Day 1: …and We’re Off
My return to Alaska officially began this morning with a parade lap around Raven Ridge, to the cheers and well wishes of a dozen neighbors who emerged in the rain on their porches in various states of dress at 8 a.m. to wave flags and cheer loudly. I’m pretty sure the message was “good luck” not good riddance though I couldn’t hear specific words over the two-cylinder thunder. At any rate, they were all smiling and in good spirits, which matched Mark’s and my pent-up exuberance.
As we packed the bikes at the bottom of the driveway, clouds began to build and at five minutes before KSU, the heavens opened up. We quickly donned recently-patched and untested rain gear and made our 8 a.m. departure on time. After one lap around the neighborhood, we turned onto the road in the rain. The good news was the rain only lasted for the first 20 minutes, though the roads were wet and slick for the first hour and a half as we motored west and south to today’s first mini-destination: Deals Gap and the Tail of the Dragon.
For those not familiar with the Dragon, it’s U.S. Highway 129 from North Carolina into Tennessee. 318 curves in 11 miles. I’ve ridden it a dozen times or more, including the first day of last year’s Great Rocky Mountain Adventure. But Mark was a novice at Dragon slaying.
After a short stop at Deals Gap (the end or the beginning of the Dragon depending on which direction you’re going) where we paid homage to fallen dragon slayers at the Tree of Shame, we headed up the North Carolina side, leaning hard into curves and taming the fearsome Dragon.
My floorboards kissed the dragon’s lair a dozen times on the ride; not enough to constitute an aggressive ride but enough to get some early morning adrenaline flowing to mix with the obligatory pre-ride caffeine. Loaded with full packs, Mark asserted his authority over the Dragon but admitted later, after only a little thought, that he’d like to try it again with a lighter load and the experience of today’s ride under his belt. Still, he earned his dragon sticker, which is now dutifully and proudly affixed to the windshield of his beautiful Ultra Classic.
Good weather held as we rolled across the valley separating the Great Smoky Mountains from the Cumberland Plateau. Visions of freshly baked pie for lunch at Sweet Thang’s Cafe in Spring City, TN, danced in my helmeted head, but the vision was dashed when we parked in front of a darkened Cafe and read the “Closed” sign. This was the same Cafe I stopped at last year after my Tail of the Dragon Start to begin the first day with pie.
Menacing clouds and flashes of lightning, along with a check of internet weather radar, drove us to another eatery for lunch, but despite a menu that promised home-made pie, they had none. Still, we needed to kill an hour and wait for the drenching noon deluge to pass through, so we ate a filling but pieless lunch.
Then we immediately began a climb of several thousand feet to the rain-soaked roads at the top of the Cumberland Plateau as we made our way across the hilly part of Middle Tennessee. When we rolled down off the Plateau, the gray clouds turned to blue sky dotted with soaring thunderheads, the damp pavement dried and what had been a comfortable, high-elevation temperature increased about 30 degrees until it reached the mid-90s as we passed through Murfreesboro, home of my long-ago alma mater.
Nine and a half hours after splashing down the drive at Raven Ridge, we pulled into our night-time destination in Dickson, Tennessee, where we enjoyed a cool room at the hotel, a cool beer at a steak house, and, at this very minute, a cool glass of Jack Daniel’s. Life is good.
Tomorrow, another repeat ride for me as we race across the flatlands of west Tennessee and east Arkansas on the way to meet brother Jon who will join us on the road for a day. Nothing particular planned for tomorrow’s ride, but you never know what you’ll see on a two-wheel adventure.