This article is Part III in The Making of Tail of the Dragon “the novel,” my latest literary endeavor. CLICK HERE to visit Part II and Part I. One of the needs I had while writing the book and flushing out the character of Rick Stevens and his wife Renee was an example of freedom that only pirates and other outlaws might have experienced. I also had an intense need to explore the eastern parts of The Great Smoky Mountains as the western portion was explored extensively in Parts I and II. In the novel the story takes Rick and Renee’s massive car chase into the mountains along I-40 and down into Ashville, North Carolina from the north, so I needed to scout that area out so I could put texture into my story. There are several very intense sequences that take place in the novel along the I-40 corridor, so I needed to go and put my hands on those places tasting the air and see the sights for myself, taking notes along the way. But I also needed to put myself in the role of Rick Stevens and see the world through his eyes. For that reason I decided that while exploring Tennessee and North Carolina East of the Smoky Mountains that my wife and I would take a long trip of our own to the freest place I can think of on Earth, the ideal place where the philosophy of what America should be was easy to see – paradise – Key West. From the driveway of our home in Cincinnati, Ohio we would ride our motorcycle all the way to Key West where U.S. 1 dumped into the ocean and there explore the mind of Rick Stevens. Along the way there would be a lot of time to think, and observe as the distance was over 1,300 miles one way, and would involve three total campsites, one on the border of North Carolina and South Carolina, another in Kissimmee, Florida, with the final being in Key West. The journey to the first campsite would give me the scouting report for the actual locations in the novel which is where the first stop in the video below occurred. The remainder of the trip would be spent flushing out the character of Rick Stevens and his uniquely freedom loving mind. The video shown documents the entire trip down to a very short documentary of only the highlights of the trip. The vast distances were a challenge that neither my wife nor I will ever forget which proved to be the trip of a lifetime. The second video below goes into more detail of that same trip and shows all the sites seen along the way.
It was fascinating to carry everything that two human beings could possibly need on the back of a motorcycle during a week around The Fourth of July. I picked this date because Rick Stevens chooses to make his massive stand against the government of Tennessee and eventually the federal government on this day, so I wanted to get a good idea of the traffic patterns in the region during this time of year. To pack food, shelter, and other necessities on a bike rack and backpack knowing that we would not stay in hotels, but live completely off the back of the motorcycle during the whole trip was a strangely independent feeling that placed in my mind a feeling of self-reliance that I have only experienced on hard backpacking trips into rugged mountains. The sensation of being so self-sufficient while traveling with other people who were not in the same frame of mind along the highway drew out stark contrasts to me which ended up in the novel, particularly toward the end where the grand climax takes place on the south side of the Smoky Mountains.
In the book the $20 million supercar Firebird running off vegetable oil taken from waste containers at fast food restaurants travels at speeds of over 200 mph at times, so roaming the vast distances shown in Part II to the first stop in the video of Part III took only a few hours even though they are well over 100 miles apart. I did get a good idea of where exits were and what kind of commercial establishments were located along the way for descriptions in the book which wiz by in lightning speeds. Traveling at the much slower pace of 75 mph and facing the elements without a windshield of any kind is very punishing and toughens you up very quickly. My wife had packed most of our food so we wouldn’t have to stop at restaurants too often, but deep in the mountains to our first major stop in North Carolina part of our lunch blew out of her backpack and splattered out all over the road. The wind had worked the zipper loose opening up the pouch yanking a bag of Cheez-its and a couple of sandwiches out destroying them. My wife had prepared that lunch for us from our kitchen and it depressed her a bit to have lost them on the highway because she had put great care into their construction.
The next day after a devastatingly hot ride from the top of South Carolina where our first campsite was to the Kissimmee location still sore from the previous day’s ride, it was almost too much. Just south of Jacksonville, Florida my wife’s knees locked up on her from sitting in the same position in the extreme heat for such a long period of time using the muscles in her legs to stabilize herself against the constant punishing wind. On my motorcycle, I refuse to use a windshield for the same reasons that Rick Stevens avoided them in the novel. I also wasn’t using a sissy bar behind my wife so she couldn’t lean back against anything to relax. She had to flex her muscles against the elements for the entire trip, something not even hardened motorcyclists do willingly. But after a brief rest at a gas stop just above Daytona Beach, she thought she could walk off the pain and take another hour on the road, so I entered the I-4 corridor through Orlando for our stop at Kissimmee for a much-needed break at the next campsite. Arriving at the Kissimmee site was like finding a puddle of water in a vast sun-baked desert. We were scorched from the sun, beaten by the wind, dehydrated from a lack of water, and exhausted from 9 hours of solid riding across the heat of the south in July.
