Easy riding in the Appalachians

So what if the motorcycle rumbles like a purring cougar with smoker’s voice? Anyone got a problem with that?

I didn’t think so.

Motorcycle travel is not just for a midlife crisis anymore. When it’s done right and safely, the same destinations we are so used to become brand new — and an outstanding, offbeat vacation buy.

The country’s biggest domestic producer, Harley-Davidson, even organizes its own national and international tours — including, of course, the use of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. They publish their own travel magazine and destination ideas with recommended routes and maps.

You probably know where this is going. Once a rider as a yoot, who learned on a kick-start (it’s not crowdfunding — look it up) and having long ago completed my mandatory minivan purgatory, I am selectively back in the saddle — but with discretion. Times have changed, and today a cycle is a surprisingly economical, eco-friendly, high-mileage, easy-to-park alternative to a car — without even trying.

But be safe. Check the rain forecast frequently. And get a motorcycle license before hitting the highway. Knowing the rules of the road is simply not enough. And it won’t be long before you get the “itch.” For what, you ask? You’ll know. It will be a motorcycle-craving travel destination — and there are plenty of them.

One of the most popular in the U.S. east of the Mississippi is the Tail of the Dragon — actually an 11-mile partnership between a state highway agency and Mother Nature. An affordable vacation alternative minus big-city expenses near the spectacular Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina, this stretch of U.S. Highway 129 once provided unpaved access through Cherokee land for the British in the 1700s, and later for Civil War troops.

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So what’s the big deal? Until the 1980s, not much happened in the Dragon’s sleepy hometown of Deals Gap, N.C. But now, nestled within one of the most beautiful stretches of the Appalachian Mountains, this unique greenway billed as a “road to nowhere” gives itself to the rider with no less than 318 winding curves — or “twisties” — without a single intersecting road or driveway.

The Dragon has been featured in numerous movies and TV shows. And if that isn’t enough, add to that additional touring loops such as “Cherohala” or the “Great Smoky Mountains Loop.” Keep an eye out for barsss (bears in local dialect), wild hogs, and turkeys.

This 30-mph motorcycle playground keeps both warm-weather tourism and local law enforcement hopping. Be one of the good ones and avoid getting on the Deals Gap “Tree of Shame,” memorializing those who overdid it. Engine parts dangle from branches or are nailed to the trunk for a bit of dark humor. GoPro cameras abound both on cycles, and cars providing hours of online footage.

During summer events, forgetting the Dragon is a public road open year-round is easy, and, because of the higher elevations, the best riding weather is from May through October. Traffic and crowds may be a bit much in late July and August. In that case, try the North Carolina portion. Winter? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Whether with a car or cycle, machinery and nature are not incompatible with endless miles of open space to explore besides the Dragon, including Appalachian side trips galore among national parks, forests, and Mayberry towns — including the popular Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Lodges and motels abound in smaller communities, and if camping is your thing, this is one of the best places to combine the experience. Biking will also force you to pack efficiently. Don’t forget to reserve in advance for summer weekends and holidays.

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Novice riders can relax with the numerous information and service centers, and even ease into one of the less-used loops nearby. Stick to daylight hours as roads get really dark and most communities shut down after 9 p.m. Roads are slow, and interstate drivers will need to readjust.

This is an experience best shared, not just for fun but for safety as well. Want to try it out but don’t have a bike at the moment? No problem, but be prepared to splurge. Arrive by car with a motorcycle-category driver’s license and let one of the numerous rental facilities crumble your credit card into fine debris.

Reckless bikers (and autos) that dart in and out of mountain traffic, as well as on the Dragon, get a lot of attention, but are a minority. Safety is number one and, as you might imagine, the Dragon is saturated in the summer with local law enforcement, frequently assisted by volunteer spotters, so as to not give the community a bad name. If you misbehave, on-road or off, many citations will cost you more than just a ticket. You may be hauled in for a spanking at the police station with a side trip to a local attorney and courthouse.

Vegans and overly connected millennial types addicted to smartphones are warned. Eateries center on meat and potatoes, and cell reception is spotty. And don’t embarrass Peter Fonda with a selfie stick. Enjoy the outdoors or go home. For a few days at least, you’re a biker.

Make it happen

A good trip-planning starting point is SmokyMountains.org.

For all Dragon-specific information, check out TailoftheDragon.com.

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Look for specific guidance for first-timers, such as preparations, riding tips, warnings, conditions, events, and places to stay. The site also has webcams, photos, and maps. And don’t forget to look for the Dragon on YouTube to see how to enjoy it the right way — and the wrong way.

For Appalachian regional information for the multitude of nearby communities and attractions, Google the applicable state and local tourism offices and topics.

Andrew Der

Der is an environmental consultant and travel journalist specializing in water science, nature, eco-travel, and cultural destinations

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