Saturday, July 24, 2010

Great Smoky Mountains National ParkI went here recently on vacation. It's hardly an unknown spot--it gets something like 10 million visitors a year, is the most visited of all the national parks, several of the towns around the edges of it are major, even notorious, tourist resorts--but I did not know much about it. My family when I was growing up was not much into parks or spending time in nature, so I have never been accustomed to think of these kinds of places as being on the list of destinations I might want to see someday. As far as I can tell, this area is not very well known in the Northeast generally. It is a pretty long way from New England but not terribly far--8 or 9 hours--from the Washington, D.C. area, not farther than Cape Cod and closer than Maine certainly, but I don't remember hearing of anyone going to the Smokies when I lived there either, though it is possible it did not register with me because at the time I did not know anything about the place and hearing about it probably would not have interested me.
As has happened in other instances over the last few years, I came upon the idea of going to the Smoky Mountains from my 1962 World Illustrated Encyclopedia, which offers travel recommendations rooted in the earnest enthusiasms and interests of an optimistic and aspiring middle class person of that time, with which sensibility I have a lot of sympathy. As I have noted elsewhere, this encyclopedia was especially keen on patriotic historical sites and parks, the main national ones of course, but a fair number of state parks or gardens and such were included as well. It liked the Smoky Mountains park a great deal, recommending the latter accompanied by numerous photographs in both the North Carolina and Tennessee sections (the park is located along the border of these states), but giving it its own article as well. Another set of (small) books I have from that same year, the American Geographical Society's "Know Your America Program" touts it enthusiastically and at great length as well. I was piqued and marked it down as something to look into, along with a few other possibilities within reasonable driving distance (defined this year as 12 hours or less either from New Hampshire or Philadelphia--Gatlinburg barely made the cut). Once I got on the internet and saw what a big deal tourism in the Smokies was and how fervently so many people loved it, and how fervently so many other people loathed the scene around the park and the masses who took part in it (no one loathes the park itself by the way) I was overcome with a very strong desire to go and see what this place was all about.
Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge (home of Dollywood) especially, my researches were telling me, were abominations, nightmares, horrid and tasteless spectacles, Wal-Mart culture at its most depraved, the poor man's Orlando or even Branson. They bulged with the spawn of southern America's trailer parks, an astoundingly (for this day and age) white crowd devoted to Jesus and guns and tattoos, most of whom had never had any exposure to real civilization at all, let alone been within fifty miles of even a semi-respectable school. This all actually did worry me a lot, though more for the sake of my wife, who (knowing nothing of the area herself) I thought might be really angry to find she had been dragged seventeen hours from home to find herself in a hellhole surrounded by stupid and nasty rednecks. However there was still the allure of the park, of which the consensus even of the most vociferous Gatlinburg haters was that it was super-duper, and also I read through a lot of personal blogs by people who loved vacationing there, and they seemed nice enough, and their lack of pretentiousness compared to east coast people was actually kind of charming--pretty young wives expressing enthusiasm about going to a favorite pancake house or a hotel with a heated pool, that sort of thing. I thought if it turned out to be absurd enough without being really disastrous I could at least get an essay out of it like the famous one David Foster Wallace wrote about his trip on a cruise ship which everyone loved so much.
The park is truly gorgeous and spectacular, well worth going a long way for. Being from the east, and therefore at a long distance from most of the National Parks, this was the first one I had ever been to, including Acadia. It more than surpassed my expectation, which was high but based upon a much lower scale. Now I am curious to see more, though I don't know when I might get around to doing that, as must of the other famous ones are really far away (and then what does one do in say, Death Valley, anyway? It isn't like you can go hiking in the middle of the day, can you?). The Smoky Mountains are unique and interesting in addition to their beauty, which salient impressions I am not always on a sure footing with in matters of nature. The trees and plants and animals at the highest (4,000+ ft) elevations are similar to our mountains in New England, and southern Canada, a relic of the last ice age, the more common southern vegetation which gradually overtook the rest of the region having never conquered these peaks. The lower elevations, especially on the North Carolina side, have a more southern appearance, with horse trails and white water rafting and sycamore and oak trees. The air when one is up in the mountains is fresh and even primeval compared with what in usual in that part of the country in the summer, and even in town though it was in the 80s and fairly humid the air was still cleaner than one would have expected given the extent of traffic and other environmentally appalling human activity taking place there.
On the way back we came some of the way, in both North Carolina and Virginia, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a scenic road that is also administered by the National Park Service (several of the pictures on the page here--I believe the 1st and 4th from the top--were taken in North Carolina along this road). We did not go the whole way, as the road is 469 miles long through mountainous country and is rather slow going. At many points in North Carolina I had a hard time getting above 35 miles per hour. In any event I came away from this trip impressed with the work of the Park Service. Apart from the nature in and through which they operate, the human incursions in these parks--bridges, roads, trails, visitors centers, signs, etc, are tastefully and thoughtfully designed and beautifully maintained. I found the presentation of such information as regarded the natural and human history of the areas under consideration to be at a reasonable adult level of comprehension and interest without being overwhelming or abstruse for the amateur. A lot of people don't like government agencies as being unnecessary and bloated with incompetent and expensive employees, but most of the ones I come into contact with at my level of society are far more reliable, serious, on the level and accountable to the general public without the necessity of hiring legal counsel than most comparable private enterprises.
