Land Line Magazine ~ Beware the Dragon
Truckers who travel this‘ Highway from Hell’ straddling the Smoky Mountains vow never to return
by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor, Land Line Magazine
Brad Bush remembers the strange looks he got from other drivers as he turned his rig onto the road — and he remembers the close call with an oncoming Winnebago.
Philip Guzzetta remembers being so close to roadside rock cliffs that he thought his trailer was shaving mountainsides.
Bill Forshey remembers the sight of speeding Miatas coming out of nowhere, straight at the oncoming traffic.
Brian True remembers the motorcyclists waving to get him to turn back. And he remembers the less polite hand signals when they realized he wasn’t going to.
For safety’s sake, Ron and Nancy Johnson often run through it, escorting wayward trucks, most of whom decide never to return.
Experienced truckers know to avoid it. Carriers warn against driving it, but some truckers, inexplicably, still try.
It is U.S. Highway 129, but at the stretch that crosses the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, it carries a name that describes the havoc it wreaks on unwary drivers — the Tail of the Dragon.
The Dragon twists drivers through more than 300 turns in a little more than 11 miles along mountain cliffs and astounding scenery.
Serving mainly as a playground for motorcycles and sports cars, the highway is home to numerous accidents each year. And more than a few truckers have found their rigs high-centered, off the road, tipped over or in any of a number of other predicaments because they grabbed the Dragon by the tail.
‘Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea’
The highway’s numerous curves and bad reputation have prompted many in the industry to warn drivers away. But nonetheless, every now and then, someone gets caught in the Dragon’s clutches.
“Most of the drivers get on the Dragon not knowing how twisty the road is, and they wished they had taken a different route,” said Ron Johnson, a motorcycle enthusiast and retired firefighter who lives nearby. “Probably 95 percent of the truckers that end up on this road wish they hadn’t.”
Brian True and Joe Whiddon are among them. True, of Chillicothe, OH, was driving a truck for C.R. England, following fellow trucker Whiddon through the area in the fall of 2002. The two were going to stop by Whiddon’s house in Athens, GA, before heading to their destination in Florida, and were seeking a shortcut. Looking on a map, they found U.S. 129.
At first, everything seemed fine. The two drivers ignored the only sign warning of the dangers, assuming it referred to another road. They had their first hint of what was ahead when they passed a group of oncoming motorcyclists.
“We saw all these street bikes coming toward us,” he said. “They were flashing their lights and waving their hands.” The hand signals turned to “single-finger salutes” when it became clear the trucks intended to continue.
The two truckdrivers weren’t sure why the bikers were signaling. Soon, it became clear.
“The first turn, we realized,” True said. “It started getting pretty narrow down through there. We started thinking maybe it wasn’t such a good idea.
“It was too late to turn back then.”
Twice, street bikes flying down the highway came straight at True’s rig as he carefully guided it forward.
“They came flying around the corner and just about got the front of my truck,” he said. “There are a couple of corners where your right side tires on your trailer tandem were running over the edge, not even riding on the ground at all.”
When the two drivers went through the “Gravity Cavity,” their landing gear tore into the road’s surface.
“It was hairy,” True said.
But he and his truck, along with Whiddon, made it through unscathed, in part because of Ron and Nancy Johnson. The couple, who live in nearby Robbinsville, NC, guided the pair through the second half of Deal’s Gap, warning cars ahead to get out of the way.
The downside to the ‘scenic route’
Like True and Whiddon, Philip Guzzetta looked at a map and saw what looked like a shortcut. When he started up U.S. 129 back in late 1997, the OOIDA member thought he had discovered a scenic route, as well.
The Alligator Point, FL, resident was between heavy-equipment runs, deadheading through the South with a 48-foot stepdeck.
“The first part was pretty easy, and quite scenic and beautiful,” he said. The Smoky Mountains that surround the Dragon contain some of the most scenic forests in the eastern half of the United States.
