Two lifelong friends turn 60, and take a road trip together
On a long undulating stretch of 25E in middle Tennessee, Lyle and I are headed north making for Kentucky by nightfall. Finding ourselves behind a semi for several miles with no clear place to pass, I settle in on the 2024 Yamaha Tracer 9 GT+, trailing Lyle in lead. The scenery is spectacular- Appalachian mountain ridges on either side of the valley we are riding through with farms and cattle ranches covering the valley floor, as the state highway follows a gently meandering river. I’m listening to the “Road Dirt Classics” playlist on Spotify, enjoying the relaxed pace with old 70s-80s rock playing in my helmet over the Cardo speakers.
A beautiful day, and life is good.
Suddenly Lyle lurches left with his big BMW GS 1200 and hurtles past the tractor-trailer rig, no signal or warning. I snap out of my ‘flow’ state, already in 6th gear, signal left and throttle hard to make the pass as well. Even from about 65 mph, the Tracer nearly lifts the front, the 900cc triple roaring forward to skirt around the long rig. Looking down the long valley road ahead, I can see an oncoming truck in the distance, but in a flash I’m past the semi and chasing down Lyle, way out in front. I glance at the speedo, and I’m doing 1** mph as I merge back right. “Geez, what a beast!” I shout in my helmet, as I rapidly close with my old friend. We both slow to a more reasonable (!) 80 mph, and resume our quest for Kentucky.
“Just two good ole boys, never meanin’ no harm,…”
Lyle and I are on a multi-day, multi-state road trip, commemorating (or commiserating?) both turning 60 years old. We try to make a big road trip together with every new decade we reach. We did it when we both turned 40, then a huge one when we both hit the half century, and now here we are rolling into our 60s, out rocking down the highway again. We’ve both been motorcycle riding since our youth, and we’ve made many day trips, weekend hops, and these milestone rides over the years. As I’ve written before, we go way back with each other.
Lyle and I first met in 7th grade, in Mrs. Zachary’s homeroom at Fayette County Junior High in 1976. Lyle’s family had recently moved up from South Georgia, and he knew no one at the school yet. I had numerous friends from elementary school there, and was definitely not a shy lad. At the beginning of the school year, on the day we were to pair up with locker partners, Mrs. Zachary approached me in homeroom and asked, “Mr. Brooks, see that young man sitting back in the corner? His name is Lyle, and he’s new to the school this year. I’d like you to go introduce yourself, and invite him to be your locker partner.” I obliged, though rather reluctantly at first. Two awkward 12 year olds became homeroom locker partners, then fast friends. Through junior high, high school, beyond college, for each other’s marriages, birth of each other’s children, across decades and miles, Lyle has been and continues to be the best friend I’ve ever had. My nearly lifelong chum, and of course, moto riding brother. Thanks so much, Mrs. Zachary.
Our “weapons of choice”- a 2024 Yamaha Tracer 9 GT+, and a 2018 BMW GS 1200.
For this road trip, we would attempt to take in some states neither of us had ever ridden in before, namely Kentucky and West Virginia. Our initial goal was seven states- our own Georgia of course, then Tennessee, into Kentucky, over to West Virginia, down into a sliver of Virginia, then home through North and South Carolina. Looking at our available time off, we quickly realized our plans were rather ambitious. We chose to give up South Carolina, since we’d both made numerous excursions there, and in the end realized West Virginia would have to wait as well. So we planned our routes, avoiding interstates as often as possible, endeavoring to wander through the remaining states traversing state and county roads in each.
That decision would make this ride one of the most beautiful and memorable trips we’d taken in years, maybe decades.
Lyle rode up the evening before we were scheduled to leave, staying the night with us so he and I could get an early rollout in the morning. Yamaha Motors USA had loaned me a brand new (only 33 miles on it) 2024 Tracer 9 GT+, which Ted had the chance to sample for us back in August at the press launch in Boise, ID. I was thrilled for the opportunity to ride this bike that wasn’t even available in dealerships yet, and log some road trip miles with it. Yamaha had set it up for my height and weight, adjusting the handlebars, foot controls, suspension and seat height for my 5’8”, 155 lbs specs. I was afraid I’d be up on my toes, like I had been on the Tenere 700 we had last year, but was pleasantly surprised to find I could nearly flatfoot on the Tracer 900. That was confidence-inspiring, as I made preparations all week for the ride.
