The Country-, Blues & Whiskey Motorcycle Tour
I don’t listen to country, rarely blues – and whiskey is not necessarily the drink of my choice. But how could I have said no to a route that has the same title and leads through the country where my Harley was born! Although I had not yet had the urge to explore America, this motorcycle route through the southern states aroused my curiosity.
It was only because my mom gave me the trip for my birthday – and she was also my travel buddy. My mama was and is a ‘wild hen’ and drives her Softail Slim mainly because of her ‘saying’. But she wouldn’t want to miss a certain comfort when travelling, so we decide on a guided tour. Before takeoff, biker friends told me about the traffic in the USA: You are overtaken from left and right, you may turn right when red and if you are stopped: the cop is always right.
We learn to smile well and say yes during the nerve-racking entry at the airport. After hours in line we are finally allowed to continue to New Orleans – and here the exciting motorcycle tour through the USA starts.
The Big Easy…
Our group turns out to be a funny bunch of (primarily) Dutchmen and two insanely great guides. Our first station has many names. NOLA or the Birthplace of Jazz – no matter how you call it, New Orleans is a city that will definitely captivate you. Most people associate it with jazz and voodoo, but it also has many other sides. If you go to the French Quarter, there is already a unique bustle on the streets during the day. Live music, street artists, people just seem to be in a good mood. The unique, typical architectural style, created by the influence of descendants of Spanish and French colonists, has a wonderful influence on the whole cityscape. Nevertheless I have the feeling that besides the exuberance there is also a cheerful sadness. Which comes as no surprise, because only a few quarters further on you can still see the full extent of the impact of Hurricane Katrina in 2005(!). The inner city districts were quickly rebuilt for tourists, but just outside, infrastructure and houses are still destroyed and people live in poverty. If you ride east along Highway 90, you get an insight into this part of NOLA.
I have experienced a lot during my visit to the city and have therefore compiled a list of must do’s:
- Definitely visit an old cemetery, walk through Garden City – where the Buckner Mansion from American Horror Story is also located
- Sit at the Mississippi riverbank and watch a paddle-steamer departing and locals ripping off tourists
- Visit the market in the French Quarter and try the Creole cuisine
- Rent a motorcycle to start your own road trip!
When we check off the last item on this list and arrive at the motorcycle rental, I am greeted there with the words “Ah, YOU get the rattletrap” and I am presented with a new Sportster 1200. I’m super happy with it and don’t understand what everyone has to say about the bike. My mother of course needs a mother ship – a Softail Heritage (the next day she burns her legs in incandescent heat and traffic jams). The machines are still checked and then we finally leave the city and for the next 14 days we drive through Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and briefly touch Florida.
The journey is the reward
We’re 192 miles from Natchez. We make a short detour to Vacherie. There you can see some historical plantations – “Interview with the Vampire” or “True Detective” were shot on the grounds of the Oak Alley Plantation. In addition to the well-kept manor house, realistic replicas of the slave huts have been erected and slavery is critically examined on site.
As a woman here, I remember “Gone with the Wind” and imagine Scarlett O’Hara on set – only in biker boots and jeans instead of a sweeping hoop skirt.
Along the Mississippi we drive through small, rather poor villages, always accompanied by the mighty Virginia oaks with the typical, hanging Louisiana moss. It looks mystical and a little scary, but also very atmospheric when you drive under these dense treetops. Endless straight roads, it is glowing hot, every now and then a stop at a gas station. In the evening we reach Natchez and treat ourselves to a well-deserved beer.
The next day at 8 o’clock – time to get used to – departure: With swollen eyes we swing onto the machines, the destination of the day is Indianola. We start from Natchez, the oldest European settlement on the Mississippi, and the starting point of the Natchez Trace Parkway. This panoramic route runs parallel to the Old Trace and stretches 444 miles to Nashville, Tennessee. The Old Trace was an old trail system that was formerly used by indigenous people, hunters and traders. An incredibly beautiful route with a lush landscape, old trees and lots of animals. A must do for die-hard bikers!
In Vicksburg we make a stop for a hearty American lunch. The mere sight of the huge portions causes me headaches. That’s why from now on I’m introducing food-sharing with mum – easy on the stomach and the wallet. Vicksburg is a strange yet charming place. Built directly on the Mississippi, on a hill, time seems to have stopped around 1950. There is an old Coca-Cola Museum with the first “lemonade fountain”, which is a kind of tap. In some of the rather scrapped buildings the atmosphere is so eerie that one almost has the impression that serial killer Norman Bates is waiting here for guests. In between, oldtimers dressed up as they are driving around. And for all fans of historical facts: The famous Battle of Vicksburg in the American Civil War also took place here.