But the scenery quickly took a back seat. Guzzetta realized the rest of the highway was pretty, too — pretty like a rattlesnake. He had already encountered some harrowing highways on his trip, but it was along the Dragon’s contortions, he said, he “learned what ‘white knuckle’ really was.”
Like other drivers, he saw little or no warning as he started into the mountains. But as the waters of the Little Tennessee River first came into view below, he ran into a sign designating a lower speed for trucks. The lower limit, he said, clued him in to what was ahead — and his fears were soon confirmed.
“I thought, how can they possibly allow an 18-wheeler on a route like this.”
He soon discovered that even the designated speed was too high for some parts of U.S. 129. The highway was abuzz with speeding cars testing their performance in the mountain gap. And Guzzetta said he couldn’t find a single place among the cliffs, drop-offs and tight turns where he could turn his big rig around to go back and find an alternate route.
“I had four-wheelers stacking up on my butt till I could find spots to pull over and let them carry out their death wishes,” Guzzetta said. “It didn’t take much before I realized probably most people who are more familiar with that part of the country know well enough to take a longer route.”
Since his encounter, Guzzetta has stayed clear of the Dragon’s deadly turns. But he did learn a lesson: “Just because it’s designated a U.S. highway doesn’t mean you won’t find it worse than a cow path.”
One man’s heaven is another man’s hell … and vice versa
But not all truckers fear the Dragon. OOIDA member Bill Forshey first discovered the road not as a trucker, but as a biker.
Occasionally, the Sioux Falls, SD, trucker brings his motorcycle on his rig as he travels. On a trip through the area a couple of years ago, he took a break at a truckstop in Knoxville. When he visited a local bike shop, the owners told him to try a trip on the Dragon.
The highway left an immediate impression on him.
“That’s not something you go through in a truck,” Forshey said. “This is one road that to get around a curve, you will have to be looking at dead air over your hood to keep the trailer from the cliff. Then, about the time you are using both lanes to negotiate the curve, a Mazda Miata flies off into space coming at you.”
But a year later, Forshey and his wife returned, this time with his “big bike.”
On one visit, Forshey was sitting at a resort on one end of the road when a truck turned to head into Deal’s Gap. Instead of starting his run as planned, the South Dakotan said he sat back and said, “Ummmm, I’m going to have another cup of cappuccino.”
Later, when Forshey did head down the road, the signs of the truck’s passage were obvious.
“You could see right where he was dragging gravel all over everything,” he said.
The legend is likely to live on
It is unlikely that either North Carolina or Tennessee will ever straighten out U.S. 129 through Deal’s Gap. Although the road and the region have been quiet backwaters for most of their history, the road has brought the region newfound popularity and its one solid economic bet — tourism.
Ron Johnson says that the crowds of motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts give a much-needed boost to local businesses. In an area surrounded by mountains and national forests, there are few other opportunities for economic development.
But expense, rather than income, may be the deciding factor in keeping the road as it is. Tennessee officials say the cost of making any significant change to U.S. 129 would be prohibitive.
“In order to improve the road’s twisting nature, the existing road would need to be closed with a road, on new location, designed and constructed,” Luanne Grandinetti, director of public affairs at TNDOT, wrote to Land Line. “The low traffic volume on this route and the probable environmental impacts on the area do not justify the need for the project.
“In addition, current state government financial constraints and the heavy construction costs makes this impractical,” she added.
The state has spent some money on the road, including more than a half million to resurface the twisting 11-mile section through the mountains. TNDOT also added the warning sign on the Tennessee side and plans to discuss some kind of warning on the North Carolina side with officials from that state.
In addition, Grandinetti said Tennessee has had few complaints about the road, and most of those were not about trucks.
“Those received stem from the motorcycle traffic and the high speeds at which the motorcycles travel,” she said. Most accidents on the road involve motorcycles or automobiles as well, she added. The department responded by lowering the speed limit to 30 mph.
But while the state considers other alternatives, good old-fashioned word of mouth seems to be the best way for truckers to know to avoid the route.
The most important thing for truckers to remember about the Dragon, according to Bill Forshey, is stay away.
