In late October, a few years ago, Jay Smythe and I trekked to Blowing Rock, NC with our wives and in the back of the truck, our Yamaha XT250s. Our intention was to explore the dirt side roads and trails off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
After getting ourselves ensconced at the Ridgeway Inn, just off Main Street, we walked about in the town where there are shops and restaurants enough to keep one’s interest for quite a while. These would be fair game for Brenda and Marimac while Jay and I wandered the woods for the next two days. On Saturday morning, he and I headed out in the cold morning air up the hill to the Parkway and turned south. Within a mile or two we had determined that the little Yamahas were perfect for the Blue Ridge. where the curves are frequent and the speed limit (enforced more strictly these days) is a maximum of 45. The quarter liter bikes are right in their power band in fourth gear to hold that speed and knobby tires are quite adequate for some interesting lean angle. We aren’t here to do pavement though, so as soon as we came to a first turnoff that took us to a gravel road we charged immediately up into the hills. Our map was a bit confusing, so for a while we knew we were in a fine set of mountains, but didn’t exactly know where. This first road took us to a mountaintop, dead ending at a radio tower. Going back down, we tried the next turnoff and ended up at another dead end in someone’s yard, with a bemused beagle and a young boy of about 11 or 12 who told us which turnoff to take to get back into the hills.
Many of the dirt roads we explored were graveled for much of their length, but one, though it had a road sign, turned out to be more of a trail with rocks and roots for a surface and only a suggestion of definition as to its sides. Several branches went off the trail, but we kept choosing the ones that went up, finally arriving at a graveled crossroad where we met an older couple in an SUV. They told us that the left branch went back to Highway 221, and the right went down to the old village of Mortimer, which had been wiped out in a flood back in the thirties. By now it was after 2 and our old bodies were in need of sustenance, so we took the high road back into Blowing Rock for lunch.
Back in the saddle by 3, we decided to put off the Mortimer excursion for the next day and just returned to exploring dirt roads. One circuit that lead us past a scenic waterfall, terminated, much to our surprise, right back on Main Street in Blowing Rock.
Sunday morning we were out in the chilly air by 9 and down to the end of Main to retrace the Globe Road back to the innards of the valley in an effort to find the remains of Mortimer.
On the trail this early morning, the rising sun is filtering down through the multicolored leaves that form a complete canopy across the path. We stop to drink in the scene, but I know that a camera in my hands cannot capture this soft autumn hued light. Across the valley to our left, a hawk soars low above the treetops, scanning for something smaller than us to eat. With our engines off, there is no sound but the rustling of the leaves in the wind. I do love being out in the woods in the fall. I know that hiking would be a better, less intrusive way of experiencing this wonder, but I’m getting to the point where I cannot do that much anymore. With these small motorcycles, quiet and light as they are, we can see a lot of country in a relatively short period, more than we could on foot, and we are responsible enough to leave little trace of our passage.
We find a fire road that leads us up again from the valley floor, into the woods following a old creekbed. The smell of skunk is in the air, but the odoriferous little creatures don’t make an appearance. A large tom turkey flies up from the edge of the path and disappears down into a ravine.
Eventually we find ourselves on a dirt road following the banks of Wilson Creek, which would be a river if only it could manage the length requirements. It’s flow is impressive now and must have been even more so when it took away the town of Mortimer all those years ago There are only a few bits of the town remaining; one is the country store that back then was just out of town on the higher part of the bank. It is still in business, now catering to the fishing and camping trade that throngs these woods in decent weather. The two young ladies behind the counter don’t know much about the town’s history, but if we’re there when their boss is back, he knows it all. Unfortunately, daylight is in short supply this time of year and since we don’t have any really good idea of where we’re going and how long it will take us to get back to Blowing Rock, we press on.
Farther down, the piers of the old bridge still stand in the water and just below them are the husks of the cotton mills that once defined Mortimer before the river redistributed their contents across the downstream fields. Standing in this lot, it’s easy to imagine the days when this was a busy commercial place, with farmers bringing in raw material, workers going to and fro in the business of changing that blank slate into something more valuable and boats on the water, just over there, waiting for the processed cotton to take down to market. I can imagine the scene when the river that made this place work took it all away in a day’s chaos. Now it’s a little memorial park where locals come to fish and picnic during the day and at night, young folks come to do whatever young people do when the grownups have gone home to bed.
We’re not here to do any of those things, however, and so we head down the dirt and gravel road following the creek toward Brown Mountain Off Road Area, a group of public riding trails we’ve spotted on the map. The gravel dead ends at pavement on Route 2 and it’s only a short ride to the entrance. We need day passes to ride here, which are available at the country store across the road. There we find not only a pleasant place to buy snacks, but also a rack with the essentials for any day of serious dirt bashing. There are replacement brake and clutch levers, gear levers, tire repair kits and first aid supplies next to the boiled peanuts and Little Debbie cakes. Obviously, folks crash a lot out here on the trails and this merchant has accurately assessed his market.
