“Here, we fill our spirits, seek inspiration, and continue the journey toward what we know is right. In Gatlinburg, we Reach Higher Ground.”
– The Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce
If the Smoky Mountains National Park were to have an opposite, it would be Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the city at its doorstep. In just a few short blocks, the tourist trap contains 400 shops and five malls, plus a mess of arcades, mini golf courses, wax museums and mirror mazes. Though Gatlinburg claims to be about “the simple goodness of small town life,” where people gather to “stand in awe of nature’s glory,” the only thing green inside the city limits is the bills constantly changing hands.
My friend Cheri and I ventured into the Smoky Mountain town to grab dinner before a backpacking trip this weekend. We ate burritos under the beer flags on the No Way José’s Cantina patio, then strolled along Greenbrier Road, the main strip, to take in the sights.
Things you’ll find along Gatlinburg’s main strip, over and over and over again:
- That “Grandma’s Punkin” airbrushed T-shirt you’ve always wanted.
- Leg lamps (which can make “the soft glow of electric sex” glow from YOUR window TOO!)
- Sailboats, elephants and unicorns sculpted of clear glass, perfect for the top-lit curio cabinet in your living room.
- Chinese knives, swords and cutlery (because… this makes sense in a Tennessee mountain town?)
- Hotels advertising their dance floors, hot tubs — and AARP specials.
- Pancake houses. Seriously, there are like 15 in five blocks.
- Tuxedo and wedding gown rental shops beside white-washed wedding chapels.
- People pushing their dogs in strollers.
- Old Tyme Picture Shops, where you can have your photo taken in a saloon or with the money bags from the bank you just robbed.
As we passed the front door of one of these picture shops, we saw woman in a frilly red dress posing in front of the saloon backdrop with a man who was completely naked, save the top hat he held as a codpiece. A fellow passerby, a woman in her mid-40s, yelled at him from the street. “Tip your hat!” she said. Then she clarified, “Not your HEAD, your HAT!”
Once you leave Gatlinburg and enter the national park, you will fall to your knees and weep with relief, if you’re not too sick from all the fudge and candied apples. And then you’ll feel like you’re a whole lot closer to Reaching Higher Ground.