Miles: 298 including ferries
Day one, Trans America Trail. I’ve been here before so it seems familiar, yet it’s new because I’m on a bike this time. The way it should be. I leave the motel and begin a 60 mile ride down the Outer Banks Scenic Byway to the first of two ferry rides that connect the outer bank ports-of-call. But before that I must navigate the small seaside towns and their abundant gift shops, ice cream stands, and dockside food attractions, all vying for my attention with flags and banners of all shapes and sizes. Looking like a shimmering ocean of plastic next to, ironically, a shimmering ocean.
As I arrive to the Hatteras ferry station, I am ushered to the front of the line ahead of 40 or so vehicles. Being on a bike usually has its benefits when crossing by ferry. We load up and the heat of the day is extinguished by cool ocean air as soon as we back away from the dock. The sea is calm and the ferry rides like the proverbial Cadillac every dad has ever referenced.
I watch a seagull glide next to us. Upon further review I see he’s a cunning aviator, riding the uplift off a vehicle’s windshield as the ferry plows forward. A constant source of ridge lift allowing unpowered flight. How appropriate given our proximity to the birthplace of aviation. Wilbur and Orville would have taken notes.
A short ride down the length of Okracoke Island and after a stop at SmacNally’s Waterfront Bar and Grill for the best cheeseburger of the last 4,700 miles, I am again on a ferry. This time from Okracoke to Cedar Island, my reconnect point to the mainland. It’s a longer trip this time, a measly $10 for two hours and fifteen minutes of letting someone else do the driving.
I find some shade, sit back in my favorite camp chair, don some foam ear plugs, and drift off to the drone of the diesel engines. Both in my ears and through my feet via the steel deck on the boat. Course change. The shade moves. I find a new spot.
After hitting the mainland, I made my way to someplace I’ve been looking forward to visiting for 4 years. It was a campground I stumbled upon that turned out to be the best group of people I met my entire trip. It’s called Taste of Heaven RV park and campground. I made a video about it on my YouTube channel that very first night on the TAT in 2018. Since then they say they’ve had a lot of TAT riders stop in. If you are starting your TAT trip from Cape Hatteras via the ferry system, I recommend this place as your first night's stay.
I’m in my tent, listening to the chorus of frogs, crickets, and what sounds like 100 other things. They start quietly, slowly build to a crescendo, then taper off until the cycle repeats. Each time a different creature taking the lead. I’m thankful there is no chance of rain tonight. I left the rain fly off and cherish every breeze that pushes through my tent fabric. The season is still early, yet there remains a stickiness to the night air that reminds you that this region is no stranger to humidity. A place where direct contact to your air mattress creates damp skin like a rotisserie chicken under a heat lamp. Don’t forget your sleeping bag liner.
I will drift off to the frogs and the insects as they replace the droning engines from earlier in the day. Tomorrow is more pavement. A necessary evil to get through the developed eastern seaboard to the less travelled two-track that awaits me not tomorrow, but the day after.
The morning starts much in the way the previous one ended. A chorus of frogs are already awake and croaking before breakfast. The flies are also here. In force. Small black gnats in swarms that have Alaska natives taking notice. Luckily they don’t seem to bite, but they love ear canals. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzpt. I carry two mosquito head nets. I never carry only one of such an important item.
The breakfast joint this morning is picked via a method I call “Garmin Roulette”. I turn on my GPS, Search>Restaurants> and pick something that sounds interesting. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't. I pick a place right up the road called the Triangle Waffle. I admire their large billboard placed directly in front of the Cracker Barrel almost entirely blocking it from view and proclaiming “Triangle Waffle. Where locals eat”. Almost daring you to not support your local mom-n-pop establishment. It turns out to be a good choice. A place where no one has a first name. You are darlin’, sugar, sweetheart, hun, or baby. And I like that just fine.
Just outside of Carthage, N.C. I see a doe and her fawn crossing the road in front of me. The mother darts to the left and the foe goes into its natural defensive posture, to cower down and be still. Except it’s in the road and realizes that is not the best strategy. As I slow to a stop, it clumsily walks off the road on legs that make Bambi walking on ice look sure footed. The only time I’ve ever seen a smaller fawn was a newborn on TV. It could only be a matter of a few days old. It disappears into the brush and I continue on, another friendly reminder that animals and motorcycles are better friends when not making contact.
In Eagle Springs I’m enticed into a u-turn by a sign for Kalawi Farms Homemade Peach Ice Cream. Oh what the heck, I’ll give it a try. I’m a sucker for roadside farm stands and local goods. You add ice cream to the mix and I'm sold. My limited extra space for cargo keeps my spending in check. I think I’ll mail my camera and case home as soon as I cross a town big enough to find a UPS store.
