Rolling slowly up the street, the recollections are vague. Peering first at one side, then the other, I search for clues, some hint of remembrance. The old Holiday Inn, the one on the east side, hard down by the river, is gone. The one I stayed at for the first couple of weeks, until I complained about the constant stench coming off the water and they moved me to the newer, nicer Holiday Inn on the west side.
I can’t find that one, either.
No matter. The long, narrow town is the same. And the houses, built close to one another along that follow-the-river’s-length, are much as I remember them. A bit more run down. I wonder if that diminishment is more from the wear of time or simply that the optimism of youth tends not to notice such things so much.
Perhaps a little of both.
My mind is blank on the girl. I can’t even remember her name, much less where her house was. I dated her for perhaps six weeks, a pleasant summer’s dalliance. Long enough that in early September, when her extended family got together for their annual draw-names-for-Christmas supper, they smiled at me and said they could add my name to the basket if we were engaged.
I remember thinking back to when I had met her, a month and a half earlier. At the union meeting. The pretty girl – seventeen years old, as I would find out shortly – a couple of rows down. The none too subtle and none too quiet introductions by a couple of the older women who had taken her under their wing and apparently thought I was okay. Me getting up and walking down to sit next to her, while a blush rose in her cheeks.
“Are you completely and totally embarrassed?” I think I asked, smiling at her. She put her head in her hands, nodding slightly.
“You know, you really do have to go out with me after all of this,” I enjoined, laughing.
Six weeks later, had I asked, I think she would have married me. Alas, unbeknownst to me, I had already left one woman pregnant back in Virginia. I didn’t need any more complications just then. I was missing my family and my friends and my motorcycle and I just wanted to go home.
Now thirty-five years on, I wonder what happened to her. What turns had her life taken? Where was she now?
I should at least have remembered her name.
Female companionship aside, it was motorcycling that absorbed most of my non-work hours. I had bought my second bike – a Yamaha 750 triple – just weeks before C&P Telephone managers had come to me and told me I had been volunteered for temporary duty, two to three months, in West Virginia. That new bike was back home, the engine hardly broken in. It like to drove me crazy.
Evenings during the week I would kick back in my hotel room with my stack of motorcycle magazines and live vicariously. On weekends I’d jump in my telephone truck and drive out along the remote rural landscape that dominated this land, imagining I was on my bike. It was a poor substitute. I spent many an hour thinking how wondrous it must be to ride these amazing roads on two wheels.
Now, thirty-five years later, I’m finally here to find out.
Light rain greets me the next morning. That’s okay. I’m deliberately lazy getting going because I want to stop by Charlie’s, Huntington’s official Harley-Davidson dealer, and they don’t open until nine. The delay is worth it, if not for the t-shirt I carry to the counter then for the bountiful cleavage presented by the pretty young lass who checks me out.
Then, having donned my Frog Toggs, the day begins in earnest.
What is there to say? The roads in western West Virginia are simply magnificent. Routes 10 and 16 and a bunch of others besides could be the Wikipedia definition of simply excellent motorcycle road. The hardest part is simply choosing. It’s like being at a heavenly banquet.
The rain quickly peters out. And a quick lunch in Man is a prelude to the only stop I really have planned for today.
For years I’ve eyed the tiny town of Welch while running my eyes across the map of West Virginia. Located just south of the broad, densely forested area that comprised the killing ground in the Hatfield-McCoy feud, it’s the place where Sid Hatfield, distant relative to the Hatfield’s in that famous disagreement, was assassinated in 1921. He and a compatriot, Ed Chambers, were gunned down as they ascended the steps of the McDowell County courthouse.
Walking today up those same hard, steep concrete steps, I’m surprised there’s no plaque or other mention of the event. Maybe, I muss, it’s because, despite being arrested and charged, none of the three assassins were ever convicted. Maybe there’s a tinge of municipal embarrassment at such a brazen lack of justice.
Approaching the courthouse itself, I walk first around one side, then the other. In the back there’s a detainee area, filled with twelve or fifteen hard-eyed men. I glance over at the lady guard and nod at her, but don’t say anything. I really don’t want to have to explain why I’m here, imagining a friendly “Sid Hatfield, eh? Harold! We have a gentleman out here interested in Sid Hatfield!”
“Come right on in young fellow. Harold over there is our local history expert and he can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Sid Hatfield and probably more besides.”
Most courthouses take a dim view of armed visitors and I have no desire to cross that particular threshold.
Continuing down rt. 16, the road is a delight. I’m thinking that Ed is exactly right – that Bill and Mona, living in Princeton, have it all wired. All these handsome roads at their very fingertips. Every few miles there’s another hard top county road that snakes off who knows where. The whole landscape is rich with possibility and I can only imagine the rides one might put together, given time to explore.
