A Dragon’s Tale – Part 3 of 3
You can’t make a shameful ‘peace’ with dragons. You must kill them as I have done.
After overcoming several seemingly insurmountable obstacles, my partner in crime, David Aman, and I were finally on the road to Bryson City to meet our fellow Dragon Slayers, Greig Hochreiter (Devolve Moto), Steve West (Silver Piston) and Will Sease who were awaiting our arrival with skeptical eyes on their wrist watches and itchy trigger fingers on their throttles. Instead of a leisurely jaunt through the western Carolina mountains, we were now on a mission to get to our cohorts with superhuman speed. Fortunately we were on motorcycles so we didn’t have to rely on human (super or otherwise) powers, and (for any law enforcement folks reading this) we didn’t utilize our machines to break any IOMTT lap records to get there. And get there we did! Sliding sideways dramatically to a stop, David and I gave the riders up sign and burned out in a cloud of dust as the boys scrambled to slap on their helmets and catch up to us. – – Um…no….that didn’t actually happen. In reality, the guys had grown impatient to the point of wanting to leave without us so we were lucky they were even waiting there at all. After abbreviated introductions (the niceties must still be observed), the 5 of us were finally on the road together with a DRAGON in our sights!
The further westward we rode the more spectacular the mountains appeared to loom in front of us. Great billowing plumes of white vapor puffed out of the valleys and rose above the peaks giving the impression that a real-life fire-breathing beast was lurking in a hidden cavern. Was this our Vermithrax snorting ominously in anticipation of our impending battle? I guess they don’t call them the Great Smoky Mountains for nothing. Being oblivious to the route and just following along, I had no idea where we were or what to expect along the way. Even if I wanted to GPS the location I couldn’t because we had reached a place in the wilderness where no cell or GPS signal could penetrate. We got off the main highway and pulled onto a pretty, twisty, mountain road. Was this it? THE Dragon? There were no flashing neon lights telling me so, but Steve and Greig took off like a shot and I fell in behind them determined that if it was, I’d show those boys that a girl could hang with them. I ain’t scairt. It had rained so we were on some slippery pavement but they kept up the pace and so did I. I had to catch my breath a few times as we rounded some tight slick corners, but my Falcon held her ground as I pressed her harder into each turn. I had lost sight of Steve in the lead, but I could still see Greig’s taillights. I’m not doing too bad. After a little while, Steve pulled over to wait for the rest of us to catch up and he said that he was sorry about leaving us but that he doesn’t get up this way often enough and he was going to make the most of his ride – we would just have to catch up to him later. No one begrudged him for taking it fast and we sent him on his way once again. We came down a hill and crossed a bridge and were met with a huge, sheer rock-face precipice on the other side. Its cliffs actually overhung towards us making for a dizzying optical effect in person. There’s no way a two dimensional picture does it justice but I took one anyway. You can see how tiny our bikes are in relation to the cliffs if you squint really hard.
The road was getting really tricky now. I had almost exhausted my adrenaline reserves fighting off demons and obstacles earlier in the day so focusing on the task was becoming a bit tougher. Still determined not to let the boys completely show me up, I set my jaw and rode harder than I’ve ever ridden to keep my headlight in their mirrors. I certainly wasn’t deluding myself that I could outride them, but like Rocky knew, just going the distance at a respectable pace would be a victory in itself. And then it hit me – SPLAT!!!!! Like a well aimed missile, the biggest, gooiest, splattiest, bird shit ever landed squarely on my face shield effectively blinding the entire right side of my field of vision. REALLY??!! That bird couldn’t have made that shot again in a million years. Did I mention that focusing was becoming difficult? Now it was exponentially more so – literally. So with only my left eye to guide me, I rolled on the throttle, loosened my nervous grip on the bars and dug in my spurs. This was war! The steam rising in rolls from the river as we wound around close to its edge was perhaps the single most stunning vision I’d ever had the pleasure of encountering, but I had no opportunity to take it all in properly. It’s too bad. Mental note – come back another time, ride slowly, stop and take pictures. By now I’d lost sight of the guys ahead of me but there were still a couple behind me so I wasn’t the last straggler in our group. In fact I wasn’t far behind the leaders at all when we suddenly found ourselves at the fabled Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort.
