Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Gatlinburg vs. Cherokee

Roadside America -- no surprise here -- has a spot-on description of the massive tourist infrastructure guarding the entrances of Great Smoky Mountains NP (the entire article is here): "This is the standard by which all Tourist Traps must be benchmarked. Pigeon Forge and sister tourist-town Gatlinburg sparkle like junk jewels on a necklace choking Great Smoky Mountains National Park (mini-mecca Cherokee applies torque from the North Carolina side). Statistical density hampers attempts to assess this Mecca cluster (as with super-stuffed Wisconsin Dells or Branson). A hundred attractions crush your sense of proportion and dignity."

No kidding. Especially when you're trying to drive through it all. Actually, we skipped Pigeon Forge, but because of the location of our campsite in relation to the rest of the park, we passed through Gatlinburg a number of times, right down its main street. The first time we passed through, we emerged from the park, heading away from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. One minute you're rolling through undeveloped parkland. The next you're inching through a hyperdeveloped street, jam-packed with people and cars during the highest of the high season, around the Fourth of July.

I try not to sneer at Gatlinburg. I've been to Vegas and Branson and the Dells and Banff and Hannibal, Mo., plus various lesser such destinations, walked their streets, and spent varying amounts of money (or a company's money) in those places. I can't say I didn't get anything out of them or not see anything worth seeing. These places are what they are. Mocking them is fueled partly by class prejudice -- the upper-middle class disdaining the lower middle, I figure.

On the other hand, they are nests of tourist attractions, places whose entire function is to tunnel into tourist wallets and purses. The border between attraction and trap is fuzzy, a matter of idiosyncratic choice or whim, but whatever your social class, plenty of the attractions are downright stupid.

Still, I was willing to give Gatlinburg a little of my time. I would have walked around the streets, looking for detail, and inevitably spending money on something. But -- where to park? Along the main streets, I saw no free parking. Hotels and motels offered parking to guests, everyone else $5. Side streets? There didn't seem to be many of those near the main drags. Up US 321 was free parking, coupled with a free "trolley" service, and that looked promising. But on July 3, the free parking lot was closed, full of floats getting ready for the town's July 4 parade.

The lack of easy parking irritated me so much -- it wasn't Manhattan, after all -- that I decided the tourist town for us would be Cherokee, NC, the Indian town on the other side of the park. I was not disappointed. Cherokee has a number of things going for it over Gatlinburg. First of all, it was easy to park. Lots of parking, right in front of the tourist trap of your choice. No extra charge, no riding trolleys.

Also, Cherokee, while fairly large for a tourist town, isn't as frenetic as Gatlinburg, whose sidewalks looked as crowded as Shanghai's. The various attractions weren't layered on quite so thick in Cherokee, either.

Finally, as an Indian town, it had interests that Gatlinburg couldn't offer. If we'd had more time, I certainly would have gone to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which I've heard is a fairly serious museum. But more than that, little touches distinguished Cherokee, such as the reservation cable channel playing in a restaurant, featuring announcements about the Indian Health Service hospital's schedule, and that the fact that a handful of signs in town -- including some street signs -- sported the Cherokee writing system as well as English.

A Roadside America take on Cherokee is here. Alas, Chief Henry is no more.


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