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Road trips are my forte. I love them and live for them. Over the years I’ve covered a lot of miles on my 2001 Harley-Davidson Dyna Low Rider that I call Rod. From the coral reefs in Key West to the mint green waters of British Columbia’s Lake Louise, we’ve toured much of this great continent.
My good friend Lisa Hawks, whom I affectionately call Bird, learned to ride and purchased a 2008 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 in 2014. Since then, we’ve ridden together at every opportunity.
Once I saw the sparkle in my friend’s eye, the one that comes with falling in love with motorcycling, I suggested an autumn trek to Florida to the second home my husband and I own, with a stop in Daytona Beach for the annual Biketoberfest rally. Bird jumped at the offer and we decided to include one of the country’s top motorcycle rides, the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Wanting to explore one of the top motorcycle destinations in the country, we incorporated the Smoky Mountains into our trip. Beginning in Minnesota, we crossed into Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. On the fourth day, we made it to Skyline Drive in Front Royal, Virginia, a 109-mile road that spans the length of Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Waiting our turn to pay the park entrance fee—eager to start what we had hoped would be the most magnificent part of our journey—we noticed an electronic sign warning, “Dense Fog Ahead.” Dismissing the warning, we paid the fee then proceeded into a light mist hanging within the autumn foliage.
Near-zero visibility forced us to slow our pace. As we chugged up the steep grade, condensation clung to our windshields, visors, and rendered our mirrors useless. Every so often, we’d enter a brief reprieve from the fog revealing spectacular mountain vistas resembling bowls holding low-lying fluffy white cotton.
The ride was grueling. Pulling off every so often to stretch, Bird and I alternated leading. It was 5 p.m. and we still had an hour to go to reach Waynesboro, Virginia, where Skyline Drive turns into the Blue Ridge Parkway. Arriving at dusk, we refueled and purchased food for dinner. We still had another 39 miles to go before reaching our lodging destination.
As we entered the Blue Ridge Parkway, my odometer trip mileage read 12. With 27 miles still to travel, 39 now became the number to which I clung. An eeriness overtook us as we lumbered back into the silence of the consuming fog. Leading the two of us through the abyss, I was blind to whether a meadow or a mountainous drop lay at the shoulder. Fortunately, we had a bright centerline to follow with no other cars on the road.
Spotting movement to the right my headlight illuminated a doe and three fawns grazing roadside. Normally a sweet sight, at this moment it presented a hazard. A deer jumping out in front of us could be deadly. I knew we would need our cell phones if we encountered trouble. Mine had died earlier in the day. At least Bird’s still worked … I hoped. Later we would learn even a fully-charged phone would be of no use.
Please God, not gravel! Fear was rising inside me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to think clearly if I allowed that to take over. Pushing fear away, my front tire hit a bump that led to newly laid asphalt. Whew! Small reflective squares ran down the middle of the jet-black roadway. Autumn leaves littered the shiny surface like confetti interfering with my ability to follow the squares. Like Hansel and Gretel hunting a trail of breadcrumbs, our pace slowed even more.
A 4-foot-high brick wall ran alongside the road. Up ahead, I notice a massive shape. Standing on its hind legs with front paws resting on top of the wall was a black bear. As he looked over his left shoulder fear coursed through my veins with adrenalin kicking in.
My mind began racing. Where there was one small bear, there would surely be larger ones. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Any bike trouble, especially with the aromatic food we bought earlier stuffed in our bags, would most certainly put us in serious danger.
Images of being dragged off and ripped apart by bears flowed through my pounding brain. I wondered if this was to be my last day on earth. Reflections of my two beautiful boys and my sweet husband flooded my mind. I envision people reading the news shaking their heads saying, “What were those two women thinking traveling alone in the mountains at night?”
Momentary thoughts of getting eaten by a bear were quickly interrupted when I glanced down at my trip meter noticing the number 30. Before I knew it, the scary black bruin was in our wake and we were now nearing our intended exit.
I can see only fog though. When my trip meter reaches 39, I stop unsure which way to head not wanting to miss the turnoff. Bird rolls up alongside me. Straddling my motorcycle, my eyes scan the shadowy murk when finally I see the way out.
With a heavy sigh of relief we roll down the exit ramp and turn left. Dense forest lines each side of the narrow mountain road as we ride into grim darkness. Searching for our next turn, panic overtakes me. I pull over, all the while feeling the unsettling presence of wild animals.
Calling out to Bird I say, “I want you to get on your phone, call the inn and have someone drive out here so we can follow them back.”
