This article tells the story of my attempting to avoid reliving the tragedy of the September 11 attacks a year earlier. I (Kel) take my Nighthawk 750 on the road to snare the Dragon.

9/11 Anniversary Tour--2002

As the one year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC approached, I decided to take a little 4-day motorcycle trip through some of the scenic portions of Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. Being a resident of the DC area, the cowardly attacks on 9/11 hit a bit close to home. As the anniversary approached, I realized that I didn't want to relive that horrible day in the way that the news media would likely portray it, but rather I wanted to simply go out to see part of America.

There are many interesting motorcycle destinations that are an easy day or two ride from my home in Northern Virginia--the hardest part was to settle on one! OK, really, it wasn't all that difficult when push came to shove. From the time I got back into motorcycling in 2001 I've heard about this mystical place called Deal's Gap, the home of the "Dragon." Reports were that it is a motorcyclist's nirvana and so "riding the Dragon" became the focal point of the trip. The focal point, but, as it turned out, not the highlight. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I spent the week preceding 9/11/2002 mapping out my anticipated route as well as making sure that my 1999 Nighthawk 750 was properly prepped. I bought some apples and beef jerky, which I planned to wash down with water, to serve as lunches and snacks while on the road. I packed and re-packed everything, trying to find an optimal ordering. Even though I only figured to be on the road for 4 days (3 nights), this would be the longest trip I'd taken on a motorcycle since a trip through Michigan with my brother in 1985. Also, it was to serve as a trial run for longer trips that I intended to take in future years. Since I was staying in motels each of the three nights (this became the "Comfort Inn Tour of 2002"), I didn't need to worry about bringing a tent, sleeping bag, or any other camping equipment.

Finally the night before the trip arrived! Everything was in readiness--all I needed was to get a good night of sleep and I'd be ready to go. Forecasters were calling for the potential of slightly dodgy weather throughout the route that I'd planned, but I went to bed that night with the hope that everything would clear up, or at least not rain heavily, for the entire trip. Below you will find each of the 4 days of my adventure, as well as a table with some of the statistical highlights.


DAY 1
I had intended to get a good night of sleep in anticipation of an early morning departure, but instead the desire to hit the road led to a rather restless night. Eventually, after a couple of hours of fading in and out of sleep, I decided to stop fighting it, got up, and prepared to depart. Weather forecasters were calling for mostly cloudy skies along my route, and the temperature at my departure was 60 degrees. Regardless of the weather, I was going to have a beautiful day of motorcycling! I had a light breakfast, packed the bike, and donned my protective gear. After starting my Garmin eMap (GPS), I grinned to myself and rolled out of the parking lot at 5:45 a.m. I was off!

I always have this strange mix of anxiety and anticipation when traveling (whether by motorcycle or otherwise). Why anxiety? Questions always pop into my head. Have I forgotten anything (important)? Were my bike preparations (if traveling on the motorcycle) sufficient? Will I enjoy decent weather? Can I deal with any emergencies that might possibly come up? Other similar doubts creep in. Just after I set out, though, thoughts of the "great adventure beyond" begin to crowd out the doubts and questions, and after a few minutes I begin to smile to myself and to consider all the fun I'm about to have!

Day One Map
I spent the first hour or so leaving behind the major population center where I live (the Washington, DC area). Already at this hour of the morning traffic was beginning to back up in certain areas--it was nice to know I wouldn't have to deal with that problem for a few days! Eventually I cleared the major traffic areas and found myself riding South on US-29 towards Charlottesville, VA and in the general direction of Waynesboro, the Northern entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP). (As an aside: I really don't consider Skyline Drive (the roadway that winds through the Shenandoah National Park) to be part of the BRP even though the Southern entrance to Skyline Drive is located at the Northern entrance to the BRP.) The closer I came to the BRP, the more the sun began to peak out from behind the clouds--things were starting to come together!

