SHADOW ON THE BLUE RIDGE
I knew I was in trouble when I looked up "mid-life crisis" in the dictionary and there was my picture. Divorced a year ago, my only child just turned twenty-one, and now, problems with a new business venture, I desperately needed to escape.
I tried to think back to something I had done in my life that eased my anxiety, something that put me in touch with the side of life that doesn't have to face reality, something that was pure fun. The only activity that had ever filled that prescription for me was motorcycling.
I hadn't owned a bike in more than ten years. But my younger brother had a Honda Shadow 800. And, after what he had done to a few of my vehicles in his younger days, I figured he still owed me. I called and asked if I could borrow his bike for a few days. He reluctantly agreed. Little did he know that it would be five days and 1,500 miles before he would see me or his bike again.
I had a dream at one point in my life of riding the Blue Ridge Parkway from one end to the other. The Parkway runs from Waynesboro, Virginia south through the Great Smoky Mountains to Cherokee, North Carolina. It's 469 miles without a signal light, stop sign, or any commercial traffic, just some of the most beautiful scenery on God's green earth. Some say that, mile for mile, it has more scenery than any roadway in America.
On the afternoon of the last Tuesday in August I loaded the Shadow with a pack with a few clothes, a sleeping bag, and a small tent. I left my home in Macon, Georgia and headed for Cherokee.
About nine-thirty that night I checked into a small motel, one of those that will allow you to park your bike right in front of your room. I got a good night's sleep, arose early, had a good breakfast, and headed north. A mile or so outside of town I took the turn onto the Blue Ridge. I had only gone a couple of miles before I felt the grin begin to spread across my face. This was what I came for.
The air was crisp and cool, the sunshine sparkling. In the distance on both sides of me were the blue tinted peaks of the Smokies, given their hue by the mists rising from the valleys. Low clouds surrounded some peaks giving them a mystical quality. The Shadow hummed along mile after mile ever rising higher into the mountains.
I rounded a curve and entered the first of many tunnels. The low rumble of the Shadow's engine reverberated off the walls and its instruments glowed in the darkness. I couldn't resist. I beeped the horn.
The speed limit on the Blue Ridge is 45 miles per hour, a somewhat slower pace than most of us are used to, but perfect for taking in the grandeur through which you are traveling. Besides, the option of "hit the ditch" takes on new meaning when the ditch is a thousand feet deep, so a leisurely pace is just fine.
I have heard motorcycling described as flying without leaving the ground. Whoever said that must have ridden the Blue Ridge. The pull of the engine as you ascend a mountain grade is reminiscent of the power you feel in a small plane as it takes off from the runway. Coasting down a mountain recalls the plane in its glide path as it gently settles back to earth. Add this to thousands of feet of open space on each side of you and the illusion is complete.
My only complaint with the Shadow was that its four speed gearbox needed another gear between third and fourth. The engine lugs in fourth at forty-five to fifty-five and in third the rpm's feel just slightly too high. But all in all, with the Shadow's low seat height, and therefore low center of gravity, the bike was made for this road. The bike floated through the turns, powered up the steep grades, and, utilizing lower gears, coasted down without having to rely on the braking system too much at all.
Every few thousand feet there is a pull-off, called an "Overlook" on the signage, from which to stop and view the scenery. The view from the vast majority of these is majestic and provides a wonderful respite from derriere fatigue.
There was practically no traffic on the Parkway and I road for miles without seeing another vehicle. But you still can expect the unexpected. I rounded a curve and there was a helicopter hovering just a few feet off the roadway. A ranger was there to stop traffic and I watched from a distance of only about fifty feet as the ground crew connected the chopper's cable to some logs and then it flew off into the distance to deliver its load.
As I sat waiting I glanced down at the instrument panel and saw the low fuel light shining. Much to my chagrin, I realized I had been so anxious to get started that morning that I had forgotten to top off the tank before leaving. I asked the ranger and he informed me that Mt. Pisgah was the first fuel stop but fortunately it was only about ten miles further on. I made a mental note to not let this happen again. Even though I knew the Shadow's range on reserve was thirty-five miles, it's still disconcerting to ride with that light reminding you of the old adage that the memory is the second thing to go and I forget what the first one is.
Mt. Pisgah is one of several areas on the Blue Ridge that offer a variety of services that can vary from just information and scenery to lodging, food, fuel, camping, picnicking, and hiking trails. Most are staffed by employees of our National Parks Service that are all knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful. One of your first stops should be at any one of the information centers where you can purchase a map of the parkway that points out various stops and points of interest and also details which stops offer which services.
At Mt. Pisgah I fueled and considered exploring some of the sights there. But it was still early and I came here to ride, so I headed on up the parkway.