I pulled off my helmet and felt a wave of accomplishment flooding through my body. OH MY GOD I DID IT!!! I cannot WAIT to see the professional photos of my run. I killed it! It was tricky, but it wasn’t as bad as everyone said it would be … It’s funny though, I don’t really remember seeing any photographers stationed along the way. Eh… With a mental wave I brushed that inconsistency aside easily enough owing to the fact I had a metric ton of fowl fecal matter obscuring my view. Then a new thought crept in. I realized that once I caught my breath and put my kidneys back in place, I’m going to have to ride that same road again just to get back. Oh boy… Just as I caught myself between mentally slapping my own hiney in congratulations and contemplating drowning myself in the river to avoid the return ride, Steve nonchalantly drops a bombshell, “Um, we haven’t ridden the Dragon yet. This is just the beginning right here.” WHAT???!!! ARE YOU MENTAL???!! Isn’t arriving at the gift shops and resort the reward for completing the ride? My spirits plummeted and my heart almost imploded from dejection. A string of swearwords that would impress the Old Man from A Christmas Story scrolled through my head but I had the good sense to keep them in there and not let them fly free. Or maybe I didn’t, I don’t remember…
I was without a doubt, knocked down a few rungs but I wasn’t beaten. I didn’t come this far to quit now. It was late in the day (after 5PM) but it was only 318 turns and 11 miles more. We could still get this ride in and get back to Asheville at a reasonable time. We took a little break to grab a drink and a snack and purchased our souvenirs in advance in the case the gift shops were closed when we came back off the mountain. Having my patch and decals in hand before I’d even been on the Dragon almost felt sacrilegious (if not a bit hypocritical) and bordered on bad form. I’m not superstitious but there was a teensy voice in my head that whispered, “now you’ve just cursed yourself.” SHUT UP little voice – I made it THIS far in the face of your doom and gloom predictions and I WILL finish it! Steve, clearly being the fastest of us all, told us all to look for him at the top of the mountain where he’d be waiting for us in a gravel pull-off on the right. I was about to slap on my helmet and head out, when I re-discovered the dried sticky bird poo epoxied to my face shield. OOPS, please wait for princess Colleen again…..
Alright, NOW I’m ready. We swung our legs over our steeds and our engines roared to life. Summoning my strength, I closed my shield like a knight going into battle, but I this time I was determined to hold myself back and ride this thing at a quick enough pace to feel like I’ve challenged myself, but not be in competition with anyone. They could all pass me if they wanted to, I just wanted to finish with the rubber side down. Here we go…. Wow the scenery is UNREAL! Gosh I wish I had a pic- – – HOLY CRAP!! I almost tossed my cookies in the first turn. THE FIRST TURN!!! I had 317 more to go. Oh boy…. dial it back even more. Each turn brought something new and dangerous. The road isn’t just twisty; it’s got changing elevations and cambers. It was completely unpredictable and unfathomable to a rookie rider like myself. I can see why it’s called a proving ground for motorcyclists. And it’s also easily one of the most breathtakingly beautiful country roads you’ll ever ride. Its a fight to stay focused when all you want to do it gawk at the scenery. But there’s no time for gawking. You have to use every ounce of self-control to keep your eyes on the road and force your brain to use every skill you’ve ever been taught to maneuver each square inch of asphalt. Here again, I want to thank MSF!! In my classes I’ve discovered that even though it feels to me like I turn my head to look through a corner, I’ve been told that I don’t do it quite well enough. It only took a couple of turns on the Dragon to drive that point home in real time. I will never again be caught doing anything less than a full on Linda Blair in a curve. Oh, and that oft bandied about little bit of advice to avoid target fixation? You think you do that well? Think again. Suddenly everything on this road becomes a target since your line of sight is only yards in front of you. You can’t see what’s coming around a turn so it becomes natural to only look at the immediate. But focusing on the immediate will sail you over a cliff in seconds if you don’t snap your head up and around. You have to LOOK THROUGH THE TURNS even when there’s a solid rock wall in front of your face. Trust the training and not your instincts. As I quelled my natural inclinations I heard a new voice in my head. A comforting one:
Don’t laugh – If you’ve ridden the Dragon you’ve heard Obi Wan advising you too and if you ignored him you wrecked. And if you’re thinking you’re more than a match for this hell road, be aware that the road itself isn’t the only hazard on the Dragon. There are signs all over the place warning you to stay in your own lane and for good reason. Other riders and motorists are out there too along with random wildlife potentially crossing your path of travel. Some of the motorists are attempting to set their own speed records and come barreling down the mountain in the opposite lane barely keeping on their side of the yellow line. Or they zoom up on your butt behind you and want you out of their way so they can pass. Trying to control my motorcycle, look through the turns, stay on my side of the road and simply not wreck, left little time for looking in my mirrors. Even a split second falter could prove deadly. But check your mirrors you must (says Master Yoda). There are limited places to pull off but you had better be aware of what’s behind you so you can utilize those precious shoulders when they suddenly become available. Getting onto those blessed tiny strips of gravel safely is a bit like landing a plane on an air craft carrier. Coming to a sudden stop on the side of the road successfully without dumping your bike is only half the battle – you then have to accelerate FAST to make your entrance so you don’t catch someone else off guard and get rear-ended pulling out. At first I was so focused on my own ride that I wasn’t paying attention to my rear. After an inordinate amount of time I noticed a man on sport bike keeping a respectable distance behind me but it was obvious he had the skill to outstrip me and I was rude not to let him pass. I pulled and off he went. I got back on the
track road without incident. Whew. A little while later I was wondering why my Ducati suddenly sounded like a growling rumbling fighter jet. A quick glance in my mirror told me that I was being targeted by several rally cars who were reving their engines to get me out of their way. Aaaaaand another successful pull-over and re-entry to the fray…. Whew again.
