I wrote most of the following last week when I was up north, but wasn’t able to finish it until now.
I’ve spent the last week or so in a timeshare condo in Sevierville, Tennessee.
It’s a curious place. Or perhaps I should say it’s a curious non-place, in a strangely transmogrified town, surrounded by the beautiful Smoky Mountains.
The condo itself is fairly nice. Two bedrooms, two full bathrooms, a fully functional kitchen, nice living room, and of course a balcony. No timeshare condo is complete without a balcony.
However, this balcony looks out over a five-lane highway.
It’s got sidewalks on either side which end abruptly for no apparent reason. And that’s where the trouble begins.
I’ve stayed in a few timeshares over the years thanks to the generosity of my in-laws. (As a friend once put it, “You didn’t know you were marrying into timeshare, did you?”) The price is always right, essentially free to Xy and me. I’m sure I’d be much more critical if I was footing the bill, but I’m not, so I’m not, as a rule. I’ve learned that not all timeshares are created equal. They vary quite a bit in terms of quality and amenities. Generally speaking, as long as we have easy access to a swimming pool, Xy is happy. And when Xy is happy, I am happy.
This resort (Wyndham Smoky Mountains) is composed of 30-odd buildings, each containing 16-24 condos, with the aforementioned five-lane highway running between them.
There are two recreation centers, with indoor and outdoor pools, hot tubs, kiddie pools, fitness facilities and more. Neither rec center is very far from our condo unit, as the crow flies. Certainly they are both well within what most people would consider walking distance.
And yet, it’s virtually impossible for us to walk safely to either one. To get to the Greenbrier Amenities Center, we have to cross that damned five-lane highway. There is no stoplight, not even a painted crosswalk.
Very well then, surely we’d do better to stay on our side of the highway and go to the Elkmont Amenities Center. It’s atop a high hill and offers a fairly nice view of the surroundings. But as far as I can ascertain it is simply not possible to walk there. As absurd as it may seem, one has to get in the car and drive.
It’s a well-known fact that I’m not a big fan of automobiles. But even if I was, I’d like to think that I’d still recognize the importance of walking. It’s our most primal form of transportaion. Walking is pleasant and just plain fundamentally human. Even people who can’t walk generally benefit from an approach to design and planning that emphasizes walkability. (My spellchecker doesn’t recognize “walkability” as a word, but then again my spellchecker doesn’t recognize “spellchecker” as a word either.) Places that are designed to actively discourage walking strike me as fundamentally inhuman. Of all the timeshares in which I’ve stayed, I’ve never before seen one so hostile to the pedestrian, and that troubles me.
One of the biggest criticisms one might lodge against timeshares is that they can be pretty profoundly divorced from the surrounding area. Thus they can have a sense of being a generic non-place. It doesn’t have to be that way, but often it is. However, in this case, I’m afraid that the timeshare has captured the ambiance of the area perfectly. Sevierville is just as unfriendly to the pedestrian as our resort. Choked with factory-outlet strips malls, the main drag bears a striking resemblance to the shopping district of Greenwood, Indiana, where I grew up, cross-pollinated with an amusement park. And I’ve gotta tell you, it ain’t pretty.
There is a town here. I’m sure of it. I’ve read about it. (I even caught a glimpse of a beautiful courthouse as we departed.) Apparently Sevierville was a hotbed of abolitionist activity before the Civil War. (Though now the Confederate flag seems to be more popular.) Apparently Dolly Parton was born here. I wonder what she thinks of the place today. I wonder what the people who live and work here think. It seems abundantly clear to me that somewhere along the line something went wrong. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at first. I’m sure it seemed like wise economic development. People accuse New Orleans of prostituting itself to the tourist economy, but we can’t hold a candle to this area. The end result is, quite frankly, horrifying and sad.
