The music teacher, Ms. McMahon, was obsessed with Rocky Top. Made us sing it for a chorus concert at least once a year. Moonshine stills and half-wild girls — in fourth grade this was all kind of racy stuff. But it gave us a distinct impression of what life would be like deep in the Smoky Mountains where you didn't have to wear shoes, caught your own dinner and got your first whittling knife way before you were in long pants.
We were Tennessee city kids, Oak Ridgers, our moms and dads working at the National Labs. But in nearby Gatlinburg, we mused, who knew what kind of trouble we could get into.
About 30 years later, with hazy memories of buying a coonskin cap and corncob pipes, I headed back to Rocky Top. Getting off Interstate 75 in Knoxville and heading southeast on U.S. 441, my mind was boggled. In about a 13-mile stretch, from Sevierville in the north through Pigeon Forge and down to Gatlinburg where it fits snugly against Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there were now a zillion ways to thrill, harrow, disgust, amuse or feed the American family.
Forget coonskin caps. I was the driver, so I began yelling out what I saw, my mother in the shotgun seat dutifully writing it down. Ultimate Beef Jerky Outlet, Muscle Car Museum, Smoky Mountain Trolls, Elvis Museum and Gift Shop, Dinosaur Walk Museum and Jurassic Jungle Boat Ride. I yelled out "laser tag," "go-carts" and "fudge" so many times she started ignoring me. Like Kissimmee's U.S. 192 or Orlando's International Drive, U.S. 441, also called the Parkway, is a window into the heart of the American 11-year-old boy. Every wish can be fulfilled, every itch scratched.
We started at Smoky Mountain Knife Works, the world's largest knife museum. I'm not sure what the competition is for that particular distinction, but it sure did have a lot of Bowie knives, pocket knives and hunting paraphernalia with sufficiently gruesome names (the Guthook Skinner, the Wasp Dagger). Every would-be tough guy and aspiring ninja will find something to peer at wistfully. For me, it was the Daniel Boone replicas with their fringed suede scabbards. (My family claims to be somehow distantly related to Daniel Boone, thus I'm to the manor born, but do look silly in a coonskin cap.)
After such a manly first stop, we needed some countervailing female energy. Off the Parkway, we drove to the Sevierville County Courthouse, in front of which stands a bronze, barefooted statue of Dolly Parton by artist Jim Gray. It's the young Dolly, her hair pulled back and jeans rolled up, clutching a guitar. (Although she's not depicted as supernaturally endowed, there is one part of her that seems burnished by visitors' hands.)
The life-size statue is part of a 28-stop walking tour of Parton's hometown. Her Dollywood theme park and Dollywood Splash Country are just minutes away in Pigeon Forge, but this visit with the statue seemed a proper homage.
From there, we thought, maybe the Gatlinburg Sky Lift, a local tradition that dates to 1953. Gliding from downtown up above Little Pigeon River and climbing 518 feet, it's an open chairlift that shoots up a narrow valley at the foot of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, with views all around. We inched the car past Hillbilly Golf, Ripley's Mirror Maze and World of Illusions, narrowly avoiding 10,000 pedestrians eating ice cream cones. And that's when I snapped. I had to get off the Parkway. Thus we started the second part of our trip: real Gatlinburg.
Turn at Traffic Light No. 8 and head up the historic Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a one-way winding road into the hills past old homesteads and waterfalls. At the end, turn right onto Highway 321. You'll come to an 8-mile historic loop that has been designated the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community. It dates to 1937, just a few years after the national park was established, when visitor traffic had increased dramatically in the area. Local craftspeople, such as wood carver John Cowden, weavers Frank and Augusta Whaley and broommaker Lee Ogle, decided to forget about peddling their goods on the mean streets of Gatlinburg. They'd stay at home and open their workshops to the public, giving folks a chance to sniff the sweet smell of wood shavings and watch as keen hands carded wool or took long, even strokes down a shaving horse.
It is said to be the largest group of independent artists and craftsmen in the country, with more than 120 artisans whittling, candle-dipping and silversmithing along Glades and Buckhorn roads and East Parkway. There's nothing hokey about it, no shades of Colonial Williamsburg with its ye olde time blacksmiths in period breeches.
We lingered at Highland Craft Gallery and chatted with owner Kathie Thomas about local craftspeople. Corn-husk witches in saturated sunset colors, smooth-sanded salad tongs and spoons, elegant dipped tapers and delicately carved Christmas ornaments held our attention and extracted an unfortunate amount of cash from our wallets.
As any mall-walker knows, spending money makes you hungry, so Thomas directed us up the road to Wild Plum Tea Room. A log cabin tucked in a grove of plum trees, it has been here since 1984, but owner Kacy Rothwell has only been the caretaker of this local ladies-who-lunch institution for the past couple of years.
It is all charm, with a screened porch and patio for good weather, a brook adding a restful whooshing sound underneath the tinkling of teacups. Scones, tiny muffins with wild plum jam, chicken salad and some of the best bread pudding on record provided the nourishment necessary for exploration of the rest of the arts and crafts community.
The next morning we tried to see it: why the Cherokee described these mountains as shaconage, meaning "blue, like smoke." Nope, in the ruthless early spring light, it was all new greens and browns as we drove into Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The most visited of the nation's parks, attracting 9 million people annually, it still seemed wide open and sleepy, a far cry from Yosemite's warm-weather scrum of nature lovers. We drove slowly, rubbernecking to spot Clingman's Dome (the park's highest point at 6,643 feet) and Mount LeConte. Though it was still too early for the annual profusion of rhododendron, trillium and mountain laurel, the park nonetheless felt lush and inviting with its frilly Eastern hemlocks and light dusting of snow still on the high reaches.
We pulled in at the Sugarlands Visitor Center with the aim of a quick pit stop. A brief movie about the park and the display of indigenous animals got short shrift once we found the gift shop, one of the best park shops we'd ever visited. Hundreds of books on the Smoky Mountains and the long-gone Appalachian mountain folk crowded the shelves with postcards, homemade jellies and crafts, topo maps, Smokies-themed toys and DVDs.
But the best was the huge wall of bluegrass CDs with headphones. Listening until shop employees started giving us the hairy eyeball, we made a couple of purchases and turned the car south toward home. Through the whole state of Georgia and into Florida we listened to Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Cripple Creek. After a while, I turned off the CD and sang a couple of verses of Rocky Top. My mom pitched in on the chorus.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.