6: Tail of the Dragon

    My oil pressure problem had a reemergence. Twice the same symptoms appeared on my way from Georgia to North Carolina. Discouraging as it may be, I'm determined to put a good effort into properly diagnosing it myself before taking it to another KTM dealer. I spent a few hours online familiarizing myself with the other possible causes. I also spoke with Kip, the engineer who designed the stainless steel oil filter, who gave valuable insight as to how his oil filter and the KTM 950 oil system works. I feel I'm moving in the right direction. I don't have a way of measuring oil pressure, which would make things easier, so I have to do this by good old trial and error. I assess what were the most likely causes, then sort the least costly to be checked and serviced first.

    This lead me to the oil pressure relief valve. This valve essentially allows oil to flow back into the oil tank when oil pressure becomes too great. If a weak valve spring is present, this could allow oil to bypass lubricating the engine and pressurizing the cam chain tensioners when under a lower pressure. This could cause both the oil pressure switch to activate and the loose cam chains that I was experiencing. To save from loosing oil when the side cover comes off, my father and I set up a bed in his garage.

Sleeping Beauty (Weaverville, NC 9/28/2010)

    The spring for the valve (red arrow) is secured by a washer and circlip. There is limited space to work, so the correct tools really make a difference. I didn't have these, so I brought one of my father's surgical right angle clamps to his bench grinder and resized it to fit the circlip holes. A hot minute later I had the spring out. The service manual specifies 42mm as the minimum length.

Under the clutch plates is where the relief valve lies (Weaverville, NC 9/28/2010)

Vernier caliper reads 41mm (Weaverville, NC 9/28/2010)

    I'm usually not excited to find worn parts, but this circumstance gave reason to be. I stretched it to 43mm, and with another set of hands guiding the washer and spring, I was able to get the circlip back in place. I torqued up the case, flipped the bike over, reinstalled the stainless steel oil filter, and went for a ride. No more oil pressure light or cam chain noise! Only time will tell if this is was the true fix.

    In the afternoon, my father and I make our way up to the peak of Mt. Mitchel and set up camp for the night. I have many fond childhood memories of hiking and camping with my father throughout the US and the Nova Scotia peninsula, in Canada. Nearly every summer break from grade school we would spend a couple months traveling and experiencing a different part of this country. His traveling job with the hospital system allowed us to do this. In retrospect, I'd have to say this is how I developed my adventurous spirit. I'm fortunate that we continue to travel together.

Campsite (Mt. Mitchel, NC 9/28/2010)

    It was evident as the sun fell over the mountaintop that this was the highest point in the eastern US. Clouds rolled in as dense fog and remained until our descent the next afternoon.

Sunset silhouette (Mt. Mitchel, NC 9/28/2010)

    This turned out to be one of the coldest nights since winter, which brought an eerie silence to the air. There were no sounds of animals or insects, just the rustling of leaves and whirling wind. The mist of the clouds kept the trees moist. They dripped light rain on our tents throughout the night. Although it was an unlikely encounter, we set up a perimeter line with a bear bell for safety. We did have a good deal of food in a lock-box, so our site was heavily scented.

    Despite the cold, our many layers of clothes in front of the fire kept us warm. Staring at the flames, not feeling obliged to keep constant conversation as sometimes it is, but rather sharing sparse conversation, was peaceful and relaxing. It's a pleasant feeling, being comfortable enough to sit in silence, taking in the fire and nature that surrounds us for these moments. I see similarities to candle meditation. While here, I, being able to more easily reflect on the past and present, gain confidence for the future.

Fire (Mt. Mitchel, NC 9/28/2010)

Father and Son (Mt. Mitchel, NC 9/28/2010)

    I awake the next morning with child-like anticipation. I arouse the fire from a smolder and we begin preparing a feast.

Shrimp shish kebabs, potatoes, garlic bread, and Lagunitas IPA (Mt. Mitchel, NC 9/29/2010)

    Breakfast is delicious, and considering the size of my plate (pictured above), our morning hike isn't going to be extremely ambitious.

