Memories of Gatlinburg

27 12 2010

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.

View of Gatlinburg from the Sky Lift

Gatlinburg Sky Lift

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.

Arches of lights cover your drive over every street in Gatlinburg


Christmas lighted bears, playing the strings, accordion, and fiddle (forgive the silhouettes of me and my admiring friends)

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.

Humongous bow and garland decoration covering the bridge in front of the Aquarium of the Smokies -- you can barely make out human figures peaking out from behind, as we're about to visit

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.

Friends in front of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as we're about to embark upon a day hike

Amidst all the blinking lights and the ice cream cones the size of baby's heads, there is some profound beauty in the Smoky Mountains, as evidenced by this clear-running creek

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!

Countless cozy evenings spent around a fire playing card games with dear friends


Hard Rock Cafe in Gatlinburg is always a fun spot to eat


a must-see is the Gatlinburg Sky Lift


You can see such classics as the General Lee at Cooter's Place in Gatlinburg

You can always return after a day of fun on the town to the cozy Glenstone Lodge


Our favorite place to stay -- the Glenstone Lodge -- always decorated beautifully for Christmas

The Colors of Fall

6 10 2010

Break room or lunchtime conversation is bound to include someone’s upcoming trip to see the change of fall.  It is a time characterized by blue skies, white puffy clouds, cool breezes and of course, the show stopper, the leaves.  Magenta, gold, burnt yellow, and candy apple red are all some of the glorious colors we see and for some reason I always imagine them to be little crowns adorning the tree. 

While we do not see the leaves change too much in Florida, most southerners can look out their window to experience this change of seasons or visit areas known for such splendor. 

Easter Tennessee and Western North Carolina are two very big destinations to see the leaves change.   In early October the mountain tops (elevations exceeding 4500 feet) already display the change of color, and it descends down the mountain in full splendor by mid to late October.   Of course, we all recognize the proud maple tree, but the sycamore, poplars, sweet birch, sourwood, oak, American ash, and dogwood trees all change their colors as well and provide us with great beauty. 

2010 is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and this is also one of the best stretches of road to catch the change of the leaves.  High up in the mountains the view is spectacular.  All you need is a picnic, a jacket, and a few hours to soak up the glory of fall. 

Keep us posted on your trips to see the leaves change!

College Week: Union University

2 09 2010

If you ask me, today’s featured university is the best in the South, but then again, I might be partial. Union University is my alma mater.

Union was founded in 1823 in Jackson, Tennessee as a private liberal arts university, and has now grown to be home to over 4,000 students and to four separate campuses throughout Tennessee. Union has a stellar nursing program and is also known for its educational college.

Union also has the privilege of claiming some recognizable names among its alumni including the president of Rhodes college, William E. Troutt, recording artist Chris Rice, Major League baseball player, Luis Ortiz, and a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Howell Edmunds Jackson.

You might recognize Union from its recent tragedy that was widely reported in the news. Union was hit by an F4 tornado in February of 2008 which destroyed 18 of its dormitory buildings, but miraculously, escaped with no fatalities. Faculty, staff, friends, surrounding churches, and the entire community rallied around Union and provided supplies, housing, and volunteered their time and efforts for the clean up.

This is so indicative of the experience I had while at Union. The faculty went above and beyond the call of duty, often inviting us into their homes for meals, book clubs, or just to watch a movie.

I had so many wonderful experiences at Union that I simply cannot say enough about the friendships I developed and the way my mind was expanded. If you’re nearby the Jackson area, make every attempt to obtain tickets to the annual Scholarship Banquet in October this year, as the speaker is scheduled to be former First Lady Laura Bush.

And, I’ve got to continue bragging, just a little. Union was recently evaluated by the U.S. News and World Report as the #3 school in the Southern region and 80th overall in the U.S.

Go Bulldogs!

My dear roommates and I in our apartment-style dorm rooms (which have since been completely redone, due to the tornado that was a blessing in disguise for those students who got brand new really nice dorm rooms).

A couple of good friends, studying on Union's campus on a beautiful day.

Fun friends grabbing some pizza.

Graduation Day!

Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival

10 06 2010

Today marks the beginning of the Bonnaroo Music Arts Festival that will take place in Manchester, Tennessee. It runs through Sunday, so we hope you can make plans to attend if you’re in nearby area.

Amoung the acts scheduled to attend are the Dave Matthews Band, Kings of Leon, Stevie Wonder, Tenacious D, Weezer, The Flaming Lips, Norah Jones, John Fogerty, Regina Spektor, LCD Soundsystem, Zac Brown Band, Jeff Beck, Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers, the Avett Brothers and… my secret geek crush, Conan O’Brien.

As you can see, a lot of great bands are playing. I’m really jealous if you get to hear so many of these acts, but especially the Avett Brothers. No sound mixes together like family voices.

But if not, we’ve made a little soundtrack album list for you to download a few songs, put them on your iPod, and have a good time on your own, whatever you’ve found yourself to get into this Southern summer weekend.

