My oil pressure problem had a reemergence. Twice the same symptoms appeared on my way from Georgia to North Carolina. Discouraging as it may be, I’m determined to put a good effort into properly diagnosing it myself before taking it to another KTM dealer. I spent a few hours online familiarizing myself with the other possible causes. I also spoke with Kip, the engineer who designed the stainless steel oil filter, who gave valuable insight as to how his oil filter and the KTM 950 oil system works. I feel I’m moving in the right direction. I don’t have a way of measuring oil pressure, which would make things easier, so I have to do this by good old trial and error. I assess what were the most likely causes, then sort the least costly to be checked and serviced first.

This lead me to the oil pressure relief valve. This valve essentially allows oil to flow back into the oil tank when oil pressure becomes too great. If a weak valve spring is present, this could allow oil to bypass lubricating the engine and pressurizing the cam chain tensioners when under a lower pressure. This could cause both the oil pressure switch to activate and the loose cam chains that I was experiencing. To save from loosing oil when the side cover comes off, my father and I set up a bed in his garage.

The spring for the valve (red arrow) is secured by a washer and circlip. There is limited space to work, so the correct tool really makes a difference. I didn’t have this, so I made one by taking one of my father’s surgical right angle clamps to his bench grinder and resizing it to fit the circlip holes. A minute later I had a new tool and the spring out. The service manual specifies 42mm as the minimum length.

I’m usually not excited to find worn parts, but this circumstance gave reason to be. I stretched it to 43mm, and with another set of hands guiding the washer and spring, I was able to get the circlip back in place. I torqued up the case, flipped the bike over, reinstalled the stainless steel oil filter, and went for a ride. No more oil pressure light or cam chain noise! Only time will tell if this is was the true fix.

In the afternoon, my father and I make our way up to the peak of Mt. Mitchel and set up camp for the night. I have many fond childhood memories of hiking and camping with my father throughout the US and the Nova Scotia peninsula, in Canada. Nearly every summer break from grade school we would spend a couple months traveling and experiencing a different part of this country. His traveling job with the hospital system allowed us to do this. In retrospect, I’d have to say this is how I developed my adventurous spirit. I’m fortunate that we continue to travel together. It was evident as the sun fell over the mountaintop that this was the highest point in the eastern US. Clouds rolled in as dense fog and remained until our descent the next afternoon.

This turned out to be one of the coldest nights since winter, which brought an eerie silence to the air. There were no sounds of animals or insects, just the rustling of leaves and whirling wind. The mist of the clouds kept the trees moist. They dripped light rain on our tents throughout the night. Although it was an unlikely encounter, we set up a perimeter line with a bear bell for safety. We did have a good deal of food in a lock-box, so our site was heavily scented.

Despite the cold, our many layers of clothes in front of the fire kept us warm. Staring at the flames, not feeling obliged to keep constant conversation as sometimes it is, but rather sharing sparse conversation, was peaceful and relaxing. It’s a pleasant feeling, being comfortable enough to sit in silence, taking in the fire and nature that surrounds us for these moments. While here, I, being able to more easily reflect on the past and present, gain confidence for the future.

I awake the next morning with child-like anticipation. I arouse the fire from a smolder and we begin preparing a feast.Breakfast is delicious, and considering the size of my plate, our morning hike isn’t going to be extremely ambitious.

My plans the next morning of entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest to camp, after going through the Tail of the Dragon, are put on hold because of rain. It had been coming down all night and morning, and in the interest of safety, I keep myself from leaving until the weather improves. The next morning the sun is shining through without a cloud in the sky. The temperature is cool in the 50s. I wait until 10 to allow the roads to warm, then I roll out east on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

This stretch of North Carolina has some of the most spectacular scenery in the US, and if you are ever near, I’d suggest a visit. Getting on US 129, I passed through the Tail of the Dragon’s impressive set of curves. With the high density of drivers, 30 mph speed limit, double yellow, and with a fully loaded bike, the thrill factor is lessened. I don’t let it bother me because I know I’ll have another go through it early the next morning.

I arrive at the Cades Cove Ranger Station in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park shortly before sunset to get my free primitive camping permit. I then make my way through the sea of slow moving vehicles on Cades Cove Loop Road, the only access to my primitive site for the night, but not before overheating twice from lack of air flow through my radiator! This one-way road has numerous gravel pulloffs that many people refuse to use, chugging along in their cages at 1 mph past the signs that instruct “Do not stop on road. Be courteous, use pulloffs.” I make use of these pulloffs as passing lanes. I reach the car-free dirt road that leads to the parking lot for the trailhead to my primitive campsite for the night. Finally, the speed picks up and there’s now some cool wind through my helmet and around the bike’s engine. As anticipated, Parsons Branch Road is just around the corner from where I park. I learned about this road by the service tech at Cycle Specialty in Fayetteville, GA. I planned to ride this one-way dirt road in the morning, which comes out right on the Tail of the Dragon.

It’s nearing sunset, so I quickly grab my gear off the bike and start the 2 mile hike to the primitive campsite. No more than 5 minutes walking, I come across a huge pile of bear shite in the middle of the trail. I have pepper spray but begin to wonder if it’s really as powerful as they say it is. It’s a tiring but beautiful hike.

My gear doesn’t pack well and I tire long before I should be from constantly repositioning bags on my shoulders. I manage to set up the tent, hoist my food into a tree, and get a few pictures before the sun sets.

