Remember recess? It was every kid's refuge from the old three Rs. Fresh air and freedom reigned and rules were the exception. Unwinding was your sole responsibility and frolicsome fun ensued for no apparent reason. Most motorcyclists know how to get that feeling back and many of them head for the Western North Carolina Mountains to romp on the adult equivalents of those old childhood playgrounds.
The only bad part about recess was toughing out the last few minutes before the doors were flung open. The big hand's lethargic crawl only heightened the intensity of the teacher's eyes prowling the room, searching out furtive glances like a pair of spotlight beams in The Great Escape. Avoiding her piercing gaze just before the big breakout seemed as fruitless as squirming to dodge the bullets of a firing squad. All you could do was avoid eye contact, envy the kids that got to go outside a period earlier, and pray you wouldn't be the last one called upon to answer any math homework questions. And when that bell did ring, the simultaneous release of tension and energy gushed forth in a wave of relief that was almost palpable.
Funny how some things never change. In the last few days before Kathy and I were scheduled to leave for our Shamrock Tour in Bryson City, North Carolina, the clocks ticked slower, the easiest chores were studies in tedium, and more than once I cursed the people who had the foresight to schedule their trips a week earlier. Then finally, after rabid bouts of intensive doodling, Internet noodling, and prolonged fits of grumbling and gnashing of teeth, the bell finally rings - and the calendar sets us free to speed west from Winston-Salem on the nimble Triumph Sprint ST, giddy with the excitement of having four days of moto-playtime.
The Skyway: A+
Our first day dawns a little chilly and a lot foggy. But having once lived an hour east of here in Asheville, we know this is a temporary situation and not the least bit uncommon in early May. We breakfast in the Fryemont Inn's restaurant and wait it out with an extra cup of coffee on our cabin's private balcony. By 9:00, pats of blue emerge and expand as the fog burns off and the Sprint's eager triple quickly barks to life. Within minutes we're motoring southwest on Route 19-74. By the time we reach the Nantahala Gorge, the blanket of haze has melted away, exposing a brilliant sky. We ride into the valley's dense tunnel of hardwoods, where the sunlight spilling through the thick boughs mottles the narrow two-lane road and shimmers off the roiling Nantahala River. This tributary is nationally recognized as one of the finest whitewater rafting areas in the United States. Numerous outfitters along the way offer adventure-soakers ample opportunity to grab a paddle and get a frosty mountain dousing. But from our point of view, even though the midmorning sun is hard at work, the cool temperatures are much more conducive to running asphalt rapids.
As 19-74 leaves the gorge, it turns into a divided highway. But with ample mountain scenery, even the four lanes in these parts aren't that bad. Just past Murphy, we swing a right on to Route 294 and get back to the two lane. The ride is surprisingly relaxing until we cross into the Volunteer State and pick up Route 68. Though rather sedate looking on paper, this stretch of Tennessee tarmac pitches us into a deceiving blender of twists and scenery that challenge the chassis and our concentration. After braking way too late and nearly overcooking a hard right-hander, I get a slap to the side of my helmet. It's Kathy's way of telling me to either slow down and enjoy the views or to keep my focus as sharp as the pace merits. She knows it's dangerous for me to do both and isn't the least bit hesitant to keep me honest.
We ride into Tellico Plains in time for a late lunch and grab good sandwiches at the Town Square Café and Bakery. Knowing that the sun's rays are at their warmest this time of day, we decide not to dawdle as our next stretch of road, the Cherohala Skyway, packs an altitudinal punch and can be a little chilly in spots. Completed in 1996 after 34 years of construction, the Skyway now connects Tellico Plains and Robbinsville, North Carolina. Because it is built entirely on federal land through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests, the Cherohala's only distractions are its voluminous curves and spectacular views. The Sprint slings us across mountains that reach altitudes of 5,400 feet, treating us to grand panoramas around every corner. When here, keep in mind there are no services other than a few restrooms; so be sure to gas up, allow plenty of time, and keep the camera handy. Under no circumstances should a ride in this region preclude the Cherohala Skyway.