Yet at the same time I have to recognize that not everybody shares my perspective. To judge by the thronging masses, huge numbers of people would seem to find this a desirable place to be. And so I’ve spent some time wondering about that disconnect. Why do I see things differently, am I in the majority or minority, and what does it all mean?
I don’t know.
Continue up the highway to Pigeon Forge, the town next door, and you get more of the same, only it’s more spectacular. You can even catch a glimpse of an honest-to-gosh historic district off to the side, “The Old Mill,” if you are not completely bedazzled by all the animated video billboards. (Even the cheap hotels have them.) It takes a long while to drive just a few miles because there’s such a lot of traffic.
Keep driving. At last the town ends, and the highway snakes through a wooded area beside a stream. Signs might lead you to believe you’ve entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but you’re not quite there yet. First you have to pass through Gatlinburg.
Unlike Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, Gatlinburg was clearly built with pedestrians in mind. It’s still as hoaky and kitschy as all get out, but at least it doesn’t seem hostile and inhuman. It’s more surreal, or perhaps I should say more hyperreal.
Jean Baudrillard, recently deceased French theoretician, devoted much of his career to explain what he called “hyper-reality”–evidently a reality above reality, fantasy qua reality. This hyper-reality is especially well illustrated in Baudrillard’s schema of the procession of the simulacra, wherein in a sign mirrors basic reality, begins to distort it but nevertheless remains faithful to the original, departs heavily from reality, and finally exists instead of reality (the basic reality no longer exists). Baudrillard could have written this work on a single visit to Pigeon Forge.
Personally I found Gatlinburg a bit more charming than Sevierville or Pigeon Forge, but there’s no accounting for taste. Gatlinburg is a lot like Disneyworld, only less completely contrived and engineered, and with a bit more chaos. It almost looks like a genuine urban space if you look at it with your eyes half-shut.
As noted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation:
High-powered, high-volume tourism has transformed [the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge] communities into amusement parks. Both towns feature factory outlet stores, wax museums, souvenir shops, go-cart racing, and theme parks. As portals to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are perhaps the country’s best examples of gateway communities completely transformed by tourism.
If you keep on driving through Gatlinburg, you will find yourself almost abruptly in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Wow. What a contrast. It’s beautiful and quiet and more or less pristine, and quite vast. Of course nine or ten million people do visit the park every year, so it can be crowded, but nothing like the throngs playing miniature golf in Pigeon Forge. Take a few steps down a nature trail, and you’ll find yourself in virtual solitude.
They say the haze that hangs over the mountains these days is not the mist for which they were named, but pollution from power plants, industry, and — of course — automobiles.
Our autocentric culture is not healthy. Which leads me back to my gloomy reflections on the pedestrian-hostile layout of our resort and Sevierville and Pigeon Forge and Greenwood and so many places.
It was my hope with these notes to capture something of the feeling of distress which this area has evoked within me, and at the same time to avoid condescending arrogance, to reconcile my contempt with my compassion. I feel I have failed on all counts. Cataloging the discontents of modern American culture is a tall order, and I’ve only been able to peck away at this entry between changing diapers and driving to the pool. This visit has reminded me of many feelings that have lain dormant for years. Living in New Orleans entails quite a different set of contingencies. This visit takes me back to my youth in suburban Indianapolis.
Having failed to capture the bigger issues, perhaps I can at least enumerate some of our activities.
- Saturday: Upon arrival we unpacked and then went out to Mr. Gatti’s. With all due respect to my in-laws who seemed to enjoy the place, this was amongst the worst dining experiences of my life. The all-you-can-eat pizza buffet is just a bad idea. Apparently they often have a live music/gospel puppet performance, but not that evening, though I did snap a photo of this kiosk which hints at what we were missing. The food was not good, and the atmosphere was nauseating. The only redeeming quality was that our girl was able to run around (barefoot) and nobody cared. I’m not sure if that’s really a plus.
