We’ve just come back from an awesome weekend in the mountains. This was the annual “MINIs Slay the Sleeping Dragon” (MSSD) meet. The group we were with didn’t actually go on the “Tail of the Dragon,” but we ran it ourselves later. We had a nice mix of group motoring and independent adventuring.
Friday we drove up to Bryson City, where we met about 50-plus fellow MINI enthusiasts for dinner. I am not sure the little Mexican restaurant was really prepared for an onslaught of customers, but it was good to meet other MINI owners. The long table they had set up was full when we got there, so we ended up in one of the four booths at the end of the table. Those booths filled up shortly thereafter, and we ended up sharing our booth with a couple from Atlanta. It was a bit awkward to have dinner with strangers, especially when the food arrives at different times, but it was good to make connections.
While standing in line to pay our check we missed most of the MINIs’ exit. We ended up at the rear of a small caravan of four on the way to Fontana Village, where most (if not all) of the participants were staying. The drive from Bryson to Fontana is about 40 mostly-boring minutes, but the last 10 miles or so has some great curves. Even that trek was enjoyable, there is something about driving in a group of MINIs that just makes everything more fun!
The Fontana Village Resort turned out to be pretty nice. They have a “Lodge” with hotel-like accommodations (which was completely booked) and several cabins. We ended up in a 2 bedroom/2 bath cabin thanks to a fellow club member that changed their lodging plans. The cabin was much nicer than expected, although I swear the water heater had about a two gallon capacity. I would definitely stay there again, and recommend it to anyone interested in going to the area. However, be prepared for a cold shower if you are in a cabin!
Saturday there were several different excursions planned. There was a 9am trip that would end with lunch in Robbinsonville; then that group would split up so people could make the 3pm “ice cream” run, which of course ended at an ice cream parlor. There was also an offshoot group that went on a short run even earlier for breakfast, with the intention of meeting up with the rest of the 9am group as they went past. Surprisingly, that actually worked and we were joined by several more cars along the way. There was also a 9pm run that went over a lot of the same ground that was covered that morning, but making a figure-eight back in the other direction as well. We decided to start out with the morning run and just see how our day went. We weren’t really interested in the ice cream run anyway.
So, at 8:30 Saturday morning we assembled with our group and set off at 9am. It was a blast! Well, except for the parts were we got stuck behind slow vehicles or had to stop for logs in the road. We had about 30 MINIs zooming around the curves. Sean drove for this part, so I got the pleasure of sitting and enjoying the beautiful scenery. That was almost as rewarding as driving! The driver couldn’t watch the scenery because the road and caravan required too much attention. It was truly beautiful though, with the fall colors, blue skies, tall cliff faces, distant mountains, and the creeks, rivers, and lakes. I was definitely not feeling left out as a passenger. It was also a lot of fun to watch the people we passed realize what they were seeing. You could see some of the people’s expressions switch between the “oh look, a few MINIs are driving together” to the realization of “wow, look, there are a ton of them!” And other people were excited; waving, pointing, taking pictures, or just standing there agape at the spectacle.
The run lasted three hours or so, with a few short stops along the way for pictures and sightseeing. We ended up at a pizza & sub place in Robbinsonville, where MINIs nearly filled the entire parking lot. Here we didn’t really socialize with any others, we just ate our lunch, decided what to do next, then chatted with the last few MINI folks in the parking lot before heading towards Maryville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg, TN via the Dragon. For those who don’t know, this is the nickname given to an 11 mile stretch of HWY 129 with 318 brilliant curves.
This time I got to drive! Sean asked if he could drive the Dragon first, but I told him I wanted to. It was only fair, right? I mean, he has driven during all of the events so I should at least get to drive the Dragon first. Sean agreed, although I think he was a little sad about it. I promised he could drive on the way back through.
The Dragon was pretty fun! Although, the traffic and 30mph speed limit was annoying. I had a good run on the first half, but then got stuck behind a Yukon. Most of the slower traffic would pull over and let the rest pass, but not that stubborn Yukon. It was still fun though! An added bonus I hadn’t expected was seeing all the sports cars that come to drive it. There were tons of new and classic cars; Mustangs, Corvettes, Cobras, BMW roadsters, and even a Ford GT. It was one of those roads that made you want to say “let’s go again!” but we wanted to see what we could find in TN so we kept going forward.
I had decided I wanted boots. This is something I could do in Raleigh of course, but I decided it made a good motoring quest. We did a quick Google search with the word “boot” to find some destinations. The first stop was Maryville, which proved fruitless, so then it was on to Pigeon Forge.
