Two-lane asphalt snakes its way through steep mountain gorges sculpted over millions of years by rushing streams. Lush vegetation presses in from all sides, often overarching the road and blotting out the sun. My feet and hands move with practiced precision, downshifting, tapping the brakes, leaning deeply into the curves, rolling on the throttle and up-shifting through the gears as the motorcycle gathers speed. My complete attention is focused on the constantly curving yellow line threading its way through a tunnel of green.
After enduring several days of rain at the Honda Hoot in Knoxville, Tennessee, my wife Karen and I are elated by the prospect of sunshine favoring our four-day Shamrock tour in eastern Kentucky. We rendezvous with Christian and Christa at the Cumberland Inn in Williamsburg, Kentucky, a small college town of 5,000. Gleefully, over a late dinner there, Christian lays out his preview of the maniacal combination of curvy routes he's stitched together for our eastern Kentucky adventure.
Big South Fork Loop: 180 miles
Before departing the following morning, I double-check the tread depth on my 2004 Honda ST1300 and find that it should be ready for anything that Christian, the "Route Meister," is likely to throw at us. Pulling out of the parking lot, his Aprilia Falco leads us south on US 25W. Christa follows next on the Kawasaki Concours, and my wife and I bring up the rear, riding two-up on the Honda.
In the cool morning air, I recall that the cloud-shrouded mountains in this southeast corner of Kentucky, with their steep slopes and dense forests, kept early colonists from settling here for nearly 150 years. Although Indians had used a natural passage through the mountain barrier for centuries, the Cumberland Gap's location was not documented until 1750. Daniel Boone led a work party of 30 axmen in 1775 to mark what became known as The Wilderness Road, which lead settlers to the fabled Bluegrass Region in central Kentucky.
Crossing the border into Tennessee, our route becomes State Road (SR) 297, which takes us west to the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. It's situated in a rugged gorge area of the Cumberland Plateau that straddles southern Kentucky and northeastern Tennessee. Our descent into the gorge is steep, with tight, second-gear curves. Shear red rock walls line both sides of the road, and I'm finding it challenging to stay on pace with the effortlessly smooth movements of the two motorcycles in front of us. Over the next four days, though, literally thousands of curves will help refine my riding skills.
The most obvious geological features observed in this area are the numerous rock overhangs which provided shelter to early settlers and moonshiners in later times. The stable dry soils underneath the overhangs have yielded archeologists well-preserved specimen's of bone, leather and other organic materials.
We pass briefly into and out of the Central Time Zone as we head north on Tennessee SR 154, which becomes SR 167 in Kentucky. By the time we reach Monticello, Kentucky, everyone is feeling strong hunger pains. Following the Neuhauser doctrine of avoiding fast-food chain restaurants wherever and whenever possible, we discover a home-cooked buffet at a restaurant on SR 90.
Exiting the building, we're greeted by temperatures in the eighties and higher humidity. Our return trip to Monticello follows sweeping curves in the Daniel Boone National Forest through what I dub the green tunnels. Steep valleys covered with lush plant life largely restrict our vision of the two-lane asphalt and its yellow centerline, continuously disappearing around blind curves.
The Figure Eight Loop: 165 miles
The second day's planned ride makes a figure eight, with its first loop east of Williamsburg and the second one west of town. This will allow us to have lunch midway in Williamsburg. Attempting to rouse Karen for breakfast, she sleepily informs me that she will join us on the afternoon loop, but to please enjoy myself on the morning loop. I was more than a little jealous of her extra snooze time in the queen-sized bed.
Christa and I trade bikes for the first few hours of the trip. I find the Kawasaki Concours to be a lot of fun. Departing Williamsburg on SR 92 east, it's not long before we get into some serious canyon carving.