“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.
Leaving Pretty Place, we dropped down the mountain and wound up at Huntin’ Camp Barbecue in the aptly named town of Traveler’s Rest. With two of the three of us having no air conditioning, we trudged in sweaty, overheated, and nominally dehydrated, and pretty much stayed until we recovered. Well-decorated with guns and mounted animals, including an alert-looking bobcat surveying one of the stalls in the men’s room, it had decent barbecue and was a much-appreciated respite from the road.
Intending to start the third day of the trip in Walhalla, South Carolina, the beginning point of Highway 28, we headed toward it on 183, making a big loop past where we’d come off of 276. Unfortunately that long, straight stretch of 183 is best described as “death by ennui.” Without a functional radio, I idly texted back and forth with Phillip and watched John use the broken centerline as an impromptu cone course, nonchalantly swinging his motorcycle from one side to the other in mesmerizing fashion, without hitting the paint.
With no vacancy in Walhalla, we detoured to a hotel in nearby Seneca, and promptly deposited ourselves in the pool. Morning, as always, came early: we knew the scenic 28 would be prime tourist territory on a holiday weekend, and didn’t want to be caught in it.
Known in motorsports parlance as “Moonshiner’s 28,” Highway 28 stretches from Walhalla to U.S. 129, where it dead ends at Deal’s Gap near the entrance to the Dragon. It’s not just a catchy name: In 1885, when a revenuer held two bootleggers prisoner in Highlands, North Carolina (which is along the route), their hometown of Moccasin, Georgia, declared war on Highlands and sent armed men to free the captives. The skirmish became known as the Moccasin War. It’s hard to imagine now, there amongst the trendy shops and sylvan beauty of Whitesides Mountain, but at least one man was killed.
We made it through Highlands before the tourist traffic picked up, then followed 28 under Bridal Veil Falls and northwest to Franklin through the narrow-but-striking Cullasaja Gorge. Out of Franklin, Moonshiner’s 28 passes through the small towns of Iotla and Mill, then through a good, curvy stretch with some pretty good uphill twisties. I have a distinct memory of seeing a snake that had stretched out into the roadway recoil suddenly upwards and back as John zinged past him. I have no doubt John felt the same way.
After a break for a Red Bull and a Moon Pie where 28 turned left onto a four-lane stretch, we followed as it tapered back down to two lanes, then hit one of the truly technical portions of road, where it climbs 300 feet in a half-mile. This part found me at the handlebars, and happy to hand them back over to John after surviving it without falling over.
Due to increasing traffic, we opted not to continue on to the road’s dead end, which would have also brought us through the Hellbender, another technical section between Fontana and the Dragon. A madhouse on most weekends, we knew the Dragon, with its 318 curves in 11 miles, would be even more raucous on a holiday. Instead we diverted to the Fontana Dam, which I’d never seen.
Built in the space of a mere three years or so of round-the-clock construction, Fontana Dam was created in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Its role was to provide electricity to support the war effort being put forth by the nearby Alcoa Aluminum and Oak Ridge laboratory, which had been sited in East Tennessee for security reasons. At a massive 480 feet high, it’s the largest concrete dam east of the Rockies, and the most-visited one in the TVA system. No wonder about that: It dwarfs the nearby Cheoah Dam, and its size is difficult to process unless you’re actually standing near it. On one side are the broad waters of the Little Tennessee River; on the other, a sheer concrete wall plunging down at an angle to where the river resumes, far below.
From Fontana, we backtracked down 28 to 143, which took us over a steep pass and then down into Robbinsville, North Carolina, for lunch. Pulling into my favorite Mexican place in Robbinsville, which is located on 129 a half-hour or so south of the Dragon, we watched as an ambulance went shrieking by, headed north. I mused we’d made a good call in giving the Dragon a miss. An hour or so later, as we got ready to pay the tab and head south back to Georgia, where we would all disperse again, another made its way north through a road now crowded with motorcycles.
All told, in three days we covered roughly 600 miles of some of the most beautiful and technical roads this corner of the Carolinas has to offer, all in enjoyable but responsible fashion. No tickets, no wrecks, no regrets. All in all, a pretty good run.
So, gentlemen…where are we going next year?