What kind of crazy society would allow—and nourish—such a ridiculous manufactured landscape?
Do we desire vacations to escape or embrace consumer culture? Or both?
“Our ability to shut the destroyed areas from our minds, to see beauty around man’s degradation, is considerable.” –Bill McKibben
I wrote the following Cultural Geography paper at Middlebury College roughly ten years ago today, and I’m pleased to reread it, post the text, and perhaps create an opportunity for dialogue on the ‘Stew. Before I became an “adult” and graduated from college, a trip to Southeastern Tennessee led to my investigation on what it means to both embrace and destroy the environment simultaneously.
Driving through endless stoplights on US Route 441 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, I fumbled for my camera. “Take a few pictures,” my buddy Drew, a senior at University of Tennessee Knoxville, told me from behind the wheel. We were cruising in a silver Volvo station wagon past wax museums, arcades with neon-lighted facades, indoor skydiving facilities, rickety looking steel bungee towers creaking in the breeze over asphalt, $15 scenic helicopter tour outposts and countless single-story eateries like the Number 1 Chinese Restaurant and Scruggs Real Pit Barbecue. I was laughing so hard that I had to hold back the tears, but still managed to snap a few shots from the passenger seat of the car. Something was peculiar about this place, I thought. Or maybe some poignant insight into American culture was being revealed.
Perhaps nowhere in America lies such a striking juxtaposition of landscapes as in Southeastern Tennessee. To the south of these tourist meccas of frivolous consumption—Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge—the Great Smoky Mountains rise up into the troposphere with their majestic steep ridges amidst the trademark haze. The sheltered valleys—known locally as coves—provide rich habitats for an astonishing range of flora and fauna. Home to more than 100 species of native trees, 1,400 flowering plant species, and record diversity of mollusks, millipedes and mushrooms, the park has been recognized as an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations. There are more native species of trees in this 800-square mile area than in the entire continent of Europe. But I hadn’t done a single thing to truly appreciate the uniqueness of the Great Smoky Mountains. Like thousands of other visitors to the park, I had stayed behind the windshield to consume nature. I got a sense on US Route 441 that the national park was a secondary attraction to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
In 2002, more than nine million tourists visited the Great Smoky Mountains. Cheap admission cost—it’s free to enter—and accessibility by road helped to inflate the numbers at the most-frequented national park in the United States. It is said that the Smokies are within one and a half day’s drive of 50% of the country’s population. I was surprised to learn that the staggering numbers of tourists do not have a dangerously detrimental effect on the local environment. Park Spokesman Bob Miller told me that occasionally bears and deer need to be relocated or euthanized after people feed the animals or leave garbage unsecured. And fragile vegetation is impacted by erosion from horseback riders and hikers.
The most pressing environmental concern is air pollution and the Smoky Mountains are currently living up to their name. The park has air quality comparable to Los Angeles—it is the worst of all the national parks—but this is not due to the millions of vehicles that enter the area. “If all the visitors were to park outside the boundary and walk in there would not be a measurable improvement because the sources—power plants and industry are regional and external to the park,” Miller stated in an e-mail. The massive traffic flow does create one problem, however. “An animal crossing roads in a park with 4.2 million vehicles a year stands a better chance of becoming road kill than a critter in a less congested place,” Miller added.
Drew and I were in one of the thousands of cars in the park that Sunday afternoon and we didn’t hit any animals, but something about the “windshield” experience felt inauthentic to me. Being in the Smoky Mountains while trailing a line of vehicles was a bit anti-climatic. Sheer numbers of tourists, while not greatly harming the environment, nonetheless change an individual’s experience in the Great Smoky Mountains. I couldn’t really complain, however. I hadn’t planned on visiting; I was staying at a well-used off campus college house in Knoxville and Drew offered up the quick trip to the mountains the morning before I returned home to Vermont.
As my friend drove us through the park, I got only a superficial glimpse of the beautiful landscape, partly due to a time constraint. Smeared windows and the scruffy voice of John Hiatt filling up the station wagon’s interior tainted my views of the steep ridges and changing leaves. But hadn’t I gotten used to a generic, ‘beaten path’ intake of nature throughout my life? When my family and I visited the Grand Canyon back in junior high school, we didn’t venture beyond the lookout station at the North Rim or past the visitor centers swarming with Japanese tourists. We might have taken a few half-hour hikes. In retrospect, I have an excuse: my sisters were little. The Grand Canyon is such an amazing spectacle. I wish we had been more adventurous then, and I would have appreciated more time to explore the Smokies. That is not to say I am highly skilled at hiking or overnight camping, but I would certainly saddle up and try. Many visitors to the Smokies do not share my idealistic sentiment.
In an interview with the Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans, Knoxville resident Bob Ely stated, ‘“You know, I read the other day where the Park Service said that if you walk a half mile from the road you’ll leave 50 percent of the people behind,’ said Ely, still hiking the Smokies at 75. ‘Well, that’s crazy. You hike a half mile from any of these roads, you’ll leave 99.9 percent of the people behind.’”
