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Weekend on the Sidewalls

by Tom Bowman

The Iron Butt preoccupies some, football some others, and various late summer/early fall rallies many of *us* at this time of year. Summer’s nearly done, kids are going back -as are their riding teachers – to school, and I faced this Labor Day weekend in a state of perplexity: three days to do something, and no clear idea as to what. Have you ever done that? I mean, wait until the last minute hoping things will come clear and you’ll know what to do, and then just throw things together and roll? Yeah; me too.

I’ve made any number of rally plans and had Stamp Quest ideas earlier in the year, but they just got dimmer and further away in the face of business meetings and more business meetings until, at the last, they disappeared altogether like the Cheshire Cat’s smile. My equipment even changed over the course of the summer. I had started with a PD and big plans, and was finishing with an old RS that had started as a Project Bike and had become The Lady Or The Tiger. By that I mean that at any given moment, the old bike could be a perfect lady, whisking me across miles and curves like a magic carpet, or at a moment’s notice be the Tiger, ready to bite me with another in a long string of mechanical ailments, produced from a seemingly inexhaustible well of electrical and mechanical trouble. I suspect most of you have had a love-hate relationship with a bike somewhere in your experience, and the RS has been turning that way with me.

It sat in the corner of the garage for a while, my frustration complete, but as things sometimes do, I arrived at the week before Labor Day with that little itch down deep in my brain that says “Thomas, you’re a damned fool if you don’t get out and do something this weekend.” That usually means going somewhere, so I peeled the cover off, charged the battery, and made the preparations. Just a couple things, you know, make sure : new relay, to fix the damned turn signal indicator that didn’t; put the bar-backs back on; re-mount the luggage (taken off in a moment of weird desire to see what it looked like “bare” – kinda like how I met my wife); re-set the ignition timing that had been wrong since I put in the electronic ignition oh, three months ago; re-set the float levels to eliminate one more thing that might be causing the idle instability/bad gas mileage/sooty plugs; find all the camping gear (I *know* I saw that tent just last month!); and so on. There had been a saga with fork harshness, and I had changed the fork springs back from Progressives to stockers a couple weeks back, along with lighter-weight oil, to try to cure the Mack truck ride, and I was hoping that it would allow me to get to with what’s left of my kidneys still functional. It would turn out good.

So, by Thursday night I had found three ride candidates: the Finger Lakes Rally, up in Watkins Glen,NY ; Sherando Lake, in mid-Virginia ; and the Riders of Knoxville “ROK_On” rally, in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, near the North Carolina border. How do you announce to SWMBO that you’re going on another goddamned ride?

I first mentioned that I was thinking of the Finger Lakes ride, and my wife said, “Where’s *that*?” I said “New York”. She says “How far is that? About 400 miles?” I just grinned and said “Nope, more like 900.” She cocks her head sideways, exactly like my Golden Retriever does when I’ve issued him an order he thinks is stupid, and she says “You’re nuts.” Okay, so that one’s crossed-off. She says “What else is there?” I go “Sherando Lake, up in Virginia.” She said “How far’s *that*? Four hundred miles?” I go “Yeah, about four hundred miles.” See, I’m catching on that she has no sense of how far anything is that shes never been to before, and that *four hundred miles* is the limit of her imagination for going somewhere. “Okay”, she says, “what’s the last one?” I tell her “Tellico Plains.” “Where’s that?” “Tennessee.” “How far?” “Under 400 miles.” She does the head-cock thing again, and says “That’s the one you ought to go to.” “Why?” “Because, if you decide you don’t like it, you can come home and help me fix the waterfall.” (*Don’t get me started* on the waterfall in the back yard. She read one too many landscaping books and got a gleam in her eye, and she now wants me to help re-engineer it so it works – which involves moving large rocks around and digging.) Okay, I guess I can follow that logic, twisted as it is. So, I fired up Map & Go on the computer, entered “Tellico Plains”, hit “Calculate”, and five minutes later got “Insufficient Memory to Run Application: Quit one or more applications and try again.” Sometimes I get the feeling like everything I own is mechanically instable…..

After a hiatus from riding/rallying, I always forget stuff. Evolution put a little alarm, like a smoke detector, in our heads to tell us when we’re forgetting something. All we have to do is learn to listen to it. As I pulled away about 3:30 p.m. on Friday headed for Tennessee, I was hearing the steady “beep – beep – beep” of my warning alarm. I was less than two miles from home when I remembered the insulated beer cooler that I’d left on top of the cabinet (*Important*!! Who wants to drink warm beer?), but I decided to just go on. Maybe they sell those disposable styrofoam things up there……

A part of the ‘penance’ for living close to the mountain twisties of Georgia/North Carolina/Tennessee is that I have to endure maybe thirty miles of Slab before I get there. “Poor baby !” you’re all sneering; yeah, I know, but it *seems* like it takes forever to get to Dahlonega, where the two-lanes begin. The heat of an August afternoon makes it seem worse, but a brief, intense, thunderstorm cooled me off and entertained with the image of three hapless Harley riders on the side of the road fishing for rain suits as I drove by. One nice thing about the RS is that you just kind of hunker down a bit, and sixty miles per hour makes most of the rain go right over your head from that big fairing. Cars were pulling off and water was beginning to collect in the low tracks of the road, but two miles later, the sun came out, and my wet sneakers provided nice air conditioning for the next half-hour or so.

