THE DRAGON IN PRINT NEWS 2002:

Former Rockford officer innocent - Jury takes less than 30 minutes to decide
November 26, 2002
By John Stiles, News-Sentinel Blount County bureau

MARYVILLE - A Blount County Circuit Court jury took less than 30 minutes Monday to find a former Rockford police sergeant not guilty in the death of a motorcyclist. James R. Johnson, 34, was charged with vehicular homicide in the death of motorcycle rider Philip Mickey Laton, 27, a Knox County Juvenile Detention officer.

The jury also found Johnson not guilty of criminally negligent homicide. "I stood on my word and it came through," Johnson said after the verdict was announced. "All of this has been hard. Real hard," he said.

Laton was killed about 10 p.m. March 10, 2001, in a collision on Old Maryville Pike on a bridge at the Knox-Blount county line. First reports indicated Laton's cycle struck the guardrail. An eyewitness then came forward and told authorities Johnson's cruiser "swerved" and hit the motorcycle. Johnson's attorney, Joe Costner, said the hardest testimony to listen to was the state's allegation that Johnson was out to "ambush" Laton.

Earlier in the day, Larry D. Mann, a crash reconstructionist appearing for the defense, testified Johnson could not have timed his vehicle to hit the motorcycle because of the cycle's high speed and other factors. He said Johnson had to look both ways because he knew Laton's speeding cycle was behind him and oncoming traffic was at risk.

A Blount County sheriff's deputy was behind Laton. He clocked Laton traveling more than 100 mph. Mann disagreed with prosecutors' contentions that Johnson picked the narrow bridge site to "ambush" Laton. Mann testified there were many other better sites if that was Johnson's intent. "I think it very reasonable he (Johnson) may have saved the lives of those two other people (in the oncoming car)," said Mann. Mann testified the fact that Johnson was a K-9 officer would have made it difficult to see what was behind him. He said a K-9 officer's car typically has very darkly tinted windows. He also said the car's dog "cage" makes it difficult to see to the rear.

Johnson testified he did not see the motorcycle until it hit his cruiser. Evidence showed Laton's blood alcohol level was .09 percent after the crash. Johnson tested negative for alcohol and drugs. Several civil lawsuits have grown out of the incident including one against the city of Rockford and the Blount County Sheriff's Office. Prosecutor Ed Bailey argued that Johnson came forward with the claim he was concerned about oncoming traffic only after he saw the vehicle on his cruiser's video camera.

"J.R. killed Mickey Laton with a patrol car. He steered the car into the motorcycle. "Mickey Laton didn't have to die," Bailey said.


Motorcyclist injured on Foothills Parkway

2002-09-21
by Lance Coleman of The Daily Times Staff

A 29-year-old Florida man riding on Foothills Parkway was injured Friday when his motorcycle left the road, skidded along the shoulder, struck a tree and went down a steep embankment.

Brian Magyar, a Fort Lauderdale airplane mechanic, was pulled up the 70-foot slope and taken by Rural/Metro Ambulance Service to Blount Memorial Hospital where he was treated and released, Blount County Sheriff's officials said.

Magyar was riding a Suzuki GSX 1300 RX Hawabusa motorcycle with Peter Kratsh, a Fort Lauderdale mechanical engineer. Hawabusa means ``Falcon'' in Japanese, Kratsh said. ``It looks like he did some flying of his own,'' he said, noting that it appeared Magyar injured his collar bone.

The motorcycle was seen about 20 feet below the road's grass shoulder. The driver probably went 50 feet further down the slope, according to members of the Blount Special Operations Response Team. The men had hauled their motorcycles up to Fontana and were riding to Townsend when the mishap occurred at about 12:34 p.m.

``He had his full gear on, he was pretty well prepared,'' Kratsh said. ``He's a good rider. We were cruising along not pushing it. Maybe his mind wandered a bit, that's my guess.''

A National Park Service ranger, Blount County Sheriff's Office, Blount County Fire Department Blount Special Operations Response Team and Rural/Metro Ambulance Service responded.