This is a sport tourer mind you, not an adventure bike.
“So a BMW and a Yamaha roll up to a bar,…”
Lyle had recently picked up a one-owner 2018 BMW GS 1200 in pristine condition, and kitted it out with hard cases for the trip. We were ready to pound some pavement for four days, and touch our tires in five states. So we lit out after breakfast and throttled hard up through north Georgia, stopping at the famous Dillard House for a hearty Southern lunch before crossing into North Carolina. The weather was perfect in the Deep South, with abundant sunshine, cool breezes, and daily high temps in the mid-70s. Can it get any better for a motorcycle road trip?
I love motorcycling in the Smoky Mountains. I’ve ridden the majestic Northern Cascades with Ted, rolled through the beautiful badlands of New Mexico and the high plains of panhandle Texas with my friend Mike, and have traversed the entire length of the otherworldly Baja peninsula with Lyle and another friend from our youth named Jimmy. Maybe I’m biased, but there’s something very special about riding the ancient hills of the Appalachians. John Denver once sang, “Life is old there, older than the trees; younger than the mountains, flowing like a breeze.” These rolling mountains have a mythical hold on me, almost spiritual. Riding through the Blue Ridge ranges bring a peace to my heart, a centered calm, a deep breath in my soul.
I get a “peaceful, easy feeling” up here in the Smokies.
Lyle and I ride up through Franklin and Sylvia NC, and I’m getting used to the fit and feel of the Tracer beneath me. North of Waynesville on a stretch of I-40 we decided to ride for a bit, I begin to experiment with the “Adaptive Cruise Control” Ted was so knocked out by at the Yamaha demo. Ceding the lead to Lyle, I close in behind him among the surprisingly sparse mid-afternoon traffic, activate the system with the left grip switch, set the following distance to three car lengths, and at 75 mph I turn loose of the throttle. With the proprietary Yamaha radar unit in the nose, the Tracer paces Lyle’s Beemer perfectly, adjusting speed and overall geometry whether he slows or accelerates. At one point we come upon a moving van in our lane, straining a bit to make the grade up a mountain pass. Lyle is briefly forced a slow to about 55, yet the Tracer keeps synch with him, in speed and following distance. When the van moves aside and Lyle throttles back up, the Tracer surges forward, keeping pace and distance, with no inputs from my right wrist. Remarkable.
This Yamaha Adaptive Cruise Control is outstanding.
While riding NC-63 for awhile, GPS leads us to NC-209, and as we turn right onto the new road, we see a large sign, “Ride The Rattler- 290 Curves, 24 Miles”. I’m surprised and excited. I’ve heard of this fabled section just south of Hot Springs NC, but had never ridden it before. It’s actually 36 total miles from the 63/209 junction to Hot Springs, and with several straights and wide sweepers to give riders a break, much of this road that winds through the Spring Creek valley is thrilling curves and tight hairpins. At more than 3x as long as the Tail of the Dragon, this is one of those, as Ted puts it, “Better Than The Tail” rides. Lyle and I dive and flow deep into corners and throttle hard out with confidence, as the byway is sparsely traveled as well.
The Yamaha Adaptive Cruise Control enabled, chasing and pacing Lyle up ahead. Digging the way this works!
We pick up 70/25 in Hot Springs and point west into Tennessee, following the famous French Broad River for miles and miles, winding through the mountains and valleys with wide sweepers and occasional climbs/descents in elevation into Newport. After a Cracker Barrel stop for a late lunch, we throttle on deeper into East Tennessee, and the tight mountains settle into long ridge lines until we cross beautiful Cherokee Lake. By this time we’re rolling northwest on 25E and TN32 above White Pine. The day has been just gorgeous, with bright sunshine, few clouds, and pleasantly cooler temps the further north we ride. Lyle and I ride in a rhythm, pacing and chasing each other across northeastern Tennessee. We’ve logged thousands of miles together over many years, and know each other’s riding styles and habits like we know our own.
