Wednesday, July 8, 2015


This is about a day trip I took on April 22, 2015 to a favorite nearby road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, where I met a guy from down on the coast of South Carolina who was out on a longer bike adventure. 

He has graciously provided a commentary on his ride that day, his adventure, and on our meeting one another. 

He goes first, and a little further down, I'll give you my perspective.   


Robert's story:

I recently made a multiple-day trip up to the Gatlinburg Tennessee area from Charleston South Carolina. And what a great ride it turned out to be! Charleston is nice to ride around, scenery is grand, and out to the local beaches like Edisto and Hunting Island are good rides; but there are no elevation changes and mostly straight roads despite looking for the occasional side road with some benders.

This trip was basically starting at the base of the Blue Ridge Escarpment in Pickens, SC and taking the scenic route up to Gatlinburg, then riding as many one lane side roads as I could map for five days. I spent hours zooming in on Google Maps planning the different rides. 

I was going to take my 2009 Moto Guzzi Stelvio purchased new in June of last year.  New?  Yes, it seems that a Guzzi dealer had gone out of business and MGUSA had taken back all the stock. Held the bikes for six years before auctioning them off to other MG dealers. However, when inspecting the bike the night before the trip I noticed the left fork seal was leaking badly! 

I was going to abort the run but had already reserved parking space with Public Storage and a cabin east of Gatlinburg. Fortunately, I have another ride, a 2011 Kawasaki Versys (also purchased as overstock in August of 2013). I enjoy the bike but I replaced the cast wheels with wire wheel assemblies and went to a 19” in front, making it a totally different bike from stock in handling. I also installed a GPS, a mount for my Hero GoPro, and a pair of LED auxiliary driving lights, all much used every day of my trip.

I rented a U-Haul motorcycle trailer – a great deal at $14.95 per day – and towed it up to Liberty, SC. The Pubic Storage there offers outside storage/parking for $20 per day. Nice to know all is secure and fenced when gone for a week. I stowed the Jeep and trailer and went off on my adventure. 

I should mention that my riding experience has been 100% off-road. I am a native of Southern California and rode the deserts and mountains there for over fifteen years growing up. My last bike, before buying a street bike in 2012, was a Honda XR650 in 1998. Moved to Charleston six years ago and bought my first street bike there. 

A bit of a sidebar here: I saw a 1976 Kawasaki KZ400 advertised as a "barn find" on Craigslist (need to stay off that website and my wallet would be much fatter) and it brought back memories of all the bikes I saw on the roads in High School while I was on motocross bikes.

So I picked up the bike for a few grand, putted around Charleston, and thought my off-road experience would translate to asphalt 100%.  It did somewhat, but it is not really the same. Sold the KZ (wish I still had it, but only so much room in the garage) and moved on to the Versys. 

Thus, I had some apprehensions going into the mountains, like the Tail of the Dragon, and just high speed turns and switchbacks in general. My confidence was "OK" but I was going to ride my speed, not anyone else's, wanting to enjoy the learning curve. Thinking back, glad I was on the Versys for the first go at it. The Stelvio is my favorite bike (only by 15%) but it is not a small bike in comparison.  Still, it is a hundred pounds lighter than competitors like BMW GS, Yamaha Tenere, or Aprilia Caponord. 

On the road up from Pickens I found a great route and intro to the type of roads I would be traveling for the next five days. And the more I rode, the more corners, the wider my grin. The Versys really was a great companion, and continued to be for the entire trip. 

This is where ‘fortune’ shined on me. I had been riding for maybe an hour or two on roads that were at times second gear corners.  It was great – better than great – but I wanted a ten minute rest.  Pulled off at a "Gas N’ Go" in Rosman North Carolina, filled up a coffee and was sitting on my bike. Another rider pulled in, but kept a little ways off. He was on a Ninja 650R and started walking my way. Full race leathers, well broken in, and realized he was a tall guy as he approached. Of course it was Bucky, as I learned when we started chatting. 

I had my waypoints in the GPS but had also printed maps.  I brought those out asking about the direction I was headed and giving him a bit of my story. I think based on how new my bike looked (1,800 miles) and other details, he took me under his wing so to speak knowing my experience was questionable. However, I did not realize it at the time, as he was just “well, I am riding that way too, mind if we ride together?”  “Of course,” I replied, and off we went. He or I followed one another and we rode for, I want to say, forty miles or so. 

The roads continued to be grand although the Blue Ridge Parkway has faster sweepers than the road up from Pickens. I mention Pickens again as it is a great ride up from there to Rosman. One issue I had was that the night before I left, a cold front had moved in and I had not packed for it.  Temps were supposed to be in the mid 70’s during the day but had plummeted to 50, maybe less, with severe wind gusts. I only had a summer riding jacket, tee-shirt, Levis and basically no gloves. I learned a valuable lesson on this trip: Plan for the worst. Anyway, I got the chills. I honestly could not stop shaking as I rode, just shivering, hands numb to where I could not feel if I was pulling in the clutch all the way.  I was beyond miserable but it was my error. 

