By Roy Furchgott
Tazewell, Virginia, has drawn motorcyclists with its winding roads and mountain views. (Kristian Thacker for The New York Times)
By 1999, when Larry Davidson ended his 27-year military career and moved back to Tazewell, the Virginia mining town where his parents lived, the coal industry was dying. So was the town, its once-affluent Main Street blighted with empty storefronts.
Mr. Davidson thought about the problem when riding his motorcycle along Virginia’s scenic Route 16, which twists 51 kilometers between Tazewell and Marion. In 2010, he had an epiphany. While Tazewell was losing one resource — coal — there was another to replace it: the serpentine roads.
A similar strategy had worked for Deal’s Gap, on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. In the 1990s, locals branded a curvy stretch of road “Tail of the Dragon,” boasting “318 turns in 11 miles,” or about 18 kilometers. It became an internationally known motorcycle tourist attraction.
Mr. Davidson, now 70, noted that Route 16 rolled over three mountains and decided that “Back of the Dragon” made a pretty good name. He tested it by printing a dozen dragon-logo T-shirts. He sold them in about a day. Since then, he has worked to promote the drive.
Last year an estimated 60,000 motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts came through Tazewell, population 4,240. That was up from 16,000 in 2013, said David Woodard, the director of community development for Tazewell County.
Tazewell is a prime example of a coal town converting to what Chris Cannon, head of the economic development group Friends of Southwest Virginia, calls the creative economy. “We focus on natural and cultural assets,” rather than coal, tobacco and lumber, he said. The area has a bluegrass music heritage trail, a crafts collective and outdoor activities like ATV riding, hiking, mountain biking and river running.
Mr. Davidson grew up in West Virginia’s Canebrake coal camp, where his father worked in the mines.His family later moved to Tazewell, across the Virginia border. He joined the Air Force in 1967, and returned in 1977 to try mining. That didn’t last, and he joined the Army, which sent him to Europe. “We’d go down in Berchtesgaden and into Austria, Switzerland, Italy, in the Alps, and that was my experience with those roads,” he said. “That’s what made me look at Back of the Dragon when I got back here.”
The county tourism director got involved, and the state legislature dedicated Route 16 as Back of the Dragon in 2012, but there was more to do. “The bikes were coming through, but they were coming straight on through,” said Irma Mitchell, who heads a group working to revive Main Street. “We had to give them a reason to stop.”
A consultant recommended improvements. The town created a tax incentive program for new businesses. Four restaurants have opened since 2017. There is a microbrewery, a coffee shop and more. The next scheduled construction is Mr. Davidson’s Back of the Dragon Welcome Center.
“Yes, it’s about the dollar, but it’s not just about the dollar,” Mr. Davidson said. “I want other people to understand what is here is a jewel.”