Had a great trip to Tennessee over the past weekend. Two terrific days of riding and one of off-trail bushwhacking through the Smokies looking for a plane crash.
Something happened to the weather on Friday - instead of the warm, beautiful day that was predicted, the morning dawned grey and cloudy. I left Flat Rock at around 9 a.m., taking the back roads through Brevard and Rosman to Lake Toxaway. The clouds were dragging low across the high ridges up around the Parkway by then, making me glad that I'd taken the 'low' route up past Wolf Lake and Bear Lake as I made my way over the hills to Cullowhee. Despite the grey day, conditions were outstanding for riding. Not too cool, hardly any traffic, and the clouds hanging over the ridges actually added to the appeal of the ride. I like riding on days like that - no bugs and no glare.
I stopped in Speedwell at the general store for coffee and a snack and then tooled on over the mountain on the Elijay Road to Franklin, coming back out on Hwy. 64 by the Cullasaja River. The Elijay Road (Tilley Road on the Cullowhee side of the mountain) is a favorite ride, with smooth sweeping turns climbing up and over the high ridge that separates Cullowhee from the valley of the Cullasaja. I stopped for another dose of caffeine outside of Franklin, and loaded up some Pink Floyd on the mp3 (Obscured by Clouds - a fitting soundtrack for the next part of the ride across Wayah Road to Nantahala Gorge.) About one mile after starting up Wayah Road, somewhere near the Wiccan Preserve, it started raining, light at first, but growing steadily harder and colder as I climbed up to the gap where the dirt road cuts off to climb to the tower atop the Bald. The wind was screaming when I passed over the gap, but soon died down as I descended the other side towards Nantahala Lake. The rain sucked, but the wet roads made for some good photographic opportunities along the way. I like rainy day photography because of the saturated colors.
Luckily, by the time I reached the road through Nantahala Gorge, it had quit raining and I ramped it up enough as I dropped down through the upper part of the Gorge to dry out my gear. By the time that I exited the Gorge and turned off along the north shore of Fontana Lake, the sun had emerged from the clouds and the temps were quickly climbing into the 60s. Ah, that's more like it! There were several prescribed burns taking place along the upper reaches of the lake, filling the valley with a low-lying layer of smoke. That too, faded away by the time I passed the turnoff to Cable Cove, about 3 miles from the Fontana Dam. Traffic was still light, the pavement was dry, and the Vee was rockin' through the wide, sweeping turns that drop off the mountain as you descend into the valley of the Little Tennessee, or Little T as the locals call it. I love the stretch between the crossing below Fontana Dam and Deals Gap - even more than the Dragon. It's a good place to play, without all the hassle that is common on the Dragon.
I had planned to camp that night somewhere near Joyce Kilmer - maybe up towards Wolf Laurel, but after making plans to accompany some friends on a search for a crashed military plane in the Smokies, I decided to grab a room in Tennessee instead. I stopped for lunch at Deals Gap - they have a great restaurant there - and kicked back to talk bikes with some of the folks hanging out in the parking lot.
The ride on across the Dragon was uneventful - light traffic, no radar love, and only a handful of riders. I stopped in Maryville for dinner with my hiking buddies and then raced darkness up the Little River valley to Townsend to get checked in to my room before the office closed at the small motel that I often stay at on that side of the hill. (Headricks is the name of the motel, and I highly recommend it. Reasonable prices, clean, and best of all, quiet.) After checking in, I dashed back down-valley and picked up some beer and snacks - still had time to catch a game on cable before turning in for the night.)
Up early the next morning to ride with my hiking friends over to Cosby for an off-trail bushwhack into some incredibly rugged country. We spend a lot of time during the winter months rambling the backcountry of the Smokies, looking for 'lost' plane crashes, seldom-seen waterfalls, etc. This one was supposed to be a climb up to a high ridge to a point where a 4 engine military plane augered in a few decades ago. The 8 man crew had bailed out over Knoxville, leaving the plane on autopilot. It flew on solo to a meeting with a 6,000' ridge in the Smoky Mountains, crashing unseen in deep timber high on the mountainside. For a long time, it went undiscovered, but a farmer in the valley below noticed that at certain times of the morning, he could see a shiny object in the trees high above his farm. Over a long period of time, it bugged him so much that he finally cut his way into the site, chopped the wing fragments out of the tree, and then, satisfied, went back home. Several years later, somebody that hikes with us found out about his discovery and got directions to it from the farmer. He also managed to work his way back to the crash site, following the trail hacked out by the farmer. They are the only two people that have seen the site that I know of.
We spent about 8 hours working our way through about 2 miles of some of the thickest rhododendron that I've ever seen and I've been bushwhacking the Smokies for nearly 40 years. For over 1/2 mile, our feet never touched the ground, as we crawled and climbed over downed trees and thickly tangled rhodo to reach the little creek that we'd follow on up the mountainside. That turned into an epic slog through deep pools of snow melt, with some really slick climbs up cascades polished by years of flash floods. Somewhere along the way, I took a header into a deep ravine filled with blowdown and managed to lose my camera. We looked for it for over an hour, but the tangle was so $%^^$& thick that it was hopeless. I don't mind losing the camera so much - it was a little digital Panasonic point and shoot that I bought just for off-trail use, but man, I hated to lose those photos. I had well over 200 from both the ride and the hike.
We finally ran out of time and had to start the crawl back down-valley to the trail without ever finding the crash site, but we've already made plans for a re-match. Pix will be forth-coming if we return.
We filled our bellies with a great dinner over at Carvers in Cosby - that's a really cool restaurant sited in a big apple orchard between Cosy and I-40. Good country cooking, friendly staff, and all the meals come with home made apple butter and apple fritters, along with complimentary apple cider. Believe me, the chicken and dumplings were like manna from heaven after the long trek. They didn't even mind our grungy appearance or the mulch that kept spilling from our clothes as we ate.
Back to the motel for another evening of beer and basketball, a good night's sleep, breakfast in Maryville, and then back to Hwy. 129, aka The Dragon for the return trip to North Carolina. No radar again - ah, the joy of early season riding! There were a lot more bikes and cars on the road Sunday - great weather and dry pavement helped bring 'em out in force. I fell in behind a couple of knee-draggers that were racing a Subaru WRX up the hill from Chilhowee, passing by the Calderwood Dam overlook. It was fun to watch. They were putting what seemed to me like an awful lot of effort into putting their pucks to pavement, but the WRX and I stayed glued to 'em for several miles through the best of the Dragon. I finally passed the WRX near Parson Branch, and then the two knee-draggers right below Deals Gap before heading down to the restaurant for a late breakfast. I never really felt like I was pushing it - it was just that the knee-draggers weren't that fast.
By the time I exited the restaurant, it was HOT! It really felt good to shed the liners in the armor. I kicked back for an easy ride back up the shore of Fontana and opted this time to cut right over to Sylva via the shortest route. At Sylva, I again rode over by Cullowhee and then returned home via Wolf Lake, Toxaway, the East Fork of the French Broad (now there's a great ride!) All total, around 500 miles for the weekend - two days of riding, and one day of blissful hell in the woods. Living here in the southern mountains is like being a kid in a candy store - it just doesn't get much better than this!
Got my KawasiMoto badge on the Vee today - I might re-do the Kawasi part, but I like the Moto portion pretty good. Maybe someday, the Vee will get well-known enough that people will recognize it, but for now, I'm having a ball bs'ing people about its origin.