I have a standard reply to people who see me pull up on a bike someplace and say, "Nice day for a ride, huh?"
I'll not miss a beat and reply with, "They're all nice days for a ride - some are just better than others." Works even better on shitty days, pointing out that while it may be a shitty day, it's better than doing something else.
Well, while some days may be better than others, it damned sure holds true that some rides are better than others, and this one points that out better than most. In spite of bitter cold, the Fall 2004 ride to the mountains was one of the best rides I've had - and I've had a few.
Unlike most of my rides, which I prefer to do on my own, I opened this one up to several other riders who I've been in touch with over the months and in some cases years. For some, it'd be their first mountain ride, for others, their first big ride. In the end, I found I liked leading rides for people who've never been someplace I've been enjoying for years. Here's how it went ...
CAST OF CHARACTERS:
Yours truly and Kim, my bride of nearly 28 years - lord knows why she's put up with me this long, but I suspect it's because I willingly do the plumbing, cut the grass and start the fires while out camping. Kim doesn't go with me on all my trips, but enough of 'em to make me wish she came on 'em all. It's harder on her because by the time I go on a trip with other people, I've either met them or known them online for months already and she has to catch up.
(Editors Note: I was just informed by one of the suspects on this ride that a total of 3 bikes *may* have tilted further over than manufacturer recommendations, and was concerned that my journalistic integrity would be at risk if I didn't correct my mistake. He imagined ol' Dan Rather reporting "... and on tonight's evening news, a startling report on how Muthuh misrepresented the number of accidents in his latest tour"... in the spirit of the credo mentioned above - SCREW YA! I'm stickin' to my story as I saw it.
Damned nice couple - Mike and I have been trying to hook up on a ride for over a year - always missing each other by an hour or a day at rallies and finally found a ride to meet up at. Mike was pre-approved for this ride due to his affection for a good cigar and willingness to share them - and he claimed to drink, cuss and didn't snore. I never got that assurance about Rae, but was willing to overlook any of her bad habits. Everytime I tried to sit with her at a meal, Mike insisted on sitting between us for some reason. They rode further than all of us, from damned near the coast of NC, meeting us in Lake Lure that first night. Might have to find an excuse to ride to the coast soon.
Everybody loves a Blond on her own scooter. A good looking Blonde in chaps didn't hurt either. Using our ride as an excuse for meeting her husband halfway from her home in D.C., and her husband's base in Alabama, Steph met us in Durham for the start of the ride after a rainy ride from home to get there. I'll be the first of several to tell ya this girl can ride a bike - keeping up with us on every twist and turn and handling her bike like a pro. Not only that - she seemed eager to pitch her tent and stay out in freezing weather - something I think she regretted after hearing her neighbor snore all night...
I gave directions to Stephanie how to find us for breakfast Thursday morning. Uncharacteristic of me - I was late. I perhaps shouldn't mention that Kim was coming with me on this ride and I forgot to account for how late that always makes us leaving the house. Leave a note for the kids, check the food bowl for the animals, go back for her phone, lock the door again, well - you get it. My bad, also, I had to stop to gas up first, too. But there she was sitting on the front bench at Libby's diner, cell phone to her ear trying to call me to find out where the hell I was. I understand why she wasn't sitting inside - the place was full of oldtimers in John Deere ballcaps and 4 day old whiskers looking out the window at Stephanie in black leather chaps. Heavy sigh.
Toby and Dave and Jen pulled up shortly after me and wolfed down breakfast after the introductions - I was eager to hit the road by 10am. I know 10am sounds kinda late but we all had to button down business loose ends before taking off for a long weekend. In my case I pretty much only had to turn off the computer, but it sounded important, eh?
Back at the motel, I appropriated (never admit in writing having stolen anything!) a couple bundles of firewood and Cuz proved his worth getting a fire started in a firepit by the river, (Pic #01 and 02). The difference between a good ride and a great ride is the number of nights sitting around a firepit with new friends. We tried to get Stephanie to admit what she did for a living up in D.C., but was told she'd have to kill us if she told us, so we dropped the subject.
