Ah, Tennessee, my favorite state. There was something about crossing the border into The Volunteer State that melted the stress of Virginia away and put me into the motorcycle zen I knew this trip was about. With the second episode out and the team in a good routine of riding and shooting, the relatively minuscule problems related to a trip like this became faint memories.
I entered Tennessee on two wheels while Tom and Paul used the truck to cart the CBR to the nearest motorcycle shop for a quick rear tire change. The slab between Virginia and Tennessee was refreshing. Street clothes and roads without twisties allowed me to concentrate on a Noon Pacific playlist for the final song selection for episode three. With all that happened in the Virginias and living in such tight quarters, alone time was chicken soup for the soul.
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I beat the guys into the Misty River Campground in Old Walland, TN, about 30 minutes south of Knoxville. By far one of my favorite campgrounds on the East Coast, although Hungry Mother’s beach did give Misty River a run for its money. With impressive amenities, lavish cabins and a great RV park, in addition to Wi-Fi all around and some of the nicest bathrooms, it’s hard not to make it home. In fact, a neighbor of mine made Misty River his home for close to a year.
Monday we finished settling in and rode into Knoxville to party with some of the locals and get some positive vibes before spending the next two days tackling one of the most talked about roads on the East Coast. A toast of luck and a bar-wide cheer from the locals and we were ready for the Dragon.
Admittedly, I was a tad scared. I mean, I have ridden the Dragon before, but this was my first time riding it since the crash on Route 16. Normally a visit to the asphalt slip-and-slide happens while on a racetrack, and I’ll have a few weeks of street riding to rebuild my confidence. But this time, it was only three days ago, and I was facing some of the gnarliest turns in America – 318 turns in 11 miles. Intimidating? Yes. But like any challenge, that intimidation lasts until the first step forward. In this case it was a sweeping left-hander that tracked out to a sign warning of the switchbacks ahead.
There are two ways to get to the Dragon from the campground: one is the Foothills Parkway and the other a road much less traveled called Happy Valley Road. The Parkway is much more popular with scenic backdrops and rolling hills. The turns are long sweepers that, on a sportbike, require way more pace than the posted speed limit to feel like anything is really happening. Don’t get me wrong, since riding the Dragon is technically my job at the moment it makes for a beautiful commute, but for this project I needed something with a little more soul.
Enter Happy Valley. If you want a snapshot of life in Tennessee, this is the road to take. It has everything from large horse ranches to tucked away cottages with ponds and the meanest 10 mph switchbacks we’ve encountered thus far. The road is definitely not kept to Dragon standards, and some of the hairpins sneak up on you, but we were the only bikers on this hidden masterpiece.
Once we got to Route 129, the serene lake setting and flat lands were the calm before the storm. The Dragon starts slow with a back-to-back chicanes that get you comfortable, but once you approach that first switchback, it’s game time. The first few blind right-handers had me nervous, but it was a hot day and I could feel the Q2 tires grab the pavement as I folded the bike harder and harder.
After the first hundred turns it became a rhythm. The road twists through a mountain pass, setting each switchback up with an opposing turn. By turn 200, the crash was a distant memory and I couldn’t wait to turn around and do it again.
After a stop on the North Carolina side to trade war stories with a few Canadians on their yearly trip, we continued on to the Cherohala Skyway, which is a nice complement to the tight twisties of the Dragon. Long sweepers in high elevations make for incredible overlooks heavily trafficked by the squids, adventurers, and cruisers, making for incredible conversation and some Tyler Durden-style single-serving friendships.
We packed up from Old Walland early Wednesday and headed to Nashville to hang with a returning Army Ranger and fellow biker who had been anxious to show us the local roads as we passed through. We stayed a bit longer than we liked, but we were able to ride Natchez Trace which carves central Tennessee down to Mississippi. It was incredibly scenic, but as a sport rider it’s not necessarily a must-ride.
We bartered being helping hands and movers for a place to sleep and some coveted garage space to bring the bikes back up to snuff after a few thousand miles of riding. Some oil changes, cosmetic work and Plastidip for the wheels and we were ready to rock.
After exchanging a few stories and learning of our Army Ranger friend’s time off between now and September, it took only a few eyebrow raises among friends before it made sense for him to join up. We officially would like to welcome a new member of the Escape the Apple team: First Lt. David Hardie, who will be towing his Triumph and a CRF250X from Tennessee all the way out to California as he works his way back to being a civilian.