Three Up On The Parkway
This all started with a problem. I wanted to take my wife on a motorcycle tour of the Southern Appalachians, but she insisted on bringing along her thirteen-year-old son.
After discarding some innovative (but moderately dangerous) ways to mount him on the front fender of the VFR, we trotted down to the local motorcycle dealer and purchased a Ural sidecar rig, the premier example of Russian imitation. I spent the next few days learning the eccentricities of antique sidecar driving. If you put on front brake, nothing much happens, except you slow down a little and the bike steers to the left. Rolling off the throttle does about the same thing. Put on rear brake and it stops, but tries to swerve to the right. Accelerate and it pushes to the right. And those directions just cover the fun on trying to go straight. Turning at any speed above 10 mph brought on a whole new set of challenges. But after about 300 km, I was getting the hang of it. This was getting to be fun.
We headed north from Atlanta. Between Atlanta and the northern border of Georgia are some superb motorcycling roads. U.S. Highway 19 going north from Dahlonega is a good example. Though it is a broad highway, with most sections having a climbing lane, it has plenty of curves that can challenge your skill. There are also a few decreasing radius curves, so I encourage first-timers on the road to take it a little easy. This is especially true on a Ural, since the strange, hypnotic effect the rig has on elderly drivers makes them all want to swerve over into your lane for a good look. (My god, Mildred, say, what? Why I think I saw one of those when serving with Monty at El Alamein.) Another thing about traveling on a Ural is that it makes everybody smile. So at most food or gas stops somebody will come over and ask about it. Even at scenic turnouts, you're liable to get one or two curious souls. And you will stop fairly frequently. When hauling three people and luggage up mountain grades, the engine tends to overheat.There are many scenic overlooks on the parkway. Even the unnamed ones can offer beautiful views.
As there's no temperature gauge or radiator, I just used the traditional technique of feeling how much heat was on my boot. When she got what I felt was a little too warm, we stopped.
Periodically checking the engine heat and listening for excess valve clatter may be a little inconvenient, but there is a plus side. I know this may sound like an odd viewpoint, but the Ural involves you in the riding experience far more than one of the refrigerator-reliable modern bikes. But it's not just the mechanical issues that keep you "engaged." It's also the sense of personality. Some bikes have it and others don't. Federico Minoli, the former CEO of Ducati, identified it best when he said that to him there were only three "brands" of motorcycle--Harley, BMW, and Ducati. Each had its own different way of doing things, and, in doing it their own way, each brand had a unique personality. The Ural is short on power, but long on personality. It's pretty just about everywhere up here.
After passing through Blairsville, Georgia, and crossing into North Carolina, we stopped for the night in Murphy. A little repair work was called for, as the headlight had blown out during the day. This wasn't a totally unexpected repair. The light had blown during break in, and I had brought extra fuses with me. The next morning we went a few miles west for rafting on the Ocoee River. There are sections of class four rapids on the Ocoee that often throw a few dozen tourists a day out of their rafts and into the chilly water, even with a guide to keep you out of serious trouble.
After the rafting trip we headed north on Tennessee Highway 68. We stopped in Tellico Plains for gas and food. From there Tennessee 168, also known as the Cherohala Skyway, heads east to Robbinsville, NC. This recently completed road takes you through some areas of the Cherokee National Forest that were previously inaccessible. It's a glorious, curvy ride with many sweepers across unspoiled mountains, so it has become a frequent destination for local riders. As it was a beautiful day, we found a dozen or so motorcyclists gassing up at the intersection. There was an incredible array of sport machinery. One guy had brought his R-1. His wife was riding his Honda Blackbird, and his friend was riding his RSV Mille. The natural smart ass in me wanted to ask him, "What about your 996?" Fortunately he beat me to the punch. Seems another friend of his was going to ride his 996, but they couldn't get it started since it had sat too long in the garage without being ridden. Then he branched off on a discussion of his new carbon fiber wheels on the Blackbird. They weighed something like 15 ounces apiece. His wife sat happily perched on the XX. Yeah, before you ask, she was gorgeous.
His group had to be going, and we did, too. He fired up the R-1, his wife fired up the CBR XX, and his buddy fired up the Mille. The three of them left, being hauled by something like 400 aggregate horsepower. We started the Ural, and the three of us chugged up the grades toward Robbinsville, hauling three people and a week's worth of luggage with our 35 horsepower. About halfway there, the pack of three passed us, returning from Robbinsville. We were doing about 40. They were moving at about warp 9.