I skirted Asheville and rode on until I reached Craggy Gardens which features a botany exhibit at the visitor center. But the reason for my stop wasn't the Mountain Laurel but the storm clouds that were gathering over the peaks ahead of me. It was obvious I was about to try out my wet pavement skills. I donned my rain gear and continued on.
The next 65 miles or so saw everything from slight rain to torrential downpours followed by steamy pavement and slight fog in some areas. Still with the light traffic and the surefootedness of the Shadow the ride was enjoyable if not necessarily relaxing.
By the time I reached Boone, North Carolina, however, the ride was no longer enjoyable. The light boots I wore had become totally water logged and my feet were freezing. I got off the parkway in Boone and checked the local yellow pages. I found a little shop, the Walsonatta Western Store in downtown, that advertised boots of all kinds. The lovely lady that ran the shop outfitted me with an excellent pair of water proof boots and, with dry feet and thereby much better spirits, I got back on the parkway and headed north.
As it usually happens, within a couple of miles of purchasing my new boots the rain stopped. I continued on enjoying the even lower temperature and the fresh fragrances that only summer rain can seduce from the earth.
In an automobile we are somewhat insulated from some of nature's bouquets but on a bike our senses are keenly aware. Passing by a patch of flowers, over a stream, or through a sunlit area, all have their own unique aroma. And every hundred miles or so on the parkway you will be emphatically reminded because you will pass an area that has been visited by a "Wood's Kitty", or skunk, to the uninitiated. These areas will prove to work much better than any cup of coffee at awakening your faculties.
Wood's Kitties are not the only creatures you will encounter. Certain areas of the parkway teem with herds of deer and it is common to round a curve and find from one to several feeding beside the roadway. Raccoon, opossums, squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, snakes, frogs, lizards, and a multitude of insect life abound.
There are also black bear in the park. I stopped at one of the overlooks that was particularly breathtaking. There was no one else around and I decided to make this one of my longer stops. I pulled out my walkman and put in one of Ray Lynch's tapes of his soothing instrumental music. I was sitting on the rock wall letting the music blend with the view when I realized that there was someone, or something, standing about five feet behind and to the right of me.
Now I don't know who the hiker was that had come up out of the woods behind me, but he might as well have been a five hundred pound bear because that's the reaction he got out of me. I leaped to my feet and in one motion snatched off the headphones and spun to face him. The amplitude of my reaction startled him momentarily and then he began to chuckle. My first reaction was to punch him but then I regained my composure and we both had a good laugh. He was a college student that was hiking part of the Appalachian Trail, which crisscrosses the Blue Ridge at several points, before he had to go back to school in the fall. We had a nice chat and he continued on his brand of adventure and I continued with mine.
Several miles later I began to hear nature's call and started looking for the road sign that indicated that the next overlook had rest room facilities. Somewhere near Cherry Hill I finally spotted the welcome sign. I pulled in right behind a four wheel drive Isuzu. As I walked by the Isuzu the driver spoke and asked where I was from. When I told him Macon, Georgia, he looked surprised and then told me that was his home town.
We began to talk and found that we had grown up three miles from each other and had attended the same elementary and high schools. He was some three years younger than I and I suppose that's the reason we had not known each other back then. It's funny how age differences begin to diminish in direct correlation to how many years have passed.
My new acquaintance, Jamie Arnold, is a veterinarian in Yadkinville, North Carolina. On Wednesday afternoons, when his clinic is closed, he and his girlfriend ride the Blue Ridge to view the glorious wild flowers to be found there. He told me that a great place to camp would be the campground at Doughton Park, where he had camped many times, just a few miles further down the parkway.
I stopped at Bluff Lodge just north of Doughton Park, refueled, and entered the restaurant there. A sign just inside the door said that they closed at seven-thirty and it was almost that time now. I started to exit but I must have looked extremely hungry for the hostess told me to come on in, that they would find me something to eat. The waitress must have thought that I looked even hungrier because she told me to pick whatever I wanted from the menu and she would prepare it. At her suggestion I chose the cheeseburger plate and I don't know if it was the atmosphere, my fatigue, or if it really was the best cheeseburger I have ever eaten.
I arrived at Doughton Park campground at dusk and began setting up my tent. A few minutes later Jamie and his girlfriend, Fran, pulled up and he rolled down his window. He said he really didn't know me but wanted to know if I would drink a beer if he offered me one. I told him not to twist my arm so hard. They got out, pulled out a cooler and we settled down to a few beers and a couple of hours of great conversation before they headed on home. I crawled in my tent and immediately went to sleep.
