August 4: Mount Rogers State Park, Grayson Highlands to Abingdon, Virginia to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Atlanta, Georgia
Soundtrack: Bad bluegrass from the National Park store; 97.1 FM The River, Atlanta
My own journey started long before I left, and was over before I returned. I know exactly where and when it was over. Near Abingdon, in the dog-leg of Virginia, at four-o’clock of a windy afternoon, without warning or good-bye or kiss my foot, my journey went away and left me stranded far from home.
John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley in Search of America
In the mists over the meadow where I parked, three children from the campground were already romping with their dachshund, trying to fly a kite in the lilting wind at six in the morning. I took out my toothbrush, towel, and washcloth and went looking for restrooms among the RV’s and campsites. When Steinbeck traveled this way he had marveled at the congenial community of trailer parks. Would he have been surprised at their evolution into this bourgeois institution?
The pickup camper lifestyle was, in a sense, his own invention; Travels With Charley so captured the imagination of the American public that it became an inspiration for thousands upon thousands of travelers, intent upon carrying a simulated home environment with them on the road. Now, as I walked among the metal behemoths with their extensions and accessories, I marveled at the mobility of these enormous homes on wheels, most of which also dragged along a rover car for quick trips off the park. The vehicles bore insignia of the ideologies of their manufacturers and sometimes the personal stamp of their owners, as well as state license plates. There was an American Star from North Carolina, A Holiday Rambler Endeavor from Florida, Weekend Warriors and Trekkers and Jamborees and Fleetwoods and a purple and taupe monster called the Flagstaff Classic Supreme, also from North Carolina.
It was Friday and some of the campers were getting the jump on the weekend, but others, looking as if they had been there awhile, had personalized their spaces with staked signs like, “Lord Help Me Be the Man My Dog Thinks I Am” and The Walters – “On the Road Again.” One campsite had multiple tarps used as tents with every activity carried out in the open: cooking, washing, tables, beds and chairs around a fire ring. Shades of The Grapes of Wrath.
The children, with Henry the dog sniffing about the meadow, had managed to snag their kite in one of the trees at the edge of the clearing by the time I smoothed the bedding over to leave. Once again I traced “Travels Without Charlie” and the broken heart in the dust on the door of the HHR and wondered if anyone would notice. I didn’t want to be noticed as, for the first time on this trip, I snuck out before the ranger came around to check for fees.
“Breaking the Law, Breaking the Law!” I chanted on the way into Abingdon. Charlie would have enjoyed the sneak retreat. In direct opposition to Steinbeck, who found his experiences in the South so disturbing that he couldn’t wait to get back to New York, my adventure was just beginning. But as I cruised through Abingdon looking for a gas station and breakfast, I could see how the picture-pretty little burgh could be a bit of a downer in its perfection. Across the street from the Barter Theater, where once anything of value would get you in to see the show, the locals had set up an an arts and crafts fair, a little heavy on the crafts side. Under fluffy clouds, the thermometers just touched 80 degrees, the flower beds bloomed and the trim hedges sang with honeybees. It was all too picturesque. I couldn’t find a coffee shop, so I got gas at a bp, took a chance on the Lotto and headed down the highway. At a Bob Evans Restaurant I ate rather pricey raspberries and whipped cream among a tasteful selection of curtains and antiques. Although the food was tasty, it seemed I could not escape the boutiquery.
Little did I know the tribulation ahead as I drove towards the Great Smoky Mountains. Gray skies threatened and made good on the threat, pouring rain as I entered the uber-tourist trap of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Bill Bryson in Lost Continent describes the situation perfectly:
The ugliness intensified to fever pitch as I rolled into Gatlinburg, a community that had evidently dedicated itself to the endless quest of trying to redefine the limits of bad taste.
There is not much more to it than a single mile-long main street, but it was packed from end to end with the most dazzling profusion of tourist clutter – the Elvis Pressley Hall of Fame, Stars Over Gatlinburg Wax Museum, two haunted houses, the National Bible Museum, Hillbilly Village, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, the American Historical Wax Museum, Gatlinburg Space Needle, something called Paradise Island, something else called World of Illusion, the Bonnie Lou and Buster Country Music Show, Carbo’s Police Museum (“See Walking Tall Sheriff Buford Pusser’s Death Car!”), Guinness Book of Records Exhibition Center, and last, but not least, Irene Mandrell Hall of Stars Museum and Shopping Mall.
In between this galaxy of entertainments were scores of parking lots and noisy, crowded restaurants, junk food stalls, ice cream parlors, and gift shops of the sort that sell Wanted posters with YOUR NAME HERE and baseball caps
with droll embellishments, like a coil of realistic-looking plastic turd on the brim.
Walking in an unhurried fashion up and down the street were more crowds of overweight tourists in boisterous clothes, with cameras bouncing on their bellies, consuming ice cream, cotton candy, and corn dogs, sometimes simultaneously...
