Thursday, 11 September 2014

In My Tennessee Mountain Homo - America Part Five


The rain hasn't stopped all day and we've been moving at a slow, painful rate on the way into Pigeon Forge. It looks like Dolly came to stay and everyone moved in too. We are surrounded by what feels like every car in America, on a four-lane highway to nowhere. My only source of amusement is reading the anti-Obama and Tea Party stickers on the back of all the pick-up trucks, and correctly guessing that the driver will be wearing a vest, baseball cap and Oakley sunglasses. Extra points if he has a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and there's a dog beside him. Amusement turns bleak when the reality sets in that these people lead lives with the views they so proudly display on their bumpers.

I am hungry, travel-weary and bored. I am stropping while John keeps the windscreen clear of rain and we work our way through the pack of Lifesavers, our only food source in the car. Then, the road turns flat and a beautiful, tacky, orgy of consumerism opens up before us. Welcome to Pigeon Forge!

On each side of the road are shopping emporiums devoted to summer tourists, promising live sharks, t-shirts and Christian books. There's a knife museum, cramped motels with pools and enormous billboards competing for the main attractions, dinner theatre. This isn't just a case of Medieval Times. We have Lumberjack Wars, Hatfields Vs. McCoys, Biblical Times, Motown and Dolly Parton's very own Dixie Stampede. That's right, you can eat chicken wings while watching Jesus Of Nazareth sing his way through life, death and resurrection.

We begin to pass the buildings devoted to these shows, enormous theme-park structures that are meant to entice you and drop $50 a head. Lumberjack Wars is a giant barn, Hatfields Vs. McCoys looks like a wooden house, with entrances for each warring side and laundry hanging out to dry.

There's not just dinner theatre, but all sorts of museums, rides and attractions. Giant gates lead to a Jurassic Park style adventure. There's an upside down mansion, towering King Kong, and even an enormous replica of the Titanic, complete with iceberg poking out of the side. A Titanic museum in Tennessee. I wonder if years from now we'll have an MH370 plane themed museum.

I guess what's bizarre is that this place was so intent on selling an idea of Americana to Americans who lived in the authentic, and drove up to Pigeon Forge for a slice of history that wasn't really history at all. There was a yearning for mythology, a piece of something that had been brought along on the ships to this new land, and the people who decided not to share in the actual legends that grew from the land many years before they ever settled here. Instead they chose Superman, and Coca-Cola, and reached back further to create entertainment out of a ship disaster, an overblown family feud and a whitewashed Middle Eastern man who walked on water.

Yet I found it all terrific, despite my yearning to simply return to the porch in Jonesville and eat meatloaf until I was sick. The shining beacon in this dreary day came beyond the hotel room, the journey through the drizzle up the mountain, and came with the shiny, effervescent sign that promised a "Welcome To Dollywood". I jumped for joy and raced for the entrance, twelve years old like I'd never been twelve years old in my life. Through the faux Malibu pastels and into the kingdom of Dolly Parton.

The rain did us a favour, and we spent the afternoon walking around, the park practically to ourselves. The Dolly Parton museum is tucked away in a corner, and there was evidence of how busy it can get when signs stated to queue beyond points and form orderly lines. Except we had Dolly Parton and her life story all for us, and I wandered fascinated through photos and costumes and Grammies, finding moment after moment for a kitch yet loving photo, which encapsulates Dolly Parton in her entirety and ampleness.

What struck us was the cheeriness and warmth exuding from the staff. I had only been privy to British theme park staff, normally sullen teenagers at a summer job. As we exited the museum, a female staff member cheerily struck up a conversation with us, asking if we'd loved it. She explained Dolly had come to visit about a month before, and that she had been so gracious and lovely. She looked thrilled to be working there, and she bounded off on her way, a rainbow stream practically emitting from her rear.

Part of the park used to be a Silver Dollar theme park, a Western-style park that John had visited various times during his childhood. It was great to see him reminisce about how the park had expanded, and see how things had just been thinly veiled and renamed to fit into Dollywood. We rode the authentic steam train around the park, and he braved the rollercoaster solo while I hid under my Dollywood umbrella, with no desire to be shot out of anything. We rode a Pirates Of The Caribbean style gold rush ride which John confirmed hadn't been renovated since the 80's, and the sudden dips were enough for me.

Not wanting to miss out on at least a little Pigeon Forge entertainment, we went to watch a show I was expecting to just be a sullen girl on a banjo or some sort of bluegrass quartet. It ended up being a foursome of Broadway rejects high-fiving and whooping their way through a selection of hymns and country music covers. In an effort to appear an America united, the two sassy Aryan chicks were joined by a beefy country dude, a black guy in a cowboy hat, and a man in a wheelchair who the crowd went crazy for. I swear the man in front of me wet his seat. Halfway through, the torture was softened by an upcoming Nashville music star, who was very lovely, until the big finale rolled around and the American flag were paraded around, just in case you missed the point. I decided there and then to lead a better life, because Hell is surely these four singing their Hunger Games national pride anthems for all eternity while I am stuck to a chair.

The evening ended with a spectacular fireworks display fired from those famous Tennessee mountains, with inspirational words from Dolly Parton about looking out at the stars when she was a poor mountain girl. If you can't grasp the point, there is a replica of the house she grew up in, and I use the term house loosely. I cannot fault any earnestness she may continue to display when talking about her life, after seeing what essentially amounts to a hallway as a space to live for about five people. Coupled with the great work she does for charity, and her genuine talent, there's nothing to dislike. I was taken away by the Parton fairies, wrapped up in John's arms watching the sky lit up in Tennessee.



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