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Magic in the Smoky Mountains

Knowing the shockingly short amount of time it takes for a group of strangers to become friends might help you decide if the Smoky Mountain Magic Tour is something you’d like.

At first glance, our group had little in common. Different ages, backgrounds, educations 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. We did have two things in common, however: We all read emails from the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America, and were quick to decide on trying a new kind of adventure. The tour quickly sold out and wait-listed, so we felt lucky to have our spots.

The adventure felt special from the first moment. Imagine you’ve been invited to join a comfortable family reunion collecting relatives together across time and distance. Now imagine a few larger-than-life personalities holding court and retelling stories to delight 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. Because of this atmosphere, I feel confident predicting this will be one of BMW MOA’s most popular tours of all time. Whether it’s something you’d like to try is for you to decide.

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 Smokies, you will also have a chance to discover the side roads and places off the beaten path in the heart of the mountains.” We definitely rode some of the best-known roads for riding 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!” As 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 new to touring. Whatever your reason, the tour’s friendly pace explicitly acknowledged that sometimes it’s better to travel than to arrive.

“This is an ‘all-inclusive’ tour that includes your lodging, meals and even your gas during the tour. All you need to do is check in on the first night and we’ll take it from there!” The ultimate in convenience, with the organizers taking care of every detail. Riders need only show up and enjoy the experience. We arrived at the resort within a generous window on the first day, then enjoyed a group dinner and an overview of the tour in the evening. We took day trips from the resort for the next three days, combining riding, dining and sightseeing. What turned out to be the real highlight of each day was the evening drinks and dinner when we compared notes, shared stories and became fast friends.

Our Hosts

Four names made for an unforgettable experience: Vance and Mari Harrelson, and Bob and Sue Aldridge. Many long-time BMW MOA members may recognize those names, and if so, you might be thinking of words like kind, thoughtful, welcoming and funny. They are all 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 at the same time tired and relieved at having the first day of touring behind us, including the amazing Tail of the Dragon. 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.

From breakfast in the morning to the gatherings in the evening, it was clear our hosts had carefully considered ways to make the tour the best they could. They drew upon their own touring experiences to adopt best practices and smooth out hassles. With Vance and Mari in the lead and setting the pace, Bob and Sue brought up the rear of our convoy each day, with Sue in the support truck.

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. The roads are the real draw, though: 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.

For everyone 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. In addition to US 129, which includes the Tail of the Dragon, we rode the Cherohala Skyway, Moonshiner 28, Nantahala Gorge, US 64 to Highlands and back, the Great Smoky Mountain Expressway as well as visiting Cherokee, Maggie Valley and the Road to Nowhere.

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 man-made attractions. The area is dotted with water features thanks to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s many projects creating 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. We enjoyed carefully planned fuel stops for riders and bikes each day. Our meals were uniformly excellent. 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.

The Riders

How long it takes for strangers to become friends depends, of course, 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, Mari, Bob 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 loudly proclaim in a fake 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. 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 riders used to describe their days:

  • gratitude
  • awesome
  • twisty
  • fellowship
  • camaraderie
  • community
  • easy friendships
  • memories
  • trusting

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, but it can also 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.

James Bellerjeau was General Counsel of an S&P 500 company for two decades, and later Head of its Global Sustainability Program. He served as President of the Association of Corporate Counsel Europe and writes the Career Path column for the ACC Docket, the magazine for in-house lawyers. He teaches at the University of Zurich and is an executive coach for newly promoted general counsels.