  1. Where Are You Going? – DMB
  2. The Difference Between Us – The Dead Weather
  3. Love the World You Find – The Flaming Lips
  4. Centerfield – John Fogerty
  5. Be Somebody – Kings of Leon
  6. A Ramblin’ Man is a Ramblin’ Man – Steep Canyon Rangers
  7. Sweet Tides – Thievery Corporation
  8. A Sorta Fairytale – Tori Amos
  9. Chicken Fried – Zac Brown Band

Is anyone attending Bonnaroo?

Around the South in June 2010

1 06 2010

Memorial Day weekend marks the official beginning of summer for most Southerners. We hope yours was a perfect mix of relaxation, family, food, and memories made.

Now that you’ve had a long weekend to relax, get out there, South. We’ve got a host of great activities to keep you busy this month.

Let the summer fun begin!

May 28th – June 13th 2010

Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, SC

One of the world’s leading cultural festivals, Spoleto Festival USA is known for its intimate, Old-World charm, Charleston offers its churches and quaint historical spaces for exceptional performances in everything from dance, opera, and theater to jazz, choral, and chamber music.

HEYDAY: Photographs of Frederick W. Glasier Circus Photos

The Ringling Museum

Sarasota, FL

Life on the Edge: The Story of Florida’s Nature Coast

Florida Museum of Natural History

Gainesville, FL

Hands in Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia

Asheville Art Museum

Asheville, NC

June 5, 2010

International Biscuit Festival

Knoxville, TN

June 11, 2010

Art Break, Hands in Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia

Photographs by Tim Barnwell

Asheville Art Museum

Asheville, NC

June 11 – 13, 2010

Vieux To Do in New Orleans, LA

Three festivals in one weekend — The Louisiana Seafood Festival, the Cajun Zydeco Festival, and the Creole Tomato Festival.

Celebrate the cuisine, culture, and music of The Big Easy. Festival sites include the French Quarter, the legendary French Market, and the Louisiana State Museum’s Old U.S. Mint.

June 12, 2010

Beans + Rice: A Culinary and Cultural Odyssey

The Historic New Orleans Collection

New Orleans, LA

June 12, 2010

Seventh Annual Wine Auction and Gala Dinner

Asheville Art Museum benefit

Arden, NC

June 16, 2010

Harry Connick, Jr.

Blumenthal Performing Arts Center

Durham, NC

June 24-25, 2010

Southern Foodways Alliance Field Trip

Atlanta, GA

June 25, 2010

Concerts in the Garden

 Emmylou Harris

Atlanta Botanical Gardens

Atlanta, GA

June 30 – July 25, 2010

Wicked in Houston, TX

Hobby Center

Cordova: The Town

31 05 2010

Do you have a place in your heart where you always imagined you’d “end up”? Your final home? Your dream home? Where you’d be happy to live out the rest of your days?

That place may have changed for me over the years, as I’ve had new experiences, but my first such dream home just happened to be in a beautiful community in Memphis.

Cordova is a suburb of Memphis — your classic suburb. In fact, I went to high school in Cordova, where everyone knew each other, you could cheer for the local high school at a football game or run into your neighbor at church on Sunday.

Tucked away within this section of town is a quaint, perfect community named “Cordova: The Town.”

Developed in the 90’s, near the heart of downtown Cordova, it is a perfect picture of the traditional neighborhood, surrounded by the conveniences of location. The houses are built near to each other, but spacious in that most are 3-stories tall, built with hardwood floors. Centered around a classic “main” circle, this neighborhood is high on charm.

I love that newer neighborhood developers are paying attention that home-owners wish for the days with Southern charm, a community feel, and beautiful surroundings.

Where do you dream of living?

Memphis Skyline and the Mississippi River

20 05 2010

I am a sucker for a downtown skyline.  It must have something to do with those car trips as kids when we passed the “big city” from the interstate and pointed out the city skyline from a distance.  But, if I think about it, we had the same reaction to seeing mountains, road side stands, horses, etc…I think we were just excited kids.   Truthfully, I have no idea why I love seeing big buildings now and many of the things they contain, such as, boring offices, air conditioning vents, and smoke stacks. 

As Ginger and I stood examining the downtown skyline of Memphis last fall, my imagination led me down a path where I envisioned people living lives similar to those seen in old movies with lots of martinis, cigarettes and expensive jewels.  That is probably the reason I love skylines.  They provoke my imagination. 

On top of a downtown Memphis building, Ginger and I were able to see all sorts of fun sights, the Autozone Park, The Memphis Journal building, and the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi River, flows next to downtown Memphis and adds to the already vibrant life of the area.  The river walk area along the Mississippi and neighboring downtown provide concerts at the Mud Island River Park amphitheatre, a museum, parks, pedal boats, and a scale model of the Mississippi River, that you can actually walk through.  Who doesn’t love taking off their shoes and playing in the water every now and then?  

From this brief description, you can conclude that there is plenty keep everyone busy in downtown Memphis, and that I get excited about all things, whether it be a downtown skyline or a river.  Maybe it is time you let your imagination and your car take you to Memphis.