“Avoid it at all costs, no matter what,” Forshey said, “unless you’ve got to take a load up in there. That’s the only reason to go up in there. And if it’s only a partial load, try to get it on a little straight truck. It’s not something you want to go up into with a tractor-trailer.”
If a trucker had to deliver a load there, he should “charge a fortune.”
“You’re taking your life, and everyone else’s lives, into your hands,” he said. “You could very easily cause a death up there.” LL Mark Reddig can be reached at [email protected].
The Birth of a Monster
What is now U.S. 129 has been used as a path for travel and trade since before the United States came into being.
A brief history of the highway, found on the Web site operated by motorcyclists Ron and Nancy Johnson, describes how Native Americans once used the road before it became a path for settlers going to Cades Cove from the Parsons Branch Road. The path for the road was likely chosen because it followed Deal’s Gap, a natural break in the mountains between North Carolina and Tennessee.
In 1934, the road was paved the first time and was designated as U.S. 129. Like many early highways, U.S. 129 curves to and fro, following the natural contours of the land like the foot and horse paths that preceded it. It still maintains that character, with more than 300 curves in just over 11 miles.
But from its first paving until the last decade of the 20th century, it was a sleepy road for locals, little known to the outside world.
That all changed when motorcycle enthusiasts discovered the road in the 1990s.
“Each year since then, the number of motorcycles and sports cars has seemingly doubled,” the Johnsons’ Web site reports. “Today, riders and drivers from across the U.S. and Canada come to run the Dragon.”
The road is still remote — it borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on one side, and is mostly surrounded by national forests. The Johnsons note that in 14 miles, only one road — North Carolina Highway 28 — crosses it, and only one building, the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort, also known as the Crossroads of Time, sits along the section through Deal’s Gap.
An escort through the gates of hell
North Carolina couple do what they can to help truckers caught in the Dragon’s clutches
Over the years, Ron and Nancy Johnson have seen plenty of trucks try to tackle the Dragon. And they have seen plenty of drivers who regretted the attempt.
“When we see a truck coming up, they’re usually scared half to death,” he said.
Johnson, a retired Florida firefighter, and his wife, Nancy, a computer network engineer, are both motorcycle enthusiasts who frequently ride the Dragon. The couple, who live in Robbinsville, NC, a quick 20-minute drive from the road, network with and provide information to other bikers through their Web site, www.tailofthedragon.com. They have become intimately familiar with the problems trucks have on the highway over the years, even dedicating part of their Web site to those difficulties.
At one time, truck traffic was frequent on the Dragon, particularly when landslides would close nearby I-40, the main route over the mountains. The interstate can close for weeks after a slide. When that happens, Johnson said, U.S. 129 through Deal’s Gap fills quickly with drivers unfamiliar with its dangers.
Particularly noticeable in recent years were a large number of Swift Transportation trucks, which apparently used it as a shortcut.
“We did have trouble for a long time with Swift,” he said. “They had trucks coming over three or four a day.”
Few of them had any idea what they were getting into.
“Most of the Swift truckdrivers we met had two or three weeks on the job,” he said. “They were all brand new drivers.”
About a year and a half ago, one of the company’s trucks hung up on a tight corner and nearly tipped over. After that, Johnson said, the flow of Swift trucks through the area dropped off noticeably.
“Evidently, Swift’s got the word out.”
But that has not ended the problems that truckers have on the road. Johnson said he has seen perhaps a half dozen accidents involving trucks each year. Thankfully, few have been serious.
“So far, we’ve been lucky, because it’s usually at fairly slow speeds that people meet,” he said.
But accidents continue to occur. Johnson has several pictures of serious collisions on his Web site — one of two motorcycles under a flatbed and one of a car under a trailer.
He particularly remembers one where a truck traveling through a section known as “the Gravity Cavity” — a deep drop followed by a high hump —came out of the well and rode onto the hump at an odd angle. The rig became high-centered on the hump of blacktop, lost all traction on its rear wheels and was unable to move.
