With their first LP since college, I started to get pings from old friends checking in to see if I was going to make it down to Atlanta for the release party. November is always the edge of the riding season in the Mid-Atlantic states; so with a federal holiday as a starting point, it was time to plan a road-trip with the Kickin' Edgar show as the reason to end the season.
Up early to pull interstate duty out to WV, it was a 50-degree two-an-a-half hours out to Berkley Springs, where gassed up, freshly re-caffinated and into the familiar mountain highways of WV-9 to 29, I made my way to US-50 west. The chill that never left was made worse by the road's gradually rise under low clouds. First through drizzle, then higher towards low clouds that soon surrounded me like wet fog and caused visibility to drop from low to little.
I decided to bail on the original plan of going west then dropping down diagonally in favor of going straight south on US-219... Which had the effect of running me across the plateau that forms an upper section of the Monongahela National Forrest. My escape route then may have had the unintended consequence of keeping me fogged in, longer. The constant sensation of an impending low-side crash made worse by not having broke in the motorcycle's new front tire before this trip. Fog took away reaction time and wet took away the ability to react suddenly; and so on a few occasions when a side-road joined I would momentarily think I was right in the middle of missing a sharp turn... This continued until, on high-alert, I made my way down through switchbacks into Parsons, WV, where I surrendered the idea of having to ride on unfamiliar wet mountain roads, and belatedly threw-on my rain suit.
Parsons to Elkins was wet, but with better visibility. Elkins to Buckhannon was 4-lanes of dry; so I there I rejoined my original flight path of going south through the empty center of WV, by taking the crooked WV-20 towards Diana, then juke westward on WV-15.
In Sutton, WV, you can catch WV-4 to run Northwest along the Elk River in a long half-loop that brings you back down southward to WV-16. Conscious of daylight's draining hour glass, I decided to cut out that section of WV-4 and take I-79 down a few exits where it reconnects with WV-4/16 south. WV-4 south empties into a long high-speed run along the Elk River where the highlight of this great run is one tight, but evenly paced, right handed sweeper brings you around in a fantastic 270-degree turn.
This raucous riverside run rocks all the way to Clay, WV, were population mellows your pace... Which is a good thing because WV-16 separates from WV-4 there and you may miss it. The pace resumes south of Clay all the way though sparsely populated mountains down to Belva, WV (especially if you miss the short-cut to US-60 in Dixie, like I did). Having recently been on US-60, I wanted to cross the Kanawha River to take the parallel course on, the has of yet untraveled, WV-61. The first bridge at Kanawha Falls appears to lead off to a dirt path.
The second more obvious choice leads you right into the college town of Montgomery WV:
WV-61 out of town is a steadily increasing lesson on the realities of poverty which culminates in a long row of abandon/soon to be abandoned houses lining the way into the mining/river port town of Marmet, there you view turns into rotten trailer homes as you leave on WV-94 south to Racine, where you are finally fully clear of Marmet's depression and back into the empty mountains which host WV-3.
With the day closing, there was just enough light for the mountain road to end exactly where it needed to... At the traffic light for the 4-lanes of US-119 south. Traveling along US-119 there was a brief moment going through mountains at interstate speed where the sunset sky hit hot-coal fire red. There was never an angle where a photo made sense or even a place to stop for a photo which would later not make sense; so I just had to see it for moment it was there, before it all faded to black for the remainder of the 80-miles to Pikeville, Kentucky. First day's total: 560 miles.
My impression of Pikeville is that it is an upscale, but very dull, college town. Thankfully the coffee-house next to the hotel makes strong coffee and a delicious bacon, egg, and cheese on croissant. 40 degrees and wet made being back on US-119/US-23 the easiest start to the day. US-119 gets more interesting after it splits with US-23 and goes on to make an impressively fast climb into the mountains as it veers away from Whitesburg, KY, in the valley below:
Even though even the heavily traveled 119 remained wet in patches, it was time to get off the US-system and into the real part of this county. KY-160 southward at Cumberland leads to the dead mine town of Lynch.
The buildings are made of large sandstone block which will last long after the insides have finished rotting out.
KY-160 gets serious in its ascent into the mountains on a narrow and collapsing, two lane ribbon; so after the journey up it should be no surprise that the road apexes at the highest point in Kentucky - Black Mountain. I would have stopped for a photo-op but did not want the mining-truck I squeezed by on the way up to have caught me as I balanced my way through wet 15-mph switchbacks.
Down the mountain I turned on rural VA-68 before reaching Big Stone Gap. VA-68 just winds through mountain people living their lives... I came across 5-6 unsaddled horses that had congregated at one intersection, and then as I went around a "general-store' strategically placed inside a U-shaped bend in the road; a dog walked out in front of me and unhurriedly gave himself a scratch... This prompted me to stop and try to orient myself (since I hadn't seen a sign and the road had recently lost the paint of a lane dividers found on most paved roads that are also worthy enough to be on a map) A guy in a truck pulled around, but stopped alongside to see if I needed anything; when I asked if this was VA-68 he replied "where are you trying to go?" and could not comprehend that I wasn't really looking to go anywhere but VA-68. Fortunately we found common ground by deciding to look for US-421 which he assured me was still straight ahead. He was right. I soon came up on 421 near Pennington Gap.
