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MC Dispatch

Reader-submitted rides, reviews and stories

On the Road: Traveling to Burke's Garden in southwest Virginia

Sometimes it can be hard to predict what will turn out to be a Good Idea. Does taking street machines on an unknown dirt road qualify as one? I found myself facing one of those decisive moments motorcycling on VA Highway 91 in mid-June.  After an exhilarating half-hour of watching Don Sprinkle’s BMW GS’s taillight gradually recede while I dodged the gravel patches residing in every third or fourth curve, I came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the highway next to Don and the “Pavement Ends” sign, staring at a gravel road climbing up over the next mountain. As I removed my helmet, Terry Shiels pulled up on the other side.  We had left Charlotte that morning, passed through Saltville, VA a few miles back, and our goal was Tazewell, and a visit to Burke’s Garden, reputed to be a stunningly beautiful pocket of rural tranquility in a very quiet region of western Virginia’s mountains. We now had to reach a consensus on whether to proceed on dirt, or turn around and find a paved route to Tazewell.  


The mountains’ beauty shrouded in the morning fog 

For Don, it was a no-brainer. His BMW GS boxer had all the options, including a dirt-road detection device.  He would have ridden gravel all the way from Charlotte had such a road been available.  Terry’s gaze told a different story.  He was astride his newly-acquired Triumph Sprint GT, a stunningly beautiful 600-lb sport tourer.  It had so much new on it, that he literally polished it every time we stopped, to ensure the freshness shone through. I could tell he wasn’t so enthusiastic.  My ’78 Moto Guzzi V50 was a pavement-only machine, but it was light enough to handle gravel, and old enough for that prospect not to bother me too much. 


Not all of Virgina's major highways are paved! 

If Terry had voiced his objection, I’d have joined him, and we would have gone in to Tazewell another way. Riding a street bike for long distances on unimproved roads is asking for a minor disaster.  Changing a flat on a Guzzi small block literally requires more tools than pulling a cylinder head. Terry’s Triumph was showroom-new and sunglasses-shiny.  The driver of the pickup truck Don flagged down, assured us that there was only 7 or so miles of gravel and that the road was in good shape.  His wife disagreed, but it was obvious Don didn’t want to listen to her.   


George Smith (left) and Don Sprinkle on the road to Burke's Garden. 

There’s a powerful unseen force among middle-aged motorcycle riders that sometimes causes a lot of trouble.  The layman’s term is “not looking like a ‘wuss.”  So up the gravel road we went.  And actually, it wasn’t so bad!  Recent afternoon thunderstorms meant we had little dust.  The road grade was fairly smooth, and the stones were small and well-packed.  We sure didn’t set any speed records, but progress was steady, until we rounded a left-hand hairpin and immediately pulled off for a view of the valley below and the first of many Kodak Moments.  There Don and I got to soak in a little of Terry’s wisdom, gleaned from his years as a videographer. Terry has a great eye for lighting and composition, and I tried the rest of the trip to incorporate his hints.  I’m generous enough to share my photography wisdom with him, which is “take a s***load of pictures, and throw most of them away.”  Going slowly lets you see lots of wildlife, too, in the form of woodchucks, ‘coons, and deer.  They’re certainly there during the rest of the ride, but if you’re watching apexes and potholes, the animals pretty much fade into the background.  Riding slowly on dirt is a whole new experience visually, as well as a challenge to one’s bike-handling skills. 


The shady dirt road offered spectacular  peeks of distant peaks. 

The rubbernecking we did on the rest of the ride to Tazewell pretty much undid Don’s AM chiropractic session.  I know why the old fighter pilots wore their silk scarves. The neck skin gets irritated from all the head-swinging.  The landscape was such that you really couldn’t help yourself, and after check-in at the motel, we all agreed that our decision to take the gravel road really was a Good Idea.  We three propped our feet up outside our rooms, enjoying cold adult beverages, and admired our rides.  Terry polished his. 

Don’s BMW GS is a versatile machine that seems to do anything asked of it, and do it well.  The off-road styling is more than just appearance.  It really does seem to have an affinity for unpaved roads, but in the hands of a good rider, can use its agility and broad torque to give sport bike riders fits on twisty pavement. 

Terry’s Triumph is a beauty, and it’s easy to see why one would be reluctant to put it at risk riding on loose gravel. It really is out of its element there. But it would likely be the first choice for a track day where rules required you to haul all your luggage around a course at racing speeds.   Oh, dark blue shows dust. 

The baby Guzzi is totally outclassed by those two.  Truth be told, it’s pretty much outclassed by just about any modern bike. But the engineering was solid, and the few that made their way to our shores have proven pretty much unburstable.  Pricier than Honda’s 750, and slower than Honda’s 400, Moto Guzzi had their work cut out for them trying to sell small block 500’s in the US.  But the few dozen lucky souls who own them today consider them to be classic overachievers.  Out of its league, but full of enthusiasm, it’s like a third-string bench warmer sent into a blowout game’s waning seconds. The small Guzzi performs with such joy and brio, it’s easy for the rider to forgive its shortcomings.  It’s satisfying to simply enjoy watching it play.  If an inanimate object can have joie de vivre, it’s there in spades in the Goose! 

