Our shenanigans the previous evening made it obvious there was ' no hope' for Scottie's bike, so we needed to 'bail' to Knoxville asap. Luckily, it's only 60 miles, and another overnite recharge got the battery into plenty good shape for the short journey. Mostly we just stuck to the shortest route, down a pretty major route on 25E; then southwest on the pleasant TN 33; followed by a very nice section on TN 61, thru typical rolling, lush, verdant, grass-shrouded Kentucky countryside; and finally straight, boring 11W into town.
Then the final turn (for Scott) back into the MHC Kenworth lot - our ship to / ship from depot - and the trip reached its end for him. At least the bike made it under its own power, but it was a very sad, premature end to a grand adventure...
On my own, I set off back northeast to explore some of the roads that we had bypassed earlier due to lack of time and/or poor weather. I reversed 11W and TN 61, then struck off into obscure countryside where the Butler map indicated there ought to be good riding.
In fact, the network of roads between TN 61 and 25W passes thru some appealing farmland, altho it seems far less fertile and prosperous than in the main valleys. Still, it was highly photogenic, and occasionally a hoot to ride too. (My map route is unlikely to be fully accurate in this section – I wasn’t quite ‘lost’, but I certainly was running on ‘general directions, not specifics…)
A short jaunt east took me to the south end of TN 31, and the run north towards Sneedville was really good ( open, fast sweepers). Better yet, was TN 66, back southeast towards Rogersville (tight and technical and a blast on 'attack' mode). And TN 70, while a bit gentler, continued the entertaining riding to Greeneville. Here I just plugged into US 321 and ran east to Johnson City.
There didn’t seem to be many roadside motels in the modest price range that I passed along the way, so I continued to Elizabethton TN. This, as it turned out, had even fewer choices, but I finally settled into the seemingly reasonable Travellers Inn ($65 – and the worst accommodation I’ve ever spent money on in my life). The room was quiet and the bed was comfortable, but first one sink and then the second, refused to drain; the tub was askew and re-tiled by a very hamfisted amateur; one of the light fixture covers was melted onto the bulb, and another didn’t work at all. And despite all this, I stayed two nights, cuz the location was perfect for the trips I wanted to make. There was an Applebees nearby too, which made the evening meals easy and pleasant.
One of the (supposedly famous) ‘named’ routes we had passed by on our way north was a 20 mile section of US 421 northeast of Mountain City TN, known as the “Green Eyed Snake”. With this as my main objective I set off north on 19W, before diverting onto TN 44, which was rural and pleasant. The Snake was really good, although – as is often typical in these parts – the run uphill to the county line was somewhat rough, with perfect pavement following the change in responsibility. There is a rhythm section in the upper section which is absolutely superb: ( as I said in a Facebook post at the time): left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, etc, all perfect pavement, bright shiny yellow and white lines, deep camber, no gravel, posted 20mph corners, maybe doing 30-35, fully working throwing the body and bike side to side, throttle, brakes, rear brake for balance... just a few minutes of transcendence.
I fuelled in Mountain City and turned north towards Damascus, but black skies ahead turned me around in a few miles and I got spattered by rain back in Mountain City. It looked brighter to the south so I headed for Boone, where I had a wonderful lunch in an amazing funky little café, the Sunrise Grill. Best BLT ( actually BALT - with avocado) of the trip!
Heavy rain started as I fuelled up, and after donning the raingear I set off hoping that it wouldn’t last long and that I could enjoy some of the twisty roads that the map showed around Roan Mountain. This was not to be – the rain was the heaviest I’ve ever experienced on my bike, and I blundered along slowly, not really sure where I was or even where I was headed. After maybe half an hour I had only covered about 15 miles, but the rain let up enough for me to discover that I was in Linville, and that if I took the next right and just “stayed on that road”, I’d get back to Elizabethton. And that’s exactly what I did, collapsing into my room mid-afternoon after a very ‘interesting’ day out.
Many of our other ‘by-passed’ routes lay in far western Virginia and southern West Virginia, in the rolling hills region where those two states intersect with Kentucky. Wytheville had been one of our possible ‘bases’ in our early planning, and in fact was used as such for one of Road Runner magazine’s “Shamrock Tours” a while back. There were plenty of ‘good’ roads on the Butler map between Elizabethton and Wytheville, so I set off with only vague plans for the day, but with a direction in mind.
