Friday, 22 November 2013

OddBike USA Tour: Part XI - Appalachian Fog

Ducati 916 motorcycle in the fog of the Great Smoky Mountains

Part XI of the OddBike USA Tour Travelogue. Click here for Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VIPart VIIPart VIIIPart IX, Part X.


After my miserable afternoon of dodging homicidal family haulers in the Smokies and dumping my bike in the parking lot of a shitty motel, I was looking forward to a new day to refresh my outlook and get some proper riding done. Something that would make up for all those hours on the Interstate. Today I ride the Blue Ridge Parkway. A run through the gnarliest, twistiest roads on the map this side of the Tail of the Dragon.


Great Smoky Mountains Lookout

I could have easily headed for that infamous North Carolina hotspot but I generally prefer to avoid the "must ride" routes that everyone and their grandma know about. Most of the time they are either disappointing or loaded with traffic. You can bet that any popular riding road will be overpopulated by squids going too fast, cruiser/touring barges going too slow, and law enforcement pissing everyone off. To paraphrase George Thorogood "When I ride alone I prefer to be by myself." Everything I'd heard about Deals Gap suggested it was a great place to see and do once, but if you wanted to ride some nice roads without risking your ass and dodging douchebags on Yamondazukawas there were plenty of other alternatives in the Appalachians. I decide I'll stick to the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway near the Tennessee border, which looks plenty technical on the map. 

So imagine my delight when I wake up early and pull the blinds open to reveal a cold, wet morning. Today is the only day I am expecting to do anything other than Interstate and it's raining.

Great Smoky Mountains Road

I haven't got much choice in the matter. I have to be home by Sunday to go back to work next week, so I can't spare an extra day of screwing around. I also can't afford to blow another 120$ on an overpriced room. To try and extract every last penny's worth out of my poor choice of lodging I take advantage of yet another completely underwhelming continental breakfast - the "best around" according to the sign out front, which may have been true given how much of an overpriced tourist trap this town turned out to be. Once I'm sufficiently primed with black coffee and bacon "so thin the pig didn't feel it coming off his arse" I suit up and put on my rain gear, prepared to face the gauntlet of a riding a wet, twisty road on a cold mountain morning.

Appalachian Mountains Tennessee

I head back into the Smokies, staying mindful of the slick conditions. Autumn leaves are covering the road and making riding pretty treacherous. Even at this early point, just after dawn, there is a surprising amount of traffic on the road. Once again I'm out of my element, my attention absorbed by the worrisome road surface and the increasingly rough throttle response. I'm focusing all my attention on just riding smoothly, scarcely able to enjoy the road. 

Great Smoky Mountains Tennessee

I slow down and relax. If I can't ride properly, I might as well turn down the wick and take in the scenery. This is where the Smokies are unparalleled. The road climbs steadily higher into the mountains, with regular lookout points revealing lush fog-capped peaks that are so beautiful they seem unreal. Everything is overgrown, nary a clearing in sight, and the whole scene is painted in a spectacular palette of colours that you won't find anywhere else. This is the sort of landscape I enjoy. I don't dream about tropical beaches or African plains like most people would. I'm happier here, among the tall trees and expansive vistas. This is the landscape of my youth, turned up to 11. I have no desire to lounge around "luxury" resorts, sitting on my ass in the hot sun until my skin is roasted to a perfect "vacationing accountant" shade of red. I'd be better off here, with a group of friends, a flat of beer, and a roaring bonfire casting dancing shadows into the treeline as the sun sets over the mountains.

Then the battery of my camera dies. Not having any spare batteries I'm forced to switch to my backup - my crappy old iPod touch. Better than nothing, but I was angry that my proper camera would conk out here in the middle of this stunning wilderness. I make a note to buy extra battery packs before my next trip.

Mist on the Great Smoky Mountains

As I crest one of the peaks I spot a flock of twenty or so wild turkeys milling around next to the road. They are mostly hens, far less noble in appearance than the heavily plumage'd males, with tiny heads perched on skinny necks above teardrop-shaped bodies. They are goofy looking creatures. They look up and cock their heads as I roll by. They don't seem to be bothered by traffic. I turn around a short while later and head back to take photos, but they have already moved on.

Great Smoky Mountains

Traffic is getting heavier as the morning progresses and I find myself getting stuck behind family haulers trundling along at glacial pace. Even my "slow" wet-weather riding pace would blitz these catatonic drivers, which says a lot about the dynamics of a good sport bike. I'm not a fast rider by any means, and the 916's performance is "quaint" by modern sportbike standards, but I still can't keep this diabolical thing below 60 mph under any conditions. The speedometer doesn't even read below 20 mph. Whenever I drive a car (a rare occurrence, because until recently I didn't own one) I'm shocked by how much more of a sense of speed I have - and how terrifying twisty roads are when you are navigating a 3000 pound box of metal and glass on wheels. Navigating being the key descriptor - I never feel like I'm in control, no matter how tight the handling might be. I'm a motorcycle guy through and through, and I only feel at ease when I'm on two wheels.

