Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee: Thunder Roads

Text: James T. Parks • Photography: James T. Parks, Christa Neuhauser

Let me tell the story, I can tell it all, About the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol, His daddy made the whiskey, son he drove the load, When the engine roared, they called the highway Thunder Road. - Opening excerpt from the “Ballad of Thunder Road”

Dangerous two-lane roads, snaking their way through the southern Appalachian Mountains, were immortalized in the 1958 classic cult film Thunder Road. RoadRUNNER Publisher Christa Neuhauser and I are riding vintage iron to sample some of the area’s most vaunted thunder roads.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

The road out of Maggie Valley has a dull sheen, still wet after last night’s downpour. Owing to leaden clouds and dense humidity trapped in the steep-sided valley, morning light is muted. My little black 1989 Honda café racer pulls eagerly up the first incline out of town. Christa is close behind on her classic 1972 red and white Yamaha. With eager riding anticipation, I recall that scenes from Thunder Road were filmed in this area.

The historical connection between the southern Appalachian Mountains and the production and high-speed transportation of illegal alcohol is still very much alive here, as attested to by restaurants and other places of business with the word “moonshine” in their names. The northernmost section of North Carolina Route 28, aka “Moonshiner 28” or the “Hellbender,” is our first thunder road.

Route 28 starts out pretty tame but soon turns into a roller coaster ride through dense vegetation, rapid elevation changes, and blind curves. After crossing over Fontana Dam, however, the road opens up with spectacular views. The placid expanse of Cheoah Reservoir is on our left, and the emerald green peaks of Great Smoky Mountains National Park shoot skyward on our right.

The road suddenly drops, and we find ourselves peering up at a towering concrete edifice: the Cheoah Dam. This hydroelectric facility has been around since 1919, but many moviegoers first saw it when actor Harrison Ford took a computer-enhanced leap off it in the 1993 movie The Fugitive.

After lunching in Robbinsville, NC, we point our vintage ponies to the Cherohala Skyway. Since this 43-mile, mountaintop National Scenic Byway wasn’t completed until 1996, it’s unlikely that revenuers ever chased moonshiners across this two-lane stairway to heaven. Nevertheless, it’s one of the most scenic and exciting roads the region has to offer.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the September/October 2012 back issue.