Dawn arrived with a motorcycle fusillade as folks
headed out for a southern breakfast.
Photo courtesy of Walter Kern
©copyright Walter Kern 2006
Every region has a local myth. There are those who believe that the temperature of North Carolina’s mountains drops to something like “Alpine” levels at night. This is pure bullshit. The tropical climate of North Carolina in the summer drops to amateur blast furnace levels after dark..
It is perfectly comfortable to sit out on the hotel porch at night, provided you have a cold can of beer tucked inside your shirt collar. The locals will glance around sheepishly and say things like, “I might have to put on my jacket,” but this is more for effect than anything else. Six minutes after sunup, it was 98º. I watched the cap on the K75’s gas tank bulge upward as gas pressure exceeded 400 pounds per square inch.
Rick suggested we cool the bikes by taking them out for a short run to the next town, which is called Cherokee, as it has a longstanding affiliation with a tribe of the same name. I was told there were “casinos” here. Gambling doesn’t hold much fascination for me, considering I’ve been married twice. But I’ve never been on an Indian reservation before and thought I’d take in the sights. I envisioned a quaint settlement where a proud and ancient people bartered leather goods and hides for cigarettes and women.
Four of us saddled up. Ricky on a Honda CBX 1800, Tony Luna on Vulcan 850, “Bob” on a tricked-out Gold Wing, and myself of a 1986 BMW K75. When I asked where the reservation was, Ricky replied, “Over the hill.”
The chrome on "Bob's" Goldwing was rivaled only by the extent
of its accent lighting, which included LEDs in the front hub
Photo courtesy of Walt Kern
©Copyright Walter Kern 2008
The “hill” commenced at the end of town where Route 19 headed west. It was four lanes of good pavement. Quite frankly, I was thrilled, thinking this was how it would be all the way. This classy stretch of asphalt ran for about two miles. Then it became a two-lane toboggan chute that changed elevation according to mood. The highway was patterned after a corkscrew.
Ricky, Bob, and Tony effortlessly leaned their machines through the curves at a death-defying speed of 45-50 mph. I could have gone that fast too, but the thought of taking the bike out of second gear seemed so ostentatious. Glancing in the mirrors, I noticed a long line of cars, trucks, buses and pedestrians behind me, stretching back to Maggie Valley. A huge motor home led the parade trailing clothes on a line. The other drivers were very friendly, with many holding a finger up, indicating that I was “Number One!”
The pavement twisted like a snake in anguish, narrowed, and became a knotted rope at one point. This didn’t surprise anyone but me. Two seconds later we arrived in Cherokee.
There are three levels of casino: Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Cherokee. Las Vegas is where you go to justify losing your shirt by watching gorgeous topless women. Atlantic City is where you go when you’re 85 and that roll of quarters is burning a hole in your pocket. Cherokee is where you go when 85-year-old women look good to you. It is not a quaint native American cultural center. It is a kind of urban partnership providing the noble Red Man a small chance to stick it to the ignoble white man with better odds.
But I loved Cherokee. For one thing, that damn mountain was behind me and everything had pretty much leveled out. Rick wanted to surprise me with something and led us into Dillsboro, which is a rather neat place with an excursion railroad. It was also a tourist destination and loaded with traffic. In the North Carolina heat, each bike became a glowing iron ingot -- neatly situated under its respective rider’s balls. It was then we discovered an authentic, old-fashioned ice cream parlor. We loitered in this place for about an hour, rolling face down in banana splits, ice cream sodas, and hot fudge sundaes.
Rick asked a few questions and determined we were in the wrong town. Forty minutes later, we pulled into Bryson City. Bryson City is also home to an excursion train. (By now you must have figured out that I like trains.) Rick popped his side stand down directly in front of Smoky Mountain Trains -- the largest collection of Lionel Trains and the most incredible scenic model railway that I have ever seen. I believe I am justified in saying that the layouts on display here are the finest in the world. None of the three guys riding with me that day have an interest in model trains, and all stood there in the door, and gasped.
The primary exhibit is one continuous layout, in perfect scale, about the size of your average summer bungalow. Trains went about their business, crossing ravines, disappearing into tunnels, stopping at stations, and hauling freight. The authentic noises were pretty much in scale too. It was unbelievable. I quit after two hours. The other guys looked at exhibits for another 40 minutes.