I simply *love* the Georgia mountains. Miles and miles of twisties do die for. Up past Suches, people were already filling the camp sites at what may be the most off-beat M/C campground in America. Past Blue Ridge,GA, and into Tennessee, and territory I’d never ridden before, and lo and behold, a huge copper mine and museum, the “Burra Burra Mine” (no time to stop if I wanted to make Tellico Plains before dark). Out of Ducktown, TN 68 splits off, and truly lives up to the “Scenic Route” designation on the map. Damn, but that’s a tasty road: two-lane, smooth as can be, and constantly-changing scenery, elevation, and radii of corners, and very little traffic. It’s not a road to go crazy on, but a road to be savored, tasted, and rolled around the brain like the taste of a fine wine or a good cigar: ah, excellent. TN 68 seemed to go on forever, and in the dimming light of late afternoon, with shadows getting longer and the urge to arrive stronger, my pace crept up and up until I was riding about 9/10ths. At one point, I scraped the side stand, and that’s something I’ve never done before on the RS, what with the stiff rear springs and good cornering clearance. I know: some of you will say “Weak,” but for me, scraping *anything* in a corner, what with full set of hard bags, and camping gear strapped all over the back, and having to be at work Monday morning, is an event.

Is it just me, or are BMW rallies poorly-marked, for the most part? As always, I missed two of the four signs the club had posted, and thankfully, only went about eight or ten miles up the wrong road before I figured “It must be back the other way”. Good news/bad news: wrong road, but it was the Cherohala Skyway (!). More on that later.

Found the rally site: looked like somebody’s driveway. Hmmmm. Greeted by two pleasant ROKers, Al Kuntz, and “Cyndie”, and directed to the camping area, which was small, but serviceable, with a canopy for eating, hot showers, and some electrical hookups (damn: I could have brought the *battery charger*! – more on that later). A pleasant, if rustic place, populated by nice people. The campsite for the ROK-On Rally – deep in the woods, rustic, and pastoral. No vendors, camp store, hot springs, softball fields, picnic tables, souvenir shops, or other distractions: pure Rally site, leavened only by the ROK stewpot and hospitality of the locals. Lots of greenery around. I met a few new faces – ex-Iowan Art Baumgartner (“Lost Art”), Rick Earnest (new guy on GS), and several others whose names escape me as always. Pleasant folks, laid-back style. When the sun went down, and the stars came out, there was a peaceful kind of happy buzz of people doing what they like to do. The endless stewpot was augmented by a large crock-pot full of “chili” – actually, a kind of bean soup with chili sauce, guaranteed to give one Nuclear Gas. Another ROKer brought five gallons of home brew, which went in record time. Together, the Nuclear Chili and home brew made the camp site sound like a convention of Tuba Players all night. Even small animals were going “Eeeyyyyyeeeewwwwww…..what the hell is that SMELL ??”

Morning dawned foggy and “cool”, and I resolved to get out and stay out. But first: another little curve ball by the RS. Low battery and wouldn’t start. Cranked and cranked, and finally had to be “jumped” from another bike’s battery. Too bad I didn’t have a charger with me, as there were power outlets available. Like me, once it’s lit off, it’s good to go all day; I just make sure I always park it on a downhill…..

0830 found me on the Cherohala Skyway, pointed east bound, but before I got there, had to stop for a “Roadblock” on the beginning of the Skyway, held by the East Jibip Volunteer Fire Dept. The orange traffic cones put out to slow the motorists to *donation speed* were hand-painted “S-O-L-W”. I fished a couple Washingtons out and went on my way. Never pass up a chance to donate to a VFD or Rescue Squad: never can tell when they may be answering *my* call.

From others who have posted about riding it, I was spooked by the reports of hoardes of heartless State Troopers bent on wringing any fun out of the experience of riding the road, but I hardly saw anybody. In fact, one of the highlights of the day came early, as I rounded a bend to find a substantially-large *black bear* out in the middle of the Skyway. As he heard me, he looked over his shoulder and took off – straight up the Skyway! Don’t let anybody tell you bears are slow: this guy must have been doing thirty, looking backwards over his shoulder at me, as I was slowing down to avoid a confrontation. He ran maybe 50 yards up the road before jumping back over the steel guard rail and disappearing into the bushes. I rode on, grinning ear-to-ear, as that was only the second wild bear I’d ever seen. I surprised one up in the northern Sierras a few years back, while I was jeeping/jumping claims up in the Gold Country, and will always remember it.

