Chasing the Dragon in the South

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Motorcyclists in the South all flock to one place — the dizzying Tail of the Dragon highway. JASON HARPER goes deep in the hills of Tennessee to check it out

Is it odd to lust after a road? To lie in bed late at night musing about pavement as smooth as Halle Berry’s skin, outrageous curves worthy of Salma Hayek? Is it even odder to actually travel far and wide just to find such a road? As a friend asked me, “Who the hell gets on a plane just to arrive at a road?”

Well, I do. But when I show up at the head of Highway 129, near the borders of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, after an 800-mile trip, I discover that I’m not the only freak.

The gas station parking lot located just before this road snakes alongside the Smoky Mountains is packed with motorcyclists here to test their skills against the Tail of the Dragon, a two-lane highway with more than 300 curves wound into a mere 11 miles. Imagine a doctor’s signature or the line from a four-year-old twisting the knobs of an Etch A Sketch, and you’ve got the idea.

I’m not on a bike, though. I’m behind the wheel of the Porsche Cayman S, a road rocket with the potential to carve those 300 turns like a Thanksgiving turkey. And I’ve got a local in the passenger seat who knows the road’s secrets. We’re approaching mile three when we hit the Gravity Cavity, a wicked bit of twisted, concave asphalt that has sent many drivers and motorcyclists bouncing out the other side — and over the tree-ringed ridge. I plant my foot on the gas, and my passenger, Ron Johnson, braces himself. This is what the Porsche was built for. Drop-in, carve-through, shush-out — at 60 mph. “I’ve never been through it like that,” cries Ron. Almost immediately we’re into an inverted C turn and the tires shriek merrily. I’m loving it.

Inarguably beautiful, with flared haunches and swoop-sexy lines, the Cayman’s true wonder lies in its perfect weight balance. In the twisties the car tucks into corners more tightly than physics has any right to allow, with tires that are nearly impossible to break from dry tarmac. Given its light weight and 252 lb-ft of engine torque, I believe I may show the bikers a thing or two. After a few miles Ron, an avid motorcyclist who owns the Tail of the Dragon website and T-shirt shop with his wife Nancy, seems to agree. “Most bikers don’t think a car can beat them, but with the right car and a good driver, they’re wrong,” he says.

I take that as confirmation that this is the perfect car for the area, the only place I’ve ever been that brings tourism just because of its roads. Earlier in the day I’d cruised the equally impressive Cherohala Skyway, a cousin of the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs 36 miles along the Unicoi Mountains at 5,000 feet. The views are spectacular. Buzzing Triumphs, chainsawing Harleys, and squawking Kawasakis vastly outnumber cars.

Not surprisingly, the Dragon draws mixed reviews from residents. The speed limit is posted at 30 mph, and the road sees around two motorcycle fatalities a year. But I discover a mostly considered and cautious approach to the road. Slower bikers wave faster ones on; autos often pull over. As long as riders aren’t outrageous, the cops are fairly tolerant. Besides, the joy of navigating the Dragon isn’t only about speed: There’s a purity in following the best lines and falling into a rhythm among the esses, chicanes, and switchbacks.

But I won’t deny the pleasure of the fast, fast straights, like the one near mile eight. The trees are blurring by and Ron warns, “This one’s called Triple Apex Corner, and it’s tight!” I crank down on the brake, toe-heel downshift to second gear, and squeak around a jagged corner. Two crotch rockets riding almost on the yellow line zip by, and I jump back on the gas. Some engineer had a great time here: This is the most perfectly banked road I’ve ever seen.

The next day I am pried from the Porsche by buddies who have also driven up. They want to get off the asphalt. As we make our way some 30 minutes outside of Robbinsville to the Nantahala Gorge, I get a better idea of the spectacular diversity of this chlorophyll-green corner of the Appalachians. The Nantahala River flows at the bottom; kayakers and rafters arrow down the water. Nantahala Outdoor Center, a mecca for rafting lessons and bike rentals, is situated here. In addition to rafting, there are hundreds of miles of singletrack for hiking and mountain biking. We’re surrounded by the Nantahala National Forest, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Cherokee National Forest. It’s all prowled by big bucks, black bear, and wild boar. And let’s not forget that the Appalachian Trail runs through here.

Equipped with full-suspension bikes, we begin on a steep trail system that leads up the side of the gorge. It’s tough, but after two hours I’m feeling good. On the way back down, though, I overlook the rule that’s kept me in one piece driving the Porsche: Keep your eyes on the road. I reach down to adjust the front fork and soon find myself angling off the trail. Like a hapless Wile E. Coyote I hang in the void for a moment and then slide down the steep, wooded hillside, narrowly missing a tree with my cranium. Brilliant.

My friends leave early the next morning, and I decide to take a hike in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, one of the last virgin hardwood forests in the Appalachians. When I get into the Cayman, though, I can’t help myself. I gotta take one last run on the Dragon. On my first pass I look for hazards in the road, which is almost devoid of traffic. At the end, I make a U-turn, rev the Cayman’s 295 horses, and mash down the accelerator. Four bikers who were hanging around at the lookout suddenly jump on their bikes and kick off behind me, like in a Burt Reynolds flick. It’s on.

Right away I know the cyclists are good. Fast. But I’m tuned in to the car’s balance, and I’m cautiously flashing around corners and pushing hard into the short straightaways. The bikers catch up and then fade back. I’m beating them on the corners, and we’re almost equal on the straights. Then I turn a corner and arrive behind a crew of slow-moving Harleys. Game over. The crotch rockets shove up behind me; on a straightaway I wave ’em through.

At the end of the Dragon the crew is waiting at the gas station/biker hangout Deals Gap. They wave me over, and I pull in. I roll down the window. One of the guys leans in — and shakes my hand. They all do.

That cinches it: The Cayman can play with dragons.