Miss Debbie and I have been feeling the need for at least an overnight motorcycle trip somewhere and Thunder Beach at Panama City Beach in early October just wasn’t soon enough. Last week’s quick trip to Chattanooga didn’t quite fill the bill either so we decided what we needed to do was to make a trip to the Wheels Through Time Museum (WTTM) up in North Carolina’s Maggie Valley.
It would be about a 180-mile ride to the museum, and then another 50 miles or so over to Gatlinburg where we’d spend the night. We finalized the plan on Friday night during our weekly visit to On the Border with our partners in crime, David & Deb, after David asked, “So, are we going or not?” I said yes, and moments later he had our rooms booked at the Hilton Gardens Inn.
Interestingly enough, this would be our second trip to Gatlinburg over Labor Day weekend in a row. Regular readers may recall we did a 3-day trip last year and ended up getting caught out in the rain on our way up to Clingman’s Dome. This year’s weather forecast was about the same as last year with a 40% – 60% change of rain on both days of our trip. However, as you’ll see, this year we were able to duck any serious rain partly out of good planning and partly out of luck. The secret seemed to be keeping an eye on the weather radar, sky and otherwise making sure we were off of the road around 4:00-5:00pm.
SUNDAY’S TRIP TO NORTH CAROLINA
We met around 8:00am on Sunday and headed north on I-575 & Route 515 to Blue Ridge, Georgia, then jumped over on Route 60 to Route 74/19 through Murphy, the Nantahala River Gorge, and Bryson City where we stopped for lunch at Subway. After lunch we took Route 19 through Cherokee to Waynesville, North Carolina. Despite the warm ambient temps, the high humidity pretty much necessitated wearing wind & moisture resistant jackets for the entire ride. In fact, during the first leg of the ride up I-575 we ran into a heavy, wet fog that dogged us all the way to Jasper, Georgia. After that, the skies became partly cloudy, then mostly sunny and it was about as a nice of day as we could have hoped for.
Based on photos & video productions I’ve seen taken at the WTTM I’d always assumed it was sitting out by itself on a large parcel of land well off the beaten path. Imagine my surprise when I found the entrance right on Route 19 in Waynesville, tucked in between a collection of various small businesses. In fact, I now had a very good appreciation for why the museum’s owner and member of the local business community– Dale Walksler – was concerned about the type of clientele and activities that the bar sitting adjacent to the WTTM entrance would attract if not carefully considered.
As we pulled into WWTM’s gravel drive around 12:30pm I found a parking space right next to the main entry. Much to my surprise, I spied Dale wheeling out the 1915 Harley-Davidson vintage motorcycle he rode cross-country during the 2010 edition of the Cannondale Ball Run. He used the slopping main entry path to the museum as a launch ramp to bump-start the bike and said a quick “Hi Guys” as he fired the motor and went riding off around the property. This is apparently something he does quite frequently during holiday weekends and by golly I’m glad we got to see it!
Suffices to say, there’s so much to say about the WTTM that it will have its own blog entry. A trip to the WTTM is definitely a must-see for anyone who appreciates American motorcycle history. The collection has an emphasis on the late 1800’s to the 40’s and 50’s, a smattering of the 60’s and 70’s and a couple more recent model bikes sitting up on the 2nd level. As I told Dale when I met him out on the floor where he was shuffling bikes around and mopping up oil, on first visit the museum’s contents were simply overwhelming. I can’t wait to make our next trip back to the WTTM next season! It will definitely require a lot more time than I’d allowed for on this trip so I can investigate all of the amazing artifacts and displays that are on-hand in the museum.
After just about an hour and a half at the WTTM, we made our way over to Gatlinburg via the lovely Blue Ridge Parkway and then the very scenic Route 441 / 71 up over Newfound Gap. We rode at a somewhat leisurely pace as the roads were filled with holiday travelers who clearly weren’t in a hurry or otherwise compelled to get within 10 mph of the posted speed limits. To be honest, the casual pace was fine by me as the front tire on ‘Blue’ began to exhibit some serious signs of being cupped as soon as we hit the first curves heading down into the Nantahala River Gorge.
We arrived in Gatlinburg around 3:30pm and were able to jump onto a side street to by-pass the gridlock on the main drag. The Hilton Garden Inn is probably one of the nicest hotels we’ve stayed in on our motorcycle adventures, second only to the hotel in Nashville. Our plan was to meet back in the lobby around 4:30pm and then explore the town. We truly lucked out as a fairly heavy rain storm hit Gatlinburg about 4:00pm that would have made for a soggy end to our otherwise wonderful 225-mile ride on the bikes.