We fuel up our bodies on the requisite high-calorie snacks and with our pass-bands tied around the handlebars, head up into the woods. There’s a parking area at the end of a long gravel road, where we suddenly find ourselves among a large group of young men and a few women, all seriously attired in the latest moto-fashion with brightly colored padded pants and jerseys, off-road helmets (many adorned with video cameras) and perched way up high on bikes that should require a stepladder to reach the seat. We are easily 30 or more years older than anyone else here. They are brapping their way in groups up into the trails which all start on a feeder with branches going off to both sides. We learn from the trail map we were given that many of the trails are one-way loops and that they are all graded for difficulty. It gives us pause when we notice that nearly all are graded “more difficult” and that the only access to the “easier” routes is by taking first the “more difficult” paths. Only slightly daunted, we head up into the fray.
The first trails are wide, mostly sandy surfaced, and rise steadily into the mountains. There are lots of other riders on this part, proving the wisdom of the one-way scheme. I’d hate to run head on into one of the aspiring motocross stars coming full-tilt around the next corner. As more trails branch off to the sides, the crowd thins out. We’re on one of the “difficult” routes, shooting for the “easier” trail #10 which should be somewhere up here near the top of the mountain. In hindsight, we should have taken notice that no one else was going this way.
Our trail started off to the east, along a ridge top, now down to a narrow single track weaving through the trees. For a bit, we were cruising along merrily, then it started downhill, both physically and metaphorically, fast. I came to a sharp drop-off, with a narrow turn flanked tightly on both sides by rocks and only through a combination of muscle memory and sheer luck managed to make it through unscathed. Jay, right behind me, wasn’t so fortunate. His muffler caught on the right side rock, pushing the bike to the left just when the turn was going right. The front wheel, unable to go two directions at the same time, turned the bike over to gravity’s command and down it went on its side, with Jay following close behind.
No serious harm done to bike or rider, and another indication of the toughness of the little XT. It can take a hit. Jay was going to be sore in the morning, but for now that’s a long way off and we’re still a long way out in the woods.
The trail continued along the ridgetop, winding between trees until finally the “easier” trail 10 forked off to the right. Immediately it started down a wall of rock, dropping at an alarming rate in deep grooves in the stony surface. I went on down a bit further and it only looked worse as it disappeared into the trees below me. Not sure if “easier” was named on Opposite Day or just someone’s idea of a practical joke. We made our way back up the obstacles and returned to the trail we’d been on. Surely it would be better than this….or perhaps not. I did stop to take a photo at one of the easy climbs, but the rest of the ride took far too much attention and energy to stop for pictures. What the map described as four and a half miles of trail took us almost four hours to traverse. Many of the uphill climbs were steep monolithic walls of rock, weathered and cracked into a jumble of chaotic grooves and obstacles that would have made good mid-level old style trials sections. And of course, what goes up then has to come down, with just as much difficulty. On occasion we resorted to “bulldogging” the bikes down the jumbled slopes with engine off, using the clutch as a rear brake. Often we would turn a corner and be confronted with what seemed to be the dead end of a canyon requiring a full-throttle ascent up a precipitous rocky climb from a dead stop. Our arms and legs had gone well past tired and fully into cooked-noodle mode. The last water crossing of the day had its exit up a steep hill that almost was a reach too far for two weary old men. Only the thought of camping here until spring kept us going and then, almost like magic, we were back on the feeder trail only a short hop to the parking area.
Throughout it all, the XT’s never hesitated, never bobbled. Each time I’d think that this little street-trail hybrid is never going to make it up THAT, the 250cc engine just motored on up like the Little Engine That Could, finding depths of torque and capability that seemed to go on forever. The suspension, which really shouldn’t be able to cope with my size (I figure I’m at least 50 pounds heavier than this bike was designed to handle) kept the wheels on the dirt and the both of us upright.
We wobbled back down to the country store and rested in the rockers on the front porch, absorbing liquid and snacks to get the energy to head back to our motel.
Rt. 2 takes us back to Rt 181 which leads to the Blue Ridge Parkway. On the two lane roads, curving back and forth through the Pisgah National Forest, the little Yamahas are nearly as much at home as they were clawing their way up the rocks and dirt on the trail. Although we’re limited to about 55 or 60 mph for the most part, the nimble machines don’t have to slow down much for the curves and we manage to keep up a decent pace, even passing the occasional car. I’m again reminded of the fun involved in planning for speed instead of just having an excess of it instantly available at the twist of a wrist. Making the most of a small engine is demanding of ones mind and isn’t that a major part of the enjoyment of motorcycling ?
By the time we reached the Ridgeway Inn, the sun was barely over the treetops and the temperature had dropped down into the low 40’s. We parked the bikes and went into the motel’s lounge where our better halves had already begun sampling the wine and cheese on offer there. A couple of glasses later, we had relaxed enough to realize where all the various body parts were hurting, but it didn’t seem to matter that much. It had been a grand day of motorcycling in a beautiful part of the country and I think we’ll have to do it again soon.