A big road trip for the Fourth, including the Tail of the Dragon

by Rob Tiller

For the Fourth of July weekend, I thought it would be fun to take a road trip to western North Carolina. It had been many moons since I spent time in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains, and I’d never driven the serpentine roads in my beautiful Porsche. Sally was game, and so on Friday afternoon we loaded up and rolled out from Raleigh.

We spent that evening in Winston-Salem, where I grew up. We stayed downtown, and were surprised to find large numbers of young people eating at sidewalk tables and promenading. At our hotel, there was a convention of “greasers” into fifties/punk hair styles, big tattoos, and hot rods. I find big tattoos somewhat disturbing, but I found this group sort of cheering. These outsiders had some things to be happy about: something they really liked (cars and a certain look), the courage to come out proudly about their passion, and a community of like-minded people. It’s not easy being different.

We had dinner with my old old friend (since fourth grade) J and his wife N. J was my hero as a kid: great at things like throwing rocks, building model fighter jets, and finding discarded Playboy magazines in the woods. He’s become a successful construction supervisor for commercial projects, and pointed out some of his projects on the Winston-Salem skyline. It was good to refresh on our history and to catch up.

On Saturday we took Highway 421 to Boone, and once there decided to take 221 south. The road wound through the green mountains. During this stretch, I experienced a Zen-like connection to Clara and the road. No thought, just driving. Shifting to third, back to second, back to third, back to second, for miles. It was strange and wonderful to have no schedule and no place we had to be. We drank in the rolling mountain vistas.

We had lunch in Blowing Rock at Louise’s Rockhouse Restaurant, where we sat near a group of State Troopers in the motorcycle corp. The vegetarian options on the menu boiled down to one: a grilled cheese sandwich. But the service was friendly, and it was a perfectly fine sandwich.

We took the Blue Ridge Parkway south to Asheville, stopping now and again to enjoy the mountain views. In Asheville there were lots of street musicians and artsy looking folk, and no shortage of veggie friendly restaurants. We chose the Laughing Seed, where I had an interesting cocktail with ginger liqueur called East of Eden, and a mushroom risotto. We stayed the night in a B&B called Reynolds Mansion, which is an 1847 house that reminded me of the Addams Family’s place, but with beautiful rooms. The breakfast featured poached pears and eggs benedict, and the host told an elaborate ghost story about a portrait of a star-crossed plantation mistress.

After breakfast we drove west through Maggie Valley, Cherokee, and Bryson City, where we bought sandwiches at a Subway, then headed northwest toward Fontana Village. About 18 years ago, we had a week-long family vacation at Fontana, and remembered it happily. A significant memory of the trip was how difficult it was to get there on the windy mountain roads in the minivan, and it seemed like a good idea to try those roads again in a better vehicle. It turned out the roads had been widened to four lanes for most of the trip, and the only exciting part of the journey there was the last few miles. We ate our sandwiches at Fontana and recalled the happy vacation with little Gabe and Jocelyn — river rafting, horseback riding, swimming, ping pong, and shuffleboard.

Then we went north to US 129 and encountered the Tail of the Dragon. We’d heard of the road, but weren’t certain of the location until we came to Deal’s Gap and saw several dozens of Harleys in the parking lot of the motorcycle motel. So we drove it. It was like skiing black diamond moguls. It whipped back and forth, up and down through the Nantahala forest, never straightening for any length. Like a mogul run, it took total commitment and focus. We were fortunate to find long stretches with no one ahead or behind. 318 curves in 11 miles. A major dose of adrenaline. It was awesome. Awesome!

Returning, mentally exhausted, we stopped at Deal’s Gap and I bought a Dragon souvenir tee-shirt and hat. We sat around for a bit with the bikers, and noted the things we had in common and the things we didn’t. In common: love for vehicles and the road. Different: facial hair, cigarettes, tattoos. Some of them were scary looking. But I felt I understood much better what they were about after driving the Dragon. Like the greasers, these folks had embraced their differentness and found a kind of community.

Sally served as co-pilot and navigator throughout. She had no interest in taking the wheel, unless I threatened to fall asleep, which I never did. Amazingly, she was cheerful throughout. She never once expressed fear or even hesitation at the speed. She was game, and brave. We talked for periods, and were quiet and peaceful for periods. I realized, once again, that she was the girl for me.

For the most part, we navigated the old-fashioned way — with maps. I have a Garmin GPS, which is useful for getting from point A to B, but not for finding interesting byways. We missed our turns a couple of times as we headed back east (poor signage, we thought), but never worried excessively. We spent the last night in Franklin, then took US 64 back across NC. Total mileage for the weekend was just about 1,000. We couldn’t get over what a beautiful state this is.