There are many different ways a trip can come about. Sometimes it’s a destination with a definite purpose, while other times it’s just an undefined journey to nowhere in particular. Earlier this year my wife started talking about taking a cruise. Now many people enjoy cruises, I for one am not one of those people, at least not when there is an LT in the garage that is often very neglected. I can’t even use my LT to commute to work since it’s less than a half mile from my front door to my office. I guess I could ride down the road for 20 or 30 miles and then back to work each morning, but I fear the BBS (bad bike syndrome) and ultimately losing my job.
Anyway, as the cruise plans progressed and it was clear that my previous opinions on taking a cruise had been well stated, she wasn’t including me in the trip. Making a determination that in her absence I could starve to death since the usual operations in the kitchen area would be non-existent, I better come up with a plan. Checking with the boss he allowed me to take the same week off as she was going to be on the cruise. Without a real destination or plan I initially set out to ride up to the NC/TN/N. GA areas if the weather permitted and do some sightseeing and a little photography.
Shortly after this trip started coming together, Don Norwood posted a reminder about the Eldridge Children’s Home Benefit and I made a quick check of the calendar. The first Saturday in December, outstanding, for once my time off actually corresponds with a planned event. Only 800 miles from the house, so I’ll have all week to make it to Eldridge, AL and a day and a half to get back home, perfect.
Well now I have a destination and a week to get there. It was time to start planning where I could spend the first part of the week. The mountains are starting to see some temperatures that would normally not be conducive to motorcycling (for a Florida boy) and freezing temperatures were beginning to be forecast at higher elevation more and more frequently. A trip the last week of November and the first few days of December is a gamble. Looking at average temperatures for the areas I wanted to go, indicated that I might get lucky. I decided to wait till I could get into the 10 day forecast range to make somewhat more definite plans. With just a few days to go before the trip it appeared like I’m going to get lucky and catch a break between cold fronts and have great weather for this time of year. Then just when I thought I had definite a plan, Bruce Harris posts a challenge to the SE Forum that he is going to ride up to New Jersey for the Polar Bear Grand Tour lunch in Hopewell. I checked with Bruce to see if he minds a wingman on the trip and he graciously welcomes me along for the ride. Plans were finalized on Thanksgiving Day and I was headed to New Jersey. A quick check of the route on my mapping software comes up with an error message, “New Jersey! Have you lost your mind it’s the end of November….recalculation route!”
Bruce indicated that we could meet up in Richmond, VA and head north to the RTE. I put in my mileage and figured the travel time with stops and calculated a 0330 departure to meet him a 1400. All went well and by stretching my fuel stops I made it the 700 miles at interstate speeds with two fuel stops after starting with a full tank. Bruce’s experience with the roads in the North East made the ride much less nerve racking. His knowledge really came in handy getting out of town the next day. He guided us through the holiday traffic without a hitch. We stopped for the night just outside of Delaware. Since we only had about 100 miles ride in the morning to make it to the RTE, we kick around a little Sunday morning before heading out on nearly traffic free roads headed northbound. The southbound traffic was already building early as folks were returning home from the holiday weekend. Bruce had already planned for this and had us an escape route to the east to bypass the congestion. We arrived early to the RTE location and were pleased to see several others already doing some tire kicking. Following Bruce’s brief demonstration of the hydraulic center stand for the early arrivals, we worked our way around the lot checking out what others had rode in for the day. Due to the great weather the turnout was impressive. We found our way to the registration table, signed up and logged our mileage. We got several looks from the crowd gathered around the table when we indicated that we came in from North Carolina and Florida. To complete the event, we dined on a cheeseburger and fries before heading out from the event. As mentioned earlier, Bruce had a plan to get us around the traffic and it was flawless. We headed east and turned south near Gettysburg. At our final fuel stop together, I made a plan to stop for the night in Front Royal, VA to ride Skyline Drive on Monday. When we reached I-66 I headed west over to Front Royal and Bruce continued south to his home. Since the weather had started to deteriorate and it had become rainy and darkness had fell upon us, I felt guilty knowing I’d be warm and dry many hours before Bruce made it to his bed. I had to get back into the route planning mode again since I no longer had Bruce’s taillights to follow aimlessly as I had done for the previous day and a half. I was able to get the weather report and found that the wet weather would continue into the next day.
After a good nights rest, I fueled up and headed to the park for my ride down Skyline Drive. The lady at the gate informed me upon my arrival that everything in the park was closed for the winter and I most likely would have the place to myself. I inquired about ice and she indicated that the roads should be clear, but it was going to be very foggy.
I entered the park with my digital rifle to shoot some wildlife that may be out in the pea soup weather. During the 100 plus mile ride through the park I only encountered one civilian vehicle in either direction. I was able to shoot a few stragglers along side the road, but most of the critters had long since found a winter resting place.
