Friday, January 19, 2018

See Rock City: We finally did, and how enchanting the gardens are

LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN, Ga. — For years, we were those kind of travelers.

Load car at Point A, drive, stop for gas. Change drivers, drive some more. Repeat until arrival at Point B. Celebrate surviving 15-plus hours in a compact car with husband and geriatric 14-pound dog.

Our commando-style idea of the road trip was motivated by one encompassing goal: saving money.

But as we cruised through the mountains in Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky, the roadside attraction signs blazed as loud as the music on our iPods: "STOP," they hollered at me. "Don't you want to get out of the car?"

As we passed back through Chattanooga on our Interstate 75 sprint from the flat Midwest to the even flatter Florida, the sign for Lookout Mountain captured my attention yet again: "See Seven States."

Like a squirmy child, I really, really wanted to see seven states. And then we passed the exits — all of them.

• • •

Flash forward to this past fall. Our car, this time an SUV, was loaded. Our same geriatric dog had his own bed, albeit surrounded by golf clubs and snacks and luggage.

We were still saving money — no baggage fees, no airport parking fees, no rental car fees, and we wouldn't have to pay to kennel our dog for two weeks.

But we were going to spend a little more money by overnighting in Chattanooga. Finally, we were going to experience one of the best parts of a road trip: stopping somewhere that isn't the final destination.

I was going to see seven states.

We were going to Rock City Gardens, at the top of Lookout Mountain, a small Georgia community just across the state line from downtown Chattanooga.

With Starbucks drinks in hand, admission paid ($18.95 each) and dog in tow (leashed pets are allowed in Rock City), we began a self-guided adventure on the gardens' 4,100-foot walking trail.

We squeezed through narrow passageways in the rock walls as sunlight filtered through the thick tree-lined canopy. We walked somewhat confidently over the swing bridge, which gently swayed with each step. We enjoyed watching our dog cruise along the trail, a welcome respite from nine hours of confinement in the car the day before.

We laughed at the garden gnome tableaus sprinkled throughout the trail, our favorite being the drunken, giddy fellows tapping the barrel of moonshine. We read nursery rhyme passages aloud in the black-lit, children's-themed Mother Goose Village tucked deep inside a dark mountain cavern.

We posed for photos and stood in awe at the churning mountainside waterfall.

We chatted about the movie 127 Hours as we conquered the "Fat Man Squeeze," one of the tightest rock wall passageways. Hard not to imagine getting stuck there.

At the midpoint of our stroll we arrived at Lover's Leap. Rolling green hills leading to rolling mountains seen through the early morning haze begged to be photographed.

I obliged.

Then I went and stood in front of the stone marker pointing out the seven states in panorama only to discover I no longer cared. The 200-million-year-old rocks were the stars of these gardens, the view just the icing on the cake.

• • •

In 1924, Garnet Carter had development dreams for Lookout Mountain: a golf course, residential housing. His wife, Frieda, had a smaller dream: She wanted to create a rock garden on their land. She wandered the lush mountaintop using string to mark a trail through the rock formations to Lover's Leap. She planted wildflowers and positioned garden gnomes and storybook characters along the trail workmen built for her.

Garnet, the uber businessman, realized that people would pay to share his wife's vision, and in 1932 the gardens opened to the public.

Road-tripping Americans from Michigan to Texas stopped at the gardens, thanks to Garnet's ingenious marketing plan. He hired a sign painter to travel the country painting farmers' barns for free with one small caveat: Somewhere on the barn, the words "See Rock City" were added.

Now, the barns have been replaced by more traditional road signs, the third generation runs the gardens, Starbucks occupies a charming stone building across from the ticket booth, and seasonal events like Rocktoberfest, Summer Music Weekends and the Enchanted Garden of Christmas Lights keep the nearly 80-year-old gardens current.

Now that we've seen Rock City, I have no doubt that on a future road trip we'll just have to see it again.

Jennifer DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8881.

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