A Ride to Remember
March 18, 2013
It was a cloudy day when we awoke at the Best Western in Meridian Mississippi after driving the day before from New Orleans. We were en route to Robbinsville North Carolina to ride the “Tail of the Dragon”, one of the best-known motorcycle roads in North America. Yesterday it threatened rain most of the day so we dawned our rain gear, all to no avail.
The forecast was for scattered showers and grey clouds could be seen approaching from the west. Today, we would travel from Meridian to Chattanooga, TN, an almost 460 km ride, so to err on the side of caution, we again dawned our slickers.
Richard, our Road Captain, wanted to stop by the local Harley-Davidson® retailer; so after a hearty breakfast, our first stop was at Chunky River Harley-Davidson®. We managed to drop a fair bit of coin there after buying jackets, T-shirts, halogen lights and helmet locks. Regardless, by 10:30 am we were all in formation as we moved north on Interstate 59 toward Birmingham, Alabama.
By noon we had reached Birmingham, still being chased by ever increasing dark clouds and humid temperatures, which made the ride somewhat muggy and sticky. Still no rain and I wondered if it would be another one of those days where I had over reacted and was sweating needlessly in my rain suit.
About an hour past Birmingham, still on Interstate 59, we pulled into a service area for gas and bathroom breaks. By this time, storm clouds could be seen percolating on top the hills on the other side of the Interstate. Richard, James and I agreed it might be in our best interests to wait this one out as sharp bolts of lightening began to flash from the approaching clouds. So, we rallied out bikes in a sheltered area of the parking lot and waited for the rain to hit. Well, it never did, except for a few sprinkles and after 15 minutes we decided to get back on the road. After all, we still had another three-hour ride if we were to make Chattanooga by dark. Anyway, if the weather turned bad, we would just pull off at the nearest exit.
As we entered the highway, Richard was in the lead, followed by Shirley, Madeline, Art, James and Aida, Earl and Jocelyne and myself. We all headed up the Alabama Interstate which, unlike southern Louisiana’s sprawling river delta, was becoming increasingly hilly. Richard, James, Earl and I had CB radios, which proved to be one of the “saving graces” of our trip. Richard, as Road Captain, was able to advise the group when to pass and alert us of safety issues ahead. I, as the Sweeper, in turn was able to give a “heads up” when vehicles were passing from the rear or if we were impeding traffic. On this afternoon CB radios were to significantly contribute to our safety.
After riding for about a half hour, the divided highway split to where you could not see the two south bound lanes because of the tall, bushy Alabama pine trees lining both sides of the road. As we rode, we could feel wind gusts pushing at the sides of our bikes and it was becoming increasingly dark. Suddenly the heavens opened as rain, unlike I had ever experienced, pounded on us from all sides as if it were coming from a fire hose. The wind continued to push our bikes from side to side as we moved ahead. I heard James on the radio ask Richard why he was moving to the shoulder (thinking he was going to stop) when Richard answered: ” I’m just trying to stay on the road”. By this this time visibility had diminished significantly because of the wind gusts and the pelting rain. We couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead and I, as the Sweep, could no longer see Richard just six bikes ahead. No time to look for a safe place to pull over, we now simply had to make an emergency stop on the side of the Interstate.
Richard gave the order to pull over and we moved to the shoulder not knowing if we would stay on pavement or hit soft gravel, luckily there was a wide paved shoulder. We all dismounted, except for Shirley who feared the wind would blow her bike over. The rest of us huddled together on the side of the highway and chatted about what we should do next. Well, there was no disagreement – get off the road at the next exit – wherever that might be. We could hear approaching truck traffic going very slow but could not see it because of this thick hazy mist that had engulfed us. Then, with the wind gusts, came snapping and cracking sounds. They were those of the stately pines being uprooted and breaking off in the intense winds. With that, we decided to mount our bikes and proceed ahead as best we could with our four way flashers lit.