The sporting road map company, Butler Maps, identifies KY-987 as being a road-of-interest for sport driving. It doesn't have a promising start:
but quickly transitions into a very scenic almost park-like run.
987 brings you back onto US-119 (Hey, it's a journey not a destination) for a fast run to US-25E to Pineville, KY. From there it's north to KY-92, which is narrow, but a mostly straight blast all the way to I-75. Somewhere in the middle of that, after following a couple of cars lead by a slow moving pick-up truck, I made a move in a downhill passing zone which the truck driver took exception to, and soon I was hitting 90... Seeing that I wasn't going to be dissuaded he swerved into the oncoming lane to block my pass; fully committed I called his bluff and edged by in the upper 90s with my mind not angry, but wondering why he cared? Knowing crazy when I see it, I kept up my pace to put some distance (and more cars) between us so he never made it to my rearview again.
I skipped I-75 and took its alternate TN-297 to TN-63 as far south as it make sense before jumping on I-75 for a few exits to Rocky Top, TN, where the plan was to run TN-116, aka the Devil's Triangle:
The approach path is slow and thankfully made slower by a school bus; so my timing (and speed) was right to slip through the kill-zone of the two sheriff's deputies who were still positioning themselves in their speed trap. 116 soon climbs into steep mountains with nothing on either side but hill up and drop down. Most mountain roads have 20-25 mph switchbacks that can be taken at double the recommended speed; 116 has 10-mph switchbacks where the inside lane also gains 5-10 feet of elevation making the hard right lean over more of a hill-climb where engine torque needs to be calculated carefully with your lean angle. The first technical section gives way to an empty valley where my only company was a dog napping on the center line who was only slightly perturbed by my approach and cautious passing.
Having exited the mountains I found myself moving quickly in an unknown direction (a common problem with relying on a memory of a paper map) so I pulled over to reconsult the map and a full race-suited, Suzuki Hayabusa pilot (the Hayabusa was once the fastest production motorcycle in the world) pulls over to check in. He asked where I was going and suggested the interstate as the quickest course... Eventually he got it that I was just touring; so after helping orient me he pulled away allowing me to catch his license plate which was: DEATH.
Happy to let him go first, but also thinking about the gloves-less hand rule DEATH has in literature and its possible second hand smoke effect on my map, I stopped to reorient myself in Harriman, TN. Finding DEATH's guidance still valid, I made my way over to TN-58 at Kingston for a straight shot south into dusk and dark down in Decatur, TN, where TN-30 leads right into Athens and my hotel room. Total trip miles: 980. Dark, but still early, I have time to tie one on at the Ruby Tuesdays.
Sweet sleep and a Waffle House morning leads to TN-39 out to Tellico Plains, where leaving the resort area behind you have to just decide you are going to ignore the 40-mph, no passing zones of TN-165 and just fully commit to enjoying the beautiful and fast Cherohala Skyway.
Numbered 143 once you're in North Carolina, you are soon then connected to Hwy-129 and the east-end of the Tail of the Dragon.
Cheoah Dam is the prominent land mark:
But it is on the other side of the river where the action starts with this hard right turn upwards:
All the way though the Dragon and out the west end for a muscle tightening pass through the sights of a lingering sheriff's deputy, there was nothing left to do but turn around and blast my way back through to Tellico Plains... having made two passes through the Dragon, non-stop, I felt okay with picking up a souvenir with my tank of gas before rejoining the Cherohala Skyway.
A color also made unnervingly close to photo epileptic by the hammering of direct light flickering through the trees on your field of vision
Exhausted and running on the fumes of the afternoon granola bar and coffee, it was Chick-fil-a nuggets before starting the Friday night follies of GA-400 to Atlanta. At my hotel near Lenox, it was as always is, take care of the bike's chain first, then shower.
Trip total: 1330 miles
(Of course it was Uber out to Vinyl for the show)
It had been decades since I have seen some of the friends that were there. Three days with my head in helmet meant it took a few beers to unlock social graces (they being what they are in even a normal state). Hanging around for the breakdown of equipment and post event closing of the Vortex ended up turning into a 4am return for a 8am start.
Morning thermos full of Starbucks, it was time to make my way up GA-400 and eventually back up to Blairsville, GA, for breakfast at a coffeehouse which is out of frame to the left of this photo:
From there it was just a matter of working my way over to enjoy the sweet starting of US-64
Having undertaken the proper mountain break-in period, I was completely in the zone for the european level of mountain road fast past Bridal Veil Falls and the approach to Highlands, NC:
US-64 continues on with more commercial and less vigor down to Lake Toxaway, where east of it you can connect with NC-215:
Up past this warning and into more quiet mountains you are rewarded with excellent road all the way until it goes under the Blue Ridge Parkway and drops downward with increasing fervor.
