On Death, Dragon Slayers and Underwear Thieves

tricolore

North Carolina knows how to build a road. For a week I was sucked into Deal’s Gap and surrounding area, making new friends, seeing all manner of cool motorcycles, and exploring the gorgeous winding highways. Once again I could not help but reflect on the differences I saw between the Dragon, and the Snake (Mulholland Hwy) in Malibu California. Skill sets vary in the latter, but mainly it’s sportbikes and generally the skill level runs from intermediate to expert. By contrast, the Dragon seems to attract intermediate and quite a few beginner riders. But more than that, it attracts motorcycle tourism: and that means cruisers, trikes, and goldwings, with or without trailers in tow. I had an interesting chat with a handful of locals on top of the mountain. “Guys come here with temporary plates on their bikes and think they’re going to ‘slay the dragon’,” one said.

“What does it matter if they have a temp plate?” I asked.

“It’s a sign of lack of seat time,” he said. “They park their bikes all year, working their 9-5, then they plate their bike and ride eight-twelve hours to get here, or trailer down, planning a week’s vacation of 200 mile days. They buy their dragon t-shirt and put the sticker on their motorcycle. By day 3 they’re exhausted. They aren’t used to being on the bike this much. Then they throw it down the mountain.”

“They own a bike so they think they’re bikers,” another chimed in. “But they’re not. They don’t think to try to improve their skills or self-evaluate. And they’re not ready for these roads.”

I’m a whitewater kayaker. On the river, rapids are rated according to difficulty, on a scale of one to five. Understanding what is above your skill level as a paddler is going to be absolutely vital to your lifespan. To get down a class IV section safely, you’re going to need the skill set of a class IV kayaker. Similarly, dirt roads – single track – are classed according to difficulty, because there will be obstacles that can only be overcome with certain techniques. Paved roads without traffic are different; there’s no current pushing you along, no rocks to navigate around, and there’s no logs to jump or steep hill climbs to get through. So when I was first heading to the Dragon and some riders warned me not to try it first at night, I didn’t understand. My headlights work fine – I’ll just slow down. How tough can a paved road really be?

I listened to them. I parked the bike north of the Dragon and rode it for the first time the next morning. And then I understood. This is unlike any public road or private racetrack I have ever been on. For eleven miles, the rider is asked – no, expected – to negotiate one turn directly after another. There are elevation changes, camber changes, tight slow corners, blind corners, and zero runoff. Large trees line the road before it drops off 20-100+ feet down. I am tired by the halfway point and dog-tired by the end. Then I still have to turn around and come back down the mountain.

My first day, I started from the north end, had the cruiser run out in front of me, then I responded to a crash before I even made it to the bottom. The second day, someone died. It happened early in the morning, and I didn’t hear of it until early afternoon. I spoke with a new friend – a local – who was one of the first people on the scene. The rider missed his corner and slammed into a tree. Two physician motorcycle tourists stopped to assist fairly quickly, but it didn’t matter. Death occurred in minutes. It was the third Dragon death of the year, and the fifth motorcycle death in the surrounding region.

The atmosphere surrounding the death was surreal. The locals didn’t talk about it and the tourists didn’t know of it.

“Someone died here yesterday,” I mentioned to one rider. We were stopped at one of the Dragon’s many paved pull-offs. Newly installed a few years ago, the pull-offs encourage the cars to stop for motorcycles trying to get through, and hopefully cut down on dangerous double-yellow pass attempts.

“People say that all the time,” he said. “Every year I come here, someone died yesterday.”

“I spoke to the person who saw it happen,” I said.

He shook his head, the skepticism still apparent in his eyes.

The locals, meanwhile, were bitter. “The newspapers are already blaming the road,” one told me. “That evil Dragon, it twists open throttles, it forces people to target-fixate, it hits the brakes mid-corner. It’s nothing to do with the rider.” He made a sour face. “Why can’t these people just slow down and ride their own ride?”

More crashes would occur as the days went by. One group from Detroit, nicknamed “The Detroit Wrecking Crew”, had four of their eightfold group wipe out. I didn’t see any more crashes, though I continued to do runs up and down the Dragon, also venturing out to the surrounding roads, including Hwy 28 and the Cherohola Skyway (a beautiful, sweeping road that goes above 5000ft elevation. Draped in fog it seems to cut through the clouds). I swapped bikes with new friends from Chicago and North Bay, trying out a Hayabusa and a DRZ400SM. The Busa was a brilliantly fast bike that sounded like a Ferrari. The DRZ was faster than I’d thought it would be, and a lightweight compared to the heavy Dorothy.

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This truck driver thought he’d found a shortcut on the map by cutting through the Dragon. Here he’s shown stuck on one of the first corners. He had to get towed off the shoulder and then reversed out, escorted by police.

I ate hamburgers offered by motorcycle tourists, shot video, edited video, and slept on the dock at the bottom of the Dragon. I bathed in the cold lake, only to discover free hot showers at one of the Dragon stores a couple days later. I went offroading and snapped a header bolt; Dorothy could use a metal skid plate. Luckily it was an inexpensive $40 fix at the local repair shop.

