Several years ago I reconnected with a good friend, Dale Mitchell, from my Wheaton College days. I do not remember how we both discovered that we liked motorcycles, but we did some how. Again, I cannot remember the details, but Dale called me one day and suggested we take a trip down South to ride our bikes. He said he had heard about a highway in southern Tennessee and North Carolina that was supposed to be challenging and unique. It took me two seconds to decide I was in for the trip
That telephone call started a tradition where Dale and I have taken a bike trip almost every year. We always go to the same place. Deal’s Gap, also known as “The Tail of the Dragon”. For those of you who are computer enabled, go to Yahoo or Google and type in either of the names and you will get the websites.
For those of you who choose not to look at the websites, let me tell you about the Gap. First of all, it is not a clothing store. It is Tennessee St. Rd. 129, which is about twenty five miles south of Knoxville, Tennessee. It is a perfectly paved two-lane highway that goes through the Nantahala Mountains. It has double yellow lines the whole way and not a single intersecting road. Thus, you never have to worry about some idiot pulling out in front of you when you’re going too dang fast.
At the top of the mountain is the Overlook. There is a place to get off your bike on both sides of the road. I have seen as many as fifty bikes parked at the overlook, with riders standing around swapping enormous lies about how fast they are and getting up the nerve for another pass down the mountain. The riders leave in pairs, usually, to begin their next pass. Since everyone is watching, I have seen many wheelies and heard many engines screaming at their red line. Very cool.
10.8 miles away, at the other end of the Tail is “Deal’s Gap,” which is nothing more than a crossroad, except there is a general store, a flea-bag biker motel, and a gas station, where you can get 105 octane race fuel for whatever machine you are piloting. There is also a small restaurant which sells man-food. Hamburgers, French fries, hot dogs, salsa, bacon and eggs, donuts and beef jerky. Very cool.
Now, if you have read this far, you are probably saying “big deal.” Doesn’t sound like much to me. Maybe not. But I haven’t told you the best part. You see, between the Overlook and the general store are 318 turns. Yes, you read right. 318 turns in 10.8 miles. Most of them are banked. Through a beautiful forest. With the road frequently cut through granite. Along the edge of cliffs. Oh wow!
It gets even better. For the most part, the cops don’t care what you do between the Overlook and the General Store. They do not much care about what you are riding or driving, either. I have seen full race cars, Moto GP bikes with no headlights, cars with only a fiberglass seat for the driver, a full roll cage and a fire bottle system, along with supercharged Corvettes. If you own it, if it’s fast, bring it. Run it as hard as you can.
There is a sense of cooperation between the riders and drivers. Rule one: do not crash, or if you must, keep it in your lane. You don’t want to mess with someone in the opposite lane because you were stupid, right? Rule Two: Do not cross the yellow lines, period, ever. That’s simple enough. Unfortunately, some people break the rules occasionally. It is a rare year that someone doesn’t get killed. When that happens, the governor gets pissed off and sends the cops, who frequently sit at the Overlook and tell everyone going in the opposite direction to slow down before they get to town. Very considerate. However, once in a great while they invade the Tail.
Some years ago I was worn out from too many passes. I was leisurely riding down the mountain headed to the general store when I came upon two deputies standing beside their radar cars. One was handholding a radar gun, while the other was ready to go in the chase car. Being the obnoxious lawyer that I was was, I pulled off the road and parked my bike. I walked up to the cop with the radar gun and asked if he had caught anyone speeding. He replied in the negative and then volunteered that he was wasting his time. I asked why. He told me to listen. In the distance I could hear the engine of a sport bike screaming up and down the gears and growing closer. I commented that he would be an easy target. The cop said it was not going to happen. About the same time, another rider went by in the opposite direction, headed toward the oncoming sports bike. The cop told me to listen carefully. Within 30 seconds, the screaming engine of the sport bike was reduced to an idle. 30 seconds later the sport bike rider went by the cop, waving as he passed. I’ll bet he was smiling behind his full face helmet. Obviously, the biker who had passed going in the opposite direction had warned the oncoming sport bike rider about the cop. Is that cool or what?
The officer then told me that he had a sport bike and loved the Gap. He did not want to give anybody a ticket and that he had been ordered to come up there and patrol. He said that if he didn’t write some tickets, his boss and the governor were going to be upset. What a circus. I went on my way.
As usual, I digress. Let me continue. A few years ago, Dale and I were both worn out from multiple passes up and down the Tail. We stopped at the general store and were sitting on a bench in front admiring the parade of fast machinery stopping for fuel and food. I was drinking my usual chocolate milk, while Dale was drinking some vile perversion of coffee by Starbuck’s.
