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A few weeks ago, with Christmas wishes dancing through their heads, my younger children were offered an option for their primary, non-Santa holiday gift: Would they prefer a family getaway or another item off their really fairly brief lists? They quickly and loudly chose the trip, probably because they knew they still had Santa (and two sets of grandparents) as a fallback for anything really important.
So last week, with the last present only hours unwrapped and the most recently consumed cookie hardly digested, we loaded up two kids, two adults and a dog and took off for a weekend stopover at a place many of you consider just part of your personal real estate – Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg.
Now those of you who have followed these passages faithfully – thanks Mom, Dad, honey – know that these are datelines that I neither have visited often – a sloth could count the number of times on its toes and have one left over – nor in the case of Pigeon Forge with any amount of gusto.
But this getaway included a mountain cabin – I’m partial to those – and one that included a pool table – and I’m really partial to those (thanks again, Hon!). So I can set aside my immediate prejudices for all things touristy and overdone.
Please recall that I lived nearly half my life in Orlando, which is in Florida, which somewhere in its state charter has inscribed that it must be all things touristy and overdone. Surely there is some thread of understanding when you recognize that there are versions of the never-to-be-missed Wonderworks attraction on International Drive in Orlando, in Panama City and in Myrtle Beach, three of the please-don’t-make-me-visit places on my vacation map. (I know a lot of you love those locales and go there annually, and I apologize for my affront).
I’m simply been-there, done-that and don’t-want-the-various-t-shirt, thank you. I embrace New York and all its everything. I love California and Chicago. But these other mad-men meccas of mediocrity are too much.
Which should mean that I would love serenity of the surrounding Smoky Mountains, right? Well, not immediately.
My personal frame of reference on this area comes from the 2x3 black-and-white snapshots that my grandmother faithfully glued inside hardback photo albums to commemorate the annual trips she and Granddaddy would take for their vacations. To me the Smokies were where cars would pull over and bears would wander up, where you might run into an honest-to-gosh Indian (before we called them Native Americans) in headdress. It was roads and parking lots on precipices next to nothingness.
I have come to love these mountains, but that was after decades of saying I never would go there, because I’ve never been too enamored with roads that cling to cliffs. About 10 years ago I drove through the Smoky Mountain National Park and found it rather unscary, so inured to those fears had I become from much higher, tighter and less-protected roads in Colorado, California and Arizona.
That fear was conquered, but now I know I was fearing something else. My grandmother’s photos – and the oral histories that came with them – never included, mentioned or even intoned anything about Pigeon Forge except maybe the barely scrawled words.
What I saw when I first descended those mountains was first Gatlinburg – which had a Vail-esque feel to it, without all those messy ski slopes and all – but then came “The Forge,” a place that must be hell-on-earth for anyone who holds planning and zoning as important elements of their communities.
The idea here seems to be simple: If the land ain’t taken, you go ahead. Don’t worry about anything else.
My previous visits were a 1-day stop at some outlet malls and a hurry-through-as-fast-as-the-8-million-or-so-stoplights-would-allow. This was my first exposure to seeing the place in (1) a full-bore holiday season; (2) at night, with its trillion or two lights alit – in fact, if each light bulb would contribute $1, we could retire our national debt, I’m sure, Las Vegas be damned – and (3) actually visiting those emergent attractions.
This was, as my wife reminded me, the kids’ gift, so we were to compelled check such wonders as Wonderworks and even the Titanic (which remains sunk and an awful tragedy, I learned). There were some nice creatures at the aquarium, but far more swarming the street to get there. We had real meals in some restaurants whose names might seem familiar because they are. We avoided the unknowns.
The drive there took exactly 7 hours, I kid you not, because we were halted in not one but two stop-and-wait backups because of wrecks. Used to be that only our flights that were delayed, but this was throw-up-in-the-car and eat-while-you-sit torture.
But, of course, none of that matters. The kids had a blast. We built fires in the fireplace, roasted hotdogs and made S’mores and did all the stuff kids are supposed to do in mountain retreats. And the kids sharpened their pool prowess while oohing and aahing when I made lucky shots that they thought impossible (think of a 1-rail bank shot and nothing more).
And you know what: The power of their smiles were much brighter than all those lights in Pigeon Forge, and I wouldn’t trade that for a cut in the sales of all the tee-shirts there.
Yes, they got the gift they had requested, and the parents, well, like any Christmas, survived once again.