“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Deal's Gap, The Southeast's Premier Biking Road

It took a five hour ride, an overnight camp in the rain and a cold morning before we finally arrived at our destination: a twisting, snaking, up and down stretch of two-lane road that has become a Mecca for motorcycle riders throughout the Southeast. This desolate ribbon of narrow asphalt in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina attracts motorcyclists from all over the country who revel in the road’s challenging banked curves and blind turns.

This is Deal’s Gap, a name that triggers almost mystical feelings in motorcyclists. It is located high in the mountains on US Highway 129 between Topton, North Carolina and Maryville, Tennessee and straddles the state line. Highway 129 curls and bends for more than fifty miles and is a challenging ride the whole way, but in one eleven mile stretch the road twists itself into a spaghetti bowl of 318 turns, a continuous feast of rights, lefts, climbs, and drops. There is hardly a better motorcycle road anywhere in the country. The Gap is legendary within biking circles and on weekends the road is headlight-to-tailpipe with hundreds of bikes.

Deal’s Gap is both demanding and beautiful, carving its way through the Smoky’s lush mountain forests and past breathtaking vistas of deep valleys, clear mountain lakes, and forested mountains. But most riders barely notice the beauty surrounding them, hardly daring to tear their eyes from the highway lest they become road kill. This is not a road for the faint-hearted.

The Gap’s reputation is what brought the five of us across three states to attack its legendary curves. But now that we’re here at the bottom of the hill and ready to go, we have a couple of problems. For one thing, the day has turned cold and rainy and there is a fine mist swirling around us. To make matters worse, the rain from the previous night has pounded many of the leaves out of the trees and onto the road. Slick curvy roads covered with wet leaves are a bad combination for motorcycle riding.

So we adjourn to Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort, a combination gas station, store and general meeting place for Gap riders to talk things over. The store is a small dimly lit place stocked with T-shirts, hats and other Deal’s Gap memorabilia with sayings like “Asphalt Surfer”, “I Survived Deal’s Gap”, and other less-than-confidence-inspiring slogans. We gather around a television playing a continuous video of two riders leaning and gunning their way through the Gap. The view on the screen is from the handlebars of the tailing bike and we watch the lead bike lean, slide, and squirt through S-curves, around bends and across double yellow lines, passing slower moving bikes and cars at dangerous (and obviously illegal) speeds. The speedometer of the trailing bike is visible in the video frame and it registers speeds that we usually don’t see on the Interstate. Watching the video is not a good idea, kind of like seeing Jaws before going for a swim in the ocean. It causes a lot of shifting of feet and “Maybe we oughta wait a while” discussions. But we are five guys astride motorcycles--no way any one of us is going to suggest turning back. Manhood is at stake.

So we mount up and head into the Gap. With 318 curves, everything happens too fast to catalogue in your brain but here’s what I remember of the ride:

The road twists uphill to the mountain’s crest, crosses the Tennessee state line, and then begins a dizzying downward spiral. Dark gray cliffs hug the road on one side and the skinny shoulder drops hundreds of feet into nothingness on the other. Stands of unforgiving oak, hickory and maple trees crowd right up to the road’s edge. As I come around a sweeping left curve, there is a tow truck parked on a pull off, like a vulture waiting for dinner. Around another curve I come upon a Tennessee state trooper car, blue light flashing, hovering near a wrecked bike.

I had dreamed about downshifting and upshifting, leaning, accelerating and decelerating up and down the rapid elevation changes of the road. Instead all I see are dark spots on the road that look ominously like ice and blankets of slippery leaves sprinkled liberally in the middle of 180-degree turns. I glance down at my speedometer: barely 35 miles per hour. So much for my plans to swoop through the Gap and arouse the envy of my friends.

I’ve just about resigned myself to an excruciatingly slow run through the Gap when the road almost miraculously dries out and we crank up the speed. John, the only Deal’s Gap veteran in our group, is ahead of me on his black Honda Shadow, leaning through the curves. I try to keep up, not an easy task. But I get into a rhythm, leaning easily from left to right, shifting my weight and feeling the exhilaration of dancing through the curves. Too soon, we come out of the last sweeping curve, pumped with excitement.

At the bottom of the hill we pull over and the rest of our group join us. We all come through unscathed, even one friend, who—unbelievably—has not ridden for twenty years and borrowed a motorcycle for this trip. I figured he would eat pavement at Deal’s Gap but he, like the rest of us, is an immediate Gap fan and we begin planning a return trip before our engines even have time to cool. What can I say; it's an addiction.

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

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