Swallowed by the Smokies, a car, and a moment

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Porsche GT4 road trip tail of the dragon
Grace Houghton

The light was hazy and perfect. The tulip trees were still sunlit and radiant but low on the horizon, the Smoky Mountains formed silhouettes against a goldening sky. Mid-October in southern Tennessee.

A ratty black Miata yowled around the corner. Green foil letters slapped askew across the rear glass of the hard top read Slow Car Club. A rumble further down the pass promised burly motorcycles out for a late-afternoon cruise. I couldn’t sit still any longer. The little red sports car in which I sat, its brake rotors shinking as they cooled, certainly didn’t want to. I wanted to let this Saturday afternoon, this eager little Porsche, this mountain road, swallow me again.

***

The Tail of the Dragon is a destination for car and bike enthusiasts, an 11-mile, intersection-free, 318-curve stretch of U.S. 129 that kinks through southern Tennessee and dips a claw into North Carolina. Every year, every weekend, even at night, people cross counties or states to drive it—not because it’s the best road in the world, though it may be advertised as such, but because it’s a known quantity. Because driving—whether cars or bikes—is addictive. You’ll see all sorts there: sport bikes, high-handled V-twin cruisers, ratpack Civics, Detroit-bred bruisers, California-built electric sedans, German grand tourers. The Porsche, a loaner test car I was ferrying south and returning to Porsche’s Atlanta headquarters after a track test in Kentucky, added a dose of Stuttgart minimalism to the party on the Dragon’s back.

Though it bears a less hallowed set of digits than the eternal 911, the 718 Cayman GT4 is arguably truer to the traditional Porsche spirit. A naturally aspirated flat-six squats in the car’s middle, behind its two seats. This mill was essentially borrowed from the 911, installed wholesale in the normally four-cylinder Cayman after being shorn of its turbochargers and bored and stroked to 4.0 rev-happy liters.

porsche cayman gt4 road trip tail of the dragon
Grace Houghton

In GT4 trim, little about the Cayman is designed to cushion or coddle. Noise insulation is minimal, a fixed wing bisects the rearview, the stereo is unimpressive, and there’s not a single button (save the horn) on the suede-wrapped steering wheel. This is the 718 as track special, seen through the lens of Porsche’s GT division, as light and fast as the car gets. (For now.)

Almost as soon as I parked after my first, southbound run down 129, the memory began to gild. The traffic gods had smiled upon me—no minivans or delivery trucks, and the only other vehicles I had encountered in my lane—a sportbike and a blue Camaro ZL1—had courteously shuffled aside, into one of the shallow roadside pull-outs. The Porsche was at home here: The engine’s obnoxious 2000-rpm highway drone changing to a flexible tenor, the taut suspension flattering instead of punishing. The car was so evidently capable that I began to relax, to trust and listen to it.

Grace Houghton

At the end of the road, I floated into a gift shop, past a tree in the parking lot that had been adorned, crucifix-like, with mangled fenders, flotsam from past motorcycle crashes. I wanted a sticker. Perhaps to remind myself what human conversation was, but also because my phone had no service, I asked the cashier how far it was to Chattanooga. The answer shocked me out of my daze: three to four hours? I was in North Carolina?

I patted my pockets, suddenly nervous that I had lost my wallet while paying for the souvenir, or misplaced the keys on the hundred-foot walk in from the car. When had I told my Airbnb host I’d check in? When had I last eaten?

Perturbed, I wandered back to the Porsche, which had attracted a gaggle of teenage boys. My approach scattered all but one, a friendly faced local leaning against a battered silver Miata. He complimented the GT4, said he drove a six-speed version, once. There was a head shake of admiration. He had about five, six grand in his Miata, he said, and—a quick glance around—it was about as much car as he wanted on the Dragon.

Good egg.

I relaxed enough to ask directions. He rattled off a sequence of highway numbers and cardinal directions, indicating that I’d need to go back up the road.

Back up… that? A point to the Dragon.

Yes.

Phone. Wallet. Keys. Fuel.

Behind us, a Mustang bellowed uphill, around the bend and back the way I had come, followed by a black 911 Turbo. On my way out of the parking lot, I juiced the Cayman’s throttle in pure indulgence.

***

Grace Houghton

The Dragon’s North Carolina end recently gained a Tesla charger, the only one for miles. Electric cars, with their immediate torque and low centers of gravity, are well suited to mountain passes. They are rumored to be some of the fastest four-wheeled vehicles here. But you don’t have to contemplate the industry’s pending shift to EVs, and the imminent marginalization of the internal-combustion engine, to make this road in this Porsche special.

Drive an asphalt-paved section of the Smokies in any vehicle with an exhaust pipe, you’re part of a razor-thin slice of history—a narrow moment in the human story, thin as an onion skin in the larger natural one. Nor are you there entirely by your own effort. You owe the pavement itself to unknown crowds of engineers and pavers and planners, and your vehicle to an unseen army of product planners and designers and salesmen. The soundtrack you choose, even the weather—for all that we plan and choose and scheme our road trips, the spell that can fall on an afternoon in the Smokies or Appalachians is spoken by voices not your own. It’s evanescent and, when it hits right, gets its teeth in you. You can spend your whole life trying to capture that first time—or simply that one time in that car—again.

Grace Houghton

***

Daylight lingers beneath the tree canopy, but my northbound run up the Dragon is obstructed by a leathers-clad gentleman doing 30 mph on a Harley. An impatient pause on a pullout to give him room, a crescendo of sweepers, and there he is again. I pull over once more. A motley crew of following cars—CRV, something small and Japanese, a silver 911—sweeps past me in his wake, and the GT4 and I resign ourselves to playing caboose in the Harley’s reluctant entourage. The traffic breeds light camaraderie, hands waving hands from both windows of the 911 when the road spits us out next to a lake and the group, sans motorcycle, pulls left into a gravel turnout.

Golden hour has arrived. By the time we reach the water, it’s already settled itself in the surrounding hills. There’s every chance of new friends and spirited discussions, if I pull off behind them. There’s also a shot at a third run up the Dragon, before the light truly leaves, if I don’t.

A strange jealousy seizes me. Stiff neck and sore legs aside, I don’t want to spend a moment of the remaining evening not behind the Porsche’s wheel. I can’t even take a hand off the wheel to wave back. The flat-six wails a goodbye. I can’t stop the car again.

Porsche GT4 road trip tail of the dragon
Grace Houghton

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