With 10 people on a ride, it takes a little longer to get things moving. We had a late breakfast again, at Child's Place Diner in Lake Lure, and took off west on Hwy 64 almost to Brevard, where we then went up the mountains on Hwy 276, stopping briefly at Looking Glass Falls half way up the Blue Ridge. (Pic # 09 and 10). The only excuse I have for taking a picture of Steph here and not my bride, is I have several of her here already and she went to the bottom for a close view. That's my story and I'm stickin to it. Pic #11 was taken at a butt break on the other side of the Parkway, still on 276. We had just gone through some devastated areas from the recent flooding, and took a few detours around washed out bridges. The decision here was, lunch in 20 minutes up ahead in Waynesville, or wait til after the Smoky's in 2 hours. All opted for the wait. A bad decision!
After inching our way through Waynesville, and after scooting through Maggie Valley, stopping only for gas, we hopped on the Parkway briefly - Pic #12 shows the rest of the gang riding through Big Witch Tunnel up on the Parkway. A little story here - this was the third tunnel on the Parkway and I told Steph, who was right behind me, to slow down at the first one so I can speed up and get ahead enough to take a picture of them riding through the third one, (I've been here before!). As I pulled over after this tunnel, the front tire dug into the soft ground, plowed sideways and I found myself on my floorboard trying to keep from falling completely over. I gave Kim the camera to snap them as they came through, struggling to keep it semi-upright. I still have a baseball sized bruise on my calf from the opposite side floorboard digging into my leg as I tried to right it (with Kim's help!). So there, David, even through none of ya saw it, I'll confess to having had (nearly) dropped it. ... oh, and great picture Kim!
By the time we got to Newfound Gap at the top of the Smoky's, there was ice on all the trees (Pic #21)and thick fog in the air. We stayed here long enough to take a few pictures and get back on the road to lower elevations, stomach's growling because 2 hours had already passed! This is where we slipped into Tennessee for the next couple hours. Between #22 and #23, we left the Park - after a long, slow, but beautiful ride down the Little River Road on the northwest side of the park - and had a late lunch/dinner in Townsend. All of us had some sort of hot drink and a big meal, four hours after deciding to wait for lunch.
We also picked up the adult beverages here because the place we were going to tonight is in a dry county... (Good thing I called to ask!) After dinner, we took the 20 mile ride down the Foothills Parkway (Pics #23 and 24) and turned left onto Hwy 129, and climbed up and over Deal's Gap - the first time for all of the others on this trip. I had done it twice before from the opposite direction. We didn't stop at the top overlook, like I usually do for the view, continuing up and over the Dragon, stopping at the Deal's Gap store/camp at the bottom to regroup. We didn't have to piss off any crotch rockets being in their way til the very end when one of 'em hurtled past us at the bottom. We were kinda in a hurry because it was already 7pm and getting dark and still had 20 miles to go to our destination tonight, so we didn't stay here long at all.
After a stunning sunset ride down Hwy 28 to Stecoah - a bit out of the way and off the beaten path - we all pulled into The IronHorse Motorcycle Lodge. Cuz and Sonya pulled off 5 miles back at a motel because this place was booked up when they tried to join the ride. (Usually is on weekends - so book early!) It was just getting dark and the last 5 miles were in twilight, making the bends and twisties that much more exciting. Fortunately, I'd been here before back before they opened and knew the route, otherwise you'll have a little difficulty finding it. (Look for Tootie's Diner and turn there. Follow the small white signs like you see above.)
After checking in for our rooms, and Steph's tent spot, our bikes were pulled up beside Cabin #2, and crap loaded into it's four rooms. Two rooms share one semi-private bath - all well-heated and clean as hell. They also have three cabin rooms in the main lodge with private baths, but they were all taken when I booked. In addition to the spacious grassy tenting areas, they also have a 'bunkhouse' that sleeps 5 with its bathroom across the yard at the main tenting bathhouse. The main pavilion has a nice woodstove, big-screen projection TV, couches and plenty of room for eating meals that you sign up for in advance (when you get there). Right outside is a community firepit (free firewood!) and a couple chairs and swings - which we immediately took over. Seems the other guests wandered off into the heated pavilion once we got there. Dunno if it was because they rode those foreign brands and didn't wanna mingle, but all were nice as hell, and it was probably close to their bedtimes. We immediately commenced to continue our firepit joke-tellin and raggin' on whatever stupid stuff one or the other of us did today. We had plenty to laugh about.
