I almost didn't get there from here. According to the map I had, Hwy 143 split shortly after Thunder Mountain: veer left (N) and it intersects with 219, Tail of the Dragon and Deal's Gap. Veer right and it goes into Robbinsville. I wanted to do the latter because: 1. get a cup of iced tea or coffee, 2. look for a POI associated with Cherokee 3. just wanted to see what Robbinsville is like. So I veered right and 143 just plain disappeared. I wandered around several rural backroads looking for SOMETHING! Anything that would steer me in the right direction. Nadda. I pulled off the third time to check the map and my GPS. I followed the map; okay, the map is useless. On the GPS screen was a network of red broken capillaries of roads, like someone's bad case of broken veins spidering all over the place on their leg. *Sigh...* I gave up and back tracked to the 'Y' near Thunder Mountain and took the left leg. We'll see where this goes. Oh look! There are highway signs with 'Hwy 143'! And 'This way to Deals Gap'. That's not where I wanted to go. But at this point, I had no recourse but to follow the Magic Signs. At least I knew what road I was on. Miles, many miles, down the road I saw a directional sign. Hmm.... the arrow pointing ahead reads 'Deals Gap'. The arrow to the right reads 'Robbinsville 1 mile.' Well, Goooooollllly! I think we can get there from here! I turned right and soon descended into a small mountain town with several streets going this way and that. And no signs. I rode slowly down the street scanning right and left.... Ah, there's a sign for Hwy 143 East! Yea! I turned and rode on again, now with a bit more confidence in where I was going. Now I needed to find the way to Hwy 28. Wait, now where am I? This signs reads 'Hwy 143 West'. Huh? How did I get turned around? I turned around and backtracked. I thought. And looked for the Hwy 143 signs going east. Found one, rode on and I was back on a road going west on 143. How the heck did this happen? Okay, time to be stupid and ask for directions. I rode down a hill, back into town and looked for a likely place to ask for directions. I found a tiny gas station with three people sitting outside gabbing and smoking. I pulled in, flipped up my helmet and shrugged my shoulders, "Help!" The woman took one look at me with my hands up in the air and laughed, "Are you lost, honey?" "Yes! For the third time! I'm looking for the intersection of Hwys 143 and 28, called Stecoah." "Honey, you're not far from there. Go down this street, turn left at the signal, then turn right at the next signal. It right near there." Whew..... I was relieved to know I was back on track. However, I quickly learned that 'right near there' is entirely and indubitably relative. After my last turn, I found the relieving sign of Hwy143 East. That's northeast, of course. No matter, I was back on track. But I was worried that all this lost time made me late and the rest of the crew would be waiting for me, tapping their boots on the pavement and planning what to blame on me. 'Right near there' can be interpreted in so many ways: 1/2 mile, 1 mile, maybe even 2 miles. But many many miles, climbs, descents, windings and sweeps later, one has to wonder what she had in mind when she said that. The weather was looking ominous again and I was hoping the rain would hold off. It had rained at least once every day, so I knew it was going to at some point. I was right, but I didn't know then how right I was. Or underright, if that is a word. If not, I'm using it anyway. I finally reached another hill and a sign that read "Stecoah Gap 3,165 feet'. Wow, I was higher than I thought. And what goes up,must come down, including motorcycles. Rounding a curve and there was a looooooong way down pavement, and a dead end into another road. Luckily, a sign warned of junction Hwy 28. Yea! I'll be there soon and they won't have to wait anymore! Wrong. I reached the bottom of the hill in second gear (it was that steep) and saw.............nothing. Road and trees that way, road and trees the other way. Shoot. Where can I pull off and wait? Another motorcycle behind me passed and shot off to the left....towards Deal's Gap. I spotted a meager gravel pulloff a few hundred feet on the other side of Hwy 28. Anyone coming from the west around that curve will see me. I'll pull off there. Pulled off, removed helmet with relief, layed gloves on the handlebar, sat on the bike, and waited. Zooooommm........ cars, trucks, bikes went by. I watched with trepidation as long semis literally crawl up the steep mountain side going back the way I had just come. I hope those drivers know how to double clutch.