Just then we heard a sport bike shifting down and the rider pulled into the parking lot and rolled to a stop right in front of us. The bike was a Suzuki GSXR 600. For those not acquainted with motor cycles, this is a very fast sport bike or "crotch rocket.” The rider had on full leathers that matched the bike’s paint scheme. The rider got off and sat down next to us. I could tell that the bike and rider had both been down a time or two. (We call it asphalt surfing. I am a veteran.) The rider’s leathers were scuffed, torn and beat up on the knees, elbows, and shoulders. The bike had several scuffs to its fairing. To be sure, we were looking at a matched pair of old road dogs.
The rider took off his helmet, also scarred up, and said, “Howdy, boys. Been here long?”
Dale and I replied that we had been there a few minutes and were getting ready for another pass up the mountain. He asked which bikes were ours and we pointed them out. He commented that they were shiny and fairly new. We commented that his bike looked like it had a few miles on it. He confirmed, saying that they had both had a spill or two together.
Just then the door to the general store flew open and one of the cashiers ran out onto the porch, took one look at the newly arrived rider and exclaimed “A-vin, how you been, boy? I ain’t seen you in ages.”
Now, before I go further with this, notice how I spelled the rider’s name. His name was Alvin. But that was not how she pronounced it. Say “Alvin.” Go ahead, do it. Now say it without the “l.” That is how she pronounced it. I love Southerners, especially North Carolina Belles.
“Well, Lucy, how you been, girl? I ain’t seen you in a coon’s age,” said Alvin.
“A-vin, you up here running that ol’ road again? You ought to know better,” said Lucy.
“Well, I ain’t been here in a couple of weeks ‘cause I needed new tars on my bike,” said Alvin.
I must digress here, yet again, so you will get the whole effect. Alvin said he needed new tires. But that is not how he said it. Instead of saying “tires,” he said “tars” (rhymes with scars).
Alvin continued. “Yeah, I can’t seen to get them to last more than four or five hundred miles ‘for they a wore out.”
Dale looked at me and I looked at Dale. We were both thinking the same thing. Most bike tires will last between five and ten thousand miles. And Alvin is wearing them out in 400 miles? That was when we both looked at the front tire on Alvin’s bike. The center was almost new looking. But the sides were worn almost down to the cords. That bike was spending its speedy life leaned over on its side most of the time. I looked at Alvin’s knees. The rubber pucks in the leathers were paper thin. This dude was fast. Very, very fast.
Dale asked Alvin if he had been riding the Tail very long. Alvin said, “Bout 40 years, maybe. I remember when it was dirt and gravel. Member when it was first paved, too. Paving made it a lot easier on the tires, I’ll tell ya.”
Dale then asked, “How old are you Alvin?”
Alvin said, “Next month I’ll be seventy-five. Say, you boys fast? Maybe we could have a little bet on who could get to the Overlook, first? I might be willing to spot you a minute or two head start. Interested?
I couldn’t believe it. We were getting hustled by a geezer sport bike rider who is probably capable of running the road blindfolded.
“I’ll pass, Alvin, but thanks for asking,” I said.
“Well maybe I’ll see you boys up at the Overlook. Ya’ll be careful, now. He-ah?” At that he got up, picked up his helmet and started to leave.
Dale said, “Alvin, you are my hero. I hope I am still up here riding when I am seventy-five.” Alvin left.
About then Dale and I started to leave, when Miss Lucy came back on the porch. “Did he ask you boys the race him to the Overlook?”
“Yes, he did,” we replied.
“You boys ain’t got no call to be racing that old man. He is real fast and knows that road like his backyard. Don’t even think about running with him. You’ll jist get hurt. Ain’t no one ever beat him, that I know of.” Lucy walked back into the general store. Properly warned, Dale and I saddled up and rode up the road for another pass.
I have thought about Alvin frequently since our chance encounter that day. Why would this old guy continue to run that road where a little mistake could kill him? I think I know now. He was doing what he knew how to do to stay alive. He still had that spark of life that makes living a challenge. You could see it in his eyes. He was still having fun. He was going to ride that bike, I suspect, until he just couldn’t get on it anymore. That would be the day they hauled him off to the graveyard. Alvin wouldn’t live out his life in a nursing home, either. No way. Not him. What a man!
In two weeks Dale and I are again headed down to the Gap. It will in all likelihood be my last trip there. That thought makes me sad. I love my bike. I love that road. I love the speed. I love my friend. It will probably the last time I see him and that makes me sad, also.
I am still doing aerobatics. I can still pull 5 G’s. I’m still working on my routine for the Midwest Championship. I am going to fly that airplane and ride my motorcycle until I can’t do either anymore. Alvin wouldn’t go to a nursing home and I refuse to go back to the hospital. Alvin is still my hero.