The Tail of the Dragon

Last summer, Albert and my brother John teamed up for the “Iron Butt” challenge: a thousand mile motorcycle trip to be completed in twenty-four hours or less.  They rode it in under twenty-two, Albert on his Honda CBR 1000 RR and John on his Harley Davidson FXST.  When Albert came home, I stood at the kitchen window and watched him dismount his bike.  His movements were slow and disjointed.  His glazed eyes appeared too tired even to look down and coördinate his unbending fingers and toes.  His weary motorcycle longed to rest on her kickstand but Albert pulled her upright; he seemed not to trust her not to tip over if his fingers released the handlebars.  He didn’t climb off as much as slide off – it was the only time I’ve seen someone dismount a motorcycle without actually bending any joints.

The visible rewards of this victory wouldn’t be worth the pain to most motorcycle riders: a certificate of completion, a small write-up on the Iron Butt Association website recognizing their achievement, a fridge magnet and a license plate attachment.  But driving rain, wind burn and sleeplessness were trivial inconveniences compared  with the thrill of accomplishment, bragging rights and the bond forged between the two in striving for a common goal.  They set a new target for this summer: three thousand miles in three days, a race listed on the Iron Butt website under the persuasive heading, “SaddleSore 3000”.

I protested.  I railed against it.  I called the plan pure folly.  The first race had taxed their limits, I said, they must not endanger their lives by attempting one that, even if they were to win, would exhaust them of every joy of riding by the second day and leave them struggling only to survive a mistake instigated by sheer obstinacy and male pride.  Albert would not contradict my statements but neither would he swerve one inch from his appointment with saddle sores, not as long as John was game.  Thankfully, John shared our doubts.  The difference was that he was willing to admit them.  Two weeks before the dreaded race, he offered an alternative: a visit to the “Tail of the Dragon” at Deal’s Gap on the Tennessee/North Carolina state line, highway 129.  A relieved Albert accepted the new plan and the immediacy surrounding whether to sell the farm or to run it alone on the grit and single-minded determination that preternaturally possesses young farm widows ebbed from my mind.  Until I watched this.

Albert is one of the most daring riders I’ve ever met.  That’s part of what attracted me to him when we met.  I still think catwalks are pretty hot but now that I’m older, I place greater priority on him coming home alive.  Alive trumps hot.

But the morning of July 17 dawned warm and clear.  The boys checked their route one last time,

filled their saddlebags for the journey

strapped on their helmets

Magnum gazes at the road about to carry his master away. Perky smells travel snacks.

and rode off just after seven o’clock.


I watched them disappear with all the trepidation of a port village maiden watching her men folk set sail on high and stormy seas..except that I don’t think sailors use sails when seas get high and stormy…but you know what I mean.  I wince a little when I hear people speak of praying for travel mercies.  It may sound spiritual and pretty to some, but I don’t know that God dispenses his blessings from such a tightly categorized warehouse.  “Lord, today I need there to be no more than two cars ahead of me at the drive through and five hundred and seventy-two kilometres worth of travel mercies.”  But I don’t wish to judge indiscriminately.  It may be a natural way of speaking for some and not affectation at all.  But I would have felt silly praying for travel mercies.  My thoughts to God went something like,

“Lord, if they get hurt it’s their own silly fault but please bring them home safe anyway.”

God saw fit to grant my request.  The boys conquered the Tail of the Dragon the next day, not once, but twice.  They even re-rode the sharpest curves several times over for good measure and thanks to people who take pictures along this route, we have proof.

Look at the concentration in Alberts eyes…

John sails through every whip of the dragons tail.

On July 19, Albert and John rolled back up the drive, shivering and soaked to the skin after riding for a day and a half through pouring rain, but Albert claimed the cold and wet were preferable to the melting heat they endured the first day.

Albert bought this orange t-shirt from the souvenir shop at Deal’s Gap.  It’s landed in the dirty laundry basket every week since then – it’s both a trophy and a happy reminder of his trip.

The Iron Butts came home safely.   Magnum and Perky were overjoyed at the return of their master.

Now the danger has passed and the boys are free to plan next summer’s nervous breakdown, which I shall endure through faith, prayer and maybe a little Zanax.  Because seeing my brother and my husband share a passion for two wheels and the open road is a beautiful thing.  To see them united in their passion even though one rides a Harley Davidson and the other a sport bike is even more beautiful; it’s a wonderful demonstration of peace and maturity to the thousands of bikers they pass on their travels.  No one writes songs about brotherhood like Bruce Springsteen.  In tribute to John and Albert and many more road trips to come, I give you Springsteen’s ode to enduring friendship, “Blood Brothers”.

Peace.  Love.  Soul.


5 responses to this post.

  1. I understand his yearning to complete the SaddleSore but the Tail of the Dragon is the bees knees.


    • If you understand then you’re a step ahead of me. I have a bike but I’m a fair-weather rider – temperature must be between 20- 27 degrees, not too windy, no rain and stretch breaks every thirty minutes. 😉


  2. I was looking for a good high-resolution picture of a motorcycle rider on the Tail of the Dragon and Google led me to your picture of Albert on the Dragon’s Tail.

    I recently made an arrangement with to be able to make custom Tail of the Dragon poster artwork.

    Here is a poster sample I made using Albert’s picture:

    I wonder if you would be interested in letting me use Albert’s picture as a sample of my Tail of the Dragon artwork?

    You can see other samples of my work at


  3. Posted by Bob on March 5, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    It’s a deal!

    Can you see my email address in WordPress? If so, please email me to work out the details.


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