After Drew and I pulled into a large parking lot at a lookout point lot near the Newfound Gap (elevation 5046 feet), Mr. Ely’s comment made perfect sense. Harley Davidsons, motor homes, sedans and other vehicles were in constant motion coming and going. Backpackers and hikers seemed to be very scarce. According to a 1996 survey on the use of the Great Smoky Mountain national park, nearly two-thirds of the visitors spent less than one day in the park, and the most popular activities were viewing scenery and wildlife/wildflowers, photography and visiting historic sites. At Newfound Gap in October 2003, the survey still seemed to accurately portray the tourist crowd.
My forest green Jansport school backpack was just about the largest bag around. The exception: one tall, bearded middle-aged man wearing big ole’ hiking boots, gray wool socks, and a sweat-stained red bandana. He humped a huge pack and, perhaps, was challenging the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies, which entails traversing sixteen peaks that exceed 6,000 feet in elevation. The backpacker was not the rule, but the exception, and I was consuming nature the same way that millions do in the Smoky Mountains. In the year 2000, for example, only 380,000 people spent a night in the Smokies, mostly campers during the peak summer tourist months. Compared with the total number of visitors, the amount of over-nighters is miniscule.
The disconnect most Americans have with nature is striking, and journalist Bill Bryson points out that the “windshield” consumers of nature in the Smoky Mountains have provided a plethora of anecdotal follies. One woman smeared honey on her toddler’s fingers so that a bear would lick it off for a video camera. The bear ended up eating the baby’s hand. Real nature signifies danger—Bryson comically delineates several terrifying scenarios that could happen to you out in the woods. “I heard of a man who had stepped from his tent for a midnight pee and was swooped upon by a short-sighted hoot owl—the last he saw of his scalp it was dangling from the talons prettily silhouetted against a harvest moon…”
One way to escape the peril is to not risk it at all. When many Americans vacation—the developers of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge must have realized this—the desired escape is not to nature but to culture. To fully experience nature is just not a mainstream desire anymore. The woods make us feel small and confused. Instead of being the center of the universe—according to advertisers—when plopped in front of a computer or television set, the world of consumption is literally pulled right out from under our feet. Yi-Fu Tuan writes, “what one escapes to is culture—not culture that has become daily life, not culture as a dense and inchoate environment and way of coping, but culture that exhibits lucidity.” Should one be surprised, then, that Gatlinburg draws more visitors than the Great Smoky Mountains on an annual basis?
The landscape of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge could hardly be more lucid to the consumer. It is what most of us are used to, times one hundred. Driving through the heavily commercialized area is like being submerged in one gigantic, freakish advertisement. A billboards screams Come to Dollywood, the Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre begs for you to salivate over a rib dinner and a live honky tonky show, and Ranger Bob’s Trading Post beckons for you to buy a stainless steel jackknife with a lifetime guarantee. Tuan’s observation about escaping culture that has become daily life is partly applicable to the experience of visiting Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge. For most of us, daily life requires making product choices. Boy, is this process ever so magnified down there in the gateway towns to the Smokies.
In Southeastern Tennessee, nature has often become second fiddle to zealous binges of superfluous consumption and amusements. In 1997, the Germino family of Texas held a reunion with 41 people in Pigeon Forge. They converged upon the town from six states. ‘“We chose it because it’s not too expensive, it’s centrally located and it has something for all our family’s ages, from 10 months to about 70,’ said Debra Feinstein of Hicksville, N.Y., a granddaughter of the family patriarch who emigrated from Italy to New York in 1923. ‘This whole area’s great for a family vacation.’” Dotty Germino, planner of the reunion, did not visit the nearby Smokies because she ran out of time.
Mrs. Germino might have run out of time because she was just so content acting as a super-consumer in Pigeon Forge. The center of the universe. In his essay “Consuming Nature,” Bill McKibben writes of his prolonged study on cable broadcasting. After examining 2,400 hours of television programming, one overriding message dominated. You, the consumer, are the most important thing on earth. It didn’t matter whether it was the shopping network channel, MTV, Bravo, Lifetime, or Comedy Central. The conditioning we receive to become consumers is ubiquitous.
For many visitors to Southeast Tennessee, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge puts them in that very position of importance. The range of products and goods is so immense that some people must, whether consciously or not, feel empowered by the smorgasbord spread out on each side of US Route 441. Continuing the drive, Drew and I certainly bypassed all sorts of appetizers, trinkets and gifts that we wouldn’t have minded purchasing, or at least checking out. But we eluded the Boston Shrimp Bucket, Ranger Bob’s Trading Post, Cracker Jacks tattoo parlor and the Lots of Christmas outlet store. The eclecticism of the area allows for everyone to find something that tickles his or her fancy.
Despite the unparalleled tackiness in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, many people find the commercial landscape to be more real than the Smoky Mountains. Tuan points out that only humans, out of all organisms, have created culture. We have manufactured a world that makes us withdraw from facing nature, and part of the reason for constructing culture is surely biological. “A human being is an animal who is congenitally indisposed to accept reality as it is,” Tuan writes. Venturing off the main roads in the Great Smoky Mountains would signify a return to barren reality, the reality of nature as it is. Nature can be unsettling, so we choose to gaze at it from paved roads and built up picnic areas. It takes an adventurous soul nowadays to rough it in the woods.