Environmentalists to Graham: No easy rides to Knoxville September 19, 2002
By Mike Andrews of The Graham Star

The Dragon's Tail, the 12-mile stretch of hairpin curves that frustrate Graham County drivers on their way to shop in Knoxville and excites motorcycle enthusiasts nationwide will never be straightened if environmentalists have their way. "To put this mildly, the environmental community would be very, very, very opposed to straightening that road," said Danielle Droitsch of the Tennessee Clean Water Network.

Droitsch was presenting the relicensing agenda of Tennessee environmentalists at the two-day relicensing meeting held Monday and Tuesday at the Robbinsville community Center. Relicensing is the process by which Alcoa Aluminum Inc. requests the federal government to give it permission to continue operating Santeetlah and Cheoah dams in Graham County and Chilhowee and Calderwood dams in Tennessee.

Droitsch made it clear that Tennessee environmentalists were concerned with protecting Alcoa's 10,000 acres as wilderness, putting it permanently off limits to any development. Lake Santeetlah representative Robert Moseley, asked about the possibility of improvements being made to U.S. 129, which slows Robbinsville's access to its nearest major city and is nearly impassible for trucks. Droitsch said, improving the road would "have more negative impact on the environment than a major development along the road.''

Droitsch, also called for a minimum flow of water into a mile long riverbed around Calderwood Dam. Alcoa steadfastly opposes high flows into what is called the Calderwood Bypass, calling it a deal breaker that would imperil agreements to increase the water level in Lake Santeetlah and diminish the possibility of whitewater rafting in the Cheoah River.

Some environmentalists support increased flows in the Calderwood riverbed to promote the wavyrayed lampmussel, which makes its home in Smoky Mountain rivers.


Pictured left is the Dragon Slayer's favorite mussel. Have you hugged your mussel today?? EDITOR'S OPINION


Motorcyclists injured in crashes
2002-08-19
by Erin Hudson of The Daily Times Staff

Motorcyclists kept the Tennessee Highway Patrol and LifeStar medical helicopter busy Sunday afternoon, as rescue workers tended to two men injured in separate accidents.

Tennessee Highway Patrol Trooper Ron McDonald was called to the first of two serious motorcycle accidents on Calderwood Highway at 12:30 p.m. Sunday. McDonald could not be reached for comment on the early afternoon accident.

The man, whose name was unknown as of Sunday evening, was on Calderwood Highway when he and his motorcycle left the roadway and hurtled down a 50-foot embankment and into a tree. The accident occurred on ``The Dragon'' near the North Carolina/Tennessee line.

The Dragon is a popular spot among motorcycle enthusiasts for its 318 curves in 11 miles.

Though LifeStar was not available when first requested around 12:45 p.m., it became available around 1:30 p.m. and landed at the powerhouse at Calderwood Dam.

Rural/Metro Ambulance personnel transported the man to Lifestar, and he was loaded for transport to the University of Tennessee Medical Center.

Four paramedics from the Blount County Rescue Squad also responded to the Dragon and assisted in bringing the man to the top of the embankment to be loaded into the ambulance, said Lt. Lee Berkley of the rescue squad.

Trooper Phil Little was called out to another motorcycle wreck on Calderwood Highway near the intersection of Old Niles Ferry Road just after 4:30 p.m.

The motorcyclist -- Frankie T. Myers, 24, of Mimosa Circle in Maryville -- was apparently driving his Honda 926 motorcycle north on Calderwood Highway towards Maryville when he struck a guard rail while negotiating a curve. After he fell off the motorcycle into the grass under the guard rail on the right side of the roadway, his motorcycle flew across the road, Little said.

Gasoline spilled across the roadway, and the handlebars and front wheel came off the motorcycle.

"Speed was probably a factor,'' Little said of the cause of the accident.

LifeStar was landed in a field next to a house under construction near the wreck site. Myers was taken to the University of Tennessee Medical Center.

He was listed in stable condition Sunday evening.

