The inexperienced rider might call it the highway to hell; others call it the most exciting motorcycle loop in Tennessee
Story and Photos by Ron Keys
Gone are the past weekend’s ear-shattering crescendo of exhaust that reverberated through the valley during the Spring Thunder in the Smokies Rally. It has been replaced by the quiet serenity of nature, and the only sound this morning is the tack-tack-whistle of a red cardinal.
Sitting in my squeaky red rocking chair on our porch, the chattering Campbell Creek tells me of its trek from high in the Smokies. This is Pioneer Village Resort, an assortment of log cabins that remind us of simpler times and our personal Shangri-La in Maggie Valley, North Carolina – the ultimate centre for hundreds of kilometres of the best riding in the Appalachians.
The smell of breakfast wafting from the kitchen breaks my reverie and soon my wife, Tina, and I are packed and mounted, and off to meet our friends Rich and Liz just across the wooden bridge from our cabin.
Over 125 years ago, Jack Setzer applied to open the first post office here, but one of the requirements was a name for this place. His youngest daughter’s name was Maggie Mae, and today, Maggie Valley in the heart of the Smoky Mountains bears her name and echoes with the pleasurable sound of motorcycles arriving from far and wide.
Legendary rides with names like the Green-Eyed Snake, Hellbender, the Dragon and the Diamondback exude a tempered fear in the hearts of the meek. But today, our appointment with Lucifer is a temptation too great to pass up, so we thread our way through the valley, seeking one of America’s most challenging and beautiful stretches of interstate highway that will lead us to a devil’s den.
For 50 of America’s sweetest interstate kilometres, I-40 winds north through the Smoky Mountain National Forest like a giant green python wriggling through the valley. Tall oak-covered mountains rising up on either side complete the picture. Unfortunately, this morning the road is congested with cars, transports and motorhomes, so we thread our way from lane to lane through a muddled mass of humanity, and try to enjoy the beautiful curves and remove the surplus chicken strips from our tires.
Coming out of the mountains and past Douglas Lake, I-40 bends westward through the gently rolling hills of southern Tennessee. Knoxville soon becomes a distant memory as we exit onto TN 62 and roll by Oak Ridge, home to the Manhattan Project.
Just past Oliver Springs, we take TN 116, the beginning of the legendary Devil’s Triangle. We wind through hills and mountains to Petros, population 583 and home to many of the guards who worked at the nearby Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Heavily gated, this stone prison stands majestically cradled between surrounding snake-infested mountains, as it has for 120 years. This was home for James Earl Ray, the man who killed Martin Luther King Jr. Many other infamous killers and petty criminals used this as their home address – some walking away after paying their debt, and others who lie in unmarked graves down behind the boiler house. Our tour guide, Mark Tucker, a second-generation guard who served there for 25 years, regales us with story after story of murders and mayhem that make our hair stand on end. When the tour ends, we mount up…