I DOUBT YOU COULD FIND A serious motorcycle tourist, especially east of the Mississippi who hasn’t heard about or ridden “The Dragon.” Straddling the border between southeastern Tennessee and northwestern North Carolina, Hwy 129 is steeped in motorcycle lore and legendary for its 11 mile stretch of blacktop. “Have you ridden the Dragon” is as common a question as “What year is your bike?” But for those who have “been there and done that” Eastern Tennessee has a number of lesser known but equally challenging routes hiding in plain sight a few miles north of The Dragon.
When an invitation from the Tennessee Department of Tourism showed up in my email, I eagerly accepted the opportunity to explore the highways where transporting moonshine made a star out of Robert Mitchum in the movie Thunder Road. Where coal provided a way of life and where thousands of residents were forced to relocate when the US Government needed their land to develop the atomic bomb in secret.
For the trip, I picked up a Triumph Thunderbird LT in Atlanta. Triumph’s newest light touring cruiser is perfect for a long weekend getaway and although I would be flying solo on this trip, the LT is more than capable when the opportunity for two up touring presents itself. After securing the bike in Cartersville, I headed north on I-75. A few hours later I arrived at the Crowne Plaza in downtown Knoxville where I met with two other moto-journalists and about a dozen travel writers from as far away as Canada and California.
As a general rule, I don’t typically seek overnight accommodations at properties like the Crowne Plaza. Usually, they’re a little too rich for my blood. However overnight accommodations at the CP can be had for as little as $99. Provided it’s not a home game weekend for UT (University of Tennessee) That’s an amazing deal for the luxury of this Crowne Plaza.
Many cities have a unique downtown vibe and Knoxville is no exception. Many motorcycle travelers, afraid to check the prices at the high rise hotels downtown, miss out on the type of night life that can’t be found when staying in the ‘burbs. In 1947 Knoxville was called the “ugliest city in America” by New York newspaper reporter, John Gunther. That criticism must have spurred the community to action because today, Knoxville boasts an abundance of flowering shrubs and blooming trees second to none. Dogwood and forsythia, with tulips and flocks and azaleas, along with redbud, flowering crab and wisteria transform this city into a springtime landscape worthy of being captured on canvas by the old masters like Cezanne or Monet.
Knoxville has been the state capitol of Tennessee twice in it’s history, and was the location of the 1982 World’s Fair. It’s a surprisingly progressive city while remaining true to its small town roots. A short stroll from the front doors of the Plaza is the Market Square District and the Old Town District. Shakespeare on the Square, Rhythm n’ Blooms Festival, Hola Festival, Sundown in the City, Dogwood Arts Festival are just a few of the events that draw families downtown during the spring and summer. During these events, the hotel rates may increase slightly, so check before you arrive. But, without these events, there’s enough downtown to keep you entertained.
One spot which became my favorite was the Peter Kern Library inside the Oliver Hotel. Combining history with adult libations, this authentically recreated Prohibition era bar is hidden behind sliding doors and the drink list is concealed in faux World Book encyclopedias. If you can’t find the hidden door in the hotel, (and the clerks won’t tell you where it is) you’ll have to wander behind the building and enter the alley, where you’ll find a steel door with eye slot. If you know the secret knock..and you’re not an Elliot Ness wannabe, they’ll let you in. (actually it wasn’t locked...I made that up to give it more of a nostalgic gangster feel.)
Other downtown attractions include the Moonshine Roof Garden with the “magic beer tree” and Cafe 4 and Latitude 35. With so many venues to visit, I was glad to be able to stumble across the street and into my room without getting on the bike at the evenings end.
The next morning, we loaded up and headed over to Knoxville Harley-Davidson where my two other compatriots secured their iron steeds for the week’s tour. Waiting on them, I entertained myself by studying several rare antique HD models on display, both downstairs and upstairs. I just wish they’d had some fresh coffee! Oh, well, its probably for the best since we were on a tight schedule and bathroom breaks were highly regimented.