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After refueling in Waynesboro, I hit the Parkway. For those of you unfortunates who haven't been able to ride the BRP, it is a two-lane (one in each direction) stretch of roadway that winds about 470 miles along the ridges of the Blue Ridge mountains from the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. Commercial vehicles are prohibited on the Parkway, meaning the pavement is generally very good. While the speed limit is a somewhat low 45 mph, there are plenty of curves, elevation changes, and scenic views to keep things interesting even if one stays generally within the speed limit. During my two stints on the Parkway, I found the traffic to be very light (of course it was mid-week in September, YMMV).

The views along the BRP are simply spectacular. I found myself torn between wanting to stop at every scenic overlook and enjoying the sweeping left and right curves too much to stop! There were several occasions where I had to remind myself to focus on my riding rather than my gawking as I'd nearly run off the road while staring at something. There are no shoulders on either side of the roadway, so there is less margin for error than one typically has. Also, within my first 20 miles of travel along the Parkway I saw three deer, one of which bolted across the road in front of me. Although I didn't actually see any deer during the rest of my Parkway riding, I was very alert to the possibility of animal "intrusions" into my riding zone.

One of the things that motorcyclists get to experience that those enclosed in autos don't are sudden temperature changes. All along the Parkway, as it would dip into a valley or climb the side of a mountain, I would experience sudden increases or decreases in the temperature. For some reason, these unanticipated temperature fluctuations always brought a smile to my face. Also, the smells along the Parkway (various types of trees, "smelling the rain" before it actually hit, etc.) are missed by those in autos I think. These are but two of the sensations one experiences on a bike that are important to me.

After about 120 miles of deliciously exciting riding and enjoying the atmosphere of the BRP, I exited onto US-220 North at Roanoke, VA and found my way to US-11 South. US-11 parallels (or runs concurrently with) I-81 for much of Virginia. Rather than take the superslab, I decided to follow US-11 at a relaxed pace. It was my vacation, after all! After gassing up in Salem, VA, I continued South. US-11 travels through the towns of Elliston, Christiansburg, Radford, Dublin, and Pulaski before connecting up with I-81 for a 15-mile or so run to Wytheville, my first day's destination. I have to admit that I'm fascinated by the old US Highway system. One sees so many more interesting parts of this great country from the US Highways than one does when cruising along on an interstate. Unless I absolutely, positively need to be somewhere by a specific time, you'll generally find me riding along a US highway rather than an interstate.

I pulled into the Comfort Inn in Wytheville around 3:00 p.m. After picking up the room key, I unloaded the bike, performed a little routine maintenance on the bike, took a shower and unwound a bit. I planned in advance for the first day to be rather short (around 340 miles) by most folks' standards. It had been nearly 20 years since I'd taken a multi-day tour on a motorcycle, and I wasn't sure exactly how my body would respond. As it turns out, I could have ridden farther/longer, but why push it--I was on vacation! The Comfort Inn didn't have a restaurant, so I walked down the road to a little strip mall that had a Ruby Tuesdays and celebrated my first day on the road with a nice steak. After dinner I jotted down some of my experiences, recharged the batteries for the camera and GPS, and did a little light reading. By 10 p.m. I was asleep and dreaming of Day Two's journey. Day One of my 9/11 anniversary tour had been very good!


DAY 2
After a night of good sleep, I arose early to begin day two of my adventure. I've always been an "early to bed, early to rise" sort of guy, so getting up at 5:30 a.m. to be on the road by 6:30 a.m. or so was never a problem. The Weather Channel said the temperature in the area was 46 degrees and provided hope for sunny skies later in the day, though it was an overcast start from Wytheville. After filling with gas (using a complimentary gas card provided by the Comfort Inn!), I set out in earnest for parts South.

My plan called for a trip across the state of North Carolina, a dip into the Northwest corner of South Carolina, and a swing through the Northeast corner of Georgia before ending back up in the Southwest corner of North Carolina. See my Day Two Map map for an overview of the route. My two main goals for the day were to add three more states to the list of states I'd visited on my Nighthawk and to end the day in North Carolina near the Cherohala Skyway and the Dragon.

