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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
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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.

There's a reason this 11-mile stretch of U.S. 129 is called the Dragon: because it can kill you. Any doubt should be erased by the large oak tree that stands in the parking lot of the Deal's Gap Motorcycle Resort. The jumping- off point for the Dragon's 318 curves, this "Tree of Shame" is festooned with motorcycle parts and prosthetic devices, a monument to the ill fortune and poor judgment of those who have gone before. More-explicit warnings are inside the store, on the bulletin board covered with photos of road-rashed riders and wrecked bikes, including one that's actually been broken in half.

You look at the wall, buy the obligatory sticker (either a silhouette of a flying dragon, or one reading "At the gap there be dragons") and go out to the parking lot. There's constant movement: bikes and cars come in, and people mill around--guys in full race leathers and others to whom a one-percenter is an accounting problem. Look at bikes and the wreckage, drool over the 690-plus-horse ZR1 parked by the pinstriping booth, and think about whether what you're about to do is a good idea.

To be perfectly candid, no one really knows where the figure of 318 curves came from. There are at least three credible stories, and all of them reinforce the fact that it's probably not an accurate number. Who cares? I've never tried to count, and once you start uncoiling this serpent's tail, you won't either.

Regardless of what the actual number is, unless you travel the road regularly, it's virtually impossible to anticipate what's coming next. Switchbacks, decreasing-radius curves, curves that last far longer than you expected--there are plenty of surprises.

This unpredictability contributes to one of the Dragon's wiles. After you've weathered a few of the initial hard downhill, lefthand switchbacks, you tend to get confident, a potentially fatal inclination. Let that complacency take hold as you bring your Corvette into a curve a tick too hot, and newfound humility comes in concert with the realization that you're about to wad the thing up. Better to respect the reptile.

The speed limit on the Dragon is 30, and I tend to stay at or within striking distance of that number. There's plenty of fun to be had at that rate, especially since 129 is aggressively patrolled by the Tennessee Highway Patrol as well as local agencies in both cars and nominally marked bikes.

Aside from tickets, one of the other real dangers is fellow motorists. This is a nationally known stretch of road, and people come from all over the country. Some are competent, safe drivers or riders, and some aren't. The first time I took my '72 down the Dragon, I came around a curve to find a sport bike coming at me head-on, centered in my lane and even with the SUV in the oncoming lane. With nowhere to go, he cracked the throttle, brought his front wheel off the pavement, and passed the SUV in the curve while doing a wheelie, zinging to safety with milliseconds to spare.

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Part of this irrepressible urge to "kick it" can be traced to the photographers who work the corners, such as Killboy, who snapped the accompanying beauty shot of Scarlett in action. It's a simple setup: They photograph every vehicle that comes through certain curves, and post the proofs online. You go to the website, find your photos, and purchase prints or digital files. It's a great service, since you can't take pictures of your own car or bike while driving, but it can encourage people to get a little crazy for the camera. (Witness the shot on Killboy's website of a guy in leathers who's just parted ways with his bike, apparently after pushing it a little too hard.) Once you've made it down the Dragon (it goes downhill as you head north), you'll cross the Tabcat Bridge. Pull off at one of the parking areas on the left side of the road and breathe. On your left are the waters of Chilhowee Lake; on your right, the endless ebb and flow of cars and motorcycles streaming by, tensing for the challenge to come.

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Congratulations. Having braved the test, you can now put the sticker on your back glass. Dragon tastes like chicken. Just remember that the Dragon feels the same way about you.

Special thanks to Darryl Cannon at Killboy and John Gray.


Cherohala skyway Official Website
Deal's Gap Motorcycle Resort Motorsports Photography



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