By Gary Lloyd
Almost 300 miles northeast of here, a drive that lasts nearly five hours, time stands still.
The T-shirt shops still amount to roughly half of the businesses along Gatlinburg Parkway, where you can fill an entire master closet with airbrushed clothing. Before you can park in the deck behind the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and stroll those streets, though, drooling at the window of the Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen at the Mountain Mall, you must make your way to the Food City on East Parkway for sensible nutrition, like strawberry Pop Tarts and buttery popcorn.
You unpack your suitcase at the same wood cabin or motel you have called home for five days since you were a pre-teen. Your first desire, as if you were still a child, is to head to the Skee-Ball lanes at Fannie Farkle’s, where you can blow through twenty bucks in half an hour, all to win a $2.99 mountain-themed shot glass. You question that childhood innocence when you look up at the yellow sky lift, which ascends you 1,800 feet into the air with nothing but a rusted bar keeping you from certain death.
You hike the Great Smoky Mountain Trail until your feet throb and climb what seems like miles of pavement to the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower, the lone motivation in doing so knowing that the next morning, you’ll be first in line for Pancake Pantry’s 7 a.m. opening. If you’re reading this column as some sort of advice for your Gatlinburg excursion, please remember to take cash to Pancake Pantry.
You drive the winding roads through bursts of yellow and orange, often stopping off to stand on the rocky banks of the Little River, and you refamiliarize yourself with the history, structures and wildlife at Cades Cove.
It’s now been three years since my wife and I have been to Gatlinburg, a trip both our families made in our childhoods and has become sort of our own married tradition now. We went for our honeymoon in 2013 and for our last vacation in 2019 before our son was born, and several times in between. We have not been back since November 2019.
We have told our toddler son about Gatlinburg, shown him photos in our camera rolls and in Facebook albums. He has seen iPhone shots of Gatlinburg Parkway at sunset, our dogs on a wooden porch overlooking the mountains, a massive turtle at the Ripley’s Aquarium, those neon yellow leaves in early November, and a plate of chocolate chip pancakes. It all pales in comparison to seeing it all in person, to feeling the adrenaline when a buck bounds across the Cades Cove valley.
In our home, our son plays with a stuffed black bear we won at Fannie Farkle’s. Plastic blocks he builds towers with came from the Big Top Arcade in Pigeon Forge. The last thing I remember buying in Gatlinburg in November 2019 was a mini street sign, a cheap souvenir I found in a T-shirt shop on the Parkway. It has his name on it. It sits on the door header entering his bedroom.
One day, hopefully soon, he will see the place it came from. Maybe he will bring back some airbrushed T-shirts.
Gary Lloyd is the author of six books and is a contributing writer to the Cahaba Sun.