Twisting the 'Tail'
May 15, 2009
|in the Land of the Dammed - Friday, May 15
Today was ‘Tail of the Dragon’ day and the thought of it hung over me like a dark cloud. The Tail of the Dragon is an intimidating stretch of Tennessee highway known for it’s challenging conditions. It boasts 318 curves in 11 miles, and everywhere you go here you see ‘I Survived the Tail of the Dragon’ tee shirts and baseball caps and bumper stickers. It’s a destination for bikers and sports car enthusiasts who come by the thousands to test their skills against it’s winding terrain.
And this is where we were headed in our Winnebago motorhome! I could only imagine the reception we were going to get from the go-fast crowd as we lumbered along spoiling their fun. If we survived the curves ourselves, that is. It was shaping up to be a lose/lose situation. Madolyn seemed blissfully unconcerned about the impending threat, and she had a whole list of things she wanted to do first. That gave me all day long to fret about ‘the Tail’ - but I live for days like this.
We started the day with a two mile hike around our campground, then we set out to see the rest of the Cherohala Skyway. The Skyway is advertised as ‘A drive above the clouds’ but today the clouds stayed above us. And that was fine because they were some of the most beautiful clouds you’ll ever see. Sometimes they billowed up in towering mountains of white cumulus. Then they would turn dark and rumble ominously. But white or black, they provided a spectacular background to the mountains around us.
The Cherohala Skyway climbs steadily to a summit that is over a mile high. All the way up we passed bikers and they passed us. There were even a brave bicyclist or two. The three old bikers we met yesterday told us to expect cold weather at the top, and indeed we began to see a distinct change in the trees. As we climbed higher and higher we were taking a trip back in time, to an earlier spring where the flowering trees were in full bloom and where the rest of the trees were either still bare, or were just beginning to bud out.
As we left the summit and began to descend the season caught up again, and it also started to rain. The clouds that had been threatening for a while, now opened up and got us wet. They got the bikers wet too, and the ones we saw now were pulled over in the turnouts. Motorcycling in the rain is no fun - no matter how much you like biking otherwise. This gave us a chance to get down the hill without much traffic.
At the end of the Skyway we turned our Winnie toward Fontana Dam. This is TVA country, and in the interests of rural electrification, the Tennessee Valley Authority has dammed just about every river in the country. The ones they missed were dammed by Alcoa to provide power to their aluminum plants during the war. The result is no wild and scenic rivers here, but a lot of lakes and electric transmission towers. Many of the rivers have been dammed multiple times so the water could be used and re-used on it’s way to the sea, which is actually the Gulf of Mexico via the Tennessee, the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers.
Fontana Dam is the tallest of the tall, and since we crossed Fontana Lake on the train Wednesday we wanted to see the actual dam for ourselves. On the way to it we passed another dam and lake, and then the penstocks and powerhouse of still another lake above us. We finally found the turnoff to Fontana Dam, and a few curves later the dam itself. What a sight!
At 480 feet high it is TVA’s highest dam, and has the distinction of being the highest concrete dam east of the Rockies. It stretches half a mile across the valley and looms over the river, dwarfing the large powerhouse and substations at it’s base. Two huge tunnels stand ready to release excess water into the river, and when they do the water is said to leave the tunnels at 95 mph, shoot 150 feet into the air and come crashing down into the river 400 feet down stream!
We stood and stared, we took pictures of everything we saw and then we headed up to the Visitor Center where we walked out on the dam and saw it all again from the awesome height. It was an experience never to be forgotten.
Now for the tale of ‘the Tail’. We backtracked from Fontana Dam to Deals Gap, North Carolina. This is where you pick up the Tail of the Dragon, and there at the gas station on the corner were at least fifty bikers. It had been raining most of the way down from the dam, and I was hoping the rain would continue until we got safely through the Tail, but the rain let up and as we turned onto the famous road the bikers were gearing up to make the run themselves. If we could only stay ahead of them!
We climbed the hill to the Tennessee line, where the Tail of the Dragon actually begins, and we plunged in. The road behind us was empty (so far) and there were few bikes or cars going the other way. The curves were many and varied, but they were easily driveable and we weren’t experiencing any problems. To make a long story short, this good fortune continued, and we never encountered any serious problems the whole way.
Often there would be a Slo painted on the pavement at the entrance to a curve, and once someone had added the word ‘Oil’. On this one you could see where someone had wiped out and left an oil slick on the curve as they slid across it. Occasionally I would see a few sports cars in the rear view mirror, but then they would disappear as they pulled over to let me get farther ahead. A few bikes came up behind us, but we were always able to let them by, and with the pavement still wet and slippery they weren’t going all that fast anyway.
The best moment came when we passed a photographer. He was obviously set up to photograph someone coming the opposite direction, and as I entered the curve here they came - two bikers in full leathers, lying down on their tanks and leaning into the curve for all they were worth. The ultimate biker photo of two daredevils shredding the Tale of the Dragon - and there at that perfect moment we go tooling through their background in our dorky Winnebago motorhome - ruining the picture. Our timing couldn’t have been more perfect, and it still makes me laugh every time I think about it!
We passed one more dam overlook, and then we were down in the Tennessee Valley, out of the Tail and following the river. From there it was a short drive to the Foothills Parkway and we were back in the Great Smokey Mountains. We scored a campsite with a gorgeous view, and we settled in for a night of blissful peace after all our fun of wagging the Tail.
Note: Nearly every curve on the Tail of the Dragon has been named, and here are some of them:
Rocket Corner, The Whip, Pearly Gates, Triple Apex Corner, Guard Rail Cliff, Hog Pen Bend, Shaw Grave Gap, Copperhead Corner, Killboy Shadetree Corner, Mud Corner, Grace’s Esses, Brake or Bust Bend, Carosel Corner, Swift Corner, Busa Bash, Parson’s Corner, Thunder Road Bend, Toll Booth, The Hump aka Gravity Cavity, The Chicanes, The Dips, The Wall and the ever popular Crud Corner (every tail has one!)
On next years map we hope to see a new Winnebago's Revenge but that’s probably wishful thinking.