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I followed US-21 South from Wytheville. This would have been a really fun road except for two things--gravel in many of the corners and patches of dense fog. As it was, US-21 was just a fun road! I wound my way up and down several hills and crossed through a couple of neat valleys (at least as far as the patchy fog would let me see) before crossing into North Carolina. Just inside the North Carolina border, I turned right onto US-221 South. The early parts of US-221 were pretty rough. The road undulated as it passed over hills and through dales on its way through North Carolina farmland, but the pavement was really broken up in many spots and the road was very narrow. In fact, there were times when I thought I'd somehow missed a turn and was no longer on a US Highway, only to see a sign indicating that I was indeed still on US-221. Eventually, the road conditions improved and it became much more enjoyable. After a bit, I hopped back onto the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile 281 (measured from the Northern entrance in Virginia) and rode until the first scenic overlook where I pulled over to eat something and to warm up. It was still pretty chilly in the mountains! 15 or so miles down the road I exited the BRP for good and continued South on US-221 towards South Carolina.

I don't really have much to say about my brief time in South Carolina other than that I was there. Near Spartanburg, SC, I jumped onto I-85 West for the quick run to Greenville. I was very glad to eventually get off of I-85 because the combination of heavy truck traffic and construction made it even less fun than the typical interstate run. I navigated my way through Greenville and onto US-123 West, which I followed all the way to Clemson, SC. At Clemson, US-76 branched off to the Northwest and I followed on towards the Northeast corner of Georgia.

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Parts of the ride along US-76 in South Carolina were OK (like the ride through the Sumter National Forest in the Northwest part of the state), but the real fun didn't begin until I entered Georgia. US-76 through the Northeast part of Georgia is an excellent motorcycle road. Very high quality pavement, curves of both the sweeping and tight, technical varieties, elevation changes, and pretty scenery (including mountain lakes) all combined to make it a very nice ride! I had a great deal of fun just swooping back and forth, getting into a rhythm as I concentrated on following the winding ribbon of pavement. In Clayton, GA, I stopped for break and to have a malt at a Dairy Queen as the temperatures had climbed into the 80s in bright sunshine. Refreshed, I continued my assault on US-76 until I reached the town of Hiawassee. Just beyond Hiawassee I bid a fond farewell to US-76 and turned right (North) onto GA-515 (that turned into NC-69 a mile or so later once I'd crossed back into North Carolina).

A short 3- or 4-mile ride North on NC-69 brought me to US-64. US-64 is an interesting highway, running from the North Carolina Atlantic coast to New Mexico. At one point, it was one of the few roadways in the world that actually ran behind a waterfall. Today, a turnout off of US-64 still allows traffic to pass behind/under Bridal Veil Falls. I turned left onto US-64 and headed West, missing out on the opportunity to ride the Nighthawk beneath the falls--maybe next time! A ride of 10 miles or so on a busy US-64 brought me to Murphy, NC and another Comfort Inn, my destination for the day. After checking in, checking the fluids and chain on the bike, and a quick shower, I kicked back to relax. Since I didn't feel like suiting back up and taking the bike around Murphy in search of food, I walked 2 blocks to a Pizza Hut and had a personal pan pizza for dinner. While waiting at the Hut, I jotted down my impressions of the day--thoughts of US-76 through Georgia played prominently in my brain! It had been another good day of riding. Since the folks on the Weather Channel were calling for heavy morning fog, I decided to postpone my start in the morning until 7:30, figuring the fog would have burned off by the time I got to the Cherohala Skyway. Happy expectations of tomorrow's ride filled me as I drifted off to sleep.