#25 (Cuz and Sonya) #26 (Toby and Rae) #27 (Toby and Steph) and #28 (David and Jen) showed the relative positions we all took on all night in front of the fire with the occasional leaning forward to stir up the fire or drop another couple logs on it. I didn't think any of these would come out, and hating to pop a flash in everyone's eyes, I didn't take too many shots. It otherwise took up too much drinkin' time anyway. You can tell by some of these pics that a good time was had by all. No - I cannot tell ya any of the jokes, or any of the raggin' stories - remember - what happens on a bike ride, STAYS on a bike ride!
Our planned meet for breakfast was 8:15am. I rolled over and checked the cell phone for the time at 8:21am. Whaddafuck, it's a bike ride - they'll get over it. We had placed our food order the night before, so when we finally rolled into the pavilion, we just had to give them our names and the cook took over from there. Coffee was hot, toast and butter and jam freely available and a short wait later, we had steaming scrambled eggs and bacon and grits in front of us. A good start to the day - convenient as hell, too. Sam and Sonya were there for breakfast with us after a chilly morning ride back to IronHorse. But unfortunately had to head back home this morning. Was dissapointed to see them head off without us, but had a good two nights with them on this ride.
The rest of us took a short 20 mile ride over a small ridge to Robbinsville for gas, and the 6 bikes then made our way through town to the start of the Cherahala Skyway. The route is well marked in town, heading west from Robinsville on the north side of town. Once on the highway, I waved Toby around for his chance at being Road Captain and he led us from about 1500ft elevation to over 5300ft, with a couple of stops in between for pictures. (#29 and #30). At the top it was at least as cold as yesterday - all of us layered up with everything we had - and the wind was about 15 knots making it worse. Wasn't much else to do but head over the top and start towards lower elevations, and within 15 minutes the temps were bearable again, and the colors a little more vibrant with the sun out.
I re-took the lead, with the GPS showing the sideroad shortcut just 2 miles ahead. The shortcut turned out to be a one-lane (two way traffic!) recently paved road that led down to the River Road to Bald River Falls - a little known road that runs along Bald River (#31 and #32) for several miles with very little traffic. Up ahead was Bald River Falls (#33-#36) and a 30 minute butt break. Anytime you do the CHerahala, I recommend this little trip, it's on most maps, but isn't well marked. Look 10 miles east of Telico Plains on the south side of the Skyway.
Eager to get back to camp at a reasonable hour tonight for more firepit bullshit, we ate a quick lunch at Hardee's in Telico Plains, and rode Hwy 68 south toward Hwy 123. It was a great little twisty road, beautiful scenery and a bright sunshine afternoon. That 90-degree bend preceded by the 15mph warning sign was ignored by all of us, but made by most of us. As I recovered from a severe lean, barely keeping in-lane, I watched my mirror as Steph did the same, slightly over the double line, and watched as Toby - third in line - blew across the curve, and headed for a fortunate gravel road the spurred off directly ahead. So far so good. I looked ahead again to ensure I was still on the road, and rechecked the mirror as I grabbed a glimpse of Toby down in the ditch trying to climb a pretty damned big ditch and get back out onto the road. The ditch gods had a different plan and I watched as his headlights aimed toward the sky and fell back out of sight. A quick U-Turn and we sped back to the scene of Toby standing up beside his bike, calm as can be, both arms outstretched toward his bike as if to say, "Whaddahell happened?".
It didn't take us long to figure out what happened. Toby saw this grassy road (see pic at left) vearing off to the right as he tried to slow down on the gravel road, took it, but attempted to climb the ditch back to the road - (we saw the remainder of this grass road afterwards - and was the path he eventually took out to the road.) In the middle of the ditch as he started up the bank, a huge stump caught his engine gaurds and snagged his ass back into the ditch. Didn't take long to get him righted, either, and saw no damage at all to the bike. We pushed him to the grass road and got him back on the highway, by this time the rest of us laughing and giving him all kinds of shit.