Deputies from the Blount County Sheriff's Office and Blount County firefighters assisted Rural/Metro and THP in both accidents.


"The Dragon" Continues to Take Victims
Dangerous Curves on U.S. 129
August 19, 2002

By BRENNAN ROBISON
6 News Reporter

BLOUNT COUNTY (WATE) -- Two more victims felt the bite of The Dragon Sunday and are in the hospital. They wrecked their motorcycles while driving a stretch of U.S. 129 in the mountains of southern Blount County.

The highway motorcyclists call The Dragon snakes around Great Smoky Mountain National Park to the North Carolina line. Now that the highway's been ranked in a nationwide biker survey, some worry it's going to get worse before it gets better.

It's been another dangerous summer for the highway that features 318 curves in eleven miles with zero side streets. Thrill-seekers love it, but nearly two dozen cyclists have had serious wrecks this summer. Two died.

Memorials to these riders have been placed as sad reminders, but they haven't been a deterrent to cyclists like Rodney Pettit, who came from Wisconsin just to slay The Dragon.

"Driver beware, you know?" Pettit said. "You get bit by The Dragon, you get bit by a curve."

"Whoops," he added nonchalantly.

The state has tried to make The Dragon safer with more patrols. Fifteen drag-racing citations were issued in a crackdown two months ago.

Dragon Facts:
Five bikers are known to have died on U.S. 129 between 1995 and 2001.
Two bikers have died so far in 2002.
Bikers first started promoting U.S. 129 as a tourist attraction exactly 10 years ago next month.
The next year, Tennessee lowered the speed limit to 40 miles an hour.

The speed limit has also been lowered by 10 miles an hour. Officially, it is now 30 miles an hour, but bikers don't seem to be paying mind to it.

"I wouldn't be coming up here if it was only 30 miles an hour," Pettit said. "Guess you can't have enough patrolmen covering the place."

At the Deal's Gap Motorcycle Resort, which features a board covered with snapshots of people who got bit, bikers say cracking down on everyone isn't the answer.

Linda Aughenbaugh from Ohio, who took up motorcycling three-and-a-half months ago, plans to take it easy. But she figures others won't.

"If they're doing something that's going to hurt somebody, then, yeah, they should do something," Aughenbaugh said. "If they're just out to hurt themselves, let 'em go."

The bikers 6 News spoke with worry about the stepped up patrols and they worry even more about the prospect of the state banning bikes on the highway entirely. THP doesn't know what to do, officers say, and they're taking suggestions.

One of the bikers injured over the weekend is stable at UT Medical Center. THP has not released the name of the other.

Motorcyclist dies on "Dragon"
2002-08-05
by Erin Hudson of The Daily Times Staff

A Florida man was killed Sunday afternoon on Calderwood Highway when he lost control of his motorcycle and plunged down an embankment.

Lendry R. Obanna Jr., 24, of Jacksonville, Fla., was driving his 2000 Yamaha R6 on north Calderwood Highway near Parson Branch Road around 12:30 p.m. Sunday. He apparently lost control while negotiating a curve approximately three miles north of the North Carolina line, Tennessee Highway Patrol State Trooper Phil Little said.

The motorcycle left the roadway and went down a 50-foot embankment. Obanna was hurled into a tree, Little said.

Obanna was wearing a helmet, but suffered severe internal injuries in the crash.

According to Eric Overton with the Blount County Rescue Squad, three paramedics from the squad attempted to revive Obanna, who had been pulled up the embankment to the roadway by other motorcyclists.

"`Unfortunately, our guys arrived too late to do anything for him,'" Overton said.

Rural/Metro Ambulance Service personnel, Blount County firefighters and Blount County Sheriff's deputies assisted the Tennessee Highway Patrol at the accident scene.

Obanna's accident marks the second motorcycle fatality on the Dragon in 2002.

The Dragon is the stretch of U.S. 129/Calderwood Highway from Tabcat Bridge to Deal's Gap at the Tennessee/North Carolina line. The stretch is famous to motorcyclists for its 318 curves in 11 miles.

