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Off the Beaten Track

The country’s best riding road is tucked away in a National Park.

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Your arms steer and your body follows as the car whips through winding roads, blind crests, and hairpin turns. Your ears perk at the sound of the revving engines hot on your tail. Your eyes look down the road before you, tracing the asphalt as it snakes through dense, uninhabited forest. You’re driving the Tail of the Dragon, an eleven-mile stretch of US 129 with 318 curves that connect Tennessee and North Carolina through the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s totally electrifying.

Throughout history, this road has been a Cherokee cattle trail, a bloody Civil War battlefront, and a lonely road used only by hunters, locals, and lost tourists. Today, the Dragon is the ultimate thrill ride for automotive enthusiasts of all stripes, especially motorcyclists. Most of the road is managed by the National Park Service, and there are no intersections, driveways, or businesses, except for the Tail of the Dragon T-shirt Shack and Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort, which rests on the state line at Deals Gap, the highest point on the trail.

This is where gearheads from all over the world fuel up, hang autographed T-shirts in Dragon’s Den Grill to commemorate their drive, and pay their respects at the Tree of Shame, which is decorated with the scattered remains of motorcycles that never made it through the treacherous journey. Most riders run the course multiple times, and many camp or find lodging in the mountains and do it all again the next day.

The joy of the Dragon is as much about the road as it is about the rides. And on his particular afternoon, everyone is geeking out over the latest motorcycle to pull into the pit stop: the Racer, a highly customized Tennessee-orange Harley Sportster 1200 made by Local Motors, a technology company that manufactures automobiles locally and sustainably to meet the transportation needs of communities like greater Knoxville. Taking it out for a spin is John B. Rogers Jr., co-founder of the company and grandson of the former head of Indian Motorcycle Company.

The bike, which is no longer in production, is a testament to the company’s vision. The design was inspired by Formula One cars from the 1970s and crowd-sourced from a global community of creatives. The intake, an intricate valve that funnels air into the engine, was 3-D printed from recyclable carbon fiber and successfully milled to look indistinguishable from the bike’s steel body. The look and feel (and the crowd it draws) is undeniably local.

"People always ask, what’s a local vehicle? It’s one than can truly let drivers enjoy the road. On The Dragon or the Cherohala Skyway or anywhere in the Smokies, the vehicle that does it best is the motorcycle," says Rodgers. The two-wheeler may be the ultimate totem of American open road mythology. Watching Rogers zoom down the highway through the Appalachian air with the mountains as a backdrop, it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying the road more.

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