The week inbetween Christmas and New Year’s, to me, means Gatlinburg. We used to call it youth group city, but if you grew up in the South, and attended a local Baptist church or some other congregation, there’s a good chance you’ve been to Gatlinburg. Hoards of hormone-driven youths descend on the city during this time of year to listen to contemporary Christian music concerts, spend mornings on the Ober Ski Lift Gatlinburg and afternoons in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum, buy tacky tourist souvenirs, and spend their parent’s hard earned money in outlet stores in nearby Pidgeon Forge.
In my adult life, no matter where I am come December 27th or so, I feel strange if I’m not in Gatlinburg, tucked away at the classic Glenstone Lodge, and shelling out far too much money to ride Earthquake: The Ride.
Gatlinburg goes all out for Christmas. They decorate every space and surface with oversized twinkly lights, seemingly have more cozy pancakes by the fire restaurants than you can put away, and the view of the Smoky Mountains covered in hazy snow doesn’t hurt either. Somewhere in my mind I know that there are probably better mountain towns, more pure getaways, but I love how G’burg never changes in its tacky delightfulness.
I’ve recently been introduced to an author, Bill Bryson, that I’m not sure how I’ve missed this long. He spent 20 years living in England, where he married his wife and had a family, but upon moving back to his home, the States, has undergone many journeys rediscovering America.
As I often do when I discover a new author I enjoy, I promptly went to the local bookstore and had them order almost everything he’s written. Working my way through one of his books, A Walk in the Woods, I came across a description of Gatlinburg that I suppose is entirely true, but a little sad to me, nonetheless, since G’burg is such a beloved place fixed in my mind and memories.
“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. It sits just outside the main entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and specializes in providing all those things that the park does not — principally, slurpy food, motels, gift shops, and sidewalks on which to waddle and dawdle — nearly all of it strewn along a single, astoundingly ugly main street. For years it 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. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular national park in America, but Gatlinburg… is more popular than the park.
Walking in an unhurried fashion up and down the street were more crowds of overweight tourists in boisterous clothes, with cameras bouncing on their bellies, consuming ice-creams, cotton candy, and corn dogs, sometimes simultaneously… throngs of pear-shaped people in Reeboks wandered between food smells, clutching grotesque comestibles and bucket-sized soft drinks.”
And I’ve heard he has even harsher, but loving, things to say about G’burg in his book — next in my stack — The Lost Continent.
“… it was packed from end to end with the most dazzling profusion of tourist clutter — the Elvis Presley Hall of Fame, Stars Over Gatlinburg Wax Museum, two haunted houses, the National Bible Museum, Hillbilly Village, Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum, the American Historical Wax Museum, Gatlinburg Space Needle, something called Paradise Island, something else called World of Illusions, the Bonnie Lou and Buster Country Music Show, Carbo’s Police Museum, Guinness Book of Records Exhibition Center and, not least, the Irlene Mandrell Hall of Stars Museum and Shopping Mall. In between this galaxy of entertainments were scores of parking lots and noisy, crowded restaurants, junk-food stalls, ice cream parlors and gift shops of the sort that sell ‘wanted’ posters with Your Name Here and baseball caps with droll embellishments, like a coil of realistic-looking plastic turd on the brim.
I loved it. When I was growing up, we never got to go to places like Gatlinburg. My father would have rather given himself to brain surgery with a Black and Decker drill… He had just two criteria for gauging the worth of a holiday attraction: Was it educational and was it free? Gatlinburg was patently neither of these. … So Gatlinburg to me was a heady experience… All the noise and glitter, and above all the possibilities for running through irresponsible sums of money in a short period, made me giddy.
I wandered through the crowds, and hesitated at the entrance to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum… They told me that inside I would see a man who could hold three billiard balls in his mouth at once, a two-headed calf, a human unicorn with a horn protruding from his forehead and hundreds of other riveting oddities from all over the globe collected by the tireless Robert Ripley and crated back to Gatlinburg for the edification of discerning tourists such as myself.
So I went through the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum and I savored every artifact and tasteless oddity. It was outstanding. I mean, honestly, where else are you going to see a replica of Columbus’s flagship, the Santa Maria, made entirely of chicken bones? And how can you put a price on seeing… the death mask of John Dillinger …It was all wonderful — clean, nicely presented, sometimes even believable…
Afterwards, feeling highly content, I purchased an ice cream cone the size of a baby’s head and wandered with it through the crowds of people in the afternoon sunshine.”
His description is exactly as Gatlinburg is, but I sense a fondness, even in his voice for it. (And don’t even ask me how many of those above named attractions I’ve been to. It’s embarrassingly complete.) Certainly, if you and your family have not had the chance to drive in the Great Smoky Mountains, by all means, do so. But for those of you who have had the pleasure of visiting one of the South’s great American towns, Gatlinburg, I think you’ll agree with me that it really is one of a kind and splendid.
So I’ll share with you a few pictures from some of my countless trips to Gatlinburg, and you can see for yourself! If you yourself have had a Gatlinburg experience, we’d love to hear about it!