I believe we all share that inner craving for a few free moments for ourselves. Not just dads – everyone. Through my 1990’s teal-tinted glasses of nostalgia, there seemed an abundance of free time back before I could really appreciate it.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy having a relatively full schedule constantly. As I learned through many a cram session during college, sometimes I’m at my best when I’m under the most pressure. But there has to be a release valve – preferably one I can deploy on my own terms.
During those same college years, that release was to take a drive.
Usually late at night, when traffic was light and the roads were dark.
Of course, as the years went on the stressors rose and opportunities waned. There are times now that I’d swap mortgage, parenting, and career worries for books, hangovers, and semester finals in a heartbeat. On top of that, the straight, flat, and crowded roads of South Florida are both boring and infuriating in equal measure. A simple drive just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Which is why I decided to terrify and confound my wife this past September, and plan an extended excursion with the implicit purpose to just. Go. DRIVE.
However, the goal wasn’t solely to assuage stress. It was time to release the Kraken; or in other words, get my garage-queen of a Z06 into somewhere resembling what I perceived as its natural habitat.
We Have Nothing To Fear But Horsepower Itself
There are a couple of problems that come with owning any sports car. For me, the two biggest were the rear wheels – or rather, the amount of power they were capable of unleashing with a stab of the go pedal.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t respect the car so much as I feared it. Lots of power in a relatively lightweight body has a way of biting you directly in the ass – and somewhere along the way between 19 and 29 I’d developed a healthy fear of death. Apparently, becoming a husband and father will do that to you.
As a result, I was overly cautious 90% of the time I was behind the wheel.
The thing is, piloting a powerful vehicle with fear can be just as dangerous as doing so with ignorance. Panicking once it gets away from you on a tight off ramp or wet street will lead to disaster just as quickly as irresponsibly romping on the gas at every streetlight.
I didn’t like being afraid of the monster in my garage. I needed to learn how to tame it.
And because I like doing things the hard way, a trial by fire was the only possible solution. I coordinated with a few friends of mine who share a passion of the automotive variety, read everything and spoke to everyone I could about driving tips and techniques, and set my sights on the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina.
Finding a Dragon to Ride is Harder Than it Sounds
It was a little before 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday. The violet hues signaling the impending sunrise dueled with the opaque shadows wielded by the forest. The smoke-tinged fog cut visibility to episodes 15-feet in length of vague, desaturated shapes. I was chasing the red ghosts of taillights in front of me on a narrow country road as they flew right, then left, then disappeared before beginning their dance again.
It was at this exact moment that I realized I might have bitten off more than I could chew.
The day had started two hours prior. The four of us rose from bed, double checked tire pressures and fluid levels, and hit the highway from our home base in Atlanta, intent on reaching one of the most infamous roads in the world: US 129. Deals Gap. Or, as it’s more commonly known to most vehicular enthusiasts; The Tail of the Dragon.
Estimates vary, but it’s generally held that this particular section of the mountain highway connecting North Carolina and Tennessee is home to more than 300 curves over a scant 11 miles.
But we weren’t anywhere near the Dragon. We were lost.
It took a literal end of the road for us to acquiesce and finally turn around. Fortunately, we were back on track soon enough, and rolled into the parking lot of the tiny lodge that serves as the starting landmark of the dragon’s tail slightly before 8:00 a.m.
There was no time for ceremony. Eager to attack the road before it was clogged with the usual weekend traffic, we began.
This Was Supposed To Be Relaxing, Right?
The great irony of this trip was believing the driving itself would set my mind at ease. It was in fact quite the opposite.
As the turns kept coming, my thoughts went into an endless loop, combining all the tidbits I’d picked up during the preceding months.
Brake in a straight line. Look through the turn. Be judicious with the throttle. Smooth inputs.
And the tires. The tires! Keep them under load as much as possible. Listen to them. Don’t panic when you feel them start to give a little.
Most of all, DON’T PUSH IT TOO HARD. Try to enjoy yourself.
The twisting asphalt seemed to go on forever, and yet was over all too quickly. We found ourselves at the unofficial end – an overlook high above a winding river and waves of evergreen trees. The sun was now hanging lazily a quarter of the way above the horizon, bathing everything in a stark yellow light. My forearms were sore. I was trembling slightly with adrenaline. We were four men with our trusty mechanical steeds surrounded by nature; yet all one.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the single most valuable moment of the trip. This brief respite book-ended by bouts of total focus and engagement – this was fulfillment. I was living completely in the moment.
And it was only the beginning of the journey.
Of course, it was fleeting, but it was worth it. I somehow now understand addiction much better.
Why You Need to Go Out and Ride Your Own Dragon
We rode the dragon once more. We then headed back south; single lane, two lane, even four lane roads winding up, down, and around mountains of rock and foliage. Every turn of the wheel and prod of the pedal unlocked more comfort and confidence.
We spent the entire day on those roads, only stopping briefly to admire the architecture and sample the wares of Helen, GA. – a curious wonder built in the spitting image of a small German town, complete with cobblestone streets.
We arrived back to Atlanta late in the afternoon, full of piss and vinegar. Vinegar in the form of personal experiences and stories; and piss in the form of…well, there weren’t a lot of bathroom breaks.
At the end of the trip, I fired up the V-8 and pointed the front bumper back toward the wide and tame superhighways of South Florida. But I wasn’t the same man that had left. I had caught a brief glimpse into myself and what makes me tick. I’d discovered a novel feeling – one of complete satisfaction in the moment – and learned how I could grasp it again in the future. Furthermore, I’d set a goal and achieved it. And it made me as a person objectively better than I’d been when I left.
I also learned a lot about my car; how it responds when pressed, and just how incapable I was of touching its enormous limits. The intimidation was finally gone; replaced with a mutual (I hope) respect.
Even for those among us who view cars as little more than appliances, I highly suggest a trip like this. You’ll give yourself the opportunity to expand a necessary skill set, discover or relive that feeling of being totally dialed in, and if nothing else – enjoy breathtaking vistas not found anywhere else on the planet.
And when you do, invite me, please.