Perfection is a conceptual thing. It doesn’t exist in nature, but for those of us who enjoy motorcycling, the Back of the Dragon, cutting north-south across the “waist” of Virginia, comes damn close.
Bring your “A” game when you come to ride the Dragon. The challenges are constant and intense. You’ll cross three mountains — Clinch, Brushy and Walker — on your trip over Virginia Route 16 from Tazewell southward to Marion, smack against Interstate 81. Along the way, you’ll encounter a smorgasbord of curves of every radius and steepness. The constant elevation changes separate Back of the Dragon from that other stretch of highway named for another body part of that same mythical beast. Your motorcycle behaves differently when going steeply downhill versus uphill, and you’d best be prepared.
Back before Route 16 got marketing, the road and those mountains it crosses were already there, the former dating back almost 100 years and the latter dating back, well, forever. And the road was enjoyed or cursed for its precariousness, depending upon the mood, intentions, and vehicle type of the user.
Route 16 has been variously feared, avoided, sought, and enjoyed for decades.
Motorcyclists? We like it.
Military vet Larry Davidson saw something in it that others didn’t — a way to revitalize his economically distressed hometown of Tazewell. Returning from his deployments in Europe, principally Germany, and his frequent rides into the central European mountains, he was convinced that his backyard highway could hold equal appeal and petitioned the state government to officially rename that 35-mile stretch of highway the “Back of the Dragon.”
A brilliant day beckons
November can bring anything in the way of weather in Southwest Virginia, and weather is not what you want on Back of the Dragon. Two days in a row of forecast bright sun and mild temperatures was too good to pass up, so I saddled up the 2018 Honda NC750X and aimed west from my home in Blacksburg, headed to the northern terminus in Tazewell.
Topographically, the region features long ridges separated by tight valleys. It’s always been a sparsely populated area — still is. What modernity is to be found is mostly on the I-81 corridor south of Marion.
Back of the Dragon officially begins three miles southwest of Tazewell, and the curves start quickly. It requires constant attention. Your crossing of three mountains on your 35 miles to Marion goes like this:
You begin at Frog Level, reputedly named one spring night in 1933 when, after a fishing expedition on nearby Plum Creek, three local men were engulfed in fog and the frogs of the area began to croak enthusiastically. One of the men named the junction of routes 16 and 91 “Frog Level.” The nearby service station was the last place in Virginia to hold a tavern license, allowing the sale of alcohol without the sale of food. Regular gatherers to the bar stools dubbed themselves the “Frog Level Yacht Club” in the 1980s, a local joke because there’s no place within miles to sail any boat bigger than a rowboat.
The name was funny enough that they created a “Frog-on-a-Barstool” logo, printed hats and T-shirts, and sold them worldwide. Legend has it that there’s a FLYC shirt worn by someone on every continent.
When the store’s proprietor died in 2008, the landmark building was set to be torn down. Instead, knowing the cultural importance, civically minded Tazewellians rescued the building and moved it to the nearby Crab Orchard Museum, where its legend lives on.
And you’re underway
I passed a flashing warning light evidently placed by the local constabularies that respectfully suggested “DRIVE RESPONSIBLY.” You see, the speed limit is 55, and other than the few short, straight sections, you’re not going to ride that fast. The upshot: you’re on your own. Don’t do anything stupid and ride like you’d like to come back and do it again.
Your route takes you through scenic Thompson Valley, near where the 1995 movie “Lassie” was filmed. A grand, sweeping Omega-shaped curve through a vast expanse of creeping kudzu takes you to arguably the most iconic location on Back of the Dragon, the Thompson Valley Overlook. I stopped only for a moment, shedding my insulated under-jacket as the day warmed. Trees on the hillside were in late autumn color, more bronze, gold and copper than in prior weeks, but equally as beautiful.
The crest of Clinch Mountain appeared quickly thereafter, bringing the descent into the Freestone Valley. Botanists will note the forests are populated by differing species from the north and south slopes of these mountains. That, and the bearing of bright sunlight, brought new shades of color from one to the next.
Thompson Valley was wide, but the Freestone Valley provided nothing more than a bridge at the bottom, resuming the curvy path back upwards, this time toward the gap of Brushy Mountain. In my mind, Brushy is the most technical, especially the north side, where the turns are tighter and steeper, and in colder months when the sun never shines on its pavement, it can be slicker than a peeled onion in a bowl full of WD-40.
Oh my gosh, the forests are beautiful, splashed with brilliant colors, but pay attention. There are 435 curves on this road and you ain’t done yet.
The next descent takes you to Chatham Hill where, for a brief moment, routes 16 and 42 are one and the same. While 16 cuts across the grain, 42, equally beautiful in its own way, traverses the valley.
Back uphill you go, your engine singing happy, revvy songs, to the final gap on Walker Mountain, where a new paved parking lot and overlook await you.
Lastly, you descend in brilliant sunshine into Hungry Mother State Park, featuring its stunning lake and swimming beach and the nearby discovery center. A large, wooden picture frame makes a great photo backdrop.
I rolled on into Marion, intent on visiting my favorite cultural venue in the region, the historic Lincoln Theatre, a renovated Art-Deco Mayan Revival style theater in the middle of town. I parked my Honda on a Main Street space — no parking meters — and left my helmet unlocked, draped over the handlebar, and strolled to the theater. Being the type of person who moves forward until told not to, I wandered through the lobby and literally into the main theater where I encountered the Lincoln Theatre’s executive director, Tracy Thompson. She graciously pointed out the six magnificent murals depicting local scenes before telling me all I might ever want to know about the theater.
“We are in the historic Lincoln Theatre, Southwest Virginia’s finest showplace. And we’re in Marion, America’s Coolest Hometown,” Thompson said.
In 2014, a national firm specializing in economic development, historic preservation and community planning, chose Marion for this unique honor.
“It opened in July 1929 as a movie palace,” she said. “It operated until 1977 when the owner locked the door and walked away.”
It was not named after Abraham Lincoln, but for Charles C. Lincoln Sr., the wealthiest man in Marion, who owned a successful furniture factory. “C.C.” Lincoln died of pneumonia only months before it opened. After it closed, local leaders formed a non-profit to save and re-open it. After extensive restoration, it opened in 2004 as a performing arts center. It is home to the nationally syndicated television show Song of the Mountains, now in its 17th year.
“We have live theater. Live music. Weddings. We seat 500 people.
“When I look at this theater, I see joy here,” Thompson beamed. “There is so much life. I want a variety of programming. Bluegrass. Rock and roll. Ballet. Big band. Americana. Southern rock. Watching a 3-year-old ballerina on that stage stop in the middle of her dance and wave to her grandparents in the audience; now that’s joy.
“Our audiences come from a large footprint. Roanoke. Charlotte. Winston-Salem. Bluefield. Bristol. Knoxville. People enter the venue from the lobby, and they’re mesmerized. The murals were painted by a local artist on canvas and installed in the theater. She was paid $50 each. Before we reopened the theater, they were filthy and we spent $20,000 each to restore them. The entire restoration budget was $1.8 million. You feel like you’re in a Mayan temple.
“Back of the Dragon has had a big impact. Whenever someone driving or riding it comes into the theater, I will give them a full tour. I will encourage them to come back for events. If we promote the region, we’re all going to succeed.
“We have a fascinating culture here. We’re not Broadway. But there’s something to be said about heritage culture. We need to make people aware of it. Once they get a taste of it, this is their destination. I have many joyous days here. There is something magical about going into the Lincoln Theatre.”
And with that, I hopped aboard the trusty Honda and rode Back of the Dragon all over again. And it was every bit as spectacular.
That night, I stayed at the renovated Litz Mansion, a 7-minute walk from downtown Tazewell, also operated by Back of the Dragon, LLC. It’s an enormous house, with 10 bedrooms, each tastefully decorated and equipped with new furnishings. I’m sure the house has goblins — what mansion dating back to just before the Civil War doesn’t? But the haunts kept to themselves, and I had a blissful night’s sleep.
The next morning, I rode to Back of the Dragon store and got the obligatory photo of myself and my Honda outside in front of the enormous dragon statue. I hoped to meet with Larry and get his impressions on things, but learned he’d be in later on, so I went for a ride on a loop that took me west to Liberty, then Rosedale and Elk Garden before ascending Hayters Gap, and then back to Saltville, another town with a fascinating history. I rejoined Back of the Dragon at Chatham Hill and then headed north back to Frog Level and Tazewell.
I stopped again at the Thompson Valley Overlook where I spoke with four men who were riding from the nearby Bristol area, on a Harley Davidson, an Indian, a Star, and a Suzuki Bergman. The Harley guy was Scott Honaker.
“The entire Tri-Cities area (Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City) area can come up here within two hours, easy. I’m a long-distance rider. I believe riding these curvy roads makes you a better rider when you go somewhere else,” he said.
The Back of the Dragon is getting some recognition. The store features a brewery, coffee shop and souvenirs.
“The town of Marion is promoting (the road). They have signs pointing to it,” Honaker said. “They enjoy it. They like motorcyclists. In the fall, it’s very enjoyable. People are friendly. They embrace motorcyclist and sports car drivers. They realize this is a tourism source of revenue. Everybody wants to have a good time, to enjoy the area. The locals appreciate us coming here. They know we’ve aged out of our rowdy years. I enjoy going out with friends, my brothers, sharing this. It’s just fun. You get up, have a good breakfast, everybody tells a joke or two. We get on the bikes. You ride all day. You get back home and sit back over a beer, enjoying reliving the day — it’s just really fun.”