I had forgotten how terrible traffic can be in Pigeon Forge. It quickly became apparent we would not be getting back to the Dragon before nightfall. I fought my way through traffic comparable to I-40 at 5pm on a rainy Friday, and eventually spotted a place that lauded “Boots! Buy 1 Pair get 2 Free!” and somehow made it across several lanes of traffic to get there in one piece. This was of course a tourist trap and you of course paid for all three pair of boots given that I don’t think a single pair in there was less than $100. It was also packed with people. I found boots though! So I now have two new pairs of boots and Sean has a pair as well.
Boot goal achieved, we realized we had to figure something out about dinner since it was nearly 6pm at this point. We were about a quarter mile from Dixie Stampede, which I had been to a few times as a child. I knew it was probably sold out, but decided to give it a try for nostalgia’s sake. And it was sold out, but at least I got to see some horsies while we walked to and from the car. From there we wandered up the road aimlessly for a bit trying to decide where to eat.
We had nearly decided to eat at one of the billion pancake places that we were passing, when Sean spotted a Bubba Gump Shrimp billboard. Bubba Gump is in Gatlinburg, which is theoretically about 7 minutes from Pigeon Forge. Unfortunately, as soon as you actually enter Gatlinburg the traffic is even worse than Pigeon Forge… so it took much much longer than it should to actually get to the restaurant.
Gatlinburg is yet another tourist trap. There seems to only be one main street, with no way to cut around the traffic. The main drag is crammed with shops, restaurants, and gimmicky attractions aimed at tourists. We crawled through the traffic, women with baby strollers passing us… until we were able to park in a lot around the corner from the restaurant for the bargain price of $10. Parking was a little amusing though. They saw our MINI and directed us to this tiny spot that wasn’t really a parking spot behind the little parking attendant shed.
We ended up waiting forever for a table while I day dreamed about all the fudge shops we had passed on the way in. Eventually we got a table though. The entire restaurant is decorated with Forest Gump memorabilia and the drink menu is made of laminated cards attached to a ping pong paddle with metal rings. The food was pretty good, although things were a little slow thanks to the packed house. After dinner we walked down the strip a ways, picking up some fudge and stopping at the Ripley’s museum. Sean suggested we go since I had told him I had always wanted to go to one as a kid, but never had the chance. The “museum” was neat, but not sure it was really worth $16 a ticket. I had a good time though!
We fought traffic to get out of Gatlinburg, and went back through Pigeon Forge. Thankfully the traffic was better in Pigeon Forge and we made decent time. Coming back, we skipped Maryville and took the Foothills Parkway instead. The Parkway is a 17 mile stretch of absolutely nothing other than a few places you can pull over for scenic overlooks. It was a pleasant drive, but we were thankful for the MINI’s bright headlights. There were a few places where you could look out and see all the lights in the valley below, it was quite beautiful up there even at night. I only wish it hadn’t been overcast so that we could see the stars.
It was about 11pm when we hit the Dragon again. I am not sure Sean really expected his first Dragon run to be in the dead of the night. It was incredibly dark out there. The entire road is lined with trees, so even in daylight it is shaded. And even though the moon was nearly full, the cloud cover was thick so we had very little light other than the headlights. The headlights are great on straight stretches, but when you have such frequent sharp curves it doesn’t help very much… especially when a lot of those curves are in a downward slope towards a dip in the road. The good part was that we had the road to ourselves. We only passed a couple oncoming vehicles. Not that it mattered much, there was no way we were going to do much speeding on that road at night!
The Dragon was such fun that we had to run it again Sunday before leaving. This time Sean drove North towards TN, then I drove south and continued on towards home. It was still loads of fun, but the cops were out in force. We saw at least seven. This made us a little nervous since it is so easy to speed there. Your attention is mostly on the road or having fun with the curves, so it is very easy to not notice when you exceed the speed limit. Especially in a MINI. Thankfully I managed to pull over and get behind a group of motorcycles, so that helped a lot. I really wish we could have gone again, but I didn’t want to deal with the cops or be any later getting home. As it was we didn’t get home until 9pm, so it is good we didn’t waste any more time. At least I got to drive back on the roads around Fontana Village, so I still got to have a bit more fun!
I can’t wait for the next MINI event! I am really enjoying this little car. My only regret is not having a good video camera to record our trip, the stills will have to do for now. I have my eye on Tachyon XC HD before our next adventure though.
(check out the Photos section for some pictures)