By Mitch Traphagen
ROBBINSVILLE, NC - Itís early November and Iím on a desolate rural highway headed north into a misty gray horizon. The last northbound motorcycle I saw was at a freeway rest area in south Georgia. He was only going as for north as Macon. "You donít want to go into the mountains," he said as I started up my bike to return to the highway.
I was headed for the mountains.
There is a road that begins in North Carolina and winds into Tennessee. The road, U.S. 129, is known as the Dragon. In just 11 miles of this fabled road there are 318 curves. It is a motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts dream. It is a destination for people from around the country and around the world.
In my search to Find Florida I somehow got swallowed up in Florida. I needed a change of scenery and a change in latitude. The Dragon was calling and time was running out. Judging by the warning of my fellow biker in south Georgia, maybe time had already run out.
Until I moved to Florida, my only experience with the state of Georgia was to drive through it as quickly as I could on I-75. When I say quickly, I do not mean over the speed limit. Without Georgia plates that, apparently, would be insane. While Georgia cars careen seemingly out of control just beyond the sound barrier there are approximately 2.4 Georgia State Troopers for each out of state car on the road. My first experience - both driving through Georgia and with a Georgia State Trooper - was not a good one. The impression left had soured my thoughts of the Peach State (or whatever) for the next several years.
More than a decade ago I was on my way south to visit Florida for a week. I was fairly young, somewhat upwardly mobile and driving a new red sports car with very dark tinted windows.
Somewhere south of Atlanta the lights of a state patrol car lit up behind me. On everything I hold dear I can pretty much swear that I wasnít speeding so I didnít know why I was being pulled over. But I dutifully did so and I waited. Now in Minnesota people are instructed to not leave the car if pulled over - the officer will come to you.
So I waited some more. Finally, through a loudspeaker I hear "GET OUT OF THE CAR!" As the sound-barrier-breaking traffic on I-75 streaked by inches away, I got out of the car. I met the trooper halfway and, while today I can chuckle about it, his first remarks brought banjo music to my ears.
"Whenís the last time you smoked mary-wanna?" he asked. That was it - no "Hi, how ya doing," no "I pulled you over because..." but rather "Whenís the last time you smoked mary-wanna?"
I felt indignant. I was an executive with one of the largest retailers in the world and I couldnít believe what I was hearing. Several years later Iíve grown up a bit and the feeling of indignation has long since passed. The trooper had probably already seen 10 other new Honda Preludes blow through with cannabis smoke blowing out the windows on their road trip to FloriDUH. I was just too young, cocky and stupid to realize that this guy probably knew a lot more about life than I did.
I told the officer that I didnít smoke marijuana and then he said, "So you just doiní a bunch of nodoze then?" I felt pretty safe here because I seriously doubted that anyone was doing hard time in a Georgia prison for No Doze abuse. But no, there was no evil No Doze to be found in my system. I told the officer that I was just drinking a bottle of orange juice.
The officer told me that if I was tired I should just get a motel room for the night and that was it. He pulled away and I continued on to Florida swearing that I would never give Georgia a dollar of my money for motel accommodations.
In retrospect, he was right. I probably looked like forty miles of bad road and was probably too tired to be safe. It is amazing that we all survive our youth.
As I made my way north to see the Dragon, I thought about that trooper as I pulled my motorcycle off the freeway and into my Georgia motel room at just before 8 p.m.
After 300 miles on the freeway, the remainder of my 1,400 mile trip was to be on the back roads. As such, I still had one mental hurdle about Georgia to overcome. That hurdle came in the form of a movie named Deliverance.
Growing up in Minnesota, Deliverance became my only view of the South. The mere thought of a deep Southern accent was enough to send a chill down my spine. As I left the city limits of Macon and ventured into the country on a quiet, maybe too quiet, two-lane road I had a passing nightmarish thought of my motorcycle breaking down and then waking up chained to a tree with a shirtless guy in overalls telling me, "You shore have purty lips."
But I knew better. Iíve seen a good part of the world and I have yet to be chained to a tree. But still, what I found surprised me.