The horrors of Gatlinburg (where I ended up staying), of which I was so apprehensive that I only reserved rooms for four days in case it should all be too unbearably awful, were decidedly overstated, such that I regretted I had not booked an extra night or two when it was time to leave. The polite travel writing community repeatedly emphasized the place as a mecca for the hee-hawing, tobacco-spitting Dukes of Hazzard loving community, and the kinds of amusements that appeal to this type; there were a few of these people, but no more than at the scruffier beaches or lakefronts in New England, of which there are more than a few. A person I know in New Hampshire who used to live in Nashville assured me when I mentioned where I was going that if I hung out in the town I would see the fattest people I had ever seen in my life; I did not notice that the people were on the whole any fatter than they are anywhere else other than perhaps Paris. In addition the ratio of attractive women to people who made one depressed simply by looking at them was considerably higher than it is almost anywhere in the east, especially at the socioeconomic level that frequents Gatlinburg. The area attracts a lot of families and as such most places are very relaxed about children, which is something I have to take into consideration. We did not stand out nearly as much in Tennessee as we do in much of the north, where families our size seem to be rarer and are considered quite big.
Other misconceptions. The traffic in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, it was related in book after book and site after site, was reputedly a nightmare. While there is some congestion in town that makes for slow going, "town" is about six blocks long, which maybe takes 15 or 20 minutes to get through and has the advantage of very good people watching and the ridiculous/fascinating conglomeration of shopping and outrageous attractions to distract one's attention. If you have ever driven anywhere in the D.C. or New York areas between about 2 and 8 pm on a weekday you will wonder what the fuss is even about. The first day or two I took the recommended shortcuts to avoid this, but I found I actually enjoyed checking out the strip and that the amusement this provided the whole family was well worth the extra twenty minutes it took to get into the park.
A lot of people nowadays (doubtless from both the pro- and anti-diversity contigents) like to make note of the racial makeup of popular vacation spots and take this into consideration when deciding whether to go somewhere. The National Parks especially have become suspect in the eyes of many in recent years due to the fact that they appeal overwhelmingly to white people. It is true that there were very few blacks or hispanics at this place, though still more than you will find at similarly popular vacation spots in New England, with the exception perhaps of the city of Boston. Nonetheless, given the general area of the park's location, the absence of black people would have to be remarked upon by any sensitive reporter. I did see a good amount of Asian Indians there, as I do at parks and natural places in New England as well, and while I did not see any Indians of the American variety, there is a substantial Cherokee reservation just outside the North Carolina entrance of the park (with a big casino). I did not see a lot of Koreans, Japanese, etc, which one does come across quite frequently in New England during the popular seasons. I wondered if they had picked up on the fact that the Yale crowd doesn't think the Smokies are cool and planned their vacation accordingly. It is true that one does not see a lot of people who look like they went to Yale there, though there are certainly plenty of people who went to the University of Tennessee (which is only 30 miles away), and people who went there (as well as plenty of people who didn't go there) really love the University of Tennessee to a degree that would appear bizarre to most state school graduates in the northeast, few of whom seem willing to express the kind of passionate affection for their alma maters that people from Harvard and Bowdoin (people who went to Bowdoin I find really love Bowdoin) and the major state schools in flyover country do. Penn State is a partial exception to this rule, but that is because the school is at least half midwestern in personality. PSU-love is not especially detectable in Philadelphia but grows in fervor the further across the state, especially westward, one fans out.
Another demographic circumstance I suppose I must note is that openly gay people were in serious short supply--I didn't notice anyone obvious at all--and by extension gay couples with children, of which there is at least one family in nearly every class/team/congregation/office I encounter in New England now, were nowhere to be seen. Being me, I actually hadn't noticed this at first. I only minimally have any kind of progressive instinct, and am only conscious of certain kinds of people when they are present and forget when they are blatantly absent to wonder what it is wrong with the place that they should not be there. It was only when I commented to my wife how I was surprised by how friendly everyone was, after reading about how backwards and hostile to anybody progressive or educated they were supposed to be, that she reminded me that yes, they were, but then we are conventional white people with a pretty large family (also of course, I can obviously easily pass for someone who is neither progressive nor educated). This was a good lesson for me.

Al Gore Award. I know what you are thinking, I allowed myself to be overexcited by one of the sweet-talking Tennessee honeys and attempted an unwelcome and inappropriate love attack on her person, but no, though doubtless one can easily imagine a scenario in which such an unfortunate incident might come to pass, it did not do so on this occasion. No, it was my dear wife Sabrina, who hauled several large garbage bags of bottles all the way back to Philadelphia that she might recycle them, Al Gore's nominal home state evidently not having gotten around as yet to setting up a convenient system for doing this. When I asked Angie, the not bad-looking and slightly provocative-dressing manager of my hotel, what I ought to do with the bottles, she shrugged her shoulders and laughed mildly at the ludicrous earnestness of my question, and said in her Appalachian twang--I generally don't go for most southern accents but the Appalachian and general Tennessee versions really work on me for whatever reason--"Just throw 'em in the garbage."

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