BUT, the speed-racers weren’t the only other folks out there. If only they were, that would have been just fine. Nope, we had car loads of families lollygagging and trucks pulling trailers to dodge too. Not all of them could stay on their side of the yellow line through the turns – it was physically impossible which made these slow moving bogies potentially more dangerous than squids on suicide machines. As I focused on getting around a turn without braking I could have easily run up on a lumbering vehicle in my path. You literally have no idea what awaits you around every curve!
The hairpins and decreasing radius turns kept coming at me with blinding speed and my stomach lurched out from under me at every dip. The g-forces pulling me up and down made me feel like I was on a roller coaster, only this was one ride I had to stay conscious and alert on in order to stay alive. I couldn’t shut my eyes and wait for it to end since I was the one in control. Here’s another nauseating fact. The speed limits are anywhere from 10 to 30 MPH. I was riding at double the limit in most places. So, big deal, you say – I was only going 20-60 MPH right? A little reality check – 20 MPH in a 10 MPH decreasing radius banked, down (then up) hill curve with a rock face on your right and drop off to your left feels like 120mph. But puking in your helmet is not an option. This Dragon was no joke. Somehow I kept it together on the outside but inside I was screaming to get off this ride. So, slow down you say. Here’s a problem with that, there are two ways to slow down: brake or simply let off the throttle. Either option will stand your bike upright and take you out of a lean – the LAST thing you want to do in a turn. Once you’ve entered a turn too fast, you are committed to it and you must maintain throttle in order to keep your traction and lean. And slowing down means you might have to add shifting to the maneuvering which sort of mucks up the works even more. The turns kept coming at a furious pace so I found it better to stick to one or two gears and just push through the tight turns and be satisfied with a slower pace on the almost non-existent straights. And to think I was scared to run heavy equipment last month. Pshah!
As I crested what turned out to be the last hill I saw them – 3 of my guys were standing next to their bikes on the right on a nice wide gravel pull-off. I let off the throttle and raised both arms over my head whooping and cheering!! This time it was for real!! I slayed that Dragon! I put both both hands back on my bars and came to a complete stop and neatly toppled the falcon over to her side -again. On my right elbow – again. Dammit, that hurt! The really funny thing is that, as I was impetuously pumping my fists over my head coming down the hill I thought, don’t pull a Lindsey, don’t pull a Lindsey, so I was REALLY careful to make sure I got both hands back on the bars to complete my ride. What’s that? You don’t know what pulling a Lindsey means? In 2006, Neel and I watched her Olympic run in disbelief when it happened. Wikipedia sums it up like this:
During the gold medal final of the Snowboard Cross at the 2006 Winter Olympics on February 17, 2006, Jacobellis was approaching the end of the course with a 43-meter (140 ft), three-second lead over Tanja Frieden of Switzerland. On the second to last jump Jacobellis attempted a method grab, landed on the edge of her snowboard, and fell. Frieden passed her to win the gold; Jacobellis recovered and settled for silver. In televised interviews, Jacobellis initially claimed the grab was meant to maintain stability, but later admitted that it was unnecessary showboating that cost her the gold. She said, “Snowboarding is fun; I was having fun.”