I guess that makes sense, as we’ve long been fairly inseparable friends. We did everything together in the days of our youth. I was always the more outgoing and loud of the two, while Lyle was more reserved and quiet. He often followed my ideas and lead into things, often to do them better than me. In junior high, I suggested we both go out for the track team, only to have him run faster than me. Then in high school I thought we should both try out for the wrestling squad, and he wound up becoming a more skilled wrestler than me. I was never jealous of Lyle (ok, maybe on occasion), just excited to see him succeed and get to cheer him on in competition.
Lyle B and me, lined up for an 880 yard run back in our high school days. Lyle is 3rd from right, I’m 3rd from left. The dude was good at everything he did. He still is.
GPS is set to “Avoid Highways” now, which is making for some fantastic riding on state and county roads.
It’s about 6pm by the time we approach the Kentucky state line, and pass through the 25E mountain tunnel into Middlesboro, KY for our first night stay at a nice Holiday Inn Express in town. We check in, whereupon the front desk attendant blows a short bar for us on his harmonica as a welcome. A quick bite at a little dive down the street, again with Southern drawled hospitality, and we’re already loving Kentucky. We later lounge in their (barely) heated pool for a spell, recounting and laughing about our youthful misadventures as teens in then rural Fayetteville, Georgia.
I recall the time in 8th grade that Lyle was being bullied by three punks during the lunch recess. Looking through the cafeteria doors to the ball field out back, I saw one of them sling Lyle to the ground, ripping off an entire sleeve of his new white sweater in the process. I rushed out the doors to my friend, who was back up and red with rage, ready to rip into the trio by himself. Quickly I was beside him, ready to fight as well. Immediately the bullies backed down, unprepared for a now more complex and uncertain confrontation. We were both somewhat small in stature (still are), but gained a reputation of, “if you mess with one of them, you’ll get the other one as well.”
Some serious Southern vittles at the Dillard House, and the Cumberland Gap overlook.
The next day our plan is to roll north to Stanton then Slade KY, within the Red River Gorge region to ride the scenic byway and roads in the mountains up there. Before we pull out, a couple and their son on a pair of BMW GS 1250 bikes pull up next to us for a chat and quip, “Y’all should take some time to ride up the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. It’s just down at the edge of town, before the tunnel. The ride to the top is twisty and curvy, and the scenic overlook at the top borders on the three states.” Lyle and I look at each other; “Dude, we gotta ride that.”
We find the park entrance, set some cameras on each other’s bikes, then start up the mountain. Ascending, the curves become hairpins then switchbacks, forcing a more measured pace to the top. At the summit we park the bikes then hike a short trail to a couple of overlooks, with views deep into the mountains and valleys of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. In fact, we’d crossed into a portion of VA to reach the summit, so we check off another state on our trip.
Lyle ascending the twisty Cumberland Gap Scenic Byway, me descending it. Definitely worth the ride and the views.
Highway 25E continues north, wandering back and forth across I-75 but keeping clear of the busy interstate. We roll on north, our goal being to make Berea by lunch. After another Cracker Barrel stop (thanks to our friend Jimmy for the gift card), we turn back north then east on 52 to Irvine KY, taking 89 north through breathtakingly beautiful mountains to Hwy 9000, otherwise known as the Mountain Parkway. This four lane state byway weaves its magic through the east Kentucky mountains for about 76 miles, glorious vistas in every direction. We jump off at the Slade exit, for our second night stay at the Black Bear Lodge Motel, a local favorite for the many hikers and rock climbers who frequent the Red River Gorge.
Check-in for the Black Bear is actually up the street about a quarter mile at the Daniel Boone Coffee Shop, a fine java joint and breakfast/lunch nook. The lodge has no Wi-Fi and cell signal is spotty at best in the gorge region, but the 10-room log cabin styled motel is equipped with cable, so my sports fanatic friend is able to watch college football long into the night after I’ve rolled over and zonked out. Before that, we found a Tex-Mex restaurant about another quarter mile down from the lodge (drawing a blank on the name), so Lyle and I hoof it down for a feast later in the evening than either of us are usually accustomed to eating. But as Lyle quipped earlier at the Cracker Barrel, “When on vacation, if you ain’t doing it all wrong, you ain’t doing it right!” Hmm…
The Daniel Boone Coffee Shop, where you check in for the Lodge, and get a bite/sip. The Black Bear Lodge Motel, just down the street. The Mex joint down a little further was ridiculously good.