The direction led northeast along TN 91, thru a verdant river valley, to Shady Valley TN. Here I took a little side-trip, to run a couple repeat laps on the Green Eyed Snake, before carrying on further northeast, now on TN 133. The highlight of this section is an abrupt rock ridge, jutting out of the base of the valley, the aptly named ‘Backbone Ridge’. As a former climber, I wandered under the rock a bit, sussing the super-steep rock out, but I saw no bolts or other evidence on established routes. As a climbing friend from Ontario put it, “ the southeast has so much rock”.
Damascus turns out to be quite a recreation centre, with cycling and hiking in abundance and several guiding companies in operation. Lunch at Mojo’s was tasty too, with a casual, friendly atmosphere.
The 35 miles of VA 58 east of Damascus, to Volney, turned out to be one of the great surprises of the trip: a well-paved wonder of a road, curling thru a varied sequence of creek valleys and gaps, with minimal population and next to no traffic, curvey but not overly tight, fast but not crazy – a beautiful ride, despite some dampness to the surface! In fact, after I settled into my motel in Marion, I got into conversation with a couple riders in a neighbouring room, one of whom had ridden for 40 years and (as he put it) "probably 100,000 miles" in West Virginia and Virginia, and he reckoned 58 was amongst the very best, better by far than The Dragon, in his opinion, mostly because it is really entertaining but unknown, unheralded, and deserted.
I rode VA 16 ( really nice, actually) down into Marion in the early afternoon, thinking I would get a motel room and maybe do a couple hours of extra riding 'unladen', but once settled I just stayed put ( Americas Best Value Inn – about $70 – excellent rooms, but poor wifi). Marion is a nice town, and felt like a good place to use as a base for a few days. Somewhat incongruously, I had a good Japanese meal in the centre of town - a definite change of pace, and the better for it. I barely beat a heavy shower back to the motel - the weather remained dramatically unsettled.
One of the ‘great’ roads of the east lies immediately north of Marion: the “Back of the Dragon”. This 30 mile section of VA 16 contains something over 400 curves, so the action is pretty constant, and I was keenly looking forward to it when I left the motel at about 9 am. Only a half dozen or so miles from town, at Hungry Mother State Park, I came up behind a little Ford SUV, the only traffic on the road. Knowing that the twistiness was about to start, I waited only briefly until a generous ( but still double-lined) straight section of road opened, before popping by. Almost immediately, red and blues started to flash behind the grill! I found a safe driveway intersection and pulled off, expecting the worst. The fellow in the SUV was not uniformed, but said something to me about the double-line pass and asked for my driver’s license. I reached for my wallet and discovered an empty hip pocket – I had left my wallet in my street pants, back in the motel! I blurted out, “I think my day is just about to get much, much worse”, and explained the situation. I also provided my name and license number, which I know by memory. The officer returned to his vehicle and did a bit of checking, then came back, explained that he was not with the traffic division, told me he just wanted to check I wasn’t some young hooligan, scolded me again for my pass and told me to be respectful to the locals, and saw me on my way. I, of course, headed back to town to get the wallet – my lucky day – what if I had ridden 200 kms off into the wilds, and then discovered no wallet, when I came to fill up?
The second attempt at the road was more successful than the first. There is a lot of good riding involved, but the ‘flow’ is very inconsistent; there are some scruffy pavement sections; and there are a lot of very tight right-handers where you’re pressed hard up against the bank, limiting visibility and creating ideal conditions to chance upon rocks on the pavement. Overall, I’d give it a ‘B’.
I had a fine breakfast in “The Front Porch”, in Tazewell VA, altho the tasty local sausage could have been hotter.
Burkes Garden, to the east, is an isolated, elevated valley, nearly completely surrounded by a low mountain ridge, but a rich agricultural oasis. The ride up is entertainingly winding, but the pavement quality is only moderate. The valley itself is a jewel, and I stopped many times to take photos and to just soak in the view and the atmosphere. A significant proportion of the population is Amish, and I came across a couple groups of girls walking about in long white frocks with white bonnets. I also watched for a while a fellow haying with a horse-drawn combine. Certainly the simple life…
VA 614 runs east thru a pleasant farming valley, and it’s possible to avoid the interstate thereafter by staying on the paralleling US 52 to Bland VA. And just west of Bland, I had my second legal encounter of the day, when I got ‘lit up’ just a few miles out of town. I hadn’t been travelling very much above the posted limit, so I was bit surprised to be attracting attention, but the officer soon cleared this up by announcing that, “ I pulled you over today because you’re running a radar detector, and those are illegal in Virginia”. Yup! Too true! And my response was to grab my head in my hands and blurt out, “I KNOW that”… which I did. I explained that I had been riding for 3 weeks, thru 8 or 9 states, and that it never even occurred to me that I was IN Virginia. “ How much trouble am I in?”, seemed the next obvious question. Confiscation is an option, but he told me to pack ‘that thing’ away in my tail bag, and we exchanged a few stories before he sent me on my way. Friendly place, Virginia…
US 52 runs up over Walker Mountain, and is just brilliant, both on the north and south sides. I ran it out and back, before continuing west on VA 42, re-intersecting the morning’s route about midway. I was very short on fuel by this time, so I stopped to tank up at the Thompson valley Market, a few miles short of Tazewell. I made 257 kms, which I reckon is my personal record, without running out.
I like to explore secondary routes, and VA 604 (Thompson Valley Rd) led me west very nicely for a few miles, but then dead-ended. I knew I had to get south of the ridge on my left, and since my option was to run north and then take a 10 miles or so diversion around the west end of the ridge, I set off onto the gravel road leading directly up onto the ridge. In the event, the road was solid, and while gravel surfaces are not ideal, there was no problem getting up and across both the first ridge and ( a bit of a surprise) its lower companion to the south.
The run down into Chilhowie was uneventful, and I relented and used I-81 to regain Marion nearby to the east. It hadn’t been a long or especially challenging day, but it had been full of ‘adventure’, and I was very satisfied and even a bit 'worked' as I switched off and began to think about supper. Mexican, as it turns out, at El Puerto – hmmm, good! And within walking distance...
The last day… Always bittersweet, a blend of contentment with the adventures had, and regret that they were coming to an end. But that’s all more after-the-fact; on the bike, on the move, none of that matters or even intrudes – it’s just another day, and another set of roads.
There is a great deal of fine riding in the hills north and west of Marion, some of which I traversed on my way back to Knoxville. VA 80 includes a couple very fine sections crossing a couple ridges north of Meadowview to Lebanon.
Yet another one-eighty! Dizzying!
On VA 80 at Johnson Hollow, south of Lebanon VA
I had lunch in Norton VA, in the oddly named ‘Woodbooger Grill’. Turns out a woodbooger is a hairy, big-foot-type, wild humanoid creature that supposedly inhabits the forests in the area. To me, a ‘booger’ is a blob that comes out of your nose, but I was able to put that association aside while I enjoyed my lunch.
I did a long series of secondary roads running west, sometimes in agricultural valleys, sometimes beside creeks and rivers in rougher terrain, before finally dumping out onto previously travelled roads just north of Middlesboro.
From there, it was a pretty short jaunt repeating the route back into Knoxville, where I bunked up in yet another Motel 6, just a few miles from the Kenworth dealership. I delivered the bike there in the morning, re-sorted my luggage for my flight home, got a cab to the airport, and bade Appalachia goodbye. A delayed flight and ensuing missed connection resulted in my arrival home 28 hours after I set foot into the Knoxville airport, but that's another story...
It had been a remarkable 3 weeks, with an overwhelming selection of fine roads and warm memories. There had also been challenges and problems, but that’s to be expected on any long trip. I may or may not find the chance to ride again ‘out east’, but I treasure the opportunity to have done so, and I heartly recommend the area to anyone and everyone. There are more roads than you can possibly ride in a lifetime, so take the chance if it comes your way. You’ll certainly not regret it.
... and just to keep things in perspective, as my dream vacation came to an end, it was Memorial Day weekend in the USA. And in front of the courthouse in Marion VA, where I stayed the final couple days, there is an incredibly graphic and poignant exhibition of the cost of patriotism. HUNDREDS of flags, each 'honouring' a life lost in 'service' to the country. As a Canadian, I can't help but think, too many fucking wars, man! But I also have to honour the dedication that motivated these men and women ( I noticed a couple female names on the crosses). ONE county! and Smyth county has a population of just over 30,000 people. there are about 10,000 times as many Americans! imagine 10,000 times as many flags! ( about 600,000 in the past century, as it turns out!)
appalling? inspiring? ridiculous? rousing? I make no judgement, but I'll say I'm happy my kids are growing up north of the 49th, and not south thereof... much as I love travelling in the US of A.
if you take Asheville as representative, which is not a bad bet, since it's sorta in the middle, Oct has the lowest rainfall of any month, with highs around 70F and lows in the mid 40s. sounds pretty pleasant...
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