Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee: Thunder Roads

Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee: Thunder Roads
Let me tell the story, I can tell it all, About the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol, His daddy made the whiskey, son he drove the load, When the engine roared, they called the highway Thunder Road. - Opening excerpt from the “Ballad of Thunder Road”

Dangerous two-lane roads, snaking their way through the southern Appalachian Mountains, were immortalized in the 1958 classic cult film Thunder Road. RoadRUNNER Publisher Christa Neuhauser and I are riding vintage iron to sample some of the area’s most vaunted thunder roads.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

The road out of Maggie Valley has a dull sheen, still wet after last night’s downpour. Owing to leaden clouds and dense humidity trapped in the steep-sided valley, morning light is muted. My little black 1989 Honda café racer pulls eagerly up the first incline out of town. Christa is close behind on her classic 1972 red and white Yamaha. With eager riding anticipation, I recall that scenes from Thunder Road were filmed in this area.

U.S. 129 leads past the Cheoah Dam, made famous by the Harrison Ford movie The Fugitive.

The historical connection between the southern Appalachian Mountains and the production and high-speed transportation of illegal alcohol is still very much alive here, as attested to by restaurants and other places of business with the word “moonshine” in their names. The northernmost section of North Carolina Route 28, aka “Moonshiner 28” or the “Hellbender,” is our first thunder road.

Route 28 starts out pretty tame but soon turns into a roller coaster ride through dense vegetation, rapid elevation changes, and blind curves. After crossing over Fontana Dam, however, the road opens up with spectacular views. The placid expanse of Cheoah Reservoir is on our left, and the emerald green peaks of Great Smoky Mountains National Park shoot skyward on our right.

Motorcycles & Gear

1972 Yamaha XS 650
1989 Honda GB 500

Helmet: Shoei
Jacket: Joe Rocket
Pants: Vanson Leathers
Boots: Oxtar
Gloves: Roadgea

The road suddenly drops, and we find ourselves peering up at a towering concrete edifice: the Cheoah Dam. This hydroelectric facility has been around since 1919, but many moviegoers first saw it when actor Harrison Ford took a computer-enhanced leap off it in the 1993 movie The Fugitive.

After lunching in Robbinsville, NC, we point our vintage ponies to the Cherohala Skyway. Since this 43-mile, mountaintop National Scenic Byway wasn’t completed until 1996, it’s unlikely that revenuers ever chased moonshiners across this two-lane stairway to heaven. Nevertheless, it’s one of the most scenic and exciting roads the region has to offer.

After the Cherohala lands us at its terminus in Tellico Plains, TN, we follow state Route 68 south. Soon we’re swooping through tight turns in an unspoiled country landscape of Appalachian foothills, lazily flowing creeks, and small villages. It’s late in the day when we finally arrive in the charming burg of Blue Ridge, GA, our overnight destination. A hot shower and a tasty repast cap off a perfect day of vintage motorcycle touring.

Motorcycles seem to be the dominant form of transportation and recreation on Southern Appalachia's thunder roads.

Roarin’ Out of Blue Ridge, Revvin’ Up Our Mills

After a hearty Southern-style breakfast at the Blue Ridge Inn, we’re heading east on the Appalachian Highway. Higher elevations of the Appalachians rise dramatically in the distance, like muted etchings on a canvas of blue sky. They draw us in like mammoth magnets too powerful to resist. Although there are no revenuers on our tail, we rev up our vintage mills all the same. We’re anxious to dive back into this mysterious wonderland of mountain motoring.

By midmorning temperatures have risen to summertime levels. We stop for a dessert break at the Clayton Café in Clayton, GA, and partake of that special Southern delicacy: Key lime pie. After getting thoroughly cooled down, sugared up, and hydrated, we head north to Franklin, NC.