It was a good day to play hooky and who wouldn’t have done the same given the opportunity. When a college buddy called to let me know he was in the area and had brought his motorcycle along with him, I needed little more to tempt me into getting out of the office for a day and enjoying fall as it nears it’s peak of glory. It was a truly great day to be riding though what day isn’t?
George is new to motorcycling and from Florida. Either of those two factors means mountain curves are intimidating. When combined, I was assured this wouldn’t be a day spent testing the edges of the tires and sane riding technique. That’s a good thing really as I’m still riding out the years probation I’m under for abusing my privilege to stay within the DOT’s suggested speed recommendations on our wonderful roads. His choice of rides, a Honda Pacific Coast, also did not lend itself to carving up the corners. It’s one of those giant scooter-looking things, and while it has 800cc’s of grunt, it lacks the attitude to apply it – it’s more of a rolling tupperware party with barely a hint of metal meanness showing anywhere. No problem. With a spanking new tire on the front of my bike, an easy ride to scrub it in would be just the ticket before I put it to proper use another day.
I’d been looking for an excuse to revisit Hot Springs, one of the classic rides in the area. It was fall cool this morning and I threw the heated gear on just in case, though I never needed to plug it in. A quick breakfast at Duval’s in Waynesville, then out NC 209 into the countryside. Blue skies, crystal clear air, and clean roads welcomed us to one of the nicest close-in rides found around here.
We wound through the gentle curves of the pastoral valleys then climbed into the serpentine course through the higher passes. Were it one of my regular rides it could have been a morning of frustration. First a delay due to road work, then mowing, then a farm tractor, then a heavy truck easing down a grade in low gear as we worked our way north. Today these delays simply allowed more time to soak in the surroundings and gave George a chance to get accommodated to the roads without having to maintain a constant push to the edge of his comfort zone.
We paused in Hot Springs and I took a few minutes to explore the town anew. It was once one of my favorite local runs as it is a great ride to get there, and is surrounded by a wealth of fantastic two lane back roads. I’d make the hour trip out, amuse myself with loops through the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, then circle back into town for a beer and buffalo burger at the Paddler’s Pub. The pub was always filled with bikers and the parking lot was a showcase of machines from near and far. It burned down last winter and has yet to be rebuilt, though I was encouraged to see piles of new cinder block stacked where it once stood.
I’ve yet to try any of the other small cafés that inhabit the tiny town, and this morning it was too early to give any a test run. The Iron Horse Station looks promising. I told George some of the history and errata of the place. There really are natural hot mineral springs here you can visit and soak in. It was a refuge in early days for those who came to enjoy them for “health” reasons, but the grand old spa resort had also succumbed to fire years ago. The town had served as an internment camp for German prisoners during WWII. The Appalachian Trail, that 2000 mile long footpath that stretches from Georgia to Maine, passes right through the heart of it to cross on the bridge over the French Broad River. It’s a popular place for whitewater rafters who come to ride the challenges of the rapids found on river. The surrounding national forests are full of hiking trails. That’s an awful lot of attractions for a town so small it doesn’t even have a traffic light.
We continued north along beautiful NC 212 as it traces the river where fly fisherman often outnumber the trout, then I detoured off on one of my secret little back roads to head into Tennessee. Climbing, dipping and carving through the hillsides, George convinced me this road was so good I had to add it to my Hot Springs map. I suppose he’s right, I’ll revisit that map and beef it up with a few more of roads I’d kept to myself up until now.
From Rocky Fork, Tennessee, we turned south to return to North Carolina and lunch called for a stop in Mars Hill. We landed at the El Dorado Latin Grill to satisfy my craving for a Cuban sandwich, though George’s chicken thighs with blueberry chipoltle sauce was the special of the day and he reported it was excellent.
I-26 filled the short gap between Mars Hill and Weaverville where George had stayed with relatives. I wanted to show him a good road right in town then get up on the Blue Ridge Parkway to give him the full monty on our one day tour. You can tell leaf peeping season is upon us as soon as you hit the parkway.
We plodded along through the boring section of the Blue Ridge Parkway that encircles Asheville. The road declines from the higher mountains north to reach a low point south of the city as it fords the French Broad River on an elevated causeway. From there it becomes far more interesting as you climb to it’s highest and most scenic section. As we gained altitude the turning of the leaves played out in colorful splendor.
If you know just where to look, you can get an awesome view of the Biltmore Mansion sitting castle-like amongst the surrounding forests, though I didn’t stop to share the view. We passed through tunnel after tunnel each time bursting out into the bright sunlight and just a little more color on the trees as we climbed higher and higher to reach Mt. Pisgah. I paused at selected overlooks to enjoy the panoramic views which stretched far into the hills of South Carolina and Great Smokey Mountains National Park to the north. The Pisgah Inn, Graveyard Fields, Looking Glass Rock, and The Devil’s Courthouse all had full parking areas as we stopped to enjoy them. Already at the higher elevations the peak of the color may have passed. Graveyard fields was a spectacular red and brown, though looking down on the ridges below showed much of the seasonal rainbow was yet to appear in the forests. Only the tips of the ridges had been touched by the paint brush of autumn and plenty of yet green leaves wait for their final curtain call.
Completing our loop we left the parkway at NC 215 wanting to share my wife’s favorite local road with my good friend and rolled through the never-ending curves of color that led us back to Waynesville and then my home. Jackie was home from work and we enjoyed the premier local past time of sitting on the porch reveling in a good days travels and the tales that go with them.
As he prepared to leave George thanked me for the days tour. “You know, the Blue Ridge Parkway was really nice, I’ve seen it before from a car and it’s a whole new experience on a motorcycle. But those little back roads you took me on were what really made the day, I’ve never done anything like that, it was the best experience I’ve ever had on a motorcycle, I enjoyed them more than anything else.”
Safe travels George. Good to see you again and even better to spend a day riding with you. You know we’ve always got a room ready for you when you get the chance to come back.