Not much has changed in the nearly twenty years since Bryson made the trip. Add to this intermittent torrents of rain and signage contrived to deceive the unwary into sticking around this third circle of hell. The marvel is that Bryson actually enjoyed himself and, once I got off onto Nature Loop #8 north of town, so did I. But I mistook the 10-mile-an-hour one-way trail for part of the National Park and, rustic as it was, it was just another Gatlinburg ploy to keep me in the city limits. Now, if you happen to stay overnight in this hillbilly side-show of a town, Nature Trail #8 is a bucolic mini-tour just outside the Park, with the requisite settler’s cabins and burbling streams, woods and waterfalls, within biking distance of the main drag. If I hadn’t been so miffed at being fooled into staying in Gatlinburg, it would have been a pleasant diversion.
But at the end of the loop, here I was driving back past the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, predominantly obese tourists, and curb-to-curb traffic; I couldn’t believe I fell for it! With a closer reading of the signs, I finally aimed the HHR toward Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The mountains really do appear to smoke, mist actually, in a most provocative way, and at the apex of the park, Clingman’s Dome, the clouds were so scuddingly close you could taste them. 6643 feet up it was 66 degrees cool, with a substantial cloud chill factor and an effort just to climb the trail to the coiled observation tower. But wonderful! Just watching the play of mist concealing and revealing the landscape was a thrill. There are benches tucked into the rocks along the way facing out over the mountains, not just for viewing but to catch your breath on the hike up. Charlie, the heartbroken romantic, who in his teens reminded me of the doomed Manfred in Beethoven's overture, would have loved this place, its air of The Sublime and the natural high of the altitude. I paused on the way down to sit in one of these niches, wet with tears and clouds, missing him.
At the Visitor Center I meant to just get a decal and accidentally bought a sterilized mountain music cd, of all the vast offerings available, because I wanted to hear “Wreck of the Old 97.” They didn’t have Roy Acuff’s or Hank Snow’s version and I paid $15 for something I could hardly stand to listen to once, let alone enjoy as a soundtrack to the park. By the time I had been to the top of the Dome and back, it was too late to get gas at the last park store, but as I swung through the turnout, past the shutoff pumps, a handsome buck deer crossed my path from the median, Charlie’s totem animal again; it looked right at me.
In gathering mists on the way down the hill, there was a band of Mountain Men playing at a roadside bar, and I was sorely tempted to stop for more than gas. But the downside of the hill had no vacancies and seemed to be the Native American version of Gatlinburg with similar, if slightly less obnoxious, exhibits. So I pressed on in the dark to Atlanta.
Then came the uneasy awareness that I was entering The Deep South, which Steinbeck had approached with such trepidation, and it didn’t help that I got off the highway and was lost in the dark in a maze of muddy dirt roads, edged with the blurred forms that kudzu made of roadside trees and hedges. At one point, rounding a sharp curve crowded with pickup trucks and milling dudes in jeans, some loud goings-on in a lit-up metallic building had me “a little uh, anxious, if you know what I mean.” But I eventually edged toward where I could see more lights and found my way onto Interstate 85.
With Atlanta as my goal, I promised myself a nice dinner, maybe music and and a hotel room. By the time I reached the outskirts of town it was around midnight and, lured by a billboard advertising a $39 motel, I took the Shallowford exit. At closer look, the discarded beds on the balcony and trashed doors on the units indicated a level of maintenance that seemed a bit iffy. Continuing down the poorly lit road, drug dealers whistling and slapping palms on streetcorners began to actually frighten me and bode ill for finding upscale accommodations. I turned around in the parking lot of a Latin dance club, where squadra of lurching borachos crossing the pavement only added to my trepidation, and escaped to the comparative safety of the freeway. What a woose I was! Oh, well...
Since the only major street I knew was Peachtree, I got off at that exit and aimed at the skyscraper profile of a Day’s Inn that radiated familiarity and a good chance for a vacancy in its hundred or so rooms with views. Luckily, there were a few left, despite the presence of a large family reunion for the weekend.
Determined to treat myself to a salad or appetizer and glass of wine, I changed into my red and black batik lounger and headed down to the bar. But it was a Sports Bar, with no entertainment but a widescreen t.v., so I had my dinner in the City Grill next door, which was completely filled with wide-awake African Americans enjoying their own late night snacks. Nervous in a crowd of mostly young blacks, I imagined they were wondering whattheheck the old white lady was doing there in the middle of the night. The concept of Caesar Salad Southern Style did not translate well; the lettuce was smothered in heavy cream dressing and the only wine they had was rose’, sweet as soda pop. So much for even modest expectations, let alone the Peak Experience. Still, it beat sleeping in the car in Georgia heat.