Backroads of Appalachia nonprofit unites America’s coal country through motorcycle tourism
January 6, 2022
By Erin Reda
Photos by Erin Reda and Peter Stockus
The ride into Harlan County, Ky., is steeped in lush mountainsides and rich history. Roads twist under coal conveyor belts and past old mine shafts, winding through some of America’s greatest innovations; infrastructure that was used to fuel the industrial revolution and win both world wars. Today, Backroads of Appalachia (BOA) is utilizing Eastern Kentucky’s natural and man-made gifts to create a motorcyclist’s paradise.
Founded by Harlan native Erik Hubbard, Backroads of Appalachia is a non-profit created to assert the modern reality of America’s coal country as an epicenter of motorized tourism and small-town community collaboration. “We have infrastructure here that can be easily designed for on and off-road motorcycle use,” Erik told American Motorcyclist. “Non-profits, county governments and even the state have started paying attention to the work we’re doing here and are getting on board.”
One of the first examples? Putting their local Route 160, the “Dragon Slayer,” on the map and into every motorcyclist’s bucket list. Riders wishing to experience Harlan County have two options: Route 23, which goes around Black Mountain, or Route 160, the shortcut across the summit. More than 20 miles long with over 226 curves, Route 160 is a thrilling road full of switchback turns that open to dazzling views of the rolling Appalachian Mountains. Historically, this road was simply a shortcut for locals trying to get to neighboring towns, but Erik saw its potential as a jumping off point for reimagining his region.
A lifelong rider himself, Erik knew motorcyclists would travel hundreds of miles for roads half as long and twisty as Route 160. Knowing it had the potential to be one of America’s greatest motorcycling roads, BOA christened it the “Dragon Slayer” and trademarked the name. Harnessing the power of social media, these initial efforts sparked a flame of growth that would bring together businesses, non-profits and politicians to make Erik’s vision for the area a reality.
Almost immediately after its inception, the “Dragon Slayer” Facebook page was reaching over a million people a month.
“The last count was 4.8 million. It’s just nuts,” said Paul Browning, Harlan County Magistrate and a key supporter to BOA’s work. “Last year during COVID there were 9,000 verified motorcyclists coming here specifically for the “Dragon Slayer.”
Harlan County’s tourism count for motorcyclists the year before, according to Paul? “Probably 60.”
To lifelong Harlan County resident and BOA’s unofficial spokesperson, Melvin Hardy Jr., this success came as no surprise. As he poured the AMA’s Government Relations team members Erin Reda and Peter Stockus another glass of orange juice in his kitchen, Melvin claimed with a prideful smile on his face, “I have ridden all of the famous American roads over the years and I always say, they don’t have anything on Black Mountain.”
“The Appalachian region tends to be overlooked,” said Daniel Naff, a park ranger for Breaks Interstate Park. “Not a lot of people get a chance to experience it for what it truly is. We have one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world.”
The richness of this area’s ecology is impossible to ignore. Motorcyclists are all but guaranteed to see a fuzzy black bear or two while traveling down even the main roads. If you want to bring your adventure or dirt bike and go off-road to experience that nature up close, century-old fire and coal roads will give you more trail options than you could cover in a lifetime.
“We’re pivoting from using the land for coal to using the land for recreation,” Wes Bailey, owner of Bailey’s Hoagie shop in Cumberland, told us. “I got out on my four-wheeler two weeks ago and found places and trails I’d never been to — and I’ve lived here my whole life.”
With the on-road success of BOA, the group is continuing to focus its efforts on creating an all-encompassing riding experience. In 2021, BOA worked with Magistrate Paul Browning to secure a $200,000 Recreational Trails Program (RTP) grant — a program the AMA was instrumental in creating and sustaining — to expand the Black Mountain Off-Road Adventure Area, which will now add 18 additional miles of motorized trails.
BOA’s quick success did not happen without local champions. Leaders in Harlan and neighboring counties have been laying the groundwork for years to promote their areas. Leaning into the natural beauty of the hollers and creeks that define the region, business, political and non-profit leaders have banded together for the betterment of their community.
Across state lines, Appalachia, Va. and Big Stone Gap, Ky., two towns connected by a mile-long joy ride, were working together before BOA’s inception. Focusing on tourism, both towns have started new initiatives that pull from local heritage and modern trends to hone their small-town charms while being able to entertain and receive the crowds of motorcyclists they hope will come check them out.
“When you lose a lot of jobs in a region like we have through coal, there’s a depression that comes with it,” said town manager of Big Stone Gap Steve Lawson, “so we’ve used the visitor center as our heartbeat. We started doing music downtown and block parties twice a month to get a vibe going.”
