DATE: October/November 2005
MOTORCYCLE: 2002 Aprilia Capo Norde, weight 474 pounds, 6.6 gallons fuel 39 pounds, 100 horsepower V-twin 1000 cc
ADDED WEIGHT: Two riders plus gear weight 350 pounds, plus hard bags, tank bag, and soft bag on rear platform weighing 115 pounds, electronics 16 pounds.
TOTAL WEIGHT FUELED BIKE AND ADD ONS: 994 pounds
AVERAGE GAS MILEAGE: 38.4 mpg
MILES: 585 miles via US 129/Alternate US 129, 581 miles on US 129
ESTIMATED TRAVEL TIME: 14 hours, 54 minutes
MILEAGE IF INTERSTATES (FASTEST ROUTE) WERE TAKEN: 549 miles
ESTIMATED TRAVEL TIME: 10 hours, 8 minutes
US 129 HISTORY: US 129 was constructed as a branch route of US 29 from Gainesville Georgia to Macon Georgia in the 1926-1934 time period. It was extended north to Knoxville Tennessee circa 1935 and south to Chiefland Florida 1940-1948. The route was at one time designated to extend northerly to Corbin Kentucky, but it was either never constructed or never signed. The route has changed over the years in some areas such as the NC State line to Topton and the Maryville to Knoxville 4-lane sections.
US highways are designated as follows: Odd numbers run north and south, with higher numbers to the west; even numbers run east and west with higher numbers to the south; principal routes are one or two digits; three digit numbers indicate branch highways or spur routes.
US 129 IN FLORIDA - 88 MILES:
We could find no memorial designations along US 129 in Florida even though it parallels the Suwannee River along most of its length.
US Highway signs in Florida had shields of various colors in the 1950s. Federal standards in the 1980s required black shields only. Florida continued to use the red, yellow, green orange, blue, and brown (US 129) shield colors into the late 1990s.
US 129 IN GEORGIA – 427 MILES:
From the Florida/Georgia State Line to Hawkinsville (139 miles) and from Jefferson Georgia to the Georgia/North Carolina State Line (89 miles) – Multiplexed with GA 11 and designated as the Andrew Jackson Highway .
From Jefferson to Gainesville Georgia - Multiplexed with GA 11 and designated as the Crawford W. Long Highway.
From Hawkinsville to Ocilla Georgia (54 miles) – part of the old Dixie Highway connecting Atlanta and Jacksonville . CLICK HERE FOR MAP
Madison Bypass - designated 1997 as the Brooks Pennington Memorial Parkway for the late Georgia politician.
US 129 IN NORTH CAROLINA – 66 MILES:
We can find no special memorial designations for US 129 in North Carolina .
There are many stretches of old US 129/19 in North Carolina . Today they have become backroad residential areas. Some are still marked as Old US 129 and Old US 19.
As you travel northerly on US 129 a mile or so after leaving US 19 at Topton you can see the original US 129 roadbed where it wound back deep into each cove on the left. Talk about some twisties.
The Complete US 129
"Life doesn't happen along the interstates. It's against the law." William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways
We decided on the spur of the moment to trace the entire length of US 129 from Florida to Tennessee and document all of this now famous US Highway for posterity before the huge, terrain eating Interstates take it over completely. NOTE 2015: At one point Interstate 3 threatened to devour US 129 from Athens Georgia to Knoxville. It appears to have been stopped by those who wanted to preserve the traditional mountain roads and environmentalists. To see more about this governmental fiasco CLICK HERE.
Our journey begins some 100 miles north of Tampa/St. Petersburg in the sleepy west coast Florida town of Chiefland, known as Mother Nature’s Playground and the Gem of the Suwannee Valley. We must have missed these sections of town as we passed through riding two-up on the 2002 Aprilia Capo Norde. Actually it was a relief to see these small, rural, back road towns after experiencing some of the hectic, crowded, and unnerving populated areas of various states. Thankfully some of the down-to-earth places such as Chiefland and Robbinsville still survive.
US 129 intersects US 19 right in downtown Chiefland and follows a northerly course through cattle country to the Georgia State Line. The road is mostly straight with little traffic and many passing zones allowing for good speed between the one or two traffic lights in each small town.