In part, Johnson said, the problem stems from a lack of information. For most of its history, the highway was not posted to let truckers know how dangerous it is. Even now, there is only one sign at the Tennessee end of U.S. 129 where it enters Deal’s Gap.
“I don’t know why the road is not posted better to help the truckers stay off of it,” he said. “Tennessee and North Carolina — they both have signs posted on other roads to warn truckers about hairpin corners and everything else.
“The only warnings (about the Dragon) are if other truckers tell them about it or they hear about it by word of mouth,” he said. “There’s no warning on maps that they use.”
Another problem, he said, is that U.S. 129 is so curvy that the big rigs have to use both lanes to make some of the turns. Since many of those turns are blind, that creates a hazard for both the truck and oncoming traffic.
“They cannot drive the road legally and stay in their lane — no way,” he said.
The Johnsons try to help when they can. They have escorted many truckdrivers through the road’s twisted confines.
“We stop and tell them, then try to get around them and get our motorcycles in front of them,” Ron Johnson said. “We just go about a quarter mile ahead of them and wave everybody that’s coming at us to a stop. That way the truck following us can maneuver through the corners using both lanes and make it without jeopardizing anything.
“A lot of bikers do that — they try to help the truckers whenever they can.”
Brian True and Joe Whiddon were two truckers who made it through the Dragon thanks to the Johnsons.
It was during a particularly difficult run through Deal’s Gap that the two truckers and their rigs encountered the Johnsons. The road was full of motorcycles that day — True said so many bikers were filling the road it looked like they were having a race — and after one of the turns, sitting beside the road, he saw Ron and Nancy taking a break.
“About halfway through, they were taking a break … they asked if we wanted them to escort us down the side of the mountain.”
As they had before, the Johnsons pulled in front of the two trucks, warning other vehicles off the road or getting them to wait so the trucks could use both lanes for the big turns.
Johnson has one simple piece of advice for truckers regarding the Dragon: “Stay away.”
“I’m not saying that against the truckers,” he said. “I wish there were other ways around. It is kind of in a spot where it is a long way between I-40 and 64, which are the two other routes.
“We just want to get warning out to them that they really should try to find another way. It’s in their own best interest. … After talking to the truckers, nine out of 10 say ‘I wish I hadn’t come this way.’”
A first-hand look into the Dragon’s lair
Bits of yellow police tape mark spots where vehicles have gone over the side.
Long before you enter the section of U.S. 129 known as the Tail of the Dragon, it’s fairly obvious to any driver that you’ve made a mistake coming this way.
As you enter the Chilhowee Mountains, fog drifts up from the trees, and two 90-degree turns, both marked at 20 mph, make it clear that this is no simple short cut through the mountains. Even in a four-wheeler, carefully driven, a speed of 45 mph is difficult to maintain, sometimes causing frayed nerves as the highway slinks up against cliffs and drop-offs.
The Dragon itself has no crossroads or places to turn around, but even long before you get there, there are few places where a big rig would have sufficient space to turn back.
The scenery is incredible. The roadside is peppered with redbud trees, pine and deciduous trees that back up right against it. On a rainy day, the road’s frequent turns reveal fog-covered mountains jutting up from above Chilhowee Lake.
Early on, most of the limbs are low enough that the top of a big rig would be scraped clean. Even some power lines are low enough that a semi would barely fit beneath them.
A series of signs showing multiple curves pepper the road as you enter Pumpkin Center, a small town near one of the last available alternate routes.
Sometimes, the rocks at the side of the highway come out so far that they nearly poke into the traffic lane. The road seems to hug a brief shelf between the lake, formed by the dammed Little Tennessee River, and the rocks of the ridge above.
U.S. 129 lulls drivers into a false sense of security. As they move forward through an initial series of curves winding into the mountains, the road tends to get a little straighter as you approach the Chilhowee Dam. That kind of easy going continues as you pass the dam into an adjacent wildlife area.
