The original purpose of the day trip last Sunday was to see Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Unfortunately, the road from Knoxville to Gatlinburg also goes through Pigeon Forge, and as I fought my way through the traffic, it occurred to me I had found the only place on Earth that could make Branson, Missouri, look sophisticated. Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood and every other kind of tourist trap you can imagine, and the crown-jewel seems to be the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show. But if “Feud’n, Feast’n and Family Fun” is not your cup of tea, you can always visit the Titanic Museum, for which they have built a partial replica of the ship, complete with iceberg, or you could go instead to WonderWorks, whose entry facade is a three-story building flipped upside down.
I drove out the south end of hillbilly hell and came to a stretch of highway that followed a stream through some wooded hills, and it bolstered my hopes that Gatlinburg would be like I imagined; a quaint mountain town with wine tasting shops and art galleries and book stores, but when I arrived there seven minutes later I found that Gatlinburg was just Pigeon Forge-lite. I drove straight through without stopping.
Initially, I had not planned to go to the national park, but with my illusions of Gatlinburg so thoroughly shot to pieces I needed something else to do, and I wasn’t ready to drive back to Knoxville. I stopped first at the Visitors Center and looked at displays of native plants and animals that live in the Great Smoky Mountains. Next I went to the theater where they show a film about the park’s history, but they were between showings, and I didn’t want to wait around for the next one. I went over to the information booth and got a free paper that has news about the park. I felt a twinge of guilt for ignoring the donation box they always put so conveniently close to the free stuff. On the back page of the paper there was a map, so I chose Newfound Gap as my destination, a point at the geographic center of the park about thirteen miles away.
As I drove up the rising grade I remember thinking, “Isn’t it supposed to be prettier than this?” I don’t know what I was expecting. I guess I thought it would be like the picture postcard I see in my mind, the one where green mountain-tops rise out of a wispy haze and everything is bathed in the blue hues of fading daylight. February has to be the worst time of the year for scenery that relies so heavily on foliage, but they are the Great Smoky Mountains after all, so maybe I expected them live up to the hubris of their name and defy winter somehow, but of course they could not.
It had snowed two nights earlier, and the rocks in the streams looked like they were topped with white icing, and some of the trees on the highest peaks were heavily flocked with snow. Both were nice touches, but what I saw for the most part was mile upon mile of naked trees and not a wisp of haze anywhere.
It was bitterly cold at Newfound Gap. The thermometer on my dashboard read twenty degrees and the wind was howling. People left their cars just long enough to snap a few photos, then they scrambled back to the warmth inside. I walked to the top of an observation area that had the look of a WPA project, and I’m pretty sure my face almost froze. I scanned the endless vistas, wondering if this could have been the spot where the photograph I had in my mind was taken. I stayed until I could stand the cold no more, then I hurried back to my car and decided to call it a day.