Smithology: The lure of the Beckyring, a place where you crash but once

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Flickr/excelglen

To be read, as it was written, while listening to The Mountain Goats’ cover of Jawbreaker’s “Boxcar.”

Went up to 129 last Sunday. The 129, US-129, connecting a small corner of East Tennessee to a patch of land in the mountains of North Carolina. The internet calls it The Dragon. So does everybody, really, except the locals, who just call it 129. The road itself covers big distance, but the most interesting part is just 11 miles long, near the state line, more than 300 corners and no driveways or cross streets in that entire length. It’s where tourists go when you expect (sunny days, holidays, Sunday afternoons) and where the locals go when you don’t.

I qualify as local, mostly. Two years after moving to Knoxville, I do not feel at home here, though I try. This mostly comes down to eating a lot of pimento cheese and fried green tomatoes, because that stuff is sold by every restaurant in town and I am a sucker for cheesy anything. (My wife tells me this choice does not make me more Tennessee. I tell her that the real Tennessee lives in your heart, where dairyfied produce is just a 3-D hieroglyph for “freedom means never having to skimp on the Lactaid.”)

Why do we name roads? Why do we name anything? Not to knock the moniker set, but in my experience, transcendent asphalt is mostly labeled only by governments. You have your Rattlers, your Snakes, your Arkansas Dragons, your Million Dollar Highways, a dozen others of similar fame across the country. Many are quite good, but once you’ve met a lot of them, they all sort of run together.

Leaving Tail of the Dragon Driving Route 129
Flickr/PentaxianK1ii

What kind of thing gets remembered? Last summer, I went hundreds of miles out of the way on a cross-country motorcycle trip simply because a friend said the bottom half of Utah was paved by a genius. One route in particular crossed the outskirts of a county by winding down through a jagged desert valley and dropping thousands of feet to a river below. Imagine if the Grand Canyon were a quarter-mile wide, with 80-mph banked sweepers arcing down one wall. Its name was a state-route number. No locals for miles and no houses to the horizon, no one to share euphemisms for particularly gnarly corners, but I did stand at the end of that road while smiling like a stoned spaniel and trying to decide if scraping footpegs at the top of third gear while hours from the nearest hospital is a metaphor for warning or carpe diem or both.

car tire skid over white line boundary
Getty Images/Simon McGill

Disclaimer and statement of general weenietude: Grown men shouldn’t get spooked by roads, but the Dragon gives me the creeps. Especially in cold autumn rain, where grip seems to come and go by the foot. Every inch seems painted with oil and rubber, the result of years of sports-car and motorcycle traffic. People die on 129, sometimes in the rain but not always, often by launching into a ravine. There are whole websites dedicated to the accidents, galleries of motorcycles and cars gone pretzel on a tree.

You see a lot of out-of-state plates. In 2007, I brought one of them. The first time I met this place, in an Audi R8 test car driven from Detroit for a magazine story. The photographer who rode along, a motorsport shooter named Regis, puked somewhere around corner 150. Thankfully, there was substantial warning, eyes widening by the mile, so I had time to nip onto the shoulder, where he popped open a door and threw cookies in the bushes.

“The Dragon!” he said, settling back into the seat. “Got that Dragon sickness!” We laughed and made jokes. As you can, when you have traveled a long way to see something and then upped your chuck all over it.

Tail of the Dragon Driving Route 129
Flickr/William Klos

Place names are just art for the drywall of location—if they’re any good, they highlight the physical form they marry. Would anyone care if countless car and bike clubs had labeled 129 something more pedestrian? If some of its nastier corners didn’t get mapped on souvenir T-shirts as Gravity Cavity, or Beginner’s End, or Wheelie Hell? Imagine if they called the road … Harold? Karen. Joyce! Anything ripped from the headlines of the parents of the suburban friends I grew up with. Would people still show up? Would the forums still fill with folks running those 11 miles at night, against a clock, simply for underground bragging rights?

Questions without answers, chickens and eggs. Do the objects we name earn their names because of the weight the object carries, or do we name those objects because we want them to carry that weight?

I had dinner last year with a guy known as the Dragon King. Not that anyone actually calls him that, outside the internet, but the forums know him as such. Or did, once. This individual is said to have flung a specially prepped Mazda RX-7 down that road faster than anyone else, timed, under cover of night; Road & Track even did a feature on him a while back. (Fun fact: That story was written by Hagerty’s current editorial director, then R&T editor-in-chief, Larry Webster.)

Street racing is as much a part of automotive culture as the wheel, and I have not come to bury Caesar. But I did spend a second or two at that dinner idly wondering if the [Mom name here] King would have had quite the same ring.

“Took the Thundercougarfalconbird up onto the Beckyring yesterday,” you’d tell the boys at the bar. Nonchalant as always. Imagine the clucks and respectful nods! “Found snap understeer at Poopler’s Hollow. Had to work to not triple the speed limit through the esses of Barbara’s Leftover Fruit Salad. Watched some squid on a Harleysaki drag elbow on the centerline before tossing that bike into a loblolly pine the size of the Chrysler building.”

“I have never crashed there but once,” you would add, shaking your head. The room would hush.

“We know,” a pal would say. A hand would find your shoulder. “A tough day for all of us. But it could happen to anyone. That’s why they call it”—and here hats would be doffed, eyes on the floor—“… Becky.

Tail-of-the-Dragon_Fall_Colors
Flickr/donna_0622

Last weekend happened to be Halloween. A friend and I left our houses at dawn, then spent half the day driving around 129 and the surrounding mountains, covering ground at what was almost definitely for sure why would it be anything but the speed limit. When I arrived home, I took a few minutes to clean up, then walked my kids around the neighborhood, trick-or-treating. The eight-year-old dressed up as a black cat and got scared at the first house, hugging my knee and refusing to let go. Her sister, two years younger, waltzed up to that door like she was born for it, ringing the buzzer twice.

I knelt down and told the older girl that spooky things are really only spooky when we think about them too much. This seemed like the proper answer, or at least the answer a parent is supposed to give. She looked at me, eyes wide, as if I knew things, which I do not.

Lot of build-up for that holiday, when you’re eight. Maybe hype and crowds are simply anathema to certain people. One-twenty-nine is a nice road, but it is not the best road in the world, nor even the best in East Tennessee. For all the fuss, what it is, is close to the house, and a good way to get to the empty part of western North Carolina, where the pavement winds and coils in a manner that nobody bothers to christen.

It was raining. Leaves stuck to the ground in blankets. Touching the painted lines gave little blips of understeer or wheelspin, and we saw only a few other cars the whole day. Many were just commuting across the county, a pickup or SUV on the way home.

Traveling A to B, in other words, place to place, as you do on a road. Except this road had a name, and a name often means a personality, and this one felt more than a little different. Which might be why we keep going back.

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