Just before you enter the Dragon, there are a significant number of pull-offs along U.S. 129, mostly gravel lots along the lake. Most have room for a few four-wheelers, with no additional space, but only a few have enough room for a semi.
On a Saturday morning very little traffic uses the Dragon. Once every five to 10 minutes, one will pass by.
Shortly before you reach the mountainous portion of the road, a sign along a straight stretch warns you to reduce your speed. That is shortly followed, just before Abrams Creek, by a larger sign that says “Warning to Trucks: Switchback Curves Ahead Consider Alt. Route.” After trucks reach that sign, only one turnoff remains.
Shortly after the final turnoff, the road passes out of the Chilhowee Mountains, crosses Tabcat Creek, and takes a sudden turn south, pulling away from the Little Tennessee River. It then passes into the Smoky Mountains, and into the Tail of the Dragon.
Soon, a small sign containing a snake-like wriggling arrow warns of what’s ahead.
The land at the side of the road immediately drops off as U.S. 129 climbs into the mountains, not even leaving enough room for a small car to pull off safely. Occasionally, pull-offs appear, giving a brief hope that a trucker could turn around. But none from this point on are large enough.
The Whip, one of the major turns, comes at the 1 mile marker. Bits of yellow police tape mark spots where vehicles have gone over the side. Near one, several tires lie abandoned in the hollow below.
At the 1.8 mile marker, drivers head up an incline next to a bluff, offering a view to the right of the Little Tennessee, now far below.
When you reach the Overlook at 2 1/2 miles, which offers a view of the Calderwood Dam, you immediately become aware why they call them the Smoky Mountains. It rained the day we traveled the road, and massive columns of mist came pouring skyward, up out of the forests that coat the hills, as if the entire woods were ablaze. Especially around the dam, you could see the mist move as it reached toward the clouds an impossibly short distance above.
The curves intensify as you go along. Even small cars find it hard to stay on their side of the centerline as they go forward. The only relief from the constant curves comes in areas such as the Cattail Straights at mile marker 2.6, where, for roughly a quarter mile, the highway does run straight on the bluff.
The Dragon at this point is peppered with small car pull-offs and shiny guard rails — appropriately enough, at Guard-Rail Cliff near the 4 mile marker — looking as if they were newly installed, perhaps to replace ones that were torn out by the actions of less-than-prudent motorists.
At the 4.9 mile marker, a little past Grace’s Esses, a small arrangement of a cross, flags and flowers formed a memorial for a motorcyclist, shown in a picture nailed to the tree above on the right side of the road, an apparent victim of the curves. Below his picture is a POW/MIA flag.
The road passes over a scenic waterfall that runs under Parson’s Curve at 7.2 miles, just where a one-lane, scenic dirt mountain road intersects U.S. 129, dropping its traffic into the curve. Soon after that, the road narrows again, and the foliage and bluff come in closer, obscuring what’s ahead as cars approach the Gravity Cavity.
The marks left at that point by trucks have been obscured by the new pavement added last year, but already at least one truck’s landing gear has left a mark right on the centerline.
Through a series of quick curves and hairpins, the highway finally rises to its highest point, near Deal’s Gap, finally landing at the North Carolina border, which occurs at 11.1 miles past the Tabcat Creek Bridge. Suddenly, instead of purely natural scenery, the highway is littered with state historic markers, border crossing signs and billboards advertising a nearby resort.
Just over the border, more than 11 miles into the Dragon, is the first warning sign noting a steep grade, with a picture of a truck running down a black triangle. As the highway passes over the border, the fresh blacktop gives way to older, less maintained pavement, the neat lines of the freshly painted shoulder giving way to a chipped edge, where pieces of older pavement have fallen away. A slight hump, dropping from newer pavement to old, marks the exact line of the state border.
U.S. 129 then dives quickly into a valley, heading to the end of the Dragon at the intersection known as the Crossroads of Time and the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort nearby.
As we ended our trip down the road, a straight truck sped down the decline into North Carolina, apparently glad to be past the twisted confines of the Tail of the Dragon.