Our local guides for the two days were Tom Bruno and Jon Minnick. Very capable gents, but after about an hour into the trip, myself and the other two moto-journalists are wondering if our guides received the right instructions from the tourism folks on showing us “good roads to ride.” The first half of the morning, we puttered around several small, out of the way asphalt byways, a little twisty, but nothing the three of us could write home about. We picked up Hwy 131 in Halls TN. It was approaching 11:30 and we’d not taken the first photo. No panoramic awe inspiring vistas or y knee dragging curves. Riding at the rear, and having no clue where I was, or where we were supposed to be, I passed several old buildings, and one awesome 1880’s era crumbling shack by a railroad crossing. I’d just about made up my mind to turn around and go back to get a photo when I rounded the corner and saw the coolest painted barn in Tennessee.
This barn belongs to Cherry and Philip Acuff and is titled, “Not Barn Yesterday.” Sitting across from the Washburn Grocery on Hwy 131, it was painted in 2002 by Washburn High School art students under the direction of their teacher Carmalitta Dixson. With fate on my side, the owner was there on his tractor. A quick introduction and permission was granted for us to photograph.
What I’d first thought was a mural depicting an apple harvest, was, according to our guides celebrating the tomato harvest. We were smack in the middle of Grainger County Tennessee, which boasts the largest tomato festival in the USA.
Back on the road we continued east to Hwy 25E. Turning right, we quickly arrived at the overlook adjacent to Clinch Mountain Restaurant, overlooking Cherokee Lake and home of the Vinegar Pie. Yes, you read that right. Vinegar Pie. Although we were scheduled to eat lunch in nearby Morristown in about an hour, there was no way I was going to pass up trying this unique tempting dessert
I wasn’t sure what to expect. The waitress explained that the pie doesn’t stick to the crust, and overall it tastes much better with whipped cream. It arrived a few minutes later with the appearance of lemon meringue and the consistency of stiff jello. The verdict? I’m glad I stopped to sample it, but it doesn’t taste like any pie I’ve ever tasted before. Think sweet butter dill pickles. Not bad, but I doubt I’ll develop an addiction to it. Right behind the Restaurant are Krystal’s Clinch Mountain Cabins, overlooking the lake. Not a bad spot to use as a base to explore this part of Eastern Tennessee. Rates start at $59 in the off season and go up to $81 during peak season. (excluding holidays and special events) www.clinchmountainlookout.com
Our guides wanted to make sure we arrived at the Davy Crockett Restaurant at the allotted time, so we took the more direct route on 25E to 11W straight to Morristown . That was unfortunate because it would’ve been a much better ride if we had backtrack slightly to Hwy 131, turn right and continue east to Hwy 66 and turn right. From here you can crack the throttle and blast down the wickedly twisty and well maintained 14 miles over Big War Gap and Stone Mountain Gap into Morristown.
Morristown Tennessee is the boyhood home of Davy Crockett, erstwhile Indian fighter, frontier politician, and defender of the Alamo. Several establishments in town pay homage to this famous son. We didn’t have time to visit any of them except the Davy Crockett Restaurant, where our guides delivered us for lunch.
After lunch we’re off to Dandridge Tennessee. Originally located on the shores of the French Dandridge was named in honor of Martha Washington and is the second oldest city in Tennessee. We parked our bikes right in front of City Hall so I popped inside to ask the clerks, “what’s special about Dandridge?” Their pregnant pause and blank stares were quite comical.
Here were two lifelong residents (I assumed) and city employees who had nary a clue about the history of their town. Finally, wanting to be helpful in whatever way possible, one lady spoke up and said, “Our bathrooms are downstairs, if you need them, and the mayor should be back any minute if you want to wait, he knows all about Dandrige.” We didn’t hang around for the Mayor, but we did find a brochure at the historical society next door (which was closed on the day we rode in) that proudly publicized the town was the only one in the USA named in honor of the first First Lady, Martha Dandridge Washington.
Just up the road we stopped to tour the Mountain Harbor Inn. Located on Douglas Lake, this Bed and Breakfast can be a little pricey if you visit during peak season, but from what we could see the accommodations are first rate. Day one was ending and we headed back to Knoxville to the Crowne Plaza. Supper was a plate of dry rub ribs from Sweet P’s BBQ and Soul House on Maryville Pike in Knoxville. Featured in 2010 on the Travel Channel Man vs Food, Sweet P’s serves authentic southern bbq and sides. It’s a must visit destination for the motorcycle foodie who lives to ride and eats to live.
Afterwards, there was more downtown nightlife to be discovered and quite frankly the memory of it all is lost in an alcohol fog. Thank goodness for dark window shades and a comfortable bed to recover from the nights frivolity.
