Eastern Tennessee: Inspiration in the Hills

Text: Jesse Kiser • Photography: Jesse Kiser

Silence consumes the surrounding Tennessee hills—insects around here sleep in. With my coffee cup balanced on the gas lid of the KTM, I assemble my bag. One of the greatest thrills of a motorcycle trip is the shedding of excess baggage, literally and figuratively. The saddle bags, extra pants, riding boots, and heavy gloves are in the hotel room, leaving only the essentials for today. I slowly lay out my gear, appreciating the morning stillness while it lasts.

I’m in Kingsport, TN, the eastern third of the state’s Tri-Cities region: Kingsport, Bristol and Johnson City. To the northeast sits Bristol, home to Tennessee’s legendary NASCAR race track. To the southeast lay miles of twisting roads and a tiny town made famous by a song about a wagon wheel. Though only a few hours from our office in North Carolina, the three cities are located north of I-40 and distant from any major airport or connecting highway, so they’re often forgotten. Today our destination is the journey itself. 

The Southern Dozen

I originally intended to experience eastern 
Tennessee solo, but Chuck Mason of the Southern Dozen, a local motorcycle touring organization, offered his services showing me around. I was happy to oblige, as it’s more enjoyable to ride with somebody rather than solo. Chuck is a semi-retired local Tennessean, who occasionally volunteers as a guide rider. The Southern Dozen is an initiative from the Johnson City Visitors Bureau whose primary purpose is suggesting routes, restaurants, and hotels to visiting motorcyclists. Plus, it’s totally free. They offer guide riders for larger groups, and Johnson City hosts multiple motorcycle rallies throughout the year. 

When Chuck arrives, I trash what’s left of my coffee. We spend a few moments sizing up each other’s knowledge of old motorcycles and cars before departing to Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium. We exit the hotel onto a back road separated by a faded yellow divider, and pass a “Farm Equipment Ahead” sign and a Chevy Impala with four flat tires stranded in its most recent attempted restoration. 

Wolves and deer roam through caged areas in the woods alongside a man-made lake, watching us as we loop through the park. We turn and keep going. 

Our course is a combined and modified version of several of Chuck’s suggested routes. The Southern Dozen offers thirteen rides (a baker’s dozen) with names like the Spelunker Tour, featuring the natural Bristol and Appalachian Caverns, and the Mountain Ribbons Loop, which takes riders along 157 miles of the most scenic sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the January/February 2019 back issue.