Note: This is a long update. The stuff about the Dragon/Rt. 129 is at the end … skip ahead to that part if you don’t want to hear about West Virginia … Don’t forget to check out the gallery at the end.
Tuesday/Wednesday; West Virginia, Virginia
So, in my last update, I told you it started to rain as I headed into West Virginia.
Sitting in a McDonalds in McConnellsburg, west of Gettysburg, I realized my goal of hitting Tennessee was an unrealistic dream at this point. I’d just ridden a beautiful stretch of Rt. 30 through Cowans Gap State Park and hadn’t been able to enjoy a thing – not the view, not the curves, because I was wet, cold, and miserable.
The Mickey D’s cashier must have sympathized with me, as she handed me an apple pie “on the house” to help me warm up. Along with the approximately eight cups of coffee and sweet tea I drank, Ronald McDonald sure wasn’t turning a profit on me today.
Realizing my original goal of camping wasn’t realistic, as I’d never dry out, I looked for a motel on my route. I found the ideal place – the Koolwink Motel, a mom-and-pop establishment that’s been in business since 1936. They had wi-fi, and presumably a non-leaky roof – the two most important things on my list right now. I looked at my hand-written map, and aimed the bike towards Romney, West Virginia.
So, I headed down the 522, and promptly found myself in the middle of nowhere. I rode through a few miles of farm country that would have been scenic, if there wasn’t any fog, but soon I was on a tight woods road with no shoulder, and trees crowding in each side.
This was the sort of road you see in an old flick about Prohibition days – I almost expected to see the Duke boys drifting the General Lee in my direction, or maybe an old Deuce coupe with a fedora-wearing moonshiner at the wheel, escaping federal agents. I must have been very, very close to Copperhead Road …
Thankfully, I managed to avoid contact with the modern-day revenuers (in the form of traffic police), and didn’t end up crashing my bike into a still. I did have to be very careful as I wound through the roads in the Cacapon River area, as they were tight, and the rain and fog were cutting down on visibility. I was wet and chilled, too, so I knew my reaction time was diminished.
This area would be a fantastic spot to revisit, maybe on an adventure bike. The Switchback didn’t scare me at any time, but the suspension isn’t really set up for bumpy back roads. There weren’t any potholes to dodge in this area, but the pavement is dodgy enough that I was bouncing around a bit. Otherwise, I could have scraped floorboards here the whole way.
Just as the sun set, I arrived at the Koolwink Motel, and dumped all the gear in my very retro motel room. This is a very neat motel – the decor (shag carpet, ugly green bathroom, wood paneling on the walls) looks straight from the ’60s – but everything was clean and didn’t look worn. The price was right, too.
In fact, I would highly recommend this motel for riders looking for thrills in the area’s twisties, at least based on my interaction with the extremely helpful night manager, who gave me a hair dryer and a roll of paper towels to dry my gear out.
When the boss showed up in the morning, though, he was less than happy to see my bike parked in front of my room’s door – he accused me of leaking oil, and complained bitterly about the motorcyclists who’d leaked oil on his pavement in the past. Whatever, dude – at least you’re still in business and you have a job.
On Wednesday morning, I had a decision to make: Would I keep on my original intended back road route, or head down Rt. 28/220 through West Virginia and Virginia? I wanted to experience small-town Appalachia, but I needed to make time and not get lost, and 220 looked a little better in that respect, as it appeared to be a major secondary highway. Grudgingly, I headed down 28/220 and abandoned my dreams of backroad twisties.
But as it turned out, there were still plenty of twisties ahead; the start of Rt. 28 was more of the super-tight moonshiner getaway route stuff that I’d experienced the day before, only now it was dry and my visibility was clear. Excellent!
Mindful of the possibility of hitting deer, I pushed the Switchback south. After a while, the road turned from tight backwoods track into a secondary highway, but it was still surprisingly curvy, with excellent pavement, as it followed the Potomac River south. Really, for anyone with a cruiser, this road is worth traveling if you’re in the area. Nobody drags their feet – the locals are used to driving hard through the corners, and I didn’t get stuck behind anyone.
The scenery on this road is beautiful, too – there are mountains rising on both sides, and you’ll pass plenty of beautiful farms. Eventually, after you cross the Virginia line, you’ll end up in George Washington National Forest, which has some very scenic areas as well – and plenty more curves.
I hit a detour in the national forest, and ended up being directed down another back road en route to the highway. No problem, I thought – surely this would be over quickly.
But it wasn’t. This tight trail took me back through the national forest, after I’d already exited it, and right past plenty of hunting camps. I hoped they’d cleaned up the local deer population, as there wasn’t much room to dodge a buck if it jumped in front of me – there was no shoulder, and barely two lanes of asphalt, with no center line.
Eventually I cleared the detour, and managed to navigate onto I-81. I spent the next four or five hours with the hammer down, as I had to make time. Thankfully, the Harley can handle the high speed miles just fine, and I ended the night at a friend’s place just outside Sevierville, Tennessee.
Thursday: The Dragon
By the time I was on the highway Thursday at lunch, I had a choice to make: Should I head straight to my destination of Birmingham, Alabama, or make a detour to see Rt. 129 – better known as the Tail of the Dragon?
