Deals Gap, aka the Tail of the Dragon. Eleven miles and 318 curves along Highway 129 on the North Carolina / Tennessee border. Referred to by many as one of the world’s best routes for motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts. The reputation surrounding “The Dragon” had long both attracted and intimidated me. I was already on a long trip to Harley Davidson dealers along the eastern coast to get my card stamped, when the little (figurative) voice in my ear said “This is our chance – we will ride the Tail of the Dragon today!” “But it’s so far, and I don’t know if I can do that in a day!” The little voice responded, “Just do it!” And here’s the story of what happened.
Just do it! The famous Nike slogan, inspired by Gary Gilmore’s last words before meeting his maker in 1977 at the hands of a Utah firing squad: “Let’s do it!” And so I began preparation for the adventure. I put my travel bag on the bike and loaded up essentials I would need for the day. Helmets? Yes, I use 2 of them: A skull-cap helmet for sunny day riding, and a ¾ helmet for riding in the rain. Next, I made sure I could get to my rain suit, remembering my last jaunt into the mountains, how quickly the weather can change up there, and how I was not able to open my saddlebag to get said rain suit last time. After verifying that I had everything I needed (and could get to it, even in the rain) I was ready to go! My next decision was how to get there.
There were two options: ride on the interstates, and get there in 3 ½ hours; or, a 5 hour and 10-minute ride on the backroads of Highway 28, all the way to the Dragon. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather ride all day on a scenic back road than drone along on the interstate with all of the cager traffic and semi trucks. Highway 28 it was! Let it be known I highly recommend Highway 28, aka The Moonshiner – it runs all the way from Walhalla, SC, to the Tail of the Dragon (becoming Highway 64 at some points) through the Nantahala National Forest, and covers some of the most scenic vistas in the whole Appalachian Mountains. You will NOT get bored. Pro tip: stop for lunch in Highlands.
I arrived at the world-famous Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort around 2:30 p.m. As I turned off of Highway 28 into the parking lot, I could see the famous metal dragon sculpture that EVERYONE gets a selfie with. OK, THIS IS THE REAL DEAL! No pun intended (OK, OK, it was intended, you got me!). After parking the bike, I began walking towards the souvenir shop, passing a short row of motel rooms to my left, a covered shed with a DJ playing tunes over a PA system, and the a bar/restaurant. I stopped to look at the “Tree of Shame.” This is a tree where trashed parts from accidents of bikes and cars alike are placed for public humiliation…uh…viewing. The souvenir shop has hundreds of Deals Gap shirts of various designs, hats, jewelry, gremlin bells for the bike, maps, decals, and all kinds of other memorabilia and accessories.
Anxious to get started on the Dragon (well, maybe not quite so anxious now), I headed out of the shop towards my bike, but not without stopping at the “Tree of Shame” one more time. Visions of my saddlebags hanging from the tree appeared. Blinking until the vision disappeared, with a deep breath I continued towards my bike, mounted up, and headed out of the parking lot and onto the fearsome Dragon. “It’s show time BJ” I thought to myself, using my bike’s nickname, and with a twist of the throttle we were off to try our hand at taming the beast.
As I hit the first few curves, and then completed the first mile, I thought, “This isn’t so bad.” Highway 28 had curves like this for a hundred miles or more. Miles two and three went by, and the curves started coming fast. Where’re those photographers? This epic adventure has to be documented! Mile five, six, seven went by, and at this point I started to see what all of the fuss is about! The curves were short, tight, and banked steeply. “Please G*d, don’t let an 18-wheeler or RV decide to come through right now!” Two crotch rockets got up on my tail wanting to pass, so I moved to the right and let them by. Better them than me! I fought onward through mile 10, mile 11, and – I MADE IT! The view from the overlook was amazing. I felt like I had just climbed Mt. Everest.
Oh wait – now I have to go back the way I came. Feeling like I just finished an episode of The Survivor, I made a U-turn around the two parked crotch rockets that passed me earlier, and headed back to Deals Gap Resort, making a stop along the way at a pull off to view the Cheroah Dam. AWESOME! Oh wait, those look like rain clouds. Gotta go! I didn’t want to ride on wet roads while on the Dragon. Riding a little harder going back, the scraping of floorboards rang through the trees – I even passed one bike to get back sooner. Rounding the last turn, raindrops starting to patter against my helmet, I saw the signs of Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort. A sign of relief escaped me as I pulled up to the porch of the souvenir shop. I did it. I actually did it. I did not die. No parts from my bike would be on display from the ‘Tree of Shame.’ But now, the wait began.
It was 4:00 p.m., and I had just completed the most epic ride I had ever made, but I was not about to head out of Deals Gap and back onto the twisty mountain roads in the pouring-down rain! So I found a nice comfortable place on the porch with about 8 crotch rocket types, and wait…and wait. Around 6:30 p.m. the heavy rain broke. I got dressed in my rain gear (it was still drizzling) and headed home down Highway 28, back out to Highway 74 through Waynesville, and on to I-40. Somewhere along I-40, the jerry-rigging of my crippled baffle gave way and set itself free. Why didn’t I look for a baffle on the tree of shame? Immediately my street bike sounded like a drag bike. Around 11:15 p.m., I pulled into my garage. Home sweet home!
Glad to be home, exhausted, but also ecstatic that I had safely completed a 510-mile round trip to Deals Gap in one day – “the day I rode the Dragon” – I gently lowered myself into my recliner, closed my eyes and replayed the day’s adventure. Just before I fell asleep, I heard the little voice in my ear softly saying, “See, wasn’t I right?”