At Robbinsville, we turned south on U.S. 129 until we reached U.S. 74, where we turned east into the Nantahala Gorge. The gorge narrows in some points until there is only room on the floor of the valley for the Nantahala River, a set of train tracks, and two lanes of Highway 74. The road leads you through mist, underneath overhanging trees, and alongside the river on one of the most beautiful rides in the mountains, even though the road usually has a heavy traffic load. Early morning rides are a special treat on this road, since you can skip breakfast. The fog is thick enough to chew.
Though we didn't "do" the Nantahala on this trip, it is another whitewater river, though far less challenging than the Ocoee.
That night we stayed at the Nantahala Inn on the eastern end of the gorge. The restaurant is good, and they have a variety of lodging ranging from the fancy to the rustic. I noticed the headlight had blown again, and swapped the fuse, a little worried that this might be a consistent problem.
The next morning we headed east to Cherokee, North Carolina. Cherokee is inside the Cherokee Reservation (or, more formally, the Qualla Boundary). Cherokee has many attractions, ranging from the truly-tacky-tourist variety to the worthwhile. We successfully avoided having our picture taken with the "authentic native american," a Cherokee wearing a Sioux war bonnet.
The Blue Ridge Parkway begins just outside of Cherokee, NC. The road is perhaps the finest motorcycling road in the country. In my (humble) opinion, the only serious challenger for the title is the Pacific Coast Highway. Construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway began during the Depression as a classic "make work" project. The whole road, all 469 miles of it, has a speed limit of 45 mph with a few slower curves marked along the way. At last, a road fit for a Ural!
The Parkway rarely has much traffic, except in those areas adjacent to cities such as the section that goes through the outskirts of Asheville. There is not much gas or food on the parkway and few exits. So you need to plan your food and fuel stops. The parkway is numbered each mile along its length, from north to south. Cherokee is at mile marker 469. The elevation at the beginning of the Parkway is 2020 feet. The highest point on the parkway is at 6047 feet, and it's only 37 miles away from Cherokee. So you have a lot of climbing in the first miles. For the Ural it meant two cooling stops, but there are plenty of scenic turnouts that are worth stopping for. We crossed the crest of the Parkway and continued on to our first turn off, U.S. Highway 276 at mile marker 412.
US 276 is a spectacularly curvy roads. A turn to the south will take you down a few miles of asphalt to Looking Glass Falls, which is visible to the left from the road. It's a good place to slide off your boots and enjoy the view. But we'd been there on the last trip, so turned to the north and covered the eight miles to the Blue Ridge Motorcycle Resort (828-235-8350). The "resort" is a motorcycles-only campground with a convenience store, bath house, and rental cabins as well as camping. The casual dining facility on site offers dinner and breakfast, and the food really is home cooked. If you stay for breakfast (and you should) you'll have to choose between Dee's biscuits and gravy and her blueberry pancakes, a tough choice. The bikers at the campground are happy to share their knowledge of the local roads, and there is a great selection of curvy pavement in the area. Aiding the evening conversation, Henry, Dee's husband, builds a fire every night. The campground is a good base for many days of enjoyable riding and hiking nearby.
When we stopped for the night, I drew the usual crowd of riders who wanted to examine the strange beast that had stopped in their midst. I had plenty of time to talk, as the headlight had blown again, and I resolved that I would fix the problem. The Ural's manual is very detailed, but the wiring chart has no color designations on it, which makes any electrical work a little tricky. (Think of the work floor in the Ural factory. Boris says,"Ivan, hand me wire." Ivan says, "What color?" Boris says, "What you got?") It took me a little while to figure out that fuse three not only powers the equipment on its circuit, but also provides power to fuse four. So fuse three tended to blow often. I ran a lead off of the hot side of three to the hot side of four and spread the downstream load over the two fuses. End of headlight problem. (There are a few other wires you need to cut, so don't try this without a thorough check of the wiring chart, such as it is.)
The next morning we got up and headed north on the Parkway. At milepost 408 you'll find the Pisgah Inn. The rooms are clean and reasonable, though you need to reserve in advance for most weekends in season. The restaurant has one of the best views in the Smokies. The food here is quite good, with local trout almost always available. Dinner in the restaurant offers a natural light show if you can manage to arrive just at twilight. As the sun sinks down, the mist rolls in, creating patterns of green, gold, and sunset red that constantly change. This part of the parkway is one of the most beautiful, with changes in vegetation that follow the change in altitude. But the altitude can result in unpredictable weather. I've been trapped at the Pisgah Inn by a late April snowfall.
Between Pisgah and Asheville, you'll go through a series of tunnels as the Parkway cuts through the mountains. Of all of the sections on the Parkway, this one reminds you of why you ride a motorcycle in the first place. The riding is challenging enough to be interesting, and the scenery is simply fantastic.