The sun sets over the mountaintop and cool air fills the valley. I crawl into my hammock tent wearing my riding over-pants, jacket, boots, and gloves. The temperature is still dropping, and I find myself starting to shiver. It’s only 20 minutes past sunset and if I’m only beginning to shiver now, how will I be in an hour? Or two hours? The temperature is still dropping and it’s now dark enough where I can’t see the ground can only make out the outline of trees. The sky is a dark black and blue. I think about the 12 hours until the sun will rise and the 12 hours I’m going to lie awake shivering, or worse. It’s simple- I underestimated how cold it would be and didn’t bring enough covering. I usually have all the layers I need in my bike, a short walk at most away. These were now a solid hike away. I don’t like the situation. The only way to properly fix this situation it is to hike back to my bike.

I pull the velcro chute at my feet and drop from my tent to the ground. Everything into my bag and I’m off down the trail with flashlight on full brightness. Even as bright as it is, the uneven terrain is difficult to navigate. Thoughts of twisting my ankle or running into a big wildlife wander into my mind, and I struggle to put those aside to concentrate on what I’m doing. Times like these demand supreme concentration that can’t be clouded by distracting thoughts. I get to the bridge and know I’m almost there, just another heavily-rooted uphill shot and I’m at the car park. I see in the distance the reflection of my license plate. By now I’m warm from the walk. Clothing is not an immediate concern, and I can think about my next move. I could hike back with more layers or my ground tent, or I can risk a fine and set up right here next to my bike and hope to wake up and break camp before a ranger opens the gates at sunrise. I really don’t want to hike back into the woods in this darkness. I didn’t even want to hike back out of the woods. Staying put is too tempting. I break out my ground tent, set it up, then throw my gear and myself inside. The low-hanging rain fly allows it to heat up quickly and, in my cozy sleeping bag, my mind is finally put at ease. I begin a new entry in my journal and, as I put the period to the sentence preceding this one, I hear a truck engine. Soon following is the sound of heavy tires in the parking lot, then a floodlight turns and lights up my entire tent.

“This is the Park Ranger! Is there anyone in there?” I hear through the front of my tent. I can’t get discouraged though because I accepted the risk of camping here. I step out and explain what happened. After checking my ID for warrants and finding none, one of the two rangers tells me I’m only getting a warning and that I have two options. I can either hike back to the campsite or I can leave the park. I express my distaste for the idea of hiking 2 miles in the dark back to the site. I can sense his sympathy and he begins to suggest campgrounds I might find cheaply tonight. After discussing for a moment with the other ranger, he comes back and says he may be able to find a spot for me in their fully booked campground and I should drive to the ranger station and wait for him. I drop my food bag from a tree, pack all my gear in front of his trucks headlights, and ride out. After emerging from the wooded dirt trail to the one-way paved road through the park, I look up and am blown away by the sky. Equally impressive is that I’m now driving a car-free Cades Cove Loop Road that earlier the same day I was cursing at for overheating because of the bumper-to-bumper traffic. My bike is running cool now and I’m winding freely through the starlit forest and countryside. When the park ranger arrives, he finds me a spot for free on a group site that’s under construction. When I arrive I find a site that could support 20 tents next to a newly built bathroom, all to myself. Humorously, the only indication of construction remaining is the yellow tape surrounding it.

Morning comes with a quick awakening. I pack my gear with hope I can be one of the first into the Loop. There aren’t many, but that doesn’t mean a few can’t cause a problem. Even with the delays I am happy I can get through to Parsons Branch Road in a fraction of the time it took the previous day. At the bridge to the entrance I’m met by three guys, all on KLR motorcycles. It’s their first time down the road also, so the condition ahead is still somewhat a mystery, as this road is officially listed as 8 miles of primitive, unmaintained road. There’s nothing like just throwing yourself into things, so I knock down the tire pressure and go.

It took a few miles to warm up, but when I did, my grin stretched ear to ear. Even though I had all my gear loaded, the bike handed great. Although, I do owe a few saves to the steering damper I installed two weeks ago. I now truly understand its value. Had it not been on my bars, I think I would have gone down more than once on that trail.

I came out on US 129 and hung a left to Deals Gap. It happened to be the case that the parking I aimed for was next to an KTM SMR 890. I ran into the owner, David, while on my way to the kitchen for some grub. He’s heavily into riding, and suggested if I wanted something better and less crowded than the Dragon, I should head up to the Cherohala Skyway. He said if the friends he was waiting for didn’t show up by the time I was done eating, he would show me a backroad shortcut to the skyway. A salmon sandwich and some fried potatoes later, I was airing my tires back up to street pressure to follow his lead.

Thanks, David! 36 miles and not a single car going my direction on the Cherohala Skyway. The turns were a little broader but that only meant a faster speed limit. I agree that it topped the Tail of the Dragon. Check it out whether in a car or on a bike. It seemed like a little known secret of western North Carolina.

The entire drive from North Carolina to Tennessee had clear skies. I arrived early in the afternoon at my grandparents’ home in Murfreesboro. They eat out for most meals these days, so it was apt that we went out for dinner. After returning home from our meal, I took a trip to my cousin Sara and her husband Junior’s house to hang out and stay the night with them and their kids. Over the next few days I’ll be taking it easy and visiting family that for some it’s been years since I’ve seen. There’s lots of people to see and catch up with, so Tennessee is where I’ll be for the next few days before moving on to Texas.

Kyle Gabriel

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