Fog (Mt. Mitchel, NC 9/29/2010)

Caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae larval moth) (Mt. Mitchel, NC 9/29/2010)

    My plans the next morning of entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest to camp, after going through the Tail of the Dragon, are put on hold because of rain. It had been coming down all night and morning, and in the interest of safety, I keep myself from leaving until the weather improves. The next morning the sun is shining through without a cloud in the sky. The temperature is cool in the 50s. I wait until 10 to allow the roads to warm, then I roll out east on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

GPS Track of the Blue Ridge Parkway / Recorrido del GPS del Blue Ridge Parkway

    This stretch of North Carolina has some of the most spectacular scenery in the US, and if you are ever near, I'd suggest a visit. Getting on US 129, I passed through the Tail of the Dragon's impressive set of curves. With the high density of drivers, 30 mph speed limit, double yellow, and with a fully loaded bike, the thrill factor is lessened. I don't let it bother me because I know I'll have another go through it early the next morning.

GPS Track of the Tail of the Dragon / Recorrido del GPS de la Cola del Dragón

    I arrive at the Cades Cove Ranger Station in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park shortly before sunset to get my free primitive camping permit. I then make my way through the sea of slow moving vehicles on Cades Cove Loop Road, the only access to my primitive site for the night, but not before overheating twice from lack of air flow through my radiator! This one-way road has numerous gravel pulloffs that many people refuse to use, chugging along in their cages at 1 mph past the signs that instruct "Do not stop on road. Be courteous, use pulloffs." I make use of these pulloffs as passing lanes. I reach the car-free dirt road that leads to the parking lot for the trailhead to my primitive campsite for the night. Finally, the speed picks up and there's now some cool wind through my helmet and around the bike's engine. As anticipated, Parsons Branch Road is just around the corner from where I park. I learned about this road by the service tech at Cycle Specialty in Fayetteville, GA. I planned to ride this one-way dirt road in the morning, which comes out right on the Tail of the Dragon.

    It's nearing sunset, so I quickly grab my gear off the bike and start the 2 mile hike to the primitive campsite. No more than 5 minutes walking, I come across a huge pile of bear shite in the middle of the trail. I have pepper spray but begin to wonder if it's really as powerful as they say it is. It's a tiring but beautiful hike.

Trail with bear shite (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN 10/1/2010)

Stream crossing (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN 10/1/2010)

    My gear doesn't pack well and I tire long before I should be from constantly repositioning bags on my shoulders. I manage to set up the tent, hoist my food into a tree, and get a few pictures before the sun sets.

Tent in the trees (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN 10/1/2010)

Stream (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN 10/1/2010)

Treetop (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN 10/1/2010)

    The sun sets over the mountaintop and cool air fills the valley. I crawl into my hammock tent wearing my riding over-pants, jacket, boots, and gloves. The temperature is still dropping, and I find myself starting to shiver. A moment of fear creeps over me. It's only 20 minutes past sunset and if I'm only beginning to shiver now, how will I be in an hour... or two hours. The temperature is still dropping and now the shivers are becoming more frequent. It's now dark enough where I can't see the ground or make out the trees too well. The sky is a dark black-blue. I think about the 12 hours until the sun will rise and the 12 hours I'm going to be awake shivering, or worse. It's simple- I didn't plan properly and I underestimated how cold it would be. I usually have all the layers I need in my bike; a short walk at most. These were now a solid hike away. I don't like the situation I'm in. I try to quell my nervousness by telling myself everything is alright. But everything is not alright. I admit I fucked up, and realize the only way to properly fix this situation it is to hike back to my bike, but I'm struck with indecision and this starts to bring on panic. Nothing is physically apparent on my face, but my mind is on the verge of explosion. I realize my nature, and that it is not indecision.

    I pull the velcro chute at my feet and drop from my tent to the ground. I hit my flashlight and untie my hammock from the trees. Down come my bags and I shove my tent into my food drybag. Over my shoulders with the bags and I'm off down the trail with flashlight on full power. Even as bright as it is, the uneven ground causes me to stumble a few times. Thoughts of twisting my ankle or running into a bear force their way into my mind, but I struggle to put those aside to concentrate on what I'm doing. Times like these demand supreme concentration that can't be clouded by distracting thoughts. I get to the bridge and know I'm almost there; just another heavily rooted uphill shoot and I'm at the car park. I see in the distance the reflection of my license plate and feel some relief. By now I'm warm from the walk. Clothing is not an immediate concern, and I can think about my next move. I could hike back with more layers or my ground tent, or I can risk a fine and set up right here next to my bike and hope to wake up and break camp before a ranger opens the gates at sunrise. I really don't want to hike back into the woods in this darkness. I didn't even want to hike out of the woods. Staying put is too tempting. I break out my ground tent, set it up, then throw my gear and myself inside. The low-hanging rain fly allows it to heat up quickly and, in my cozy sleeping bag, my mind is finally put at ease. I write a new entry in my journal. As I put the period to the last sentence, I hear a truck engine. Soon following is the sound of heavy tires in the parking lot, then a floodlight turns onto my tent.