You will be in for visual treats across the next 100 miles. Craggy Gardens (milepost 367) is a beautiful stop on a clear day. In springtime, the area is overrun with flowers. Around milepost 355, Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi, will come into view. Crabtree Meadows at milepost 340 offers a small restaurant, picnic grounds, and a relatively large campground. You can also hike down to the falls. It's a tough walk to an isolated place of tremendous natural beauty. But at Crabtree Meadows we were reminded that motorcycling can be a dangerous sport, especially for the novice. That morning, two riders were heading south on the parkway and came into a 35 mph curve. They apparently froze when they thought they were going too fast and plowed directly into an embankment. Both were airlifted out to a hospital in Asheville, but one was DOA. The patrolman I spoke with said he doubted they were going 45 when they hit the embankment. They had left no skid marks on the road. Apparently they'd panicked and hadn't even tried to brake. We left Craggy Gardens chastened and cautious.
We ended our northward trip at Blowing Rock, NC. Exiting at milepost 292, we headed to Crippen's Country Inn (877-295-3487, http://www.motorcycle.com/mo/mccontrib/03_Ural_Parkway/http//www.crippens.com). From the moment we walked in the door, we were made to feel at home. There was fresh coffee available and a delightfully furnished room. The bathroom was outfitted with a claw-footed bathtub. But the most marvelous treat was the restaurant. It has won numerous awards and serves superb cuisine. Dinner is not inexpensive, but worth every penny. I have eaten in many fine restaurants in the U.S. and Europe that could not come up to the standards of the restaurant at Crippen's. Departing Crippen's.
The next morning we headed home. On a sport-touring mount, Atlanta is an easy day's ride from Blowing Rock, but the Ural could not quite manage those speeds. So we spent another night at the Blue Ridge Motorcycle Resort. Now that we had gotten past the electrical problem, the Ural was thundering along just fine. Riding an "antique" bike like a Ural is its own special treat. You feel a little vibration, smell a little oil, and find all of your senses engaged in the ride. It's a visceral experience. I kept thinking about the motorcycle chase scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, even started humming the music at one point. Getting into the rhythm of the sidecar rig, I was picking the gear to slide the rear tire through the corners, which made for faster riding.
The next morning we were Atlanta-bound. We exited the parkway onto North Carolina 215 at mile marker 423, just south of the Devil's Courthouse. Sixteen miles down 215, we turned west on Highway 64, which winds through resort communities like Lake Toxaway (where they filmed Dirty Dancing), Sapphire, and Cashiers on its way to Highlands, NC. From Highlands we took NC 106 to U.S. 441 in the extreme northern corner of Georgia. An alternate route back to Georgia is to take NC 28 a few miles south of Highlands to Pine Mountain. There you can take a sharp right onto Warwoman Road, a well-kept secret. This twisty piece of pavement is another favorite ride of mine. It also ends up on U.S. 441 in north Georgia, but a little further south than the other route. We happily charged on down 441 on our last leg home. Get to Athens, then right onto 78 and home to Loganville. Or so I thought. About ten miles north of Athens, there was a rattle and a clank. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the left hand valve cover skipping off to our rear. Fortunately, I was able to retrieve both the valve cover and the bolt that I assumed had vibrated off. Well, not exactly. Seems the stud had pulled free from the head, and you couldn't tighten the bolt.
So we limped on into Athens, with the valve cover and bolt on the sidecar floor. For those into motorcycle history, early bikes had what was called a "total loss lubrication system" for the valves. It means that any oil pumped to the valves just dripped down the back of the engine, often adding that extra measure of lubrication to the rear tire. I faced that on the way to Athens. My left boot became soaked with engine oil and is,
I can report, much more waterproof than it once was. A motorcycle shop in Athens did its best to help us out, after getting a great deal of amusement out of the predicament. But their repair only held for about ten miles. At that point I got out the baling wire (you always carry baling wire on a Ural), and wired the valve cover on. My crafty repair wasn't oil tight, so my boot got a second treatment for the last 30 miles to Loganville. But the story has a happy resolution, as the nice folks at Blue Moon Cycles, my dealership, cheerfully repaired the poorly assembled Russian stud. (Actually, many Russian women claim that most Russian studs are poorly assembled.)
For all of the strangeness of the Ural, remember that it comes with a very complete tool kit. Just use high test gas and carry baling wire, electrical tape, and a multimeter wherever you go. As for the Parkway, if you haven't seen it, you ought to. Spring, Summer or Fall, there's always something beautiful to see.