Dad’s first sojourn through the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia needed to be grand. Dad is a desert dweller from southern Arizona and has never ridden east of Texas. We agreed on a short list of must-haves: Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Tail of the Dragon. Everything else – the fall foliage, the swollen creeks and runs, the rural country roads, the morning fog – would be an added bonus.
There would also be pancakes. Lots of pancakes.
We picked up Dad’s Triumph Tiger Explorer at a motorcycle dealership in northern Virginia, where he had it shipped from Arizona. We rode south and entered the Blue Ridge Parkway west of Lynchburg. The parkway is aptly named, with smooth, graceful curves, well-manicured roadsides, and plenty of parking areas to admire the view. A word to the wise, as I learned as point man: pay attention to mile markers. I missed the country road that the kind ladies at Explore Park said would lead us to Mount Airy, North Carolina, our first stop for the night and the birthplace of actor Andy Griffith.
Dad’s Explorer has heated grips and a larger fairing than my Triumph Sprint GT, so he was better prepared for the chilly 40-degree temperatures during our ride. For most of the morning, we enjoyed relative seclusion, clear skies, autumn colors, and beautiful farm country. In one short span, the view of the valley below on my left was stolen by a patch of trees and granite outcroppings only to be returned over my right shoulder. It was a literal tennis match of competing landscapes – valleys of farm country on one side and ridgelines stretching to the horizon on the other.
Traffic increased the farther south we traveled, and overflowing pullouts often prevented us from stopping, so, we leaned back and enjoyed the ride. We left the parkway at Asheville, having decided on Maggie Valley for our overnight stay.
A steady downpour and tornado warnings nixed riding the second day, so we covered the bikes and took a taxi to Wheels Through Time. While walking through the museum – home to more than 300 interesting and rare motorcycles – Dad shared stories of his older brother’s 1950 Harley Panhead and their shenanigans on it back on the farm in Iowa. One involved the bike, loaded with three riders, being chased by a dog that gave up the hunt after my uncle retarded the spark for a spectacular backfire. Dad hunted the base of many a cylinder barrel, searching for a stamp that would identify the same year as his brother’s, but to no avail.
Tourist traffic in the lush Great Smoky Mountains National Park slowed our progress. We found a place to park the bikes at Newfound Gap, a 5,049-foot pass on U.S. Route 441, allowing us to stretch our legs. Traffic in the park paled in comparison to the carnival of tourism we saw in Gatlinburg, where we found the Little House of Pancakes.
Dad tucked into a stack of blueberry pancakes, and I gorged on sweet-and-spicy apple pancakes. Between bites – and doing our best not to drip syrup on our map – we sketched out an alternate route back to Maggie Valley. We tested our pioneering skills on Tennessee State Route 32 in search of secluded switchbacks. Any concern about traffic was dispelled by a large red diamond-shaped sign that warned “Do Not Enter, Your GPS is Wrong” a few miles into the alternate route.
Littered with wet leaves and twigs from the previous day’s storms, Route 32’s pucker factor was off the scale, especially when I felt the front wheel push over some wet leaves at the apex of a turn. I rarely engaged 3rd gear after that. Pavement turned to hard gravel at Davenport Gap, where we crossed back into North Carolina on Mount Sterling Road. We found blacktop again at Waterville Road along Big Creek, and after a few miles, under cavernous trees and crags, we came upon Interstate 40 and our path back to Maggie Valley.
Compared to Route 32, the Tail of the Dragon’s 318 curves in 11 miles were not as technical, nor as precarious. The roads in this part of Tennessee, which arc around the southern side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, plunge into valleys, rise to bluffs overlooking man-made lakes and hydroelectric dams, and hug the steep sides of tree-blanketed mountains. After a full day of Appalachian curves, we stopped for the night in Middlesboro, Kentucky, just a stone’s throw west of Cumberland Gap.
With our bellies full of pancakes, we rode east on U.S. Route 58 through southwestern Virginia under crisp, blue autumn skies, with ridgelines on our left marking the border with Kentucky. We continued northeast on U.S. Route 19 for our next overnight in Princeton, West Virginia, and we awoke the next morning to find frost on our bikes. Despite the cold, the scenery from Princeton to Elkins on U.S. Route 219 was a moving feast of fields, pastures, valleys, woodland, creeks, rivers, and quaint towns.
A section of U.S. 219 we traveled along is known as Seneca Trail. A pleasant surprise around one bend was Indian Creek Covered Bridge, which was completed in 1903 at a cost of $400. The rest of the morning was spent passing farm after farm, including writer Pearl S. Buck’s birthplace in Hillsboro, West Virginia. For pancakes, we recommend Greenbrier Grille and Lodge, overlooking its namesake river in Marlinton.
Our last day involved riding from valley to ridge to valley. We followed curves along various creeks and branches of the Potomac River that snaked their way through the Appalachians. Eventually we had to leave the winding roads behind and hop on Interstate 66 to complete our multi-day loop. For Dad’s first ride east of the Mississippi, he was proud to see his tripmeter roll over 1,504 memorable miles.