    "This is the Park Ranger! Is there anyone in there?" I hear through the front flap of my tent. Fuck! I can't get discouraged though because I accepted the risk of camping here. I open the flap and reply that "I can explain," and I do so. After checking my ID for warrants and finding none, one of the two rangers tells me I'm only getting a warning and that I have two options. I can either hike back to the campsite or I can leave the park. I express my distaste for the idea of hiking back to the site. I can sense his sympathy and he begins to suggest campgrounds I might find cheaply tonight. After discussing for a moment with the other ranger, he comes back and says he may be able to find a spot for me in their fully booked campground, that I should stop at the ranger station and wait for him. I drop my food bag from a tree, pack all my gear in front of his trucks headlights, then ride out toward the ranger station. After emerging from the wooded dirt trail, I look up and am blown away by the sky. So few times have I seen so many stars without light pollution. The most memorable are of sailing in the Atlantic with Captain Bob and crew/friends Noelle and Will, traversing Fjordland in New Zealand with my good bloke Phil, and camping with my father in the mountains of North Carolina, Oregon, and Nova Scotia. Equally impressive was driving the now car-free Cades Cove Loop Road I was cursing on earlier the same day. My bike now has a happy radiator and I an open winding through the starlit forest and countryside. To top the night off, the park ranger allows me to camp for free on a group campsite that's under construction. When I arrive I find a site that could support 20 tents next to a newly built bathroom all to myself, with the only sign of construction being the yellow tape surrounding it.

    Morning comes with a quick awakening. I pack my gear with hope I can be one of the first into the Loop to beat the cages. There aren't many, but that doesn't mean a few can't cause a problem. Even with the delays I am happy I can get through to Parsons Branch Road in a fraction of the time it took the previous day. At the bridge to the entrance I'm met by three dudes on KLR motorcycles. It's their first time down the road also so the condition ahead is still a mystery. There's nothing like just throwing yourself into things, so I knock down the tire pressure and go.

Warning sign (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN 10/2/2010)

Parsons Branch Road to the Tail of the Dragon (Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN 10/2/2010)

GPS Track of Parsons Branch Road / Recorrido del GPS del Parsons Branch Road

    It took a few miles to warm up, but when I did, my grin stretched ear to ear. Even though I had all my gear loaded, the bike handed great. Although, I do owe a few saves to the steering damper I installed two weeks ago. I now truly understand its value. Had it not been on my bars, I think I would have gone down more than once on that trail.

    I came out on US 129 and hung a left to Deals Gap. It happened to be the case that the parking I aimed for was next to an KTM SMR 890. I ran into the owner, David, while on my way to the kitchen for some grub. He's heavily into riding, and suggested if I wanted something better and less crowded than the Dragon, I should head up to the Cherohala Skyway. He said if the friends he was waiting for didn't show up by the time I was done eating, he would show me a backroad shortcut to the skyway. A salmon sandwich and some fried potatoes later, I was airing my tires back up to street pressure to follow his lead.

KTM 950 and 690 (Deals Gap, Tapoco, NC 10/2/2010)

    Thanks, David! 36 miles and not a single car going my direction on the Cherohala Skyway. The turns were a little broader but that only meant a faster speed limit. I agree that it topped the Tail of the Dragon. Check it out whether in a car or on a bike. It seemed like a little known secret of western North Carolina.

GPS Track of the Cherohala Skyway / Recorrido del GPS del Cherohala Skyway

    The entire drive from North Carolina to Tennessee had clear skies. I arrived early in the afternoon at my grandparents' home in Murfreesboro. They eat out for most meals these days, so it was apt that we went out for dinner. After returning home from our meal, I took a trip to my cousin Sara and her husband Junior's house to hang out and stay the night with them and their kids. Over the next few days I'll be taking it easy and visiting family that for some it's been years since I've seen. There's lots of people to see and catch up with, so Tennessee is where I'll be for the next few days before moving on to Texas.

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