There are biker destinations that are popular because of the location, because there’s a party there at a specific time, or both. The Tail of the Dragon is always worth visiting as long as there’s not snow on the ground.
I know plenty of folks who consider themselves bikers, probably look a lot more like a biker than I do, and yet have never ridden far enough they couldn’t make it back home the same day. They’ve never camped, they don’t carry rain gear because they don’t ride in the rain, and they don’t put on a lot of miles. Hell, my wife and I met a couple in Jamaica who couldn’t believe I did 1,000 miles in one day because they put about 1,200 miles a year on their Ultra.
I respect everyone on two wheels, but to me there’s a serious division there. This is why I ride. No matter how big your saddlebags are, and if your bike also has a trunk, and how much you can strap onto your luggage rack, when you are going far from home for multiple days you have to turn your brain and your normal routine sideways. If you wear contacts you have to pack them. If you need a phone you have to charge it. Do you know how to do coin laundry? Can you find a way to sleep if it’s late and there’s no room at the inn? I love every second of this. I love taking my huge bloated life and forcing it to fit into a few cubic feet for a while. This feeling of cutting out everything that’s not completely necessary, being forced to choose which possessions to keep, being forced to think about disasters because you don’t know what will happen in the middle of nowhere. Is it worth packing flashlights? Fire starting gear? An axe? A second helmet? Bourbon?
OK, back to the Dragon’s Tail. It’s a section of US 129 between Tennessee and North Carolina. There’s a great site where you can read all about it. It’s 11 miles of road with 318 curves. Bikers and sports car drivers love it. Cops and photographers patrol it with maximum predatory instinct.
I keep a list of all the rides I want to hit, and this summer the Dragon’s Tail went to the top. I put out the call and two men answered. My brother Der Bart and an old buddy Mark I hadn’t seen in years since he went to work for Harley. I’m always jealous when I see big groups on the road: how the hell do they coordinate a dozen or more family and work schedules when I can barely scare up a trio? The Road Runner still has a lot to learn I guess.
We made plans, but no reservations. Everyone was cool with just winging it. Myself and Bart left from Wisconsin and swung down to Chicagoland to pick up Mark. We happened to meet at Mark’s on 66 and naturally everyone had to compare bikes. Me and Bart were on big touring bikes but Mark had a sweet Harley Black Line, a soft tail they only made 1 year. He got a lot of questions and compliments on the old school paint flecks on this trip.
Somewhere in Indiana we needed some food. If you think billboards don’t work, you don’t know any bikers. You’re rolling through, wondering what to eat, and then you see a unique sign. We hit a place that had been on Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives and had some burgers.
I had picked Corbin, KY as the first night’s stop. As I’ve said before, on longer bike trips I like to find a place to sleep with food and a bar within walking distance so I picked a hotel with a BBQ joint across the street. We got there at right before “9 pm” and had a couple surprises. I didn’t think about time zone changes so as we checked in I was told it was actually nearly 10pm Eastern. No problem, I says, they’ll throw some BBQ and a few beers at some tired bikers who tip well. They don’t serve beer, I’m told. Holy shit, welcome to the bible belt.Out come the phones and we start searching for food. You can live on beef jerky an water on the road, but why if you don’t have to. We find a “Micro brew gastropub” (whateverthefuckthatmeans) in downtown Corbin that’s open until 11 open time. I’m skeptical but we ride out.
We roll through a downtown that could be any place in Small Town America. An old school main street, local department stores, brick and cream brick buildings, local bars with neon signs. This is what riding is all about: rollin’ through, sampling some local flavor everywhere we go. So we arrive at The Wrigley Taproom and it’s completely fucking awesome. They’ve got great food, way better than your average bar food, and like 30 beers on tap. This was great by any standard, and better than water in the desert when you were just about to settle for dinner at the gas station and maybe a can of Coors light if you’re lucky. We have a great dinner and a couple beers, and ride back 5mins away to crash at the hotel.
The next day we get up with nothing but slaying dragons on the brain.