Great Smoky Mountains Road

I continue along, stopping regularly at the overlooks to take photos and wait for traffic to thin out. The fog is now descending - or to be more accurate I'm ascending into it as I ride higher into the mountains. It's a dense, cold fog, the sort of impenetrable mist you would see in a movie. I'm not accustomed to this kind of poor visibility outside of a blizzard - we have fog up north, but almost never this heavy. It's so thick I start losing sight of the taillights of the vehicles in front of me. Whenever this happens I flick on my turn signals to try and make myself slightly more visible in this grey soup. Ducati never saw fit to put hazard lights on their machines, an oversight I am now aware of. I keep a close eye on my mirrors to make sure no one is sneaking up behind me, not much of a risk in these conditions but one that any seasoned rider is always aware of.

Great Smoky Mountains Road

Traffic gets heavier and heavier as I progress along the route. I am stuck behind a row of ten cars threading their way through the mist, with more vehicles cutting in and out of the line at overlook stops. This is a beautiful road, but it is not a good riding road given how busy it is. The illusion of being isolated in the middle of an untouched, awe-inspiring landscape is shattered somewhat by getting stuck in a minor traffic jam behind a series of minivans and SUVs loaded with bratty kids and camping gear.

Ducati in the fog of the Great Smoky Mountains

I miss the turnoff for the Blue Ridge Parkway at the exit of the National Park. It's very easy to overlook. A tiny wooden sign points to what looks like a driveway, not the entrance to a well-known mountain road. I thought the sign must be referring to the main route up ahead - but nope, that was it. It looks quite unassuming and rather underwhelming.

Blue Ridge Parkway North Carolina

It isn't. What follows after turning off at that T junction are some of the finest motorcycle roads I've ever had the good fortune of sampling. Not the twistiest, not the fastest, not the most ludicrously challenging roads - just the best confidence-inspiring twisties you could hope for. Clear visibility and long sightlines, steady radius, good camber, and a perfectly maintained surface. Challenging enough to be fun, but not overwhelming. The road is wider and has more runoff space that the Smoky route, which inspires a bit more confidence. And unlike in the Smokies traffic is very light along the Parkway. Even in these wet, miserable, foggy conditions I'm in awe of how goddamn good this road is.

Ducati Motorcycle Blue Ridge Parkway North Carolina

Then there are the lookout points. I'm now on those fog-peaked mountains I saw in the distance back in the National Park. The visuals are spectacular. Where the Smoky road was treacherous and disappointing, the Parkway is much better than I expected it would be. The fact that this is just one little road along hundreds of miles of mountain passes that make up the Parkway is mind blowing - this tiny stretch is one of the best riding roads I've seen in a long time, probably even better than the roads of the Cabot Trail where I cut my teeth as a sport rider.

Fog on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Americans don't even know how lucky you are to have such beautiful, fun and perfectly maintained roads at your disposal. We have equally twisty routes in Eastern Canada but they are more often than not a maddeningly short stretch of good road surrounded by a hundred miles of abject nothingness in every direction, and even the best riding spots are usually dotted with frost heaves, bad camber, cracked pavement, slippery tarsnakes, and rim-bending potholes. And let's not forget the bane of our existence: gravel strewn across the apexes, kicked up by idiot car drivers who frequent the same roads and play wannabe racecar driver by clipping the inside shoulder in their "stanced" Civics. We Canuck riders have learned to adapt to the shitty conditions and dangerous obstacles, so when we are given free run on a properly good motorcycle road it's fucking orgasmic.

Ducati Motorcycle on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Unfortunately my fun is cut short by the fog, which begins to thicken as soon as I start climbing up in elevation. It's even worse here than it was in the Smokies. Visibility is no more than 50 or 60 feet. I stop to have lunch at a lookout point, where the mist is so thick that it is obscuring the embankment on the other side of the road. I'm struck by how haunting this scene is, much like the eerie side streets of the French Quarter I encountered on my last night in New Orleans. I don't care about the riding anymore. I don't care about the weather and how cold I am. I've resigned myself to simply attempting to take in the overwhelming beauty of the landscape.

Ducati Motorcycle Blue Ridge Parkway

I exit the Parkway and merge onto the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway, heading back along the same route I took on my way south. From here on it is back to the dull Interstate routine through North Carolina and into Virginia. I spend the rest of the day riding through showers and generally unpleasant conditions, with the Roanoke area as my destination for the day. No camping this time around, I'm going to hunt down a Super 8 for a cheap room and a hot shower after a long day of cold, wet riding.

Ducati 916 Blue Ridge Parkway

I got turned on to Super 8s by an uncle who used to regularly traverse Canada by car. In his opinion they were the best compromise between cheap and comfortable. I'd agree. Better yet, they are everywhere - you are always within 50 miles of one on practically any stretch of highway. They are not luxurious but they are reasonably well maintained, as long as you don't mind a few cigarette burns in the furniture and the smell of industrial-strength cleaning products. For 60-odd bucks a night you really can't complain.

