Category archive: A Dragon’s Tale
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:
Heroes are born from adversity
Being extremely organized (not OCD!), I was up early to consider my needs and re-pack my provisions for the day. I would need some basic items like food, water, and rain gear but not all my clothing and toiletries. I could forego the unwieldy (and obnoxious) tail bag if I carefully filled the precious space in my tank bag – NOT that I wanted to carry that ugly thing either, but a full day’s ride meant I needed to pack like a prepper. My buddy Greig Hochreiter (of Devolve Moto) had assembled a fine team of superheroes to mount an assault on the winged, fire-breathing beast slumbering in the mountains so my partner David and I were obligated to arrive with a complete arsenal of weapons of our own. Feeling satisfied that all was in order, I got dressed and strolled downstairs with all my gear in hand. We ate a leisurely breakfast and killed time chatting with our gracious hosts until the riders up call was sounded. Our meetup was at high noon in Bryson City, about an hour and twenty minutes west of our current location, so if we left at 10 AM we would have plenty of time to get there and dally along the way. While David was outside checking the oil in his bike, I frittered away some time playing with Charlie, who was intent on ferociously shaking and “killing” her favorite toy: a dragon no less.
I contented myself with a cursory T-CLOCS inspection not being overly concerned as the Falcon is practically brand new and it was in fine shape last night when I kissed her goodnight. Eh, it all looks the same as ever – turn signals work, brake lights work, nothing puncturing the tires, oil is good, hey is that a little bubble in my brake fluid reservoir? Nah, it’s probably always looked like that. Well OK then, all good to go! We mounted up and launched off down the ski jump driveway. Wheeeeee … hmmm, do my brakes feel funny? Well, that was a heck of a hill we just came down; I probably had to squeeze the lever harder than normal to stop … I’m sure it’s my imagination … Gee, I don’t remember David’s bike smelling like that yesterday … Is that smoke? OK, yes, that is most definitely a huge plume of black smoke. What in the WORLD??? By now I’d figured out there’s something seriously wrong with his moto which is blowing oil like the Exxon Valdez. I backed waaaaaay off to keep from getting splattered and choked to death by the geyser spewing forth from his bike but I had to find a way to get him to stop. Fortunately at the next intersection as I wheeled up to him frantically trying to get his attention he had figured out there was a problem, especially seeing as his right pant leg, now sopping wet with oil was the only thing stemming the gushing tide of black gold. A look down and – DOH – he had forgotten to replace the oil cap.
<Deep sigh>. Back to square one we went. While David got busy hosing down his now slick and glistening motorcycle, Michael, kindly went to the store to buy him more oil. Have I mentioned that our hosts are the most gracious people EVER??!! With our early head start blown, instead of killing time, now we were going to be late. We texted Greig and he was running behind too so no worries, we were OK. For real? Whew, dodged a bullet there. I shook off the anxious feeling that this was a bad sign.
An hour and a half later, bike and man were good as new and here we go down the ski jump again…. Uh-oh, I am NOT imagining it, my brakes feel really spongy. Ignore, ignore ignore, lets just get on down the road. Um… that bubble in the reservoir is most definitely getting bigger – it’s like taking up half the tank now. UGH, I do NOT want to deal with another delay, especially one that requires a mechanic to fix. CRAP, I can’t ignore this any longer. So I blew David off on the highway and took the next exit knowing he’d follow. We pulled into a gas station and inspected the situation. There was indeed a leak and you could see fluid spurting out the bottom banjo bolt with every squeeze of the brake lever. It was nothing we could fix ourselves so now I had to face the fact that I had a real problem. My hopes for meeting the guys and riding the Dragon were dashed. I was just praying I could locate a motorcycle shop that could take me in on the fly at noon on a Saturday and patch me up good enough to get back home. If not, I figured I might be able to buy some brake fluid and keep refilling the reservoir as it leaked out and at least limp home praying nothing broke loose for real and left me with no brakes at all. “Go on without me, I’ll only hold you back – Save yourself” I dramatically cried and offered myself up sacrificially like the damsel in distress whose twisted ankle struck her down amidst a zombie horde hungrily clawing at her legs. Or maybe it more like a stoic admission that I was doomed but there was no reason he couldn’t at least accomplish what we set out to do – someone has to survive to slay that dragon!! AVENGE ME….. (Hey, it’s my story – there’s room for zombies, Vermithrax, and Wolverines.)