The only downside I can see is the occasional coal truck. As the afternoon wanes I encounter one on the very southernmost stretch of 16. Big as an eighteen-wheeler, the behemoth is scary to watch descending the mountain. The driver, more than a little aggressive, isn’t the least bit reluctant to make use of all of the road. For once, I’m happy to just sit back behind and watch, glad I’m not coming the other way.
All afternoon I’ve considered spending the night in Princeton. I’ve stayed there a couple times before. But my route has swung me wide west of the town and I decide to continue for a while yet.
War is, according to the sign, the southernmost “city” in West Virginia. More accurate would be to call it one of the most depressed towns I’ve ever been in. Touching and sad. And yet as I ride slowly through, fantasizing about reconstruction projects which could bring economic relief, a number of the people turn towards the sound and nod their head or raise their hand. Nodding in return, I’m reminded yet again of the resilience of spirit that so often seems to spring from mean circumstances.
Back across the border into Virginia, I’m thinking Tazwell is a possibility. But that, too, rolls swiftly past. Bristol, finally. Right square upon the Virginia-Tennessee border. I know of a hotel there that’s spitting distance from a coin Laundromat. That works.
The next morning dawns heavily overcast. Perusing my iPad while eating breakfast, it seems I’m in for rain all day. Maggie Valley, my tentative destination, is socked in with fog. Zero visibility.
No matter. You just put on your rain gear and button everything down and roll with it.
Sure enough, that karmic nonchalance works its magic. Aside from a drop or two as I pass through Johnson City, nothing much materializes. The ride down 19/I26 is simply glorious – a stretch of interstate that is the exception that proves the rule. Mountainous and remote and pretty and nearly devoid of traffic, I just love it. By the time 19 turns back into a local road at Asheville the sun is breaking through and I’m ready to bag the rain gear.
Not long after I’m in Maggie Valley at the Cardinal Inn – a tiny, fifties-era-type motel that is clean and cheap. Mike remembers me from last year, pulling a card from a box that has all my information already on it. I guess I’m not the first customer to return to his and Deborah’s little business.
Mike gives me the “biker discount” and we both smile. Notwithstanding the genuineness of his affections – how many motels have the owner’s own bike under cover right next to the office, keep a rolled-up hose at the ready, and have strategically placed a box of clean towels expressly for use by clients in washing their vehicles? – I suspect everybody gets a discount of one kind or another.
Having squared away a place to spend the night, I now have the whole afternoon in front of me. Last year, when I talked to Ginny from down near Atlanta, Hurricane Irene was approaching the east coast. That had prompted me to begin heading on home, skipping the day of riding around Deals Gap I had originally envisioned.
My plan for this year is to make up for that. This very afternoon, in fact.
I have mixed feelings about it. The Harley has acquitted itself exceptionally well – surprising me in many cases – with everything I have put in front of it these last four years. Deals Gap, on the other hand, is such a tight, narrow road, with oftentimes abrupt transitions, that I have long imagined the big v-twin to be a double handful in that kind of environment. We’ll soon see.
Turning up rt. 28, I’m reminded that despite being down in the area just about every year on one run or another – last year I was down here twice, on separate week-long trips – it’s actually been a few years since I’ve been to the Gap itself. And so the run up 28 turns into a time machine, remembering.
It also – despite my early promise to myself to remain ever mindful of the quick limitations of the Road King and how tragic it would be should anything happen to it and so a large dollop of restraint must be part and parcel of what I bring up here – has me raising the bar. By the time the sweepers begin to tighten, an arpeggio is rising in my head, seductive and sweet.
I’m saved by a handful of Harley riders, doing the customary speed limit minus five.
And then right when they pull off, just south of where the lake appears on your left, the rain begins. First just a few drops. But then quickly morphing into a serious rain. Heavy enough that I consider stopping and donning my rain gear.
Never mind. I’m almost there.
The wet road has me suddenly squeamish, uber cautious through the turns. Even as I remember railing through here so many times before. The time with John and Dave, the day I got busted for my double-yellow pass. The time with Earle, after we were late leaving Nantahala Village and had to make up time catching the others. The times alone.
A dark shape materializes in the road ahead and I intuit instantly what it is. Sure enough, a moment later the sound of my approach has the bear scampering across the road. Be careful there fella, I murmur as I roll past. I take his presence as a good sign.
I’m stunned when I get to the store. It’s packed with bikes, something I didn’t expect on a Wednesday.
They’ve also done a lot of work on the place, expanding what’s available and generally cleaning up and modernizing the place. The ‘store’ is now almost purely a t-shirt shop, with few of the staple goods that once were on display. But there’s now a proper sit-down restaurant in an adjoining room. And the motel units have all been refurbished.
A far cry from the times I stayed here years ago, when it was The Crossroads of Time.