McKibben, an environmentalist and nature lover, writes of a personal experience that awakened him from his consumer dream. “I saw a grizzly bear one recent summer in Alaska, not far away on a muddy bank on a foggy night, and the sheer reality of that encounter shook some small part of me out of the consumer enchantment into which I was born.” Luckily for visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains, the world of the consumer does not have to be shattered. Many picnic areas and lookout towers in the Great Smoky Mountains allow for benign consumption of nature just yards from the parking lot. According to journalist Bob Warren, worthwhile scenic and sensory experience is highly accessible. “Take a few steps from the car, and feel as if you’ve walked right into a painting, under and inside a huge, green canopy of giant trees. A painting that smells of damp dirt, fallen leaves and evergreens.”
Well, I didn’t feel like I had walked right into a painting after hopping out of the car at Newfound Gap. Standing on a well-maintained sidewalk next to a garbage bin full of empty plastic Pepsi bottles and other debris did anything but make me feel like I had really escaped materialism. I was conscious of the people around me, clusters of tourists Bill Bryson might describe as “throngs of pear-shaped people in Reeboks.” As I posed for a ‘look I was in the Smoky Mountains’ picture, the chilly breeze caused goose bumps to rise on my arms and my new orange and tan Tennessee Volunteers baseball cap nearly flew off my head.
Heading back towards Knoxville, the density of the super strip mall, miles and miles of it, waned until we again reached large-scale commercial development on the outskirts of the city. Images of some of the 819 restaurants—including 25 Chinese eateries and 25 barbeque joints—269 gift shops, 19 tattoo parlors and 12 Christmas outlets were burned into my mind. What kind of crazy society would allow—and nourish—such a ridiculous manufactured landscape? Current generations of Americans, as Bill McKibben has argued, are so conditioned by conspicuous material consumption that the Great Smoky Mountains, in a sense, are the anomaly on our landscape while Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are manifestations of our great desires. “We have grown up in a culture so devoted to consumption—grown up so solid in the understanding that we define ourselves through certain patterns of consuming—that I doubt very much we can truly shake our conditioning.” The visitation patterns to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge show no signs of a trend of waning consumption. But it is not the favorite landscape of all.
Take Ashwin Dave, a quality control manager for Coca-Cola in Baton Rouge, La. After driving some 700 miles with his wife, Geeta, and their two children, he stopped in Gatlinburg to ask directions to the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “Our purpose isn’t to see artificial things, Mr. Dave said softly. “I can play miniature golf back home.”
Fifty years ago, Mr. Dave wouldn’t have had the choice to mini-golf in Gatlinburg, as retail outlets in the area numbered in the single digits. The present orgy of tacky commerce was nowhere to be found. As long as industry, commercialization, and other human degradation don’t overwhelm the national park, it will remain an attraction. Even if pollution and other human impacts marginalize the park’s environmental quality, people will probably still come, according to McKibben. “Our ability to shut the destroyed areas from our minds, to see beauty around man’s degradation, is considerable.” Conservation is not a pressing concern if the imagination is able to continue to seek out natural beauty in different or selective places.
Back in Knoxville at the Tyson McGee airport, I waited for my flight back to Burlington, Vermont, reflecting upon the weekend’s activities while seated in a black vinyl chair. I had thought that the Tennessee Volunteers football game against the Bulldogs of Georgia would be the most interesting event of the weekend excursion. Little did I know that a several hour road trip would spark so much thought. The Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge region is a peculiar place for its magnification of our cultural values. Perhaps it is only a transient place, a strip of eclectic buildings and attractions that entice millions of tourists to the area, and I’d like to think that what will endure in American culture is not the desire to visit the From Russia With Love discount store but to find something redeemable in nature, regardless of whether or not that experience is from behind the windshield of a silver Volvo station wagon.
Do you vacation to embrace or escape consumer culture? Or both? Is true wilderness intimidating to you? Have you experienced any similar travel experiences to mine?
Bryson, Bill. A Walk in the Woods. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.
Marshall, Bob. “Want to enjoy the Smokies? Take a hike; Part of experience is veering off the beaten path.” Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). 5-08-2002.
McDowell, Edwin. “Nature is Second Fiddle to Dolly’s Theme Park; Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Attracts Tourists and Money, as Well as Traffic Jams.” The New York Times. 8-14-1997, pg. D1
McKibben, Bill. “Consumption of Nature,” in Consuming Desires, edited by Roger Rosenblatt. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1999
McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. New York: Anchor Books, 1999
Tuan, Yi-Fu. Escapism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Warren, Bob. “Let’s go to the Smokies.” Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA). 7-06-2003, Travel section, pg. 1.
Bob Miller. Personal e-mail. 12-03-03
Great Smoky Mountains government homepage. http://www.nps.gov/grsm/pphtml/nature.html 12-2-03
Visitor Services Project: Great Smoky Mountains National Park Summer and Fall Report Summary (1996). http://data2.itc.nps.gov/parks/grsm/ppdocuments/survey.htm 12-03-03