Thursday morning was fresh, crisp air and sunshine. I broke camp, retraced the couple of miles back to Bluff Lodge and enjoyed a delicious Southern style breakfast. It was time to ride again.
Some thirty miles into Thursday's journey I crossed from North Carolina into Virginia. I was now well into territory that I had never seen before. Whereas in North Carolina the parkway is almost entirely mountainous, once in Virginia many of the overlooks would spread miles of beautiful, green valleys below you. The Shadow hummed and so did my spirit.
I refueled at a small general store in a community called the Meadows of Dan and then stopped a few miles on at the Mabry Mill. Mabry Mill is directly on the parkway and is an operating grist mill. In addition there is an operating blacksmith shop as well as a preserved cabin. It is obvious why Mabry Mill is touted as a favorite of photographers and artists.
I rode on through miles and miles of gentle twisties. I stopped often to drink in the breathtaking beauty of the peaks and valleys of Virginia. I took my time and at 3:30 pm I refueled at the Peaks of Otter, only 86 miles from mile marker "0", the Northern end of the Blue Ridge. I had plenty of time. Everything was perfect.
The Peaks of Otter, at 4001', are the high point in Virginia. The lodge there overlooks a 22 acre lake as well as the peaks. It is one of the most full service of the stops on the Parkway with food, fuel, lodging, camping, picnicking, hiking, fishing, and a visitor's center. There looked like plenty to see, so after paying for my fuel I decided to park the Shadow and browse awhile.
I straddled the Shadow and pressed the starter. Nothing happened. I checked switches, I made sure I was in neutral, I pushed the starter again. Nothing happened. My soaring spirits sagged.
I pushed the bike out of the way of the pumps and pulled the side cover. I checked the fuse, even though I knew it was good, because now I was looking for anything but the obvious fact that I was stuck with a dead battery.
A couple of other bikers stopped and tried to help. A Gold Wing tried to give me a jump start. I learned that you can start a Shadow with a jump but without a good battery the minute you put it under load, the engine dies. I was stuck.
I checked the yellow pages and found listed Gio's Cycles in Roanoke, Virginia some thirty miles away. I called and asked the young lady who answered if they made road calls. She said not unless you're broken down on the parkway. I said Bingo.
It was about 5:30 pm before the delivery man from Gio's arrived. He was an amiable fellow who put things in perspective when he said "Well, at least it let you down rather than laid you down." He was right.
It was well after 6:00 pm before I got back on the road. I was a little chagrined at running so late but I still had time to make the end of the trail at Waynesboro before dark. I made it about forty miles to Whetstone Ridge when the rain set in and then shortly afterwards, the fog.
The beautiful landscape through which I had been riding now took on a surreal quality. Every time I ascended a grade I would enter the clouds and visibility would drop to just a few feet. As long as I had the mountain on one side of me I felt relatively safe even though the other side would be nothing but sheer whiteness. But every once in a while I would reach one of those peaks where there was nothing but open spaces on both sides of me. There was a few feet of pavement in front me, the edge of the road on either side, and then nothing. My average speed dropped to about fifteen miles per hour.
I rode as cautiously as possible. I rounded a curve and there was a herd of deer grazing on both sides of the road. Fortunately, there were none crossing the road at that moment. But from then on around every curve my imagination saw hundreds of them.
Darkness began to settle on the mountains. Now I no longer felt safe at all. I was still a good twenty or twenty-five miles from Waynesboro and all I could do was creep along. My neck, shoulders, and back screamed from pure tension. Finally I saw the Humpback Rocks Visitor's Center and I knew I was then only about six miles from my destination. No sight ever looked so good as the lights of Waynesboro shining through that foggy night.
I checked into a Comfort Inn, took the most wonderful hot shower of my life, had a stiff drink, and went into a deep sleep.
I thought that perhaps after my ordeal of the day before I would get a respite on Friday but it was not to be. It seems that while I had been exploring the parkway a hurricane had blown into the Mississippi Valley, gone Northward and then turned East. It was pouring down rain.
I decided that after the night before as long as there was daylight I could ride. I loaded the Shadow, donned my rain gear and headed out. I only got about three or four miles before the fog set in again. Visibility dropped to zero.
I stopped at a service station and asked the attendant if there were a restaurant nearby where I could eat and wait out the fog. He looked at me kind of funny and asked what was wrong with the Howard Johnson restaurant next door. He didn't realize that the fog was so thick that the restaurant wasn't visible from the station.
I sat for a couple of hours drinking HoJo coffee before the fog lifted. I mounted the Shadow and headed down US340 towards Lexington, Virginia. The winds were so strong that the torrential rains were almost horizontal. With each gust the Shadow tried to do likewise. It took me two hours to make the forty miles to Lexington. As I pulled into town I saw a sign on a small motel that said "Free HBO". I checked in and ended Friday's journey.