DAY 3
After getting up late (for me) at 6:00 a.m., I showered, loaded the bike, checked out the Weather Channel, and wandered down to the "breakfast area" of the Comfort Inn for their complimentary breakfast. I wasn't real impressed with the breakfast spread, so I didn't have much--just a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice. The folks on the Weather Channel indicated that the fog wasn't nearly as heavy as had been predicted, so I headed out a bit earlier than originally intended, pulling out of the parking lot at 7:15. Little did I realize at that point that I was going to have a greater adventure than I expected!

I have the map for Day Three broken down into multiple segments--the trip to the Cherohala Skyway, the Cherohala Skyway section of the ride, the Dragon section of the ride, and the run from the Dragon segment to the hotel. I expected the ride from Murphy, NC to the beginning of the Cherohala Skyway in Tellico Plains, TN to be relatively straightforward. According to Streets and Trips, NC-1325 runs from Murphy to the Tennessee border where it becomes the Joe Brown Highway until it intersects with TN-68. It looked to be an interesting road through the mountains between Murphy and Tellico Plains. The first 15 or so miles were nice, winding pavement through the North Carolina countryside. However, as I rounded a switchback curve, I came upon something I wasn't expecting. The pavement disappeared and was replaced by gravel, relatively deep gravel with large stones. In addition, the road split in two, with one segment running up the side of a hill and disappearing into the woods, the other continuing on around the lower part of the hill. The markings seemed to indicate that the Joe Brown Highway continued around the lower part of the hill. I figured that I was less than 5 miles from the Tennessee border and hoped that the pavement would resume at that point. So I set off (slowly) through the gravel, figuring it would be an added part of the adventure. What little I knew...

After winding my way up and down mountains and around curves for what seemed like forever but was probably only 3 or 4 miles, I came to a "T" intersection where I had to turn either right or left. You can see the intersection (the red oval) in this enlargement of that section of the map. There were absolutely no markings to indicate which direction NC-1325 went nor was there any signage to indicate which direction the Joe Brown Highway ran. You can see from the little popup map that NC-1325 apparently runs both directions! In fact, it loops around upon itself while at the same time running on to the Tennessee border. The signage folks in North Carolina are not my favorite people in the world. My GPS was little help since the mountains roads wind around so much that simply going the direction of Tennessee was no guarantee that the road ultimately went in that direction. Eventually, I decided to turn to the right (the direction the GPS indicated should lead me to Tennessee). In retrospect, had I headed left, I probably would have been in Tennessee within a couple of miles and everything would have been fine. However...

After another 4 or 5 miles on gravel roads, I was beginning to feel a bit anxious. I was in territory where, had I dropped the bike and slid down a hillside, my body might never be found. The deep gravel was really tough to ride in with my Nighthawk, and there were sections of the road that were pretty steep, steep enough that I was afraid to stop lest I not be able to keep my balance or to start moving again in the gravel. I wasn't really having fun at that point. I just wanted to get back to civilization and pavement. After about 1.5 hours of gravel riding (that indicates how slowly I was going), I rounded a bend and started down a hill. Suddenly, I saw pavement! WooHoo! As I pulled to a stop on the pavement to get my bearings, I realized that I was at the switchback curve where I originally encountered the gravel roadway an hour and a half earlier! 1.5 hours to go nowhere, but I didn't care because I was back on pavement! I hightailed it back to Murphy to rethink the whole journey to Tellico Plains. After filling the bike with gas and consulting my maps, I decided on this route. As I mentioned in the Day Two writeup, US-64 is a nice road. The portion between Murphy and the Tennessee border is a four-lane highway that winds through the hills. Just inside the Tennessee border, I headed North on TN-68 (designated a scenic byway). TN-68 was a great road, winding through the countryside. There weren't many elevation changes, but it was a nice road nonetheless. I did encounter a bit of traffic at times, but nothing serious. As I was already nearly 2 hours behind schedule, I just sort of wrote off hurrying and simply enjoyed a nice ride up to Tellico Plains, TN.

