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I love Gatlinburg! Come at me.

22 May

People call it tacky, a tourist trap, garish, overrated, commercial, lowest common denominatory. And I will nod my head and say, “Yeah. So?” I love it that way. And I hope it never leaves us, no matter how many fires it endures.

“This is a roadside attraction,’ said Wednesday. ‘One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power.’”

-Neil Gaiman, American Gods.

I’ve known it since I was young. We never really spent much time there. It was always a way into the park and a place to eat afterward, but never really our destination. My mother found Ober Gatlinburg’s ski resort to be overpriced for lessons which she wanted to offer me herself, although as an adult I’ve grown to appreciate that place’s slopes, terrain park and everything else more and more.

As for the rest of it, as a kid, I found the weird animatronics outside of a haunted attraction back then creepy and the other ones were just weird. The whole place generally surreal and foreign to me, with its airbrushed t-shirts and samurai swords. The aquarium though, which I encountered as a teenager, was beautiful, although not as original or unified an idea as the one in Chattanooga.

As an adult, I mock everything freely there in my head and to my girlfriend as I’ve walked by, especially on my last few visits. Tiny Gatlinburg Bible Museum with Arc of the Covenant? So that’s where they took it after that warehouse. Although that’s closed now, so I can’t make that joke anymore. Oh well. The World of Illusions? People don’t seem to like it, but at least it has Doc Brown with nipple clamps visible from outside.  Though, speaking of nipples, that exterior can’t compete with the one the Batman Forever Batmobile crashed into at Hollywood Star Cars, which apparently has cars from just about every blockbuster film ever. I should probably visit some time.

And while The Village features old world charm, it also features my lame attempts at making M. Night Shyamalan jokes.

“It’s perfectly simple,” said Wednesday. “In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would just be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea.” -Neil Gaiman American Gods.

Oh, and then there’s all the places selling corn liquor in all kinds of flavors and with tasting counters like in California’s wine country, rather ingeniously called “moonshine” for the tourists, even though it’s legal. Real moonshine, of course, has no health standards and sometimes includes dead pickled squirrels. This stuff doesn’t. But it is fun to get wasted beneath the mountains and there’s plenty of sidewalk room for walking back to avoid any DUI problems.

The place lacks a certain variety even of the kind typically seen at some tourist traps. It’s low on dance clubs, for example, and most of the larger amusement parks and attractions like Dollywood and the Great Smoky Mountains themselves are beyond its borders. But it’s Gatlinburg. It’s my land of delightful craziness beneath the rolling mountains. And I wish it will continue.

“In the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog, and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.” -Neil Gaiman, American Gods.

To all the Asheville folks who put it down: I prefer it to Biltmore Village and its overpriced estate to be honest. Much of Gatlinburg is silly stuff for the masses. But it never pretended to be anything else. And at the end of the day, I’m one of those masses, even if I pretend to be so ironically. So have at me, elites. Let me drop the irony and say, I love Gatlinburg. With all due respect to Neil Gaiman, I don’t feel profoundly dissatisfied beneath it.

It is more than a tourist place though. It’s where people, including both natives and immigrants call home and earn a living. And I feel sad for its recent loss and the second, smaller recent fire.

On my last trip, I saw a damaged resort by a stream flowing out of the park. I stood to contemplate the wreckage, the bravery of the firefighters who led rescue efforts, and the tragedy of the 14 lives lost.

But hearing the spooky music from the nearby Gatlinburg Mysterious Mansion, I felt another thing. Hope. And pride. Keep going, mountain strong. A place of power.

“Yesterday is gone, gone, but tomorrow is forever.”—Dolly Parton, in a quote I’m sorry to say Chattanooga Times Free Press has already used, but at least I’m the first with Neil Gaiman. Probably.

Knoxville Skatepark

14 Jul

My recent “News Sentinel” article about Knoxville Skate Park.

It’s a challenge writing about a sport that’s well-known among a small group but with terms that outsiders barely understand. Anyway, here are some extra photos of Tyson Park that didn’t make it into the article.

Peanut pool and scoreboard.

Peanut pool and scoreboard.

Scooters in banked bowl Flow bowl at Knoxville Skatepark Banked bowl with flow bowl beyond it Knoxville Skatepark

Nothing and Everything

24 Mar

I stayed at the house of a former SAF intern’s mother. The road leaving our neighborhood crossed with another road. That road means more to me every time I think about it. In one direction: The interstate, the city of Columbia, and the new offices of South Carolina Primary Health Care, where I volunteered for the Migrant Health Project. People sat at their desks there in suits, dresses, and ties. Bars, fitness clubs, restaurants, and music clubs were all in that direction.

Columbia was a place of power. The State House stood there, with long sets of steps and tall columns.

Along its sides stood monuments which told an official version of state history. There were monuments to the confederate dead, and to Strom Thurmond. Other monuments  showed African-Americans’ long history from slaves in the fields of indigo, to achievements in the present day. Our landlady, Jennet, told us that in the other direction was “nothing.” For her, as for most people in Columbia it was nothing. It was more suburbs.Then it was sprawling fields of peaches, corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, and plants city people couldn’t tell apart from each other.