These changes have created an optimism you can feel while walking through Big Stone Gap and Appalachia, and have laid the groundwork to support the increasing number of motorcyclists coming in to ride the “Dragon Slayer.” If BOA is expecting a large group of motorcyclists, they’ll call Steve to see how they all can benefit. “Erik will call to see what we’re doing that week. If there’s not already a festival happening for his group to join, then we will roll out the red carpet and make one happen,” Steve said. “That’s how important tourism is to us.”
A fan of anything with an engine, Erik knew Eastern Kentucky was a playground for more than just vehicles with two wheels. Capitalizing off the publicity that the “Dragon Slayer” has brought to the region, BOA started hosting Kentucky’s first Hill Climb and Rally Car Race events to huge success. “Our tourists come here to drive and ride, not just to sit and look,” Erik said. “They want to see what we have to offer at a fast-pace, and that’s exactly what we give them.”
With BOA’s events growing larger and more motorcyclists coming to experience the region, the local economy is seeing steady growth after decades of hardship. Tiffany Scott, owner of The General Store at Creek Crossing, cites BOA as an integral part of her decision to open this January. “If it wasn’t for Backroads of Appalachia,” she told us, “there’s no way I would have opened in the middle of a pandemic. But I see the vision. I see where we are going. This is a perfect opportunity.”
While providing accessible groceries and home supplies for their community is the General Store’s heart, Tiffany added that they wanted to make sure they were collaborating with BOA at every step. “From day one we called Erik and said, ‘we’re going to open this place’ and we started thinking about what we could do for all these bikers coming in.”
Whether it’s cooking breakfast for 80 motorcyclists or hosting entertainment for events, this investment in motorized tourism is paying off. With the success of The General Store’s partnership with BOA, Tiffany has been able to employ ten people and is expanding to a new, larger location. “If you told me a year ago the amount of people that would be walking through these doors after we opened, I would have laughed in your face.”
To achieve its goals, a BOA priority is making sure local governments and politicians are on the same page and working together. Taking advantage of every grant opportunity to energize Kentucky’s tourism sectors has been a collaborative focal point for Erik and Dan Mosely, the Harlan County Judge.
“We’ve been very aggressive with applying to every grant our community could benefit from,” Dan said, “As a non-profit, Backroads of Appalachia has been crucial since they qualify for certain grant opportunities that we wouldn’t have been able to receive in the past.”
One of those is a $400,000 Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Pilot grant that BOA is using to expand their Welcome Center and convert an old bath house across the street into a workforce training center to support those in addiction recovery, “The success of these individuals is a key component to the prosperity of eastern Kentucky,” says Erik.
Another program that BOA is considering applying for is the Scenic Byways Program (SBP). Both state and federal SBPs recognize, preserve, and enhance distinct roads that represent the depth of American scenery and history, while providing resources to help the communities along these byways benefit from the tourism they generate. The AMA was part of the coalition that helped create the National SBP in 1991 and played a key role in reviving the program in 2019 after it had been closed for six years.
Recently, Peter Stockus from the AMA’s Government Relations office in Washington, DC, helped BOA with an AML grant application to turn a former 4-H camp into an adventure motorcycle resort, complete with lodging and trails. This venture would create an estimated 20 jobs and would have a predicted $16.5-million-dollar economic impact within three years. While the grant hasn’t been secured yet, the continued efforts and cooperation between BOA and the AMA can provide a blueprint for rural communities around the country seeking to utilize their environment for motorized tourism.
These small investments can provide great returns if the community builds on them. Magistrate Paul Browning has been a leading political voice in the argument that bringing in riders is important, but giving them the opportunity to contribute to the local economy must be the main focus of that decision-making process. When discussing maps of future motorized trail systems, Paul routinely says, “Every tourist is buying beer, bread and bologna somewhere before or after they ride through here. We need to give them the opportunity to stop in the middle and support our local businesses.”
While the immense economic benefit that BOA has had on Harlan County is quantifiable, the non-profit’s most important contribution to the area is harder to capture in metrics. “There’s hope here,” Tiffany said from the porch of The General Store.
“Appalachia is a lot like motorcyclists in that we sometimes get a bad rep from people that don’t understand us,” Wes Bailey told us while leaning against his Hoagie Shop sign, “but come in and talk to us. Once you ride through these mountains, meet our people and eat our food, you’ll feel why we love this area so much and why we’re so excited for the future.”
While modern day Appalachia is defined by its forward-thinking attitude, it is still deeply rooted in a great appreciation for what their land can provide. Eastern Kentucky’s ingenuity in motorized tourism is sparking a wave of community collaboration and entrepreneurship across the region, and BOA is rewriting the map of America’s best motorcycling roads — with Harlan County at its center.
This article is dedicated to Melvin Hardy, Jr., who recently passed away after a long life filled with adventure and love. Melvin’s positive impact on everyone he encountered will be felt for generations to come.
This article was originally published in the December issue of American Motorcyclist. To read the issue click HERE.