We go on with our motorcycles along Highway 61 and learn that it is also called “The Blues Highway”. It runs through the delta region, where the roots of blues music lie. Highway 61 appears in many titles by musicians from the region, e.g. “Highway 61 Revisited” by Bob Dylan is one of them.
In Indianola we do exactly two things: The obligatory visit to the B.B.King Museum, not only worth seeing for Blues fans, because the history of racial discrimination, the development of the Blues and of course in particular the incredible career of B.B. King are taught here in an entertaining and very interesting way. Afterwards we enjoy a dinner with a Mexican Mariachi band, who play La Bamba for Mom and me.
Before Elvis there was nothing (John Lennon)
Our motorcycle tour through the USA continues to Memphis. Elvis is alive! I never thought I’d come here once in my life. Graceland has recently been transformed into a massive visitor centre with several halls – a true merchandising gold mine. My personal paradise is the own room for the white stage suits and richly embroidered capes and the hall for the Elvis sports car and motorcycle collection – a dream come true! You don’t know what to look at first. Of course, a tour through the house is also included in the package. From the outside solid, classic – but on the it’s crazy! Elvis was also personally involved in the furnishing of his house. It would go beyond the scope of telling everything in detail here, but the “Jungle Room”! The TV room! The pool room! All these rooms are unique, therefore: biggest recommendation, also for the non Elvis fans! Finally we visit the graves of Elvis and his parents next to the classic 60s kidney pool. My mom is crying, like in 1977, when Elvis died. It’s really touching. Yes, really.
If you want to go to Memphis as a biker, it’s best to go on a Wednesday. Because on the famous Beale Street there is a Bikers Night every Wednesday. Live music roars from the music clubs, the bass roars in the street. There’s a thousand bikes, and without exception each one is pimped and tuned. Bottoms shaking in short shorts, bikers posing on crazy motorcycles with the fair maiden in their arms – the atmosphere is terrific.
We stay another day in Memphis and visit the famous Sun Studios, where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and U2 albums were recorded. And it may be a tourist attraction – but the famous ducks in the Peabody Hotel, that take the elevator from the roof to the fountain on the ground floor, are supercute and worth a visit.
From Memphis, the motorcycle tour to the roots of the Blues continues the next day to Muscle Shoals. After a short odyssey through tranquil residential areas we are back on the right track. First we go to Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis, to finish this topic properly. Then we drive another short while on the Natchez Trace Parkway. There is a lot of roadkill here and hungry vultures are circling above us and our bikes.
For music enthusiasts the Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals is a hot tip. Aretha Franklin, The Osmonds, Wilson Picket and many others have recorded their records there. We get a little guided tour, I am especially impressed by the office of studio boss Rick Hall. Here lies the softest carpet ever, you walk like on cotton wool, even in heavy biker boots. Lovely.
After a relatively quiet drive we arrive in Nashville. Our motel is a little bit on the outskirts, so that we can easily drive on again in the morning. Rain clouds are rising and before we reach the city centre by foot, we are already soaking wet. In the Johnny Cash Museum I have to change my clothes and now I look like a hardcore music fan. Okay, surrounded by Johnny Cash, it’s fine by me. Nashville Broadway is like a wildly cackling, hysterical pile of chickens. You turn around the corner and find yourself in a parallel universe – where cowboys and cowgirls dance to country, Johnny Cash sings the Folsom Prison Blues, you have to choose between thousands of cowboy boots in shops, where people run around the street completely crazy – looking for the next bar, the next beer, the best country band. Today I am one of them – and it’s really fun.
Slightly hungover and still fascinated by the hustle and bustle of the evening before, we get on the bikes early in the morning. Today we have 221 miles ahead of us and the path finally leads us on our motorcycles to the Great Smokey Mountains, part of the 2200 mile long Apalachian trail.
Ab in die Berge
On Route 70 and Interstate 40 we gain meters, we still want to reach Gatlinburg in daylight. On the way the weather gets worse and worse and my fight against the horizontal rain without a wind screen should not remain unmentioned. We take a short break at a gas station, where we can also buy fireworks – with the daring combination of goods I am a bit happy about the wet weather. After very beautiful, winding routes through the woods we arrive in Gatlinburg.
At first it looks like a tranquil, typically American winter sports resort, but after a walk it turns out to be an entertainment city – not exactly my case. But we won’t stay long anyway, because early in the morning we sit down again on the bikes to explore the Smokey Mountains.
It starts with a fantastic winding tour to Newfound Gap at 1500m altitude difference. With the rising early morning fog it becomes clear how the smokies get their name. The haze is generated by the lush vegetation and covers the mountain ranges wafting. In former times the Smokey Mountains were the centre of the Cherokee area and many place names still remind of it. Curves, curves and more curves – a true paradise and the reward for the thousands of kilometres of highway. In Bryson City we get a good dose of caffeine for the curvy track. We recommend the Sagebrush Cowboy Coffee House, where really good European coffee is brewed. Lord of the coffee maker is a real cowboy with an authentic, grim-friendly facial expression.