Obanna's death is the 12th vehicular fatality in Blount County in 2002.

Poll ranks 'The Dragon' No. 1
2002-07-28
by Cliff Hightower of The Daily Times Staff

Eliot Finn, 28, of Orlando, Fla., loves curves. He loves laying on the throttle when his Kawasaki sports bike is halfway around a curve and so low his knee almost drags the ground. And he rode all the way from Florida to Blount County just to experience it. "I've come up here just for this,'' Finn said. "Just for this little hill here. We've come to slay "The Dragon.'''

Buell Motorcycles, an American Motorcycle Co., recently conducted a poll on its Web site, Buell.com. The poll, which lasted for six months, asked riders to name their favorite stretch of curvy highway in the United States. Deal's Gap on U.S. Highway 129, known locally as The Dragon, was rated No. 1 by motorcycle riders. "It was the runaway winner,'' said Paul James, communications manager for Buell Motorcycles. "Not just locally; we had votes for it from all over the U.S. There wasn't anyone even close.''

James rode The Dragon for the first time a few months ago. The Milwaukee, Wis., resident said The Dragon was a "must-see'' trip for him and his companions on their ride to Atlanta. "It was amazing,'' James said. "It was all I thought it would be. It's almost like a legendary place. Almost mythical. People aspire to ride there.''

Ron Johnson, owner of the Web site TailoftheDragon.com, agreed. He's helped promote the "myth'' of The Dragon on his Web page and sells T-shirts and other souvenirs over the Internet. Johnson said there are 318 curves packed into an 11-mile stretch. For a motorcycle rider, like Finn, this is a dream come true. "There's nowhere to ride in Florida,'' he said. "We come up here, and it's got all we've ever wanted.''

Johnson said two things attract people to The Dragon. One: lots of curves. Two: no driveways or intersecting roads where vehicles pull out in front of riders. The main attraction, though, is the curves. "There are no two alike,'' Johnson said. "And another thing, is it's relatively flat. You're not constantly going up and down mountains.''

He also agrees that it is the best ride in America. "There's no place even close,'' he said. Word is getting around. More and more motorcycle riders are riding The Dragon's curves -- and not just motorcyclists, so are car clubs. This weekend, a Miata rally is being held in Robbinsville, N.C., and the prime attraction is The Dragon.

Johnson said Ferrari owners held a rally last year to give drivers of that famous Italian sports car line to ride the two-lane connector that links Tennessee and North Carolina.

For the past several years, the "Honda Hoot'' has been held in Knoxville or Asheville, N.C., and one of the prime tours is through The Dragon.

"The money these people are bringing into Blount County is phenomenal,'' Johnson said. "Most of these people, at least half, are going into Blount County and spending their money. They have to buy gas, food. ... It's phenomenal.''

But there are some drawbacks. In the last 18 months there have been three fatal wrecks and more than 80 accidents, Capt. Lester Jackson, of the Tennessee Highway Patrol, said. "It's a high-accident area for sure,'' Jackson said. The Tennessee trooper said THP patrols the road and tries to make it as safe as possible. "It continues to be a destination place for the motorcycling world,'' he said.

Capt. Jim Long, of the Blount County Sheriff's Office, said he believes there is no way to significantly reduce the number of accidents except to re-engineer the road and make it straighter. "It's always been a problem for us,'' Long said. The sheriff's office patrols Calderwood Highway to the state line and has roadblocks on occasion to try to make it safer, but it is difficult to slow down a motorcyclist determined to speed, according to Long. "If that individual doesn't want to stop,'' Long said. "We aren't going to catch them.''

Johnson said, for the most part, bikers know how to handle the road. There are just a few "bad apples.'' "There's a bad element, no matter what you drive. You see it in people who drive cars and trucks too, not just motorcycles. You see it everywhere.''

Johnson maintained the road is actually safe when driven with reasonable caution. He said there are probably more accidents and fatal wrecks on stretches of interstate and other heavily traveled roads. "I know nobody in a car who's ever been killed up here,'' he said. "Most of the people killed end up killing themselves. We don't encourage bad driving. We just encourage people to have fun within the laws.''

