The few months leading up to this ride, which included the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, had been rough. My wife was recovering from some major health issues, I was finally recovering from a relatively minor health issue, and our 16-year-old daughter was in full teenager mode, and we were all still in shock after one of her close friends was murdered.
On many days, I felt like a dark cloud was hanging over me. Happiness eluded me, and the fragility of life occupied my thoughts. Something needed to change, but I didn’t know what. It was time to reset and clear my head.
My wife and daughter convinced me that they would survive – and possibly even thrive – without me for a week, so I decided to take time off from work and go for a solo motorcycle ride. But where to go?
When I bought a used Honda Gold Wing a few years ago, it had a couple of Deals Gap stickers on the back fender, and the previous owner asked if I planned to remove them. I said no, as I had ridden the Tail of the Dragon many times and vowed to do so again on the Gold Wing. This trip would be a perfect time to validate the stickers.
When my 11-year-old son, Cameron, heard about my planned ride, he begged me to let him tag along. He had been on a multiday ride with me before, and he’s a stellar passenger. I figured he could probably use a change of scenery too, and I’d benefit from the natural positivity that kids have before they learn how ugly the world can be.
With my wife’s blessing, Cameron joined me. In addition to riding through the Deals Gap area, I also decided to give Cameron his first taste of the Blue Ridge Parkway and to visit the Wheels Through Time motorcycle museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina.
Blue Ridge Parkway Bound
After a long, tiring first day of battling an endless procession of left-lane bandits heading south on Interstate 81 from our home in Ottawa (when did the passing lane become the driving lane?), we joined the Blue Ridge Parkway at its northern terminus outside of Waynesboro, Virginia, on a cloudy Sunday morning. It was like entering a different world. Traffic was almost nonexistent. There were no stop signs, no traffic lights, and no commercialism. And no one was in a hurry.
Construction of the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway began in 1935 and was largely completed by 1966, with one exception: the Linn Cove Viaduct around Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, which was completed in 1987. From start to finish, the project took 52 years and cost nearly half a billion dollars. It was worth it.
The clouds were low, so mist and fog were constant companions that morning. It added to the mystique of the ride, but also to my melancholy. The previous day’s long interstate slog had left me tired, which did nothing to clear the dark cloud that had been following me.
Low traffic and low speed limits made for a relaxing morning, but we got some rain on our Blue Ridge parade. A few light showers helped bring out the rainbows – and the deer. We saw nine of them, and there were probably others we didn’t see, which helped justify the 45-mph speed limit. Cruising at a moderate pace also allowed us to enjoy the scenery.
Cameron loved the idea that we were riding through the clouds that people in the valleys were looking up at. I had been on this stretch of the parkway many times, and I used to think I wouldn’t need to do it again, but seeing it through Cameron’s eyes gave me a new appreciation for the beauty. The stunning views from the overlooks constantly amazed him. His enthusiasm was infectious and eventually broke through my sullenness.
After detouring through Roanoke because of road damage on the parkway, we stopped for the night in Christiansburg, Virginia. At a soul food restaurant, Cameron was introduced to Southern accents and Southern food in the form of delicious catfish and grits.
Traveling with a child is different than traveling solo or with another adult. The sense of freedom I usually have on a motorcycle trip was somewhat tempered. I couldn’t simply abandon my parental duties, and safety became a bigger concern. On the other hand, being able to share a passion with my child is an opportunity I relished. I remember motorcycle trips with my father, and I know Cameron will remember this one, so I tried to provide good memories. Luckily, he’s a good traveler and was happy to be there, so most things were easy.
The next day was another good one, with more superb views and a higher cloud ceiling that allowed us to see farther than the day before.
For people who love tight, curvy tarmac, the roads that lead up to and down from the Blue Ridge Parkway are often more fun than the parkway itself. Climbing up to 4,000 feet requires lots of twists and turns, and smooth pavement and good banking made for a Gold Wing carnival ride. Cameron loves the curves as much as I do, so we occasionally took a side road that looked interesting just to get to the bottom, then turned around and went back up.
We had lunch at The Bluffs restaurant, directly on the parkway. Opened in 1949, it was the first spot to provide meals on the parkway through a contract with the National Park Service. After closing in 2010, it was beautifully renovated and re-opened in 2021. It is a charming building, and the lunch was delicious but expensive. I chalked it up to the price of atmosphere and history.
After some fantastic overlooks and busting into the clouds on a foggy ride up Mount Mitchell at more than 6,600 feet, we pulled into the Mount Pisgah Campground for our first night of camping. At almost 5,000 feet of elevation, it provided a cool break from the heat and humidity lower down. The views from the Pisgah Inn where we grabbed a few sandwiches were incredible.
We woke up to the clearest day of the trip so far, with hardly a cloud in the sky. The southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville, North Carolina, often has more traffic than the northern part, but the views are fabulous. Cameron and I agreed that the best way to ride the parkway is probably north to south, as the views get better as you go south.
Slaying Dragons…and Mice?
After reaching the southern terminus of the parkway in Cherokee, we rode to the Tsali Campground on North Carolina Highway 28 (aka Moonshiner 28). We set up our tent early to lighten our load for our Deals Gap run. After a stop at Fontana Dam, we rode the Tail of the Dragon’s 318 curves in 11 miles. I’ve ridden the road several times over the past 20 years, but this was the first time on such a big bike and with a passenger. The aftermarket suspension on the Wing helped, and it handled the challenge quite well, validating its stickers for me. The road is fantastic, and we both had a great time on it.
The next day we rode south on Highway 28, another great road, past Franklin and made a stop at Bridal Veil Falls. We met a couple of guys from Minnesota who recognized my Aerostich jacket as being from Duluth, near where they live. One of them was riding a beautiful early ’70s-era BMW that he restored.
Highway 28 allows you to visit multiple states in a short period. From North Carolina, we crossed into Georgia for about 15 minutes, then into South Carolina. At the pretty town of Walhalla, South Carolina, we decided to head north again to our destination for the night, Maggie Valley, North Carolina. I used the “adventurous routing” on my Garmin GPS, telling it to take us on hilly, curvy roads to our destination. The route delivered and included South Carolina highways 11 and 130 and North Carolina Highway 281 to Tuckasegee and eventually to our motel in Maggie Valley.
For those of us not blessed to live in a motorcycle nirvana such as this area, it is really astonishing how outstanding the roads are. Curves are everywhere you look. Reviewing my GPS tracks afterwards highlighted how many curves we went through in a short time. This part of the world is truly a motorcyclist’s paradise.
After a nice evening, we settled in for a quiet night. Cameron slept while I looked at maps to plan our next couple days of riding. The rustling of a plastic bag on the TV stand attracted my attention to a mouse trying to get into our few provisions. I have musophobia – fear of mice and rats – so this was an unwelcome development. After trying in vain to catch the mouse without getting too close to it, I ended up going to the office and requesting another room. I had to wake up Cameron, and we moved all our stuff to a different room. Taming the Dragon on a 950-lb motorcycle? No problem. Sharing a room with a furry little mouse? No thank you!
After a fitful sleep filled with nightmares of battling giant mice, we started our day with a visit to the Wheels Through Time Museum, home to over 300 rare American motorcycles, memorabilia, and a few cars. It is advertised as the “Museum that Runs,” and does it ever. Staff walk around answering questions and will often start a bike to let visitors hear it. It’s incredible to listen to a 1950 Harley WL or an opposed-cylinder, shaft-drive military-issue 1942 Harley XA running in all their glory. Most museums are static places where you just look at things – at this one you can feel, hear, and smell history. An incredible place. We were both very impressed and will visit again. If you go, be warned: After leaving, you may feel a powerful urge to buy an old Harley or Indian!
From Maggie Valley we rode toward Boone on North Carolina Highway 209, also known as The Rattler. With curves everywhere and little traffic, it was a great ride, even if we hit a few rain showers that cooled us off. Garmin’s “adventurous routing” again took us along several state routes, each one seemingly curvier than the last, toward our mouse-free hotel in Boone.
That Blue Ridge Parkway Peace of Mind
There comes a point in every trip where a metaphysical corner is turned, where the journey is no longer about the journey but about getting home. We had reached that point in the ride. Unwilling to let our fun times slip away easily, we spent the next morning taking the long way home, winding our way on some small roads before getting onto the I-81 left-lane traffic jam for the long slog back home to Ontario.
The goal of this trip – and most traveling, really – was to rest, clear the mind, and gain a different perspective. In that, the trip succeeded. A week of waking up every morning with nothing to do but ride some of North America’s greatest motorcycle roads is a wonderful way to come to terms with the hardships and challenges of life. Staying in the present moment by thinking only of the next curve truly does help heal the mind and soul. It’s not the first time a motorcycle ride has done that for me, but this was probably the most significant. Sharing new memories with my son made it even better.