The change was nowhere near as sudden as it sounds. The countryside was not a wasteland. Big farms had offices and receptionists. Farmers and ran their fields like factories, only with hotter and tougher work.

The country was more random than the city. Downtown for one town was an old-fashioned-looking block of brick buildings that happened to include a Mexican popsicle store. In another town, the “center” of town seemed to be a white Victorian-style house serving as the office for an IGA store.

It could rain one minute out there, the next minute dust could be blowing around. The workers lived just in just about every arrangement one could think of: trailers, cinder houses, even log cabins in one place.The land was flat, but by the end of that summer, I could not see it as “nothing.” For many of the people I met there, it was everything, or at least everything that they saw of South Carolina.

People who had come from far away to work the land often had no way to drive anywhere else and no reason to do so. To them, the lights of Columbia and the steps of the capital were a faint rumor, if they were anything.

Cuernavaca: City of Ravines

19 Jun

Cuernavaca: a city of ravines.¨Upper¨ and ¨lower¨ class is literal. Well, not always, but mostly.

Walk up certain hills, and you´ll see mansions and flowering trees.¨The city of eternal spring¨ is Cuernavaca´s motto, and there is nearly always some kind of flower in bloom.

The people in these fancy houses are often people who left Mexico City for bigger houses and courtyards, some imitating the tiled domes of Spain. Unlike Mexico City, we have enough water for some people to have swimming pools.The modern convent of the Guadalupanas del Cristo el Rey is here at the top as are some language schools.

It´s good ground to avoid earthquakes like the one that ripped Mexico City apart in the 80s. Granted, land at the very top of some of these hills is looser and cheaper judging from what my host mother Alicia told me.

Okay, time to go down to the middle ground where I am now. Here you find small-shopkeepers with painted signs, good for if you need anything.

Walk down a flight of stairs into a ravine. Available space, if it´s there, often gets used for chickens. People come here from the countryside. Many will wind up in the U.S. eventually. The ravines actually look kind of picturesque from a distance because of their greenery and general wildness compared to the rest of the city.

At far bottom you hit the rivers that carved out the ravines. The ravine-bottom is nice and shady, but you´ll get a headache if you stand down there for too long. Black rivers carry sewage that washes down from all the layers above. Usually the rivers flow with suds. Just imagine the combined fecal and garbage smell. I can´t show it. The worst of these ravines don´t even have roads at the bottom, meaning that the people who live there have to climb stairs.

Foreigners (except for me) avoid the ravines with the exception of the San Anton waterfall, which is awesome despite not being clean. It´s a bit different from other ravines in that it´s more or less one of the nicer parts of town.

The city as it stands now grew in a jumbled way out of Cuanahuac the pyramid site of the Tlahuica (meaning ¨They who work the land”). The Tlahuica were among Moctezuma´s loyal taxpayers. They built their temples near Cuernavaca’s modern center. Cortez had slaves rip them apart to build a castle for himself. His castle still stands at the city’s center.

The Palacio de Cortez as it’s called has a mural by Diego Rivera inside of it. The mural shows Cortez invading, destroying the Aztec Empire, and installing himself and the Spaniards on top. It’s beautiful in spite of showing the divides of wealth and race. Cuernavaca itself is much the same way.

Palm Weaving

9 Jun

My relationship with the summer program is a little different from other students.I do go with them sometimes, but only when it´s something that I hadn´t done during the spring program, usually. One of our excursions last week was just down the street to visit some women from an indigenous village who were staying there to sell baskets and other woven goods in Cuernavaca. They taught us how to weave their style of palm baskets as well.

They talked about life in their town and relationships with their husbands. I won´t go into that too much because I hate to be the white man criticizing the norms of indigenous society. I will say that they thought the location of houses in Cuernavaca next to the cemetery was problematic due to their own belief in ghosts.

For them, their artisan work is very much an art, because it requires time and effort, just as much in their opinion as painting or engraving (which we discussed) particularly with the harvesting of plants.

5 Jun

Despite saying earlier that this will not just be a tourist blog, I will sometimes review various tourist attractions in the area here. People may just want more information about these places. Some of them (certain museums for instance) have long histories associated with them, which can be revealing.

Old haciendas in modern Mexico have become any number of things. In central Mexico especially, many had to divide their lands under beloved President Lazaro Cardenas, while being allowed to keep their houses.This particular one is now a water park.

Yeah, you heard me right. A water park. The old walls and the house are now parking lots and a cafeteria (which was not open). The slides and pools are out in what was once the fields. We actually went as a class with the summer group, mostly just to see the style in which Haciendas are built. (This was actually our second class trip with the summer group so far. I´ll get to the first one with Universal in Mexico City later).

I slid down two slides, both fun and both tunnel slides. I coasted in the wave pool and swam in a pool which had some of the old arches still over it. It was a great chance to get to know the new students more too.

Most of the slides weren´t open though. They try to conserve water on week days, which are, for that reason, cheaper to get in. Some travel bloggers would tell you that this conservation is a bad thing. I disagree. Sure, I may have wanted to do more of the slides, but water is a precious resource here in central Mexico. For that reason, I´m not sure how I feel about us having so many water parks nearby.