When we landed this assignment, I couldn't have told you why taking a trip across America on the "worst" possible roads sounded so appealing. Maybe it's because off-road riding doesn't even exist back home, in densely populated Germany. Or perhaps it's because we've learned on other trips that we more often meet the authentic characters of this world on country lanes and remote dirt roads than we do in hectic cities where so many are preoccupied and too few can spare the time to talk.
That may be the nub of the matter: Time. Which gives us the luxury of really paying attention while we're slowly picking our way toward villages where people still buy their groceries in the general store, and venturing into the woods along neglected trails and abandoned railroad grades that force us to creep along, look around, and stop to savor the moments. This Trans-America Trail trip would certainly take much more time than a coast-to-coast haul on the Interstate. Last but not least, though, as far as most logical inducements go, an off-road journey of 4,741 miles always sounds like a good time waiting to be had for a couple of dual-sport riders like us.
From the Trailhead to the Great Falls Dam
The trail starts in an unspectacular fashion out of a motel parking lot in Jellico, on the Cumberland Plateau in northeastern Tennessee. Nevertheless, we're excited when we leave the town of 2,500 inhabitants behind. But we didn't realize then that Jellico would be the busiest place we'd encounter for days.
After six miles, gravel replaces the asphalt for the first time, and 35 miles further on through the bush, the route hits Highway 27. After not having seen a single car for one and a half hours the appearance of something called traffic is a shock. Happily, the roadbook makes us turn off 27 after little more than a mile.
Wartburg, a small town in these mountains, is also a famous castle in Germany, only 70 miles away from our hometown of Steinach. Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German in Wartburg. So, with those connections in mind, we had to explore what the Tennessee namesake was all about. Referring to sources in the local library, we learn that German settlers founded the town in 1851 and named it Wartburg because the pleasant area reminded them so much of their Old World home.
Outside town, we take the winding Catoosa Road six miles to a bridge. And though the view over the side is a bit scary there, you'll miss discovering a rock-carved pool ideal for a relaxing dip if you don't take a look.
A fallen tree too large to put aside without the help of a chainsaw is in the way. But after taking the measure of its girth, we make it across with only a slight scuffing to the skid plates. Nearby, a sign lets us know we've entered the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area, a place that seems to be very well managed indeed: We count four deer and three turtles in the space of two miles.
The neat, small beach of Jewett Lake is another invitation for a secluded swim. But a splash or two over our faces and necks has to be enough today. And down the way a piece, the beautiful Caney River urges us to play around in water again, but this time with the bike. We're not the only ones crossing though. A battered white flatbed truck loaded with a large family and their two Rottweilers goes first, parting the waters in the limestone pools.
An abandoned railway with nice wide curves and the track long since removed provides our path now, an impressive cut past sheered rock walls. On the other side, the thick sweep of forest canopy forms a refreshing tunnel ride.
With the light dying and the first 218 miles behind us, we're just about ready to call it a day. A wooden single-lane bridge takes us across Great Falls Dam where we find a hidden camp spot with access to the river. Perfect. And the many small waterfalls in the wide, rocky riverbed below the dam create a stimulating backdrop for an evening stroll.
Wildlife and Wobbly Natives
The next morning we pass two peacocks spreading their glorious plumage. They sit on an old wooden gate, the entrance to a farm. We hit the brakes and spot more birds roosting in the oaks around us. Intent on taking pictures of them, we didn't see the BEWARE OF DOG sign framed anywhere in our viewfinders. And when a snarling pack suddenly comes charging out of the farmhouse, we freeze in place behind the wired fencing they leap upon. The uproar brings the owners out, prompting us to explain hastily that we only wished to photograph their beautiful birds. That helps. The mood changes, the dogs are brought to heel, and the friendly farming couple asks if we want to see some more. Hardly waiting to hear our assent, the wife fetches a container of feed and begins shouting, "Hey, little babies! Come on!" which sets off a magical scene as deer, elk, a llama, and donkeys trot out from the woods beside the house.