Incredible detail in trestles are standard at Smokey Mountain Trains
Photo by Jack Riepe
©Copyright Jack Riepe2006
Smokey Mountain Trains is for men who have not forgotten what it is like to be boys. But no boy ever played with anything like this. I would estimate the value of this layout to be about $7 million bucks... And that doesn’t include the model train collection.
Rick had one more surprise for us and led us back into Cherokee to take a helicopter ride. The heliport is a grassy field at the end of a sloping gravel driveway. Not asphalt with a little gravel, but an honest to goodness gravel driveway with rocks the size of acorns. I followed the “Hindenberg” (the Goldwing) carefully to the bottom. It was here that Bob pointed to the stones and said to Ricky, “Do you know what this stuff is? It’s gravel. Motorcycles don’t like gravel. Do they have any of this where you live?”
The helicopter was a 1973 Bell Ranger. It looked brand new, but aircraft often give this appearance. The pilot was 23-years-old and had a German accent. He assured us it was a perfect day for flying. Ricky climbed up front, and Bob and I sat in back. Tony declined the flight not realizing he would a have a helicopter to himself the next day.
The machine started with a prolonged whine and the German kid pulled it up into the air... Three feet of air to be exact.
“Und velcome to der zite-zeeing flight of der Smooookey Mountains,” he said. “Ve haf a lot of der weight in this aircraft today und it vill take a running start to get over das power lines und trees at ze end of der runvay.”
Both Bob and Ricky looked at me as if each of my ample pounds was a direct threat on their lives. And quite frankly, nobody had said anything about struggling to get over the trees and the power lines when we were buying the tickets. The pilot, whose name was Hans Undfeetz, backed the aircraft to the end of a short field, gave it the gas, and headed straight for what looked like certain death to me.
The helicopter’s turbine screamed in outrage and we did a climbing turn over power lines, trees, the highway, and hundreds of Cherokees fleecing the customers. The view was quite spectacular and I was able to pick out the ribbon of death that was the road back to Maggie Valley. I have flown in helicopters many times and I am always amazed at the similarities they share with motorcycles. Both vibrate. Both are somewhat loud. And when both crash, the results are about the same.
The mountains of North Carolina are very beautiful and the weather was clear enough to see at least 20 miles, but still get the true flavor of “The Smokies.” The skill of the pilot was beyond question and I was amazed at the pinpoint precision with which he landed the machine, about 20 minutes later. It was a fun and thrilling ride.
The drama wasn’t over yet though. The gravel driveway was a good 10% grade and covered with loose stone, about 6 inches deep. It ended at a curb on the edge of a four-lane, undivided road. Naturally, we were headed left across two lanes of opposing traffic at the top of this obstacle.
My suggestion was to go right at the top, and to make a U-turn at the next light. This suggestion seemed to be greeted with enthusiasm. Ricky charged up the hill on his cruiser, spewing gravel from the back tire -- and turned left! I was dumbfounded. He was followed by Tony, who also turned left. The imperial Goldwing wobbled a bit, climbed the driveway on a diagonal, and Bob disappeared to the left too.
“You bastards,” I thought to myself. I put the spurs to the K75 and felt the back tire struggle for purchase in the gravel. This was not what I wanted to do but I was not prepared to admit I was a gutless, ball-less, pussy of a rider. I resolved to die in a flaming ball at the top of the driveway.
There was absolutely no traffic where the driveway hit the pavement. Not for another 30 seconds. I twisted on the gas and shot across the road. This would not be the first time that I made a situation worse in my mind than it would be in reality.
The ride back to Maggie Valley was uneventful but highly educational. I stuck on Bob’s ass like a boil. I did everything he did. I cut his line through the curves and matched his angle of lean. I twisted on the gas when he did... And the most amazing thing happened. My turns were better, faster, and steadier. Bob’s bike probably weighed in at six or seven tons. I estimated Bob’s weight to be about 160 pounds. He wore a helmet, a tee shirt and a lit cigarette. He was a good teacher, and he never knew it.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2008
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (Mac-Pac)
AKA Vindak8r (Delphi)
AKA The Chamberlain -- Perdition’s Socks