I told myself I wouldn’t. I got tired years ago of the crass commercialization of ‘The Dragon.’ The t-shirts and bumper stickers and videos and all the talk and all the bravado, all making reference to it, have been so overdone. And I found, in something of a surprise, that riding Deals Gap is as much an I’ve-got-balls artifact within the Harley culture as it is in the sportbike world. It’s all become something of an embarrassment.
Which is why I’m surprised when I find myself pulling the t-shirt off the wall and carrying it to the register. An image of a grizzled old Harley rider with that large, evil dragon haloing him from behind.
Outside, the sun is back out and the road is rapidly drying. I drink from my bottle of water, carefully scrutinizing the dark clouds that have settled to the west, in the gap itself. Not long, I tell myself. Ten minutes. I’m already getting that old feeling in my chest.
Worried about being the rolling roadblock that I have long despised in others, I watch the crowd of bikes, trying to judge who is leaving and hoping to provide enough separation that that doesn’t happen.
So I’m glad after I decide to go and spend the ninety seconds it takes to shrug into my jacket and don my helmet and gloves that the two sportbikes I hadn’t seen – a Kawasaki Ninja and a BMW R1200S – pull out right before I do.
If I’m relieved by that, though, my heart sinks when two Corvettes pull in right behind me. My guess is that the cars might make better time than I can given the wet pavement and what I’m riding. And I have no desire to be mixing it up with a car.
Oh well, I shrug. It’s too late now. I can always pull over somewhere.
Throttling up the hill, I’m thinking about traction. I know the road will be dry soon. But right now it still holds a bright sheen of wetness. Just take it easy, I remind myself.
As I lean easily into the first right-hander I’m already setting up for the next one. That’s one of the unique things about Deals Gap – the turns come so quickly, one after another, that the exit of one usually leads immediately into the entrance of the next.
As I set up for that next turn, now fully up to speed, a glance in my mirrors shows the Corvettes have dropped back. Good. They won’t be a problem.
Back in front, though, in something of a shock, the two sportbikes are still in sight, but a single corner away.
The sight of them triggers in me the old thing. I pause, trembling for the space of a heartbeat, my chest gone tight. Don’t do it, I tell myself. But then the guttural sound of the Harley hardens, its phlegmatic notes telling the tale. There’s a story here now.
Within three corners I have caught them. Back and forth, the old rolling cadence, rushing now hard through the corners, I abide the unexpected pleasure of… company.
My satisfaction – the handful I feared the Harley might be on this road simply isn’t the case; it is running beautifully – is tempered by the work required to stay with the two riders. The pull of their bikes has me at the very upper end of what the Road King can do. Of what I can do.
Unable to carry enough corner speed, I’m having to shift constantly. Rather than establishing a rhythm and just going with the flow, I’m having to treat the road like a racetrack – accelerate, brake, downshift, back-on-throttle, corner. Rinse and repeat.
It’s enough. Several times the riders, in an obvious bid to pull away, press a bit more speed into the equation. Each time the Harley responds, holding the thread between us.
Which is not at all to suggest that good riders wouldn’t have simply walked away. They would have. And, in fact, a couple miles in another sportbike comes upon my rear, sitting there for another mile before pulling around the three of us in a series of clean passes.
Having plenty of time to observe the two riders in front of me, its clear these are decent riders, not great ones. Eleven miles on, as the road finally straightens, the euphoria slackens and I realize I’ve been sweating. I pull over by the lake to ditch my jacket and go back into cruise mode.
The two bikes don’t wave.
The rest of the trip is a slow roll of days and miles. I froze my ass up on the Cherohala Skyway, too stubborn to pull over and spend the three minutes it would have taken to put my jacket back on. I had a lovely meal at a terrific Mexican restaurant in Maggie Valley. The Woodford Reserve in the evenings was smooth and mellow. And the two-day ride up that mother of all great motorcycle roads – the Blue Ridge Parkway – what can one say? Glorious beyond words. A riding season hardly seems complete without a ride along its length.
A final night at Meadows of Dan. I stayed at the Blue Ridge Motel, the same small place that John and Dave and I stayed at back in ’96 when I was heading towards CLASS at Road Atlanta. A fine last-day country breakfast at the hometown restaurant there, served by a pretty young waitress. A final nice tip.
A t-shirt I no longer regret.
Descending the mountain at Afton, coming into Waynesboro, I fall in behind another touring Harley. He turns into the gas station where I’m going. After fueling, the man wanders over and asks where I’m from and if I know where the Blue Ridge Parkway is.
My week away suddenly pales when he reveals he is from Texas. He’s just come by way of Bangor, Maine – a destination suitable simply because he had never been there.
His kids and grandkids still thought he was at home. Until he sent them a picture of the mountains and a rainbow from the White Mountains of New Hampshire and a beaming query, “can you guess where I am?” I had to smile at that.
“Yes sir. The Blue Ridge Parkway is just up the mountain there. You can’t miss it.”