We cross Fontana Dam, a mighty reservoir, pass Cheoah Lake and now it gets exciting. We are at the notorious Tail of the Dragon, more precisely at the Deals Gap – the entrance to this 18 km long stretch with as many as 318 curves. But Highway 129 is not as bad as the “Tree of Shame” with all kinds of scrap parts shows. Unfortunately, this route has already claimed many seriously injured and fatalities and even when we were there, someone drove straight in a bend. I have a lot of respect and it’s not the time for high spirits – 30 mph will do it too. The narrow road is damaged on both sides, which is quite dangerous as you quickly land on the other lane in the narrow curves. But if you have the opportunity to come here, you should take the Tail of the Dragon with you. In the valley we are fortunately complete and celebrate ourselves for completing the course.
We danced to country and we heard the blues…what was the third one? Whiskey? Yeah, whiskey. I’m not a connoisseur, so I can’t tell if it’s the best whiskey I’m drinking right now, but Jack Daniels is definitely one of the best known whiskey brands. On the drive along the Tennessee River there is a small village called Lynchburg, where Jack Daniels Distillery is at home. It is recommended to join a guided tour. Best with the guide of the guides: Mike. This bear from a man with white hair and a voice that sounds like whiskey and cigars fits so well into this scenery, you couldn’t have cast it better. What he tells us about the story and the production of Jack Daniels is also quite interesting. Of course we buy whiskey. But we drink later – because we have to go further to Huntsville first.
In the motel the whiskey is about to be tasted – it is actually very good. Ready for a dinner in the periphery, we have the choice between Wendys, Subway, and a Mexican-American “restaurant”. The latter will then also win the race. The evening gets really funny when our lively waitress turns out to be a meth junkie, who comments on our orders. Fascinated I sit back, explain to my mother what’s going on with the waitress and think to myself that this trip really covers all facets of the USA.
The next day we drive further south to Montgomery, cross the Tennessee River and stop in Birmingham at the Barber Motorsports Museum. What is offered here does not only make the hearts of motorsport fans beat faster. Next to its own race track, where you can rent a car, there is the modern museum with as many as 1600 motorcycles and sports cars. Of these, 900 are permanently on display. From the first beginnings of the wooden motorcycle to today’s high-tech racing machines, the collection is gigantic and impressively arranged. You couldn’t finish it here in a day if you took a closer look at each machine. The press lady of the museum is delighted to meet us: “Wow, from Europe, how did you get here?” and we get an extra mention on the Barber Facebook page.
Unfortunately we have to leave after 2 hours in the Moto-Paradise, the way to Montgomery and further to Foley is not an easy one. Some of the areas we drive through are almost extinct. People live in trailers or wrecked houses with at least three broken cars in the garden. These last two days with about 440 miles are very ambivalent – on the one hand the landscape is incredibly beautiful. On the other hand, the social aspect is depressing and sad. To the general excitement, our eldest in the group – he is a sprightly 84 – rides into the bushes with his Indian Chief. He might have dozed off for a moment – the track was really a bit monotonous – but with a masterstroke he brings his machine back onto the road without a fall. Respect!
From Montgomery to Foley we drive along Highway 65 through a wooded and beautiful area. The further south we go, the better the atmosphere. We’re even roaming the sunshine state of Florida. In fact, our first trip in Foley isn’t to the motel, but a few kilometers further on – the sea. You can see the sun does us good and it is a worthy conclusion to our journey.
Our last tour stage takes us over the Gulf Shores to Mobile Point in the Gulf of Mexico. Another fantastic route along the coast with all its colourful beach houses. But the beaches are empty and almost all of the elaborately built beach villas are on sale – a consequence of the oil catastrophe around Deepwater Horizon. Neither at sea nor on land has the area recovered from the catastrophe. We are lucky to be able to drive a bit further and round off our journey through a perfect final stage:
We take the ferry over to Dauphin Island and from there a really cool route starts again on Highway 90, which takes us over the famous Dauphin Island Bridge and through the swamp area around New Orleans. When we hand over our machines, we are dusty and completely finished – and have a big smile on our faces. I congratulate Mom and pat myself on the shoulder. 16 days, about 3300km on the bike, what a start into the motorcycle season!
Gina is a RISER AMBASSADOR and as an expert she always recommends fun routes that are worth riding. You can follow Gina’s next motorcycle adventures here on her blog or at www.riser.com (under the name Gina la Marine)