Finn, the motorcycle rider from Florida, agreed. He has been coming to The Dragon two times a year for the past three years. He and his friends have never encountered any problems while riding Deal's Gap. "People are courteous,'' he said. "We've had no problems. No problems at all.'' Finn, who has been riding since he was 8 years old, said he could find no better place to come and ride. "That's probably why I don't go anywhere else,'' he said. "Why settle for second best?''

Motorcyclist critical after accident on `The Dragon'
2002-06-17
by Erin Hudson of The Daily Times Staff

A Michigan man was critically injured Sunday afternoon in a motorcycle accident on Calderwood Highway.

Dale E. Bentley, 29, of Hudsonville, Mich. was driving his 1999 Honda Valkyrie south on the highway when he attempted to pass a car on a double yellow line at 5:35 p.m. Sunday about five miles north of the North Carolina line, Tennessee Highway Patrol Trooper Ron McDonald said. While Bentley was in the oncoming lane of traffic, another car came along, and Bentley's motorcycle hit the pavement sideways.

McDonald said the accident happened around the 6-mile marker on the highway.

According to radio traffic on the police scanner, Bentley was wearing a helmet, but sustained severe trauma to his head.

Bentley was transported to Deals Gap by Rural/Metro Ambulance Service, where LifeStar landed to transport him to the University of Tennessee Medical Center, McDonald said.

Bentley was unresponsive to treatment in the emergency room, McDonald said.

``It doesn't look too good,'' he said.

Deputies from the Blount County Sheriff's Office and firefighters from the Blount County Fire Department assisted Rural/Metro personnel.

Bentley crashed his motorcycle on the 11-mile stretch of highway known as ``The Dragon,'' popular among motorcycle enthusiasts.

DALE BENTLY DIED ON JUNE 16, 2002

Rockford drops police force 2002-06-06
by Erin Hudson of The Daily Times Staff

After 30 years of operation, the Rockford Police Department no longer exists.

Dalton opened the called meeting Wednesday of the City Commission by saying the decision to meet came after she discovered the other two commissioners planned to do away with the police department at tonight's monthly meeting without offering a severance package to the department's employees.

``I think that it is a terrible thing to do to dedicated people,'' Dalton said.

Rollie Swafford will be sworn in as a commissioner at tonight's regularly scheduled meeting. He will replace longtime Commissioner Patsy Dalton. Swafford won his seat as commissioner in the May 7 election.

Commissioner Steve Simon, who was re-elected, also will be sworn in tonight.

After the motion passed unanimously to abolish the police department, Rockford Mayor Gail Dalton proposed a severance package for the four employees who were essentially unemployed Wednesday. The employees are Police Chief Robert Simerly, Johnson, Officer Bill Allen and dispatcher Jennifer Dalton, the mayor's daughter.

All four will be given six months pay and six months of health and dental coverage in their severance package. That motion passed with Patsy Dalton and Gail Dalton's votes. Simon did not vote.

Mayor Dalton said she understood that Simon and Swafford planned to do away with the police department tonight.

Simon said he questioned whether $250,000 of the city's $400,000 annual budget was an acceptable expense for a part-time police department when the Blount County Sheriff's Office offers patrol coverage in the city.

The mayor disagreed.

``How can I look at the citizens of Rockford and say their safety is not worth $250,000?'' Dalton said. ``I don't feel safe with the Blount County Sheriff's Office. We have been blackballed by the Blount County Sheriff's Office and the 911 Center. We were standing alone, and that was something to be proud of.''

The police department has faced an uphill battle since Blount County Sheriff James L. Berrong canceled the mutual aid agreement between the Rockford Police Department and Sheriff's Office. The city also lost use of the county's radio frequency.

The sheriff's decision came after he and the county were named as co-defendants in a wrongful death lawsuit alleging that Rockford Sgt. James ``JR'' Johnson was responsible for the motorcycle death of Philip Laton of Knoxville on March 10, 2001.

A Blount County Grand Jury indicted Johnson on a vehicular homicide charge in August 2001. He has remained on paid administrative leave since the investigation into the accident began.

At the end of July 2001, the Rockford Police Department opened its own communications center with one full-time dispatcher and two part-time dispatchers.

Six months severance

Gail Dalton said it will be difficult for all four to get employment in the law enforcement field in Blount County due to the media coverage of the events in the city.

Prior to the severance package vote, Simon questioned whether the checks should be given to the employees until each returns city-owned equipment that he or she was using. This would include keys and computer codes.

Simerly said he took offense that Simon may infer the police chief would take anything owned by the city. He threw his keys at Simon during the meeting.

``I have worked hard for this city,'' Simerly said. ``I would not take anything that does not belong to me.''

K-9 stays with Johnsons

Once the severance package was approved, Dalton turned the attention to the K-9 Officer ``Bosco.'' The city purchased the dog and assigned him to Johnson.

Although Bosco has not been in service for over a year, he has been living at the Johnson residence, Dalton said.

Dalton suggested that Bosco remain with the Johnsons since he has bonded with them. The Johnsons have sheltered and fed him as well.

``It would be detrimental to the dog to remove him from his trainer,'' Dalton said.

Simon questioned whether it was safe for a police-trained dog to be owned by a private citizen, and suggested Bosco be sold to a police officer.

Jennifer Dalton mentioned that when K-9 dogs are retired from police service, they usually remain with the police officer they accompanied.

JR Johnson's wife, Christy, was present at the meeting and told the commission Bosco would be well taken care of in their home and was one of the family.

Patsy Dalton and Gail Dalton voted that Bosco remain with the Johnsons. Again, Simon did not vote.

30-year history

The police department has been in existence since Rockford became a city in 1972, Gail Dalton said.

``I do not want to abolish this police department,'' Dalton said. ``It is going against everything I believe in.''

Simerly said since the police department has been in operation under their own communications center, he and Allen have been doing mostly community policing.

Simerly has been a law enforcement officer in the county for nearly 12 years and was the chief at Rockford for 27 months, he said.

``It's been a long time coming,'' Simerly said following the meeting regarding the disbanding of the department. ``This city has had a police department for 30 years, and it's coming to an end.''

The Rockford City Commission will hold its regular monthly meeting at 7 p.m. today at the town hall.

Motorcycle crashes bring Lifestar, THP to `The Dragon'
May 19, 2002
by Anna C. Irwin of The Daily Times Staff

Several people were injured in separate accidents Friday on a section of Calderwood Highway known by motorcycle enthusiasts as ``The Dragon.''

Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers were on the 11-mile section of highway between Tabcat Creek and the North Carolina line to investigate three separate motorcycle crashes.

Lifestar medical helicopter ferried four injured motorcyclists from the area to University of Tennessee Medical Center for treatment.

The section of highway called ``The Dragon'' is a favorite destination for motorcycle riders with 318 curves on the two-lane road to challenge their skills.

Trooper Danny Thomas investigated a crash at 12:30 p.m. Friday at the 6-mile marker involving Daniel E. Porgess of Fall River, Md. riding a 1999 Honda BTR 1000 down the mountain toward Chilhowee Lake and Lee F. Weiler of Allentown, Pa., riding a 2001 Suzuki the opposite direction.

At about the same time Friday, North Carolina troopers were investigating an accident in Graham County involving two motorcycles hit head-on by a car. The report from North Carolina was not available, so few details of the accident are known.

Lifestar medical helicopter was requested to take the victims from the North Carolina crash to UT Medical Center.

According to the Tennessee trooper's report, Lifestar picked up the two victims in North Carolina, then stopped on the Tennessee side of the mountain to pick up Weiler. However, there is no record of the 41-year-old man being a patient at UT Medical Center.

At 2 p.m., Thomas was called back to the mountainside for a single-vehicle accident at the 7-mile marker. A 1999 Honda 900 RR was traveling up the mountain when Jeremy S. Walsh of Blowing Rock, N.C., lost control on a curve and went off the road.

