Ron Johnson at Tail of the Dragon.com is one of the best marketing people I know. For over a decade after he retired as a firefighter in Florida, he and his wife Nancy have taken an obscure road 1 hour from everywhere on the western frontier of the Great Smoky Mountains and breathed life into what is one of the most exciting places on earth. US 129 known to thousands as Tail of the Dragon is a wonderful road with a deep history all by itself. But it is quickly becoming the next best thing in the United States to the famous Route 66. Within a few years, it may surpass that iconic roadway as America’s top thoroughfare.
I recently brought Ron some galley copies of my new novel Tail of the Dragon which he was involved in from even before I had secured a publisher, to his new store located at the corner of US 129 and US 28. When I first wrote the story all that existed at that corner was the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort which is now across the street where the Tree of Shame resides. Ron, the tireless visionary that he is, was well aware of the potential onslaught of interest that is coming his way in the wake of my novel’s release, and he is prepared.
For many years Ron and his wife have operated the Tail of the Dragon T-shirt shack from a property they rented where their store now resides. As I handed him a stack of books which was the first tangible result in over three years of our collaboration of a real product, we both had the sense that a new chapter had just began on that mythical stretch of road known throughout the world as Tail of the Dragon.
One of the reasons Ron and his wife are so successful is because they have created really cool T-shirt designs and they have for years been the primary suppliers of Dragon merchandise—everything from T-shirts to key chains. Ron and I discussed that if what happened to the actual bridges of Madison County in the wake of that successful book by Robert James Waller, happened to the Tail of the Dragon, he was going to be a very busy man, and he was ready for it. Before The Bridges of Madison County sold 10 million copies worldwide, nobody knew about the bridges that had been there for years in a small county in Iowa. But after that book, flocks of tourists migrated to the area to see and touch the images they read about in that fictional novel.
In preparation for the onslaught of tourism that is already prolific to the region, Ron has turned his T-shirt shack into a first-rate facility. Inside it is dedicated to everything you could possibly want in Tail of the Dragon merchandise, t-shirts, blankets, cup holders, movies, statues, books; just about anything you can think of. But Ron has gone several steps further than he needed to. Since Ron and Nancy have now purchased their formally rented lot, and now have a permanent structure, Ron has hired a metal worker to create multiple dragon themed sculptures shown all around his property, most notably the entrance to his new Dragon viewing platform that extends up the mountainside above his store. It was from up there that Ron told me of his plans to make maps and t-shirts featuring the massive car chase that takes place in my novel.
On this platform, spectators can rise up above the action and dine in style as they gaze down on cars ranging in price all the way up to two million dollars apiece, as a couple of Bugatti Veyron’s have been known to roam US 129 below. It’s not uncommon to see Ferrari’s, Lamborghinis, Porches, and virtually every exotic car known to mankind prowling one of the most intense roads in the world according to The Discovery Channel’s episodes of Hell Roads. Ron has made it so visitors to his store can look down on the action in the most unusual way possible.
Ron distinguished himself as a map maker and artist combining those two elements into wonderful t-shirts and maps giving names to all the important sights in the area. As he told me his intentions to map out the route taken in my action packed novel I thought it was a concept that was genius. From the very beginning my publisher and I worked hard to make it so people who enjoyed the novel, could follow the route which started literally on the Dragon right in front of Ron’s store. The car chase extends through the Dragon, through multiple roadblocks by the Tennessee Highway Patrol and dashes across the Foothills Parkway over to Townsend, Tennessee, then cutting across to Pigeon Forge where helicopters and massive roadblocks attempt to stop the nearly 200 MPH chase that storms through that popular resort town migrating into Sevierville causing millions of dollars in carnage. The chase finds its way out onto I-40 through several more roadblocks as the National Guard gets involved at the famous tunnels on the North Carolina border resulting in a giant rock slide which racks up millions of dollars more in damage. The chase then ends up in Ashville, North Carolina inside a shopping mall near the Biltmore Estate in what many who have already read the book are calling the most exciting action sequences ever written or seen in a movie. There are more roadblocks, before a death-defying run across the south side of the Smoky Mountains along US 19 at speeds exceeding 200 MPH ending at a gauntlet back in front of Ron’s store. As I stood on Ron’s new platform it was easy to see the action that happened in the book happening below me from my mind’s eye. That’s when I realized just how good Ron’s idea was in making a map of all those events as he did specific courses along The Dragon, The Cherohala Skyway, and the Moonshiner 28. I realized that in the book the car chase actually began all the way over on I-75 then to Tellico Plains, and across the entire Cherohala Skyway which is the only way drivers coming in from the west can get to The Dragon.
When I wrote the book, I wanted to encourage people to trace in real life the steps of Rick and Renee Stevens on their remarkable life changing journey which virtually takes in most of the major sites so beloved in the Smoky Mountain region. And for the first time since I went through the editorial steps of writing the book did I take the time to realize what a good job everyone who worked on the novel did in taking the potential reader on a journey through all those important landmarks in an action packed unfolding story. I should have known that Ron would have come up with the fantastic idea of creating a map of the entire chase zone.
After my wife and I parted Ron’s company for the day we went over to Gatlinburg to visit our favorite haunts in that mountain town we call our second home. During dinner, I kept thinking of Ron’s idea for a chase map and as I returned to the site that inspired me to write the novel to begin with on a trip to the Tail of the Dragon years ago, the Hollywood Star Cars Museum in downtown Gatlinburg. It was at this museum that I imagined the 700 HP veggie running, armored Firebird from my novel taking an honored place among the Batmobile and the General Lee motivating me to create a story that would help make that happen. Ron’s idea for a map had my mind on overdrive and virtually everywhere we went for the rest of the evening set my mind ablaze.
So according to Ron, a map of the chase zone in my Tail of the Dragon book is forthcoming, and until then, you can get your Tail of the Dragon merchandise at www.TAILOFTHEDRAGON.com from Ron’s new store and if you happen to be in the region, make sure to stop by for a visit. There are few places as unique, and the new viewing platform he has created is the kind of thing that could entertain for hours watching the action below. The sum of all this is to the benefit of many road worthy adventurers who have managed to shake off the shackles of confinement and chase after weekend fantasies by riding the Tail of the Dragon then enjoying the view from atop Ron’s platform as others down below try their hand at slaying one of the world’s last great challenges. It is the weekend warrior who gains the most from the creative impulses of people like Ron Johnson, and the gifts he brings to society through constant innovation.