As I write this, I sit across the street from a larger than life sized statue of Donald Trump, hair plastered to appear that it is waving in the wind. A few storefronts away is a two story building full of ninja stars, samurai swords and butterfly knives. Between The Donald and the Asian arsenal are tiny shops selling burnt wood signs, airbrushed t-shirts, and legal moonshine.
The air is filled with the smell of smoked sausages, vehicle exhaust and funnel cakes. In the distance, I can hear the sound of Indiana Jones’ theme music playing at a putt-putt golf course. The sidewalk is crammed with tourists including one portly fellow buzzing along in his motorized wheelchair; one hand on the handlebar, the other clutching a turkey leg. The small two lane road is packed as well, full of adventure vehicles, loud motorcycles and the occasional orange and green trolley.
It is a surreal sight to behold and I try my best to appreciate it for what it is worth, something I have not always been willing to do.
Consider the fact that less than a mile away from the above described chaos lies the boundary of one of the largest and most awe inspiring sections of federally protected land east of the Mississippi – an International Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most polluted parks in the country. That these two wildly dissimilar environments exist alongside each other is something I once took for granted.
I’m sure some of you have already guessed where I am by this point. Most likely, you’ve visited this town yourself or you know someone who has. Perhaps they even brought you some saltwater taffy or a sweatshirt with a family of black bears on it as a souvenir.
Gatlinburg, TN is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the country; bolstered by the fact that the Great Smoky Mountains draw somewhere around 11 million visitors per year (for contrast, Yellowstone receives less than a third of that).
Or at least the Smokies draw some of them…
Most are “windshield tourists” coming for the miniature golf, themed restaurants and any number of the seemingly endless attractions Ripley Entertainment manages to cram into the city. All of which helps to explain why less than 5% of the people who visit the Smokies ever set foot on a backcountry trail. Not that I am complaining…solitude in nature is a wonderful thing and it can be hard to find at times.
I don’t intend to sound as if I dislike Gatlinburg. No place outside of Georgia invokes more nostalgia for me. I’ve been visiting this small mountain town for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories include vacations here with my grandparents. We would load up my Pop’s green Ford pickup early on Friday morning and I would sleep on the bench seat in the back while he and my Nanny sang along with the local country music radio. We would roll into town and head straight to Jack Huff’s Motor Lodge. To this day, I never pass that little motel without a smile and maybe a tear.
Jack Huff was a prominent figure in the Smokies in the 20th century and as a young boy, I was fascinated by the tales of this mountain man who built the highest inn east of the Mississippi. Leconte Lodge has been drawing hardy visitors for longer than the National Park has been in existence and over 90 years after its founding, this cozy, rustic lodge remains accessible only by foot, helicopter or llama train.
Many of the hotels, stores and cliché restaurants from my boyhood days have come and gone. But Huff’s is still there. I spent the night at that little motel for the first time in over two decades recently and the familiar sights and smells that I encountered when I walked through the lobby door transported me back to another time. I was reminded of how my grandparents and I often ate lunches of Vienna sausages and saltine crackers in our motel room owing to my grandparent’s penchant for frugality dictated by decades spent working in the mills. I walked around the outdoor pool where I spent countless afternoons. I even swore that the elderly lady at the front desk looked familiar…
I felt nostalgia and my emotions begin to get the best of me so I set off for a stroll up the parkway that runs through the heart of town to perhaps clear my mind. But, everywhere I went, the memories followed me. I stood on the sidewalk outside an arcade where Pop fell one evening when it was becoming apparent that his aged legs were beginning to betray him. The next time we came to town, he too toured the streets in a wheelchair (minus the turkey leg). I walked past the Pancake Pantry where we would eat almost every morning and recalled the exhilaration of looking out over my plate of chocolate chip pancakes at snow falling outside. Snow in the morning meant that the road home between Gatlinburg and Cherokee would be closed and that we would get to stay another night. My Nanny was always as excited about this as me. Pop pretended to be bothered by the inconvenience but deep down, I think he loved it as much as we did.
My memories of this town don’t stop there. I was sometimes allowed to bring a friend along on our family trips to the mountains. My buddies and I loved spending our vacation days playing putt-putt, wandering through Ripley’s Believe It or Not and going to the haunted house at night. I went through the Mysterious Mansion so many times that I memorized the layout and would yell at hidden employees before they could do the same to me. I suppose I was and always have been easily entertained.
As my friends and I got older, we began to seek new adventures. My first experience hitchhiking came one summer day when a buddy and I hopped in the back of a pickup for the 15 minute drive to neighboring Pigeon Forge. Later that day, we visited that Asian arsenal and bought ourselves a couple of blowguns. We stayed up into the wee hours of the night practicing our aim by shooting the wooden mantle in my parent’s condo. This skill would come in handy years later when I was handed a homemade blowgun by a villager in rural Ecuador and promptly lodged a wooden dart into a mango some 15 feet away. My two friends who had seen their darts hit the ground in front of their feet just looked at me in amazement as did our tour guide. Rather than explain the backstory, I just grinned and chalked it up to beginner’s luck.
In the hostel later that night, I couldn’t help but think of how Gatlinburg and the Smokies had somehow impacted other areas of my life as well. Hikes in the park had sparked a love for the natural world and admiring relics and antiquities from around the globe in Ripley’s Believe It or Not had fostered a natural curiosity about faraway lands and adventures.