We stopped for fuel and a Red Bull in Trenton. The highlights of the stop were the cowboys buying chew and the men’s room which had a notice posted on the door as you exited, “PLEASE LET US KNOW IF THE BATHROOM NEEDS ATTENTION”. Someone had scrawled an answer, “This bathroom needs some serious attention. The devil lives in here.” I advised Nancy to wait for the next restroom stop even if it was in the woods.
We crossed a lazy river at O’Leno State Park, the western terminus of the Santa Fe River Canoe Trail. The Santa Fe joins the Suwannee River a few miles to the west. As we continued north the air offered the smells of cattle country. We passed several rural rodeo arenas and many pastures of cattle.
Jogging west on US 129/US 27 we entered Branford and had our first glimpse of the Suwannee River at Branford Springs’ Ivey Memorial Park. We passed on a "quick dip" in the spring which has a more or less constant temperature of 72 degrees year round.
We got back on the road and the now familiar aroma of cattle pastures was back in our nostrils. Not really as bad as pig farms, but attention getting none the less. We raced through O’Brien and McAlpin and arrived at Live Oak, one of the largest towns on our route with a population of around 6,000. Live Oak is home to the Suwannee County Historical Museum which features artifacts from Indians who once inhabited the area and a telephone collection that supposedly post dates the Indians.
A few miles north of town we crossed I-10, the first Interstate we had seen in days. It reminded us of the reason we were traveling the back roads.
Passing through Suwannee Springs we crossed the Suwannee River. This area was a big tourist draw at the turn of the century when Yankees swarmed to the south to stay in posh resorts and bathe in the medicinal sulfur springs. With better medicine now available the boom is over for this area.
Then we crossed another Interstate, this time I-75 with truckers running bumper to bumper at 80 mph; No place for us. We then came to the last town in Florida on US 129. Jasper boasts good old Southern Heritage, cotton gins, and an old jail complete with hanging tower. We were careful to obey the speed limit here.
A few minutes later we stopped at the Florida/Georgia State Line and wondered if the world had suddenly ended. There was not a single vehicle in sight for at least twenty minutes. We wanted to get a drink at the convenience store, but no one was tending the counter. Finally several eighteen-wheelers went screaming by at 75 mph letting us know that the earth was still turning.
Once into Georgia we encountered even less traffic, fewer whistle stops, long straight stretches of 85 mph highway and just about unlimited passing zones. We made better time than we would have on the Interstate. Statenville, Mayday, Stockton, Lakeland, Ray City, Nashville, Alapaha and Ocilla all flew by as Nancy dozed on the back of the trusty Capo with her helmet tapping mine every so often.
We stopped in Fitzgerald for a Subway and ate under the big pecan trees at the local Blue Gray Park. We needed to stretch our legs so we headed southwest on GA 125 to take in the Jefferson Davis Memorial State Park near Irwinville. Sadly it was closed on Mondays, but we took some photos from the gate. The thirteen acre site includes a museum, trail, gift shop, picnic tables and a memorial marking the spot where Davis was arrested by Union soldiers on May 9, 1865. Another spot of interest in Fitzgerald is the Blue & Gray Museum in the historical railroad depot.
US 129 through Fitzgerald is designated as the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway . First conceived in 1913, the road was planned to extend coast to coast from Miami Florida to Blaine Washington. A monument was erected in 1939 near the Peace Arch at the Canadian terminus. In 2002 Washington State attempted to have the memorial removed and the highway renamed for a black Union Soldier. The proposal passed in the State House but was killed in the Senate. Today there are only small segments honoring the former United States Congressman, United States Secretary of War and President of the Confederacy. SEE
The Dixie Highway had a connector that ran from Ocilla to Fitzgerald along the route of US 129 more or less. This highway system was conceived and constructed in the 1914-1927 time frame. It contained more than 5,700 miles of roadway from Ontario, Canada to Florida City, Florida. The system featured two major north/south routes with interconnecting east/west routes. CLICK HERE to see a map of the system which was published by the Dixie Highway Association in 1923.
Back in the saddle we spirited past Queensland, Bowens Mill, Browning and Abbeville. The barnyard smells of Florida were now replaced by the rolling fields of pure white cotton. We had to make a choice of routes at Hawkinsville. Here US 129 and Alternate US 129 split. We decided to take the Alternate and avoid the potential traffic in Warner Robins . On this route we passed Cochran, Tarversville and Bullard before crossing I-16. A quick jog to the west on the outskirts of Macon got us back on US 129. We had to get off the bike pretty soon after some 6 hours of seat time, so we got a room at Gray and treated ourselves to a Sonic dinner.