Stopping at Big Meadows found a few park staff securing the area for the winter and they inquired why I was out on such a terrible day and I briefly explained my journey. My explanation was received with a few “are you stupid” looks, similar to the reaction of my wife’s when I laid out my itinerary to her. They wished me well as the winds started to pick-up and I continued my ride.
I made it out of the park and headed over to Waynesboro, VA for a hot meal and found a charming place named “Weasie’s” that had a $4.95 lunch special that hit the spot. A quick stop at an outfitter store in town helped me replace my auxiliary fuel bottle that was waiting for me on the floor in the garage back home and replacement bite valve for the Camelback that had jumped ship on a previous trip.
Bruce had indicated that he was heading home on US 29 and following my brief visit to Waynesboro I headed out to pick-up his cold trail. The fog had lessened at the lower elevation, but the wet conditions continued throughout the rest of the day. I continued south and set my sights on I-40 for the night where I could quickly shoot over to the initial destination of the trip. I found a room with an appealing rate, and had a vending machine dinner before bedding down for the night. The weather report called for some strong storms as much of the south had been hit late Monday night as the system pulled warm air up from the gulf. I decided to head out early to clear the morning traffic before the interstate became a parking lot in the wet conditions. I made it over to Asheville, NC without incident and found that I had gotten well west of the bad weather. I rewarded myself to a Waffle House feast and found my waitress was a Florida native and had moved to the area several years earlier. At this point it was time to slow down a little and do a little flower sniffing or the similar type activity for this time of year. I left the interstate and started in on the back roads of NC. I eventually worked my way over to Robbinsville, NC and found a room where I unloaded my gear. After reducing the load on the LT I headed out for some fun.
Obliviously, when staying in Robbinsville, the first order of business is the “Dragon”. It was as expected for this time of year, leaves, pine needles and sand in the corners. That’s alright with me since I’m not a real corner carver anyway. Arriving at the overlook I saw an older gentleman sitting on the wall enjoying the great weather along side his trusty metric cruiser. We talked for a while and several sport bike riders arrived and joined in the conversation. The sport biker riders were locals who get together when they can during the week to ride when traffic is lighter. Several had just installed electric grips to extend their riding season and were very pleased with the results. I joined them on a run across the Dragon although they were long out of sight after a few corners. I hoped that none of them pushed too hard and rode with an awareness for the conditions. I found each had done so at the store and each of us made the trip back to the overlook. I parted ways and headed over the Foothills Parkway and into Townsend, TN. Still on a quest to digitally bag a few deer or other wildlife, I headed into Cades Cove. Normally I avoid this loop on the bike since even the most reserved person can become a raving lunatic with the traffic. Entering the loop, I found traffic to be much lighter due to the time of year, but I wasn’t disappointed with the critters who always pose for the best shot. After spending some time in the park I decided to head back to Robbinsville and my warm bed.
The most direct route with nightfall approaching was to cut back across the parkway and make my 4th ride of the Dragon for the day. Upon reaching the Dragon it was dark and I thought this is going to be interesting. I was pleasantly surprised that it was dry and nearly completely swept clear of debris. I guess the afternoon traffic was heavy enough to change the conditions. This is a very neat ride after dark. Having made many rides along this stretch I usually know which corner is next and the one after that. Darkness changes your reference points and the ride felt like the first time again. I picked my way along the route and never encountered another vehicle the whole way until I was well past the store headed towards Robbinsville.
I planned on making the big loop the next day by starting with a run through Nantahala Gouge which Don Norwood had shown me during CCR in Gatlinburg. I started early so that I would arrive on Wayah Road at daylight. I wasn’t disappointed with the view, it remains priceless, as I worked my way to the top along the river with the temperature showing 25 on the trip computer.
I shot back down and stopped for some breakfast before heading over to Cherokee and a trip through the National Park. Traffic in the park was as expected, light for this time of year, and the signs posted by the park service warned of ice on the roads.
Hoping for the best, having never encountered ice in a car, let alone a motorcycle, I headed for the gap. There were signs of the previous storm everywhere, but only one small spot of ice was encounters on the way up. At the gap, there was gravel and maybe the remains of salt everywhere (I’m from Florida what do I know, we use salt for the grits).
I stopped for some photos at the gap and spent nearly 30 minutes talking with a man and his wife about their bike and rides they had taken. He was interested in what kind of gear he could purchase to extend his riding time. I gave him the “I’m from Florida, I’m learning everyday myself!”