But in true loyal, hero fashion, David refused that notion outright and stuck by me. He was magnanimous enough to accept that if nothing else, we had an adventure in just getting this far. Another text to Greig to tell him that I had a breakdown and we probably couldn’t make it at all was answered by, “Get it fixed and hit the road, we’ll wait.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME? These are some patient and good-hearted fellows I’m surrounded with! Feeling emboldened, I started Google searching for motorcycle shops on my phone. The first shop that came up was the one I called: MR Motorcycle in Asheville. They are not a Ducati dealer, but after explaining my symptoms it seemed like something they could repair and they could get me in immediately. Thank you Jesus again! It was only 6 or 7 miles away and as long as there weren’t too many stops I could manage by engine braking – I do that most of the time anyway, which is why my leak probably didn’t show itself more than it did before now. Pulling into their lot was a bit like pulling into Motorcycle Mecca. They had a separate building for service and their showroom eclipsed anything I’d ever seen at least in regards to non-Harley shops. Jason in service was kind and easy to work with and Tex, the mechanic was incredible!! He finished his lunch early so he could get me fixed up. While we waited we strolled through the showroom in what I called the Candy Store. OMG they have EVERYTHING… I want one of those, one of those, two of those… I honestly wasn’t too disappointed to be stuck there, but my bank account might have suffered irreparable damage if we lingered too long. Fortunately the guys were quick and efficient and got us out in no time. And yet there it was again – that nagging feeling this was another bad sign …
By now it was well after noon and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. There was a little bar/restaurant nearby so we swung in there to regroup and refuel. Upon leaving we had to wait on a little uphill incline before we could jump out into 2 lanes of fast moving traffic to our right. We waited forever it seemed and finally David settled on a wide enough gap in the oncoming cars to make his move. I released the clutch to fall in and BAM! In a blink of an eye the Falcon and I were suddenly and savagely slammed to the ground. She had bucked me off like a bronco stung by a bee in the belly. Who the? What the? How the? My elbow was in immense pain and I was lying in the middle of a street with a 400 lb motorcycle on me, so I couldn’t take time to ponder how we got there. I had to get my horse back on her feet – NOW. I tried the backwards lift thingy I’d seen demonstrated on videos, but holy cow, that’s not as easy as they make it look. I got her about up to my calves and was about to go for another heave when a red Jeep Wrangler came screeching in behind me. The guy jumped out, picked my bike up like it was a 10 speed and asked if I was OK. I told him I was fine and before I could hardly thank him, he and his girl sped off out of sight. Thank you Jesus for sending angels to my rescue yet again.
Right about now, David had figured out that I’m not in his mirrors so he’s thinking there might be something amiss. Ah, there he is, I knew he wouldn’t leave me. After a U-turn, he arrived on the scene and was clearly shocked to find me standing next to my bike and not on it. He took charge and calmly helped me to a nearby parking lot and I tried to make sense of what in the hell just happened. I could feel my wobbly, adrenaline filled muscles begging me to just sit down quietly but my elbow was screaming in pain and I was torn between crying like a little girl and kicking the ever living shit out of something. I opted instead for objectively assessing the damage to my body and the Falcon before giving any more thought to why or how it happened. I took off my jacket and made a visual inspection of my right arm. Oooh, that’s gonna leave a mark.
I’m pretty tough though and have survived much worse (like my horse brutally breaking my nose with the back of her head causing a fountain of blood to spew down my front as I tumbled to the ground writhing in pain. Not once, mind you, but on three separate occasions). My current injury wasn’t that gruesome and nothing appeared to be broken or in need of stitches, so while this was going be sucky, it was far from sidelining. The Falcon suffered only minor, superficial injuries: the tip of the brake lever snapped off (no big deal, my hunny had already ordered me hot new sporty, shorty racing levers for my birthday!!), the right mirror was scraped up and loose but fully functioning with a little tightening, and there was a scuff on the muffler cover. Like every warrior, my Falcon obtained some battle scars to add to her character and charm. I could live with this.
