Tucked on the western edge of North Carolina in the Great Smoky Mountains is a strip of road that has more curves than the Playboy Mansion on movie night, and, most likely, is more fun: The Tail of the Dragon.
Road trips deserve the long route, and some of the best things come during detours.
It's a mere 11-mile stretch of US 129, this cambered ribbon of asphalt that weaves back and forth 318 times along trails that began hundreds of years ago. Indians, settlers and civil war troops all made their way through this mountainside pass through Deals Gap that legend says began as an animal trail.
None of them had as much fun on it as I did Friday along with the hundreds of other drivers on the Mini Takes the States road rally. We were heading to Nashville but took the long way there to drive the Dragon. As in life, road trips deserve the long route, and some of the best things come during detours.
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Simply put: The Tail of the Dragon is one of the most exciting pieces of American roadway ever. Under the shade of poplars and kudzu, bikers, drivers and others ready themselves to dash through the public road, hoping to beat the Dragon and, often enough, the police setting up ticket factories for the 35-mph stretch of road.
Simply put: The Tail of the Dragon is one of the most exciting pieces of American roadway ever.
The advice was straightforward: Don't drive beyond your means. If someone is coming up quickly behind you, pull over at the next available spot and let the driver pass. Stick to second gear, sometimes third will do. And make sure everything is secure inside your vehicle – if it's not, you'll learn that your cabin is about to become a pinball machine.
Friday, my whip was a 2011 Mini Countryman S with all-wheel drive. It was the perfect low-speed, high-performance vehicle that stuck to the corners like barbeque sauce to a pulled pork sandwich (exactly the lunch I chowed down a few minutes before heading down the Tail – which, after completing the run, I would not recommend).
Now, I'm not crazy behind the wheel. In fact, driving-wise, I'm as conservative as I imagine many of those ministers are who fill the countless churches I saw through the foothills of the Smokys.
In June, two people died on the Tail. This is serious.
But still, the Tail tests everyone. The curves are sharper than you expect, there never seems to be a rhyme or reason to them and it's impossible to focus on anything else. In June, two people died on the Tail. This is serious.
Nonetheless, I did what any other red-blooded American would do facing this type of course. I gunned the Countryman and let 'er rip.
That's where I learned, when you start to bite into the Tail, it bites back. The road is extremely narrow and the shoulder is either the face of the mountain or a long drop down it. There's no cheating by crossing the yellow line because when you do, there's always someone else coming right at you. Almost every corner is blind, which is probably why they have names like Horns of the Dragon, The Wall and Rocket Corner. I'm surprised they didn't have names like Miss-Shift Death or Quarter Panel Crusher.
Almost every corner is blind, which is probably why they have names like Horns of the Dragon, The Wall and Rocket Corner.
Every turn requires absolute concentration, and if you don't give it your all, you'll feel your car quickly losing speed because of an improper shift or an unnecessarily hard brake. I'll readily admit, I misjudged more than a few corners as I raced through the Tail, one eye on the road, one eye searching for flashing blue lights. At one point, I briefly looked up and saw that one police officer had pulled over an entire motorcycle club, which is one of the moments I knew I could speed up. He was, after all, very busy.
Every now and then, I would hit my downshift perfectly as I pushed into the curve. The 1.6-liter turbocharged engine of the Countryman would whine with delight as its 181 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque grabbed all four-wheels and chewed at the asphalt. I was cornering on those invisible rails you always hear us auto journalists ramble on about. The stiff body never gave an inch and I could feel my body push against the seat. The pulled pork sandwich rebelled a little in my tightening stomach, allowing me to taste just a whiff of it again.
Most of all, I liked the unwritten code of the road along the Tail of the Dragon.
Most of all, I liked the unwritten code of the road along the Tail of the Dragon. Twice, motorcycles zoomed up behind me, and as soon as possible, I would make my way to a small asphalt or gravel perch and let them pass. Later, when I raced up behind a pickup truck, that driver did the same for me. I also passed two motorcycles, meaning I gave up position to two vehicles and got position on three (if you include the motorcycle in the bed of the pickup, it was four.) So I figured I was up and never during the run was I delayed.
Of course, I could have gone quicker.
Everyone thinks that when they finish the Tail for the first time. But really, I could hardly remember any of the turns or corners after I finished. Your concentration is so focused on what's in front of you, you don't have time to download all of the information for your memory. You just get through this corner and move onto the next.
After I stopped near Fugitive's Dam, the unofficial end of the run (and the place from which Harrison Ford, while searching for a one-armed man, jumped in The Fugitive), I already started to kick myself over how I could have done this or that better. Of course I could have.
No one tames the Dragon on the first run.
We all could. But no one tames the Dragon on the first run. Some of the Mini owners on the rally have driven the Tail dozens of times. They have never mastered it, either.
But they'll keep trying: Again and again and again.