Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Tail of the Dragon

I think I first saw a reference to a stretch of mountainous road called "The Tail of the Dragon" (or "The Dragon" for short) on a t-shirt. I then investigated, and decided that as a "road enthusiast", that I had to go there at some point.

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The official claim is that the road has 318 curves in 11 miles. I thought that was crazy, but after having driven it twice last Sunday (once in each direction), I am now a firm believer in that number. It's hard to objectively judge how curvy this road is compared to others that I've driven, but it's up there, for sure.

This road has quite a reputation, and is a major attraction for fast cars and motorcycles alike. If you want to test the limits of your car (from a braking and cornering standpoint as opposed to pure speed), this is where you do it. Because of that, there is quite an interesting culture surrounding this road.

Wait, is that race fuel on sale, for $7.99 a gallon? Well, there is a bag over the pump, so not really...but they must have sold it at some point. Or maybe the pump has never been operational, and they just put the "race fuel" pump here purely for looks.

It's impossible to translate to you through one or two pictures how insane this road is. It just keeps going, hairpin turn after hairpin turn for almost a half hour with no break! I was exhausted afterwards. Sadly, I did not time myself (having an infant in the back seat can be a bit of a distraction at times), but I probably averaged 25 mph over the course of the "Dragon". I could have gone faster if I really "went for it", but I maintained what I thought was a "responsible but not lazy" speed.

The speed limit is only 30 mph; that sounds slow, but rarely did "responsible but not lazy" take me over 35. As for everyone else...yeah, most of the others were pushing the limits of their respective vehicles. Suffice to say, most of the other cars and motorcycles drove at a faster pace than I did. There are no passing zones on the "Dragon", but there are a LOT of pullouts, and it is generally understood that when there is someone on your butt, that you use the next available pullout. Fortunately, the vast majority of "Dragon" drivers adhered to this unwritten policy. A couple of people pulled out for me, but I generally had to pull out myself once every few minutes. (Is there an inadvertent sexual metaphor in there somewhere?)

Here's something I thought was neat, and helpful! There is surprisingly little official signage along the road warning drivers of dangerous curves and whatnot, and visibility is low at times due to all of the trees and hills. So to help us out, people have written messages on the road (e.g. "SLO") that warn drivers about that sort of thing, so that they don't, you know, kill themselves. Being in the mountains, you can't always see around the next curve, so you don't always know in advance whether that next right-hander is a gentle 25-mph turn, or a tight 10-mph hairpin. People have died on this road. (That's kind of a fun map, by the way. It looks like the average is two or three deaths per year.) There are also arrows on the road pointing to each of the pullouts, which is extremely helpful, because otherwise they would often come up too fast to react. Among the most interesting road-painted messages was an arrow pointing to something called the "BOOB ZONE", whatever that is. (I'm afraid to Google that one myself.)

You know how theme parks will take your picture on a roller coaster and then try to sell them to you after the ride? Well, given that this road is sort of a roller coaster, I suppose it's only appropriate that there are people taking your picture here, too! There wasn't just one photographer, either; there were THREE. They photograph your car going down the "Dragon", and then you can view and/or buy them from their website at your earliest convenience. For example, here's us! We certainly do not plan on buying any of them, but these photographers must be reasonably successful, or else there wouldn't be THREE of them.

As for the scenery...this road is not as scenic as the Cherohala Skyway. It is mostly forested, which during Fall Foliage season, is great! But we did get one nice view out of it:

I like curvy roads and all, but the "Dragon" was actually a little much. By the time we were done, I couldn't wait to get back on the freeway. This isn't the first curvy road that's done that to me, but it doesn't happen often. But we had to do it. And, heck, we may do it again sometime.

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