Taking the FJR to the Cherohala and the Dragon - October 24th & 25th, 2009

Absolutely one of my all time favorite photos

It was getting time for what has become our annual fall 'leaf peepin' trip.  It was looking like this was going to be our last trip of the year on the bike, not only because winter time and cold weather was fast approaching, even here really.  But also because two weeks prior I had lost my job and was unemployed. a victim of the economy and the credit crunch.

Ever since we brought the FJR home I had been aching to go over to the western North Carolina / Eastern Tennessee mountains.  Specifically to make a run on The Dragon and The Cherohala Skyway.  This seemed to be a good a time as any to get it done, the leaves were at peak color this particular week-end and I certainly had the time...

Julie and I both wanted to get away for a week-end and enjoy ourselves, so she got on line to see how many hotel points she had accumulated and where we could use them to our advantage.  As it turned out she not only had enough points to stay at a Hampton Inn in Murphy, North Carolina, she had enough for two rooms.  A quick phone call to our buds Teddy and Tim had the four of us set to leave the following Saturday.  Hot Damn!

The fly in the proverbial ointment was that the weather forecast called for a rain front to build west of us and then hit our area late Saturday morning and then stall until early to mid afternoon.  The way I had it figured from the forecasts was if we left early that morning we would be out of town before it had a chance to develop.  There would be a small chance we would catch it building around Statesville but then it would be clear sailing from then on. 

Unfortunately there were just too many obstacles to overcome for an early start and everyone just seemed to think leaving around two was a good idea.  Not wanting to cause anyone to have second thoughts about going I didn't mention that it was over 300 miles to Murphy, and held my breath waiting on Tim to figure it out. 

The rains did come, heavy at times, but all the forecasts kept predicting the front to dissipate and move out by early afternoon.  I was still waiting on Tim to figure out how far it was and say something, but either he wanted this as bad as I did or he never gave it any thought because at 2:30 Saturday afternoon we saddled up and hit the road.  No one ever asked me how far it was, and I didn't volunteer that information. 

The roads were still a bit wet as we headed out on US 64 west and stayed that way until we got on the west side of Mocksville.  By then things were drying out and the sun was shinning.  Things would have been great except for the wind, which was blowing pretty hard and at times gusting heavily.

Teddy and Tim like to ride the same types of roads we do, which is to say that they would prefer to be on back country roads as much as possible, but don't mind taking the interstates in order to make time.  Since Julie and I had called for this ride it was up to us to lead it and in the interest of time I decided that once we got to I-40 on the west side of Mocksville we would jump on the big road and hammer down on over to Hickory where Tim would have to stop for fuel, then decide which way to go from there.

Riding on I-40 was miserable.  The wind was steady enough that it required leaning into it in order to go straight, and then would gust and blow you the other way.  It was like being beat about the head and shoulders almost the whole time.  By the time we got to Morganton we were all ready to stop and shake off the wind.  When Tim  and I finished fueling we pulled off to the side of the parking lot, drank some water and cold drinks while we laughed and talked.

I was still waiting on someone to say "How much further?", but no one did.  I started quizzing the crew on which way they wanted to go from here, just knowing that would lead to 'the question', but again, no one seemed to want to know.  It was decided by the group to get off the interstate and back onto US 64 which would take us through some beautiful countryside such as Lake Lure, Chimney Rock and Lake Toxaway but would add a lot of miles as well as slow us down.  No one seemed to mind, so on we went.

This particular part of 64 is as beautiful as it is a hoot to ride.  Timing is everything though because you either catch it when there is very little traffic, or every one and their brother is there.  Guess what we found?  There was a traffic jam in Chimney Rock and if that doesn't make your jaw drop, you've probably never been there.  By the clock on the FJR it took us more than thirty minutes to go the five miles from Lake Lure to the west side of Chimney Rock.  Still, we rode on, honestly having a ball.

We had given Teddy and Tim a J&M communications system almost a year ago that Tim had never gotten around to mounting until recently.  This was their first trip with it and that allowed us to all talk via the CB radio, which was a hoot.  They are such fun people to be around and to be able to gab a bit and share moments while riding just adds an element to the trip that is priceless.