For those who want to take the slower route through Warner Robins, you can visit the Museum of Aviation. SEE
In Macon you can visit the Cannonball House which only claim to fame seems to be that it was hit by a cannonball during the Civil War and was not burned to the ground by the attacking troops. Tours are only on Saturday and visitors can actually try on a real hoop skirt (yooohooo). Send us picts if any guys in your group try this.
US 129 along the Macon/Gray corridor is named the Antebellum Highway . We can’t find any specific data on this designation but assume that if refers to a historic roadway postdating the Civil War. Duh.
Leaving Gray we skirted the Oconee National Forest and arrived at Eatonton, home of Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories and Alice Walker who wrote The Color Purple. We took a quick tour of the Uncle Remus Museum and then headed north to visit the 2000 year old prehistoric Rock Eagle effigy mound. This huge eagle spanning 120 feet from head to tail and 102 feet from wingtip to wingtip is formed by the placement of small to medium sized milky quartz rocks. The breast of the eagle is some 10 feet high and one set of bones was discovered under the breast. Both of these exhibits are free.
We had wanted to visit the remains of the Nawaubian compound Tama-Re which was an Egyptian themed collection of buildings and pyramids that was constructed near Eatonton. The leader of this cult, Dwight York more commonly known as Doc, was arrested on charges varying from failure to meet zoning requirements to child molestation and racketeering. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were two who had come to protest his harassment. York was found guilty, sentenced to 135 years, and the conviction was recently upheld on appeal. He has changed his name to Chief Black Thunderbird Eagle at Leavenworth Prison. The compound is currently being demolished with the local Sheriff having taken the first action by tearing down the entrance with his back hoe.
Racing northward we crossed I-20 before skirting Madison, Apalachee, Farmington, Bishop, Watkinsville and arriving at Athens. We wanted to scout Athens in preparation for the upcoming 2006 American Motorcycle Association Women and Motorcycling Conference which will be held there June 29 through July 3. Being the University of Georgia college town we knew it had to be a lively place, much more so than Buckhannon, West Virginia where the 2002 conference had been held.
We got a room in the Holiday Inn and toured the downtown area on foot. The town seemed rather deserted and we later learned that is was the week of the Florida/Georgia game in Jacksonville. All good Bulldogs go the biggest game of the year so we had the bars to ourselves. We enjoyed an excellent fish and chips dinner at The Globe, one of the highly recommended establishments. There are many trendy shops on the side streets of downtown and also decorated Bulldog statues on most of the corners. A Civil War relic stands at the Courthouse; a one-of-a-kind double barreled cannon that was intended to fire two cannonballs connected by a chain at the same time. The timing was never perfected making it extremely dangerous to the triggerman, but the cannon fired single shots just fine.
We had to visit the 47 year-old local IHOP for breakfast. You can get full just reading the menu with such choices as pork chops and country gravy, pancakes, hash browns or grits, ham/bacon/sausage, biscuits with more gravy and eggs any style. Even if there aren’t many twisty roads in the Athens areas, it looks like the AMA girls will eat and drink well.
Heading north out of Athens we passed Arcade and Jefferson (watch out for the LEOs on the by-pass). Jefferson is known as the birthplace of anesthesia. You can visit the Dr. Crawford W. Long Museum to see more about the doctor who first used sulfuric ether in 1842 to operate on a small boy. US 129 in this area has been designated the Crawford W. Long Highway.
Then we passed the towns of Pendergrass and Talmo before taking the I-985 By-pass around Gainesville. Farther north you’ll get glimpses of the north Georgia lakes and the road becomes a little twistier. After Clermont we entered Cleveland, home of the once famous Cabbage Patch Doll Babyland General Hospital .
A few miles farther and we were feeling back at home on the twisty roads of Blood Mountain. We had been on so many straight and boring roads that I almost blew the first corner in over-eager anticipation. US 129 across Blood Mountain is a memorable run. There are passing lanes for the uphill sections and some curves are very tight, but with the extra lane you can push your speed to fit your own comfort level.
