Sometimes a tour takes on a life of its own before the wheels even roll from the driveway. Unexpected, odd themes will bubble to the surface, acting as catalysts of sorts for the entire journey. Looking at the map, it dawns on me that I'm leaving the Triad of North Carolina for the Tri-Cities of Tennessee aboard a Triumph Tiger. Oh boy, here we go.
Be it Ts or threes, I just can't stop the word tease as I roar west from Winston-Salem heading for the Eastern Tennessee trio of Bristol, Kingsport, and Johnson City. The chuckles and puns, many too painful to share, continue unabated across the Piedmont and into the mountains. Only the tour's track, beginning in earnest at the split of Routes 421 and 321 west of Boone, North Carolina, stanches the flow of paronomasia that's streaming beneath my visor.
The wide, familiar sweeps of 321 rush beneath as the September sun slowly chases the chill from the mid-morning mountain air. With home base just a two-hour ride east, I've become intimately versed in this road's tendency to challenge the right-hand restraint. Though it's easy and entertaining to hustle along, I'm careful in the process of exorcising the apathy brought on by the four-lane. Fortunately, the big cat's surefootedness has the Interstate imps running for cover in record time. Not long after crossing into the Volunteer State, I begin catching the solar sparkles dancing off the surface of Watauga Lake. This indicates that my first turn is not far away. The northward trek of Route 67 bisects a wide valley and would normally be relaxing and uneventful except for an urgent stop in a church parking lot to do the Honeybee Twist. I'll learn to cinch down my collar one of these days. Now sporting a throbbing welt on my chest, I take it as a reminder that winged stingers aren't the only critters capable of a nasty "bite" around here.
In Mountain City, I turn left onto one of the greatest stretches of moto-tarmac in the United States. This particular section of Route 421 (a.k.a. "the Snake") is said to have "one valley, three mountains, and 489 curves." Take that, Dragon. The onslaught of riotous hairpins has me snickering and slinging the Tiger to and fro like we're bringing up the rear in a game of Crack-the-Whip. This ride is a blast, and the absence of traffic makes it even better. And since I'm riding here on a weekday, my snake charming stands a lot less chance of being evaluated by "the man." At the run's midway point, I pull in at the Shady Valley Country Store for my "usual," a Co' Cola, pack of Nabs, and a spell on the porch swing. Though traffic is thin today, I still manage hellos with a fellow middle-aged patron, riding a VFR, a couple of burly, bearded types on Harleys, and two attractive young ladies on supermotards. An eclectic mix, I'd say, for a midweek stop.
The serpent's western half is no less interesting, rewarding me with even more peg-chomping frame benders and a few beautiful Appalachian views to boot. By the time the third mountain gives way to the outskirts of Bristol, Tennessee, my toothsome grin tells the story. Though I swing west before riding into town, it's worth noting that Bristol is considered the Birthplace of Country Music. Groundbreaking acts such as The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers got their starts here, making this quiet city prime real estate to explore for any fan of old-time country and bluegrass music.
Nearing Kingsport, I can tell it's well past time for lunch because my inner alert is clanging with the insistence of a farmhouse triangle. My good friend Gary Yates, a native of nearby Mount Carmel, had given me the heads-up on a couple of his favorite local eateries; and though sitting down for beef brisket at Pratt's Barbecue is tempting, I hold off for a foot-long and fries at the Dairy Cup, a Route 11 institution in Gary's hometown. My simple choices are delicious, and I'm pleased to report that the "chain-breaking" spirit of great American road food is alive and well in Eastern Tennessee.
After a rather sedate, westward stretch of four-lane, my path reenters the twisty zone with a right on Route 70. The tarmac conforms to the ruggedness of the terrain, zigzagging through the hills like an amateur gift wrapper's ribbons. But the twists abate as rapidly as they hit, with a turn back to the southwest on Route 33. Small farms and wide pastures dot the landscape, their resident cows observing nonchalantly as the passing Tiger gently sways away on the rolling, traffic-free pavement.
While gassing up in Tazewell, I notice that my arch enemy fatigue is beginning to establish a toehold. Normally I would heed the warning signs of this annoying interloper and find shelter for the evening. The only problem is, I'm having too much fun to stop. I decide to push on to Clinton and come to rest in one of the many familiar rack-stacks there.
Sunlight waning, I head over the tiny winding roads toward Big Ridge State Park. Long shadows and the surprisingly warm evening deepen my weariness, and a section of nasty switches almost caught me napping. Inability to concentrate makes this final push too tedious for me to appreciate them too. My timing is unfortunate because these roads are far too enjoyable and demanding for anyone to be going through the motions. As Interstate 75 comes into view, I wisely call it a night.