Bucky was bundled up appropriately, head scarf, gloves, etc., but he was chilled somewhat as well. I remember going into a corner and a wind gust stood me up straight while I was leaned over at 50 miles an hour. I slowed down a bit after that. I was only hoping that after getting nearer the southern end of the Parkway that the wind would diminish and hopefully it would start to warm up as I dropped to the valley floor. Bucky and I stopped about twenty-six miles from the end of the Parkway, at Rosemount Road, and we could barely hear each other without yelling, the wind was so loud. We parted ways there, him back home and me on to Gatlinburg.

Bucky and I consulting my maps just before parting ways
My shivering needed to be addressed, so I stopped and opened the side bags and pulled on two other tee-shirts plus one for my head. Helmet back on and so much better. I started to warm a bit and could feel the air temp getting warmer as I was losing altitude from 5,000 feet. (Nearby Cherokee, NC is 1,991 feet above sea level.) 

I stopped for gas and then went on toward the north. The ride up to Gatlinburg and then over to Pittman Center Tennessee was pleasant, much warmer, and the road followed a stream/river for mile after mile. Just the best.

Here is a pic of the cabin where I stayed, but I am not going to give any more details as want it available next time I go up to the area :)

I fished for trout off the porch and listened to the running stream every night.  Best sleep ever.

I had planned to go over to the Dragon’s Tail but that was almost two hours away, and with the incredible roads all around in every direction, I stayed fairly local every day.

The best ride I had I will share next. It was only twelve miles long, but it took a good hour to complete and it ended with a mile of dirt forest road. My average count was 20 corners per mile – a really good workout. At the end of the road is an amazing water/electric power plant, the Walters Hydroelectric plant, and you can take I-40 toward the north and loop back to Pittman Center/Gatlinburg via. route 339, the Foothills Parkway.

This was one of those rare trips, where I met one of the nicest people you could hope to, and the riding was so above expectations. Most importantly, I really learned new riding skills every day. Trips like this are significant to becoming a better rider.  

Thanks again Bucky and hope to ride with you soon!


Bucky's Perspective:
Back in April I decided to ride up to the Blue Ridge Parkway again and see what I could, while enjoying the roads.  Last time I went up, in late March, I had checked on the Parkway's website to see if it was open between NC-215 and Asheville, NC, to the north.  It wasn't, so I entered the Parkway from one road to the east, US-276 instead.  The ride was still quite enjoyable, if a little shorter than I had hoped. 

This time, I decided to go up US-178 and NC-215 and go south on the Parkway, maybe to Waterrock Knob or Cherokee, its southern terminus. 

I start out from home, dressed warmly under my leathers because it is likely to be cool in the higher elevations.  (Later, I'll be glad I did that.)  I motor over to Pickens, SC and meet US-178.  The Perfect Curve soon beckons, and I continue onward, it first having mostly sweepers, then tighter turns as I cross SC-11. 

View Larger Map

I pass through Rocky Bottom, and reach the town of Rosman, NC.  I spot a shiny motorcycle fueling up at the only filling station in town.  I don't need gas, but I decide to stop and say hello. 

As I get closer, I can identify the bike.  It is a Kawasaki Versys.  It also has some new-looking saddle bags and a tail bag, too.  In fact the whole thing looks new.  Its owner, Robert, says he recently bought the bike from a dealer out in the sticks that has to take a certain number of street bikes in order to get the four wheelers he sells the most of.  

So, Robert got a great deal on a brand new 2011 Versys.  He swapped the cast aluminum wheels out for wire-spoked versions, and went to a larger front wheel at the same time.  The package is striking in appearance.

Robert is pondering some maps as I walk up, so I look over his shoulder to see where he is going.  It turns out he is from the low country of South Carolina (that means the flat lands near the Atlantic coast, for you who are not from around here).  There are hardly any curvy roads down there, so he has trailered his bike to Liberty, SC and is headed for Gatlinburg, TN via. US-178, NC-215, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and US-441.  Some of that route is exactly the same way I have in mind today. 

I ask if I can tag along, and, instead, he suggests that he could follow me.  I warn him that I ride a little like grandma, but he says that is fine with him.  I start out from the gas station, and ride the couple of miles to pick up 215.  The landmark on the corner is Headwaters Outfitters where you can arrange for river and fishing trips on the adjacent French Broad River. 

NC-215 is a two-lane road, but it has been recently paved and is pleasantly smooth.  The curves are a little tighter than what I would call sweepers, with a few much tighter ones thrown in here and there.  The right turn onto 215 almost always has gravel in it, but it is almost clean today.  That's, perhaps, a good sign of things to come.

I set a moderate pace, and handle the curves as they come.  Somehow, the road feels better to me today.  Maybe it is the pace, or maybe I am more at ease today, or concentrating more.  Only a little gravel and coarse sand present themselves, a continuation of the good sign back there at the start of 215.

As we are making our way toward the Parkway, seven guys pass us from the other way going at a very brisk clip.  The first one, on a distinctive green Kawasaki sportbike comes at us in the distance.  He charges by and the other six follow him at intervals. 

Not more than a mile onward, we come across a right hander. 

It looks innocent enough.  Tight, but not too tight. 

A little more lean.

And then I see it.

A mat of leaves and other debris washed across the road.  Thick in places. The guard rail had obscured it before now – a good reason to maintain a moderate pace, I'd say. 

I let off the throttle a little and apply a bit of brake.  Not too much.  It is uphill, so that slows me too.  I steer through the clearest places... 

...and make it just fine.  At the next opportunity, I look into my mirror and see that Robert made it as well.  I had not warned him as I should have of the hazard because I was concentrating on getting through it myself. 

Whew.  I don't like surprises.  Fortunately for the fast riders we just passed, the stuff in the road is a little more visible from the other direction, as I discover later in the day when I am going back home on the same road. See here: 

We move briskly along on 215 until the overpass for the Parkway comes into view.  It is getting colder and much more windy up here. 

We make a left onto the Parkway, then a right to head south on it.  The gates are closed to the north, though I never did determine why.  I am glad he/we didn't have to go that way. 

We stop at the first overlook, and collaborate on the next leg of the journey.  Robert is ready to go in a few minutes' time, so we decide that he should lead.   He heads out smartly and I follow.  He takes the sweeping curves well, and keeps a good pace, pushing the speed limit.  He has never ridden this road before, so he is reading each curve.  The few times when he enters a corner where it looks like he thinks he is a little too hot, he gently applies a little brake and makes the corner without a lot of drama. 

None of this, thank you:

Blue Ridge Parkway Motorcycle Safety Road Sign
Item ID - 51333404
Now this popular sign doesn't have to be stolen for
people to enjoy its serious, but humorous message.
Sign measures 12" x 12"

The day is beautiful, if a little cold – about 50 degrees – and the wind is gusty – up to about 25 MPH.  The wind gusts make for unexpected corrections that are a bit unnerving, especially in the curves.  It blows us hither and yon, sometimes several inches to one side or the other.  Still, we are enjoying the road and the ever-changing panorama that we are passing through.  It is as though we have been granted this treat by God for us alone to enjoy today, for there is almost no other traffic. 

We keep going and enjoying.  A little less than seven miles before Waterrock Knob, Robert pulls off at Rosemount Road and we consult his maps. 

We decide that the best way is to go to the end of the Parkway, just north of Cherokee, NC, then turn north on  US-441.  That will take him through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and on to Gatlinburg and beyond. 

The map from Rosman to here: 

View Larger Map

He will be spending a few days in that neck of the woods riding several roads he has picked out on the map.  He is enthusiastic about doing this, what with a brand new motorcycle, and a some time away from the job to drink in the surroundings and the routes he has planned. 

I envy him a little, but I must take my leave and go towards home.  My schedule says I have some old folks to play the piano and sing for later today. 

I wish Robert a good and safe trip, and he rides off toward Cherokee to continue his adventure. 

His route today will look something like this:

View Larger Map

I turn back the way we came.  I stop for a picture of the beautiful sky – and the pretty bike – at the highest point on the Parkway, 6,053 feet above sea level.  

I continue on to an overlook, Courthouse Valley, just before turning onto NC-215. 

The sign is down for repairs, but someone has placed a sticker on the support post.

It is for Dime City Cycles in Largo Florida.  They sell "Cafe Racers, Bobbers, Parts and Accessories."  Maybe one of their bikes stopped here before me. 

I retrace the rest of my earlier route today – a total of 170 miles of total enjoyment.  The roads were sweet, the scenery beautiful, the traffic light, and the companionship pleasurable.  It is 80 degrees back where I live when I return, a considerable difference from the mountains.  Here is my route today

I forgot to tell you one other thing that helped make my day.  Back when I left Robert, as he went on his way to Gatlinburg, he made an observation regarding my riding style while he was following me on 215.  He said that I was a smooth rider in the curves.  He didn't say fast.  He said smooth.  The pace was moderate, and the road good, but I don't think I could have received a better complement to boost my spirits.  As I look back, the turns on 215 did feel good from the saddle that day. 

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