The back of the eighteen-wheeler was hanging off of the asphalt, the driver standing beside it with his hands planted on his hips and a nervous set to his face as police chattered into radios beside him.
He’d realized his mistake the hard way- this was no road for trucks that big; it would never handle the turns.
I looked out the window of my grandfather’s pickup as the scene blurred by and we approached a hairpin turn, the tilt of the road accommodating the angle.
It was not the first of these turns we had encountered- this eleven-mile stretch of road that traverses the Tennessee-North Carolina boundary had, according to the bikers who have completed it, 318 serpentine twists, that if spaced evenly and had the same angle, would all be about 60 degrees.
It’s been known as “The Tail of the Dragon” since 1981, and a look at any map of the area would make why it’s called this perfectly clear.
While my family had traveled it by car or pickup, this section of Route 129 is very popular amongst motorcyclists- which is clear from the signs at the start of the road. “FREQUENT MOTORCYCLE CRASHES— NEXT 11 MILES,” one sign warns. While the speed limit is currently thirty miles an hour, in the eighties and early nineties it was fifty-five miles an hour.
You can see why it was lowered, as bikers zip by on sport bikes with the side of the vehicle almost scraping the ground as they speed into a turn.
While it’s a tedious and technical drive from the car, on a motorcycle, it’s an adrenaline rush unlike anything else, with considerable crash risk (4 bikers died on this road in 2017). It’s not for the faint of heart or for beginners. Those who complete it on a bike are dubbed “Dragon Slayers”, a title craved by motorcycle enthusiasts internationally.
“You can’t get that title driving it in a car, can you?” I laughed to a biker who had traveled the road for the third time that day with her husband. “Nope,” she replied with a smile. “Only on a bike.”
The road runs along the southern border of Smoky Mountain National Park, with rich, undeveloped forest on either side. If you travel it in a car, you might have the freedom to see wildlife like turkey or deer. At the time, we were vacationing in a cabin that was about an hour or so of a drive outside the park (even though it was less than three miles from it, and we could see it easily from the windows of the place). The quickest route there was on the circuitous, winding Dragon.
On the North Carolina end of the road, in a small community called Deals Gap, my family sat at a small grill, where the ceiling was covered in over a hundred t-shirts that were donated by dozens of bikers and groups- from Germany to Brazil, and from Quebec to Jersey City.
Bikers with full protective gear (and casual tourists like we were, without) clustered around wooden tables and slurped soda and chowed down on the rich foods that the place served. Outside the window, you could see bikers starting and ending a trip, those resting in the shops and grills leaving their bikes parked in impossibly small spaces- neat, shining rows that you could admire from your seat. Shining statues of dragons fashioned partially from bike components stood all over the town.
We left in the hot July sun, the sharp smell of pine and car exhaust mixing in the air, Deals Gap behind us and Route 129 under our wheels. We may not have slain the dragon, but we might’ve seen some great sights along the way.