Sucked into a Tennessee tourist trap

The Smoky Mountains are in rare form this time of year, colored with golds, reds and lingering greens, but tucked in the rolling hills, Gatlinburg, Tenn. is in even rarer (and much louder) form.

This past weekend I discovered that Gatlinburg and neighboring Pigeon Forge are meccas of southern tourist-trapdom. Home to Dollywood, multiple live-action Bible theaters, the Museum of Salt and Pepper Shakers, Cooter’s Dukes of Hazzard Museum and about a million airbrush T-shirt stands, Gatlinburg sits in the hills of the Smokies like an island oasis of go-karts and mildly offensive T-shirts.

What stayed with me returning to Wisconsin, is the remarkable way the natural beauty of Smoky Mountains National Park interacts with this resolutely, proudly artificial wonderland (or hell, depending on where you stand) to create two worlds of American tourism.

I went into Gatlinburg without significant preparation. I was along on a family trip, tagging on with one of my roommates. We left expecting a weekend in the mountains complete with plenty of hiking and nature (and we did get a decent helping of both.) But what we weren’t fully prepared for was the second half of Smokies tourism—the southern, more ostentatious Wisconsin Dells, the Orlando of Tennessee—Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in all their glory.

The town of Gatlinburg has exploded in recent years with newer and bigger attractions flooding the city, growing its population and economic prosperity.

Tourists can go see attractions like the Guinness World of Records Museum, the Hollywood Star Cars Museum, the World of Illusions (which personally sounds like it was invented by G.O.B. Bluth), the Hollywood Wax Museum and a campy replica of the Titanic (replete with mini, unthreatening iceberg.)

Dinner theater also seems to be a booming attraction with competing shows vying for a spot on the tourist gravy-train with the Comedy Barn, Biblical Times Dinner Theater—which includes a singing angel projected on flat screens and biblical sword fights— and Lumberjack Feud with beflanneled men balancing on spinning logs with chainsaws and completing other fetes of woodsman skill all in the colorful mix.

On the main strip of shops there stands a sea of cheap motels, candy stores, novelty shops, gun stores flying Confederate flags and a trend of “As Seen on TV” stores that are exactly what they sound like.

There is also a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum—standard for any town like this—and a Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, Ripley’s Moving Theater, Ripley’s Super Fun Zone, Ripley’s Marvelous Mirror Maze and Candy Factory and Ripley’s Davy Crockett Mini-Golf, which seems more than a bit excessive. Based off the throngs of tourists entering each attraction, the Ripley’s district must rack in ungodly gobs of money. As my roommate and trip-buddy, Mary, whispered in my ear as we walked down the street, “looks like a rip-off believe it or not.”

If that wasn’t enough to paint the picture of Gatlinburg’s particular flavor of tourism, I think there is one persona that works to fully encapsulate the mix of shameless glitz and concurrent celebration of southern roots.

dollywoodDolly Parton’s Dollywood is joined with many bordering Dolly-themed restaurants, attractions and stores that capitalize on the name (the most memorable of which was Lid’l Dolly’s, which in fact sells pageant-like costumes for little girls.)

The figure of Dolly Parton became central in my mind as I tried to digest what I saw and work to understand, and even appreciate, Gatlinburg.

At first, when you see both Dolly and the home of her theme-park, you can’t help but judge the cheesiness, artificiality and guiltless embrace of glitter—but I have found the more time you spend with both, the more you find yourself less judgmental and even, dare I say, charmed.

The great thing about them is that there is a sense that they get their own joke. There is a self-awareness and strain of unpretentious fun that in its embrace of artificiality actually, paradoxically comes off authentic.

Dolly is who she is, blonde dye-job and all, and she has a feisty independence that says she doesn’t answer to anyone. On one level Dolly appeals to my deep appreciation of camp and kitsch, but on another I just love the way she sings and appreciate her take on a tradition of emotional southern torch songs with tunes like “I Will Always Love You.”

Sometimes, and often on this trip, my impulse was to categorize the nature-oriented tourism as a more pure and true vision of what America is supposed to be—for spacious skies and whatnot.

But Dolly Parton and Gatlinburg are just as deeply American, for better or worse. The joy in manufactured glitz offers a vision of a culture that chops down airs, isn’t afraid to self-parody and may even offer kernels of a kind of greatness and continuing identity.

As much as I often give the cheesy aesthetic a hard time, Parton’s “Jolene” has played on my iPod ten times since I returned to Wisconsin, I actually wish I had gone to the lumberjack show and Gatlinburg appeared to me in a new light.

It’s overblown, yes. Over-the-top, certainly. But it knows what it is and flaunts it with a certain unabashed flair.

I love that one trip in America can involve both the wilderness of the Smokies and the spectacle of Gatlinburg, just as on the road there I can listen to both Dolly Parton and more “tasteful” indie rock. In time, I’ve come to see it’s ok to appreciate them both.