We stopped at the Appalachian Trail crossing at the top of Blood Mountain at 4,458 feet. Cherokee legend says that in the great battle against the Creek Nation so many warriors died on the mountain that the mountain sides and creeks ran red with blood. The Appalachian Trail is a National Footpath stretching 2,175 miles from Maine to Georgia. Many hikers have made the entire trek taking the entire summer to complete. One actually hiked the entire trail walking backwards.
Some modern hikers and bikers have left some blood here too. Other great roads in the area include GA 180 to Suches and GA 348 (Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway). Both are part of Six Gap Loops. Camping is available at Vogel State Park.
Heading for home our steed was racing for the barn on familiar roads. We had to make one more stop to eat at our favorite local restaurant in Blairsville, the Rib Country BBQ Restaurant. Nancy usually orders the smoked turkey platter or salad and I always get the pulled pork sandwich. Baked beans are homemade, fries are fresh and crispy and service is fast. Best fare we have found in the area. They also have a place in Murphy, North Carolina along US 129.
With stomachs filled we crossed into our home state of North Carolina. We bypassed old Murphy, enjoyed the scenery of the Valley River valley, bypassed downtown Andrews. This new 4-lane route is quite different from the original US 129/19 route which was all 2-lane and passed through the Murphy and Andrews downtown areas. I can still remember some of the old country backroads from the 1970s. Too bad these bypasses sometimes kill the small towns they avoid. Andrews is a prime example.
Turning at Topton, we cranked the throttle on the last stretch of freshly paved twisties into Robbinsville. But the best part of US 129 is only another 20 miles distant … the Tail of the Dragon at Deals Gap. Continually ranked as the best twisty road in the US, this 11 mile section of US 129 offers something for everyone whether you like it or not. The squeamish call it the Upchuck Turnpike while most sport bike riders call it heaven. Many cruiser riders lose some chrome while sports car drivers lose some nerve. Onlookers marvel at the regulars who “tear it up”, while some locals curse the speeders and call it "that damn road to Tennessee".
On summer weekends it is a carnival …. road geeks and gawkers, wanta-bes, has-beens, newbes and freaking regulars; braggers and baggers, prototype cars and blasts from the past, chrome covered hogs and beat-up squid bikes, trikes and bicycles, helicopters, undercover vans and satellite surveillance for the paranoid, flippies, floppies, wheelies, stoppies, crashes …. all more than anyone can keep track of or see. It is the Dragon which attracts them all. Just 11 miles of common asphalt laid out by a fiendish road engineer who thought everyone would forever curse his creation. He never could have imagined what it has become today.
Once over the Dragon we entered some beautiful Tennessee farm country as US 129 gasps its last breaths of life, turning into a heavily traveled 4-lane, fast food/car dealership wasteland through Maryville and Alcoa. Nearing Knoxville it abruptly ends at Interstate 40, and dies as Least Heat Moon would say, where “life is against the law.”
We are not ironbutters and never will be. Why anyone would want to ride a 1000 miles in one day is way beyond us. Nancy is ready to kill after 250 miles and I’m not much better.
We had trouble finding good food on the road. We would love to sample good local fare, but it is just about impossible to get anyone to guide us to these places. Are they trying to keep these fine eating establishments a secret or are good restaurants a thing of the past? We often have to settle for the known fast foods that we can stomach such as salads and Subway turkey subs.
Plan to hit the larger towns on these back roads in the late afternoon. We did at times find ourselves riding after dark trying to find a decent place to stay. In the back woods towns about the only thing available are the old 1950s style strip motel with a bullet proof check–in window. Nancy will not tolerate such digs after being spoiled with Hampton and Holiday Inns. Sometimes I can sneak in a Days Inn if she is really fried.
We could not have made the trip without our Garmin GPS and Passport Radar Detector with Screamer. The radar detector saved us more than once on the backroads.
Good, clean restrooms on the back roads are rare.
Energy drinks are a necessity. One down side – they make you need a good clean restroom more often.
When Nancy ’s helmet started banging mine I knew she was falling asleep.
The Aprilia Capo Norde was an excellent ride. It handled nimbly, took to the dirt and gravel with no problem, had the get-up when needed, and proved dependable. We did hit some heavy stop and go traffic which caused some throttle hesitation after a time.