Tail of The Dragon - At The Gap, There Be Dragons

Taming the Cherohala skyway and the tail of the dragon.

Jeremy D. Clough Jul 30, 2012 0 Comment(s)
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...I can see that painted wagon

Smell the tail of the dragon

Can't stand the suspense anymore

Bob Dylan, "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)"

For those of us who believe that Corvettes are meant to be driven, there's little on the East Coast to compare with the scenery and challenge of the two-lane roads that snake through the Tri-State area of Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina in places like the Ocoee River, Blood Mountain, and Wolf Pen Gap, with names like the River Road and Moonshiner's 28. Among the roads--some legendary, some only known to locals--two stand above the crowd, and for entirely different reasons: the Cherohala Skyway, and 129 at Deal's Gap, known in motoring patois as The Tail of the Dragon.

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Originally conceived as a thoroughfare that would connect then-isolated parts of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, the Skyway began in 1958 with a group of locals who, protesting that the route between the two areas was passable only by wagon train, took a group of 67 wagons and more than 300 men on horseback over the rugged, high country between Tellico Plains, Tennessee, and Murphy, North Carolina.

That sort of dedication draws attention, and in this case it was rewarded by an appropriation from the Federal Highway Administration in 1962. Construction began five years later, and after overcoming the customary environmental concerns, the Skyway was formally dedicated in 1996, a monument to the tenacity of the men who first envisioned it.

The two-lane Skyway covers some 40 miles between Tellico Plains and Robbinsville, North Carolina. Passing through the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests (Chero-hala, get it?), the road climbs to more than 5,000 feet elevation as it twists through the mountains, with lovely long- and short-range views throughout. Beautiful anytime of the year, it's probably at its best during the fall. While it's nowhere near as technical as the Dragon (which begins just north of the eastern end of the Skyway), there are still plenty of curves.

If you enter the Skyway from the Tennessee side, off to the right is 210, which follows the Tellico River through the Bald River Gorge Wilderness until finally dead-ending. Narrow, twisting, with no centerline and lots of traffic from trucks and other large vehicles (who often take advantage of the lack of striping), it's not an ideal locale for spirited driving. The road is, however, a marvelous spot for a leisurely cruise through lovely scenery. Should you be tired after driving a few hours to get to the Skyway, you can do a lot worse than taking a break beside the river or stopping there for a picnic.

Drive as far as you like, turn around, and head east on the Skyway toward North Carolina. Now seems like as good a place as any to mention that the state line here is more than just a sign by the side of the road. This detail is important when one state--say, Tennessee--tends to its roadways in the winter, while another--oh, we'll call it North Carolina--doesn't.

This took on great personal significance about four years ago, when my Corvette club went up for its annual Cherohala tour and wound up on an iced-over uphill stretch of road just over the state line. I'd never been figure skating in a C5 before, and the sensation of raw panic was enhanced by the fact that I was driving a flawless, low-mile '00 convertible that didn't belong to me. All of which is a long way to say, check the weather before you come in winter. It'll still be beautiful, just maybe not safe.

Any time of year, if you drive the length of the Skyway without stopping at many of the overlooks, you've missed the point of the road. Since it basically tracks the top of the mountains, the overlooks are stunning, and even in the sections of road that are surrounded by woods, it has a broad, open feel. On the other hand, stopping on the Dragon pretty much indicates you don't know what it's for, either.

Which way you'll take to get from one to the other depends on the direction of your approach: Since I come from the south, I prefer to start in Tellico Plains and head east until the Skyway peters out and the road dead-ends at 129 south of the southern end of the Dragon. While you're in Tellico, don't miss Walt's Barbecue, on the left side of 68 as you come into town, and also make a point of stopping at the Skyway welcome center and adjacent museum.

As for music, try Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis for the Skyway. You'll probably make a couple laps through it during the drive, and considering it leans heavily on the bullfighting tradition, it'll be good prep for fighting the Dragon at the end of the road. During the half-hour you'll spend on 129 between the Skyway and the Dragon, try Señor by Calexico and Willie Nelson, backed up by standby road music like Jumpin' Jack Flash, the Doors' Roadhouse Blues, or Are You Gonna Be My Girl by Jet. In the Dragon itself, you're better served by turning the radio off to eliminate the distraction. The first time I drove it in my '72 Stingray, aka "Scarlett," I wrenched the knob down so hard I thought I'd stripped it off.

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