The Devils Triangle
The next day we again picked up our guides at Knoxville Harley-Davidson and headed west to TN State Route 16, the highway dubbed the Devil’s Triangle. At the western end/beginning of the “Triangle" is the location for the infamous Brushy Mountain State Prison. (now closed) The prison’s most notorious resident was James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. In 1977, Ray and six other inmates escaped by climbing over a fence, but was captured 2 days later in the rugged Cumberland mountains less than 3 miles away.
The Brushy Mountain Penitentiary is located on Hwy 116, at the terminus or start of the (tourism department named) Devil’s Triangle. Now closed, the prison was once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the only prison in the United States that has a natural bluff as part of its prison wall. TN 116 is a twisted and scarred ribbon of blacktop running along the New River past numerous abandoned underground coal mines and railroad yards. Villages that once thrived with miners are now ghost towns, with names such as Fork Mountain, Buffalo, Devonia, Braytown and Charley’s Branch quickly fading from memory.
Having spent the previous day in a leisurely (almost sedate) pace, the three of us were itching for a reason to scrub hard parts, and soon out paced our guides and threw ourselves at this highway full tilt. I was grinding the floorboards on the Triumph LT with such regularity that Clem later remarked it sounded like I was dragging a boat anchor around each and every curve. Hwy 116 is definitely not for the novice rider, or the squeamish. Gentle sweepers lure you into a false sense of comfort before throwing you into gnarly switchbacks and off camber, roller-coaster pitched turns, alongside rocky outcropping littered with patched asphalt, steep drop offs with crumbling road edges and non-existent guardrails, at times less than a foot away from rock filled gullies.
Add to that the hazardous coal dust that occasionally accumulates near the coal transfer station, and the tankers that wet the road to dampen that dust in the summer. I don’t know who named this road the Devils Triangle, but a better moniker would have been “The Terminator.” A momentary lapse in attention, or the errant coal mining truck on your side of the yellow line and that razor thin safety margin evaporates and you’re facing an unwelcome and premature date with the Grim Reaper.
Don't let this photo fool you, Hwy 116 is not as consistently smooth as this section, nor are guardrails present in some of the more dangerous spots. By the time we arrived at the junction of 116 & State Rt. 330, the adrenaline blasting through my veins had completely cleared any lingering alcohol induced cobwebs from the night before and left a huge perma-grin plastered across my face.
Screw the Dragon, I wanna ride this road again! Because of the fatalities on 116, Tennessee DOT budgeted $1.3 million dollars in 2013 to make the road safer, including widening of the shoulders, adding guardrails, signs and pavement markings. Be wary of road construction when you visit.
Lunch was at the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton TN. As a history buff, I can spend hours wandering around these type establishments. John Rice Irwin founded MOA in 1968 with a single log cabin, now there are dozens of structures and thousands of artifacts that chronicle the culture and challenges of the early settlers of this region. Besides the history, the museum offers a surprisingly affordable and mouth watering slap your momma meat and two vegetables lunch.
Most days you can eat in the restaurant without paying admission to the museum, but check the website, www.museumofappalachia.org before you go if you have any questions.
The Original Moonshiners
That night we shifted our base of operations north, we wound up in Caryville Tennessee at the Hampton Inn. I don’t usually rave about chain hotels. They are what they are and for the most part, are mind numbing in their commonality. This one is different, completely different. The first thing that tipped me off was the antique automobiles gracing the front entrance. Then there is the Llamas that live on the hotel grounds. Stepping through the doors, you see the interior is set up more like a museum than a corporate chain hotel.
The elderly owner Harp Ayers, is proud of the regions moonshine history and his family’s role in it. From an authentic moonshine still set up in the hallway near the elevator, to the bullet ridden jacket worn by his father who was killed by “revenooers” when Harp was a boy, every inch of wall space along all three floors is covered with framed historical photos and newspaper clippings from local and national news headlines. The entire staff is motorcycle friendly. Not just the “here are a few towels to wipe off your bike” motorcycle friendly whitewash at some hotels, but a deeply ingrained “you’d better take care of my motorcycle friends” policy the owner demands from everyone who works at this hotel.
When we parked in the spaces in front, the clerk was quick to insist that we park under the portico where he could personally watch our bikes all night. When we demurred, he got a pained look on his face and said, “the owner will chew me out of I don’t make sure your bike is looked after and protected.” That’s the kind of treatment that will have me passing other hotels late at night to return to the Caryville Hampton.
