6 min read

Genuine Magic on the Smoky Mountain Magic Tour

How long it takes for strangers to become friends depends, of course. It depends on the setting they’re in, and on the people themselves.
Genuine Magic on the Smoky Mountain Magic Tour
North Carolina, Smoky Mountains | All images by James Bellerjeau

Greetings friends!

How long does it take a group of strangers to become friends? The answer might help you decide if the Smoky Mountain Magic Tour is something you’d like yourself.

At first glance, our group had little in common. Different ages, backgrounds, and occupations. Some had ridden hundreds of thousands of miles and toured around the world. Others were new to BMW, new to touring, or even new to on-road riding.

Row of BMW adventure bikes with riders in gear
The bikes were just as distracting as the scenery

The adventure felt special from the start.

Imagine you’ve been invited to join a comfortable family reunion that collects relatives together across time and distance. Now imagine a few personalities larger than life holding court and re-telling stories delighting old-timers and newcomers alike.

From the moment we arrived, our hosts made us feel just like we made it to that sprawling family reunion. Smiles and genuine pleasure at seeing us again — even though it was the first time we met.

I feel confident predicting this will be one of the most popular tours of all time offered by the BMW Motorcycle Owner’s Association. Whether it’s something you’d ever try is for you to decide.

Two riders in front of sign reading “No burnouts, stoppies, wheelies”
I wouldn’t have considered it

The Setup and Format

To set the stage, here are a few excerpts from the tour description:

On this tour, not only will you ride the iconic roads of the Smokys, you will also have a chance to discover the side roads and places off the beaten path in the heart of the mountains.

We rode some of the best-known roads for biking in the country, together with a number of hidden gems that only locals traverse.

We will ride at a relaxed pace averaging 150 miles each day with regular breaks. If you and your passenger have always wanted to ride in the mountains, but don’t want to worry about “keeping up” with a fast group pace, this is the tour for you!

It turns out not everyone is a racer at heart. Or maybe it’s been a while since you saddled up for a multi-day tour. Or you’re riding with a pillion who’s new to touring.

Whatever your reason, the tour’s friendly pace explicitly acknowledged that sometimes it’s better to travel than to arrive.

Neon sign of a cafe racer riding fast
We were in no hurry

You arrive at the resort within a generous window on the first day, the evening of which consists of a group dinner and an overview of the tour. You take day trips from the resort for the next three days, combining riding, dining, and sightseeing.

And what turned out to be the real highlight of each day: the evening drinks and dinner when we compared notes, shared stories, and became fast friends.

Two riders with Smoky Mountains in background
Helmet hair even with a buzz cut — sheesh!

Our Hosts

Four names made for an unforgettable experience: Vance and Mari Harrelson, and Bob and Sue Aldridge. Long-time BMW MOA members may recognize those names.

If so, you might be thinking of words like kind, thoughtful, welcoming, and funny — ambassadors for the brand, sure, but also a ton of fun to spend time with.

Here’s an example to give you an idea of what I mean. One night our group sat around the fire pit at the resort. It was a lovely evening, and we were both tired and relieved at having the first day of touring behind us, including the amazing Tail of the Dragon.

A group of riders sitting around a fire pit with trees in background
Happy, relaxed riders — the fire got bigger

Although the fire pit had been reserved for our group, there was already a couple there when we arrived. Another person would have mentioned this, but instead, Vance engaged them in friendly conversation, effortlessly making them part of the group.

Bob had us all laughing uproariously as he told a tale of a shortcut that ended rather more abruptly than planned. It was a lovely evening, made more so by virtue of being so relaxed and welcoming.

An orderly row of staggered BMW motorcycles
We rode this orderly, as well

Tour Highlights — The Riding

There’s a reason the Blue Ridge Mountains are the most visited National Park in the United States.

Sadly, I suspect it’s because it’s so easy to drive there via the Blue Ridge Parkway. Many never step outside their cars as they “visit” this area of natural splendor.

On a motorcycle tour, the experience of the Blue Ridge Mountains is altogether different and wonderful. Your pillion enjoys unending vistas of softly forested mountains stretching off into the hazy distance. You see low fog lying on still waters and rivers in the cool mornings.

And the roads! Hundreds of miles of sweeping, curving, twisting two-lane roads winding through forests amid dappled sunlight. From gentle switchbacks to gut-wrenching decreasing radius turns, this is nothing like chewing up the interstate miles.

Sign reading “Motorcycles: High Crash Area Next 11 Miles”
Curb your enthusiasm

For anyone wondering how 150 miles a day can take eight hours, try to picture what a road with 318 turns in 11 miles must look like and you’ll have an idea. Here are some of the fine roads we rode:

  • US 129, the Cherohala Skyway, and the Tail of the Dragon
  • Moonshiner 28, the Nantahala Gorge, and US 64 to Highlands
  • The Great Smoky Mountain Expressway to Cherokee, Maggie Valley, and the Road to Nowhere

Tour Highlights — The Attractions

Riding through the Smoky Mountains is no doubt the main attraction.

That said, every tour is a staccato of riding and stopping, stretching and fueling. Our organizers gave thought to the pause that refreshes.

We alternated between taking in the natural beauty and some manmade attractions. The area is dotted with water features, resulting from many rivers and the Tennessee Valley Authority projects to create hydroelectric dams. On one day we took in the Cheoah Dam, Tapoco Lake, Santeetlah Gap, and Bald River Falls.

Another day we made our way to downtown Highlands, where we combined a lunch break with a chance to sightsee and shop.

Many bikers will have heard of the Wheels Through Time museum in Maggie Valley, and the tour deposited us there with time to visit.

The Wheels Through Time motorcycle museum
Wheels Through Time

We enjoyed carefully planned fuel stops each day. And while gas is gas, not every station sells premium gas (who knew?), and not every restroom has multiple stalls. Although we lined up in pit stop fashion, 11 bikes in an orderly row for efficient fueling, everyone had time for a bio break as needed.

Row of motorcyclists lined up to get gas

Tour Highlights — The Riders

How long it takes for strangers to become friends depends, of course. It depends on the setting they’re in, and on the people themselves. Our group of 18 people included seven couples and four solo riders.

For our group, a big part of the magic was the welcoming environment that Vance, Bob, Mari, and Sue created. It simply was not possible to be shy or uncomfortable for long.

Each night we talked about highlights from the day. At some point, Bob would proclaim in a loud Australian accent “It’s awards time!” before handing out awards for amusing events that happened during the day. No one was spared, meaning everyone won an award for something before the tour finished.

Vibrant green antique Harley motorcycle in front of vintage AMA Safety Awards
Not these awards, but you get the idea

Alongside steady banter between Vance (aka Foghorn Leghorn, “somebody GOT to be in management”) and Bob (aka the Showman, “when you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes”), look at some of the words that riders used to describe their days:

  • gratitude, fellowship, camaraderie
  • awesome, twisty
  • community, easy friendships
  • memories, trusting
Pair of SHOEI motorcyle helments with images of cyclists on their visors
Memories made easy

The MOA is a community of people like us, making friends around the world. It is built around the motorcycle, but it is personal and thrives because of the people.

The fabric of our lives can be fragile and built from solitary threads. Or it can be woven from multiple strands, gaining strength from the people we meet.

On the Smoky Mountain Magic Tour, we laughed and joked more each night and pretty much had a fantastic time together.

If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.

Ride well and be well.

This article appeared originally on Medium in the publication Globetrotters.

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