When we got to Hendersonville which was Tim's next fuel stop it was definitely getting colder (as Teddy reminded me on the CB a few times) and it was also getting darker.  We all put on another layer of clothes and got prepared for a cold ride.  Finally, Teddy ask me over the radio as we pulled back onto the road "How much further?", when I told her it was over a hundred miles I thought she was going to have Tim run over us!  The way the com systems work Julie couldn't hear what I told Teddy so she asked the same question over our intercom, when I answered her she said. "Your kidding..."  Nope.  I wasn't.  We had to go! 

In another hour it was definitely dark, and definitely cold.  We stopped for gas somewhere after Franklin not really because we needed fuel, but because we all needed to thaw out!  We hung out there, in the middle of nowhere, for a while then got back on the road for the last push into Murphy.  The last part of the ride was actually a lot of fun, relatively speaking, in that where 64 goes through Nantahala National Forest is fun to ride, and I'm sure it was probably beautiful too.  I really don't know because I was focusing on what I could see in my headlight beams and watching for deer!  Roughly one more hour after our warm up stop we arrived in Murphy and found the hotel.  Thank God.  We were all about to freeze and we were all about to starve so after checking in we went to a Mexican restaurant close by and had a good meal.  Then went back to the hotel and settled into our rooms for the night.  All in all, it was a good ride.

Sunday morning we met in the lobby for our complimentary breakfasts and found that fog was the word of the day.  It was the proverbial pea soup stuff, thick and damp, and bad enough that we all decided to sit it out for a while in hopes that the sun would burn it off and warm things up a bit.  By 10:00 am it was better, but not clear and we had reached the point where we had to go if we were going to get some riding in and be home before dark.

We left Murphy on 64 west and followed it across the Tennessee line until we intersected Tennessee SR 68 in Ducktown.  Using my astute map reading skills I determined that this should be a nice 30ish mile ride through the Tennessee countryside that would put us in Tellico Plains near the entrance of The Cherohala Skyway.  It was all that and more.  We encountered some traffic early on but soon had the road almost to ourselves.  To say it was spectacular is surely an understatement.  The road wound and twisted it's way through foothills and farmland where the fall colors were breathtaking.  In more than one place the trees on either side of the road formed a natural canopy for us to ride through.  With the sun peaking through the multi colored leaves all around us it was like riding into a huge kaleidoscope that was built by nature.

We were definitely in the 'flower sniffing' mode going up 68, the views and the still damp in spots road demanded it.  No one was complaining, but by the time we got to Tellico Plains, topped of the tanks and got everything ready to cross the Skyway it was very close to mid day. 

With out a doubt the Cherohala Skyway is not only one of my favorite roads, it's one my favorite places to be.  No matter what time of year it is, no matter what the weather it's beautiful.  The road itself is close to perfect in construction and layout.  Smooth and wide with sweeping turns as well as tight ones, it rolls and undulates through some of the most beautiful country I've ever seen. 

Below 3,500 ft the view was exactly what you would imagine in the fall, vivid splotches of color that jumped out at you dotted the landscape.  In the higher altitudes the leaves had already fallen and the look of winter had already set in.

Traffic was heavy near the entrance of the Skyway and we found ourselves in line with several vehicles a few times, but the further we went the more it thinned out.  The ride itself was great.  Bryan had commented that he thought the FJR would be a perfect bike for the Skyway and he was right.  It rode smoothly, handled the sweepers effortlessly and held it's line in the tighter turns perfectly.  I swear I was grinning the whole way across! It's been a long time since I enjoyed a motorcycle as much as I do this one, definitely back to the dirt bike days.  Not that the Nomad wasn't a great bike or that I didn't enjoy it, far from it.  The FJR is just... so... man, damn near perfect is about the best way to describe it.  I wouldn't trade the times we had and the memories we made on the Nomad for anything, but I'm really excited about doing the same on the FJR.

