What do you do when your boyfriend invites you to ride on a famous SPORTS CAR/MOTORCYCLE road with 318 curves in 11 miles?
“Tree of Shame,” reads a large sign nailed to a 40-foot-high sweet gum tree covered in motorcycle parts — fenders, seats, exhaust pipes, clutch handles — as well as a hospital ID bracelet. The tree is a makeshift shrine to the many riders who have crashed on the notorious “Tail of the Dragon,” an 11-mile road with 318 curves, known as the world’s No. 1 motorcycle and sports-car route. This piece of Smoky Mountain asphalt in Deals Gap, N.C., on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, has no stop signs, no intersecting roads and no houses. The road is as high as 1,955 feet above sea level with enough hairpin turns and drop-offs to trigger many accidents, thus explaining the Tree of Shame.
I am not a motorcycle rider, but I have come to do the Tail of the Dragon on the back of my boyfriend, Jamie’s, BMW R 1200 GS. It’s not something I want to do. Until I met Jamie, my image of motorcycle riders was black leather, silver studs and tattoos. Jamie has none of those features. But relationships are about compromises, and he’s agreed to join me on a vacation in Asheville, N.C., if I’ll do this scary ride with him. Of course, he doesn’t use the word scary; he says “thrilling” and “fun” and “exhilarating” and tells me I’ll love it so much I’ll want to do it at least twice.
I doubt that — certainly not as I look up at the bike parts riders have added to the Tree of Shame to immortalize their dance with the Dragon. One red-and-white Superbike fairing reads: “I could not help it. The faster I went, the faster I wanted to go.” On an upside-down neon-green fender is the lament “The Dragon bit me.” A dented black helmet reads, “Ouch.” Leaning on the tree trunk is a brake disc that reads, “My fishing buddy, you’ll be missed. RIP.” Jamie puts his arm around my shoulder and says, “Come on, don’t look at that stuff. Let’s go have some fun.”
Going on a motorcycle ride is not like getting in a car, buckling the seat belt and taking off. Even when you’re riding behind an experienced driver like Jamie, who’s been riding for years, there’s an entire production to getting ready. First, I zip up my “armor,” a BMW ballistic jacket padded with foam on the elbows, shoulders and back. Next, I put on my helmet and buckle it — tough to do because I can never find the second metal ring. Then, I carefully thread my sunglass stems over my ears inside the helmet, don my leather gloves and wait for Jamie to start the bike. When he nods for me to get on, I climb over the back seat the same way I’d get on a saddle. But, unlike a horse, his bike has hard motorcycle cases on either side, so I have to mount without smashing my knee.
NOW YOU KNOW: The state of North Carolina has banned trucks longer than 30 feet from traveling the Dragon on its side of the North Carolina/Tennessee state line.
Want to tour Asheville, N.C., and ride the Tail of the Dragon? US Airways offers eight peak daily flights to Asheville (AVL) from Charlotte (CLT).