I was looking at Napoleon’s 19th-century chess set when I saw Jamie studying a Harley Davidson Model 20-J motorcycle. Above the bike, a sign noted that from 1913 to 1917, Vanderbilt owned six motorcycles that his staff used for mail delivery and security. I read the employee rules, dated July 1914: “Racing, scorching, or fast running are prohibited.” Jamie explained that scorching meant burning rubber. A security guard was also looking covetously at the motorcycle, so I asked her, “What have you heard about the Tail of the Dragon?”
“Lots of dangerous turns,” she answered.
“It’s going to be much more than dangerous,” I think as I peer around Jamie’s back and see he’s climbing the Dragon’s Tail at 65 mph. We left Asheville very early in the morning to be first up the trail, and, thankfully, there’s no one ahead of us. I searched motorcycle expressions on the Internet before we came, and I call out to Jamie, “Keep the dirty side down,” meaning keep the rubber on the road. But he can’t hear me over the engine noise. We have only one signal: If I put my hand in a fist, that means stop, but it’s not worth telling him to stop just to spout out my new phrase. A motorcycle driver hunched in his seat comes toward us, but I’m too scared to take my hand off Jamie’s waist to wave.
If You Go
Double D’s Coffee & Desserts
41 Biltmore Ave., Asheville, N.C.
One Lodge St., Asheville, N.C.
“The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad” Exhibition
The Biltmore Legacy in Antler Hill Village
One Lodge St., Asheville, N.C.
We begin to carve our first turn, and Jamie slows down, thankfully. He also leans into the turn, and I lean with him as he has instructed me. Just as we get halfway around the arc, Jamie suddenly accelerates. What is he doing? We come out of that turn alive, and he slows down again for the next turn, but only momentarily. Then he guns it. We hit the third curve. Each time, he slows down to 20 mph and then speeds up to 70. My stomach has dropped. It’s like a roller coaster, except that instead of getting whipped, we’re doing the whipping, and every turn is scarier than the last. A trailer loaded with horses passes in the opposite direction, and I remember this route isn’t just a sports drive but also a public road. That doesn’t give me any confidence. Two sheriff cars pass in the opposite direction. Accident?
Jamie passes a red Corvette on the straightaway and this time I feel the torque. I can still hear my heart pounding, but suddenly it’s not out of terror. It’s more exhilaration. Maybe this is scary, but it’s a good scary; a major adrenaline rush. No wonder Jamie loves riding his bike. A Miata is ahead, and I’m thinking: “Pass him, Jamie! Pass him!” We surge past the car and I scream “YAY,” even though no one can hear me. A parade of brightly painted Mini Coopers moves in the opposite direction. But, I think, they’re just a little circus train and we’re King of the Road! I sit up taller in my seat and loosen my death grip around Jamie’s waist.
A photographer on the side of the road snaps shots, and I flash him a gloved thumbs-up sign. A sport-bike rider zooms past us leaning into the turn, his knee intentionally dragging along the asphalt. So that’s why they have those thick hockey-puck knee pads. That might be fun to try sometime. We pass a blue Harley and another Miata, and suddenly we’re at the end of the Dragon. Jamie turns around, and just before we head back down, I high-five him. Maybe I don’t have tattoos, but I’m feeling pretty tough, like a real biker chick, smug and proud that together, we slew the Dragon.
MARGIE GOLDSMITH, a New York City–based writer, has written for Robb Report and Elite Traveler. In the June 1, 2013, issue of American Way, she wrote about learning to play the harmonica.