by Lisa Slade
I'm crouched near the entrance of the Daredevil Falls ride at Dollywood. A young boy walks by. He's screaming, â“Funnel cake! Funnel cake! Funnel cake!â” I can't see what he looks like, but I'm sure he's fat. The reason I can't see what he looks like is because my head is between my legs. I'm starring at the concrete, praying for it to stop spinning. I'm hungover. Hell, I'm probably still drunk, and everyone else around me is riding rides that, on any other day, I might be riding as well. Instead, I'm sitting here, smelling the funnel cakes as they burn in the booth next to me, and listening to little kids scream about fried food. Dollywood is a place that makes little sense on a good day. This is not a good day.
I admit, I'm a snob. I like to shop for organic groceries. I eat lots of baked tofu. I drive a Volvo. I grew up in a suburban paradise, one in which the closest thing to a tourist trap was the eco-friendly mall. To me, Pigeon Forge is largely a train wreck. A heinous, environmentally destructive blight on the face of East Tennessee. There are helicopter tours, danger rides practically in the middle of the street, dinner shows, theme parks, and endless rows of T-shirt and gift shops where one can buy a plethora of both NASCAR and Jesus-themed merchandise. None of those things fit together, especially centered in a place that should be known for its natural beauty. Why, under one roof, is it necessary or even advisable to have both a flight simulator and a country-western themed dinner show?
It wasn't always this way. Forty years ago, Pigeon Forge was a sleepy little mountain town, nestled at the feet of the Great Smoky Mountains and known primarily for its proximity to the Smokies. The Smokies started to draw tourists in the 1970s, but it's largely songwriter/performer/celebrity Dolly Parton's fault that things have changed so drastically in Sevier County since 1986. That's the year she purchased Silver Dollar City, a small, hokey amusement park consisting of a few faux blacksmith shops and some log-building concession stands. She changed the name to Dollywoodâ"a tragically narcissistic move that most seem to overlook, so, whatever, I will tooâ"and made it the â“Smoky Mountain Family Adventure.â” Her words, not mine. Dolly also says, â“My one wish for you during your visit to Dollywood is that the wonder of the Great Smoky Mountains will touch your heart.â” Oh, really, Dolly? Because last time I checked, you can't even see the Smoky Mountains from the smog-filled wasteland of Pigeon Forge.
That's all beside the point, though. Pigeon Forge has become a tourist mecca for the Southeast, though I'm not entirely sure why. Why aren't more people shocked and baffled by it like I am?
Driving down the Parkway, there's no mistaking your arrival in Pigeon Forge. Actually, you know what's coming many miles before you get there, because driving down I-40, even right outside of Knoxville, there are highway signs for Wonderworks, Splash Country and Ripley's Aquarium. It makes me wonder what the point of those signs is. Maybe a family is driving down the Interstate on their way to Grandma's house in Johnson City, and they see the sign for Splash Country. Can't you see it? Dad is driving the van and he says, â“Honey, call your mom. Tell her we're not coming. Kids, we're going to Splash Country!â” The kids cheer, but they don't have bathing suits with them, so the whole family stops at Wal-Mart and picks some up, but the wife is upset that they're not going to see her mom, and the whole situation causes a strain on their relationship that will result in divorce in four years. Or at least that's how I imagine it.
So, I get off at exit 407, because, I mean, the signs are telling me to, and immediately hit bumper-to-bumper traffic. According to their press release, Dollywood alone entertains over two million visitors a year, and then you take into account all of the other attractions, and the cabin rentals, and the fact that maybe a few people actually go to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park itself, and all those things together create a traffic situation that even the six-lane Parkway can't contend with. It's infuriating, and I'm quickly reduced to playing Postmodern Radio, a game where you change the radio station every three seconds. It's entertaining for a few minutes, but then Hinder comes on, and my left leg is actually cramping from pushing in the clutch a few hundred thousand times, and it's hot, and there are too many people.
