“Well, it was Gatlinburg in mid-July
And I just hit town and my throat was dry,
I thought I’d stop and have myself a brew.”
—From “A Boy Named Sue”
I’ve been to Gatlinburg, Tennessee—one of the two main entrances to the 814-square-mile Great Smoky Mountains National Park—two times. The first was with a roommate (and a few friends) from Liberty University whose family had a time share in the tiny resort town.
Location: Just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Distance from Charlottesville: 369 miles
Great Smoky Mountains National Park: nps.gov/grsm/
That was almost 20 years ago and I have only vague memories of my time there. I do remember going to arcades, playing cliffside mini-golf, and making repeat trips through the labyrinth of small shops that appeal to the white trash in everybody, from shot glasses and baseball cards—I got one with Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden standing together—to pricey paintings of wild stallions galloping and hand-sewn leather vests.
I also recall riding the ski lift up a nearby mountain to a ski resort called Ober Gatlinburg with a girl named Mindy. I’ve always been afraid of heights but sucked it up, albeit briefly, to try and impress this girl, making the long loop up—where they take your picture as you’re suspended in the air—and down a steep mountainside, my legs dangling 20′ above the hard ground.
While I felt proud of myself once I got back to the bottom, I don’t think she was and I don’t remember her spending too much more time with me on that trip. Young, Christian and frustrated, I could not even go drown my lonely sorrows in the row of bars that line Gatlinburg’s small strip. Instead, I had only a putter, a windmill and a colored golf ball to treat my solace. Those were trying times.
Some 15 years later, I had a chance at redemption. Living in south Tennessee at the time, I needed a place to meet a girl I had been periodically seeing in Charlottesville. “Let’s rendezvous in Gatlinburg,” I suggested. What better than a redneck paradise, like Paris without the art or wine, for a romantic getaway? Instead of those finer things, there was cheap beer and a Jesus museum.
I met Bex (one of her many pseudonyms) late the night before and we woke with anticipation. We left our lodgings on I-40 (10 miles north of Knoxville, on exit 407) and headed east for the 10-mile trek into Gatlinburg. On the way we had to drive through Pigeon Forge, a couple miles of strip mall with go-cart tracks, water parks, and mini-golf courses galore; shops and chain restaurants; and the home of Dollywood (Dolly Parton’s amusement park—I’ve never been…sigh). There are also small theaters for impersonators of people like Barbara Mandrell and Reba McIntire. At least I think they’re impersonators.
Making our way to the mountain resort I also remember passing a gigantic knife store, a Wal-Mart of weaponry, but didn’t stop and within minutes we were coasting down Gatlinburg’s main thoroughfare, a cozy drive that takes you by much of what the tiny town has to offer: hotel, shops, cheap recreation, bars, and, oddly enough, a large aquarium I’ve never bothered going to.
We parked behind the aquarium and headed to one of the many bars. A couple beers and it was time to visit Christus Gardens, a museum dedicated to Jesus. Opened in 1960, the gallery featured a six-ton carving of Jesus’ face in its lobby that greeted us. Past that serene face we encountered dozens of wax replicas of bearded biblical figures and a room of murals painted by someone with little appreciation for contemporary art.
For a former Liberty student, the place was a treat, an unintentionally tacky but earnest tribute to Jesus of Nazareth. For more than 40 years, Christus Gardens had welcomed believers and nonbelievers alike, inspiring derision in some, awe in others. I was filled with both. (Unfortunately for future visitors, the Gardens were closed for good this January. I wonder where six-ton Jesus is now.)
Next up was the ski lift directly behind the museum that had once inspired terror but now was met with delight. Perhaps it was the beer or the company, but the ride up was nonplussing and fulfilling, the bright sun illuminating the burg below. At the mountaintop, the lift paused so that an installed camera could take our photo. I smiled—a rarity—as the camera shuttered.
Back below, we made the few-block trip to the main strip again and picked a small bar across from the aquarium where we could hear country music drifting out. An awning with a straw top gave the impression that we would be entering Kenny Chesney territory but after we sat and started to sip beer from a plastic cup a weathered old man with a goatee, straw hat, and guitar sang “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille,” my favorite Kenny Rogers song.
My companion was seated to my left and beamed behind fake Ray-Bans. Another beer and I felt like her, like the stone-faced Jesus nearby, satisfied and entirely comfortable in my surroundings. I didn’t want to leave.