After the rain ended we decided to head directly over to Calhoun’s for cocktail hour followed by dinner as we’d had such a good time (great service & food) last year on Sunday before Labor Day. Well, sun of a gun if we weren’t able to get the exact same seats at the bar that we’d had last year! Calhoun’s did not disappoint! We had great bar keepers taking care of us, college football on the tellie, and a delicious meal! The potato skin appetizers were off the charts and are highly recommended. The house steak special is also a ‘can’t go wrong’ choice: in fact, I think all four of has had that as our entrée! Oh yeah, it rained again while we were in Calhoun’s; so glad to have missed that twice… no, make that thrice: it rained overnight too.
During the rest of our evening in Gatlinburg we were unable to replicate the great time we had wandering around the town last year and our visit to TGI Friday’s – another highpoint last year – was a low-point. The gal who managed the place was clearly no longer there as what was a spotless business with scented lotions in tidy restrooms and happy folk’ working the bar was now an absolute mess with grumpy employees.
We wrapped up our evening back at the hotel’s bar where the two gentlemen working there were as pleasant and engaging as could be. The other patrons at the bar were, for the most part, also really a pleasure to be with so it was a great time and a just a few steps from the elevator to our rooms! What could have been better!
We called it quits around 10:30pm and having left my laptop at home, I had no distractions and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. Of course, that also meant I was wide awake by 4:00am with not much to do: my smart phone is no substitute for a laptop with full keyboard to a writer / blogger!
MONDAY’S TRIP HOME
We met David & Deb downstairs for breakfast around 8:30am and were on the bikes and headed towards Maryville via the Smoky Mountain National Park on very scenic Little River Road by 9:30am. Just a few miles into our ride I spied a black bear running across the road not more than 1/8th of a mile ahead of us. I pointed the bear out to Debbie but, of course, he was gone by the time I’d gotten her attention. I’d hoped that my GoPro camera had captured his image but it was more of a black blur than a black bear given the very wide angle lens of the GoPro. Anyway, I felt it warranted its own short video so here you go:
The rest of our ride through the Smoky Mountain National Park and Cades Cove was bear-free but, sadly, not car-free. Again, given the condition of my front tire a causal ride was more than satisfactory. We made the prerequisite stop at Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson in Maryville, TN, before heading southwest on Route 441 to Route 68 the due south to Blue Ridge. My original plan was to take the Foothill Parkway over to US Route 129 and through the Dragon and Hellbender to Route 74. However, the Dragon is not where you want to be with a noisy, vibrating front end on a motorcycle so the less demanding route through Tellico Plains and Cherokee National Forest on Route 68 was definitely the better choice.
We stopped in Blue Ridge, Georgia, for lunch but, sadly, Harvest on Main and the Fighting Town Tavern had 45-minute waits at 1:30pm so we found ourselves at the Whistle Stop Café instead. It was a nice little sports bar below street level and we were back on the road by 2:45pm which was important: I wanted to be off-the-road and back home before the afternoon thundershowers rolled through around 4:30pm.
We made one final gas stop in Ellijay, Georgia, and looked to be in good shape to miss some severe weather that would be passing through later in the afternoon. However, as we began to pull out of the station a gentleman called out to David, “Stop… you’ve got a flat tire!” Sure enough, their rear tire was as flat as could be.
To make a long story short, we were able to find two 8oz bottles of Slime sealant for bicycle inner tubes – enough for a motorcycle tire – and get the tube to seal so we could make the ride home. The first attempt to do the same with regular “fix-a-flat” seal & inflate stuff had failed. David had called home to have his son hook up the motorcycle trailer to his truck and be on call to come and collect the bike, David & Deb if we couldn’t find a way to nurse the bike home. I’d also put out a “friend in need” note via Facebook that brought about offers from friends head north with trailers and various other types of assistance which was humbling and reassuring: we have awesome friends!
We were back on the road by 4:00pm and with me following David to keep an eye on the inflation status of their rear tire, made it home by 5:30pm, dodging rain and thunderstorms all the way. We skirted around at least three small squalls with just light showers and bid our friends a final farewell once we were off the freeways and close to our respective homes. After arriving home we confirmed they’d also made it home safely and as of 11:00am Tuesday that rear tire was still holding air!
All-in-all, it was a pretty good trip even with the flat tire episode on the trip home. Again, I’m looking forward to heading back up to the WTTM next year and will also be adding a few more things to my on-board bike repair kit before our next trip. Even with tubeless tires, you’ve got to have a way of plugging a hole and re-inflating that tire in the event of a puncture! My BMW R1100S has a built-in tool kit and tire repair kit: not so on the Harley’s. A good lesson learned, to be sure. I’ve been stranded at work with flats before and it wasn’t a big deal: being stranded on a Harley in the middle of nowhere… that’s a big deal.