Telling me that County Road 116 is as nasty as Deal's Gap, a local rider also says I shouldn't stop along the way, either. 'If you ain't from there, you ain't one of them,' he says. 'And don't hit the shoulder, 'cause it's 150 feet down to a moonshine still if you do.'
The Tennessee Hills are older than recorded history. Much older. Rocks that once rose higher than the Himalayas are whittled into hills of fertile soil. Spring is in full swing, and the rich greenery of the Appalachians is garnished with splashes of pink rhododendron.
But as I quickly learned, endless miles of hairpins would not excuse any inclination toward scenic distractions. This is riding at its most challenging. At the end of each day, I am compelled to pat my boss's Triumph Tiger on the gas tank with appreciation. 'Well done, my friend; rest easy for tomorrow.' These roads are not to be taken lightly, and neither are the hills and valleys of Tennessee.
From Mountain City down State Road 67 to Elizabethton, I warm up the bike, test its limits, and settle in to the tour by visiting a covered bridge with its own spot on the National Historic Register. It's my first solo tour for RoadRUNNER, and I'm glad it's in the southern Appalachians, where I began my love affair with the mountains. The majestic enormity of the Rockies is missing, but there is a unique, old-world culture in Appalachia that makes up for the absence of those grand western views.
There is a feeling of nostalgia here. First, and most evident - from Johnson City down SR 67, CR 107, then heading south on SR 321 to Gatlinburg - is the land of the Cherokee. The route skirts the Tennessee portion of the Cherokee National Forest, darts past park service signs along the way, and serves up spectacular views atop crest after crest from deep within the heart of the steepest mountains east of the Mississippi. Some can't-miss roads on this leg of the tour are CRs 361 and 362 just south of Johnson City, and passing through Milligan College and Okolona. It's a short excursion, but the curves are banked, and the asphalt is dark and smooth.
The people I've met so far are amicable, easy-going folks. Hospitality and shoot-the-bull humor are universally present in gas stations and country stores ('Hank, you mind if I date your mother-in-law?' 'Damn, son, you can take her daughter, too!'). So Gatlinburg, where these folks go on vacation from their simple lives, is, logically, not at all simple.
It's a very classy blight. Set within blue ridges, bubbling streams and brooks, log cabins and chalets, it's confusing to also find plenty of neon lights marking where trinkets are bought, and spectacles of questionable authenticity are viewed for a fee. Nonetheless, I am tickled to be around so many people, and strike up quite a few conversations between Blaine's Grill and Bar and the Smoky Mountain Brewing and Pizza Company.
The next morning, entering Great Smoky Mountains National Park on US 321/441, I turn right on Little River Road, just past Sugarlands Visitor Center. This is 18 miles of pristine Great Smoky road. But, in the nation's most crowded national park, the views for motorcyclists bear a variety of license plates. But no matter, because the park is a beautiful place in springtime - even in third gear.
The ride of the day is just around the corner from Townsend, where I reconnect with US 321 and turn left on the Foothills Parkway near Walland. Only two or three cars can resist the Great Smoky vortex to share the road with me, and the Foothills Parkway is 17 miles of canopied curves opening intermittently into grand vistas of the Blue Ridge.