story and photography by Clement Salvadori[this article about a tri-state motorcycle tour in North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, “Riding the Snake,” was originally published in the June 2008 issue of Rider]
“Today we’re going to ride The Snake,” said Dave, over a cup of coffee.
“We’re going to what?” I asked.
“Ride The Snake. It’s what they call a bunch of roads around a place called Shady Valley, and they say that there are hundreds of curves in the area. On a sunny weekend it can get pretty crowded; but today’s a work day, so we should have it pretty much to ourselves.”
Finish the coffee, do a pre-ride check on the bikes, and we were on the road…and what a road it would be! Dave lives in Lenoir, North Carolina, just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a very sensible place in which to retire. He can ride all year around, and if he has an addiction to snow, he can find that in the winter.
I should note here that I was the relatively unexpected visitor. In May I had received an e-mail from a total stranger (Dave) saying that he had recently moved to the Blue Ridge, and if I ever happened to be in the area, he would love to show me around. It so happened I was going to be there in June, on my way to the Honda Hoot in Tennessee, so I invited myself into his home. Which he and wife Barb did take with good grace.
We headed up to the Blue Ridge Parkway on Route 181, and Dave thought we needed a little sustenance; we stopped at Christa’s Country Corner & General Store for smoked chicken sandwiches. Christa is a genial lady, with a store full of essential items and a mind full of useful information…and a big Lab, Moses, who reminds the customer that he or she should tithe the guardian dog at least 20 percent of any sandwich.
“Where you headed?” asked Christa. Dave described our route, and she began making suggestions, insisting that he take me up to Roan Mountain to see the rhododendrons. It would take a little longer, allowed Dave, but what the heck, we had all day.
We went south on the Blue Ridge Parkway a few miles, getting off just after McKinney Gap onto Route 226, dropping off the ridge into Spruce Pine, aptly named, as the place is best known for its many Christmas tree farms. Then we moved across the valley toward the Iron Mountains, on to Ledger and Bakersville, where the road split. Old man Baker settled there almost 200 years ago, figuring he could make an independent living working the land that was well-watered by Cane Creek, but he had to be self-sufficient, as there were not many ways to get any cash crop to market. That was the plight of many of these towns west of the Blue Ridge, until railroads and regular roads were built.
From Cane Creek we headed up Route 261 toward Roan Mountain, standing 6,285 feet tall. As we crossed into Tennessee the route number changed to 143; these states should really get together. The road had a steady, curvy climb, delightful riding.
This was June, and June on Roan Mountain State Park is Rhododendron Festival time, with the hillside covered with bright red flowers. Local lore has it that these blossoms were once white, but during a bitter battle between Cherokee and Shawnee Indians so much blood was spilled that they turned red. We crossed over Carver’s Gap, on the east flank of the mountain at 5,500 feet, then dropped down into the huge Cherokee National Forest, a 640,000-acre spread of publicly owned land that covers most of Tennessee’s eastern border.
At the bottom the road got a little dull as we coursed along U.S. 19E, until we got to the crossroads community of Hampton where we turned north on Route 67, heading for Watauga Lake. Three rivers come together near a little town of Butler, and the area was definitely prone to flooding. In 1940, after a big, very destructive flood, the new Tennessee Valley Authority decided it was time to build a dam, both to control the waters and to provide electrical power. Just as the project got under way the United States got involved in World War II, and work ceased. Work began again in 1946, and was completed in 1948, to create a lake over 16 miles long with more than 100 miles of shoreline quite appealing to those who had the money to buy a bit of land and build a vacation cabin. The old Butler got completely drowned, and the TVA helped build a new town on higher ground.
When we came to a halt at a stop sign in Butler, Dave said, “And now begins The Snake.”
This is mountain country, not huge mountains like the Rockies or the Alps, but lowish mountains that max out at well under 7,000 feet. They constitute a dividing barrier between the coastal plains and the Mississippi River watershed. Two hundred years ago Americans began moving through here, looking for good agricultural land to the west. A few stayed, living off the land, being independent, needing little from the occasional traveling tradesman other than a few sewing needles, a wash tub, maybe an axe.
After the Civil War Big Business realized that there was a lot of wealth in those wooded hills, from timber to build the growing cities on the Atlantic shores, iron ore to make those railroad tracks, or coal, the fuel that was driving the steam industry, whether it was steam engines or steam boats or steam heating. Better roads got built, got paved, and then most of the logging and mining industries went out of business.