Partially in an effort to make up time and partially because it was too cold to stop, and largely because we were having such a good time, we transversed the entire length of the Skyway with out stopping.  Once off the Skyway and it's access roads we stopped so that I could move and remount the Go Pro video camera and regroup.  Back on the bikes we got on US 129 north and headed for the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort for lunch and then The Dragon.

Pulling into Deals Gap we found what we expected, a go-zillion bikes and riders of all types, sizes and shapes.  The parking lot can be a bike show and if people watching is your thing this place can entertain you for hours.  There were sport bikes, sport tourers, tourers and cruisers.  Motards, dual sports and scooters.  Not to mention everything from Corvettes to Caravans, all converging on one spot hang out and share the experience of running The Dragon.  It's a cool place.

We had lunch, did a little shopping in the store, then went walking around the parking lot a bit, just checking things out.  As we were suiting up to ride I saw a tractor-trailer pulling an empty flatbed went by going north on 129 and told our crowd not to be in a hurry, there would be no getting around it and it would be holding up traffic.  So we walked around some, took a few pictures and then slowly saddled up and headed north ourselves.

I was anxious to see how the FJR would do on this infamous road.  The Nomad, while fun, could get to be a handful running at any sort of pace and I never really felt as smooth as I would like to have been.  If the Skyway was any sort of gage, Julie and i were about to have some fun!


I had the Go Pro camera facing forward and asked Teddy and Tim to go ahead so that they would be in the video.  At first we rode fairly easy and then Tim picked up the pace a bit, I let him go to get some distance between us then picked it up myself.  With the broad range of available abundant power all that was needed was second gear.  The engine would pull hard coming out of the turns and even in second gear if there was room before the next turn twice the posted speed limit was easily attainable.  As the next turn approached I would back off the throttle enough to slow the bike and tap the brakes just a touch if needed, set the bike into the turn and flow through it, accelerating through the apex.  The bike just flowed, it was great!  It wouldn't take long for us to catch up to Teddy and Tim mainly because of the traffic.  But when we did I'd just back off and let them go, then run them down again.  What a hoot.

As usual on week-ends traffic was an issue.  In no time at all we had run up behind a group of cars and motorcycles being held up by one particular car that would not pull off and let the faster traffic by.  Julie and I continued to do the back off and catch up thing until another bike caught us, then we were in the conga line too.  I suggested to Tim on the radio that we pull over at the next paved pull off so that we could let the traffic go on, we did and sat there for five minutes or more.  In a very short time we had caught the same line of traffic.  Eventually the front car did pull over and let everyone go by. 

The photo's above were taken by three different photographers during our ride on The Dragon and show how Julie and I roll...

We were rolling along pretty good coming up on a right turn that was near impossible to see all the way through when Tim suddenly hit the brakes and swerved to the right. I nailed the brakes on the FJR and went to the left and then saw that there was a car stopped in the middle of the road ahead of Tim. When we got stopped we saw a line of vehicles stopped ahead of us. Guess who we'd caught up to? Yep. The flat bed. The truck was on the outside of a turn with the right front wheel on the shoulder and the trailer was on the inside with the left rear wheel on the shoulder. The driver of the rig was desperately trying to just get through the turn and had the whole road blocked.

He worked at it for some time and eventually he got it.  Poor guy, there were only a couple hundred more turns to go...  Sitting there waiting though I saw that photographer extraordinair, Darryl Cannon of Killboy.com fame, was set up at the corner just ahead of where the truck was struggling.  Once we got moving, albeit, very slowly, I began to come up with a plan. 

I really, really wanted some pictures of us on the FJR, riding the Dragon is a sure fire way to get some too.  Knowing that following that truck for another several miles wouldn't be any fun, I thought we could pull over and let traffic clear, then turn around, go back past Darryl, turn around again and come back by him once more then see how long it would take to catch the truck again.  That way Darryl could possibly get us going both ways!  I mentioned this to Teddy and Tim on the radio and they weren't as enthused about it as I was, but graciously agreed to wait on us while we did it. 