Got tired, got off the bike and waited. It got dark. Started sprinkling. Pulled the raincoat back out and stood underneath a tall pine tree. I had to pee. No place to pee. Drank some water and ate a protein bar. It was now an hour. Bikes passed, waved, and went on. Three cruisers stopped across the road on another gravel pullout to check maps. I heard them discussing where to go, and something about "There has to be a town up ahead. My map is wet; I can't read it. 'Ryson' I think is the name." I yelled across the highway, "Bryson City" Cherokee is just beyond that." "Oh! Thank you!!" They left and I took off the rain jacket again, stuffed it in the tail bag. An hour and 1/2. Now I'm getting worried. What if....? Should I.....? thoughts streamed through my head. I was now worried. A woman in BMW gear stopped in front of me on her BMW sport tourer, asking if I was okay. "Yes, I'm waiting for friend who were supposed to meet me here. But I'm getting worried; I've been here for nearly two hours," I said. "Maybe they got caught behind a truck," she replied. She nodded and sped off west. Towards the Dragon. Two hours. Now I'm thinking maybe I should call Jack. My heart is beating fast. And I still have to pee. And it looks like it's going to rain again. Then I see a black touring bike with rider in black, followed by a cruiser and.... it was the KLR that confirmed for me who this pack was. They pulled in across the road and chattered. Meanwhile, I clamped my mouth shut. "Man, I'm hungry! Let's get something to eat!" "Wow, did you.... blah blah blah" "Um, where the **** have you guys been? I was worried sick! And I have to pee." The plan at the beginning of the day was for me, Ed, and whomever else wanted, to continue east on to the town of Cherokee, the central main town of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. I've been wanting to do this for years. Cathy and Tom voiced their participation and I think Janet was ready for anything. So we all geared up and I fell in behind, mouth still clamped shut. They pulled into a small cafe about a mile down the road. I headed for the bathroom. We sat down and had a very good lunch and relaxed. I don't know how it happens, but I was worn out from waiting. I enjoyed my BLT and iced tea. Then the sky fell. It didn't just fall, it was driven down. The rain was horizontal and the wind was furious as it pelted the little diner and its windows. Two other riders came in, soaked to their skin, to take refuge. We had finished our meals, but sat there and waited. And waited. It kept coming, now with thunder and lightening. This was a doozy! The rain finally let up some and we decided to brave the elements and head back to base. The day was growing short and we had no idea what was in store for the weather. No Cherokee for me afterall. We debated the route to return: either the Skyway, which was probably being pelted hard in this storm, or a long southerly route, then west and north. The only straight-ish shot was the Skyway. So we decided to brave it and see how bad it was. The rain was still falling and the wind was blowing. We ran outside and put on our rain gear, what little we had. I had the rain jacket and that's it. The MX boots kept my feet dry in the water crossings, I hoped it would keep me dry until we returned. I hoped for too much. I warned the others about the steep hill and a few tight curves at this end of Hwy 143 and we headed back in the rain. We found a gas station with a roof in Robbinsville and most of us gassed up there. Then on we went. My feet were already wet then. Back on the Cherohala Skyway and we could see how bad the storm was before we got there. Bad. Branches, leaves and debris were in the road and the newly paved section at the east end was slick as can be. We were all very conservative in our speed and curves. As we climbed the skyway, it got worse. More wind, rain, debris, cold, time to go into autopilot mode. We finally approached the highest part of the ridge -over 4,000 feet- and the wind tossed me side to side, driving rain into my helmet. Everyone seemed to be doing okay, otherwise, and we rode on slowly and cautiously. I was the rear, following Tom with my sister on back, and they followed Ed, who was behind Janet. Janet did an excellent job of piloting the wet mopped crew through the storm until...... Ed swerved off the road to the right ahead and the two of us followed him onto a pullout. Not until I got off the bike and walked up ahead did I realize he had a flat tire. It blew on a curve. He proceeded to quickly remove the wheel and assess that it needed a new tube. Tom helped in is own way while the rest of us made jokes to keep everyone alert. We all kept our helmets on to keep the wind and rain out of our faces and off our heads (except when I shot photos, which I can't do with helmet on); I sang a song about my head being in a fishbowl. And then I saw the sign, "Santeelah Gap 5,390 feet'. We were at the highest point on the Skyway. "I dub thee 'Flat Tire Mountain'!!!!", I yelled. Glad I could get some of them to laugh in this meltdown. Man, it was windy........ I was amazed to see two other riders come around the curve from the west. 'So we aren't the only crazy dudes up here!', I thought. They waved, we waved. 'Carry on, Bro's.' Ed got his tire back on, we settled our weary wet butts on our saddles and pulled out to head west once more. I settled my chest on the gas tank behind the windshield and occasionally swiped my face shield. There's no way I can keep myself dry in this, so I calmly accepted the wet and cold and gave in. "Autopilot, take me back." The weather broke up as we descended the Skyway and into Tellico Plains. We all were bushed and wanted something hot, to sit on something that didn't glide on scattered leaves and rain, and to removed our soaked gloves and gear. We pulled into the Tellico Cafe again for coffee, tea or whatever felt good. I had a plate of spaghetti (a one or twice/year treat) with coffee. We laughed, told stories, related moments we had just passed through and tossed around anecdotes. It was a good day, an adventure and we all made it through just fine (except my feet now in an inch of water). Janet headed back to Sweetwater and the remainder of us returned to camp to take hot showers and dry our gear/clothes/boots. Luckily, Jack and Lori stock boot dryers in the cabins, so I borrowed one to put my boots and Tom's on to dry overnight. Then we proceeded to retell stories to Jack and Lori, and we told him about the new Flat Tire Mountain. I slept like a log that night.
(The road is much steeper than it looks here)