I had failed to calculate the toll the latest adrenaline surges had taken on my body. I was a floppy mess and had no strength left. Nearest I can figure is when I came to a stop, my legs couldn’t hold me up so when I set my feet down my knees buckled and we just kept going. David was right behind me and watched it all unfold. “Oh no she didn’t,” he thought, full of embarrassment for me as he shook his head in disbelief watching me go down. The other guys (whom I was trying so hard to impress) were returning my cheers fervently so they too bore witness to my ungraceful dirt plant at their feet. To be fair, since I completed my run successfully and came to a complete stop with both hands on the bars AND the showboating didn’t actually cause my fall, I couldn’t technically be guilty of “Pulling a Lindsey”, but that’s splitting hairs. The two events (no handed cheering and subsequent tumble) were close enough together to be linked in everyone’s minds and I’m sure I’ll be the butt of jokes for years to come.
*(edit 12/29/2015 – Newly released footage of our actual ride! This is Greig’s ride on his Urban Enduro Scrambler. He was just in front of me in the pack so you miss out on seeing my epic wipe out, LOL. If you have trouble viewing it’s because Vimeo can’t handle all the movement so the video might appear to have heavy artifacts. If you want the 1080 version go to the link and choose “download” – “original” then wait a minute or two or three for it to load. The video was compiled and edited by David Aman.)
With hardly any time to revel in our victory, Steve gave us our next instructions. Comprehension dawned on my foggy brain. Wait, WHAT??!! OH. MY. GOD. I have to ride this whole Dragon thingy down again AND ride the crazy route at the beginning to get out??!! All of the promotional garbage lied! It’s not 318 curves in 11 miles, the Dragon is 636 curves in 22 miles – you can’t go up without coming back down! Somehow I didn’t bargain on that. I could hardly even stand upright much less grip my bike. Whose idea was this anyway? How did I get into this mess?!! Does AAA do airlifts? It wouldn’t do me any good if they did; we had no cell or GPS service – none. There was no communication with anything but nature out here in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Get a grip woman! On the way up we passed an overlook to the Calderwood Dam. We would ride back a mile or so to that point, get off our bikes and take some pictures, then ride back down to the gift shops and regroup again. I shakily got on my bike and was none too steady pulling back onto the road. I stopped and took a few breaths. David was kind enough to give me encouragement and he was clearly concerned for me. I didn’t want to be a baby and cause him reason to take his concentration off his own ride, so I sucked it up, got a grip and said, “let’s go.”
Let me interject here that until I researched the area in preparation for writing this blog (not in advance of riding it – that would have been too much like logic) I was unaware of the water features in the area. Remember me talking about (sort of) seeing the steam rolling off the river on the route up? That’s no river. It’s a really, really, long, skinny lake. The view looking down from the Calderwood Dam overlook was almost as dizzying as the view looking up to the rocky cliffs at the Fontana Dam at on Route 28.
An older gentleman rider was taking in the view at the same overlook and he made a point to say hello to me. I glanced at his bike and immediately recognized him as the first rider I let pass by me earlier. I apologized profusely for not being cognizant early enough of his presence and hoped he wasn’t angry that I impeded his path. He was so kind. Turns out he lives nearby and rides the dragon multiple times a day on different bikes. This was his 3rd ride that day and was in no hurry whatsoever. In fact, he said he enjoyed riding behind me and in his experienced eyes he noted I was “really getting on it.” That’s all I needed to hear. I could have kissed him! My shattered confidence needed a desperate boost. I had no reason to doubt my own ability but I had moved well beyond the point of riding for challenge – I was now simply riding to stay upright and my day was far from over. Even if he was full of crap and attempting to charm his way into hooking up, I used his words (genuine or not) as a battle cry of encouragement which gave me a few 1Ups and I felt my life meter refill. A few more pictures and “see ya at the bottoms” and we all peeled off down the mountain at our own paces. Thankfully, the ride DOWN the dragon was not only easier, it was way more enjoyable. Somehow the physics of the turns going the other way were waaaaay less intimidating. Instead of clinging on for dear life, I found that familiar smile creeping across my face again, reminding me how much I LOVED riding. I loosened up and rode those turns as if I was barrel racing on my favorite horse. Piece of cake!
