A Little Trip South




Jeff Hughes




The mid-morning sunlight casts a soft glow, gently diffused by a slight overcast.  I haven’t seen another vehicle since I left Tellico Plains and with the road to myself there’s a sense of having been given a gift.  Especially since, of all the roads I’ve ever been on, this may be my favorite.  Only 52 miles long, but each of those miles are paved in a glistening, smooth pavement.  Tarmac which stretches out before you in an endless parade of undulating curves, like those of a beautiful woman.  Every road has a soul of its own.  A heartbeat that, if you listen closely enough, tells you what it’s made of, and where you are, and what you might expect.  This one, even at a speed that has me dipping hard and low through each of those curves, the suspension firmed up from the G-forces and the tires feeding back a constant murmuring conversation, has a mellow character.  Riding it swiftly, gliding through the corners like I’m on some sort of magic carpet, is as narcotic as anything I’ve ever felt.  A milky, effusive relief from everything that’s bad in the world.  A little piece of heaven.


Just exactly what I need.




The call came early on a Friday afternoon.  “Be here at four for a meeting”.  Curiously, the call came from one of the other VP’s, not mine.  Strange.


We expected the layoffs, of course.  We already knew the numbers.  And the decisions had already been made on who would stay and who would go.  In the preceding weeks I had strenuously made the case that in these times of reduced expectations – especially in these times - my Operations folks were critical.  It was planned that I would lose two people.  As tragic as that was, it could have been far worse.  Most groups were slated to lose many more.


Arriving for the meeting and looking around at the grim faces gathered around the large conference table, I saw I was the only one from IT.  Not good. 


It didn’t take long.  As the packets with the neatly lettered names of those being purged were passed out, the faces around me were ashen.  Struggling with disbelief as my own little pile grew, the dawning realization came like a punch to the gut.  The plan had changed.  New management was being brought in.  The company was announcing bankruptcy.  And the numbers in my group had shot up by a factor of four.  The names were already chosen.


God damn it.




Unusual for me, I’m lackadaisical in the leaving.  It’s after noon before I finally head down the driveway.  But I’m exhausted, as much in spirit as in body, and even the promise of a week-long road trip has so far failed to excite me.  It’s the first time I can remember that the magic behind those two wheels and a motor had ever grown dim.  Even my pace is off, reflecting my depression.  It’s not been a good month – first the layoffs; then the crash.  I wend easily across the rolling hills of the northern Shenandoah Valley, heading southward, but not really caring.


The road slowly exerts its pull though, like the gentle tug of gravity, and by the time I get to Afton I’m starting to feel a little bit better.  I’m glad when I roll up the mountain there and turn southward at the northern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  If there’s any medicine for what ails me, it’s right here.


The Parkway is a special place for me.  Always has been.  These curves, ridden a handful of times every year, always seem fresh, like a newly discovered joy, and yet ever familiar at the same time.  Like an old friend, welcoming me home.  And like the savory first taste of a cold beer on a hot summer afternoon, the first miles here are deliciously sweet.  The rolling cadence, the graceful symmetry back and forth through the endless curves, casts the same spell on me it always does.  Like the little folk of legend who inhabit the Isle of Mann, conjuring their spells of luck for the riders visiting there, I imagine there must be some sort of magic here.  After awhile I begin to feel alive again.


My late start means I won’t be making the first-day progress that I usually do.  By the time the early evening shadows have started to lengthen I’m only at mile marker 150.  And my physical exhaustion is starting to catch up with me, imparting a dullness to my senses.  So when I roll by the ramshackle little motel at Tuggles Gap and see a couple of bikes parked there, I decide to call it a day.


“Thirty-nine dollars”, the man at the cash register replies to my query about the cost of a room.  That works.


After dinner in the small restaurant I walk across the gravel lot back to my room, carrying a single bottle of Budweiser.  The motel is one of those dozen-unit, 50’s-style establishments that one doesn’t see very often anymore.  Not upscale enough, I suppose.  It’s got a narrow porch running the length of the building, with the doors to each unit spaced every fifteen feet or so, and a metal chair or two sitting outside each room.  I retrieve the handful of motorcycle magazines I’ve brought with me and carry them outside to my chair.  With the bottle of beer dripping condensation onto the painted concrete floor, I begin reading the articles again, the ones I’ve already read a couple times before.




The South Course at VIR isn’t quite as technical as the longer North Course, but it comes with its own set of unique challenges.  I’m here for the first of five track days I have scheduled for the year.  After the horrors my workplace became last week, I’m looking forward to the respite to be found in speed.


The year-old SV650 is ready.  In addition to the fresh Dunlop’s, it sports new Race Tech fork springs and emulators, and a new Penske rear shock.  I’m looking forward to seeing how the new suspension bits have improved the handling.


This particular Monday is one of those perfect-weather days for being on the track:  sunny and brightly clear, low humidity, cool in the morning but warming rapidly into the low seventies.  Warm enough to be comfortable and for good traction but cool enough for making good horsepower and not sweating to death under our leathers while waiting between sessions.


Once again I’m slotted in the ‘A’ group, with seven other riders, everyone else on serious, liter-class sportbikes.  They’ll all have a 40+ mph speed advantage on me at the end of the long front straight, but I know the SV will acquit itself well in the corners, where it matters.