After high school, I continued to make my way to Gatlinburg, still seeking new adventures. The city and I seemed to grow together over the years and I began to feel like a local whenever I would come to town. Familiar restaurants and trails greeted me like an old friend and I loved sharing these places with others.
Up to that point, I never considered Gatlinburg any different from the other vacation spots my family frequented. Sure, the neon and airbrushed t-shirts were tacky but so were the ones in Panama City. And I didn’t mind tacky. I guess I just assumed that was all part of it. When you went on vacation, you got a colorful t-shirt and maybe a wooden keychain with your name carved on it. I never stopped to consider that the over the top kitsch somehow conflicted with the nearby natural beauty.
It wasn’t until reading Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” while preparing for my hike on the Appalachian Trail that I began to understand that not everyone thought so highly of my favorite little mountain town. I furrowed my brow when Bryson wryly pointed out that –
“For years, it (Gatlinburg) has prospered on the confident understanding that when Americans load up their cars and drive enormous distances to a setting of rare natural splendor, what most of them want when they get there is to play a little miniature golf and eat dribbly food.”
I was taken aback. What was so wrong with mini golf and dribbly food anyway?! I didn’t know it then but it would not be long before I obtained a bit of perspective and began to understand a little of what Bill was talking about.
Fast forward a few months and my buddy and I standing on top of Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail and just a short drive from Gatlinburg. We had been hiking for weeks and were looking forward to heading into town for a warm shower, a hot meal and a cold beer. We soon managed to use those hitchhiking skills I had perfected as a teenager to flag down a group of college girls who graciously gave us two stinky hikers a ride down the mountain into town.
I had looked forward to this part of the trip since we took those first steps off Springer Mountain in Georgia. My buddy had never been to Gatlinburg before and our girlfriends were driving up to spend the weekend with us. I was so excited to show them all around the town that I had come to know and love over the years. But, when we stepped out of that tiny car onto those neon lit streets, I noticed that things weren’t quite the same.
Things just did not feel right. “Why was it so noisy?” “Where did all these people come from?” I was then reminded of another line from Bryson’s book – “Gatlinburg is a shock to the system from whichever angle you survey it, but never more so than when you descend upon it from a spell of moist, grubby isolation in the woods.”
Ahhhh. So, maybe that was the problem.
Somehow, the flashing lights and carnival style food didn’t seem to hold the same sway as it had before. Perhaps Bill was right. Could it be that the last two weeks and hundreds of miles of walking in nature had sensitized me?! I was almost tempted to turn around and head back into the woods.
Although we all ended up having a great weekend in town, when my buddy and I left to resume our trek north, I remember thinking that I wasn’t inclined to come back to Gatlinburg anytime soon. I needed time to process how a place I once held so dear could now somehow seem so strange and out of place. And so I stayed away for a few years, uninclined to cast anymore shade on a place that my childhood memories held so dear.
I visited Gatlinburg once while in grad school but was met with the same conflicted thoughts. This was not the town I had grown to love as a child. It seemed fake and I felt in some sense that I had been betrayed by its inviting lights and cheap entertainment. Those diversions had distracted me from the true beauty that existed just a few miles away. And so I left and told myself that I was unlikely to ever return. Sure, I would come to the Smokies again, but not to this town, not to this cheap rip off of what I thought a mountain escape should be.
And so it went. I didn’t set foot on those neon lit streets for almost a decade. And then, last summer on my way to West Virginia, I missed a turn and found myself on an old, familiar road in north Georgia. I drove past the restaurant my parents and I used to eat at on the way to Tennessee. Further up, I slowed and admired the stately college prep campus that had fascinated me as a child. I realized in that moment where the road was taking me and I decided to proceed rather than turn around and backtrack. I told myself that I would just ride down Gatlinburg’s main strip as a reminder of how obnoxious it all was. A reminder that I had somehow matured beyond the corndogs and neon t-shirts. But, when I pulled into town, my gut and my heart told me that I would soon be stopping.
I found Jack Huff’s Motor Lodge at the edge of town and felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me. I soon opened the door to my motel room and felt my grandparent’s presence stronger than I could possibly hope to describe here. I spent all afternoon walking up and down streets that I knew like the back of my hand. I ate a sausage dog on a spinning stool in an arcade just as I had done as a child. I wandered through the music store where I bought cassette tapes (man, am I old) for my grandparents to play on the drive home. I stopped at a small theatre I loved as a child and learned that my favorite actor there had recently succumbed to cancer. Time had marched on and this little town and I had both changed in myriad ways but we still recognized each other.
I thought about how silly I felt for having judged the neon and airbrushed shirts years before. People love the kitsch here and deep down, I do too. I cherish the mountain streams and trails that lie just outside earshot of the clamor of town but that doesn’t mean that I can’t also embrace their gaudy neighbor. These wildly dissimilar environments have coexisted for decades and I think I’m starting to understand why.
Exposure to one can help you appreciate the other. People who would otherwise never set foot in a National Park may be inclined to do so by taking a vacation to Gatlinburg. And self-righteous nature types who abhor flashing lights and carnival food might find out that a corndog and a round of putt-putt golf is just the thing to relax after a day (or week) spent communing with Mother Nature.
So, I guess I’ve come full circle. The next time I swing through Gatlinburg, I’ll probably load up on saltwater taffy for a snack on my hike and after I’ve scratched my nature itch, maybe I’ll buy myself an airbrushed t-shirt and a wooden keychain. That way, I can have a reminder of how much I love this little mountain town and all the tackiness and “dribbly food” that it has to offer.