I’d been informed by a local that the Dragon was closed, and it was going to seriously impact my schedule if I went to see it. But I figured I’d better check, and sure enough – the famous road was indeed open. Should I make the trip? I called my longtime riding buddy, Glen, and said – what do I do?
Thankfully, Glen said exactly what I knew he would say, and I turned the bike towards Rt. 129. Really, I didn’t have much of a choice. I’d heard so much about this famous road over the years, that it was like an irresistible magnet.
As I approached the start of the 11-mile section that twists through the Smokies, I noticed something: None of the approaching motorcyclists were waving as I met them. They kept their hands tight on the bars. I knew the Dragon had 300-some curves in 11 miles, but was it that bad? I started to wonder if my cruiser was a good choice for the next few miles.
As I climbed into the twisties, though, I realized I was far from the only Harley-Davidson there, and everybody was doing just fine. The Dragon is an extremely tight section of road, no doubt – as soon as you get into it, the whole ride is left, right, left, right, left, right, and you’d better be ready to scrape your floorboards if you’re on a cruiser.
But if you’re careful and observant, you’ll do just fine. The roadway isn’t trying to throw you off – you just need to respect it and stay cool. A panicky move can put you off a cliff in a hurry.There’s a fun rhythm to the whole thing, and you just need to enjoy it and learn the road at your own pace.
I made it through the whole section of road without anyone backing up behind me, except for one group at the very end. I pulled off, let them by, and then rode down towards the junction of Rt. 28 – better known as Deal’s Gap, and a very well-known motorcycle road in itself.
I liked Rt. 129, and the section of Rt. 28 I did was a lot of fun too. It’s a bit more open than the Dragon, and you can open the throttle a bit more. There’s less elevation change as well, at least on the section I was on, and it’s a bit more relaxed.
But the clock was ticking, so I turned the Switchback around, and headed back towards 129, after a stop at the shops at the Rt. 28 junction.
These shops are quite amazing in themselves. There’s a motel here, and a couple stores selling souvenir shirts, stickers, and the like (Confession: I bought one of both). The parking lots are full of bikers, on anything from vintage cruisers to the latest sportbikes, and everyone is here for one thing: They want to hit the twisties.
There’s a broad cross-section of riders here too, ranging from young Turks who wheelie out of the parking lot, to older riders who watch them and shake their heads. There’s also a few tow trucks sitting around, waiting for the inevitable …
Speaking of which, on the way back, I did see a pretty scary-looking crash. A cruiser rider tried to put on a show for a roadside photographer (there are several outfits doing this on Rt. 129 – you ride by, they take your photo, and a few days later you can buy it off their site).
Unfortunately for him, he misjudged a double apex corner and sent his bike off a cliff. He managed to get clear of the machine before it went off the edge, and some thick brush stopped his bike before it fell far, so the damage wasn’t as extreme as it could have been, but it was a good warning of what can happen if a rider decides to push his bike past his skill level.
A few miles later, a photographer warned me after I pulled a U-turn to make another pass for the camera. I had been very carefully eyeing traffic before I made the maneuver but he said a speedy rider could easily strike someone doing this sort of thing.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, I met a guy on a Harley who’d been rear-ended. So, even if you’re not getting your knee down, you’ve got to be very aware of those who are. And, the photography areas are the most dangerous, as this is where people are trying to show off for the camera. By the way, the two riding photos in this story were both shot by Killboy.
By now it was supper time, and I knew I’d better head down the superslab to Birmingham, which was still four hours away. After chatting with a few more riders at the scenic lookout, I headed for Alabama.
But I would have loved to stay longer, and I’ll be back at Rt. 129 one day, for sure. Along with an amazing road, the area is full of riders who are into more than just coffee runs and chrome parts. That’s the kind of people I like to meet, and there’s no better place for it. It’s too bad it’s so far from New Brunswick.
Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.
[…] The Dragon is an extra-twisty bit of Rt. 129, connecting Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s world-famous to both motorcyclists and sports car fans, due to its legendary 318 curves in 11 miles. The view isn’t bad either. It’s a challenging road at speed, as it snakes along the mountain side, and it’s no place for a transport truck, as they easily block both lanes of traffic when navigating the tortuous road. That’s a bad thing at any time, but especially when you are riding like the guy in this video. […]
I’ve ridden this too and there are lots of beautiful spots to take superb pictures. You can get taken by the view so bad that you forget to steer/brake/turn/accelerate!!!!!
That silver car in the picture with the state trooper and the tow truck. What is it? I want one.
I’d guess an MX-5 Miata with a body kit. Could be wrong, though.
Did you say Miata with a body kit? Right up Bondo’s alley.
Much more likely a Honda S2000 with Amuse body-kit:
Yeah, I think you nailed it. The headrest roll hoops are a perfect match to the S2000. Nice call.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced these roads myself, and I share your “deer fear” after some close calls in Pennsylvania, one including a bear cub that ran across Route 144 in front of me.
I think you should do this route again on your DR650 with some motard rims fitted. 😉
Motard rims, and the 800 big bore kit, would indeed be the ticket.