Unlike the earlier brake line failure or great Gulf oil spill, there was no blame to pin on another party for this setback; it was all on stupid me – on soooo many levels.
- First, I chose my riding attire based upon two things – warmth and looks. It was easy to justify: It’s chilly in the mountains and I should be wearing my warmest gear, and, everyone knows you’re going to get some cool professional pics while riding the Dragon, so I should be sporting my best Fonzie leather look, duh. Buuuuut this is my only jacket without elbow armor. — Oh believe me, I mulled that over before I left my home and still went with that choice anyway. I even mentioned my misgivings about lacking those crucial pieces of protection to Michael, David, and Wendy before leaving the mountain side retreat this morning. Karma??
- And second, the Falcon didn’t just decide to violently throw us both into the pavement. Nope. I popped the clutch and stalled her. BTW, stalling an 803 cc Ducati is nothing like stalling my little 250 cc Suzuki. Not. Even. Close. And why did I pop that clutch? My only defense is that I was holding it in the friction zone to keep from rolling backwards on that little incline and I needed to be able to gas it and go when a sliver of an opportunity presented itself. I didn’t reckon on sitting there so long though. I guess I just forgot where my hand was and when I let it go it was already so far out that the little bit of throttle I rolled on wasn’t nearly enough. As my dear, dear friend Pastor Jim Gillespie always says, “more throttle.” Apparently there’s no problem big enough that more throttle can’t fix; so far in my experience he’s been spot on with that advice. <Bigger Deep Sigh>
So just how thick did we have to be? There was no mistaking it now, this was surely a sign from God telling us to just turn tail and skip the ride altogether. The day was getting on and we still had 3 hours to go just to get to the base of the Dragon, then we had to somehow survive that storied monster, and ride back to Asheville the same night. How many more demons could we withstand? It seemed insurmountable.
Hold on a minute – – I’m not a sacrificial maiden. And I’m not a quitter dammit – even when I should be. David isn’t either, God bless him. So with all the resolve we could muster we beat a path to Bryson City where our cohorts were (not so much now) patiently waiting for our arrival. We had a beast to tame and wussing out was not an option!
The final chapter is about to unfold.
Hitgirl meets a worthy adversary
It was 6 PM or so on a Thursday evening when I saw a Facebook post from my friend Greig Hochreiter of Devolve Moto looking for folks interested in meeting up for a ride on Saturday. No big deal, just a little jaunt through the western Carolina mountains culminating in a saunter down a widely known and well traveled country road which promised splendid views and exciting curves. Sounds like a perfect afternoon excursion right? Except that the starting point was 6 hours away. And the country road? It was another 3 hours farther and is none other than the infamous Tail of the Dragon which winds though the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee! What’s that? You’ve never heard of this not-so-mythical beast? Let me enlighten you:
“Sure, I’m in!” I enthusiastically (and hastily) answered up. Then it hit me that in order to arrive at the meetup time I would have to ride most of the day on Friday to get there AND I would need to stay the night on Saturday AND I would need all of Sunday to ride home. Very quickly, an impromptu little ride had turned into a 3 day mini vacation with all kinds of expenses. Oops. I’m nothing if not impulsive. I called my husband and asked if he wanted to go, but he couldn’t get the time off work and he so kindly gave me his blessing to go it alone. I googled lodging choices as fast as I could and called what appeared to be a good one. My skill (luck) in picking out decent places was getting a workout lately. I made my reservations then I ripped off a short email apologizing to my co-workers for the sudden notice, but I would be out of the office and unavailable until Monday. Then I ran to the grocery store to load up on supplies, came home, boiled some eggs and organized the chuck wagon. Before I can hardly get the grime off my gear from the last road trip, I’m repacking for the next one. I didn’t have time to wash any specific clothes but fortunately most of my intended garments were already clean and fresh, so right before bed I quickly and carefully packed my tailbag.
