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Chasing the Tail of the Dragon, V-Dub Style

Imagine my surprise pulling into our accommodations in Bryson City for the ‘Tail of the DragonBeetle Cruise and seeing a row of Mini Coopers, with not a single Beetle in site. At first I thought I was at the wrong place, but I quickly learned that all the action was taking place at the Ridge Top Motel, which was place truly infested with Bugs. This kitschy, bohemian motel was also the check-in spot along with the meet and greet. Pre-paid T-shirts and window decals could also be retrieved. Those with an appetite could partake in the ‘pizza fest’ along with outdoor movies in the courtyard, which included “How to Train your Dragon”.

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TOD members
ToD Six for Six
TOD members

The ‘Tail of the Dragon’ is a portion of US 129, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the North Carolina /Tennessee border. The road, also known as Route 129, is an auxiliary route of US 29, which it intersects in Athens, Georgia. US 129 runs for 582 miles, from an intersection with US 19/US 27 ALT/US 98 in Chiefland, Florida, to an interchange with Interstate 40 (I-40) in Knoxville, Tennessee.

In modern culture U.S. 129 is mentioned in the popular country song "Bottoms Up" by Brantley Gilbert: "I see you and me riding like Bonnie and Clyde, Goin 95 burning down 129." The road was also used as a back drop for a scene in the movie “The Fugitive” starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. The old one-lane bridge at Fugitive Dam was also featured in the 1972 movie "Two-Lane Blacktop".

The TOD climbs through ‘The Slide’, a steep series of "S" curves where meeting oncoming traffic is just as treacherous as navigating the road itself. The roadway then levels and slightly straightens until a series of curves approaching the intersection of Moonshiner 28 another great road in itself.

This is truly a special and unique highway, where there are no intersecting roads, no dwellings or businesses with driveways or approaches. There is very little elevation change. Each and every curve is different, many with slight banking.

Most, if not all deaths have occurred with motorcycles, especially sport bikers (aka crotch rockets), who riders seem to have a tendency to push the envelope. The most dangerous aspect of the Dragon is each participant’s skill level. The average person who stays alert, watches his speed, practices defensive riding/driving techniques, and does not overreact by swerving or over-braking has much better odds of conquering the Dragon than surviving on city streets and Interstates.

US Highway 129 enters Tennessee to the west of Great Smoky Mountain National Park and rides along Chilhowee Lake for a short distance before turning due north. In its11-mile stretch after the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, there are 318 nerve wracking curves. It’s these curves that make this stretch infamous as a motorcycle/car enthusiast’s Mecca. On weekends, from spring through the fall months, participants are likely to see numerous riders and drivers here to experience the thrill and scenery.

The weekend of our event, other than seeing the plethora of Mini Coopers, the majority of the cars that stood out included V8-powered Audis and American pony cars like Mustangs. But the real surprise was a group of Subaru Foresters.

Many have counted the curves and all come up with different totals. The definition of a curve is each time the steering wheel has to be readjusted. One corner, say a decreasing radius, will have several curves in it as you turn the wheel more or back. You can count or believe whichever story you wish. Number TWO is thought to be the most accurate one. There are three stories:

ONE: The 318 in 11 was first mentioned by Pete Leary, owner of the Crossroads of Time Motel and Gas Station located at the Gap. Someone asked him how many curves were up the road and he answered straight out .... 318. Since then it has been taken as fact.

TWO: Several riders including Doug Snavely were sitting around the campfire one evening in the early 1990s discussing the road while consuming a few brewskies. They decided to try to come up with a number to emphasize the twistiness of the road. After several rejections Doug said how about 318? His explanation ..... the road is US 129; add the first two numbers and you get a 3; multiply the last two numbers and you get 18. The number also just had a certain ring to it so from that night on it has been 318 curves in 11 miles.

THREE: Several early car drivers who tested the Dragon drove Dodges with 318 cubic inch engines. They used the number to denote the number of curves on the Dragon.

Since 1981, this two-lane road has been known as simply as ‘The Dragon’. Its claim to fame is the nation’s number one motorcycle and sports car road, with 318 curves in 11 miles. Some of the sharpest curves on the stretch have names like Copperhead Corner, Hog Pen Bend, Wheelie Hell, Shade Tree Corner, Mud Corner, Sunset Corner, Gravity Cavity, Beginner's End, and Brake or Bust Bend. Located on ‘The Dragon’s’ eastern termination is Deals Gap, a popular and internationally known destination for motorcycle and car enthusiasts.

