A popular road reveals a dark side
An inspiration for songs, poems, and pilgrimages by motorcycle enthusiasts from around the world, the challengingly curvy stretch of U.S. 129 that crosses over from Western North Carolina to Tennessee has become the center of a political dispute between Swain and Graham counties.
This mythical road, known as The Dragon, becomes packed every summer with motorcycles and sports cars that navigate its famous 318 curves in 11 miles. But the road’s ever-increasing popularity has led to a parallel rise in accidents on the Dragon and the North Carolina roads that lead up to it, including the “Tail of the Dragon” and N.C. 28, or “Hellbender.”
Accidents range from minor falls to wrecks off the road that require intensive rescue efforts and airlifts. Further complicating the rescue effort is the isolation of the roads, as well as gaps in cell phone service that make it difficult to call for help.
Graham County has traditionally provided EMS and rescue service to the area, including in Deal’s Gap, a satellite part of Swain County that’s bordered by Graham County and Tennessee. But as the number of calls from the area go up, so do costs for Graham County.
Officials from both counties have met as recently as Monday (Aug. 24) to discuss new arrangements. Graham County has presented three possible courses of action: annexing this estranged portion of Swain County, receiving annual contributions from Swain County to cover expenses, or handing over full responsibility for the area to Swain County.
Meanwhile, Swain County has countered that it transports patients from Graham County at no charge from its hospital in Bryson City to larger facilities in Sylva or Asheville. While the two counties attempt to decide the fate of this 1,900-acre section of Swain County, throngs of riders and drivers continue to flock to the roads there that enjoy legendary status.
The allure of the Dragon
Visitors to the Tail of the Dragon don’t come looking for standard views, according to Ron Johnson, co-owner of the informational Web site TailoftheDragon.com.
“The pavement is beautiful. The scenery is the road itself,” said Johnson, who has been riding the Tail since 1975. “It’s the most unusual road I have seen in my life. It’s out in the middle of nowhere — no intersecting roads, no houses, driveways, businesses. Every corner is different.”
Wayne Busch, owner of Waynesville-based America Rides Maps, said the Tail of the Dragon is well surfaced with nicely banked and cambered turns.
“It’s a very challenging road,” said Busch. “There’s one hairpin turn after another and another.”
Despite the thrills that come with negotiating the Tail, Busch said there are times he avoids the road altogether.
“I don’t go over there on the weekend,” he said. “It’s a zoo.”
According to Johnson, thousands of people have fun traversing the Deal’s Gap area every week. Many of them are passing through en route to the Dragon, especially during the summer and early fall.
There is at least one spot on the Tail where riders can pull over to watch the parade of notable cars and motorcycles, from antiques to “unique cars you’ve never heard of,” said Johnson, who once counted 74 Ferraris on the road in just one day. Vehicles there tend to run the gamut, from million-dollar cars to a rally of beat-up $500 cars passing through on a journey from New York to Louisiana every year.
But according to Busch, who has mapped more than 3,000 miles of road, people who focus only on the Tail are missing out on the “great stuff.”
“It’s really a shame. They don’t realize we have hundreds of hundreds of miles just like it,” Busch said. “That one has the fame and notoriety, and that’s what brings in the draw.”
Busch said those with high-performance machines come to the region to put them to the test, and that’s one possible theory for the rise in accidents.
“The road has been promoted as a challenge, and there are people who go there looking for a challenge,” he said. “They go there with expectations, and they try to go live them out.”
But Brad Talbott, owner of the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort, said the increase in accidents is simply the natural result of more traffic.
Moreover, he said the Tail is relatively safe, compared to other roads.
“For the number of folks we have, we don’t actually have that many accidents,” he said.
Johnson concurred, saying he felt safer riding on the Dragon than he felt on I-40.
“I don’t have to worry about dodging cars,” Johnson said. “I’m doing 30 to 35 mph, not 70.”
In 2008, there were no motorcycle fatalities in Deal’s Gap nor on Graham County’s Cherohala Skyway (N.C. 143), another challenging road that sees heavy traffic from motorcycles. In a sharp upturn, there have been five motorcycle deaths on those roads this year.
Four of the five were on Hellbender, with two falling in the Swain County section and two on the Graham County stretch. The fifth death this year occurred on the Cherohala Skyway.
Terry Slaughter, Graham County’s EMS director, said there is no one type of wreck that is typical.
“Some wreck in the road, some out,” Slaughter said. “Sometimes, you have to have rescue personnel to work up drags, ropes and baskets.”
It usually takes Graham County ambulances about 20 to 30 minutes to get to the accident scene, but it takes witnesses 10 to 15 minutes on top of that to find a phone at a local business to call 911. If Swain County took over EMS and rescue service in Deal’s Gap, it would take 40 to 50 minutes to make the trip from Bryson City.
Over the years, Graham County EMS has responded to motorcyclists suffering everything from minor bumps and bruises to broken necks and heart attacks.
“There’s no coverage with the motorcycle,” said Larry Hembry, interim EMS director in Graham County. “I don’t think you can get your helmet to protect you.”
While speed is an issue on the Skyway, the majority of accidents on Tail of the Dragon and Hellbender are a result of inexperience and inattention, according to Sergeant Chris Wood with N.C. Highway Patrol.
In the past, fatalities in the Deal’s Gap area have resulted from riders not keeping their eyes on the road or pushing too hard on the curves.
“This is a very unforgiving area regarding mistakes,” Johnson said. “You got the mountain on one side and a drop-off on the other.”
Even years of riding on a motorcycle might not be enough preparation for the Tail of the Dragon and Hellbender if a rider isn’t accustomed to the mountainous terrain.
All five killed on Hellbender and the Cherohala Skyway this year came from out of state, Sgt. Wood said.
Talbott agreed that the type of terrain is instrumental to how well a motorcyclist can ride on certain roads. Talbott learned how to ride in Western North Carolina, so he had no trouble handling two-lane curvy roads, but it’s another story with bigger roads.
“Four-lanes scare me to death,” he said.
Talbott said he commends the highway patrol for ramping up efforts to promote safety, like putting up more signs and having conversations with bikers to warn them about dangers on the road. The state has even sent a few of its motorcycle squads to Deal’s Gap on request to create a better rapport between patrol officers and riders.
For Johnson, riding a motorcycle is similar to other risky activities like mountain climbing or hiking, and there is only so much officials can do.
“You can’t make everybody safe,” Johnson said.