The next morning, while going through emails and taking care of last minute work items online my good friend and fellow filmmaker, David Aman (he shot and edited our hilarious JDRF Egg Crack Challenge video) hit me up and asked me if I was going on the ride. He had just found out about it but thought he could make quick (REAL quick) arrangements and go too, and if I could wait for him we could ride together. I was happy to do that. It would be nice to have a partner on a long ride for a change. Fortunately for us, both David’s wife Wendy and my husband Neel are secure spouses who understand that our partnership only extends to film making and traveling. When I met up with David in Durham, he asked me where I was staying and offered me a place to sleep at his friends’ house in Asheville where he was going, saying that he’d already cleared it with them and I was welcome. I didn’t think I could get out of my reservation so late but I gave it a shot because I would love to save on that expense. I called and they let me off the hook with no penalties or charges. Yippee! Now I was on the road to an unknown destination. I smell another adventure….
Speaking of smell, I’m not really a clean freak (if you’ve been to my house you are nodding your head) but I have my weirdnesses like anyone. I don’t mind sleeping in a barn, in a horse trailer, or under the stars on the ground, but I have an aversion to sleeping in a stranger’s house. I’m not so much a germophobe as I am a smellophobe. I have an extremely sensitive olfactory organ, so much so, that I’ve bandied about taking up a career as a drug sniffing dog (don’t laugh, I can smell your weed a mile away even in a lead container buried in a landfill). And speaking of dogs, do these people have a pack of smelly, mangy curs who want to bowl me over and sleep in my bed? Do they even know what that toilet brush is used for? Do I dare sit on that couch (ew, what are those stains)? I should have been concerned about the ferocity of the Dragon and my ability to endure 3 days of riding, but noooo, my mind was now occupied with horrific thoughts of sleeping on a filthy mattress and sharing a bio-hazardous bathroom. My inner delicate diva was having a serious cat fight with my outwardly badass persona.
Kind of like a cage match between
Scarlett O’hara and Sarah Connor.
Other than my private anxiety regarding my (surely) dubious accommodations, we had an extremely enjoyable, if not monotonous, ride on Friday. It got a bit dicey, however, the closer we got to Asheville in the mountains. It begin raining enough to cause us to pull over and put on rain gear on the side of the highway and the traffic was simply dreadful. Oh, and the highway in that area was under construction to boot. Lots of cones, barrels, lane shifts and those diagonal rut-like grooves in the road that cause your motorcycle tires to track them right into the concrete barrier if you’re not careful. I found out later that the traffic snarls were mainly a result of college dorm move-in weekend for all the big schools in the vicinity like UNC Ashville and Western Carolina. So there we were, right smack dab in the middle of Hormonal Highway in the pouring rain, dodging construction obstacles surrounded by lane hopping minivans laden down with ALL the essential college survival gear (kitchen sink anyone?) carrying pimply faced passengers in high hopes of encountering the opposite sex without supervision, moms who can barely keep their emotions in check as they verbally vomit every life instruction ever to their eye-rolling fledgling, and piloted by white-knucked, exasperated dads who know better than to say anything to anyone. David, who was wearing a Bluetooth unit on his helmet, was getting audible GPS turn-by-turn directions in his ear so he had just enough time to adjust his course to the next lane or exit ramp as needed, but I did not, so I stuck to his back tire like a sticky booger you can’t flick off your finger and watched for any indication he was going to make a move while keeping my eyes peeled for other drivers making an un-signaled dart into my lane. All of this was a bit unnerving, but oddly exciting too. Just another day in paradise…
We finally got off the highway and began the hunt for the dwelling of these so-called friends of David’s. The winding country roads were just what the doctor ordered after 6 or so hours of highway nonsense. Ah, Asheville, what a stunning locale – when you can look at it properly instead of scanning for an unobstructed path of travel that is. I’ve never been here before so it was a treat to get to see it on a motorcycle. Pretty soon we were well out in the country weaving down rural roads. “Ooh look, there’s a field full of wild turkeys, and look over there, a herd of deer. Oh right, he can’t hear me – I don’t have a Bluetooth system in my helmet. Oh well, I’ll have to remember to ask him if he saw them. Hey wait….just how far out are we going? Do I hear banjos???” Yeah, those were some of the thoughts rolling around up there in my attic.