Careful not to pull another (almost) Lindsey, David and I pulled expertly into the Killboy gift shop to find Will and Steve waiting for us. They nervously asked if we’d seen Greig. We had not, he left before all of us and if anything he should be here already. We all paced around fretfully. What if he wrecked and was off the road somewhere? UGH, I didn’t want to imagine him lying in a twisted wreck viciously impaled on a tree. Now’s a good time to remind you once again, that we had NO CELL SERVICE! No one could call anyone, so we were reliant on making visual contact to communicate. Finally Steve and Will made the decision to go back up and look for Greig. David and I stayed at the bottom to wait for them to return and to let Greig know where the others were if he showed up in the meantime, because, he WAS going to show up! Trying not to worry, David and I ate some snacks, took turns using the restrooms and browsed the gift shops again. We snapped some fun pictures in front of the iconic statues to pass the time:
Time passed ever so slowly… We waited and waited and waited… It was something like an hour and 20 minutes later and NONE OF THEM came back off the mountain. Darkness was beginning to creep over us and the vapor from the lake was quickly becoming fog. Soon both would envelop us completely and we still had that intense ride back down route 28 to contend with followed by another 3 hour ride to get back to Wendy and Michael’s haven in Asheville. Sometime between 7 and 8 PM David made the call, that for our own safety, we needed to leave right now. Dammit, that put an even bigger monkey wrench in the works. Since no one could communicate, we couldn’t even let the guys know we were leaving and we had no way of knowing if ANY of them had gotten away from the Dragon alive. I felt like a deserter. But David was right, we HAD to go. Given the deteriorating conditions, we took this ride much more slowly and cautiously. We drank in the beauty of the lake and paused to take another pic of in front of the cliffs at Fontana Dam.
After this brief pause to admire nature, we pressed on. We had to get out of the wilderness as quickly as possible. Eventually we came to a rest area along the highway which had cell signal. God bless modern technology! Coincidentally, Will had pulled into the same rest stop at nearly the same time!! He let us know that everyone was safe and that Greig had misunderstood the last instructions Steve gave us. Instead of meeting at the Calderwood Dam overlook, he kept on going all the way to the Calderwood dam itself! He was waiting, and waiting, and waiting for us to arrive. A simple misunderstanding coupled with no technology caused more than a bit of panic for all of us. At this point our phones lit up with text messages from Greig explaining his error apologetically. I was so happy he was safe that I didn’t care at all – no apology needed. (I will, however, punch him in the arm next time I see him!) There was a plan for us to meet for drinks that evening, but the day had turned into such a fiasco, I just wanted to get back to my comfy bed with no more incidences. We called our spouses (who were freaking out at this point since we hadn’t contacted them in many hours) and reassured them we were alive and well. The “well” part was a little manufactured, but we had to placate them. We hit the road hard and tried to keep our bleary eyes open. We were far, far from calling it a day – in fact it was well into night at this time and we had hours (PLURAL) to ride yet. The temperature dropped like a rock and we resorted to putting on our rain gear as an extra outer layer of protection against the cold. (It’s also more highly reflective so hopefully we would be a bit more visible to the surrounding highway traffic.) Poor David was leading the way and was shaking so badly from the cold I’m surprised he kept his motorcycle on the road at all; he had way fewer layers on than I did so I was a little less bone-chilled than he was. God bless him for navigating us over the mountains through fog and darkness on unfamiliar roads. Fortunately we didn’t have to dodge any deer but you know they were out there lurking just out of sight. Pulling up to our hosts’ community entrance, we called for them to open the gate. Now, you’re thinking we made it. NO. WE. DIDN’T. Go back and refresh your memory on the hellacious roads of their fancy, schmancy, mountainside resort. It’s now around 11:30 PM, there’s no streetlights and no reflectors. AND NO GUARDRAILS! Somehow we navigated to their impossible driveway. Dear Lord, if I can just make it to the top without dropping my bike, I swear I’ll become a nun! God never left my side and put wings on our motos and got us safely to the top and into their garage. When I turned that key off I wanted to kiss the concrete beneath my feet. Michael, you’ve got tequila? I NEED IT! STAT. You’re not gonna believe what’s transpired since we left you this morning….
While Wendy slept (just how she did that I’ll never know) Michael fed David and I our alcoholic beverages of choice while we recounted our adventures with trembling hands. Sometime in the middle of the night we retired to bed. The next day, we pulled ourselves together and in a haze made the 6 plus hour ride back to Raleigh. Long stretches of straight highway used to be the bane of my existence, but for some reason I had never been more grateful for them.
We did it. We slayed a dragon and everyone lived to tell the tale! When asked, “how was it?” My reply has been and will always be, “The Dragon is a pucker factor of 11 on the sphincter scale, and the scale only goes to 10.”
My payoff? Some awesome shots to prove I did it and some grandchildren-worthy stories to tell.
A fun little video of a hotdog ACTUALLY pulling off an honest-to-God Lindsey Jacobellis-style showboat just minutes before me on the timeline. I normally never poke fun at somebody wrecking, but he rode away with a thumbs up and wasn’t hurt. Laugh at your own risk. Karma could be coming to bite you: