My aversion to riding main highways resulted, quite by accident, with the road bending through a stately Chattanooga neighborhood. As my three-cylinder Yamaha purred through the narrow streets, a vista opened on the right. To my delight, I realized I’d inadvertently arrived atop Missionary Ridge.
Always the history buff, I can’t resist reading a historical marker or visiting some nondescript place where something significant occurred in the distant past. I’d beg my mother on family trips to her Alabama homeland to stop at such spots. Missionary Ridge was an unnecessary delay, but I could usually talk her into a stop at Lookout Mountain – across the valley.
Those holiday trips from my Appalachian home to Alabama were on my mind a lot this trip. Aside from wanting to explore the Cumberland Plateau and the Tennessee River, the real reason for the road trip was to attend my uncle’s funeral. We’d often cross this ridge via the interstate highway whenever mom hauled us to her brother’s place in Huntsville, Alabama. Today marked the first time I’d actually stopped to absorb the history surrounding Missionary Ridge.
The slope is steep descending into Chattanooga. The imagination struggles to fathom how men fought foot-by-foot up the slope to face the Confederate cannons. All is silent today as I park my bike and take in the history amid the manicured lawns of well-to-do homes.
Flowing below, the serene waters of the Tennessee River twist through the city. Most humble creeks and streams in the Blue Ridge Mountains flow into the Tennessee River at some point, the exception being those few rivers originating on the eastern edge the Blue Ridge Escarpment.
Like many motorcyclists, I seek out roads that follow a river. They, like myself, have no affinity for straight lines. The morning began with a ride southwest on U.S. 64 from Brevard, North Carolina. This scenic road would take me eventually to the Little Tennessee and Hiawassee rivers and onward to the mighty Tennessee.
As I leisurely cruised the familiar old U.S. routes of Western North Carolina, I looked forward to seeing all my Southern cousins. I felt the need to bid farewell to my uncle, who had a fondness for cool cars and beautiful wives, something I always admired.
After few hours ride, I cross the state line and soon reach the Ocoee River. Now I feel the journey has really commenced. Ocoee hosted the 1996 Olympic whitewater rafting events, and international flags still fly next to the facilities build especially for the celebration.
A few miles back, a Triumph Tiger with Georgia places pulls out onto U.S. 64 in Ducktown just ahead of me. The rider set a brisk pace to my liking, so I fell into formation as we snaked our way along the river road. We reach Cleveland, Tennessee, and parted ways – sharing that wave goodbye fellow riders give one another, even if they’ve strangers linked only by a love for two wheels. Cagers never feel that brotherhood. I take Route 312, a nice road up and over a ridge. It’s the last bit of fun before I reach the suburbs of Chattanooga.
In my eagerness to avoid Interstate 75, I take to surface streets as U.S. 64 dissolves into urban sprawl. I end up on Crest Road and Missionary Ridge without realizing exactly how. I never fear getting lost because often, as happened today, something rewarding occurs. One of my goals on this trip was to explore other parts of Chattanooga I’ve bypassed in my travels through these parts.
I get my bearings and head down the mountain to downtown Chattanooga. I don’t care which road, eventually I’ll hit the Tennessee River. Luckily, it happened to be near to the Tennessee Aquarium. No time today to take it this attraction, so I made my way up to the big U.S. 29 bridge across the river and headed for Signal Mountain.
History nerds like myself will find Chattanooga full of Civil War sites worth a detour. I vowed to explore the north shore of the Tennessee River when planning my trip since most roads take traffic along the southern bank. It’s an area I’ve never been despite all the journeys I’ve made through this area.
Before I climb the backroad up to Signal Point, where Union troops signaled each other during the war as they kept watch on the Tennessee River below, I decide to grab a late lunch and consult my Google Maps app to see a place close to my planned route.
I almost passed River Drifters as I sped along Suck Creek Road. It’s an unassuming local restaurant and just the type of roadside watering hole I love. My new Tracer 9 GT’s brakes have no trouble making the sudden, last-second stop. In the parking lot, I spot a newer Kawasaki KLR 650 clad in camo and outfitted for adventure. Yep, this is my kind of place, I tell myself as I found a spot on the covered porch and awaited a sandwich and a cold beer.
It’s often easy to spot other riders. Across from me I notice an armored textile jacket tossed across the porch railing. I soon find myself talking with Scott Stracener, a local rider. Turns out he also stopped in the restaurant on a whim while out for a ride.
“There’s a little state park up here that’s got a lot of trails, unimproved trails. I was going to go up there and kind of put around if it wasn’t too muddy,” he tells me.
Stracener grew up riding dirt bikes, and never had a motorcycle endorsement until recently.
“Never owned a street bike. Never had a motorcycle license until last year. I was 54 years old,” he said.
One tip I give all motorcycle travelers: Ask the locals about great roads nearby. I run my planned route by Stracener, telling him I want to see Signal Point and take backroads all the way to Alabama. He nods and assures me that’s a good route.
“There’s a couple of turnoffs as you’re going through the twisties that overlook this entire valley,” he said of the road up to Signal Hill.
Two riders, who by happenstance find themselves at River Drifters on a sunny afternoon, watch the slow-moving Tennessee River and discuss the virtues of adventure bikes. The food is great. The company enjoyable. The journey remaining rewarding. This family owned business, I discover, is a popular one for locals and tourists alike.
“We’re a little off the beaten path, but we are welcoming of everyone,” said Caitlan Eich, a manager at River Drifters. “We have our regulars who are from the mountains. We have lots of tourists. We’re just a cool, little place on the river.”
Her family has been in the restaurant business for generations, and River Drifters has the welcoming feel of a community-oriented establishment. The menu has a great selection and the staff warm and friendly.
“We’re definitely well known for our burgers. My grandfather perfected how to make the perfect burger back at his restaurant in the ’70s, and we’ve just done it the same way ever since,” she said. “We’re known for our burgers, for our catfish. We do chefs specials on the weekends. This Saturday, we’re doing our lobster rolls, which people go crazy for. Every time we do lobster rolls, we think we’ve ordered enough, but every time it’s guaranteed we sell out.”
I backtrack a few miles to hit the road up to Signal Point. A small park allows visitors to venture out to the precipice to look out on the river below the flat-top mountains of the Cumberland Plateau, formed 285 million years ago when an ancient fault line lifted the seabed a thousand feet and water eventually carved out a gap.
After admiring the view, I head back to the river. Eich, the River Drifters manager, gave me a tip about a scenic riverfront spot on a road I planned to travel. You know it’s worth following when the directions include “look for the donkeys” before the pull off. I found the aforementioned equines, and the view was stunning. I sat on my Yamaha and watched as personal watercraft made their way up the river gorge bordered by the green walls of the Cumberland Plateau.
“Our house is actually up on the Cumberland Plateau,” Stracener said. “It’s a beautiful place to ride. Everywhere you go, there is nothing but twisties and turnies. It’s the perfect place to ride.”
I follow River Canyon Road along the north shore of the Tennessee River west of Chattanooga. The road keeps growing smaller, almost to one lane. The road stays narrow, but the river widens, forming Nickajack Lake, thanks to a TVA dam. I’m grateful for the trees shading this undulating, but narrow path. As the road passes next to Cooper State Forest, it feels very remote, something that horror movie makers would love to film. I don’t worry.
“There’s great people. Friendly. I’ve never had any problems out of the road,” Stracener said back at River Drifters. “Even riding dirt trails where you end up in someone’s back yard, they’ll wave at you.”
To keep next to the Tennessee River, I forced to get on Interstate 24 from Route 27, the highway where my lovely tree-lined river road emerged. There’s a rest area on an island off the eastbound lane that’s worth a stop if not for a bathroom break but for the view of Nickajack Lake. Feeling refreshed, I took the next exit on Route 156 and the turnoff for Lakeview Drive. This two-lane road would follow the river down into Alabama.
The mountains surrounding me for 250 miles vanish. It’s hard to see the river while riding along a flat plane lined with agricultural fields. There’s the last vestige of the Appalachians slowing shrinking to my left. Before I could mourn their vanishing, I reach the road where I’ll again cross the Tennessee River, this time across the elegant mid-century, steel-lattice Capt. John Snodgrass Bridge.
The 1,400-foot bridge completed in 1958 carries a two-lane Route 117 to Stevenson, Alabama. Having crossed the Tennessee River three times during my journey, this bridge is only one that made me stop to admire it. There’s a parking lot and boat ramp on the western end, the perfect spot to gaze at the twin peaks of its recently restored metal arches. I’ll never understand why 21st century bridge builders insist on constructing boring, concrete roadways future generations will never stop to admire.
The sun left me, so I staying the night in Scottsboro not far from the river. The new day meant I was forced to leave the riverside to venture into Huntsville, failing to find a route near the banks of the waterway, to attend my uncle’s funeral.
I arrived in Rocket City early and found the ornate chapel where services would be held. I wore only my riding gear – hey, at least it was black. It gave me time to admire the gothic revival architecture of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, built in 1859. My uncle always had style and class, even in death.
My cousins were happy to see me, and seemed a bit surprised I’d ride a motorcycle in a rambling, 350-mile backroad trip to attend the funeral. The quizzical looks continued when I told them I’m talking an out-of-the-way route home – due north on country roads to find U.S. 64 in middle Tennessee and follow it east down the Monteagle Grade, a mountain I’ve wanted to ride since hearing Jerry and Johnny Cash sing about it. Spoiler alert: It was boring and a disappointment for a rider accustomed to riding Old Fort Mountain, the Saluda Grade, the Cumberland Tunnel and much steeper mountain passes in the southern Appalachians.
Soon I returned to ride along the Tennessee River. I knew any tributary I found would lead me back to my Blue Ridge home.
I let the miles roll beneath me and thought about how life is short, but the Tennessee River remains eternal.