Back of the Dragon 2021

So, here I am. The tail end of a pandemic (or so we hope). The Mrs. and I both in healthcare IT, working from home, surviving the ‘rona lockdown just fine. Things start getting back to normal and things start getting better and better.

I had a trip planned to Virginia to ride the Back of the Dragon between Marion and Tazewell. I had taken care of enough other money things that I planned to do this on a new Indian Challenger. The problem was the ‘rona had still fucked supply chains to the point where getting a bike or parts was anyone’s guess. Weeks went by, and my trusty dealer kept pushing the ship date back one week, every week. It’s not their fault, but as things started getting close to the departure date I started looking around. A new 2021 Challenger Dark Horse in Thunder Black Smoke was sitting on the floor at two local dealers. Now listen, I am a creature of loyalty – I value relationships and that includes relationships with people who have things to sell me. If you get into a hard-to-diagnose electronic issue or something you’ll be glad that you’ve always treated your dealer & service department with respect. But this is the end of a pandemic, which world wide supply chain issues, and me with several trips planned on a newer motorcycle. I had to consider grabbing one of these bikes.

One dealer didn’t call me back. The other called me back and asked for pictures of my bike. I rode down and traded that day. The Crow replaced Black Sunshine in my garage.

The owner of Indian of Metro Milwaukee, who obviously would have sold me another bike if he could have, actually called to apologize. As if he hadn’t already done what he could! These guys are legit.

I wanted a Freedom Shields windshield, highway bars, soft lowers, lower LED headlights, a rider backrest, and a color matched trunk on this bike. The ‘rona supply chain made it clear I would likely have none of it. At least I was able to install highway bars, lowers, and a new set of the trusty ole Kuryakyn highway pegs before I rode for Virginia.

I got the 500mi break in service on The Crow but mounting brackets for trunks and back rests were still hard to come by. Since I knew I was also taking an off the grid canoe trip soon, I just bought a dry bag to serve as my trunk for this trip.

Day 1

So, who could come to Virginia with me in Mid May? Harley Mark met me on Hwy 41 and rode for Kentucky with me on Day 1.

As I’ve said before, it’s shocking to me how lucky we’ve gotten over time when it comes to finding local food & drink. We opted for a Chill’s somewhere in Indiana for lunch but the host said “We only have 1 server, can you wait?”. Here we are seeing the dis-incentive to work in food service in the latter days of the Covid world. Shit. Luckily the Harley GPS is firing on all cylinders (more on this later) and we see something called “Rick’s Boatyard” on the same exist just 3 miles down the road. We roll, and we’re not disappointed.

Not a bad view for lunch when you’re on a motorcycle trip:

Since I am The Political Biker, I can’t avoid talking about this part. Rick’s has a full staff: all the servers and cooks and bartenders they could want. Chili’s could barely stay open. I have to think that if I were in the service industry in North West Indiana I would obviously make more money and be treated better at Rick’s. Let this be a lesson: there is no labor shortage, there’s only a shortage for labor that will work for shit money and get shit on by assholes.

The rest of the ride is a song as old as time, at least if you’ve been reading Two Wheeled Thoughts. Getting through Indiana is hot and sucks. The second you cross into Kentucky things improve immensely. I will say in all fairness that this was the easiest “No crashes or random road closures” trip through Indiana I can recall for at least the last 8 trips.

Day 1 was to end in Pikeville, Kentucky. Once we got off the freeway East of Lexington onto “mountain parkway” the riding was fantastic. Well maintained roads, lots of sweeping curves and altitude changes through the mountains, the last 150mi of a 700mi day were fantastic.We met up with frequent co-conspirator Wingnut Dave here, who had a shorter drive up from Georgia.

I had assumed Pikeville, KY was a “normal” town due to the fact that we booked a Hilton. However there were some oddities. Despite being a Friday night, the town basically rolled up the sidewalk pretty early. Due to the ‘rona, pools & hot tubs were closed. And this was a mountain town you could just as easily have found in Colorado, or Seattle, or California: so there was no actual hotel parking lot. We found BBQ down the road a bit, parked on the street, and finished the day strong.

I built a small self-contained machine (Raspberry PI) with dozens of my favorite movies on it. Takes up no space but is awesome to be able to pull up The Easy Rider on demand in a random hotel room.

The Money

The next day was pretty awesome.

My main goal for this whole trip was to ride the Back of the Dragon from Tazewell to Marion in Virginia. But as I already knew from planning this trip in Rever, the 90 miles just getting to Tazewell was going to be an awesome mountain curve fest already. We rolled into Tazewell and found that the town had very much leaned in to this attraction:

A big shop, a big parking lot, food trucks. Yea, they like the two wheeled tourism in Tazwell.

The Back of the Dragon was excellent. I would rate this much higher than the Tail of the Dragon if for no other reason than there’s a lot MORE of it and you can reach some higher speeds. Like everywhere else in Appalachia, the views don’t disappoint.

Now, I had routes planned, but I made it clear to my co-conspirators that The Back of the Dragon was what I really cared about. We did some re-planning and decided to take on The Snake instead. The re-planning sucked. It was here that I learned what a big step backwards the 2021 Ride Command is on Indian motorcycles. It’s not super clear why. It appears that basic things like “Take me to Mountain City, TN” won’t work without a strong wireless internet connection. Send a route from my phone to my bike? Nope! Worked on the 2019 but only works using iPhone on the 2021 as of the time of this writing. This was pretty embarrassing: after me bragging about how this tech was eating Harley’s lunch for a few years, we had to rely on the Street Glide to get us to The Snake.

The Snake is actually 3 forks of TN 421 near Mountain City, TN. Very fun curvy roads, but nothing in particular stuck out to me as amazing/memorable. Maybe I’m getting spoiled? You should for sure ride The Snake. There’s a country store at the nexus of The Snake, and as another sweet whiff of normality, there was a cover band playing there and lots of bikes in the parking lot.

From here, we decided to stay in Johnson City, TN. We found a Brazilian steakhouse a short walk from the hotel that was far better than it had any right being.

Day 3

Day 3 was to involve several wacky roads in Kentucky that I found via MotorcycleRoads.com. Beware: just because something is highly rated doesn’t mean it’s safe or well maintained. We encountered a few issues.

Bathrooms: I think it must be difficult to maintain a bathroom in the South. Either there’s an epidemic of septic tank killing microbes, or people just randomly close their bathrooms to strangers. Or, maybe there are other issues

One Lane, 10mph roads: A couple of times, the amazing roads turned out to be super sketchy 1-lane roads where you were likely to meet a dude pulling his pontoon boat and need to squeeze close to the ravine to let him by. For me, this wasn’t fun. Tons of gravel, no reaction time, no ability to get any speed. Plan your routes carefully.

Lack of Road: One thing about the “t-shirt roads” is that they tend to be well maintained, and if they are not you’ll know about it. Here’s a story: on a certain “highly rated” road in Kentucky, I came around several corners to see the asphalt completely washed out in the opposite lane: I kept thinking “Wow, glad I’m going this way and not that way”… until I was going that way. Hitting a seriously huge wash out and catching air on a 1000lb touring bike and landing with enough force to bottom out the suspension and feel some “Oh, that’s going to fuck up my neck for weeks” level of crunch is just not fun. I heard “Oh fuck I thought Mark was dead” in my headset, and hilariously only the guy on a Dualsport with suspension that could have handled this 40mph ramp actually had time to react.

We rode lots of other curvy and narrow roads around Kentucky. One of the final legs of curvy roads of the day was blocked with an orange “road closed” sign. I was about done, and so we turned and headed for Shelbyville, KY.

The Ramada on Brighton Circle is sort of a goofy story. It’s the kind of story that I assume everyone who does real roadtrips has. We found <place> due to <wacky circumstance> but yet had <great experience> so now it’s a part of our routine. In my case it was an amazing 2015 road trip and my dad being cheap and finding a coupon for this hotel at a Rest Area. Cheap, clean hotel. Steak restaurant in the parking lot. Kentucky bourbon liquor store in the parking lot. The right place to be 1 good scoot from WI. I’ve stayed at this place so much now I should have a plaque in there, and it’s become a sacred place due to good memories with Dad and my brother Bart. It’s also one of the few places that has never given me shit about parking my bike under the pavillion:

As long as there’s awesome riding in the Smokies and Appalachia, I imagine I’ll keep staying in Shelbyville from time to time.

Day 4

The next day, well, you know:

Go new places for the first time is awesome, and of course no two trips to the same locations is ever quite the same, but in this case we said “Let’s not mess with a bad thing”.

The new Challenger performed admirably, though I did miss my trunk and rider backrest and I’m still getting used to the schizophrenic throttle response on this bike. A rider backrest and some larger grips would have made the 600+ mi days a breeze on this bike.

Just a four day weekend packed with a ton of fun. As of the time I write this, I have a whole other two-wheeled road trip to write up. Come back soon!

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