As we slowly rode up the highway, I could hear the engine of a big truck approaching from behind. Suddenly, there it was, a big red 18-wheeler moving into the passing lane. I radioed ahead to alert the others just as it was along side me, then it dropped back. This was not something I wanted on my tail in this weather. I wrongly thought he must have wanted us to take the lead until Richard radioed back that there was a big tree blocking the highway and to keep to the right shoulder. I couldn’t see the tree until it was almost in front of me; a big bushy pine right across the interstate. Going single file we were all able to manoeuver around it by using the shoulder. I was happy to leave the big rig behind.
As we continued on, the rain and wind diminished enough to improve our visibility. A good thing because Richard radioed that there was another tree on the highway and like the last time, single file, we were able to get around it. After about another kilometer, we came upon an exit and, as planned, we took it. The basic amenities were there, a gas station, a greasy spoon restaurant and what appeared to be a run down motel called Travellers Inn.
Richard wasted no time in leading us up the long bumpy driveway to the front office. He was off his bike and in the front door before some of us were able to dismount. I couldn’t help but chuckle a little as he made a command decision that we were going to stay here regardless. By this time the rain and wind had somewhat diminished. James, Earl and I waited outside and pondered if we should wait a bit and try to make it to the next exit in hope of better facilities. It wasn’t long before we saw the ladies checking out the rooms. They came back with a thumbs up so we all checked in. In all fairness, the rooms were clean and had the basics including TV and Internet service. I thought to myself: “the owner will certainly have a smile on his face with us taking six rooms”.
My GPS registered 3:15 pm. We were in a rural community near Collinsville Alabama about an hour from Chattanooga. For the next hour or so, we could hear the sounds of sirens as emergency responders including police, fire and EMS, as they passed from every direction. I guess that was an indicator that this storm was bigger than we imagined and Richard had made the right decision. Well, right decision or not, we weren’t going further. As we watched the news, we learned that the highway was closed meaning we could have been stranded had we started out. A tornado had touched down just south of us and to the north a truck had flipped over. Thousands were without power.
However, by this time the weather had changed significantly. There was no wind, the rain had stopped and blue sky could be seen breaking through the clouds. Everyone had settled in their rooms and had their rain gear hanging to dry. We were also getting hungry but we certainly weren’t kin to riding anywhere. The hotel owner offered to get us pizza but that wasn’t something all were in favour of. Instead we opted for the fast food place across the street. As we ate, we could still hear the sporadic sounds of sirens in the distance. The waitress told us that she might as well work a double shift, as she had no way home because of the road closures. She wasn’t even sure if her house was still there. To some degree she seemed passive about it all as if this was a regular occurrence. In all likelihood, I suppose, it wasn’t unlike the nor’easter snowstorms we sometimes get in Ottawa. I guess it is all relative depending on where you live.
The next day we awoke to blue sky and got back on the Interstate. As we rode, debris could be seen strewn everywhere. Because of the storm, we had to reassess our time-line. You see, the following day, some riders had to load their bikes at trailers in Hunterville NC while Earl, Jocelyne and I were to travel back to Florida, this meant we would have to ride the Tail of the Dragon today.
Well, after riding seven more hours we finally crossed into Tennessee and then into North Carolina to the start of the 11-mile, 318-curve rollercoaster ride known as the Tail of the Dragon. With good weather and a little riding skill, we all safely completed the challenge and made it to our separate destinations on time. I’m unsure of which challenge was greater, riding through a tornado or maneuvering the Dragon’s Tail but regardless this will be a ride to remember.
Our group has logged thousands of kilometres together and had a lot of fun without incident. I suspect this is in part because we ride under the premise of “safety first” and the rest might be a bit of good luck. We have developed our own in-house rules based on mutual respect, experience and knowledge of each other’s riding skills and habits. I can tell you during these days, many of those rules withstood the test. The events of these days served as a learning experience for us all. We are already planning next winter’s ride.
– Brian L