Eventaully it bottoms out and you connect with US-276 to enjoy a cruise down Main Street of a well preserved Waynesville, NC. From there it was I-40 west/north a few exits to NC-209, where at Betty's Gap there's another cautionary sign:
The Rattler seems more a moniker for the broken and undulating pavement, then a take-off of the coils of yesterday's serpent. At its peak it does switch from old-n-broken to newly paved... Trouble is that the gravel used to shore up the shoulders of the new road is kicked onto the road by cars not maintaining their lanes. So your path is decided more by the lanes through the gravel and less the turn's natural apex. Cold in damp air, exhausted from the focus of pinpoint fast and looking for a restroom; I was happy to make due a few miles from the end of 209's mountains.
Where the last of the coffee and a granola bar meant my next stop was supposed to be Johnson City, TN.
US-25 east to connect with NC-205 then NC-212. Both beautiful rural mountain roads that hug rivers (NC-212 follows Shelton Laurel Creek) the emptiness of the road and approaching night, eggs you on, faster and faster... Up and over the mountains and into TN, you are provided a choice: stay on what is now TN-352 or follow the sign for I-26 by turning right. Wanting the leisure and facilities of an interstate, I choose poorly and ran away from Johnson City and deeper into the night until I could see I-26 up on the ridge line. Excited to be out (and hopefully at a gas station) I raced up the mountain roads, zigzagging my way up to the interstate only to find myself not at an exit, but an underpass for more road South. Duped, I had to keep going south to hit NC-exit 3, before spending another 40 minutes going back North on I-26. I was down to fuel gauge's last bar when I made the hotel exit around 7:30pm.
When morning showed up I knew it was not a day to get an early start:
Starbucks is a short walk across the Mall's parking lot. Even taking my time until until 9, I found the bike wouldn't start... It was just too cold. Thankfully the lithium Shorai Battery doesn't spend all its energy up front and then give up its ghost like a lead acid battery, but continues to dig deep until cold gives way to fire.
I would have enjoyed some of that engine heat, but there was none to be had during the 80-mile interstate run up to catch VA-42 eastwards. The Back of the Dragon was only 20 more miles up I-81, but with this being the last full run of the year, I really wanted to gun down VA-42 and US-220 for closure.
I had thought that with it being Sunday, the two lane road could potentially be frustrated by Sunday Schooled drivers emptying out en masse while still lost in the rapture of Hymn and Psalm...
but emptiness was my karma
At its end, VA-42 reaches its crescendo as it plummets to New Castle, where VA-311 repays your drive through town with a spirited sprint up through the mountains of the Jefferson National Forrest. Almost to the summit I came up on a few cars being lead slowly by a first generation Ford Fiesta.
No point in fighting fate, especially with there being a picnic table right in the middle of the last switchback upwards (which is positioned to my back in the photo above).
Here you can catch some sun:
Or ponder the picnic table's surface and its apparent loss of purpose:
When I decided to get back on it, the road was all mine all the way down to I-64. After the picnic table switchback, kick your motor in the guts and enjoy almost straight line acceleration up to the top of the mountain where the sharp-left "15-mph" sign signals the start of your descent.
From there one exit west on I-64 is WV-92. 92 is an effortless joy that gradually gains elevation through a wide flat farm valley until you intersect WV-39. WV-39 takes away those miles of slow gains with a rapid descent through switchbacks as soon as you go eastward on it. It then darts through valleys and over the mountains forming the WV/VA state line all the way into Warm Springs. There are a few passing opportunities, I took them and it made all the difference. 39 to US-220 north:
220 even edges out 42 as being my favorite sport touring road. Respect for the society that built it may be the only limiting factor.
Up to Franklin, VA, where a bug covered visor required a pitstop. Dinner was also on my mind, but every minute eating was a minute on a dark mountain road somewhere else.
Of course I pressed on, north though Petersburg and Moorefield. Eastward out of Moorefield on US-48, where I was tempted to try to fight my way north back to Berkley Springs, but with the sun already down there would be no sunset victory photo waiting for me this time. Still after Wardensville, WV, there are more mountains to get through before I-81 is reached and playing second place finisher to an aggressive driver of a new F-150 gave me the added sight of his headlights and the deer-plow protection of his grill.
I-81 reached, I knew I was only miles from a hot sandwich and coffee at the Front Royal Starbucks. My homeless appearing presence there seemed incongruent with the traveling family and the, off to a slow start, first date, couple who bracketed me, but exhaustion breeds indifference.
In the night battle of traffic across DC's beltway, speed and a complete disregard for the rearview mirror is the key to progress. Intent evaporated with its purpose served upon reaching MD-32 which then seemed like a victory lap.
Total trip miles: 2226.5.
States ran through: WV, KY, VA, TN, GA, & NC.