Thursday, March 19, 2009

Staycation Day 1: See Beautiful Gatlinburg (And All Of Its Beautiful Crap)!

It's spring break at school this week, so I took today and tomorrow off to give myself a four day weekend. Since I won't be off again until June (unless a holiday pops up in there; are we off for Memorial Day?) I decide that I'm going to pack a a whole bunch of stuff into these four days, but I'm going to stick close to home to save money. In short, I am on staycation.

Staycation kicked off last night, when Jeannie and family invited me to go to dinner with them at Chili's. I won't go into excessive detail, except to say that dinner reminded me that I should never have children and that I should have been more faithful to my New Year's resolution to leave the area when Jeannie's kid starts crying. Here he is with his kid's meal dinner, minutes before the explosion:

ticking time bomb

Less than ten minutes later Jeannie was walking around the parking lot with him and we were getting everything packed into to-go boxes.

Despite the poor beginning, I maintained a freakishly high level of excitement for "Staycation '09: Spring Break Joelapalooza!", because my plan for today was to drive down to Gatlinburg, to go to the Aquarium of the Smokies and to just soak up the town. While I've driven through Gatlinburg a number of times, I've never actually gotten out of the car there. Instead, I've spent a lot of time in Pigeon Forge, the incredibly tacky tiny Vegas five miles down the road. Pigeon Forge is on my "places to visit" list, but I know I would need to do an overnight trip to see everything and squeeze in a couple of shows. Gatlinburg, on the other hand, can be done in a day, because it's like Pigeon Forge concentrated.

Gatlinburg, unlike Pigeon Forge, is inside the boundaries of the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This means that instead of building Dollywood's and Christmas Towns and outlet malls, Gatlinburg has had to do the best they can with limited space, and they've done their best to make it as touristy as possible. It's ten stoplights worth of sheer tourist trap awful, and it's wonderful! I walked around town all day with a huge dopey grin on my face, because there was something terrible and wonderful everywhere I looked. The whole town, with its cheap hotels and cabin rentals and resorts, is designed to separate you from your money.

In short, Gatlinburg is full of crap, both figurative, like this dismembered Marilyn Monroe jewelry holder:

the worst

or this racy sign with its strategically placed price tag:

Don't give a....?

and literal crap, like this barrel of crap:


It may be the best crap in town, and you may be able to have it gift wrapped, but crap is still crap.

The businesses in town fall into several types. They stick in your mind because nothing in town is unique. If you see a candy store or a candle shop, you can spot at least two other candy stores or candle shops from where you're standing. One of the main types, not surprising, is the gift shop. They come in "tacky", "odd":

classic blades

and "Southern stereotype":

damn it, tennessee

If they don't have what you like at the gift shops, you can always just get something airbrushed onto a t-shirt:


I passed sixteen airbrushing stores, and there were probably others that I didn't see. Not only can you get any possible design, but they cater to tourists of every size:

7 XL?

I can't even form a mental picture of how large an adult 7 XL shirt must be. I wanted to go in and unfold one, but didn't think they would let me. They also have preprinted, non-airbrushed t-shirts, and the odd cultural mixing of Bible Belt and Redneck Stereotype leads to some hilarious displays:


Yes, if there's one thing Christian girls love, it's t-shirts with jokes about rutting.

Another ubiquitous business is the Old Tyme Photo studio. I took no photos of these, but I passed at least seven, and noticed on the way out of town that one manages to stand out by being a combination Old Tyme Photo studio and Wedding Chapel.

The third major type of business, the mini golf course, has also diversified itself. There's Jungle Golf, Dinosaur Golf, Adventure Golf, themeless mini-golf:

Mini Golf

which manages to stand out from the others by having nothing special, Circus Golf, Blacklight Golf:

golfing mermaid

and several other varieties. Just down the road in Pigeon Forge, they also have Farm Golf, where you golf around cows. It makes me oddly homesick for upstate New York. You could spend all day in Gatlinburg playing minigolf, and it would be like a strange, tacky PGA tour.

The main thing that Gatlinburg is famous for, though, according to everyone around here, is pancakes.

pancake cabin

There are pancake houses, pancake cabins, pancake buffets, pancake pits, and this, the most famous:

the pancake pantry

The Pancake Pantry is the most famous pancake restaurant in Gatlinburg, but I didn't eat there because there was a huge line, all day long. Instead, since I was out being a tourist, I ate somewhere super touristy:

hard rock cafe, gatlinburg

I had the twisted mac and cheese:

twisted mac and cheese

It was good, but not spicy like the waitress warned me it would be. This was the first Hard Rock I've been inside in about five years, and nothing has changed. That's probably why tourists like them so much.

The other thing tourists like, at least in Gatlinburg, is the Ripley's family of attractions. They have a "Believe It Or Not!" museum, a "Mirror Maze", a haunted house adventure, a "Moving Theater":


and the Aquarium of the Smokies, the purpose of my trip:

aquarium of the smokies

At the aquarium I learned that a lot of people don't know how to turn the flash on their digital camera off and like to complain about it (my camera came with instructions, but I guess theirs didn't), that a lot of children run off even when their parents repeatedly say their name but don't actually chase them or try to physically restrain them, and that they might as well not put up those "don't tap the glass" signs because no one is going to tell their kids to stop doing it.

I also took a lot of pictures:

people at the tropical tank

gray and yellow fish

shark overhead

clownfish (2)

scorpion fish (2)



sea dragon

As always, more photos are on my flickr page.


Todd said...

It's like a small Branson! ((((tacky-touristy crap))))

Donna said...

The aquarium is new in the last 10 years or so?

Joel said...

I dunno. I've only lived here for three. :)

Strong Cookie said...


I demand you go back and take a picture of the 7XL shirt.

I need to see it.


stanford said...

I am looking forward to more reports from staycation headquarters.

Amanda and I went hiking in the Smokies many years ago after driving south for Marcus Rushculb’s wedding. I was floored after driving the Pigeon Force. I was legitimately depressed. It took a full hour on the trail to shake of stench or kitsch. Gatlinburg was more 'tasteful'. I found a store that specialized in Zeolites, something I have not found before or since.

Mark Joshua Santos said...

That looks an awesome place. I'm gonna try to visit it. I'm pretty sure me and my friends are going to love it. Check out the Budget Hotels in Cebu City, you'll love it too. Anyway, Thanks for sharing!