We never meant to visit the Blue Ridge Parkway. My friend Peter and I were supposed to visit Washington, to tour the sites and meet up with an aunt, but the June heat dome put a quick end to that. When it’s 35 degrees in the shade and you’re riding motorcycles in the sunshine, and sharing the road with trucks, trucks and more trucks, there’s got to be a better plan.
There are no trucks on the parkways. It’s why they exist, for recreation rather than transportation. They’re scenic routes to nowhere in particular that show off the country’s natural beauty, and Americans build them better than most. They’re smooth and meandering, unhurried and relaxed. And at the end of June, with gas prices through the roof, they were almost empty of traffic.
After a day riding on the scalding interstate to reach Pennsylvania, we shifted gears and changed direction for Front Royal in Virginia. Front Royal is the northern entrance for Shenandoah National Park, where Skyline Drive climbs into the mountains and the temperature became pleasant with the height. Skyline Drive turns into the Blue Ridge Parkway.
We were riding big BMWs, borrowed from the maker’s Toronto press fleet. I was on the new R18 Transcontinental, a touring version of the 1,800-cubic-centimetre cruiser that I criticized a couple of years ago for being uncomfortable. Back then, I wrote that I couldn’t last more than half an hour before my crotch turned numb from vibration. It’s okay, I was assured – the Transcontinental has a much comfier and taller seat that’s far more forgiving.
Not forgiving enough, as it turned out, but I digress.
Peter rode a K1600 GTL, perhaps BMW’s most luxurious motorcycle with six smooth-running cylinders and alpine-pass agility. We were supposed to swap back and forth, but he sat once on the R18 and could barely get it off the side stand. It has a fully fuelled weight of 427 kilograms, which makes it probably the heaviest stock motorcycle on the road today. A fully-dressed Honda Goldwing is 48 kilograms lighter.
About a quarter of the BMW’s weight comes from its massive, twin-cylinder engine. This is both its strength and its downfall. Strength because the engine is iconic and powerful, with a wonderful vibration that adds a pulse to any journey. Downfall because you can’t move your legs past those huge boxer cylinders, so you’re unable to stretch out and relieve your sitting muscles.
We paid our admission fee to the park (US$25 for a motorcycle for seven days, or US$30 for a car) and within five minutes, we were in riding heaven. Well-cambered curves and only two entrances between the north and south gates that are 170 kilometres apart. No communities – just campgrounds. People hike in these Appalachian Mountains, but we rode through at the leisurely speed limit, swinging the bikes gently from turn to turn.
Skyline Drive was built in the early 1930s, begun even before the park itself was officially established. Then-U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to create ways for Americans to get out of the city and into the countryside. He relied on a wheelchair after contracting polio and so he saw the importance of the automobile as a convenient means not only of getting there but enjoying the journey itself. As such, Skyline Drive was constructed along the ridge of the mountains themselves, with numerous vistas to each side. Eighty-three years later, it’s lost none of its appeal.
It took about three hours to ride its length, with a brief stop to wait out some rain – there was very little traffic on a Wednesday in late June and no long processions of recreational vehicles struggling on the hills. Even so, this is not a road for those in a hurry: Deer grazed beside the asphalt at regular intervals to keep us alert.
At its southern gate, Skyline Drive becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway, created several years later to showcase the beauty of Appalachia. The Blue Ridge was planned from the beginning: Trees were planted along its denuded hillsides and a variety of landscapes were showcased along the way. On its government website, the Parkway’s original architect, Stanley Abbott, is quoted as saying that its delight “lies with ever-changing location, in variety.”
His intention was “to design a road capable of ‘following a mountain stream for a while, then climbing up the slope of a hill pasture, then dipping down into the open bottom lands and back into the woodlands.’”
The Blue Ridge has no admission charge and travels 755 kilometres into North Carolina. It has a 45-mile-per-hour (70-kilometre-an-hour) speed limit and the scenery changes constantly. Sometimes, it runs through dense woodland, like the Skyline, but on other stretches it passes through well-tended farmland and there are small roads that run alongside. There are frequent scenic lookouts over the valleys and occasionally, the two-lane road rides the crest of the ridge itself, reaching more than 2,000 metres of elevation at its southern end in North Carolina.
We followed the Blue Ridge and its cooler temperatures for about 600 kilometres as far as Asheville, N.C., though it continues all the way to the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
On one day, we watched rain approach through the valleys and were caught out by a downpour that stopped as quickly as it began. Fog blanketed the highest peaks. Again, there was no traffic to speak of during the week – perhaps a handful of vehicles each hour. When we returned on the Saturday, the road was still mostly empty. I think we saw three RVs all day and, of course, no trucks.
Eventually, Peter agreed to ride the big R18 for a spell and when he did, he was astonished at how comfortable it felt leaning into the many curves. The K1600 GTL was ready to change course at the slightest whim, but the R18 just locked in and pulled on through like a freight train.
Despite its name, however, the R18 is not a transcontinental machine unless your idea of crossing the country is to stop every hour for a stretch. The seat is much improved over the standard cruiser but when your feet are forward of your backside, unable to offer any support, and your legs are trapped in place and unable to stretch, the discomfort becomes considerable. All your weight is concentrated on your buttocks, not spread through your thighs. I rode for the first two hours and then found myself squirming after an hour at a time. The Harley and Honda riders with their extra footrests, and even Peter on the K1600, would have no sympathy.
We considered continuing west to the infamous Tail of the Dragon, Highway 129 south of Knoxville, Tenn., but we’d run out of time and needed to head home. We didn’t mind. That’s a road, and a region, best suited to sport bikes – and on a weekend it becomes dangerous with riders trying to prove themselves on the tightly twisting corners. Crashes are frequent when inexperienced motorcyclists attempt to slay the Dragon. We were far too relaxed from the Blue Ridge to take on such madness.
When we turned the big bikes back north, the heat finally lifted and riding became pleasant again in the valleys. We met another rider who’d stopped for some lunch, Lynn Howard from Maryland, heading home after visiting a BMW rally in Virginia. The fuel pump died on her F650 GS and then, once fixed and back on the road, her chain broke in Tennessee. All this in a heat dome.
“I could have done without the 100-degree days (37 degrees Celsius) in Memphis, but I still love it,” she said. “Coming over the mountains today, I just picked a direction and it’s fun. It’s all an adventure.”
An adventure – that’s why we’d made this trip, on these motorcycles. Driving the interstate inside a car is not an adventure, but up on the parkways and looking out over the valleys, leaning into curve after curve after curve, it’s truly the journey itself that matters, not the destination.