Welcome to the party, pal (6/7/17): Santeetlah Lake to Etowah, 167 miles (~75 miles dirt) We left our determined hero resting on the edge of a lovely lake after battling it out with two-or-ists in the Great Smoky Mountain Parking Lot. We pick up again 30 miles away at the start of the Sam Correro TAT in Andrews, NC. I don’t remember if this mural is part of the many hosts of legendary TAT ride reports, but the first TN track starts in the nearby parking lot, so it seems likely that this was a mandatory photo opportunity. The tracks start up some windy pavement headed into the mountains. Then they pump fake along the Cherohala Skyway. So you roll the camera and immediately turn around. Turns out there’s a USFS access road under the ridge where this photo was taken. My disappointment quickly turned to delight when I realized I was headed back to the dirt. You’ll wind your way along under the Skyway, and then pop out to finish the last 5 miles on the Skyway on your way to Tellico Plains. This is where the adventure began in earnest. I was slowing down to hit the first gas station on the way into Tellico Plains when the engine died without warning. I sat a minute right across from the gas station and then it started right up without a complaint. I was concerned and confused, but pulled in, filled up, and without knowing what else to look for, checked the oil. The oil on the dipstick read low, but the engine had been cooling for 5 minutes while I filled up and made log notes and I was on a slight incline. I wasn’t sure what else to check, so I chocked it up to a rolling stall (I may have been going about 10 mph too slow for third when I slowed down for the gas station) and went looking for lunch. If you’re in Tellico Plains, look for the bakery “Tellico Grains”. It was a delightful lunch. Now, if you think you know where this is headed, you’re probably right. I said this is where the real adventure started, but I think the real problem came later. A few miles outside of Tellico Plains the track jumps back onto old logging roads. Several miles after that, you hit the first water crossing. The first was relatively shallow, with an easy entrance and exit. Video pending. The second crossing has two entrances. The first one you approach is almost completely carved out into a vertical face and dumps into what looks to be the deepest part of the stream. The second also has a flat face in the middle, but the wheel tracks are quite wide and provide a good entrance that allows you to jog back into the shallowest track through the stream. The exit is a pretty shallow slope, so picking your entrance is the real key. Again, video pending. I made it through both without issue, and immediately had to turn around. I suppose a really good rider could have crossed the log on the left, but there was little chance of self-recovery if (when) I messed up. This left me with two options: 1) break out the hatchet and handsaw 2) tackle the steep, slick creek entrance turned exit. I opted for option two and proceeded to properly christen the ride. The engine bogged right before the climb out, and between the slippery hard pack and revving to keep the engine rolling I slipped sideways into the cutout between the wheel tracks. It really shouldn’t be difficult to climb out, but I missed my footing when the rear wheel stepped out and the luggage dragged me right over. Normally I can pick up the bike with all the luggage on less the duffel. With the downhill fall, it took ten minutes to haul the luggage off, take a breather and water break, drag the bike’s rear wheel around, and haul it upright. Then I rode it up no problem, but with a lot of wheel spinning. Now that I had properly burned off lunch, I sat around a bit deciding on a re-route. It was an easy job backtracking to a parallel country road that eventually linked back up with the tracks. Now, maybe you’re thinking, “You dropped it and recovered, but you were hinting at Big Problems.” And right you are. No more than 15 miles after dropping the motorcycle and re-routing, the engine developed a new rattle and started stalling. It was now definitely NOT a rolling stall. Concerned, I stopped to check the oil again and found… nothing on the dipstick. I was 15 miles from anywhere and had no backup oil. I had been checking the oil at least once a day, and twice a day through all the highway miles when XRL’s are supposedly most likely to burn oil. I checked for leaks after every stop. Everything had seemed fine up to this point. I had the choice to ride out or call for a tow. It was roughly 7 miles to the nearest general store in Reliance, TN. So as soon as I saw houses again, I started asking the locals for any spare oil they might have. The second house had some spare SAE 30. I put in about 20 oz before getting the oil above the low level. For reference, the XRL650L holds 2.1 qts, or 67 oz. The engine was dry. When I stopped at Reliance Fly and Tackle. I put in another quart of 10w30. The engine was DRY. It was while topping up again that I noticed that the top end was louder than it used to be. *sad trombone* While trying to decide my next move, I chatted with Dan, who owns the shop. He’s interested in becoming a drop point for TAT riders, and had already seen 10 or so come through before me. This surprised me because it’s quite early for riding the full trail, but I suppose some of those people may have been riding the eastern sections or were just planning on bumming around Denver until the passes opened, like me! After our chat, I limped my way into Etowah, the nearest town big enough to have an auto-parts store, and performed an emergency oil change in the Auto Zone parking lot. Given my concern about the engine, it didn’t make sense to head back out of town late at night looking for a campsite, so I nabbed a room at the Red Roof Inn and started considering my predicament. It wasn’t looking good.