Wednesday, October 19, 2011

One for the Plus Column

Where to begin?

We recently sped off for a jaunty little overnighter at the Great Smokey Mountain National Park...

Photographic Evidence.

...No no no. Can't start there...

We'll try again. >Ahem< Meridth and I have been to a National Park or two...

Photographic Evidence's not out first rodeo, y'know? And the thing that I have quite recently discovered to be idiosyncratic about National Parks is this: the area around the park is entirely dependent on the regional character of the surrounding area.

Too wordy? Check this: the town right outside of Zion National Park in Utah is called Springdale. It has a population of 457 people. You can buy a sandwich there. Maybe a bowl of soup. If I recall, there might be postcards. Outside of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park there is a two-headed hydra of an eyesore called Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. I've been scouring the interwebs all week looking for photographic evidence of this abominable temple to the excesses of our baser impulses but, by gum, the local Chamber of Commerce must have a PR firm on retainer. I wish I'd stopped and drunk it all in (Metaphorically. With my camera.) so that I could Make. You. Understand. It.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Why is Pigeon Forge, TN home of the "largest permanent Titanic museum in the world?" (Secondary question: why are there impermanent or traveling Titanic museums that are larger?) It's so very far from anything relevant to the great sea disaster of 1912. The museum lurches into view like the bloated corpse of a beached whale, the last thing you'd expect to see amongst the verdant Appalachians.

Reminds me of nothing so much as Toon Town from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

This was one of literally dozens of establishments providing the weary traveller a taste of that hill-folk charm. (Is that the PC term? Is it "Sons of the Soil," maybe?) But honestly, no one comes out of this looking good.

Quite literally, I'm afraid.

I'm a bit insulted that someone thought I'd like to witness this gastric train-wreck, that is, until I remember that this is the face that these people want to present to the world. Really, I feel bad that they'd sell their identities for the rupees of monied Indian tourists so...cheaply.

To whom these shows are catering is a mystery to me. Anyone with a shed of dignity (or anyone from the States and not looking for an 'ironic' evening) would sooner eat at...even a Shoney's. Those who might take a shine to this brand of humor, however, are probably on vacation from (or more probably with) relatives not at all unlike the colorful characters portrayed on stage, in which case they'd just as likely choose the Shoney's too because...let's face it, the dinner show comes with them.

There goes the neighborhood.

Then there is this:

Behold the spectacle

For my dial-up using readers, whose clanging, steam-driven modems are busily shuffling through the requisite punch cards to load this miraculous image, pictured above is a building which has been humorously constructed so as to appear as if it has somehow tumbled on its axis and alighted on it's surprisingly sturdy roof. Lo! It is EVEN still safe to ENTER! (for a small fee)

This one gets to the heart of the cheap chintz that is Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg. Alright, it's an upside-down building. Maybe there's a wax museum inside. Maybe a maze of mirrors (we saw four on the main drag). The only people who really want to find out, who are even willing to pay for the privilege, are under ten-years old OR vacationing with children under ten AND ignorant totally of how to relate to them in any meaningful way. This is the ultimate non-vacation.

As you drive through 14 miles of this, outlet malls, museums dedicated to torture devices, shops selling "As Seen on TV" merch, two separate amusement parks, miles of go-cart tracks, shops selling racks upon racks of photorealistic airsoft guns (gotta wonder what the Indians think of that), souvenir shops the size of airplane hangers, hotels advertising creek-side rooms, fast-food restaurants, haberdashers, and a gosh darn space needle, you forget why you came here in the first place. The park...

Behold the spectacle

There's a smallness to GSMNP that you won't find in Zion or Arches, and I don't mean that as an insult. The lush forests, turning in the autumn afternoon, offered an intimacy that can be absent from the craggy vistas of the awe-inspiring Rockies. Furthermore, nestled in the park there are a number of plain wooden churches, some built in the 1880's, which speak to a time when these lands were the home of the progenitors of those now manning the booths and culturally-insensitive stage shows. So little remains from that America that I'm grateful that these human steeples can peek out humbly above the trees, a part of the landscape.