Pointing back toward Frog Level, I reminded myself of one of the greatest attractions for Back of the Dragon, and indeed all the backroads of this area —they’re all sparsely used. Other than on a summer weekend, you’ll have this road largely to yourself. And often when you do catch a slower vehicle, it’ll pull over or give you a place to pass. How’s that for hospitable? Your best bet if they don’t pull over is to pull over yourself and give them some space so you can continue at your pace. If you’re not in a hurry to get somewhere (Note: you’re not), it makes for a safer, more relaxing and more legal move than trying to pass.
The man behind the nickname
Back at the store, I found Davidson holding court, relaxing in one of the leather sofas, greeting friends — and everybody who visits the store is a friend, if not when they arrive certainly by the time they leave.
“You and I met back in 2010 or 2011, if I recall,” Davidson reminded me, when Back of the Dragon was a mere idea in his head. “I realized coming back here out of the Army that this road was second to none. I felt there was an economic boost that could be brought here in tourism by promoting and advertising it. That was my initiative.”
The region seemed economically depressed. The coal industry was in decline. This was another way of income through tourism. Davidson met with the governor and had the road legally designated as “Back of the Dragon.”
“We had no opposition, but lots of people didn’t understand the potential. Some people resist any change and growth. But sleepy little towns need ways to generate revenue. The state put up its first signs in 2011. We set up a small store selling T-shirts and souvenirs.”
Davidson courted investors and built the new visitor’s center. Winter months are slow, he says, but business is well enough to keep it going. He ships out hats, shirts, and stickers.
“We oil the machine, getting things staged for the riding season,” he says. “As we’re successful, so are our employees and so is our community. I know there are buildings up Main Street that are now filled with businesses that wouldn’t be open without Back of The Dragon. It’s been a big boost.
His firm recently purchased the Litz Mansion and completely renovated it. I found it a great place to stay.
“I’m 73 and I still have fire in my belly for this. I’m not burned out. I enjoy people,” Davidson said. “When you’re trying to do the right thing and you’re honest, you can have a good time. This attracts good people. Ride a Harley, a Kawasaki, or a Vespa, we don’t care. We don’t judge people.
“My best days are when the parking lot is full, and I listen to people who are here from all over and they’re having a good time. Scenery. Camaraderie. I just listen, and 98% to 99% of what I hear is positive. We’ve had the parking lot so full that there are times I wish we’d built larger.
The visitor’s center features an open environment and good atmosphere. Leather sofas look inviting to saddle-sore riders. Engine parts are built into tables. Big garage doors open in good weather.
“One of my biggest fears is wrecks. It’s a state-maintained road. We’ve never advertised it as a racetrack. We preach safety, safety, safety,” he said. “You don’t have to break the speed limit to have a good time. It’s about the views. It’s about the mountains. Lots of folks who come to ride live in flat areas and don’t have mountains and curves. I want people to ride to their abilities.”
There’s no tree of shame adorned with broken motorcycle parts, and there never will be, Davidson said. He wants people to have fun, be safe, and come again and again.
“I’m a happy guy. My family works here with me. It’s a dream come true. It’s been a real, positive experience.”
On my way out the door, I spoke with Beth Davidson Takach, Larry’s daughter. She and her husband, Justin, work at the store with her dad, she in the retail area and he running the brewery.
“I was working in health care (in eastern Virginia) and dad let me come home and work here. It’s hard to get the mountains out of your blood. The mountains called me home,” she said. “Dad is a force of nature. He comes alive talking about this place. I’m seeing people here on their best days. My husband and I have a blended family with 5 kids. We want this to be multi-generational. Those mountains and that road are never going away.
“Good days are people smiling, lots of them. The staff is having fun. My brother, father, and husband are here. It’s a ‘wow’ place for people arriving here for the first time. I can see them saying to themselves, ‘If I could imagine a hang-out place to buy stuff and sit on the couch and talk with their buddies, this would be it.’ We’re always working to improve things, but if you’re into motorcycles and cars and into people who are into motorcycles and cars, it’s really close to perfect.”
On my way home, I took a detour, heading north on Route 16 into the West Virginia coal region, looking for a community called Jenkinjones, population 103. Why Jenkinjones? For one thing, while it was once thriving, it’s now one of the poorest communities in America, with the median income of $9,673 and median home price of $24,800. For another, it’s remote and inaccessible. But the real reason is that there’s no cooler name for a community anywhere around.
I tell you this to encourage you to explore the vast possibilities in motorcycling here. When you’ve done Back of the Dragon a few times, try finding Jenkinjones, and then maybe Loves Mill, Providence, Bandy, and Big Vein in Virginia, and Skygusty, Jolo, and the twin communities of Elbert and Filbert in West Virginia yourself.