Blues Travels

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Deals Gap, NC – To Own The Tail of the Dragon, or Die Trying

Have you ever spoken to someone that was going to die soon? Or maybe you just suspected they would die soon. Do you recall how it felt to talk to that person? Do you have any idea what sort of expression you must have had on your face when you spoke to them? Well, I met several people today who felt like they were talking to a dead man walking. Namely, me.

I had spent most of the day driving through the Great Smokey Mountains in North Carolina, near the Tennessee border. I was on my way to The Tail Of The Dragon at Deals Gap, NC – an eleven mile stretch of road that winds through the Smokey Mountains like a great serpent, throwing 318 hairpin turns at you. Every week, so I have been told, The Dragon claims a victim of one degree or another. Naturally, I had to see if its bite was really as bad as everyone says it is.

Along the way I would stop at this store or that store, and wherever possible I would ask a local just how close I was to The Dragon. I can tell you that the expression on their faces, when they saw the car I was driving and learned I was just about to ride The Dragon at Deals Gap, was priceless to say the least, if not altogether unnerving. It was as if these people had seen my type many times before. You know the type I am talking about, right? : Fast car. Expensive. Shiny. Blinged out and tuned to the max. And behind the wheel? Some hotshot tourist who thinks that because he sits behind the wheel of a high performance car he must automatically be a skilled driver and, as such, a de facto member of the sports car enthusiast club.

Sadly, more often than not drivers of this sort are destined to enter the mouth of The Dragon at one end, only to be gobbled up, swallowed whole and excreted like so much fecal matter out the other end, barely able to limp home in a nearly totaled sports car; or even worse, severely injured or killed because they overestimated their driving skills, taunted The Dragon and assumed supremacy, when they should have been in awe of its demanding slingshot turns, and feared The Dragon instead. Melodrama. Don’t you just love it!

I am sure this is how I must have looked to each person that directed me closer and closer to my destination. Or was it my destiny? I would soon find out.

I ended up on Route 28, the scenic road that leads up to a huge junction; a fork in the road that splits into US 129, North and South. To tackle The Dragon, you really need to stop at Deals Gap Motor Cycle Resort. The resort is nestled right there at the mouth of ( entrance to ) The Dragon. One would be wise to rest for a spell. Because you can trust me when I tell you that you have no idea what you are in for. The trees and mountains that loom large in front of you hide The Dragon, concealing all manner of treachery and trickery that Gandolf himself would marvel at. The wise man would do good to spend a few moments in quiet repose, perhaps praying for guidance and protection, as I did. And for that that matter, it would be wise to go ahead and make up your mind to continue praying all the way through The Dragon, and do not stop until you reach the other side. I am serious. This is not to be taken lightly, for it will soon dawn on you that you are playing with your life, and The Dragon is no place for the timid or undecided.

In addition, if you plan on testing The Dragon, you had damn well better be damn sure your equipment is up to the task. I cannot stress this point enough. Skill is one thing, but you need to know what to expect of your car or bike when you place a demand on it.

Now, while it is not my intention to offend anyone, I need to say that some folks that are on The Dragon really should not be. You know who you are. If you are driving a huge pick up truck, please stay home. If you are driving a Mazda Miata, either drive around your country club or stay home. If you are over the age of 65, drive a Cadillac and are concerned about fuel economy and seeing the sights, go drive the Blue Ridge Parkway, or stay home. Finally, if you are driving a Honda Civic with a tank of Nitrous Oxide, and all you are use to doing is burning up the local Wal-Mart parking lots, shut up and stay home.

The Dragon demands the best equipment money can buy. It demands the best tires in the world. It demands the best suspensions. It demands excellent brakes. It demands superb transmissions. And finally, and most importantly, The Dragon demands skill.

If you have no real driving experience with the type of twists and turns that yank your innards in three different directions at once, then stay home and be content with driving up and down your local main street, trying in vain to impress chics with your fast rice picker or your cheap Honda Civic, complete with its glass muffler; because that is the best you will ever be and the most you should ever aspire to. Outside of that, get some experience in your local mountains and on some country roads before you tackle The Dragon.

Let me be very clear. If you decide to tackle The Dragon in anything less than what I have described to you, especially with little driving experience, and you choose to be wreckless, you are asking for trouble and you may end up totaling a car, getting hurt or even getting killed or worse yet, hurting someone else. Do not be a fool. Do not risk your life or someone elses life just to be cool. If you do this, you are no different than the habitual drunk driver that insists on driving while intoxicated. I have no sympathy for what happens to those people. My heart goes out only to those people unfortunate enough to be victims of offenders like that. Be equipped. Be prepared.

[ Editors Note: I have been told I am being over dramatic and mean spirited in my comments. I have been told I am exaggerating and embellishing. If someone thinks that, it makes me wonder just how they drive The Dragon. Have they no respect for the road? Do they over estimate their abilities? I just believe in telling it like I see it. I know some will find my writing style “over the top”. Others will simply not like it at all. Still, some will get what I am trying to say. I believe in that people should go into The Dragon over prepared, rather than under prepared.

Just one for the record, I can appreciate what it is like to be skilled at doing a particular thing, and doing it as though it were second nature to you, only to have someone else come along, do that same thing that is so second nature to you, and then marvel at how challenging said thing is to them.