Obviously this area cashes in on all the biker tourism, but it doesn’t make the spectacle any less cool to me. There are metal sculptures, signs, billboards, a Harley dealer, and whatever on both side of the Dragon’s Tail. As for the ride itself, it starts in the best way: just a normal US DOT sign that says “Curves the next 11 miles”.
Curves means 318 curves, lots of bikers trying to do it quickly, and you’d better pull over if a more skilled (or reckless) rider rolls in behind you.
I’m OK with saying the riding is challenging. Every year you see pictures posted of people riding 1-up and 2-up misjudging a turn and crashing. We road through West to East and gassed up at the General Store/Dragon’s Tail resort on the other side. Pretty decent food and of course I bought a 129 patch. There are a ton of bikes, every day must be like a huge bike rally here. I loved the variety, I parked Red Sonya in between a Heritage Softail and a Can Am.
As you lean into the curves, you’ll notice photographers everywhere. Shops like 129photos and Killboys are set up to take pictures of every bike that rolls by. They catalog them on their websites later and you can order un-watermarked photos from them later. It’s distracting at first but honestly much easier and safer than trying to have your friends catch you while you’re posing on a switchback turn.
We rode back East to West to the Harley store that’s on the West side. There’s a geezer there with a patch shop, and I paid him a few bucks to sew the 129 patch onto my vest. This dude has a gigantic old school Singer sewing machine that’s operated with a foot pedal and looks like it could survive a bunker bomb. We thought about riding a few more times, but hey we’ve got jobs, and I know of a place towards home where we could have a chill night if we headed back, so we said goodbye. The following Sunday was Father’s Day, and while I don’t like to claim special treatment, my kids like to see their dad and that’s precious to me. We are totally coming back to revisit the dragon, the Moonshiner 28 and all the other awesome riding around here.
We stopped back at our familiar haunt in Shelbyville, Ky and bought some bourbon and had dinner at the steakhouse again. Naturally, the bourbon and local micro brew had to be sampled before and after dinner. We got back to the hotel and did what guys do: we talked about family and bikes and engines all night until the beer was gone and the bourbon was seriously compromised.
Here’s the thing about nights like this. Objectively, you’re just drinking too much in a hotel room in some random town. Yet every time I recollect times like this with the guys I was with, it was one of the best parts of the trip, why? Why is this so important, and why can’t you just re-create this in your living-room whenever you’re feeling stressed about life? Well, I’ve been writing a lot about the head-clearing effects of long rides. You’re sunburned, you’re drunk, your head is empty of stress because you’ve just been grinning for a few days. The booze is nice, but you mostly don’t want to stop because this is real. This is conversation like you don’t have every day. You can’t recreate this on a random week night because you have to be prepared for honesty, and the road prepares you. Most of us under a certain age grew up in a time when certain things were expected of men. You are tough, you are not vulnerable, you are practical, logical, the decision maker of the family, and sure as fuck not contemplative. When the wind strips all that armor away you are in a temporary reprieve where it’s permitted to be contemplative and vulnerable and still a manly man. How can you not be a man? We just rode a thousand miles, defied death on the Dragon’s Tail, ate steak and drank Kentucky Bourbon. But we need to air out, too. We need this, and I wish more of us could admit it more openly.
I actually think this will get better. Social norms are changing, and they’re going in a direction such that my son may grow up a little more sane than I did, a little more comfortable in his own skin. I also love seeing more women riding, maybe the next time I have an experience like this it’ll be in mixed company and we can all ride away wondering why the rat race back in Reality make it so hard to just be humans. My wife rides, and while she hasn’t done a long trip like this yet, she’s so fucking awesome I hope that changes soon. Would you trade your masculine superiority for a partner who can do everything you can do, and sit at that bourbon bar with you and your road brothers and figure out the answers to all life’s problems? I don’t need to be better than anyone, that’s not what makes me tick. I hope we see more and more people of all possible backgrounds, choices, and proclivities interested in motorcycling
The next day, shockingly not hungover, we all made it home, splitting off from Mark in Chicagoland and me and Bart just a few miles from each other. This was my second trip to the Smokies’s area in two years, and there is something so magical about this place that I’d really like to make it a yearly journey if I can.