10 miles down the road we had another incident. We were on 123 heading back towards North Carolina, and we passed into a clearing with a sign up ahead a short ways, in 3 foot high letters, declaring the word "BEER". Well my friends, in my experience, that is just as much a warning sign to slow down as a 15 mph sign should be, and I did just that. OK, so the thought process was slow and I didn't signal a right turn, but shouldn't a 3 foot high word BEER be warning enough? I did, and I slowed for the turn, hearing the inevitable screeching of tires and hollaring and giggling soon afterwards. I rest my case on the fact that it was now 2pm, sunny day, heading home, and there was a tavern in our way... some things just HAD to be done according to a higher order, doncha think? Anyway - Steph caught the turn in time, as did Toby, but David, coming around a curve, seeing us all bunched up on the road at a near-stop, did the only thing he could, and laid down a strip of rubber 30 feet long as he blew past the driveway. Damned if he didn't keep 'er up though and did a tight turn back down the gravel drive to the "Open Road Tavern". Toby, hearing the squeel of tires directly behind him, simply closed his eyes and nearly messed his pants.
It was a small tavern, but had a juke box, pinball, pool table and cold beer... what else do you need on a bike ride? I asked the girls to gimme a shot of the four of them in front of the beer sign, and I swear they did the ass-shot all on their own... y'all KNOW I wouldn't have asked anything so sexist, doncha? Toby caught his breath, checked his pants and declared he was ready for more ridin', so we mounted up and headed home.
We finished the ride through Murphy, NC, and into the Nantahala Gorge for one more butt break. Back at the Iron Horse, (pics #45-51) we relaxed on the front porch of the cabin (#51) with a fresh load of cold beers courtesy of Stephanie's husband Brad (who failed to position himself in front of anyone's camera, as was his responsibility!) and rehashed the day's ride, especially Toby's little adventure in the field, and we righteously annointed him with his new handle, "Ditch". His previous gag handle (Skippy) will officially be laid to rest. Ditch accepted it immediately, having feared that Skippy might stick someday. Plans are in the works for a bumper sticker to be placed inside his windshield facing backwards that reads, "If you can read this, The Ditch fell off again!" Hey - what are buds for? We fully expected Brad and Steph to dissapear for at least 4 hours, having been apart for 2 months, but they hung out with us til the end of the night.
These shots are obviously the next morning, after a third great night around the campfire... after the night before's rousing party at the community fire, they suggested we start a new firepit near our cabin and even carted over a bunch of firewood to encourage us to stay on our side of the river. I suppose it was so the un-american bike riders could have a chance at a fire party, too, but that firepit was quiet and embers dying out by 9pm... still - was better by ourselves and the hilarious evening stayed on til well past the quiet time.
#45 is their main pavilion front porch with covered parking for your bikes. #46 is from our front porch across the river to the back of the pavilion. #47 is looking slightly right of that at the tenting area across the river. #48 is from the far corner looking at the rear of the pavilion at the community fire pit. Our cabin is the middle darker one in that shot. #49 is the rear porch of the main private-bath cabins - there are three private bath rooms in that building along with the owner's suite. We were assured we could still party on the porch even with our crowd! #50 is the same cabin back porch from a different view, and #51 was our back porch. I heartily recommend a visit here with a few days to explore the fabulous roads nearby. (www.ironhorsenc.com) - tell Charleen or John that Muthuh sent ya - might be worth a free meal for me! OH, and by the way - save room for one of their really good desserts!
If they'll let us back, we plan on doing the Iron Horse every year for Fall Colors... chances are one of them will be reasonable weather and better colors! After breakfast on our fourth day, we all parted ways. Toby leaving early to try to make it back home by 2pm for his son's ballgame, Steph and Brad staying behind for a short while, getting ready to spend the rest of the week doing volunteer trail maintenance on the Appalacian Trail, and Mike and Rae heading north to Hot Springs, NC to visit relatives before their haul-ass home to New Bern. Dave and Jen rode with us on a short detour to Wilkesboro, NC so Kim could say goodbye to her childhood home which was closing the next day, bought by a new owner. This last shot, #52, is Kim in front of her mother's house, finally sold after a year on the market. (Wilkesboro is losing several large companies and the market was slow.) From here it was four-lane all the way home and the end of one of the best rides I'd been on. Makes me want to rethink my penchant for solo rides, when you can enjoy it with good friends like this.
Till next time - Ride Safe!
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