Submitted without snarky comment

Now I understand that everybody's gotta make a living and the tourist trade has clearly allowed these towns to support a population roughly 20 times the size of Springdale, UT, but at what cost? When I see the cheap goods, prices marked way high, the airsoft guns, the replica weapons from popular video games, the "hand-crafted" dolls and discount Indian jewelry, it's evidence to me that people aren't sure why they came. A family will arrive, traffic will move at a snail's pace up this Stars-and-Bars version of the Las Vegas strip (of which I am also no fan), their children will get hungry, have to pee and soon they'll find themselves abandoning their coveted spot in the line of cars, getting out to "stretch the legs" and "take a leak," Timmy will clamor for a replica Legend of Zelda shield and an airsoft Kalashnikov, dad will relent because he's tired of hearing the boy whinge, and they'll all wander about a "Ripley's Believe it or Not" Museum of Hollywood Cars pretending that they're a family.

This is a true story, I swear on my life. The traffic just cleared up right before the entrance of the park, like everyone just got caught by all the things to do right there at the doorstep of one of America's great National Parks.

Uschi + hiking

Now the park's mojo isn't perfect. First, it's free. There's a provision in the state law that says that the road that cuts through the major pass here has to remain toll free, and that sounds like a good thing, but it's not. I'm not going to say that...wait. Strike that, reverse it. I AM going to say that it keeps the riff-raff out, but I'll explain what I mean. I have no intrinsic problem with casual enjoyers of nature. But the free entrance to the park has encouraged a lot of motor-hiking in GSMNP. What I mean is there are a number of roads that just circumnavigate the park. On a busy weekend, it's like being stuck in LA traffic with a pretty back drop. I'm not saying that every National Park should be inaccessible by anything less hardcore than a pack mule, but what happened to encouraging people to get out of their cars and walk more than 20 feet to meet and greet with Ma Nature? We got babies and we found a few easier trails. There was a particularly nasty snarl of traffic, it took us the better part of 30 minutes to go the half-mile to where we could see what was holding things up. A black bear was snatching a snack from a high tree branch 150 meters away and every Mother's Son pulled over their minivans so they could get out and get a snap of a blurry black smudge in a tree. What made it all the more sad is that not ten minutes after pulling off onto what was literally a "road less travelled," we snapped these out the windows of the HHR:

The little son of a gun crossed right in front of us.

Why am I mentioning all of this? Not just the bear, but the whole thing? Where does it all meet back to connect with the issues of the day? Here it is folks, the next time you hear someone shoot their mouth off about how 'Big Government' is the bane of existence for all America-loving patriots, think about this: if there was no National Park, if the Federal Government of the United States didn't mark a line in the sand, how far up the Blue Ridge Mountains would this glut of cheap crap go?

I'm truly grateful for the wise conservationists and politicians who gave us the National Parks system, but I'm gonna go that next metaphorical step. We used to have a pretty good system set up in America. Managers and owners would provide jobs. Workers would fill them. Everyone knew the rules of the road and everyone stood to gain. The last thirty years of deregulation in this country has proverbially pushed that line up over those mountain peaks, and temporarily we all got richer. You can't blame the individual t-shirt shop owner, he was just trying to get his share, hustling to get ahead, keeping up with his neighbor. Nobody looked up from their cut to see that we were destroying the very thing that made the US so attractive in the first place. I don't know why the GOP debaters keep bringing up illegal immigration. It's slowed significantly since the recession started. And they keep saying that regulations kill jobs? Well a lack of regulation in our food industry is killing people. Long story short, I'm sick to death of politicians running to fill positions in a government they seem to despise. I'm sick of people's stark refusal to recognize the important role of government in facilitating business, both domestically and internationally (Whose Navy keeps the shipping lanes clear? Bank of America's?) And I'm 'bout sick up to here of people saying they love America but hate the US government. To me, it's just south of treason, and it's gotta stop.

Alright, said my peace. It was an excellent trip. It's late and I still haven't regaled you with the dandy yarn of how I almost destroyed the HHR. ("The guidebook said the road was perfectly safe for cars!") I guess it's just desserts for all the griping I did about motor-hiking.

The road in question. Looks tame now...

Felix: Just About Funned-Out




MikeS said...

You sound like someone who might work at a national park or the Forest Service. Perhaps even the BLM. You should come work with me.

Jon and Shan said...

Nicely said.