- Sunday: Summer Solstice, and Father’s Day. I celebrated by bleaching my hair. I used the remnants of a kit that had been sitting on our bathroom shelf for eight years. The results were not very dramatic. In fact, I’d say it didn’t do much at all but bring out the gray in my hair. Ah well.
- Monday: I couldn’t stand the suspense any longer. I got in the car and drove to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I dragged my father-in-law along with me. I was somewhat astonished to learn that neither of my in-laws had ever set foot in the park despite coming to this area for years. We made our way through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg (slow going) to the Sugarlands Welcome Center, where we saw a film about the park. We then hiked a nature trail nearby, a short one-mile loop. Very enjoyable. I considered this a scouting expedition — I was trying to discern what part of the park might be good to visit with an infant in tow. I talked to a ranger about it. Which led us to…
- Tuesday: The whole family went on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This seemed like a good option for a one-year old. You drive a bit, then stop at key locations, get out, enjoy the scenery and learn a little bit about the local ecology.
The fatal flaw in this plan was that Xy had a migraine and the twisty turny road made her quite carsick. Also my mother-in-law’s car got scraped against a rock. My father-in-law was behind the wheel, but I swear that rock just lunged out at us. It became a point of contention for the remainder of the trip. But it really was a beautiful drive. On the way back we stopped at Happy Days Diner, where Persephone had a coughing fit. A passing waitress inquired, “Are you choking?” and a short while later asked “Are you still choking?” a line which we repeated often in the days that followed. Guess you had to be there.
- Wednesday: We visited Rainforest Adventures Discovery Zoo, which was almost in walking distance from our condo but of course we had to drive. It’s kind of unsettling to see a bunch of exotic animals from faraway places cooped up in small cages to be ogled by marauding church camps. But perhaps it’s not such a bad life — they have their meals provided after all. We watched a presentation by a naturalist who performed magic tricks and told scatological jokes. Did you know diarrhea is hereditary? It runs in your genes! My daughter picked out a gift from the shop: a baby tiger wrapped in a blanket, equipped with a bottle for nursing. She took right to it. She calls it “baby” (her second two-syllable word) and feeds it the bottle without any prompting. Almost spooky to me.
- Thursday: Anxious for a change of pace, I took the girl on a car trip in search of Pittman Center. This was a nearby town cited by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, so I figured it would have to be at least halfway cool. I plotted a route which kept me away from the trafficky madness of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. A beautiful drive. I found Pittman Center eventually, and pulled up right in front of City Hall. In fact, City Hall was about all I could identify as being part of a town. (Population 477 in 2000 census.) An employee looked out her window at me, so close we could almost have talked except for the glass. I wanted to go in and ask for direction to any points of interest. But the girl had fallen asleep in her car seat, and I didn’t want to disturb her. So I just drove around for a while and then made my way back to the condo. By that time the rest of the family had left on a shopping expedition to the World’s Largest “As Seen on TV” Superstore, and so I spent several happy hours playing together with my daughter. She’s growing so fast now it’s like I can see her developing on an hourly basis.
- Friday: My father-in-law got sick. It sucks to be sick on vacation, but at least it was only that one last day. He was well enough to drive back home the next morning. Thus ended our sojourn together.
Also should note: Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout is a pretty good beer. It’s brewed with milk! Or milk sugar, anyway. Lactose. It’s dark with almost a burnt coffee flavor. I always like to sample the local brew, and this was the closest I could find, though actually upon further research I discovered that Farmville NC is some 400 miles away. Anyway you gotta love a beer with a logo inspired by Wittgenstein.
And finally a shout-out to my mother-in-law, who cooked just about every meal we ate there. Big hearty breakfasts and tasty dinners. I probably packed on a few extra pounds, but it sure beat eating out. Not only is it economical, but our daughter is probably at the worst possible age for going to restaurants. So major props to the stalwart Susie for her tireless efforts in the kitchen. And thanks to both my in-laws for sharing their condo with us. Despite all the kvetching above I really did enjoy myself.