“Let’s keep going,” she responds. “I saw a sign indicating there is a tavern two miles ahead. Besides, it’s not safe here. The road is too narrow.”
“A tavern, how wonderful,” I think to myself. There would be people, music, and life! So we continue finally reaching the tavern lot. Empty! Of course, at this time of the year it was closed. Parking her bike in the wide-open space, Bird jumps off and grabs her phone to call to the inn.
“Jean!” she cries. “I have no service.”
“Damn,” I utter under my breath. I couldn’t reason.
Car headlights entered the far end of the lot. Before I knew it, I was walking toward the vehicle waving my hands overhead.
“Yes?” asks a masculine voice as a man steps from a black Jeep.
“Do you have a cell phone we can use?”
“There’s no service in the area,” he bellows back.
My mind shrieks! It was just too much! Too steep, too dangerous…
I explain that we were having difficulty finding the the inn and need to call to see if someone could drive out to guide us there. The man said he knew the resort and agrees to lead us in. The three of us return to our vehicles. He drives off with Bird following.
I was far behind. Each curve reveals nothing but a dark mist. At last, I spot red taillights turning off the road. Greeted by gravel, chunks of broken pavement, and hairpin turns, I ride several hundred feet down a steep slope. My mind shrieks! It was just too much! Too steep, too dangerous, yet I continue, rationalizing that if Bird can do it so can I.
Then as I round a tight corner, I see her motorcycling lying on its side with lights ablaze. As Bird hoofs her way up to me, I swear in frustration into the night air. After confirming she’s OK, we maneuver my bike to the side of the road, then trudge down the hill to hers. Headlights now shine toward us. It was our kind leader in his Jeep. He’d made it to the lodge and had a note from the registration office indicating the cabin reserved for us and its location on the property.
All three of us work together to get our bikes down the gnarly path and parked next to the cabin. Lowering my kickstand, I ask our mystery man his name. “Terry,” he replies. Bird thanks Terry and asks if she could give him a hug. I hug him as well. Then he was off.
Lugging heavy packs up a steep wooden staircase to our quarters, we creak open the back door. The cottage is musty and old. Shaking my head, I instantly think of my conversation with our travel agent. She made the lodging recommendation assuring me multiple times the road leading in was paved.
Suddenly, I remember my husband. He and I had an agreement I would call each night to let him know we were OK. “Bird,” I groan, “I need to call Nick. Let’s walk up to the lodge and ask if they have a landline.”
“OK,” she answers, adding, “We need to find a towing service. There’s no way I’m riding my bike up that road from hell tomorrow!”
Walking through the lodge yelling our hellos, the resort owner emerges to greet us. We make our introductions and I ask if there’s a phone I could use. After the call, the three of us sit down and chat. I told him about the challenging ride Bird and I had that day all the while fighting back tears of exhaustion.
I also ask if there is a towing service we could call, explaining that the resort road was beyond our ability and that we did not feel comfortable riding our motorcycles back up it in the morning. The lodge owner tells us he is an experienced rider and would ride our bikes up for us. We said goodnight and Bird and I return to our cabin relieved.
We are finally able to unwind. While enjoying our dinner, we recount the terrifying day hour by hour, sharing our own versions of the adventure while revealing our fears and scariest moments. Just then thunder booms in the distance. As rain begins to pour, I couldn’t help but feel bonded to my friend, a special bond that was now closer than ever before.
The next morning, we trudge up the muddy, rutted road to the lodge. A sweet, warm aroma invites us in. Settling in to comfy dining chairs, the innkeeper’s wife lovingly serves us breakfast. The owners then sit with us explaining the severity of the storm. Tornados, hail, and flood-inducing rain is traveling southwest to northeast across the entire region. They advise us to get off the mountain immediately and ride east as far as possible.
An hour-and-a-half later, our motorcycles are ready for us atop the treacherous trail. As we ride away from the mountain, our hearts are heavy with disappointment. Our entire vacation had been planned around visiting the Smoky Mountains and riding the Blue Ridge Parkway because of its reputation as a rider’s dream. Sometimes though, life doesn’t turn out the way one hopes or plans.
Letting go of our trip expectations, I now see clearly what stood in its place. A whole new dimension of my friendship with Bird had been forged. Smiling, I realize how precious this woman is who was riding with me. On this trip, Bird became my “sister,” united through a journey no one could ever make up.
Our next two nights are spent in Raleigh, North Carolina, waiting for the storm to pass. From there, we continue riding to Daytona Beach where friends happily greet us at Biketoberfest. Gathering around our bikes, we share our harrowing tale.
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