Sunday, August 7, 2011

Damn the Scenery, Full Speed Ahead

In another life, I congregated with various automobile enthusiasts and similarly disreputable people.  After I bought a BMW M3 early in the millennium - I was, after all, a lawyer - I joined with like-minded individuals in the BMW Car Club of America (Connecticut Valley Chapter) and found them a great deal less, um, you know, than I expected.  A bunch of them even became friends (perhaps until they read this....)

So here's a picture of the car, taken during the irresponsible behavior described herein:
                (Photo credit Xtreme Sports Photography  No Commercial Use Allowed)

Anyway, the M3 is a very special car, even eight years later, and I still love to drive it fast whenever I can. I recently had a chance to flail away at some outstanding roads in Tennessee and North Carolina.  Here is the story of that ride, written from the perspective of the adrenalin junkie that lies within, for the benefit of some special adrenalin junkies that I left behind in Connecticut. I guess that makes the rest of you adrenalin voyeurs. Welcome to an especially peculiar corner of my world.
It was high summer in sweltering Tampa Bay, so what to do?  Drive Judy’s Accord for two miserable days up I-95 to mooch off unsuspecting Connecticut relatives? Or take five days motoring up the Appalachian Mountains in the old M3? Oh, wait! I retired specifically so I could do this. Mooch off relatives, I mean. And drive the M3 to unsuspecting places.

I changed the oil and kicked the tires, and we lit out on a soggy July Monday morning, northbound on I-75 as far as mid-Georgia, where the real road trip commenced. We meandered around the North Carolina outback until we fetched up against the village of Deal’s Gap, which by no great coincidence is where the Tail of the Dragon begins. If you don’t know the name “Tail of the Dragon,” shame; stop reading now and spend an hour on Google. Short version: 318 hairpin turns in 11 miles of well-maintained pavement. Yee-hah!

As best we could tell, there is precisely nothing in Deal’s Gap, North Carolina but the southern terminus of the T/D and about 500 motorcycles doing burnouts in the local iron-monger’s parking lot. We cinched down on the luggage and assumed the position.

Reputedly, the local constabulary surveils the Tail of the Dragon via radar and the like, but it quickly became apparent that simple word-of-mouth would make surreptitious surveillance supremely unsuccessful. Boldly we proceeded, and at a spritely pace.

As a practical matter, the Tail of the Dragon is so thoroughly corkscrewed that exceeding the 30-35 mph speed limit* is not easy to accomplish, except maybe on the short straights that knit the corners together. The road is well-banked, even on left turns. That’s a good thing because rule number one is DO NOT cross the double-yellow. This sweet road goes both ways, and more than once we found ourselves in mid-hairpin, suddenly face to face with an oncoming biker dragging his knee into the same blind turn, separated from us by only those sacred yellow lines.
* Okay, I'm a little fuzzy on the exact speed limit because I was too busy breaking it to take notes. But it was somewhere in this ballpark.
Did I mention that the entire T/D is completely public? It forms a colorful and hair-raising part of US 129 between North Carolina and Tennessee. There are civilians out there. Bewildered civilians.

Despite the ranks of bikes at Deal’s Gap, the Tail of the Dragon itself was not crowded. Numerous turnouts allow slower traffic to get the hell out of the way, and most users readily comply. Especially the bewildered ones. Rarely was our ride impeded for more than a few hundred yards.

Squealing tires and loaded suspensions were the order of the day. Think “11-mile autocross” with soft, deep shoulders. And trees, lots of trees. Nothing focuses the mind like soft, deep shoulders and lots of trees.

                (Photo credit Xtreme Sports Photography  No Commercial Use Allowed)

Footnote:  Some details that the car nuts in Connecticut will notice in the two photos above other, saner folk might miss. For instance, in the photo at the top of this article, there is a pair of fuzzy dice in the windshield. A gift from my daughter - get over it. But you might notice that the dice are hanging at a peculiar angle. That's because the car was engaged in an epic right turn when the picture was snapped. The windshield glare hides the driver - that would be your humble scribe - grinning maniacally. Only the dice are left to tell the tale. In the second picture, notice that the right rear tire is barely in contact with the ground.That's about as hard as this car will corner with street tires. Okay, end of footnote.
After slaying the dragon (as it says on the T-shirts), we holed up in Gatlinburg for the night to let the adrenalin subside.

Now, the Tail of the Dragon is a wonderful road for removing excess rubber from your tires, but it doesn’t really get you any closer to Connecticut. For that, you'll need the Blue Ridge Parkway. The BRP begins just up the road a piece from Gatlinburg, in Cherokee, TN. Like a long, laid-back version of the Tail of the Dragon, the BRP snakes along the eastern continental divide for 469 eye-popping miles to Front Royal, VA. Scenery like none other in the U.S. competes for the driver’s attention with what may be the longest pure driver’s road in the country. Yee-hah!

Oh, I already said that. Sorry.  Anyway, there are stunning vistas everywhere, most of which the driver never sees because he’s busy calculating the best approach to the next curve. Judy tells me it was lovely.

Spend a few days in the Carolina mountains and you begin y’all-ing this and y’all-ing that, just like the local folk. We stopped somewhere near Buck Creek Gap one day for lunch and some unsweetened iced tea.

“Y’all ain’t from here, are y’all?” speculated the young lady with the order pad.

“Um, no. Why?” 

“Honey, we don’t say ‘iced tea’; we say ‘sweet tea.’”

“But we wanted UNsweet tea.”

“Rahht,” she purred, “that’ll be two unsweet sweet teas for y’all.”

We enjoyed the people as much – well, almost as much – as the roads and, as I understand it, the views.

A number – a really small number - of B&B’s, gas stops and other, generally simple accommodations lie just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, but the parkway itself is unspoiled along its entire length; if you want T-shirt shops, billboards and Days Inns, you’ll need to avail yourself of I-95, located a million miles east of the Appalachians. We don’t recommend it.



  1. First of all: What is it with sweet tea in the south? Gads!

    Second: Well now, Mario, you're quite the rubber burner, you are!

    Enter the Beach Boys with thier tune...
    "...and you'll have FUN FUN FUN 'til Judy takes your Bimmer away." Oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo

  2. Nah, Judy's happy enough that I gave up the race track. She did her part on the D/T by not throwing up. Oh - I guess that's not what you wanted to hear. The nice thing about sports cars is they do not poop in the barn.

  3. Those sports cars may not poop in the barn, but you still have to feed 'em. They also don't bank as well as a 1285# througbred going 50 mph on the far turn.

    I'd say Judy is an especially good sport. I think a dozen long-stemmed roses in her favorite color and a scrumptious, romantic dining experience is the very least you can do for her, Mario.

  4. (Sigh) You're whining because I'm driving too fast and my friends off-line complain because the car was too shiny to be going fast. When I bought my first red car 12 years ago, one of my partners (also of the fairer sex) was convinced I was having a mid-life crisis and kept trying to figure out if I had a mistress. She asked where I was going with the car, and I told her Judy and I were out picking up women. That ended the discussion. Wait till you see my post about the redneck racetrack.

  5. Redneck racetrack?! I can hardly wait.

    What is it with people?! Just because you want a red car doesn't mean it's a mid-life crises.
    Now, if you decided to dress up in Judy's clothing, I may wonder a bit.

  6. Of course, the red car doesn't mean I'm NOT having a crisis. I like to think it has staved one off.