than I’d like, but needless to say, I’ll be back to hit that road again.
From NC-209 is was “The usual” US-74 past Waynesville and on to the Iron Horse Lodge. Pulling in the drive with the sun still overhead, it was nice to arrive in time to get the bike unloaded and still have time to eat a hot dinner (something that has not always happened in the past). Sitting down in the “day room” for chow, I chatted with some of my local buddies about what destinations were on the docket for Monday. Rosie being fitted with a fresh set of Motoz Tractionator Adventure tires… just about anywhere was within reach…
To Be Continued…
2020 Dragon Raid Part 3