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I’ve written briefly about the Tail of the Dragon. Actually, the stuff about the Tail merely served as bookends for a story about some really cool roads we found by chance, en route to that famous ride along US 129. This is a story about the ride home, and how we stumbled upon The Black Dragon.
Here Comes The Rain
This serendipitous find happened because of weather and a missed turn. We had left Bardstown, KY a day earlier than planned. We were there to ride the Bourbon Trail in Western Kentucky. This would have been a nice day-ride with several stops, but a cold front was pushing in from the northwest, bringing rain through much of Kentucky. We had also planned to work our way back to Maryland through West Virginia and Western Maryland the following day. A quick look at My Radar told me that wasn’t happening. We would have to start moving east and stay south of our planned route. No Bourbon Trail on this trip.
We mounted the bikes and headed east on Route 15. Google Maps was not being generous with backroads, so we toughed it out and rode on the unshaded highway in temperatures that reached into the 90’s. It was uncomfortably hot (we didn’t know about about instant air conditioning yet). By the time we made it to Whitesburg, KY, with our fair share of Rt. 15 in the books, we were sufficiently worn out and parched. We decided to stop for some relaxation and hydration at an air-conditioned little place called Heritage Kitchen. One of the owners, Brad, greeted us kindly as we settled in for some much-needed iced tea. He asked us about our travels, and we asked him for some help finding some fun roads.
We were looking for the best ways to get to Abingdon, VA. That was our newly agreed-upon overnight stop. Brad told us we had to get past Black Mountain and there were three options: around it to the north, around it to the south, and over the top. Louise and I looked at each other: “Over the top? Sign us up.” Then we found out that the over-the-top option would add about 2 hours to the ride. Louise and I looked at each other again: “Sign us up.” Our riding partners wanted to shave some time off this leg, so we compromised and agreed to take the north route, with a slight diversion: South Route 119 – a road familiar with the cooling shade of trees; a road willing to twist and turn a little to give into the shape and slope of the earth.
And It Gets Better
I told you earlier that we stumbled upon one of the “really cool roads” partly because of a missed turn. Well, 4 paragraphs, 200 miles, and about a gallon of iced tea later, we get to that part of the story.
After a nice ride through a gap in some hills, the directions told us to turn left onto 932 near Eolia, KY and follow a winding road through a some valleys molded by the adjacent ridges. We had plenty of advanced notice, and Louise called out the turn several times. As we got closer, I saw what looked almost like a driveway cutting to the left at an angle that was much more than 90 degrees. Ahead of us, the road we were on was also bearing to the left. This must be one of those times when the mapping software calls out a curve as a turn – happens a lot. So, I stayed on 119, while Google Maps tried to recalculate – again and again. I had clearly missed the turn.
Turn Around or Get Lost?
If you have ever used a mapping app or GPS, you know that the system will recognize when you’ve missed a turn. Most of the time, it immediately offers a new course, with a new ETA, and all is well. Sometimes the new course is simply a U-turn to herd you back to your previous route. That’s the guidance we were given by the app – turn around. Well, sometimes a U-turn isn’t prudent; especially when there is no safe place to turn around and you’re on a motorcycle. Google Maps, nonetheless, kept insisting we go back whence we came.
I was certain the software would eventually get the point and offer an option that did not involve turning around, so we pushed on. And boy, did our stubbornness pay off. The road we were following had a fresh blacktop with recently-painted double yellow lines following gentle turns. It seemed to be an exceptionally well-built and maintained route which was taking us to lower elevations and we could see several quarries to our left. I surmised that the road was maintained this well to accommodate the large trucks carrying minerals out of this hollow. And I was beginning to think that we might be on a one-way ride to the bottom of a dig. Fortunately I was wrong, and the ride was about to really get good.
Up, Up, Up
Google Maps finally conceded and gave us a route that did not involve U-turns. We followed the map’s blue arrow onto Kentucky Route 160 South. It started out a little slow, as we passed through Cumberland and Lynch (two small adjacent mining towns in eastern Harlan County). Before long, the route became a scenic, tree-lined two-lane road. It followed the contours of the rising terrain; up and up, left and right, hugging rock walls on one side while revealing steep drop-offs on the other.
The outside temperature dropped as we climbed, and the canopy of trees never wavered, providing near-constant shade – brief thoughts of donning a jacket actually crossed my mind. When the blue sky popped out in all its glory, we found ourselves on top of the world. Well, we were certainly at the top of Kentucky – a roadside sign declared our location at the top of Black Mountain, the highest point in the state: 4,145 feet above sea level.
The Black Dragon
We had accidentally stumbled upon one of the greatest roads we’ve ridden. We later discovered that this path over the top of Black Mountain is part of what is known as The Black Dragon Loop, a popular motorcycle route. We took a short break for pictures of the scenic expanse before us which was as much Kentucky as it was Virginia. We were on the state line, so the ride down from the mountain would be in the Old Dominion. It was just as fun as the ride up the other side, swerving and bending back and forth with a couple switchbacks thrown in for good measure.
By the end of this day, we were exhausted. That good kind of exhaustion where the beer tastes better and the sleep comes quicker. We had ridden some fine roads; following rivers and hills through villages and forests; in sun and shade (no rain); and over the top of a mountain. All because we let ourselves get lost. Try it… you’ll like it.