I knew that Florian and I were in for a great Shamrock Tour® when I woke to the softly layered Appalachian mountains stretching out in front of our hotel, with a twisting two-lane highway cutting an inviting path between them. Four days later, parking our Harley-Davidsons for the last time as the sun slid toward the mountains and lit the valley with its last golden rays, I felt the satisfaction of knowing I had been right. We had once more found fantastic roads, friendly people, and an assortment of fun restaurants and coffee shops where we could fuel up or cool off along the way.
A Fun Climb Into the Mountains
With the promise of a hot, steamy day we rise before dawn and load up the Harleys with camera gear, notebooks and rain suits. We ride out after pausing to marvel at the soft-colored layers as the sun climbs over the ridgeline. Highway 52 is cool and shady as it works its way south through open farmland. Our pace is slow and relaxed as we sit back and breathe in the morning air. To our sides the open fields are blanketed with yellow weeds, striking a brilliant contrast to the rich greens and browns that color the view through the visors. Lazy farm animals wander as we roll on super-smooth tarmac.
We arrive in the small town of Dawsonville, GA, before we turn onto Highway 53 and both realize that we have been here before. We make a couple of circuits around the historic courthouse, and we realize that we filmed part of the first RoadRUNNER travel DVD here a number of years ago. The coffee shop we had previously enjoyed is now a hair salon, as even things in small, sleepy towns change, and we must roll on in search of caffeine. As we approach Gainesville the countryside recedes and we experience some mild frenzy as people head to work. Florian’s radar soon has us settled into Steamers Coffee Co., an independently owned facility, and deep in conversation with the owner.
Jeff Newman, 55, a corporate dropout who climbs trees for a hobby, gives us some great information about our proposed routes and suggests some additional roads. Suitably refreshed we head south as we leave the bustling town of Gainesville and work our way north onto Highway 129. On one of the most famous roads in this part of the world, as is Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina, we are soon swinging through the most incredible stretch of twisting road as we climb into the cool mountains. While the temperatures in Gainesville had not been stifling, the extra oxygen from the overhanging trees, the cool air, and the recent shot of caffeine make for a spirited run up the mountain.
At the top we pull over at the Hiking Lodge, a fantastic, eclectic store that caters to the needs of hikers on the Appalachian Trail. Fresh-faced college kids and weekend warriors stock up on supplies and talk the language of distance hikers as we take a break. A pair of tech-industry refugees takes interest in our Harleys and cameras, and after a chat we pull ourselves away to drop off the mountain. After rolling through the towns of Clermont and Cleveland we arrive on the outskirts of Blairsville.
The ride is magnificent, and waiting at our next crossroad is the Rib Country Restaurant. There’s a gleam in Florian’s eye when he announces that all the restaurant signs we’ve seen lately have made him hungry. We head inside for some iced tea and fabulous Southern barbecue, served by the sweetest waitresses in Georgia. The food is excellent, the air conditioning is wonderful, and we sit awhile recapping the ride so far.
From Blairsville we ride north on U.S. 515 in the hot, hazy afternoon, enjoying welcome pockets of cool air across Lake Chatuge. Then it’s west into North Carolina on U.S. 64 as we head into Cherokee County and the mountain town of Murphy. Located along the Hiawassee River, in 1836 it was an army outpost named Fort Butler built to house Cherokee Indians before they were marched out across the Trail of Tears. With time sliding away we don’t stop, and the road drops us back south to U.S. 60. This is a fast, flowing piece of two-lane highway that takes us through peaceful farmland before dumping us into Mineral Bluff – blink and you’ll miss it. Two gear changes later we’re back in the near-deserted countryside. A short run along four-lane U.S. 515 brings us into East Ellijay well before dark, and as the sun falls behind the surrounding mountains and the temperature drops, we head into Charlie’s Italian Restaurant for a hearty, home-cooked meal and a lot of ice-cold water.