I washed my undersuit one day and hung it up to dry at the dock. When I returned that night to set up camp, it had vanished. I’d tied it round a tree limb, so it couldn’t have blown away, and it wasn’t in the adjacent garbage bin. It was too small to fit anyone else and too smelly to consider worth stealing. I couldn’t understand what happened to it. It was an important part of my motorcycle apparel however; I brought two undersuits, so that I could have one to wear when the other is being dried from a wash. Now I guess I just won’t wash?

After a week in motorcycle paradise, it was time to leave. I said goodbye to the new friends I’d made, packed Dorothy and headed south. I followed the Cherohola into Tennessee, where I took 68, to 294 back into North Carolina, to 60 into Georgia. Up Hwy 180 and down Hwy 9, I stumbled across the most perfect, wonderful motorcycle road I’d seen yet: Hwy 19 from Tucker’s Corner into Dahlonega. It wound down a mountain, featuring constant open and extremely fast switchbacks, double-lane on the uphill and single-lane on the downhill. The line of sight was as far as the eye can see, every corner was on-camber, and the pavement was pristine. The air smelled like campfire and cinnamon buns. I marked the road on my Garmin, saving the waypoint as “Heaven on Earth.” I wanted to run the road again, but sunset was nearing, and Dorothy wasn’t the right bike for that road anyhow – what I really wanted was the precision and stability of my R1. So I made camp past Dahlonega, following a dirt road to an open field overrun by fat black caterpillars that crawled into my tent and overwhelmed me with their cuteness.

The next morning I visited the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, the largest aquarium in the world. I had been warned about Atlanta traffic by near everyone I’d spoken to of my destinations, and so I was on my guard, but I saw nothing of note. It’s a fairly large city, so there were lots of cars; that’s about the worst thing I could say of Atlanta drivers. They seemed perfectly calm and capable to me. I suppose it may be unsettling for someone not used to navigating a motorcycle through traffic.

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The aquarium was really cool: sharks, beluga whales, seahorses, sea otters, penguins, manta rays, and jellyfish. I was hoping to see sea slugs, but sadly they were not present.

No one who knows cameras would ever mistake someone toting a GH3 around for a pro, but it’s enough kit to fool a layperson. Coming back from the aquarium, I was asked how much for a headshot, by the gentleman who owned the parking lot I’d left Dorothy in. “I’ll do it for nothing,” I said generously. “I’m not very good, and I enjoy photographing people.”

So I snapped off a couple of shots (alright, 200), and handed them over . . . and was given a crisp $20 bill! And just like that, I became a paid traveling motorcycle photographer. I’ve got a ways til I break even.

ty_site

Here’s TY. Thanks for sponsoring my trip across the USA !

I finished my video, showing footage from my journey thus far, and now the challenge is to try to find an internet connection fast and stable enough to be able to upload it for my faithful readers. I have tried in a few spots now and keep timing out near the end. I’ve heard the town of Chatanooga has fast free wifi, but it’s three hours in the wrong direction.

I left Atlanta in the evening, intending to reach Birmingham, which was only a few hours away, before midnight. After stopping for gas however, I was beset with Dorothy’s first real problem in 5500 miles: her headlights both shut off simultaneously. It also happened as I was riding down the onramp of the I-20. Unwilling to ride to the next exit in complete darkness, I did what I’ve never done, u-turning and riding back up the on-ramp in the wrong direction. Feeling like a fugitive, I rolled into the truck stop I’d just left. I checked the fuses and bulbs, but everything was good there. Running light and highbeam both non-functional . . . the pass light worked. I taped it down and rode another fifty miles, stopping outside Birmingham, where I followed another dirt road that lead past a house under construction, into a sort of clearing. In the morning I made rice and edited photos, then headed out to the famous Vintage Motorcycle Museum at Barber Motorsports Park.

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I had been advised by many people to attend this museum, and I had been pretty skeptical, but this was immediately dissuaded as I first stepped into the facility. There were hundreds of motorcycles, old and new; and the very layout was the best I’ve ever seen, of any kind of displayed collection, motorcycle or not. An oversized cargo elevator lead to three floors of moto-history in the center of the room, wide ramps spiraling round the elevator, both clearly designed to facilitate the easy movement of bikes throughout. Detailed plaques relayed important specs and notes on the history behind each bike, which ranged from old war machines, early slim 5 HP bikes from early 1900s, vintage racers, and more modern bikes like a 999R, 916 Senna and an MV Agusta F4 Tamburini (one of 300). There was a 2004 R1, which I own currently, and a 1986 Honda VF500F Interceptor, which I owned years ago. But for me, one of the most special bikes was the Britten V1000. There are only ten in the world. I thought I’d have to go to New Zealand just to see one. Unfortunately I missed all of my photos of it: no tripods permitted in the museum.

2 thoughts on “On Death, Dragon Slayers and Underwear Thieves

  1. Chris Coats

    If if are not too far out from Birmingham give me a call @ 205-706-5341 and I will take you out for breakfast in the morning. Nice seeing you last night. I will be headed south in the morning on the Honda NC 700x.

    Reply
  2. Joe Fritz

    Great website. You could write for any magazine. I am the friend of Gene Michel that talked to you at the campfire feed.
    You go girl. Sounds like the adventure of a lifetime? Keep writing and we will keep reading. Good luck.

    Reply

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