After a brief stop and phone call to verify our location and get final directions we approached the entrance to a GATED COMMUNITY on the side of a mountain and were met by our lovely hostess Wendy (don’t get confused – not David’s wife – this is another Wendy, but not Peter Pan’s Wendy – another one). You heard right folks, it appeared that we were headed to an honest-to-God palace – not a rundown, leaky shack with a thatch roof and flea-bitten mongrels slobbering on me. Thank you Jesus! Wendy informed us that she had a very steep driveway so be prepared. Yeah, I’ve seen steep, you’re not gonna surprise me, I thought. The gate slid open and onward and upward we rode into a most magnificent neighborhood of homes complete with a country club and golf course. The roads were so narrow, twisty, and steep that the center line was more of a guideline to keep you on them rather than a divider between lanes. In fact, the roads were almost single lane width and there were no guardrails protecting anyone from plunging down the mountainside and no reflectors or lights in place to help you even see the road. Which wasn’t a problem as it was still daylight….now. It was a fabulous ride to get to our hosts’ home. And then the driveway suddenly loomed up out of the earth in front of me like Godzilla rising from the ocean. Did she say steep? She was being modest; she meant VERTICAL!! Not even exaggerating. Think ski-jump ramp. I waited until she made it up in her car and David made it up on his bike, and then I held my breath, gunned it and flew up it to the top all Robbie Maddison Las Vegas style. (C’mon, it’s only a minute and a half long – you know you want to click this video and honestly you only need to see the first 11 seconds.)
“Hot diggity dog, that was fun! Let’s do it again!” I thought after I quelled my fibrillating heart. Upon removing my helmet and getting a better look at my residence for the weekend I could see that the appearance of civilization wasn’t deceiving. Our hosts Wendy and Michael were extremely generous and their home was as splendid as any bed and breakfast I could have stayed at. And keep in mind, they had virtually no warning we were coming. David called them only this morning, so they didn’t have time to spiffy up for us. They had a complete floor of their house reserved for guests and were not just welcoming, but they were grateful to share their secluded abode us. My room was filled with all the niceties you would expect in a fine B&B: complementary toiletries, freshly laundered linens on the bed, candle burning on the dresser next to brochures hawking local attractions, a TV, and a bathroom fit for a queen. The whole house was scrupulously clean and inviting. They did have a dog, Charlie (a lab mix who was just the sweetest, most well-behaved, non-smelly girl) and an ancient kitty who reminded me of one my own babies. With a cathedral ceiling and windows on the whole wall, their living room extended through to a deck that overlooked the valley and mountains in the distance. Other than the fact my whole house could fit in one of their rooms, I felt right at home!
Our hosts gave us some time to unpack, settle in and freshen up and then provided us with some yummy fresh fruit and adult beverages. Michael, as it turns out, is a bit of a tequila connoisseur (yay me!) and kept quite a selection of fine beer as well. David easily found his drink of choice as did I. Once we were all relaxed they took us to dinner on the town at the Texas-sized estate of the Sierra Nevada Brewery. I’m not a beer drinker but if I was, you know I’d have found myself in a little slice of heaven. In addition to the brewery, they have an enormous restaurant/bar both inside and outside, a giant herb garden you can stroll through, an amphitheater, a gravel path leading off somewhere in the woods (we didn’t get too far before we were called back to our table), and they’re dog friendly. They’re also bicycle friendly. The bike racks in the front parking lot (which is hardly a lot – more like tree-lined, paved paths to park your car) have tools hanging from cables in case you need to make any repairs or tweaks. They’ve thought of everything!
We whiled away a few hours chatting over tappas style foods and drinks. I normally go to bed by 9PM and it was a bit later than that when we finally wound our way back up the mountain to their home. Although I was tired, it was a lovely way to cap off the day! I nestled into my luxurious (and fresh smelling) bedding and thought that tomorrow’s adventures are going to be AMAZING if today’s ride, our accommodations, and tonight’s events are any indication.
Bring it on Dragon, I’ve got you in my sights!
What I didn’t bargain for, was that it knew I was coming….