Waiting in line, it seems, is half the fun of a Pigeon Forge vacation. It is definitely what I am spending more than half of my time doing. There's the traffic, the lines to get into all the attractions, the lines for the rides at Dollywood, and there's even a line at Cracker Barrel for God's sake. Why do so many people want to eat at Cracker Barrel? I mean, I do, but for me it's different in some way. No, wait, I guess it's not. Cracker Barrel is pretty great.
Pigeon Forge apparently spins on a cultural axis of its own making. Here is a place where an overwrought caricature of mountain culture is tolerated, even worshiped, and where wearing a T-shirt with the words â“Redneck Manâ” or â“It's a Southern Thang. Ya'll Wouldn't Understandâ” earns you bragging rights and friendly nods, not shame. It's a place where it's perfectly acceptable to be 70 pounds overweight, because almost everyone else is. I particularly enjoy the flier for Rainforest Adventures Zoo, which proudly proclaims, â“Live Animal Show's [sic].â” Poor grammar may dissuade me from attending, but it must not bother others.
There are pancake houses everywhere.
After visiting Dollywood, I take a trip to Wonderworks. The press release reads, â“The attraction is based on the premise that a top-secret science institute in the Bermuda Triangle was blown sky high in an experiment gone wrong, only to land in Pigeon Forge.â”
Very likely. The whole building appears to be upside down. There's even a little Fed-Ex box up at the top, upside down. These Wonderworks people sure pay attention to detail. There may be entertaining exhibits inside, I'm not sure. I know there are millions of children, and that's only a slight exaggeration. Screams penetrate the room. â“Mom! Mom! Mom! I want to fly the plane! Can I? Can I? Can I?â” The parents all look tired. The mom under interrogation yells back with a frustrated, â“OK, can you hold on for just one second!â” It's hard to suppress the urge to strangle everyone in the room as they fill in every space on the floor like a herd of cattle. Only louder.
Wonderworks also features a Hoot â‘n' Holler dinner show. Dinner shows are apparently a must for all Pigeon Forge visitors. In addition to Hoot â‘n' Holler, there is the Miracle Theater, displaying the â“stunning musical based on the life of Christ told in epic proportions.â” There's also the Comedy Barn, the Country Tonite Theatre, the Black Bear Jamboree, Dixie Stampede, Magic Beyond Belief and countless more.
I'm not a daredevil, and I'm especially not one the day after a drinking binge, so I avoid all things where the description involves the words â“upside downâ” or â“fast.â” If that's your thing, though, there are plenty of opportunities for that here. Bungee jumping, indoor skydiving, horseback riding, and roller coasters are advertised around every corner. I guess after boring yourself to death in the dinner theater, you need a little something to elevate the pulse. Or maybe, with all those children, you're just hoping that something will malfunction.
This place is surreal, in the truest sense of the word. There's the juxtaposition of actual, local mountain culture with the corporate idea of mountain culture. There are complete non-sequiturs at every turn (Wait, is that a parrot in a cage? At the Christmas store?), and the whole place is in complete dissonance with the rational world.
There are few places on Earth like it, I'm certain, and whether you enjoy the escape from reality, as many do, or just appreciate a good cultural experiment, Pigeon Forge provides a unique opportunity to experience both. Within the span of a few hours you can feel pure terror in the form of a machine that spins you upside down at roughly Mach 3, or you can laugh at the antics of a low-budget comedy show, after which you can purchase a whole car full of useless knick-knacks. Is that good or bad? I guess it's really up to you to decide.
Oh, but the drive home is blissful. Everyone wants to get to Pigeon Forge, but apparently no one wants to leave. There's no traffic as I head back towards Knoxville. My head has finally stopped pounding. I start to think it was sort of a fun trip. I call an out-of-town friend. â“Oh my God. There's this place right outside of Knoxville. It's unreal. You have to visit.â”
Yeah, I'll be back.
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