Hell is a Family Vacation in Pigeon Forge

Hello friends and family!

Nothing brings Americans together like fall colours. In the woods of Maine, Vermont, Appalachia, California, Idaho, and wherever else a stand of deciduous trees grows, you’ll find a gaggle of Americans gawking at the foliage. The parking lots are full of pick-up trucks with gun racks and Subarus with kayak racks, fat Harleys and road bikes, 1980s camper vans and RVs that cost more than a starter home. An Asian couple in lawn chairs watches the leaves fall like rain when the breeze stirs the trees, while an old white man in suspenders takes a family photo for sari-clad sisters. Kids play in the carpets of leaves. A woman gathers the fallen maple and oak and sassafras and chestnut and beech and birch and tulip leaves; perhaps she’s making some sort of autumnal bouquet she read about on Pinterest. The sky is blue and the leaves are aflame and everyone is happy, because somehow leaf-watching has become a nationwide, patriotic pursuit.

Fall colours from a fire tower

I discovered that fall colours are a thriving tourism industry last fall in New Hampshire and Vermont, where they pervertedly refer to the practice as “leaf peeping.” This autumn I’ve been taking note as I peeped leaves throughout the Midwest. It was in a deep, dark forest in New York that I realized how fall colours truly bring people together, because where else would I stop and talk with a deer hunter who happened to be pointing a loaded crossbow directly at me? And in Ohio, because what else would I have in common with the women working at the biblical wax museum, with their bouffant hairdos hairsprayed into concrete structures, but a mutual admiration for the lovely weather we’re having? From Ohio I darted into Indiana, a state I’d forgotten existed, and will probably immediately forget about again. From there I went south, through Kentucky’s bourbon belt and into Tennessee, past the pockets of rural poverty in the hollers of the Appalachian foothills.

Dressing modestly for “Ohio’s only Biblical wax museum”

Maybe by now the leaves have fallen in Toronto, but I have to keep driving south to chase the fall colours as warmer climates keep the leaves on the trees well into November. It is this quest for lower latitudes that brought me to the hellscape that is the 19 miles of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee between Interstate 40 and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Close your eyes. Imagine a four-lane county road broken up by regularly spaced traffic lights. Imagine heavy car traffic, long queues for left turns, and busy parking lots on each side of the road. There are no pedestrians, no sidewalks, no gardens, no benches, no trees. Walking is for poor people. Driving is American. Now picture the following: Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud Dinner Theatre, the world’s biggest knife store, a muscle car museum, a recreation of the Titanic, King Kong climbing the side of the Empire State Building, a moonshine outlet store, a waterpark, a winery, and an upside-down Parthenon.

Keep driving. You’ve got miles of this before you can reach the turn-off into the national park. A wax museum, Guy Fieri’s steakhouse, a 1950s diner, a Coney Island boardwalk arcade, Margaritaville, a biker bar, a Cherokee outlet mall, and the Soul of Motown Hit Parade. Keep driving. A pirate-themed dinner theatre, a CBD store, a sex store called SEXY STUF, a vape store, the Hard Rock Café, and a medieval castle. Imagine driving a carload of children to one attraction, then another, and so on, and so forth, constantly circling to find a parking spot. An Alcatraz prison, laser tag, the Jurassic Park Jungle Boat Ride, Hee-Haw Comedy Barn, Dolly Parton’s Stampede, gem mines, a carnival midway, a Trump store, the “China Emporium” selling samurai swords, a candle outlet, a log cabin, and a crawfish and catfish restaurant.

At the end of this is the most-visited park in America, spanning two states and a chunk of the Appalachian mountains: the Great Smoky Mountains. In the autumn, the park is jam-packed with leaf-seekers from all over the country on a pilgrimage to see the mountains robed in orange, red and yellow. You can easily win the license plate game just by walking around the visitor centre parking lot for a half hour. All of America is here, and I can’t emphasize that enough. Amish people in wool suits, scantily clad teenagers, Chinese bus tours, the Thin Blue Line contingent, the crunchy granola types, and they’re all here to worship at the altar of America’s natural – some would say God-given – beauty.

A cold bath in an Appalachian stream

And beautiful it is, in inverse proportion to the ugliness of Pigeon Forge. The mountains are indeed smoky, so that they appear like smudged blue ridges in the distance. Closer up, the mountains are covered with a coat of many colours, just like the one Appalachian native Dolly Parton once sang about. Appalachia as a whole is gorgeous, full of secret waterfalls and stone tunnels and hiking trails that’ll literally take your breath away. There are plenty of trout creeks, shaded by tall trees that lean so their crowns touch to form a tunnel overhead. Along the spine of the mountains runs the Blue Ridge Parkway, a road so winding that I wish I was driving something zippier than a cargo van. A Porsche would be nice.

I think Pigeon Forge is an abomination, but it’s also a perfect amalgamation of every kind of America. Every cliché and stereotype, every myth and ideal, in a 19-mile melting pot that combines Myrtle Beach with Dodge City and Mackinaw Island and every other tourist-trap town you can think of. Where those towns cater usually to one American mythos, be it the Wild West of Tombstone or the Antebellum Age of Charleston, Pigeon Forge has it all. It is the tourist-trap Mecca. It has Wild West America and Patriotic America and 1950s Nostalgia America and Gilded Age America and Immigrant America and Hillbilly America and Native American America and Coastal America and Deep South America and Creole America and Lumberjack America, all thrown together to appeal to the broadest base of people. There’s something for everyone, be you a cowboy or surfer or moonshiner, or more likely a middle-class suburban family of five in need of an affordable week’s vacation. When the excitements of go-karts and dinner theatres wear off, they all make their ways to the mountains to enjoy one of the last universal American enjoyments, undivided by political stripe or economic class. They’ll look at some leaves, and they do it cheek-by-jowl with their fellow Americans, from all corners and cultures of the country. And that’s why Pigeon Forge is, in its own tacky and ugly way, kind of heart-warming.

And the journey continues…

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