Deep in the southern United States, in the thickly forested border of Tennessee and North Carolina, is a road that seems drawn by a doodler. It makes 318 turns along 11 miles of countryside, including hairpins, blind cutbacks and a cloverleaf here and there. It’s so windy and challenging that it has become a destination for motorcyclists and car enthusiasts; some say it’s among the best driving roads in the world.
This section of highway US 129 is often called The Dragon, and Jared Barnes remembers the first time he took his motorbike on it. It was about seven years ago, and Barnes had no idea what he was doing.
“I couldn’t ride worth a crap,” he recalled. “The local boys just about peeled the paint off my bike flying past me.”
Barnes was soon hooked on the adrenaline of it. Living just 45 minutes away, he went back three or four times a week. After constant practice, in 2012 he tried to break the record for the fastest ride ever. Video shows him doing it in 8:27, besting the previous record by half a minute and hitting more than 130mph – a good four times faster than the speed limit.
“It’s not official or anything, because, you know, it’s not legal,” Barnes sheepishly admitted.
His run may be the record, but it’s not uncommon to see that kind of speed on The Dragon. An unknown country road just 20 years ago, the route is becoming a destination for motorcyclists, gearheads and those who find adrenaline in the g-forces of an apex turn.
With a lethargic 30mph speed limit, The Dragon has become a constant battle between local deputies and speedsters. It’s also created a small cottage industry of businesses for thrill-seekers and Sunday drivers.
The road traces the route of an old Cherokee hunting path, which was then used by17th-century European settlers to bring cattle to market towns. The federal government paved it into US 129 in the 1950s. Connecting sleepy hamlets deep into the Appalachian forest, the road remained largely unused until the 1990s, when internet chatrooms and motorcycle websites found it.
At the eastern end of The Dragon, there’s now a motel and a gift shop and a makeshift memorial of smashed helmets and motorcycle parts. Head northwest from there and the road descends into deep forest preserves. The entire 11-mile stretch has no driveways or side streets, no homes or businesses – nothing to worry about but the turn coming up. It’s also full of hills, so the road dips and climbs as it goes left and right.
These turns have become legendary among drivers and motorcyclists for their difficulty. The toughest of them might be Guardrail Cliff, where the road is hugged by an unforgiving rock wall on one side and a metal rail on the other, both dented and paint-smeared from those who couldn’t handle the sweeping turn. Or perhaps the hardest is Gravity Cavity, a turn that becomes a deep drop followed by a hump, leaving motorcyclists in the wrong gear, struggling for power and apt to fall on the rise.
Many people who try The Dragon stay for a few days or a week, hoping daily trips on it will help them master it, said Brad Talbott, owner of Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort. Talbott’s 14-room motel, a former hunting lodge, is often booked up during summer months, sometimes a year in advance.
“This is like Disney for drivers. It has become the focal point for motorcyclists and serious car guys,” Talbott said.
On a summer’s day, thousands of riders make the windy journey, according to Dave Allison, a photographer who sets up along The Dragon and sells the pictures on his website. People buy his pictures of their Harleys or Fords or sometimes even tractor trailers.
“I’ve got the best job in the world,” Allison said, as a hog roaring by drowned him out. On his morning drive from nearby Knoxville, Tennessee, Allison sees eagles nesting, sunrises through the white oaks and sugar maples, fog rolling off a lake and lazy black bears meandering across the turnpike.
He sets up in a corner called Picnic Benches. “There used to be benches here until someone crashed into them,” Allison explained. It’s a double apex, with a short straight between the two turns. Most everyone can handle it, which is the way Allison likes it. He rarely sets up in one of the more difficult turns: accidents mean less business when his corner is tied up by rescue crews, which often take an hour to respond.
And The Dragon sees its share of crashes, often 10 or 15 a day, according to Allison and Talbott. Mostly it’s a motorcyclist who loses control and walks away with a bit of road rash. But some are far worse. Between 2002 and 2015, the Tennessee Highway Patrol documented 1,695 crashes on The Dragon, 37 of them fatalities. So far this year, there have been 103 wrecks, with three deaths.
Most of those deaths are riders from “the flat straight areas” of the US, like Illinois and Florida, according to Lt Randy Ailey with the traffic safety unit at the Blount County Sheriff’s Office.
His deputies often write a dozen citations a day. But occasionally, the worst offenders just speed off, Ailey admitted. If a motorcyclist blows through the speed trap, Ailey doesn’t want his men to give chase.
“It’s not worth my deputies getting hurt for a speeding ticket,” he said.
Barnes never had a run-in with the police because he did his speed runs on slow winter weekdays. He admits now his record-setting run wasn’t exactly safe. But he has quit racing The Dragon. He’s a carpenter at his family’s business, the Incredible Christmas Place, a massive holiday-themed shopping village in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where he’s responsible for the store’s iconic glockenspiel, a three-storey working clock with hand-poured bells. A work accident left him with arthritis in his wrists and hands so he sold his motorcycle.
Sometimes he goes back up to The Dragon to visit the regulars. They call him “Dragon Slayer”. But the memories are bittersweet.
“I had every turn, every bump, every scar created by an 18-wheeler memorized on that road,” he said. “Man, those were the good days. My mind was so clear.”
For newcomers, Barnes has a simple suggestion: “Stay in your lane. It’ll get bad quick if you don’t.”