There are places and things about which you have heard so much that you are certain to be disappointed if you ever encounter them. If you went to the Magic Kingdom at Disneyworld for the first time when you were a middle-aged adult, I'm sure you'd be crestfallen. It's just another theme park after all. If you are a motorcycle or a sports car enthusiast, and you live in the US, then you have heard of a shrine that you should visit. It is called the Tail of the Dragon at Deal's Gap, and it is touted as the twistiest piece of road in the country. The official site says 318 curves in 11 miles. The Deal's Gap area has some outstanding roads in general, but this particular serpentine ribbon of asphalt has legendary status. If it is a shrine for many, it is a Mecca for motorcyclists. Many sport and touring bikes have a dragon decal somewhere indicating that they have slain the dragon or at least visitied its' lair.
For many reasons, I had not been able to make the pilgrimage until very recently. Several planned dedicated trips had been aborted, and several planned detours had been...well...detoured. I would be on rides or drives featuring fantastic roads and someone would say "This is like a mini Deal's Gap", or "This is like a short version of the dragon, know what I mean?". I did not. But now I do. I know because I carefully orchestrated a detour into a 1100 mile sprint back from Florida on the GS (which is its own story). This time, I would not be denied.
Deal's Gap is an area in the Great Smoky Mountains on the border between North Carolina (NC) and Tenessee (TN). It is on the western fringe of the Nantahala National Forest. I diverted from I-75 through the north Georgia mountains in the Chattahoochee National Forest. There are endless great roads in this area, and you get a true sense of why half of Atlanta has summer homes up there. However, once you leave the more trendy "Alpine" towns, you get a true sense of the beginning of the appalachian mountains. In my case, I was travelling through very early in the morning, and the roads were empty. In case you think that the south does not get that cold, think again. Temperatures were in the mid 20s, and the trees were bereft of leaves except for the evergreens. I would not see temperatures like these again until I got back to PA at night ! Heated jacket on, heated grips on. A beautiful sunny day dawned and helped to warm things up once I was in NC, but it stayed below 40. At these temperatures almost no motorcyclists were out. It is the equivalent of going to Florida in the winter where the only people in the water are Canadians. On this day, I was an honorary Canadian.
Route 129 meanders through southern NC until it gets to Robbinsville, the official start of the Dragon. By the time I arrived, it was mid-morning, and I was sure that the road would be mobbed by 1000 sport bikes and corvettes even though it was mid-week. I scanned the breakfast places in town and only spotted one Harley, but I assumed that this was because I did not know the place of the sacred sacraments (grits, eggs, and coffee). I decided to press on and discreetly glean some information from the throng at one of the stopping points. There are two types of establishments surrounding the dragon; motorcycle/sportscar "resorts", and motorcycle/sportscar repair shops/towing services. At the very beginning is Wheeler's Cycle Shop which I had seen in many photos with dozens of bikes out front. Today it was empty and closed. Then it dawned on me that they were closed for the winter along with many other places. It turns out that in this part of the south there is a riding season, and this wasn't it.
I jumped back on the road and into the dragon's lair. The road begins curving immediately, and I was taking it easy not knowing what to expect, and since I had full panniers and a top box along for the ride. It was a beautiful stretch of road, very curvy, and following Cheoah Lake and tributaries. I turned up the wick a bit as it crossed into TN, and the curves intensified a bit. I passed section after section that I wanted to do again. I also realized that I had seen only 2 vehicles on the road going the opposite direction. No one was in front of me. This was unbelievable to me. Where was everybody ? The great road continued, but to be honest I had been on several roads just as scenic and just as curvy. I stopped at the "crossroads" where the Deal's Gap Motorcycle Resort is located. Closed like everywhere else, but It is the home of "the tree of shame". It is an oak tree in the courtyard of the motel/resort that is festooned with bits of motorcycles offered in sacrifice to the dragon. Lots of sportbike fairings, some windshields, dozens of mirrors, etc. The dragon apparently likes plastic and carbon fiber.
After the brief break, I crossed Dalton Bridge, and things changed. The road became a series of sharp curves left, right, left, right, as if they were switchbacks going up some kind of miniature forested mountain. Steep incline to one side of the road, and precipice to the other. I was scuffing up the boots, such were the lean angles, and I was concerned for the panniers, but oh what FUN !! As soon as you crested one hill, it was down into the next around a similar series of curves. Up, left, right, down, hairpin, left right, left, up, right, hairpin, down, left, right, up. It is unrelenting, and for miles you are never fully upright. Just Brilliant. And I had the road almost completely to myself. As I emerged from the rollercoaster, I could not stop smiling. I looked around, and found a wooded section where I could stash the panniers and top box for a while. A risk for sure, but I had to go back and do this again with more lean angle. I covered things with foliage and headed back up the mountain.
Things were even better until I got stuck behind a road crew of six trucks travelling all of 20 MPH!! I tried just stopping for a while, but then another car went past and made it even worse. With the road that twisty and no straights, it took miles to get past them. There is nothing worse than being detained on a great road. Eventually, I got past and scraped boots to the crossroads. Then I turned around and headed back. This third time was a charm. Zero traffic but for one car which pulled over to let me by. The BMW GSA is no sportbike to be sure, but it will do a fair imitation of one. On this road, rider was more limiting factor than machine. That said, wide bars and plenty of lean meant that I could dance through the now-uninhabited curves with abandon. Many of the curves have incredible (read dangerous) camber changes, and now that I was tackling them at higher speed and with greater lean, I was on the ragged edge once or twice. Eventually, a rhythm emerged, the flow became smooth, and the dappled sunlight through the trees illuminated the scene perfectly. It doesn't get much better than this. At the bottom once again, I dismounted and basked in the afterglow.
The magic of the dragon is certainly the road itself. It is intoxicating, and I can see how easy it would be to repeat the run over and over until you contribute something to the tree of shame. But that magic is surely at its zenith when the road is as empty as I was fortunate enough to experience it. I can't imagine how different that road must be on a nice summer or fall day, full of cruisers and sportbikes and sports cars. In retrospect, I am glad I never had that experience. I get to remember the dragon in its pure form. To really experience the dragon, my advice is to go there on a very cold sunny day in February.
I reluctantly reattached the luggage and continued on route 129. It was still a nice road skirting the lake and allowing me to remember that the bike had gears higher than 4. However, I was still basking in the glow of the 11 miles before when you didn't need them.