“Daddy ran the whiskey in a big-block Dodge,Bought it at an auction at the Mason’s lodge, Him and my uncle tore that engine down, I still remember that rumbling sound.”
It was a natural fit for three of us who spent much our college years banging around backwoods two-lanes in East Tennessee: For a rare get-together over Memorial Day, we’d meet in North Georgia and hit some of the legendary roads near our old stomping grounds. I’d drive “Scarlett,” my warmed-over ’72 coupe, Phillip would bring his ’87 Corvette, and John, the lone motorcyclist, would pilot “El Bandito,” his 1,200cc Suzuki sport-tourer. In the weeks leading up to the trip, we talked, debated, and flat-out argued logistics, me with my well-worn Rand McNally, and the other two with GPS and Google Maps.
We’d done the Skyway, picked Dragon out of our teeth numerous times, and logged hundreds of miles along the Ocoee and the adjacent 30. Something new was in order—or least something we hadn’t all done. After dozens of rambling “Wait…if we—hang on, have you seen—oh, wait, what’s this road named?” phone calls, texts, and emails, we got on the same sheet of music and pulled into the parking lot of the Mexican restaurant in Hiawassee, Georgia, our selected jumping-off point, on the Thursday night before the holiday.
Morning came early on Friday, one of those days you think light should be classified as an impact weapon, and the sky was still lightening when Scarlett’s low staccato rumble broke the mountain silence. Our first stop was in Franklin, North Carolina, after spending 30 miles or so headed east on Highway 64, the western end of which runs through the Ocoee River Gorge. Somewhat less riverine here, it took us up over the Nantahala Mountains before dropping into Franklin and breakfast. With an ultimate goal of taking the Blue Ridge Parkway into Asheville, where we had hotel reservations for the night, we’d picked out a twisty-looking little thoroughfare called Ellijay Road. It would take us from just south of Franklin to 107, which in turn would take us to Sylva, and from there, to the Parkway.
The hand-scrawled notes from my spiral-bound logbook don’t capture the raw terror of the thing: coated with a terrible, corrugated road surface and chockfull of unmarked blind curves. My summation simply reads, “It would be very easy to get hurt—or hurt somebody—on this road.” And I wasn’t even the one on the motorcycle. Note to self: Sometimes there’s a reason you’ve never heard of a road.
Highways 107 and 23 were uneventful as we passed through Sylva, by Balsam, and up onto the smooth joy of the serpentine Parkway. The most visited place in the National Park System, the Parkway was begun in 1935 as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps initiative. Completed in the mid ’80s, it stretches 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina, from the Great Smoky Mountain Park to the Shenandoah National Park. In that distance, it passes through 26 tunnels and goes from just under 650 feet in elevation to more than 6,000.
Shortly after getting on, we pulled off at an overlook for a handful of trail mix and a Red Bull. John, who was enjoying a break from the heat of his leather riding jacket, squinted up at me. “You want to ride?” Fresh motorcycle permit in hand, I gave him the keys to Scarlett and straddled El Bandito, which John had been tutoring me on. Knowing that, on bikes even more than cars, you go where you’re looking, he gave me a final word of warning. “Glance at the scenery,” he said. “Watch the road.”
I took lead, with the two Corvettes blocking from the rear so I could ride at a comfortable speed without fear of being tailgated. After a few miles, I started loosening up, leaning into the decreasing-radius curves that are a design feature of the Parkway. That’s when I noticed John flashing his headlights at me. Pulling over, I noticed a stream of dark liquid deposited on the asphalt behind my Stingray, and a waft of smoke rising from the engine compartment. “It just started smoking, man,” John told me. “I don’t know what happened.”
“Could be the rear main seal,” Phillip said, sticking his head under the car with a flashlight. Rubbing a finger in the puddles revealed transmission fluid, but no cause for the leak. With no evidence of impending mechanical failure or a low fluid level, there was no good choice but to stay on course, checking it as we went. As it turned out, she never did it again, nor did we ever find the cause. All I can do is shrug: It’s a 40-year old car.
Following a brief detour down 276 to Looking Glass Falls, we hit Brevard and then Asheville in time to check into the hotel. After off-loading some luggage, we swapped vehicles again and hit the Parkway for the drive to Mount Mitchell. I took the bike, in time to nearly hit a bobcat that streaked out in front of me, while Phillip drove Scarlett. Later I relinquished El Bandito to John and took the wheel of Phillip’s ’87 coupe, which made for an interesting contrast. Comparing notes later, while the C4 cornered flatter and more effortlessly than my ’72, the Wilwood brakes on Scarlett made her stop far better than the stock binders on the fourth-gen.
Located about 35 miles northeast of Asheville, at 6,684 feet, Mitchell is the highest point east of the Rockies. Part of the Black Mountains (which provide 6 of the 10 highest mountains in the east), Mitchell is named for Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a UNC professor who died measuring the mountain in 1857, and who is buried at the summit. Boasting a temperature some 10-30 degrees cooler than Asheville, Mt. Mitchell is usually cloaked in fog and clouds, but it was clear when we got there a little before the sun began to drop.
We made the long drive back in the dark, pausing for a DUI checkpoint. “What year is it?” the officer asked me, as he looked at my licenses in the beam of his flashlight.
“’72,” I answered him.
“I’ve got a 2002.”
Day two was a meandering ramble eastward out of Ashville on 70 and 9, through Bat Cave and the incongruous traffic snarl that was Hendersonville. Next came 276, which was marvelous but for the condition of the blacktop, to the Symmes Chapel at YMCA Camp Greenville. Also known simply as “Pretty Place,” the Symmes Chapel is an open-air stone chapel on the side of the mountain. There’s a roof, seating for between 300 and 400 people, but no walls: The front of the chapel opens up to the corrugated blue of the layered hills, with a cross standing out in sharp relief against them. It’s a lovely place, and a busy one. We arrived near the end of a wedding rehearsal, one whose members probably didn’t appreciate the sound of a pair of small-blocks idling into the parking lot.