After a bit of rest and some long swims in the campsite pool we headed even further south down the Florida Turnpike past Miami and onto U.S. 1 across the Florida Keys. The temperature was right around 106 actual degrees so there was no relief from the heat on a motorcycle. The trip was absolutely brutal, but at the same time ecstatic. It took roughly 6 to 7 hours of casual travel to arrive at our campground in Key West. Once we set up camp, we spent a few hours in the pool bringing our body temperatures down then we headed into town at the famous Mallory Square to dine and enjoy the sunset. Key West as I’ve written about before is the best example of what America was always intended to be, and as I watched the freedom lovers walk the streets of Duval Street I assembled my final thoughts about the essential character of Rick Stevens. People in Key West like to be left alone to do as they please. Crime tends to be very low on the island, but there are acts of extremism that could be considered socially dangerous, such as the all nude bar called Adam and Eve on the top floor of the Bull and Whistle, and the drag queens gathered on the south side of Duval. The tolerance for such decadence has given rise to a large gay population in Key West, but even in the middle of the night when patrons were their drunkest; much of the debauchery that might otherwise be associated was absent. Even in the strip clubs, guests were invited to strip down nude if they want while inside. I noticed that all the parking lots of these establishments were packed with people, and most going into them were couples.
My wife and I stopped into Sloppy Joes for a beer just to visit the site where Hemmingway apparently spent much of his time. I wrote notes for my own book on my hand, and on the napkin that was delivered under my beer, and that was the extent of the debauchery that my wife and I participated in, and it wasn’t hard to avoid. My observation of Key West was that freedom to do as one pleased was the most important concern, and the evidence of what America would be like without politicians was easy to see. In Key West, those who wish to do extremely sexually deviant acts were subdued off the beaten path not by regulation as much as it is out of economic necessity. This is because human beings want to be able to take their children to such places without worry. And once the taboo of such activities is removed, the appeal is greatly diminished. This became the essence of the sex scene in Tail of the Dragon that took place on the balcony. Once the taboos of regulation are surpassed, the true definitions of freedom can be explored. For many, particularly those who stripped down nude in the strip houses, and Adam and Eve bar, their little act of didactic rebellion was in stepping away from social convention. For my wife and me enjoying our margarita on Mallory Square at sunset, we had already achieved our personal rebellion with the trip down to Key West. We had no need to break free of social convention because our motorcycle ride had moved the act to the higher chakras well beyond animal instincts. It was that realization that I was after for articulating the motives of Rick Stevens in Tail of the Dragon. His personal rebellion was something I understood on an intellectual level, but I needed to see, taste, and feel it in reality. Ironically Key West didn’t give it to me, but the road on the way there did. Key West was just the climax that allowed all the thoughts I had on the road to come hitting me one by one since the road ran out and there was no place else left to go. I was at the end of the known Earth still under the jurisdiction and protection of The United States with Cuba only a few miles to the south. Outside America, the world is a different place and such freedoms are not enjoyed in such a way. They are contrived to fulfill market needs, but they do not occur naturally like they do in Key West. I attribute this to the protection of the United States Constitution and absence of political influence. Politicians do not care about power in Key West so human beings are allowed to be free of their influence. There isn’t much “Power of Pull” in Key West because nobody cares.
One of the grand themes in Tail of the Dragon is how public relations firms have been complaisant in ruining the concept of freedom in America by helping progressive causes appear to be bigger and better than they actually are. At the Hogs Breath just down the road from Sloppy Joes I bumped into a couple of public relations executives from New York who were blasted in drunken bliss. After a short conversation with them I realized what they were doing in Key West—they were in the process of evading—attempting to reset their moral compass from the evils of their daily jobs. Their mental evasion through drunken splendor was purposeful and they were seeking to recalibrate themselves through debauchery. The themes of my visit with them found its way into my novel. In the story of Tail of the Dragon it is public relations that is the primary villain. The characters involved on all sides are in constant attempts to shape it for causes specific to their personal philosophies. The Rick Stevens rebellion is essentially against this form of public relations that has taken American Freedom and made it into raw consumerism though the subtle art of manipulation.