...but this FJR rider and those in the photos below show how its really done

It was a great idea, that just didn't pan out.  He was shooting in the other direction when we doubled back, then when we headed back the way we'd been going I couldn't hold the line through the turn with out "dropping the lane" i.e. crossing the double yellow line and going into the on coming lane, and had to make a mid turn correction.  Darryl got the shots, but they sure weren't pretty.  We didn't even end up buying them.  On the other hand we did pass by several other photographers that got some great shots of us.  All of which are posted in this report.

Disgusted with myself for blowing the opportunity we rode on, hooked up with Teddy and Tim again and continued on our way.  We didn't catch the truck, first, we caught up to some more slow moving traffic and pulled off once more to let them go on for a while.  After a few minutes we headed out again and thankfully were able to get almost to the end of the Dragon before we caught up to the truck.  Keep n mind that all of this happened in an 11 mile stretch of road...

We were now at a crossroads both literally and figuratively.  It was getting late and we were at least four hours from home, possibly more.  The intersection for the Foothills Parkway was just ahead, it's a beautiful ride that is fun and takes you in the direction of Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg or The Great Smokey Mountains National Park.  All of which is great riding that offers a lot to see, but also adds a tremendous amount of time to the trip.  The 'fastest' way home was, in theory at least, to go back and ride the Dragon again, then work our way from Robbinsville to I-40 and back home.  But after what we'd just been through I figured it could realistically be as time consuming either way and opted for 'the long way'.  Hey, we came to ride, right?

As usual the Foothills Parkway was fun to ride and a sight to see.  We got on US 321 north and rode it to Wear Valley, Tennessee and picked up NC Rt 73 and rode it into the Smokey Mountain National Park.  This road has to be one of the most spectacularly beautiful and scenic ones in the area.  Bar none.  But it has a 35 mph speed limit, there is no place to pass, and most of the time heavily congested.  It took f-o-r-e-v-e-r to get to US 441 which would take across the park in another direction and ultimately Cherokee, North Carolina.

Honda VFR 'draggin a bag'

We were given no reprieve on 441 either.  In spots it was bumper to bumper moving at a snails pace, in others we actually got up over the speed limit a little.  Just a little, and not for long.  *sigh*  I was beginning to feel real bad about leading us this way and seriously second guessing my decision not to a Dragon repeat.  The sun was setting fast and it promised to be a long cold night ride home.

The bright spot in all of this was that Julie finally got to see a bear!  As we were riding along, actually moving pretty good, traffic began to snarl up a little bit up ahead of us, then we noticed cars parked along side the road on either side.  The traffic ahead hit snail drive again and so did we, but then we figured out what all the hub-bub was about.  Right beside the road, and I do mean right beside it, a bear cub was literally hanging from a tree limb.  Much to the delight of the gathered throngs.  I wanted to stop sooo bad, wanted Julie to experience this moment she had been looking forward to for so long, but there was no where to park.  Cars were that thick on the shoulder.  I offered to find a spot and hike back with her, offered to turn around and drop her off, then circle back and pick her up, but nooooo.  She didn't want to hold up Teddy and Tim for it, and wanted to keep moving.  Strangely enough a few miles later a similar situation arose but this time the wildlife turned out to be a herd of elk.  Pretty neat really, its just to bad we didn't have more time. 

Gold Wing getting it done

It was oh-dark-thirty when we pulled into Cherokee and it wasn't getting warmer.  We stopped for fuel and to get ready for the ride in the dark home.  Cherokee was also extremely busy and it was a long drawn out affair getting out of town.  The ride to Maggie Valley went easy enough and from there it wasn't far to I-40 and the three'ish hour ride home.

We put the bikes in the wind heading for the barn as they say, stopping only twice more for fuel and to thaw out a bit all the way to the house and back to reality.

All things considered it was a great trip and we had a ball.  I could have done with a little less night time cold riding, but thats all part of it, especially in the fall. 

This was also a good indicator of how the FJR was going to do for us in the long run and it passed with flying colors.  I finally knew for sure that Julie was tickled with it a few weeks after the trip; on her Facebook page she posted one of the pictures of us taken on the Dragon, her caption read:  "the fjr flows through the curves. Like butter on hot toast. I love it!!"

Nuff said.