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Tellico Plains is the Western starting point for the Cherohala Highway which, after all was said and done, was my favorite stretch of roadway for this entire trip. The Cherohala runs 48 miles from Tellico Plains to Robbinsville, NC through the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests. It has many high-speed sweepers mixed with some slower curves, elevation changes (the highest point along the Cherohala Skyway is at nearly one mile above sea level, while the lowest point is at only 900 feet above sea level), scenic overlooks, and moves through a large area containing very few signs of civilization. There was very little traffic the Friday that I rode the Cherohala, though I heard that it could be very busy on weekends. While not nearly as famous as its next door neighbor, the Dragon, I enjoyed my journey over the Cherohala Skyway immensely! I stopped frequently early in the ride to soak in the views, as the pictures to the left will indicate. As I got further along the Skyway, though, I found myself stopping less and less as I got into swooping to the left and then quickly swooping to the right in a rhythm with the road. I was amazed by the changeable weather--many parts of the Skyway were bathed in bright sunshine, while other parts were shrouded in clouds and rather gloomy. All of it was beautiful, though! There were some sights on offshoots that I neglected to visit because of my later-than-expected arrival--it really is a magnificient stretch of roadway that deserves more time than I gave it. I will be back, however...:-)

I stopped to take a break in Robbinsville and enjoyed a little snack. Also, I wanted to have a little time to let the glow from the Cherohala Skyway subside before taking on the Dragon (US-129). I was a little concerned about the Dragon--it has a reputation as a sportbike, hellbent-on-scraping-the-pegs sort of road. I didn't intend to go rocketing up 129, however, as I wasn't familiar with the road and peg-scraping just isn't my style on public highways. I didn't want to be the guy at the front of the line who was holding everyone up, though! My worries were mostly groundless as it turned out that I wasn't the one holding up the line...

My journey along US-129 would take me from Robbinsville, NC North to where US-129 intersects with US-411 near Maryville, TN. On the popup map for this segment of Day Three's ride, the Dragon lies between the two red lines that intersect US-129. However, I enjoyed nearly all of the ride along 129 as I found it to be an interesting roadway. The bottom picture to the left is the only photo I took along US-129--I was too busy enjoying the roadway leading up to the Dragon to take any snapshots, and there are a lack of turnouts or other places to pull off. I did stop at the Motorcycle Resort at Deal's Gap to take some photos and to buy a couple of t-shirts, but then I was off to ride the Dragon. Talk about non-stop excitement! For the first 3 miles or so of my ride along the Dragon there were a nearly continuous stream of turns, tight, very technical turns. I was concentrating intently on being smooth and hitting good lines through all the corners while watching intently to make sure that oncoming traffic didn't surprise me by being in my lane around the many (blind) corners. About three miles in, I caught up to a car that was following a truck pulling a boat on a trailer. Both were moving pretty slowly, or at least more slowly than I wanted to. Along the Dragon, there were no areas where I felt safe passing that coincided with no oncoming traffic. Hence, I followed that truck and car for the rest of the Dragon...:-( By the time we got to the end, there were probably 15 other impatient bikers and I who were wondering why the guy with the truck and the boat hadn't used any of the turnouts to let the rest of us pass. At any rate, it still was an impressive stretch of road, especially for a US highway! I plan to go back to the Robbinsville, NC area and spend more time exploring the Cherohala Skyway and the Dragon.

After riding the Dragon, I followed US-129 until it intersected with US-411. I took a right (North) on US-411, filled up with gas near Maryville, and headed on towards Bristol, VA. I ran into heavy "Dollywood" traffic near Sevierville, TN and generally heavier traffic as I made my way along US-411 to US-11 to I-181 to I-81 to Bristol. It was Friday evening and the weekend "escape the city" traffic was intense, at times. However, I eventually made it to Bristol. After filling up with gas, I arrived at the Comfort Inn at around 6 p.m., my longest day (time-wise) of the trip. My two-hour aborted start from Murphy was a bit costly in that I spent the rest of the day hurrying along, but I still enjoyed it! Just after I unpacked the bike, rain started to come down. Not feeling like scouting around in the rain in an unfamiliar city for someplace to eat, I just ordered a Domino's Pizza (the only place that would deliver to the Comfort Inn), kicked back in my room, and jotted down some of my thoughts/impressions from the day. The Weather Channel was calling for more and heavier rainfall moving up from Southwest of Bristol for tomorrow (Saturday). Since it wasn't supposed to start until after 7 a.m. in the morning, I resolved to get an early start to try to stay ahead of the rain.