Towards the end of the first session I begin to push the pace slightly.  As expected, I soon begin dragging hard parts on the right side.  Back in the pits, it’s quickly apparent that I’m grinding the rear brake lever.  That concerns me.  I’ve already crashed one motorcycle from trying to pretend I had more ground clearance than I really did.  And my concerns quickly get additional emphasis from a couple of guys who low-side on the exit of the first turn following the long front straight – a difficult off-camber right-hand hairpin appropriately named “Bitch”.  The Penske has a ride-height adjuster and I’d like to bump up the last 10mm of available adjustment, but I can’t find anyone with a 1” open-ended wrench.  So I shrug to myself and just decide to take it easy.  That becomes my mantra for the day.  Just work on being smooth and getting it right within the limits I have to work with.  That’s what I tell Ginny when I call home during the lunch break.


On the back side of the South Course there is high speed left-hand sweeper called simply “South Bend”.  Just beyond that the circuit crests, dropping downhill into the couple-hundred-foot-long chute heading into Oak Tree.  You’re still in transition, bringing the bike upright, when you hit that crest, resulting in a very light front end – and a little headshake when the front wheel makes solid contact again.  No matter.  It happens to everyone and after a couple of quick oscillations it’s gone.  And, anyway you’re on the throttle for the space of a few more heartbeats, trying to gain a few fractions of a second, and focused on your braking marker which is coming up in a big hurry.  You’re pretty busy through there.


On the first session after lunch I go out expecting to continue the morning’s routine.  After a couple of laps to get some heat back into the tires I begin working the bike again.  In the last couple of morning sessions I had begun pushing slightly more speed through South Bend – it being one of the few places on the track I wasn’t having ground clearance problems.  On the fourth lap one of the R1’s passes me on the small straight preceding The Spiral, a staircase set of esses which leads onto the low-speed right-hander called The Fishhook, which itself then exits out onto the back straight towards South Bend.  Following the R1, I power through The Fishhook and accelerate through the right-hand kink leading to South Bend.  Now in fourth gear and still accelerating, I swing off the left side of the bike preparatory to the entrance to South Bend, maybe 80mph.  Still on the power, down hard into the left-hand sweeper, just a tiny bit faster than I’ve taken it today, following the R1 which now has twenty bike lengths on me.  I hit the apex of South Bend, my knee drifting just above the tiger stripes, my momentum then carrying me out towards the right side of the track as I hit the crest.  Right into the lion’s den.


A violent tankslapper feels like you’ve grabbed each end of a jackhammer.  It’s stunning in its ferocity.  My last thought, as I realize I’m not going to be able hold it, is regret.  I had planned on installing a steering damper next month.




It’s still dark when I pack the BMW.  My exhaustion the evening before had forced me into a long and restful sleep.  I feel better this morning than I have in a long time.  Part of that is where I am.  Dawn on the road is always special.  And here on the Blue Ridge Parkway it’s even better.  The summer tourists will be out in force in a few hours, but until then I’ll have this glorious road nearly to myself.


The day starts like a winding crescendo – slow miles in the near darkness, then the road growing lighter in the orange glow of the breaking sun, and with it, my speed.  There’s a growing sense of energy inside of me, a gathering impelled by the solitude and the magic of this road.  After a single, brief stop at one of the overlooks to take a few pictures of the sunrise, I put my camera away for good.  Today will be a day for riding.


Perfection is rarely infinite.  I figure I’ve got around four hours before the Winnebagos appear.  Knowing I have only a brief window of time, I feel a pressure to take advantage of it, to make miles while I can.  My pace sharpens, becomes tinged with a hint of aggression.  Enough to move into that mesmerizing zone where one’s mind melds with the bike and the road and becomes a single, flowing rush across the countryside.  The next handful of hours are golden.





Coming down out of the Blue Ridge into Cherokee is a shock.  From the exquisite delight of riding swiftly in the cool air of the mountains, the change to moving through hot, muggy stop-and-go traffic in that tourist haven is maddening.  I’m glad when I finally break free of the town and can get some speed up.  A while further, once past the construction, rt. 28 leading up to Deal’s Gap is shaded.  More importantly, they have re-paved part of it.  It’s so glass-smooth, though, with the dark, oily look of fresh asphalt, that it’s hard to read.  I take it easy – at least until the lake, where the not-yet-refreshed older pavement gives me the visual and sensory cues I need.  I rail through there.


There are only a handful of bikes when I get to the store.  After getting a room and unloading my gear I walk back outside and pause, lifting my eyes toward the famous road, rising up the hill before disappearing into the trees.  I wonder what I always wonder when I come down here:  what must it be like to live around here, to be able to ride this road every day?  Then I’m mounting back up.  I can at least ride it today.


Hours later, sitting outside my room and enjoying the last hour of daylight, immersed in the quiet tiredness that comes after a long day of riding in the mountains, I realize suddenly that I feel good again.  I had almost forgotten what it feels like.


The next morning has me on that 52-mile road which I so love, and which seems to put the finishing touches on restoring some perspective for me.  By the time I finish my hour-and-a-half loop and get back to the store I find it crawling with bikes, riders resting between runs through the Gap.  After gassing the BMW I wander through the crowd, checking out the different bikes and all the different modifications.  One bike, especially, draws my attention - a blue and white GSX-R1000, the same one which is the subject of all those articles I’ve been reading.  This one has just come through the Gap and its front disks are burnt blue, the rotors still sizzling hot.  The Suzuki’s owner and I talk for a while, and somewhere in that few minutes of talking and looking, a switch gets thrown.


It only takes fifteen minutes to return to my room, pack my gear, and turn in my key.  I’m already calculating the quickest way to get home.  It’s 11am, less than four weeks until my next track day.  When I left a couple days ago, my dealer had one left.   



© 2002 Jeff Hughes