We meet a couple of young Harley riders down from Ohio, who tell us of another aside we need to make. “Just a few miles back, up by the Parkway, you guys should ride the Nada Tunnel. It’s a single lane, narrow slit through a mountain, about 900 feet long. Really cool to ride through, then you can continue on to merge with the Red River Gorge Byway. Definitely worth the ride!” So we take their advice, and the Nada doesn’t disappoint. Wet, dark, claustrophobically narrow, but so fascinating to ride through, Lyle and I make several passes back and forth in it, before continuing on to ride some of the tight curves and elevation changes of the Gorge road. We’ve found that making margin for these suggestions folks offer so often makes for great experiences and lasting memories.
The entrance to the Nada Tunnel, then riding in.
Our lodging for day three is back in Athens, Tennessee, so we hot foot it back west across the Mountain Parkway to Richmond KY, then south on 25 toward Corbin. GPS must read my mind, as each off-interstate byway is spectacular in gorgeous views, smooth sparsely populated roads, and the clear blue skies of autumn in the Deep South. Passing through Corbin, our route rides us right by a very pleasant surprise- the original location of the very first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. “Lyle, the original KFC! We gotta stop in!” I’m shouting in my headset.
The literal home of the “Original Recipe”, in Corbin, Kentucky. We were like giddy schoolboys.
We whip around and pull in, giddy (at least I am) like a couple of schoolboys. Snapping a bunch of photos in and around the restaurant/museum, we gorge ourselves on genuine KFC deep fried before saddling back up and rolling further south. Not long after leaving town, me riding lead, I notice a dark cloud up ahead and slightly west of us, growing darker and closer as we ride. Route 26/25W hugs the mountains and appears to be skirting us around the storm, but our hopes of dry riding are dashed near Wofford, where suddenly the rains catch us and nearly soak us before we find a church portico to pull under. We don our rain gear and set back out, and as Murphy wrote somewhere in his book of laws, within just a few miles and minutes we’ve ridden back out of the rain, and are looking for a place to doff the gear before we sweat to soaked underneath.
Fantastic rainsuit by REV’IT!, if only needed for a few miles.
For part of the afternoon, Lyle and I swap rides for a spell. We’re about the same size, have similar riding styles and years of experience, and I wanted to get his impressions of the Yamaha. His Beemer actually has a lower seat height than the Tracer, and with his wide and relatively high handlebars, I feel like I’m sitting down in the big GS. I can fully flatfoot, which I certainly like. After a couple of hours and a full tank of gas in each, at a station break we discuss the Tracer’s characteristics. Lyle observes, “That Adaptive Cruise Control is amazing. I’ve never even driven a car or truck with that yet. It was easy to set up, then when I activated it, I was blown away at how it tracked the vehicles out in front of me. Like when you were leading, I latched it onto the BMW, and it just took over. When either of us pulled aside, it would accelerate up to the cruising speed until it grabbed you again or the car in front, then it would match speed again. That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever experienced on a bike!”
We pick up KY 92 outside Williamsburg, bearing southwest toward the Tennessee border. The mountains have gradually given way to long ridge lines, then the gently rolling hills of the Cumberland Plateau. I am riding almost in a trance, a “flow” state of total relaxation yet complete control and awareness, the big Yamaha triple pounding out a throaty growl beneath me as I ride, sing, and pray, giving thanks for all the natural glory we’ve been riding through on this trip. In Pine Knob we hop on Highway 27 and roll south for the Tennessee state line.
Lyle on the Tracer 9 GT+ for awhile. I think he liked it. Back on the Yamaha, chasing Lyle through the hills.
Riding along behind Lyle for a time, I recall another fun memory with my friend, this one many years after our youth. We were both in the same church in Clarkston, Georgia in the early 1990s, me the youth pastor (middle and high school), Lyle one of the church deacons. He often helped me at the events we did with the church teens, and we along with several other adults had about 50 high schoolers on a ski retreat up in the North Carolina mountains. After a day on the slopes at a resort called Hawksnest, we were trying to corral the teens and get them in their bunks back at the retreat center we stayed at in Boone.