Tuesday morning provided us with a real change. Since Charlotte had experienced seventy-leven days in a row of high 90-degree weather, we just had to get our pictures taken in front of the bank’s Time and Temp display. Timing the shutter just right got a smiling rider with a 55-degree reading on the sign in the background.  Next on the list during breakfast was to e-mail the pics to everyone in the heat back home. 


Terry Shiels takes a photo of Don on cooler-than-expected morning. 

After breakfast, Terry and I stopped at an old cemetery in downtown Tazewell for some photos of the Confederate-era graves.  The shots you can get on camera phones can be amazing, but I kept complaining that I needed a different lens or other equipment to get a certain shot.  Leave it to a professional like Terry to point out the obvious. “It’s all we have, and we just have to work with it.”  That’s why he makes a living in visual arts. 


The cemetery in downtown Tazewell. 

The fog lifted and the temp crept up to comfortable levels as we made the 10-mile trip to Burke’s Garden.  Entering from the north, an exhilarating road cuts through the mountain and suddenly you slow down to find yourself in an immense serving of farm stew in a bowl made of mountain-ridge. Burke’s was originally a mountain underlaid with sedimentary rock.  Over the eons, the rock in the middle collapsed, leaving the mountain in the form of a ring to surround the crater-like valley. It’s described as the highest valley in Virginia at roughly 3000 feet.  Interestingly, this location was George Vanderbilt’s first choice to build Biltmore House, America’s largest private residence, but he couldn’t convince a single landowner in the valley to sell, so Biltmore ended up being built in Asheville. 


Just inside the north entrance to Burke's Garden. 

Riding the lane-and-a-half wide perimeter road, it’s easy to see the attraction.  George had excellent taste and the valley’s residents were smart enough to ignore his money and hang on to what they knew was a Good Thing.  At the General Store, the owner told us that we have one advantage over Vanderbilt.  For the first time in recent memory, some Garden property was actually for sale, probably still for Vanderbilt-sized money.  I asked her where the best photo ops were in the Garden, and she candidly answered “All of it.” 

 Leaving the store, we rode clockwise for maybe a half-mile before the gloves came off and the camera came out. When we saw llamas and camels at a farm another half-mile down the road, the gloves came off permanently and I decided just to leave them in the tank-bag.   



Camels in Burke's Garden, Va. 

Any words to describe Burke’s Garden are likely to be inadequate.  The dictionary gives us “bucolic” and “pastoral.”  Suffice it to say, a visit should be on your bucket list. There’s no lodging. There’s one gas pump that is so old the hand-written notice affixed advises the purchaser that gas actually costs TWICE what’s on the pump. No place to eat.  Many of the valley’s vehicles probably never leave the Garden because they have no tags.  This isolation can’t help but make you feel you’ve somehow stepped back in time, trapped in a period of history where everyone was on a party line telephone, and neighbors spanked each other’s kids.  In a nod to modernity, one of the houses did have a window-unit air conditioner.  






 Burke's Garden is one spectacular photo-op after another. 

After our delightful ride the day before, we didn’t have as much trepidation about exiting on the gravel road to the south. Don said it was a little longer and crossed two ridges as well as the Appalachian Trail on the way out.  It did start out pretty steep and then got rougher and looser the farther we got in.  Unlike the day before, ruts sometimes crossed the road and occasionally the rocks that mountain bikers call “baby heads” were in the way. Don was in his element.  I was nervous, but coping.  Terry was wishing for a miraculous loss of 200 pounds of bike weight, and a way to peer through his fairing to help dodge the obstacles.  I really was sympathetic as even a very low speed tumble on a bike like his could cost hundreds of dollars while knocking off a good bit of the “new.”  The color finally returned to his face when we hit pavement 14 miles later.  


A bike like Terry's Triumph can be a real hand-full on a dirt road. 

One more stop to get some “tank bag condiments,” sauces, jellies, etc., that I can’t get at home. Terry polished the Triumph. Some more twisty parts coming down the mountain into Wytheville, VA and again into Elkin, NC.   Terry used to own a cruiser and had replaced it with the Sprint.  Riding the higher-performance Triumph, he was developing a new set of skills to cope with the better bike and the mountain roads, both paved and unimproved.  One of this ride’s appeals was watching his confidence and skills improve constantly.  The other was being able to watch Don’s smooth, effortless GS riding.  He makes it look so easy.  I’m sure he scares himself from time to time, but you’d never know it! 

 Droning home on I77 South near Lake Norman, brake lights ahead lit up.  Our delay was brief, but the northbound lanes, where the accident had occurred, were backed up for miles.  Don looked over, flipped up his visor and shouted “Welcome Home!  Let’s do it again!”   

Of course, Don. In a heartbeat! -- George Smith