Leaving them behind, I headed down the other side and quickly cleared the less than desirable road conditions. Out of the park, I stopped for something I could take with me for lunch on my next leg. With a full tank of fuel I headed back across the Foothills Parkway turning right on 129 to make my way to Tellico Plains and a trip across Cherohala. Again, this is a ride that never disappoints. I stopped at an overlook for lunch and was shortly joined by local hunters in search of their dogs with the radio tracking devises. Man I though looking for hounds in a “flat” Florida pine block was tough, these guys were going from mountain top to mountain top trying to get a signal. Luck was again on my side as I encounter very little poor road conditions and most of the slick stuff was limited to the edges of the road. It appears that I successfully made my loop in late November without any adverse conditions or conditions that affected my reserved riding style.
Thursday was a travel day. My mission was to head west to the Eldridge Children’s Home Benefit. I made my way west on 74 and took in the morning view along Lake Ocoee now free of the rafters and traffic that fill this area during the summer months. I joined up with the interstate to make some time and soon found the urge for a Cracker Barrel breakfast too strong to overcome. After getting my fill of grits and eggs and everything you can cut off a hog and cook I headed southwest towards Birmingham with a few detours on some interesting side roads. Mid afternoon found me nearing the Mississippi line and lead to a short ride up part of the Trace to see some of the damage left by Hurricane Katrina as she moved inland following the brutal assault on the coast.
Thursday evening I found myself attending a meeting with the benefit team for the children’s ride as a guest of Don Norwood and I really got to see first hand the dedication these men and women put into this event. This group had worked for months to ensure each child was provided for and that the riders attending would be received in grand fashion. Forecasts for the weather that had earlier in the week been positive had started to look less than optimum and it showed on the team members faces. Many had planned to take time out of there schedules to return to the Children’s Home on Friday to finish last minute preparations.
Don had opened his home up to me for the weekend and allowed me to assist in the Friday activities as he made stops around the community to finalize last minute details and pick-up donated items for the benefit. He, along with the rest of the team, gave unselfishly to ensure this was the best it could be. Once the details were finalized we met up with Fletcher Clark in town, and were joined shortly at Don’s home by Al Hennigan who I got the pleasure to meet for the first time. Don had arraigned for everyone to meet at Woodpecker’s Steakhouse for an impromptu RTE. Before supper, I got the opportunity to ride Fletcher’s new RT a little bit. Man what a machine. Along with Tony Davis, who some may have met in Breckenridge on his Harley, we headed out in search of Bruce Harris who was making his way from North Carolina. Once Bruce was in tow we joined Tim and Shirl who are also on the Benefit Team and there son Zack at the restaurant for a great meal. Tim and I had spent time the previous evening discussing the virtues of man-tracking with a bloodhound, something we both share a common interest in outside of motorcycling. After the meal we adjourned to the Norwood residence for more conversation and fellowship.
The scheduled departure Saturday morning to Amory, MS for the start of the ride was set at 0800, the coffee pot was set to come on at 0600. There were no stragglers on this morning, as everyone was packed and suited up around 0700. We got on the road early for a breakfast in Amory and then to the starting point at the Wal-Mart parking lot. The weather did in fact have an influence on the number of riders. While the rains held off during the actual ride, many encountered some less than wished for conditions traveling to the various starting points. Right on time, the ride departed Amory and worked its way back into Alabama with a law enforcement escort that allowed us to blast through all intersections and travel above the posted speed limits in spots. We picked up riders along the route and made a brief stop for those who had a little too much coffee before hand. As the group traveled along the route, folks waved to the parade of bikers making their way to Eldridge. It seemed like everyone in the community had come out to see the riders. As we neared the home, the train was now complete and everyone entered the grounds to the priceless expression on the children’s faces.
Folks quickly shed their gear and proceeded to the registration tables and purchased the great looking patches, rockers and t-shirts designed for the benefit. Before us was laid out a feast fit for a king and everyone had a great lunch with plenty of food to spare. As the events proceeded, I was force by time constraints to begin my journey back home, how could have week gone by so quickly?
While traveling back down towards Birmingham on the same route I had used returning from CCR- Breckenridge I remembered trying to outrun one of last year’s hurricanes that made a Florida landfall. Fortunately, this ride was much more relaxed, with only the feeling one gets at the end of a vacation when the mind starts to shift back into work mode for Monday morning. I rode until around 2300 hours and stopped for the night and got some shut eye before heading out in the morning for the final 300 mile leg home.
I knew attempting a trip this late in the year with the destinations selected was a gamble, but I got lucky and had good weather. I got to see some areas of the county that I had never seen or never been to this time of year. While I didn’t exactly earn the true “year round rider” designation that some of our brethren in the “Great White North” can claim, I did do some extended riding in conditions that this Florida boy had never tackled. It’s always good to be home, but the fellowship that you meet along the road and the acquaintance from this forum always keep you ready to “go again”. It was a great 4048 miles.