The next morning we stopped to tour Bushtec headquarters. Bushtec recently acquired Trigg Trike and Bunkhouse trailers and consolidated manufacturing in Jacksboro Tennessee. If you’re interested in a trailer, tow behind camper, or how easy it is to convert your bike to a trike (without losing the original value of your bike) then visit Bushtec during their open house and customer appreciation party on May 10th or check them out online at www.bushtec.com.
After the tour, we were handed off to David Young, Deputy Mayor of Campbell County. Today’s riding begins on Old Tennessee 63, or Royal Blue Road. Running along Cove Creek, this narrow lane blacktop is one of those roads that only the locals know. Running parallel to I-75, but well hidden in the forest, this road has suffered the effects of heavy coal trucks and frost heaves leaving it seriously rutted and washboard riddled in spots. A series of narrow, single lane concrete bridges are picturesque despite the graffiti but there are scant few opportunities or suitable pull offs to enjoy natures solitude.
A few miles later, you reach the modern portion of Hwy 63 and can turn left to continue to 297 northward through the towns of Newcomb and into Jellico where Hwy 9 takes you back to the interstate near the Kentucky border, or you can turn right and pick up the interstate a few miles sooner. Personally I’d turn left and continue on two lanes as long as possible. It’s here where our guides really missed an opportunity and one that I would encourage you to take. In Jellico, turn right on Hwy 9 /25W and head east towards Morley. In Morley pickup Hwy 90, a well paved but sparsely traveled two lane with gentle sweepers and shaded forest canopy. The road designation will change over to KY 74 as you cross the state line, and the turns get tighter as the elevation changes. Continue on 74 into Middlesboro Kentucky and pickup Hwy 256 heading south through the Cumberland Gap Tunnel, at the border of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia where the road changes to TN Hwy 32/US 25E
After lunch in historic Rugby we would spend the remainder of the day touring the top secret nuclear facility in Oak Ridge Tennessee, The City Behind the Fence. We’d been given special access to peek behind the curtain at facilities that are still off limits to the average tourist, although to get this we’d submitted our drivers license and SSN to Oak Ridge security detail a couple of weeks in advance.
True history buffs will know the atomic bomb that was tested at Los Alamos NM was developed at Oak Ridge Tennessee, although none of the residents or workers knew what they were building. Even today there aren’t any street view maps of the area on Google. The Google car stopped taking images at the security shack on Bethel Valley Rd. You can skirt the perimeter of the National Laboratory by riding Hwy 96 from downtown Oak Ridge to where it intersects with what the locals say is the original Thunder Road, Hwy 70, Kingston Pike. Head west here towards Kingston for the best riding section of Hwy 70. From here you can pickup I40 and head west to Hwy 61 and return to Oak Ridge or continue on to Petros and hop on the Devils Triangle if you haven’t made that route yet.
The last night we dined in style at the McCloud Mountain Restaurant and Lodge, 16 miles north of Caryville. Signs like this one with a crazy ribbon of undulating curves either strike irrational fear or start the throttle hand itching on motorcycle riders. Located at the start of the driveway to the McCloud Mountain Restaurant and Lodge, near Duff Tennessee, north of Knoxville. Located off US Hwy 25W, this restaurant is built on a rocky outcropping on top of the Cumberland Mountains, 2,700 feet above the valley floor. On a clear day you can see Knoxville and the Smoky Mountains. The entire restaurant is one big glass room, so if you’re afraid of heights, you should take a pass on this one. Reservations are required and motorcyclists are welcome as the dress is casual. However, be forewarned, the road up to the restaurant is narrow and appears to have been carved from the wanderings of a drunken mountain goat. You’ll definitely want to stay sober or plan to sleep it off at the lodge ($150-219 per night) if you overindulge with cocktails at dinner. www.mtcloud.com
So, if you’re looking for an alternative to those “other” world famous Tennessee highways, then consider heading a few miles north to these lesser known but just as rewarding destinations. That way, the next time someone asks, “Have you ridden the Dragon” you can respond with, “That’s old news, have you ridden the Devils Triangle, or the road up to McCloud Mtn Restaurant?” Not that we’re condoning it, but It’s always fun to one up your riding buddies.