“He revved it up and flames shot out of the pipes. It was so loud, I had to hold my ears,” Hardin smiled. “From then on, I was hooked.”
A technician at Smoky Mountain Steel Horses in Waynesville, Hardin was raised in Indiana. After high school, he entered mechanic school and soon owned his first Harley, which was a 1994 Heritage Softail. Working in Indiana, he was eventually contacted by an old friend who owned Ghost Town Harley-Davidson, a motorcycle shop in Western North Carolina. He wanted Hardin to work for him. Having never been to the area previously, Hardin was in for a beautiful surprise when he first rode into the mountains.
“It was great, especially coming from Indiana where everything is flat and straight,” he said. “The scenery, the weather, the roads here, I like it all.”
Trading in the cornfields of the Midwest for 6,000-foot mountain roads and innumerable winding S-curves, Hardin found himself riding around one of the most beloved motorcycle regions anywhere.
SEE ALSO: Four rides for two wheels
“I really enjoy riding when my family comes down and I get to take them for a ride through the area,” he said. “It’s the off-the-beaten-path routes I do, whether it be heading up to Hot Springs or down to Brevard, it’s all here.”
Ghost Town Harley-Davidson then changed hands and became Smoky Mountain Steel Horses. Owned by Phil Ferguson Jr., the business specializes in selling pre-owned Harley-Davidson motorcycles. In addition to sales, the shop offers a full service department for repairs and maintenance, which includes tune-ups, flat repairs, accessory installation and customization. Helmets, leathers and appeal are also available.
“I always wanted to own my own motorcycle shop. It’s a whole lot more work than I anticipated,” Ferguson said. “But, it’s paying off and we’re providing a service that is needed in this area.”
A Haywood County native, Ferguson, like many enthusiasts, became infatuated with motorcycles from first sight. He came from a riding family and was three years old when he came across a bike.
“I was just fascinated by the sound, I knew I had to have one,” he said.
What started as trail and dirt riding around Southern Appalachia soon transformed into a passion for exploring and experiencing all of the back roads and picturesque landscape of his homeland.
“We’ve got the best riding in the country, by far. The best way to describe it would be mesmerizing because of the scenery and the kind of roads we have,” he said. “You go to the northeast, you have scenery but rough roads; you go west and you have scenery in spots, and you’ve got to go through hot spots to get somewhere. Our roads and climate are perfect for riding.”
Ferguson knows there’s a stigma out there about motorcycle clubs, but wants to make clear to those curious about riding about how embracing and friendly the motorcycle scene actually is.
“None of us are in a biker gang,” he chuckled. “You never get to see all the good things we are about. The people are really friendly and everybody helps each other out.”
“Everywhere you go, somebody is always talking about motorcycles,” Hardin added. “It’s just a thing that everyone wants to be part of it, no matter what brand you ride, how old or new the bike is.”
For those interested in wanting to learn to ride and purchase their first motorcycle, Hardin suggests to start easy by taking the appropriate instructional courses. Once you feel set in your abilities, look for a bike that is properly centered, something to straddle and handle with ease.
“Start out with something comfortable,” he said. “Get used to the weight of it first before you go out and choose to buy the bike you want.”
This summer, Smoky Mountain Steel Horses will be aiming to offer personalized tours. Ferguson and his assistants will be taking groups of up to a dozen riders through the Great Smokies.
“We’re going to designate a day a week just to let people come here and get ready to ride,” he said.
But, with all these riding options comes a hefty amount of respect to the road. Though beautiful and inviting, Hardin reminds riders how dangerous mountain routes can be in bad weather or even on a sunny day if someone isn’t paying attention.
“It can definitely be dangerous with the sharp corners,” he said. “Always be aware of oncoming traffic, wet leaves or how the road can be after it rains.”
Ferguson recommends U.S. 276 from Waynesville to Brevard, N.C. 215 and, of course, the infamous Tail of the Dragon at Deals Gap – an 11-mile road with an astounding 318 curves.
“Motorcycles are a good way to bond and it gives you something to do,” he said. “You get somebody into it and they enjoy, get a crowd together and you can go places and do great things.”