It was too hot to sleep in Key West as the temperature was still in the 80s at 2 AM. My wife and I rolled around in our tent for many hours sweating profusely. I spent much of my time in Key West sitting at the picnic table outside our tent upon the water’s edge writing my thoughts down for context later. On the way back out of the Keys we traveled through the Everglades before stopping back at our campsite in Kissimmee once again. Once I had written down all my thoughts in a feverish frenzy that went on for nearly 200 handwritten pages of thoughts feelings and opinions relevant to the motorcycle experience of traveling to Key West, the Eastern Smoky Mountains and the scorching trip down the East Coast from South Carolina we were ready to return home. Compared to the heat in Key West the heat of Central Florida felt very comfortable, so we recovered from the heat quickly.
We left our campsite at 6 AM and hit I-75 about an hour later stopping at a McDonald’s to celebrate seeing once again the road that would take us directly home. We traveled all day only stopping for fuel until we came to Chattanooga, Tennessee where we treated ourselves to a long needed meal at the Outback Steak House. We ate like kings for a few hours. My wife and I had lost about 10 pounds of water in just a few days, so the meal at the Outback was a real treasure. We were planning to get a room at the same hotel where we started our journey in Part II, but after feeling refreshed from our meal, we elected to go the whole way home from Chattanooga since we knew the route from there to our home so well. We hit Jelico Mountain which is where the novel Tail of the Dragon begins, at sunset. We were tired, and sore beyond reason. To make good time I was doing 110 mph going down the north side of the mountain passing cars and trucks like they were standing still. I passed a Tennessee Highway Patrol officer who was set up for a speed trap but I was so close to the Kentucky border that he didn’t even bother. As fast as I was going it would have taken him 14 miles to catch up to me from a dead stop so he abandoned the attempt. I put on a bit more speed hoping that I’d get to the border before I saw police lights in my mirror. While doing this my wife nudged me in the ribs and pointed off to the left at the setting sun. My speedometer was bottomed out passed 120 and she was holding her arm as straight as an arrow out to her side to show me the beauty of the skyline splashed with brilliant shades of red and orange.
My wife had barely made the trip down past Jacksonville, but just a few days later she had hit another gear and showed a physical strength at excessively high speeds without any pretension of fear to enjoy a simple sunset that turned out to be the most glorious we have ever seen together in 25 years of marriage. We will never forget that experience and in so doing I had defined the character of Rick Stevens solidified in that moment of rebellion with a police car hunting us from behind, and the open road coming at us down a massive mountain with a spectacular sunset over the rolling mountains at tremendous speeds. We hit the Kentucky border and parked at the rest stop there in case the Tennessee cop had called into Kentucky providing our description. We waited about a half hour before hitting the road again. Four hours later we were in our driveway at the same spot we began. It took me nearly a month to compile all these thoughts into the novel which was already outlined. But the trip to Key West gave me the spirit I was looking for, and became the theme of the novel.
It was an unforgettable experience and now when readers wonder how Rick and Renee Stevens arrived at their rather obsessive pursuit of American authenticity and a definition of true freedom, they can know where those thoughts derived from. They came from the roads of the entire south as my journey took us on a 3000 mile journey in just one week where every day was a punishing experience that defied comfort. The literary worth is an achievement that I am excessively proud of, as the story became more than just a car chase tale. Tail of the Dragon is the story of one man’s struggle to stand against the forces of innate human suppression, the need to manipulate, the need to yield to powerful forces, and the need to suppress inner needs to the benefit of collectivism. Rick Stevens decided for himself that he had enough, and wasn’t going to do it anymore. His decision is something visitors to Key West attempt to touch, but the only real way to jump into such an experience is on the back of a motorcycle with safety, security, and convention left at home and danger openly embraced not just for a moment, but for days on end. It is in the heat of asphalt, the roar of engines, and the punishing elements of nature that Rick Stevens and his lovely wife Renee reside in the memories of legend becoming folklore to the few who admit to themselves their desires to engage in such an adventure. For those who don’t wish to take such a journey themselves is the reason I wrote Tail of the Dragon, so that readers can engage in such an experience from the minds of Rick and Renee Stevens on an adventure that will last a lifetime.
Stay tuned for more MAKING OF videos and articles to satisfy the quandaries of curiosity coming in from the novel’s readers. And thank you to those who have given Tail of the Dragon the benefit of your attention in the first two business quarters of its release. CLICK HERE TO VISIT THE BOOK’S WEBSITE.