Shamrock Tour® - Bryson City, North Carolina

Text: Chris Myers • Photography: Chris Myers, Kathy Myers

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.

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.

The Gap: A++

Our second day breaks much brighter and we both have java on the brain. During our stroll about town last evening, Kathy and I discovered Mountain Perks Espresso Bar and Café just across from the Great Smoky Mountain Railway depot. After downing cappuccinos, we don our armor, mount up, and head off in search of a Dragon. Peeling off of 19-74, we get a little warm-up on the sinuous Route 28 and then steer toward our meeting with that infamous section of Route one-two-nine.

Our first stop is the convenience store at the Deal's Gap Motorcycle Resort, strategically perched at the tip of the serpent's twisty tail. We never pass on opportunities to add another refrigerator magnet to our collection, and they have plenty. After exchanging pleasantries with some other riders and downing a bottle of water, we begin our hunt in earnest. Perhaps the most famous 11 miles of motorcycling bliss in the United States, the Tail of the Dragon is actually a section of Highway 129 hugging the southwestern tip of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. This marvelously engineered ribbon of asphalt rockets riders side to side 318 times in those 11 miles, and the deep, shady forest that arches over the pavement gives the journey an oddly mystical quality. And the best part is there are no buildings, driveways, or cross streets to muck up the works. This being Kathy's first trip to the Gap, she's none too happy when we're slowed by a pickup and trailer combination. After my explanation that Route 129 is a public highway, open to all vehicles and not just sport-riding enthusiasts, she takes back most of her expletives and insists we go back and do it again before continuing on. Yes boss, no problem - which works out to 954 curves in 33 miles. Now that's an arithmetic lesson I can easily understand.

The Dragon is a mecca for riders and machines of all types from all over the country, and it's certainly worth the journey. Just remember, this is an extremely technical bit of road and can be dicey, especially on weekends when it's more crowded. Always exercise restraint and, by all means, ride your own ride.

Those three white-knuckled runs across the serpent's fiery spine have the adrenaline pumps working overtime. Timing is on our side though, as our next leg has us traversing a perfect decompression chamber, the Foothills Parkway. This stretch begins almost where the Dragon ends and weaves a gentle path through the western foothills of the Smokies. The sweeping bends and absence of traffic relax us and the views from the overlooks, especially those facing the Tennessee Valley to the west, are impressive. By the time we head back east on Route 321 for the return run to Bryson City, snacks, frosty beverages and the two rockers on the porch are utmost on our minds.

The Old Favorite: A+

Caffeine's hot and foamy siren song, along with cheddar-and-jalapeno bagels slathered in veggie spread, lure us back to the cafe. Fueled and stoked, we hit the road. In Cherokee, running the gauntlet of tacky, but fun souvenir stands overflowing with "genuine Native American crafts" never fails to amuse us. Try as we may, it's hard to picture the Cherokee Nation's elders handing down the ancient secrets of patiently crafting plastic snow-globes and pink, feathered key chains that look suspiciously like roach clips. But once we pass through the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park on Highway 441, the kitsch disappears and nature makes a grand reappearance. Deep, nearly impenetrable stands of oak, maple, and mountain laurel drape gurgling streams and splashing waterfalls. Deer graze nonchalantly at the far end of small clearings and road signs indicate that black bears are about. Reaching the breezy summit of the 5,448-foot Newfound Gap, we note that the trees have yet to sprout their summer leaves even though it's already May.

On the west side of the park, the Triumph noses toward a rendezvous with another section of Route 321. Rolling slowly through the tourist-choked town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, we pick our way through a manmade valley of tall buildings strangled with neon lights, primary colors, and varieties of signage all designed to separate unwitting vacationers from their hard-earned greenbacks. Never have we seen so many pancake and steak houses duking it out for supremacy on the buffet battlefield. And judging by the depressing number of MTV fashion disasters waddling the sidewalks, business is good.

After a couple of thick, juicy burgers at Tucker's Main Street Cafe in Newport, we begin the return trip. The easy bends of Route 25 follow the French Broad River to the small town of Hot Springs just over the North Carolina border. This eclectic little crossroads is as popular a waypoint for hikers on the nearby Appalachian Trail as it is a rest stop for area motorcyclists and river runners. Having spent many an afternoon here years ago, we barely slow down making the familiar turn south on Route 209. This great, old byway hasn't lost a bit of charm, right down to its the notoriously gravel-strewn hairpins. Concentration can't lapse for a second here. The same precipitous drop-offs that offer stunning views of the deep valleys below can swallow bike and rider in the blink of an eye. Stay focused. From decreasing radii to wicked curves ringing sheer rock faces, the road flings one challenge after another. On pillion, Kathy is working just as hard as I am until the winding tarmac abruptly straightens out and offers a much-needed breather through Spring Creek. Then, as quickly as it started, the asphalt whirlpool sucks us in for another good thrashing across Betsy Gap before slowly winding down into Lake Junaluska. Yeah, there are many reasons why this road has always been at the top of the list.

The Parkway: A-

We awaken to another whitish sky, but this time real clouds and not morning fog obscure the blue. It's gotten significantly cooler too. When riding these hills, it's good policy to be prepared for any weather condition. We layer up and head toward Cherokee and the terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Almost immediately the climb begins and the temperatures fall. Laden with numerous pullouts and boasting altitudes climbing to over 6,000 feet, this historic route offers countless views of the Appalachian Mountains' amazing sprawl. And just as we noted around Newfound Gap, many of the trees have yet to sprout their summer garb. At the higher vistas, it's neat to look out across the valleys and see the demarcation line between foliage and bare branches with the late-spring greenery creeping its way up the slopes. By the time we reach the Richland Balsam Overlook, the highest point on the Parkway at 6,047 feet, Kathy has about had it with the unseasonable chill. And honestly, I'm having a hard time disagreeing. With temperatures now in the 40s, we've achieved the point of true discomfort, despite our layers and liners. Many fabulous views are bypassed as we hunker down and make a beeline for Beech Gap and our ticket off the nippy Blue Ridge. We both heave a great sigh of relief when the sign for Route 215 comes into view.

Normally, this serpentine funfest is quite entertaining, but numb fingers and toes make it difficult to enjoy. After a few miles, the road's decreasing elevation plunges us into what feels like the tropics in comparison, although the mercury is only hovering in the mid-sixties. We stop in a sunny spot to shake off the cold, delighting in the tingle of feeling coming back into our fingers and toes. Times like this truly define the charming unpredictability of motorcycle travel.

Near Rosman, we bear right on Route 64. What should normally be a superb ride has recently fallen prey to more traffic than its glorious curves can handle. An influx of country clubs and luxury vacation developments has stretched the number of blue hairs, white Lincolns, and Florida tags completely out of proportion. The mild summer weather has attracted an unprecedented number of drivers who are incapable of handling the gentlest of mountain curves. No worries though, all along the way, thick groves of rhododendron encircle splashing streams, waterfalls, the small ponds, and tumble over mossy, weathered rock formations. Enjoy the scenery, it's wonderful; but give the cars plenty of leeway, they need it.

After another late lunch of barbecue and sweet tea at the Carolina Smokehouse in Cashiers, we shoot down Route 107 toward Cullowhee and Sylva. The cold morning and four days of intense riding have taken their toll, and we have no qualms about jumping on Route 441, the quick route back to Bryson City.

Oh well, recess is over - and though the bell is sending us back to class (work), we had a blast exorcising a winter of pent-up frustrations. For us, this was our first time out on the playground together after several months inside. OK, there's no grade for recess, but if there were, we started this year with a fat A scrawled across the calendar.