East Tennessee has a 12-pack of twisty routes mapped for motorcyclists. These Southern Dozen, created by the Johnson City Convention & Visitors Bureau, range in length from 37 miles to 157 miles. They trace Appalachian Country roads through switchbacks and scenery.
In late May, four of us spent three days riding the routes. And, that wasn’t nearly enough time. While logically we could have ridden all 1,132 miles in three days, we would have skipped waterfalls, panoramic views, a rich micro-beverage culture, bluegrass music and good ole Southern comfort food. Next time, we’ll plan a longer stay in Johnson City, Tenn., the alpha and omega of Southern Dozen routes.
And, we’ll pack our bathing suits. The Carnegie Hotel there boasts a heated, salt water pool. It’s a low-impact place to stretch muscles that freeze into a saddle straddle. We didn’t have time, but a spa treatment could have worked out a few stiff muscles.
It’s possible to rent a motorcycle in Johnson City, but we chose to ride our own bike 500-plus miles from Northeast Ohio. And so, we hit the road at 5:30 a.m. on a Friday morning, taking routes through Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia before entering the northeast corner of Tennessee. With generous breaks and meals along the way we clocked 10 hours. MapQuest suggests the trip can be done in about eight hours,
Our first destination was The Carnegie Hotel, a four-star property on the corner of the East Tennessee State University Campus. While cars jockeyed for parking in front of the hotel, we chose the free garage on the flip side. There our bikes were out of sight and sheltered from night rains.
Though external architecture is relatively new, vintage elegance begins at the revolving door and flows through with antiques, stained glass medallions and Tiffany-style lamps.
After freshening up, we stretched our legs on a mile-long walk to a pie-and-beer tasting at JRH Brewing. It sounds odd, but matching chocolate pie with a nitro stout is sublime. Unusual food pairings are regular happening at JRH, as are food trucks.
Despite the university, Johnson City is not affluent. And, that’s makes real estate attainable. Young people can easily afford homes or start storefront businesses. And low cost of living translates to lower prices at restaurants, craft breweries, boutiques and more. Visitors, like ourselves, benefit.
Throughout the trip we ate well. Our first breakfast was at The Main Street Pizza Company. The name is a misnomer; locals know the menu goes far beyond gourmet pizza to include many offerings from the proprietor’s farm. We also enjoyed Tupelo Honey Café (of cookbook fame) and many more places serving Southern food.
I ordered fried green tomatoes three times and each was prepared slightly differently. And, I had my first ever dish of shrimp-and-grits. What had I been waiting for??
Back to our first morning, we used our mobile phones to open the Southern Dozen website. By clicking on the route “Mountain Ribbons” we were redirected to MapQuest for a map and directions throughout the 157-mile trip. There we each downloaded the route to mobile devices—you never know whose phone might run out of power — because GPS can be unreliable in the mountains. Previous experience taught us to also carry maps as back up.
The Southern Dozen have clever names. And, Mountain Ribbons was our first. It goes south into North Carolina and overlaps the Blue Ridge Parkway. There we took panoramic shots at scenic overlooks, Linnville Falls and the Moses H. Cone Memorial Park.
Cone was a wealthy textile entrepreneur, conservationist, and philanthropist of the Gilded Age. His 20-room, 13,000-square-foot mansion built in 1901houses the Parkway Craft Center and features handmade items by hundreds of regional artists. Wares include pottery, jewelry and so much more.
With hiking and sightseeing, the three to four hours ride took the full day. That’s when we realized the Southern Dozen might narrow to a half dozen or fewer. The two remaining days blurred with the journey being more important than destination.
Perhaps the most interesting route was the 107-mile “Top of the Roan.” After 15 switchbacks I quit counting and the flip-flops went on for another 20 minutes … all downhill. The state must have a significant budget for road signs warning of undulations.
Ignoring the clock, we’d stop where the map suggested – for stunning views from Roan Mountain — and where it didn’t – dusty country stores that smelled like fertilizer and carried everything from feed to food.
We tracked the 88-mile “Music to Your Ears” north to southern Virginia where we twisted some flatter roads to The Carter Family Fold, a performance center dedicated to the first family of country music. The time-worn, grey-board buildings still vibrate with music on Saturday nights. That same “Music” trail passes through the city of Bristol, Va/Tenn., making it nearly mandatory to visit the Birthplace of Country Music Museum for an interactive tour through the history of bluegrass and country music.
It was only right, after “Music,” to visit The Down Home, a small, historic honky tonk in Johnson City with a deep and influential history. From the outside, The Down Home appears closed, but inside the rough-oak paneled room is very much alive. We were delighted by the bold bluegrass sounds of The Barefoot Movement. If you’re going bring cash, credit cards are useless.
The 37-mile “East Tennessee” tour took us through Elizabathton for antique shopping and Jonesboro, the oldest city in the state with interesting buildings to show for it. Without the men and our curvy-road mission we women may have spent more time shopping the boutiques and such.
At least once map-reading skills failed us and we used GPS to find a freeway to The Carnegie. Road weary at times, that wasn’t a bad thing.
We’ll have to return another time to trace and sightsee along “The Snake,” “Vinegar Pie,” and other routes.