Rugby, TN: utopia abandoned


The height of summer seems like a perfect time for visits to the Gentleman’s Swimming Hole. I’ve written about it, calling it “too perfect.” And indeed I still stand by that description. Rugby has many trails, which to me are the main attraction in town. I recently visited to look at wildflowers this April.

Church at Rugby
Rugby’s Episcopalian Church.

But I’ve realized I’ve never covered Rugby itself at length.

 

Rugby Printing Shop
Rugby Printing Shop

The town, at present, consists of a few craft stores, some homes and some historical buildings, including the old library, and a church. The architecture is an understated version of Victorian, meaning it’s not really showy in terms of color or even Victorian flourishes like towers. But some buildings have their charm. And since it doesn’t look at all like other Tennessee’s small towns it stands out.

The video at the top of this post goes through the history. A popular 19th Century author, Thomas Hughes, author of “Tom Brown’s School Days” intended the town as a utopian community for high-born sons who failed to inherit their families’ fortunes.

But these aristocrats failed at farming and the town floundered before being revived, more recently, as a sleepy, out-of-the-way town, with stores selling local crafts.

As a side note, Hughes named Rugby after a private school (or “public school”) he attended which is also the setting of his book and the origin of the game Rugby. Tom Brown’s School Days was an influential book back in its day, but nowadays is only remembered here in the US as a possible inspiration for “Harry Potter” and that probably only by people who read Wikipedia.

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My own book Wildly Strolling Along: Father Son Nature Adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail has a new home on the brick and mortar shelves of two stores there: the . While the book is not about Rugby, it is about the plants and animals of the Cumberland Plateau and you can learn quite a bit about some of the things you might see in the surrounding trails before heading out on them.

Harrow Road Cafe

Harrow Road Cafe

Rugby has exactly one restaurant: Harrow Road Café. After a rainy hike, some hot tea there was exactly what I needed.

The restaurant does have some burgers and pasta, but also, in keeping with its location, some English dishes such as fish and chips. It also riffs on English food at times, such as with its fisherman’s pie, like Shepheard’s pie but with fish.

Me? I went with the blackened catfish Salsalita salad, complete with pico, which I enjoyed.

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I love Gatlinburg! Come at me.


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.

Review: Poodle Springs, Chandler and Hardboiled Detectives in general


Yes, I’m late getting on this bandwagon. Poodle Springs is  a 1950s novel, by Raymond Chandler finished in the 1990s by Robert B. Parker. And I liked it. That’s coming from someone who has read “Red Wind” and “Danger is my Business,” which I apologize for not reviewing on this blog. I confess I never read “The Long Goodbye” which would have been the better book to read before judging this one. I have also seen the movie version of “The Big Sleep.”

All of them feature a classic hardboiled private detective of a kind more familiar to my generation thr0ugh parodies, such as in “Calvin and Hobbes” than serious works. His name is Phillip Marlowe, a man frequently threatened but not above joking when threatened.

Parker, jumping into that same universe, one of threats, twists, witty descriptions of characters and the like, seems to be enjoying himself rather than just imitating Chandler’s style. I won’t give away too many plot spoilers in this post, possibly saving them for another one. Having Phillip be married to Linda, rather than single as in other novels gave Parker a chance to have Marlowe explain his own obsessions, making the novel a far more self-conscious study of hardboiled detective norms, which actually made it more accessible to a modern audience.

But what is that hardboiled genre? It involves a detective, but the mystery itself isn’t always something there for the reader to figure out, although sometimes it is. It doesn’t start out with the murder, usually, but rather some other kind of case and the murder(s) happen midway. The plot can get convoluted. Although it’s not action on the level of a modern blockbuster, a hardboiled detective usually gets plenty of threats too and is pretty decent at shooting at punching.

Chandler popularized, though he did not create the hardboiled detective genre, which he explained in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” an artistic manifesto as interesting as it flawed.

In it, he declared why he wanted to break free of the more genteel mystery style popularized by Agatha Christie, although he uses A.A. Milne’s work as his main example.

The manifesto’s effects were wonderful and defined a genre, but its premises make little sense. So rather than give spoilers about any of the above book, I will discuss that manifesto, a little bit here, possibly returning to it.

Right off the bat he makes a small mistake:

Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic.”

In reality, fiction runs the full gamut. There have always been people trying to write realistically, but there have also been people who intended to portray something bizarre and unlike reality. Some of the best fiction combines the two. In fact, Chandler’s world of a private eye taking on murders and surviving frequent threats on his life isn’t particularly realistic either to the average modern reader, even if it might be enjoyable. Reality contains implausible many things, however, and Chandler stories could happen, as, theoretically, could “Murder on the Orient Express,” which he picks on and which I have also read.

At a later point he almost contradicts himself: “There are no dull subjects, only dull minds,” he says at one point and yet earlier he says “The cool-headed constructionist does not also come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace and an acute use of observed detail. The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing-board.” In other words, he seems to hold that science is a dull subject. And besides which, go ask Joseph Bell how to combine observance of people with observance of say, medicine and as a result inspire Sherlock Holmes, who, as a side note, Chandler faintly praises as a trailblazer for being the first to popularize detective writing. It’s hard but can be done.

But what he was getting at, and this is probably more important than his superficial and confused pronouncements was a desire to speak to his own time period with a style that broke free of what some authorities considered the “best” style, with a different style, that of his contemporary Hammett, which he took and made it his own, although I’ll admit, I have not read Hammett and do not know how much the two resemble each other.

Having a different style, rejecting the established “good” style and speaking to the concerns of your own times: That is a worthy goal.

 

 

 

Finding Beauty in a Broken World: Crazy, Hard to Get Through, Yet Somehow Awesome


“Writers break black letters out of lead and line them up on white sheets and ask others to read sentences we have created for ourselves.” -Terry Tempest Williams, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, in a section in which she compares herself to disembodied mosaic hands in prayer on Italian columns.

Terry Tempest Williams’s Finding Beauty in a Broken World is the kind of book that readers might want to send me to Siberia for recommending. It’s long, and has no chapters, making it hard to read at times. It moves from quiet, slow field-notes-style observations of prairie dogs to harsh testimonials about the Rwandan genocide.

Yet at the same time, perhaps because of all that, it’s brilliant, and I wish I could get away with writing like it.

Williams repeatedly talks about mosaics. It’s her cue for how she sets up the book, a picture of little fragments. The paragraphs, separated by spaces, are often short with only a few sentences.

If that style sounds familiar, it’s because, perhaps unintentionally, it’s the style you’re reading. The book is similar to the typical style of the internet in some ways.

Yet it’s undeniably “literary.”* It’s arty, poetic in places and it takes its time when it feels like taking its time, unlike the typical web style. It also has sections that are more like a single book, long masses of paragraphs.

*I absolutely despise the word “literary” because it’s too hard to define. I’m only using it here to mean “not stereotypically internet-y.”

Some parts are better than others. Her quick descriptions of action in nature read well: “The clam broke open and the gull swooped down to eat the fleshy animal inside.” She also speaks well about literal mosaics, “a dazzling narrative of cut stones and glass,” “a conversation between what is broken.” She falters at some moments though, like “What if the burrows of the prairie dogs follow the energy paths of the earth?”

In short I can neither sum up this book nor recommend it to most people. And yet I liked it.