Smoky Mountain Memories: 1997

(transcribed from letters & my journal written at the time. My parents had decided to have a “big family vacation”; Husband wanted to go, but his workplace screwed his schedule over. I got talked into going anyway and ended up with Mom, Dad, my youngest sister (YS, with whom I shared the hotel room), my middle sister (MS) & her husband (Brother-in-Law, BIL), and my brother & his fiancĂ© (my sister-in-law, SIL). This was all in the Smoky Mountains & Gatlinburg, TN in the late ’90s, with side trips to Pigeon Forge. All photos are courtesy of the National Park Service & Google Earth; at the time I didn’t have a camera.)

July 31, 1997

Hey Husband,

Today I remembered why I don’t like traveling with Mom & Dad. It’s irritating to be in a car that Dad’s driving and see something interesting (waterfall, log cabin, mountain stream), and then have to listen to Dad explain why we can’t stop to look & why he absolutely has to rush us to whatever “interesting” point he’s decided he wants to visit — usually a shop or some other tourist bs that he’ll visit for all of 5 minutes, just to snap a picture and then rush off to the next tourist bs on his itinerary. .

It’s also irritating to follow Mom & Dad and sisters and brother and their significant others into these shops they absolutely-had-to-rush-to and listen to them go on & on & ON & ON about the shop’s “authentic Smoky Mountain art” — when 9/10s of the shop’s merchandise is mass-produced made-in-China wholesale hobby-store crap stuck together with nails and a glue-gun.

Seriously. Mom & Dad had been telling me all about this candle store they loved — chattering on & on about how much I’d love the authentic hand-made candles these folks did — and the moment I walked in (store redacted), I had to walk back out before I lost it. Every single thing I saw were those white, pre-formed candles made in cheap molds, the same stuff the West Broad flea market sells! I even saw the same dragon I’ve got! The shop owners only paint the candles (I think)…and this is supposed to be “authentic Smoky Mountain ART”. No hand-dipped, no beeswax, no hand-molded, nothing but pre-formed mass-produced paraffin shit.

There is an entire artisan’s community just outside of Gatlinburg & most of these so-called “artisan shops” are this same wholesale hobby crap. The stuff Mom & Dad didn’t like was the real authentic hand-crafted stuff — folks that made their own pottery, from creek bed to potter’s wheel to glazes to kiln. High quality work, too. It was “overpriced” according to Mom & Dad & they kept trying to get me to leave — not before I bought a lovely blue oil candle, though, and YS bought us a special gift from there, since you’re stuck at work. A surprise, I promise! I wish I could’ve bought more; the guy’s work was gorgeous. (note from 2019: Alewine Pottery).

Cabin on the Roaring Fork Motor Trail

There were some high points today. The Roaring Fork Road (a drive-thru nature trail) was actually kinda cool, once we got Dad to stop and let us out and actually look at stuff (seriously, what is it with Dad that he has to rush through all the trails & sightseeing points??) The road used to be an old wagon track through the surrounding farms. Many of the log cabins and settlers’ buildings still stand & there’s tons of streams and waterfalls all through the area. Multiply Old Man’s Cave & Cedar Falls a hundred times over and put them high up in the mountains — that’s Roaring Fork.

Asinine Tourist Of The Day:

So we’re stopped, and me & YS are exploring a lovely area of waterfall, creek, & wooden bridge, while MS and BIL were following the creek bed to see if there were more waterfalls, and Dad’s back at the car, messing with that damn video camera and loudly griping about us wasting time. There’s a couple log cabins in the clearing: a settler’s cabin, old animal pens, and a corn crib. As I’m poking around the cabins, this yuppie tourist (complete with screaming kids) stops me & asks if the cabins were “shelters that hikers could use for backpacking on the trails”.

Mind, these are historical buildings in a freakin’ national park. They’ve got signs stating what they are. I’m looking at this guy like he’s crazy & finally get my wits together to go, “No, these are real log cabins from the original settlers. They’re protected landmarks.”

“Oh, so we can’t camp in them?”

Even YS was rolling her eyes at the guy.

Screen shot from Google Earth

A bit further down the road was an old water wheel and grindstone crib. Again, we got Dad to stop — though it became really obvious why Dad listened to us this time. There was this old guy playing his banjo right by the crib, old Appalachian folk tunes, and in between songs, he told small stories about his family. His grandparents were buried in the park’s cemetery and his family had been some of the original settlers in the region. I just sat on a nearby rock, listening & really getting into the music (I swear the old busker was flirting with me). Dad caught most of the performance on his video camera — the damn thing has some use — but then ruined it by getting really pushy with the guy, trying to find out if he could hire the guy to play on the tour bus for Dad & Mom’s small tour-business. Dad would not shut up about the tour he’d arranged, and the old busker had to stop playing to answer Dad’s questions & respond to Dad’s pointless stories about all his other Smokies’ trips, though he also politely refused Dad’s offer.

Dad. Would. Not. Shut. Up.

To top everything off, Dad walked off, laughing, and didn’t even bother giving the man any tip, even though Dad had recorded him for a good 5 minutes before interrupting the performance. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much cash on me, but I did leave $5 in the old busker’s hat and quietly apologized for Dad’s behavior.

By that time, it was getting dark, so we headed back into Gatlinburg for dinner. Place called The Brass Lantern. Excellent food — I had grilled rainbow trout that was perfect over smoked rice. We spent the rest of the night walking around Gatlinburg & exploring the shops (me giggling over the the kitsch — some things about Gatlinburg never change).

Screenshot from Google Earth

I will admit, playing stupid tourist can be fun once in a while. Me & YS went through the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum up here, and believe it or not, it was actually worth the price of the admission. You’d love it — macabre, weird (gum-wrapper chains?!?), gross (shrunken heads & pictures of folks impaled), etc. It took us well over an hour to get through it, and once again, I proved I had a higher tolerance for weirdness than anyone else in the family.

Off to sleep. I’ll mail this tomorrow. Love you.

— me

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