Now we were skirting the Iron Mountains, heading for Mountain City. Everything was lush and green, spring turning to summer, and the asphalt was in good shape. The shadows added to the beauty, although we were wary of deer. We passed the occasional old farm, with fresh paint on the barn, cows in the fields, wildflowers decorating the road’s edge. The motorcycles were never upright for long, leaning left, leaning right, brakes on in advance of a curve of unknown curvature. Dave’s a good rider, a safe rider, never presuming…the kind of rider I like to follow.
The traffic was almost nonexistent; we came into Doeville, where the road splits, and stayed on 67, headed for Pandora. I love the names of some of these places that I have seen on the map…did someone relive the fable of Pandora’s box? There are historic names, like Sparta and Damascus, to-the-point names like Cranberry and Fox, and decidedly unromantic names like Meat Camp and Mouth of Wilson. Every name has a story behind it.
We whisked along to Mountain City, where decisions are to be made. If we went right, Route 421 would take us right past Snake Mountain standing about 5,500 feet; the name comes from the ridge that snakes along the mountain, with early travelers thinking it looked like the spine of some prehistoric sea serpent. That is where the name of this playground originates, but that road would take us back down to the valley. Dave wanted to take the long way home, via Shady Valley, and I agreed. These June days are long, and Barb would have the good sense not to put the food on until we were home.
We turned the handlebars westward and were soon rolling rapidly over Battleham Gap, then Sandy Gap, the road undulating, curving, sliding back and forth in a most rhythmic way. I was admiring the ease with which Dave’s Honda GL1800 angled through the corners; a Gold Wing is a perfectly competent tool to take on these back roads, presuming you’re a competent rider.
Then we came out of the woods and dropped down into a most glorious valley, with several farms in view, a four-way intersection and a general store. With half a dozen seriously sporty bikes parked outside, the riders were just finishing off their sodas and suiting up. We went inside for a can of sarsaparilla (root beer) and a look at the bulletin board. Lots of activities were on the program, and the proprietors even have a website: www.shadyvalleycountrystore.com. A “Wake the Snake” Rally is scheduled for every June.
But we had miles to ride before we slept, to paraphrase Robert Frost, and pointed the wheels northeast along Route 133. A few miles along through this hardwood forest we came to a small park and the shortest tunnel I had ever seen, about 12 feet long. A sign told us that back in 1901 the Empire Mining Company was putting a railroad through to carry timber out and a skinny ridge, called Backbone Rock, stood in the way. It was much easier to blast a hole through it than to go around, and though the railroad was long ago dismantled, tracks and ties torn up and used elsewhere, the hole provided a great passage for the pavement.
We crossed into Virginia and got to the town of Damascus. It used to be known as Mock’s Mill, until 1886 when iron smelters were put in, and the claim was that the steel from here would be as good as that made in Damascus, Syria. That era has passed, and it is now better known as a tourist destination, sometimes referred to as Trail Town. The Appalachian Trail, for hikers, passes through here, as does the east-west Trans-Continental Bicycle Trail, the historic Daniel Boone Trail, and others like the Virginia Creeper hiking, biking and equestrian Trail.
We wanted a good motorcycle trail, and found one by turning east along U.S. 58, aka the Jeb Stuart Highway, aka Highlands Parkway, to go through Bear Tree Gap and Summit Cut, skirting to the south of Mount Rogers, at 5,729 feet the highest peak in Virginia. This was 35 miles of bliss, a well-paved road on which we used our gearboxes to maximum effectiveness, cheerfully shifting hundreds of times. I like shifting, and will never understand an automatic transmission on a motorcycle. While we were taking a break at the store in Volney, a touring motorcyclist did show up and allowed as to how he was exhausted; different riders like different roads.
It was time to think about getting home, and we got on VA/NC 16 (some states do have compatible state route numbering, which I appreciate) and headed across the valley of the New River, climbed over the Blue Ridge, past Jumpinoff Rock, and dropped down to the Yadkin River, the beginning of North Carolina’s flat country. Thirty miles later we were in Dave’s swimming pool, and dinner was on the stove.
Great trip, great roads. I’ll certainly ride The Snake again some day.