The Cherohala Skyway goes from being good to great to greater to *simply fantastic* in the space of thirty to forty miles. The pavement is new and smooth, the curves are constant-radius, and the scenery spectacular. The air is cool, and there are few people out to spoil the effect. Just why this road was built is a mystery to me, as there isn’t much of anything on either end that one really would want to get to, but maybe that’s not the point. Never mind, if you get the chance, like at the upcoming RA National in Fontana, NC, don’t miss the Skyway!

At the eastern end of the Skyway is US 129, leading to Deal’s Gap, so I felt obligated to ride that, too . The Crossroads of Time is a MC-only campground at the ‘bottom” of The gap, complete with rooms for the so inclined, and a souvenir store. Where most stores this far out in the country have at least one antlered deer head on the wall, this place has a deer’s *behind* mounted on the wall. The collection of people and equipment is also unique: everything from full-race Suzuki TL1000 twins to Wally Organdonor on his rice rocket, t-shirt and all. There were more skinny, race-faced dudes in full leathers than I saw in the pits at Daytona last year and at least three 916 Ducatis on race stands in the parking lot. Serious business, this Deal’s Gap.

I won’t write about the Gap, except to say that it’s an unforgiving place, nicknamed ‘The Dragon’, and not to be trifled with. The ‘motto’ is “Be Careful: Dragons Sometimes Bite’. 318 curves from Crossroads of Time, you come out at the bottom alongside Fontana Lake, a fjord-like man-made lake that stretches for miles between the ridges and the dams of the TVA. A few miles later the Foothills Parkway, another beautiful Scenic Byway of the National Park Service, runs northward up the ridge of the mountains to US 321.

I doubled back in Maryville, so as to avoid Pigeon Forge (home of Dollywood, and one of the worst traffic jams and tourist traps east of the Rockies). Subway is one of my usual choices for a cheap, semi-nutritious lunch when on the bike, and there I met two nice bikers from Oklahoma – a husband and wife mounted on Japanese 600’s. Strangely, I had seen these two at Deal’s Gap earlier, and later up on the Foothills Parkway, and how they got there ahead of me, I can only guess. Sometimes I think I go into a time warp on motorcycle trips, and lose some track. We chatted about their trip and where they were going. It amazes me how in the crush and whirl of today’s world the fraternity of motorcycling always stimulates a conversation amid people who’ve never met, and may never meet again. They headed for Chatanooga, I back toward Deal’s Gap.

The polizei and rescue vehicles were out on The Gap. An ambulance had pulled out ahead of me as I was leaving Maryville, but I didn’t imagine he’d be going up to the Gap, as it is nearly twenty miles. Sure enough, the usual scene about halfway up: Organ Donor in bloody tee-shirt and jeans under ministrations of the Paramedics, crumpled bike being fished from under the rail. On the way down, another four or five full-leather-clad Gunfighters collecting the pieces of a GSXR 750 and loading them on a trailer for the trip home. I just rode on down, hoping the fallen Donor wasn’t roughed up too badly.

At the very ‘bottom’ of The Gap on 129 is Cheoah Dam. The road turns sharp left there, and crosses a bridge, from which one can get a spectacular view of the dam itself, more than 150 feet high, with the foamy blue-green water churning out from the turbine house at the base. 129 gets more sedate from there as it follows the river down to Santeetlah Lake, another of the TVA’s dam-created lakes that control the river floods and makes the area a paradise for fishermen, retirees and jet-ski riders. Near Robbinsville, NC, 143 turns right and leads you back to the Cherohala. Oh, Damn! Do I *have* to ride that again? Oh……all right.

I picked up an escort on the way down, a guy on a two-stroke Yamaha who wasn’t afraid of cornering at speed. Let’s just say that it was a *very interesting* ride down from the top of the mountain at Hooper Bald. The East Jibip VFD were still there at the base, but as I’d already made my contribution, I went on by as the two-stroker stopped to ante up. There’s some really nice scenery of the Tellico River on the way back into town, with its exposed rock bottom and rapids.

Saturday night was fun, with a DJ and a good feed put on by the club – smoked chicken and catfish, slaw, and more beans. Most everyone seemed in good spirits. As usual, I didn’t win a door prize or the “50-50”, but had fun anyway. Sunday morning came soon enough, the RS started after only three tries and TN 68 was even better going home than coming up. How much more can I say to describe the rest of the rally and the trip back? How about this: “I spent more time on the sides of my tires than I did on the middle this trip.”

Home is always good to get to. The RS performed well overall, and carried me and the gear to a nice, small rally in the midst of some of the finest roads for motorcycles anywhere in the country. I wish you could have been there: maybe next year, you should be. I’m thinking “President’s Meeting at the ROK-On”……..we’ll Rock-On! Thanks to the members of the BMW Rider’s Club of Knoxville for a nice rally. Hope your Labor Day weekend was as good as mine!

Tom Bowman