My first night out I stayed in Wears Valley again, at my Aunt Judys' place. I hadn’t been down in almost three years. Judy and Bill couldn’t come up as they were in Chattanooga with Bill’s sister Beverly who was at Erlanger getting some un-named medical procedure. I’d stay the night alone then, like almost always. The irises and blaze red dragon lilies had grown to enormous proportions, there was still a huge bottle of Vodka in the freezer, there were still ants in the kitchen. It was as lonely as it always was, looking out over the valley, but it didn’t scare me to stay there anymore. Just before dark I went down into the valley to fuel up and get a milkshake. I tightened the chain in the parking lot of the grocery and gas place, sitting on the pavement, torquing on the axle nuts, hands on one wrench and boot on another. Harley tourists roared all around. A big crew-cab Ford towing a giant black trailer pulled up next to me with my tools spilled everywhere and a group of heavy set dudes sounding like Atlanta middle management rolled out and eyeballed me. I eyeballed them back. Another small pack hollered over by the pumps when gas overflowed and poured down the sides of the tank of a big expensive machine. I figured half of everybody there was down to ride the world famous “Dragon” outside Robbinsville. Check the website. I rode the four-lane in the opposite direction to the dilapidated Burgermaster, got a malted from a girl behind the tiny window and drank it sitting in the tall grass beside the blinking arrow sign parked on the edge of the gravel horseshoe driveway.
I kept waking up in the night, checking my phone. Determined four a.m. was too early to head out. By dawn I was showered and packing up, the bike in the yard and the contents of the saddle bags scattered all over the front porch. My hands were shaking with nervous excitement, it had rained in the night and smoke hung on the mountain looming across from my aunt’s front yard. I wiped my seat down with yesterday’s t-shirt. I stretched and prayed and prayed again and headed out. I set the idle low as I could, just a bare grumble, so as not to disturb the woods and hills. Under my helmet I prayed for safe passage, for the roads to dry, for the sun to crest enough to penetrate the blue morning of the hollows. I made myself take it slow despite my nervousness. Rolling down into Metcalf Bottoms I slowed to a stop to let a small family of wild turkey cross, tiny velociraptors hopping the moss-lined ditch into the cover of tall ferns. By the time I picked up 441 to Cherokee, it was still early enough for me to be the only one on the road. Fleets of winnebagos and RV’s must have still been getting breakfast at the Pancake houses lining Gatlinburg. I started climbing.
Half a summer’s worth of huge slow moving vehicles left a treacherous snail trail of oil and grease down the center of my lane. Old growth pines and oaks canopied green overhead, green rushing alongside. There was some construction on the old brown road, payloaders like sleeping dinosaurs crowded the narrow shoulders trailing gravel washout toward the insides of the corners. Halfway up, the earth fell away on one side leaving nothing but road and sky, rock, cedars, hemlock and pines. At some point amid the mist and conifers I passed from Tennessee into North Carolina and started down toward Cherokee. I clutched the bike into third gear and let it growl there as we picked up speed. Cold wind rushed over my small windshield and buffeted my helmet. Everything in the periphery turned to a green blur. I realized I had been afraid of this moment the whole trip. Three years previous I was out of control with grief, half convinced I’d come to Tennessee to wipe myself out on a mountain. I lined up the first few curves and ran them a little shaky, nervous about the rushing edges of the tree lined road. Correcting the geometry of a corner that you’ve entered too fast is tricky at best. After about five minutes I realized I was holding my breath. I decided to concentrate on my breathing- stop worrying about tire pressure and nailing each apex. Line up a corner, brake slightly, breathe in, roll on the throttle and exhale as I pushed through the exit. Breathing through each curve, under a dark tunnel of hanging limbs. In this way I wound my way down the mountain. I hadn’t yet scraped a foot peg. I wondered about the engineers of that road. Did they imagine an abstract concept of the math that went into each radius? Or was it just laid down along the knobby spine of the mountain? Did they mean for a man like me to be able to run along it on a motorcycle averaging sixty five miles an hour? It was the fastest I’d ever run a mountain road like that. At some point it occurred to me that I’d reached the limit of what my machine could do. At some point I realized I had no idea what drove me to go that fast or that alone. As the road flattened onto the valley floor and ran suddenly through an open field, blue sky soaring above, I realized I had started crying.