Arriving in Candor, N.C., I see a waypoint on my map that I marked four years ago: “Picnic area, clean bathroom, electricity.” I remember it. I did a walk around video of my truck awning last time I was here and was impressed with the location’s cleanliness. I am pleasantly surprised that the spot has remained well looked after. The bathroom was clean, it even had fresh soap and a bag in the waste bin. This is a great stopping point if for any reason you need 110v power to charge something. I count no less than 70 weatherproof outlets available.
Tar snakes! Tar snakes, in case you don’t know, are those ribbons of black filler that road crews use to seal cracks in pavement here in the U.S. The ones I found today were the consistency of a good warm brownie. They are no fun in the corners, the most inconsistent surface to ride on. I would have much rather been on gravel.
Speaking of which, I found myself on a few gravel sections today. Nothing life altering but certainly a nice change of pace and a peak at what is up ahead.
The afternoon turned cloudy, a result of a system crossing west to east, south of my location. I got a few sprinkles but nothing got wet for more than a minute or two. The roads for tomorrow should remain in good condition.
I shed 22 pounds today by sending my top box and camera gear home. I just wasn’t utilizing it enough to make it worth carrying. Being a photographer, I had grand intentions of stopping to take some great photos along the way. However, as I discovered, stopping to get off the bike, take my gloves off, open my case, get out the camera, set up my shot and put it all away really detracts from the riding enjoyment. It is better suited for when I'm in my truck. The iPhone will be the primary shooter for the rest of the trip.
I’m in for a steak at the locally recommended steakhouse then I’m going to do a quick reset of my pannier contents, just to keep things tidy. Tomorrow I start the good stuff, entering the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Thanks for joining me.
The alarm goes off at 0600, and I think to myself “who’s the idiot that did that?” It was me. The bed is almost comfortable enough to lull me back to sleep but I get a move on anyway.
I have no interest in the Continental breakfast so I get on the road after a gas stop. The morning is brisk. Fifty five degrees but it feels colder. It’s a wet fifty five. You can sense the moisture in the air. I zip up my jacket vents and click on the grip heaters, a luxury accessory I have been thankful for installing many times on this trip.
As I wind my way through the outskirts of town towards my eventual release from pavement, I recognize a spot of road. Oh my gosh, this is it! This is the exact spot I got my truck stuck while stopping to take a photo back in 2018. I won’t be making that mistake today!
It feels good to be on gravel again. As I make my way in a slow climb up the mountain, there are almost no straight sections here. A right into a left into another right. Back and forth I go. What dappled sunlight reaches the ground makes judging terrain difficult in some spots. A light and shadow camouflage that hides football-sized rocks half buried in the road. They are few though and I enjoy a relaxing morning ride surrounded by tall trees and a now comfortable 67° mountain air. The trees break for a moment and I catch my first view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
There is a popular hiking trail nearby and it’s a Saturday so I encounter a half dozen or so vehicles on the road in the opposite direction. Each passing at a blind curve serves as a reinforcement for the “ride right” BDR safety campaign. A practice of staying to the right any time you can’t see ahead, over a rise, or around a corner has saved me several times.
As I enter the village of Linville Falls, I discover my breakfast location for today at Famous Louise’s Rock House. Established in 1936, it resides at the intersection of three counties where you can park in one, eat in another, and walk to the register and pay your bill in a third. I look up from my plate to see a teenage boy, the son of the waitress, staring at me as I put my phone down. I’m caught taking a photo of my breakfast. Damn. Man card, revoked.
Climbing higher, I pass the village of Little Switzerland, a…..wait for it…Swiss-inspired hamlet perfect for grabbing the attention of the passing tourist. I am near the top of the mountain and the view is incredible. You can see at least four or five ridges into the distance, each getting a little fainter. The route I’m on intersects the Blue Ridge Parkway in many spots and the motorcycles are out en mass, typically rumbling loudly in groups of 10 or more. Solo for me, thank you.
I spend a couple hours winding through the woods, I’ve aired down to my preferred 20 psi front/23 psi rear tire pressures. Soft enough to absorb the gravel marbles on the surface but firm enough to stave off the unseen pothole or rock and avoid getting a pinch flat. And I can still run short sections at highway speed safely.
When I’m following a line I put on the map, I will inevitably blow past a turn and have to double back after getting absorbed in the scenery. Today that happened several times but as luck would have it, it resulted in finding a great early dinner spot. It’s Dave’s 209 and it’s right on the TAT. If you go, try the Burgerito, that’s all I’m saying.
I’ve been trying to gauge the daily progress on the bike as compared to in my truck last time. I must be making significantly faster progress on the bike because I reached tonight’s camp spot at about 1730 as opposed to past dark when I was in the truck. This time, instead of popping the truck tent on a random side road I’m in the Pigeon River Campground. Wilderness and solitude it is not, but bathrooms and showers are nice. I don’t really complain about being in a campground because as soon as I do some guy, like Jeff did just now, will walk up and say something like, ”Man, that’s the life. Just riding your bike and hangin’ your hammock.”
And you know, he’s damn right.