The trooper's report said Walsh, 20, was taken to an area hospital by private vehicle but no record of treatment was found at Blount Memorial or UT hospitals.

Trooper Ron McDonald was dispatched to the 1-mile marker near the North Carolina line at 5:40 p.m. for another single-vehicle motorcycle accident.

Calvin Stripling of Northport, Ala., started down the mountain with his girlfriend on the back of his 2002 Harley-Davidson. The young woman suffered only minor injuries, according to McDonald's report, but Stripling was more seriously hurt.

Lifestar was flying a patient to UT Medical Center from Morgan County when the medical helicopter was requested to transport Stripling.

The 54-year-old man started his trip to the hospital with Rural/Metro Ambulance Service. As the ambulance traveled around the tight curves down the mountain, radio contact was made with Lifestar to arrange a pick up somewhere along the route to the hospital.

The patient from Morgan County was quickly unloaded at UT Medical Center, and the helicopter took off immediately to pick up the injured motorcyclist.

Meanwhile, Blount County deputies and Blount County Firefighters set up a landing zone at Fire Station 5 in Walland, while the ambulance traveled Foothills Parkway from Calderwood Highway to East Lamar Alexander Parkway.

The ambulance and helicopter met in Walland, then Stripling was flown the rest of the way to the hospital, where he was listed in stable condition Saturday.

McDonald said the activity Friday not especially unusual considering the heavy motorcycle traffic this time of year. He urged motorists to exercise caution when traveling on the narrow section of roadway so popular with motorcycle riders
.

WNC has its own dragon: U.S. 129
May 17, 2002 12:07 a.m.
by Geoffrey Cantrell of the Asheville Citizen Times

The twists and turns of U.S. 129 in the southwestern corner of the Smokies carry a nickname among those riders of sleek, powerful sports motorcycles: The Tail of the Dragon.

The nickname comes from featured artwork on T-shirts showing the road opposite Cheoah and Calderwood lakes, creating the image of a snarling Oriental dragon. It's rather fitting.

This section of highway out from Tapoco and into eastern Tennessee has a notoriety that belies its scenic side, a reputation built on the seductive thrill of its curves.

You see, U.S. 129 is well known as a driving and riding challenge, with 318 curves in 11 miles.

The road's fame is built upon an already storied history of bushwhackers and bootleggers and an Indian warpath. There is even a Web site devoted to it, something I don't think too many pieces of pavement can claim.

Not bad for a route that pretty much follows the contours carved into the mountainsides by migrating buffalo.

Now I'm pretty familiar with U.S. 129 through Deal's Gap. I've driven, ridden and even walked U.S. 129 for more years than I care to think about.

So hearing that this remote road is the destination for Ferraris and Miatas and used as a photo opp for leaning Ducatis, is at once bewildering and intriguing.

I asked Ron Johnson, who maintains www.tailofthedragon.com, what makes the road so special.

"The road is unique because of the number of curves, the variety of curves, the absence of dangers such as driveways and intersections, the variety of people who come here - bikers of all types, sports car drivers, bicyclists," Johnson says. "And there are attractions of the surrounding area. The road has a national reputation and many foreigners are now coming to ride. We have had small rallies for everything from Ferraris to Vespas."

Some of the folks attracted here are secretive, loose-knit groups who challenge the road in clandestine duels of man and machine vs. time.

Then there are the law enforcement officers who try to rein in speeders and the emergency medical services who pull broken bodies from crashes.

Graham County Sheriff Steve Odom tells me while Johnson stresses safe, responsible riding, not everyone abides by the law or common sense.

"As summer progresses we'll have more and more trouble with bike racing," Odom says. "We investigate incidents of passing in curves, racing, cars forced from the road. We work the road and stay active, trying to be as preventive as possible. But still, fast riding goes on. We had two fatalities last year."

As for me, it's still the familiar way to fishing spots with little danger of my trusty pickup doing much more than rattling along.


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