DAY 4
I arose at 4:30 a.m. in order to get an early start for the race up I-81 to try to stay ahead of the rain moving into the area. By 5:30 I had showered, loaded the bike, and checked out of the Comfort Inn. I decided to forego breakfast and to simply hop onto I-81 North for the ride home. Traffic on I-81 North was light at that time of the morning, and I made good time. In fact, for the first three hours of the ride, I was able to maintain a high (for me) average speed albeit at the expense of gas mileage. Prior to sunrise, the weather ranged from mostly clear to somewhat foggy to raining lightly. All the while, I was zooming up I-81, staying just ahead of the weather front chasing me from behind. Once the sun came up, I was able to enjoy some of the views from I-81 as it wound through the highlands of Western Virginia. Or at least as much as one is able to enjoy any scenery while travelling along an interstate highway. After a quick stop for gas and a snack North of Roanoke, VA, I continued my flight North.

Eventually I reached the New Market exit where US-211 heads East towards Washington, DC. There is an interesting website where the owner documents the signage present at the beginning and ending of nearly every US Highway. Prior to my trip, I noticed that he didn't have any signage for the Western end of US-211 from New Market, VA. So after I exited from I-81, I found where US-211 East started in New Market and took some photos of the signs there. He incorporated a couple of these photos into his website--cool! After a free breakfast/lunch at McDonald's (courtesy of the Comfort Inn), I headed East on US-211.

US-211 is relatively short for a US Highway (only about 60 miles long), but has an interesting section where it rises quickly in elevation in order to cross over the Skyline Drive and then dives back down to the Virginia Piedmont on the Eastern side of the Blue Ridge mountains. The ride up and down the Blue Ridge on US-211 consists of segments of winding roadway interrupted by hairpin curves! The 10 miles or so of this ride are very nice and served as a good punctuation mark to a great trip!

Once on the Eastern side of the Blue Ridge mountains, I just took the most direct route home. I ran into increasing traffic the closer I came to the DC area, traffic that served as a reminder about why it was so nice to get away to Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee! I rolled into my driveway around noon, washed the chain (it still had remnants of my gravel road adventure in North Carolina on it) and the bike, and began getting back into my normal routine. All the while, though, great thoughts of the interesting/exciting/wonderful things I'd seen during my 9/11 tour kept filtering in. I can't wait to visit some of those areas again!


TRIP STATS

Tale of the Tape--Trip Stats

Category

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Aggregate/Average

Miles
339.9
358.3
369.7
355.4
1423.3
Moving Average
48.4
47.9
40.1
62.9
48.49
Overall Average
38.7
36.6
33.8
55.6
39.66
Maximum Speed
76.8
80.6
79.1
82.7
N/A
Stopped Time
1:46:27
2:18:28
1:42:50
0:44:18
6:32:03
Moving Time
7:01:07
7:28:26
9:12:36
5:38:55
29:21:04
Total Time
8:47:33
9:46:53
10:55:26
6:23:14
35:53:07
MPG
50.65
52.46
49.07
43.34
48.88
High MPG
53.95
53.84
54.09
46.06
N/A
Low MPG
47.24
40.31
44.20
41.05
N/A
Fuel Cost
$6.62
$10.44
$9.98
$10.03
$37.07
Food & Lodging
$88.45
$78.89
$81.60
$2.48
+ $31.84 ("Dragon" t-shirts) = $283.26


Copyright 2003 by Kel U.

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