When was the last time you saw a tube TV

I find one off the I-81 in Radford, Virginia. Radford turns out to be a small university town. I know the type. I attended St Francis Xavier in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. I studied there for two years before I transferred to McGill in Montreal. Antigonish is the prototypical student town. About 4000 permanent residents are outnumbered by around 5000 students. Practically everything in the village caters to the student population. There were way more bars than you'd expect for a place of that size, and they were almost always filled to capacity on the weekends (and 5$ pitcher Wednesdays). There was also a disproportionate amount of violent crime for a sleepy Maritime town - apparently sticking a bunch of horny and newly independent kids in a bumfuck town with nothing but booze and drugs to keep them entertained will breed all manner of unpleasant scenarios. I remember at least two stabbings in my time there, lots of violent attacks that got swept under the rug as "house rivalries", and my own conflicts with bullies and thugs.

Yellow Face Blue Ridge Parkway

The environment was toxic and conspiratorial, with hints that the management and faculty were ignoring issues if not suppressing them entirely. It was a bad place to "come of age" as a young adult and I ended up earning a lot of emotional scars and committing some serious fuckups of my own. I couldn't leave fast enough and transferred to McGill at the first opportunity. Those two years at X were the darkest days of my short life and moving to Montreal was the best decision I could have made. Since then I've always been leery of these "quaint" university towns because I know firsthand what lurks beneath the idyllic and respectable presentation put on by the higher-ups.    

 Fog in the Great Smoky Mountains

After I settle in at the motel I head into downtown in search of a decent meal. The day's rain has given way to a warm, sunny evening. I'm content to walk several miles into town and leave the bike parked for the night. There are the expected upper middle class suburbs surrounding the university, with lots of frat houses and student housing as you get closer to campus. A small downtown core has a series of little restaurants, bars and cafes that are clearly geared towards the student population, who are present in droves. Banners and signs are hanging everywhere dedicated to homecoming; you'd think there was nothing else in the town except Radford University, which is effectively the case. A surprising number of religious institutions are present - there are seminaries and churches of various denominations along the main road, and a few explicitly religious student organizations. I'm not sure if this is due to a certain strong Christian culture in the South, or if it is specific to this town. It's an interesting contrast to the dominance of the university campus. Secularism and religion, facing off on opposite sides of the street in a quiet Virginia town.

Fog along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Quiet until a diesel-powered, lifted-suspension, tinted-window BroTruck (TM) goes tearing up main street at full throttle, smoke billowing out of five-inch exhausts, empty trailer in tow bouncing across the pavement. He is presumably in a hurry to get to the nearest kegger. That's a display of the unbridled, testosterone-fueled macho bravado I was expecting - just like the youthful, unchecked hubris I dealt with at St FX. It's not an isolated example - I notice a lot of lifted and be-stickered heavy-duty pickups parked around town.

Ducati 916 in the Fog

I stop a passing student and ask where I can get a good meal and a beer, and she refers me to the local bar and grill. It's a familiar sight, and would look at home in Antigonish or any other student town. A slightly unkempt bar with the local sport of choice on the overhead TVs,  with attractive women waiting tables and politely blowing off the advances of horny young patrons. A decent selection of beer and drink, mostly domestic with the expected cliche import brews. It has the usual mediocre grill-pub fare on the menu: a plethora of burgers, sandwiches, and deep-fried everything, all served with fries. I opt for the day's special, a "rib eye" steak with baked potato and salad. I order a Samuel Adams Octoberfest, which is apparently the most exotic and dark beer they have on offer that doesn't start with G and end with Uinness.

The meal is everything I could have hoped for in a place like this - an impenetrably rubbery steak and supermarket-grade salad with gum-slicing croutons. The loaded potato was good but it is also pretty hard to screw up a baked potato, especially if you put bacon and cheese on it.

Fog in the Blue Ridge Parkway

The waitress is an attractive young woman (surprise) from Delaware. She is, as you'd expect, a student at Radford. I take the opportunity to practice my social skills and be a charming young man, something I don't have much opportunity to do while working in a snobby retail environment that caters exclusively to rich old white men. I am careful not to fall into the trap of becoming just another one of those horny young men she likely has to endure throughout every shift. I tell her about the trip and my journey, my adventures, where I'm from. She reveals a few details about herself. I give her my card and encourage her to follow the trip on the site.

I make no other advances, even though I have nothing to lose here during my only night in this town. In the back of my mind I keep thinking about how draining it must be to constantly deal with drunken men making awkward passes. Not that I wouldn't want to make one of those awkward passes myself, but I'm a "gentleman". That means I'm too nice for my own good and too shy to make a decisive move. I wish her well and leave a generous tip. Mediocre food or not she deserves it for putting up with the boys in a university town, as well as the odd lonely Canadian biker.

I walk back to the motel and settle in for yet another night of crappy cable TV. Tomorrow will be another step closer to reality.

Fog in the Blue Ridge Parkway

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