No alarm today. I wake up and my air mattress is not as full as it was last night. It’s not flat but it’s so close it’s annoying. Like a sibling in the back seat of a road trip station wagon singing “I’m not touching you” with their finger almost touching you. It wasn’t a cheap mattress and the fact that it’s not doing it’s only job is upsetting. It’s the one piece of gear that makes tent camping bearable. Being off the ground. I decide to get a cheap motel tonight and leave the mattress on the bike to think about it’s actions.
I look up to see over a dozen daddy long legs have sought refuge between the rain fly and the top of my tent. I flick them off from the inside and more make the climb from the grass around my tent. At least they are harmless. When I finally get out of the tent I keep finding more. They filled my boots too. They must have liked the residual warmth of the motorcycle and crawled into every crevice because all day they would creep out and get sucked off the bike in the slipstream.
Today's route is one of the best sections of the eastern side of the TAT. The Great Smoky Mountains. Through places like Maggie Valley, Cherokee National Forest, Andrews, and Tellico Plains. It seems as if almost every mile I travel is next to a creek, stream, or river. Rivers so beautiful that any one of them would be considered a jewel in other parts of the country but here even I begin to take them for granted for the simple fact that there will be another one around the next corner.
On occasion, the riding gets so good through the mountains on these trails I have to remind myself to take a break. My favorite thing to do when I get deep into the woods and all I hear is my bike chugging along faithfully is stop, turn off the engine, rip off my helmet, and just listen. A breeze through the trees, water cascading down rounded boulders covered in moss, birds chirping, squirrels chasing each other up and down the trunks of maple trees. All the things we otherwise forget to take in while we ride. I remind myself to take more breaks to listen to nature.
After missing a turnoff from the highway and waiting to do a u-turn, four kitted-out adventure bikes pass me and turn where I should have. I wave but they couldn’t be bothered I guess to wave back. They were in quite the hurry as I gave them space but tried to match their pace. I gave up, and had an internal conversation asking why anyone would want to be in such a hurry to blast by all the scenery at speeds that make it impossible to appreciate? We leap frogged for a couple hours, me passing them when they took a break and them passing me when they caught back up. I always pulled to the side as soon as I caught the headlights in my mirror of the freight train of four. Always giving an acknowledgment but never getting anything in return but a dust cloud. We all have different ways of experiencing life on two wheels.
Today I’m feeling a strong bond with my bike. Much like Marines form a bond over getting each other through hardships, my bike has been a reliable battle buddy. I’m going to trip over 20,000 miles in a day or two after 8 months of riding. But today through these trails I really feel a sense of connection. I know what to expect from the bike, how much I can push it into a gravel corner before it wants to teach me a lesson. The suspension is dialed in, the seat is great, the bars are adjusted to fit my ergonomics. Whenever I cringe right before eating that monster pot hole that I didn’t see until the last moment, the bike answers back with “I got this”.
I pass a cabin in the mountains and they have a fireplace going. I smell memories. I smell winter and hot chocolate and flannel pajamas. I smell warm blankets on couches and a dog sleeping by the fire light. Memories in a smell.
It’s getting later and the thick treetop canopy makes it appear darker than it really is. Perfect for fireflies to do their thing. Blink. Blink. One of nature’s phenomenons, an insect that can create light from chemicals. Little glow stick bugs. They flash in front of me and beside me but so quickly you wonder if you actually saw it. Like a shooting star you just caught a glimpse of out of your periphery. I pass a group of kids trying to catch them in mason jars. I give them a ring of approval with my bicycle chime. So much friendlier than my air horn.
As I reach asphalt for the last time today, I enjoy some twisty road before reaching town. I partake in some spirited riding, as the Tenere 700 is actually a fantastic canyon carving bike. More so than anyone would think. I pick up speed, but nothing crazy. The lightning bugs are now lines instead of dots. Into town and I pack away my shenanigans for another time. The air is cool and still. Smoke from chimneys and restaurants hang motionless, stuck in the valleys. Not enough breeze to reach escape velocity.
I pull into my spot at the Motor Inns of America, where the toilet is misaligned to the wall, the blanket has weird stains, and that damn air mattress is out on the bike where it belongs.
Miles: 82 rough ones.
I stayed up way too late last night. I neglected the importance of getting to bed early and waking up early. It’s always my plan to start early and make my milage goal to allow enough time on the backside to find camp or a motel in the daylight. I also appreciate the extra padding it gives me in case I need to fix a flat or make an unforeseen detour.
Speaking of detours, I’m bypassing the Witt Road section leaving Tellico Plains. I hate to be bypassing anything but I’ve done the water crossings alone before in my truck and I’m not in the mood to lift a 700lb bike if I dump it in the water. The algae on the rocky crossing is no joke. Search for it on YouTube, there’s probably a compilation video. The chance to get water in my engine and ruin the rest of my trip if the worst case scenario plays out just isn’t appealing to me.
I finally get around to setting the clock on the dash from west coast time. Only about a month late.