I awoke early Saturday to beautiful blue skies and cool temperatures. But now I had a problem. I had lost a full days riding time, I was 550 miles from home, and I needed to be back at work Monday morning. So I decided that it was time for some Interstate cruising.
I left Lexington on I-81 and headed South. I made good time. But an Interstate is an Interstate and I don't find them conducive to enjoyable motorcycling. I stood it as far as Bristol, Tennessee and decided I'd had enough. I took route 11E through Johnson City and on to Greenville. I took 321 out of Greenville determined to make Gatlinburg by nightfall and spend the night at a little inn there.
According to my map 321 was a straight shot to Gatlinburg. I should have realized that the people who do the surveys for these maps work for the same U. S. government that puts out the "simplified" tax forms each year.
I passed through the little borough of Cosby, Tennessee and found myself on a beautiful mountain road. Perfect pavement and twisty after twisty. I rose higher and higher into the mountains amazed that the road to Gatlinburg would be so free of commercial development, or for that matter, any development at all.
Twilight came and I still had not found Gatlinburg. I was a little concerned but thoroughly enjoying the ride. I rounded a perfect curve and all of a sudden the pavement ended. There ahead of me was a one lane gravel road.
I stopped to ponder this turn of events. I killed the engine and pulled out my map. It occurred to me that it had been at least twenty or more miles since I had seen any civilization and according to my map I should have been in Gatlinburg for at least forty-five minutes now. I looked around taking in the eerie silence when I swear I heard the strains of Dueling Banjos wafting through the trees. There was nothing to do but to go back the way I came.
It was long after dark when I got back to civilization. I found that 321 takes a ninety degree right in Cosby and I had missed it. I spotted the Cub Motel, which was fairly easy since I believe it's also the only motel in Cosby.
By now I was beat. I had been in the saddle for about twelve hours or so and must have looked as worn as I felt. I entered the office of the motel. The proprietor was sitting in the lounge area talking to a couple of ladies. They took one look at me in my black, military style jacket, black boots, jeans, and with my helmet and gloves in hand, and everything got quiet. The proprietor was polite, checked me in, and gave me my key. I unloaded my gear, went into the room, and took a long, hot shower.
After cleaning up, both body and soul felt much better. I walked back to the office since that's where the drink machines were. When I entered there was no one there but the proprietor. We struck up a conversation and I learned that he had left the corporate world up North somewhere and bought the motel and a farm not far away. He and his wife felt like it would be a better place to raise his kids.
He asked what kind of work I did and when I told him I was an accountant he burst out laughing. It seems that the ladies he had been talking with when I arrived had decided to leave because of the unsavory character that had just checked in. He couldn't wait to talk to them about jumping to conclusions.
I arose early Sunday and rode into Gatlinburg. I entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and headed across the mountains toward Cherokee. It's a beautiful road although much more crowded than I was used to.
From Cherokee I hit U. S. 441 toward home. I was tired and ready to be there. Derriere fatigue was becoming a major problem and I was stopping every hour ar so to walk around a bit.
I stopped at a country store in Homer, Georgia. I was sitting outside drinking a coke when an older lady drove up. She spoke on her way into the store and when she came out she stopped to look at the bike. She asked where I was from and when I told her she asked if that was near Warner Robins. When I said it was she asked if I knew a Mr. L. A. Baldwin that worked at a builders supply there. I told her that I didn't know him but I knew the store because a friend of mine owned it. She asked that the next time I was in there to tell him that Edna Bankston said hello and for him to call her in Homer. She was in the book. I promised I would.
I rode on into Macon arriving in mid afternoon. I was thoroughly exhausted but extremely gratified. My ride had not been without mishap but had truly been an adventure.
A few days later I called Mr. Baldwin at the builders supply. When I asked if he knew Mrs. Bankston he was extremely surprised. I told him of my encounter and relayed Mrs. Bankston's message. He then told me that his wife and Mrs. Bankston had been roommates during World War II when they both worked at a defense factory. He and his wife were married in Mrs. Bankston's home after the war. They had lost contact a few years later. He said he and his wife would be calling Mrs. Bankston that evening. You never know quite what will come out of a bike ride, do you?
My ride on the Blue Ridge was three and a half years ago. It was definitely the tonic I needed. A month later I bought a Shadow 1100 and have logged over 21,000 miles on it. I have covered from Waynesboro, Virginia to Key West, Florida. The old adage "If I have to explain, you'll never understand." is very true. But then if you've read this far I don't have to explain. You understand.