The road earned its dubious name from its curves said to resemble a dragon's tail. The 11-mile stretch bears the street name "Tapoco Road" in North Carolina and "Calderwood Highway" in Tennessee but is signed entirely by U.S. 129. And if that’s confusing enough, State Route 115 (which is also included on maps) is the name used by TDOT for highway contracts.

Since part of the road serves as the southwestern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there’s no development, minimizing the danger of vehicles pulling out into the right of way. The road travels mostly through a forested area, including several scenic overlooks and pull-off points along the route.

The Tail of the Dragon VW Beetle Cruise, which began in 2008, is an event strictly for water-cooled Beetles, which include the New Beetle (1998-2010) and current-generation models (2012-2014). No air-coolers or non-Beetle V-dubs here. Except for its inaugural year, the event has always been held during the first weekend of May, and has grown expeditiously in size every since. This years’ event was held May 2th-4th.

Prior to 1992, the speed limit on the Dragon was 55 mph, but with the increased traffic it was reduced to 30 mph in 2005. Presence of law enforcement, especially on the Tennessee portion of the road, has dramatically increased over the years. None were observed during of time spent.

Early May is an optimum time to do the Dragon before the summer crowds arrive. Traffic is usually light. Weather is usually good. Trees leaf-out in late April, so before that you still have good views of approaching curves and traffic. The last weekend in April can be busy with the Harley Rally in Cherokee attracting many bikers.

This year’s TOD theme was "Six for Six". Over the years these types of GTGs have been as much about friendship and a cohesive car family as it has the actual event. Another important GTG is the national meet-up in Roswell, New Mexico, started in 1999, which is now held every other year on odd years. After last year's Roswell GTG a dedicated New Beetle FB site, "The Collective", was established, which since has grown to over 500 members.

Giving their cars names and personalized cosmetic identities is where this bunch of Beetle fanatics are unique from your typical car enthusiasts, which includes the approximately 700 Mini Cooper owners who were in town the same weekend.

Saturday was the official ‘Dragon’ cruise; a day-long journey consisting of the Cherohala Skyway, followed by driving the tail of the dragon. The Cherohala Skyway is quickly becoming the second most favorite behind ‘The Dragon’ with its 60 miles of remote scenic mountain highway. The North Carolina / Georgia area also has other incredible roads like the Moonshiner 28, Devils Triangle, the Diamondback, Six Gap North Georgia, the Snake and Great Forest Service Dual Sport Riding.

One needs to experience the Dragon in both directions. This way you do 636 curves in 22 miles. Most participants spend much of the day riding/driving the Dragon back and forth. One turn just doesn't allow for complete enjoyment of the roadway. It only takes 20-25 minutes to make one pass across the 11 miles so turn around and do it again.

Sunday, an optional day, has become known as Six Chuter Sunday. This year, after the farewell breakfast, a large group cruised down to Bridal Veil Falls. Located in DuPont Forest, the road under the falls has been reopened for vehicular traffic.

The Beetle specific cruise of ‘the Dragon’ was established in the fall of 2008 by Gary Schreiber and Bob Saueraff, and launched through the newbeetle.org forums. The maiden GTG included 12 Bugs from five states. In its second year, TOD2, the event quadrupled to 53 New Beetles in attendance from as far as California. TOD3 proved just as successful as the previous year, and established an official third full day of activities, as well as overnight lodging. Named after the newbeetle.org member who started the aforementioned, “SixChuter Sunday” it is now a part of TOD lore. TOD4, the Chinese year of the Dragon, was another year of favorable attendance and growth. That event brought ‘Movies at the Top’ outdoor flicks at the Ridge Top Motel, under the nighttime sky. Also added to TOD lists of activities, is a swap meet and a Sunday tour of the local dams of the region. TOD4 also brought the debut of the current-generation Beetle with much needed masculinity.

Participants came from as far away as Ontario Canada, New York State, Minnesota, Texas and Oklahoma. And as for all GTGs events, getting there is just half the fun. Many come in caravans known in Beetle circles as CaraBugs. Our group from Dallas was supposed to hook up with another caravan in Little Rock, but missed connections due to mechanical issues. We went on to our overnight designation in Nashville, while they stopped in Memphis, doing Graceland the next morning.

The TOD VW Beetle Cruise is GTG not to be missed, a bucket list item, so start planning for next year. As for several of us who live in the southwest, TOD is an event that most of us will only have a chance to do every other year, as long as the Roswell national GTG remains viable.