It could very well be that all of my critics are superb drivers and have driving skills that far exceed my own. And maybe The Dragon is not very challenging for any of them. Maybe it did not make them sweat all that much, if at all. Maybe it did not stand out in their minds as being all that it was hyped up to be, simply because they are so good behind the wheel. Maybe I just suck as a driver, and The Dragon really is a safe road to navigate “if you are just careful”.

Then again, maybe not. The trouble with the above position is that no matter how careful you are and how slowly you drive The Dragon, there will always be someone coming behind you, or at you, who is not driving slowly. That is why I say that when you drive The Dragon, you risk your life. There is no way around it. One look at The Tree Of Woe, as I call it, attests to the brutality of The Dragon.

For those of you not familiar with Deals Gap Motor Cycle Resort, The Tree Of Woe is a huge tree in front of the resort with wreckage debris hanging from it. And the tree is FULL. I am going to take a picture of it. Each tire, each wheel, every piece of scrap metal, belonged to a biker or a driver that thought everyone was exaggerating the treachery of The Dragon. Either that, or they encountered a traveler who underestimated the dangers of this road.

Just go right ahead and continue to mock me. And make sure you let me know when you will be driving The Dragon next, so I can be sure to stay home that day.]

My point is this: even the best drivers with the best equipment have accidents or meet their maker on The Dragon. With inferior equipment and inferior skills, your chances of causing an accident or being involved in one increase exponentially. Understand? Good. So, on with The Dragon.

I took four runs on The Dragon. My first run was introductory. I wanted to get a feel for it. Thankfully, I had logged some 800 miles on Route 130 in Monroe VA, so I was more prepared for The Dragon than I initially realized. Route 130 is brutal with some fantastic twisty’s, but it clocks in at a modest 6 miles, as opposed to the 11 miles found on The Dragon.

The curves of The Dragon are also more abrupt than anything I have ever encountered, and that’s the one thing you cannot prepare for. These turns are very, very aggressive and sharp. There is no room for error, especially in a car. What is great about the roads is that every inside turn has a nice amount of interior asphalt to play with, with the idea being that when you take an inside turn, you want to be able to hug the inside of the road as much as possible, staying away from the double yellow lines. The blind, outside turns are much, much trickier to negotiate, however, and they will fool you with the way in which the can loop around and head in the opposite direction so quickly.

You have to hug the OUTside of the curve in those instances ( the white line ). The tendency is to want to hug the inside, double yellow line because otherwise you fear going off the side of the mountain or into a mountain wall made of solid rock. And believe me, that does happen. But you cannot afford to stay too close to the yellow lines, because more often than not, two sport bikes will be lined up side by side, leaned over at a wicked angle and taking most if not all of your inside track, forcing you to the outside of your lane. So, the trick is to stay as close to the white line of an outside curve as is possible, without going over it. Do this as a matter of course; as a matter of safety preparedness. Of course, in order to do this, you risk losing your passenger side tires off the shoulder of the road. And this happens a lot. If that happens to you, fuggedaboutit! You are done for the day, and maybe for good.

Another terrific feature of The Dragon is the duration of the ride. Route 130 always ended too soon for me. But The Dragon will leave you out of breath when it is through with you. It is very cathartic, if not frightening, to complete the run when you are pushing the envelope even slightly, as I did. I did it in 16 minutes. Most bikers can do it in 12. And some, if they are good, can do it in less than 10 minutes.

This owes to the fact that the smaller bikes can whip around cars in an instant and continue on down the road to a record time. In a car, it’s nearly impossible to pass someone, so if you are lucky there will be slow pokes in front of you. Otherwise, if you get caught behind someone driving as though they are going to their own funeral, you just have to wait them out and hope that they pull over and let you pass. Actually, this is good advice for all of us, on any day, regardless of where we happen to be traveling.

As an aside, I have always felt that when I worked out it was a good idea to leave a little bit of yourself untested. To go into the gym, day in and day out, maxing out your full potential on every set, was a good way to get injured. At the same time, you always want to come close to reaching full maximum effort. That is how I approached The Dragon.

I did not want to puss out and just putter through the twisty’s as though I were taking baby steps, but at the same time I did not want to get in over my head and get into a situation I was not able to get out of. So, where was the balance?

My game plan was simple: I would push myself to the stretching point when I found myself in a situation that was safe; for example, when no bikers were coming at me and I had an inside curve to take. Also, I stayed in the low gears, never venturing out of 3rd gear more than twice and staying mostly in 2nd and 3rd gear for much of The Dragon. This gave me plenty of power when I needed it and the ability to use the gears and engine to slow me down when the turns were tighter than a ticks ear.

The end result was four runs where I left no unfinished business. I went into The Dragon, and came out of The Dragon, four times, having fully explored the outer boundaries of my skill level, without crossing over into an area where I had no skill, or where no amount of skill could save me. Moreover, I did not drive in a way that endangered others. I took no chances that placed others and myself at risk. There was not a single turn that I did not approach perfectly, save for a handful ( three to four curves), and in those instances my tires and suspension, and God, saved my life. Period. The R32 is one fantastic driving machine. I do not see how it could be better.

If you like to drive, and if like to test your skills without breaking them, then you need to make The Dragon your benchmark. But before you do, get a lot of miles under your belt in the car you will use on The Dragon. Make sure the car is tuned, and equipped, properly. Have your wits about you. Say your prayers. And own The Dragon.

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November 7, 2004 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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