In just getting away from the madrush of the freeway, I found some of the best people in the world. I found small towns that I would be proud to call my home. I found people that I would be proud to have as neighbors if they would have me. I found people that when they ask, "How are you?" they honestly want to know how you are.
As I entered the northern part of Georgia the scenery took a turn for the beautiful. Although late in the fall season, there was still just enough color in the trees to take my breath away. The dark clouds dominating the northern horizon and the National Weather Service predictions of an impending cold front, however, made me feel like I was about to jump off into a cold and arctic abyss.
Riding the Wet Dragon
A sign welcoming me to North Carolina soon appeared and before long, I was taking a beautiful two lane mountain road to the small town of Robbinsville. A light rain was falling when I checked into my motel. The Microtel Inn is new and said to be biker-friendly. There are Dragon T-shirts and bumper stickers available in the lobby. There are even motorcycle parking stalls right near the front door.
My plan was to get a good nightís sleep and then meet the Dragon the next day.
A light rain was falling when I woke up causing me to wonder if my skills were up to driving wet, twisty mountain roads. One of the many web sites dedicated to riding the Dragon tells riders to be careful about crossing into the other lane on the tight corners. It goes on to say, "Ride Florida if you want to straighten out the curves."
I had traveled more than 700 miles just to ride an 11 mile stretch of highway. As such, I would just ignore the random thoughts of skidding off a mountain edge or sliding out of control into a wayward 18-wheeler.
The Dragon begins just a few miles out of Robbinsville. As I rode that short distance the rain slowed to a barely perceptible drizzle. I took the road very, very slowly and, in my 45 minute trip, I was captivated. As I reached the end, rather than make the broad circular trip on another highway, I decided to run the Dragon again. On my second trip, the rain began to fall in earnest as I approached Dealís Gap on the North Carolina and Tennessee border. But I had accomplished my goal. For the most part, I had the road completely to myself. It was like heaven on earth.
Except for the last few miles on I-75, I took the back roads for the 700 mile trip home. As before it was a wonderful experience. The cold front had past bringing cool temperatures and blue skies. My bike felt like it was thoroughly enjoying the run. I know that I was.
But the trip was also disconcerting. Most of the small towns along the way were in various stages of a terminal illness. The towns were literally dying. The people who remained, those who clung to the more simple ways of days gone by, almost seemed confused about what was happening to the only life they knew.
But it was clear what was happening. People grew up and moved out. They never returned. The jobs moved to the larger cities and before long, entire blocks of buildings were boarded up.
But those old stores and houses contained many generations of happy times, sad times and everything in between.
I frequently stopped in front of abandoned buildings and tried to imagine what it was like when people were celebrating Christmas or birthdays or other happy events. I tried to imagine parents putting their kids to bed, tried to imagine the family conversations over dinner. I tried to imagine the store clerks greeting their neighbors by name with a genuine smile on their face. I tried to imagine that life long since gone - a life where we didnít "need" so much stuff, a time when we werenít paying such a high price for our success.
The images were like ghosts on the edge of my peripheral vision. I could almost see them, but not quite. When I turned to look, they were gone.
Crossing the border into Florida on the back roads is nothing like it is on the freeway. There are no billboards advertising free Disney tickets for the price of your soul, there are no official, really official, and the most official welcome centers offering free orange juice and a thousand T-shirts for a buck.
On the back roads, there were blue skies and the certainty that our neighboring state to the north does a better job surfacing back roads than Florida does.
The tight, twisty mountain roads were far, far behind me now. Back in Robbinsville I heard a saying that the Dragon has 318 curves in 11 miles but Florida has 11 curves in 318 miles.
But that didnít much matter. I was back home in paradise. Driving on the quiet two lane roads under a sunny and warm Florida sky reminded me that the REAL Florida is still out there - you will find it where ever you look. Like Georgia, like North Carolina, like Ruskin, Sun City Center and Riverview, the REAL thing is found where ever someone honestly wants to know how you are.
Mitch Traphagen Photos
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