Bunking among the boys, Lyle and I were patient while the boys bantered for a bit after lights-out. One of them, Pete, just wouldn’t chill out, and after about an hour of his periodic antics, Lyle jumped up clenching his pillow, looking like he was ready to smother Pete with it. Loudly and delivering the message like a verbal machine gun, Lyle exclaimed, “Boy, I’m about to open up a can of whuppem on you!” We all laughed hysterically, as the rapid delivery was as funny as the words. Pete didn’t get that can opened on him, didn’t get smothered under a feather pillow, so we and the boys soon all fell into deep restful sleep.
Somewhere rolling south through east Tennessee, and dismounting in Athens.
Back in Tennessee, we continue south along 27, a long, lazy ride through peaceful farm and cattle lands for miles upon miles. The western edge of the Appalachians are to our left as we ride south, with the gently rolling lands of the plateau to our right. Passing through small country towns like Oneida, Sunbright, Wartburg and into Kingston, we ride along and across the picturesque Watts bar Lake, picking up 58 south of town. We’re once again running along the long ridge lines of the mountains to our east, and the road is ours. On several occasions, we come upon small groups of fellow motorcycle riders, usually on Harleys, and fall in with them to ride awhile. At stop signs or lights, they are always warm and friendly, briefly chatting about each other’s bikes or destinations before throttling on.
I love the motorcycling community.
We finally pull into Athens TN, and passing through town to our hotel, I’m looking for the local schools to see if any use a bulldog mascot. We arrive at our Holiday Inn Express again, always an affordable, welcome stay. We unpack then stumble into a Chilis across the street, barely an hour before they close. They welcome us in, serve us a hearty dinner, and we reminisce about the day’s ride, the people we’ve met on this trip, and surprise excursions we’ve discovered along the way. Everywhere we’ve traveled, the locals have been so kind and helpful to us. From Nathan blowing his harmonica for me in Middlesboro, to Val offering us her umbrella so we could walk up the street in the short evening drizzle to that Tex-Mex joint in Slade, and Pam at the hotel who shares with us why she loves her hometown so much, I marvel at the beautiful, warm mountain people up here in the rolling southern countrywide.
The Burger Bus in Ball Ground, Georgia. Highly recommend it.
Our last riding day comes the following morning, a Monday, as we pack up and roll south to Etowah on Hwy 411, riding again along the outer edge of the Appalachians. The road has straightened out, with only elevation changes and softly flowing sweepers, mile after mile. Finally, Georgia. We continue south through Chatsworth, over to Talking Rock and around Jasper into Ball Ground for a late lunch and where we’d decided to part company. Again, a local points us to a fave dive in town, the Burger Bus. It’s literally an old transit bus from like the 1950s, refitted as an outdoor seating cab for the restaurant. The atmosphere is nostalgic, the burgers and fries outstanding, and a heaping plate of sweet potato tots is worth its weight in gold. We sit and talk until it becomes clear we need to get under way, to afford Lyle adequate time to dodge rush hour around Atlanta since he lives on the southside, while I’ll swing southeast to my home over close to Athens (UGA one).
The old friends about to part company. Until next time,
It’s hard to say goodbye to a lifelong dear friend that you only get to see and spend time with a few times each year, especially after sharing an epic road trip together. So we record a final farewell for the accompanying video, embrace and fist-pump, then off Lyle rides to his home and beloved wife “Mandy Fabs”, as I roll southeast ducking around the congestion of north Atlanta. I ride and reflect on the images and experiences of this amazing road trip, the nearly 50 years of friendship with Lyle, and the incredible Yamaha Tracer 9 GT+ I’ve been so generously gifted for this journey of quite literally a thousand miles. I’ve come to enjoy the bike so much, I deviate in the final miles to take in one last set of curvy roads near our home, just to throttle and carve through. That’s how much I now enjoy riding this bike.
The “journey of a thousand miles” began with the first step to our bikes, and ended almost exactly 1000 miles later back in my driveway, my beloved Lisa waiting for me on the front porch. I’ve been basking in the glow of the miles and memories ever since, savoring the stories, the sights, the people, and the companionship with my old friend. I look forward to more rides and roads in the coming decade before us.
Special thanks to Gerrad and the good folks at Yamaha Motor USA for the outstanding Tracer 9 GT+. This is a fantastic sport tourer.
Rob’s sponsored gear:
*For our video travelogue, click below and watch without ever leaving this page: