Tourist Traps Ahoy!
Hitting the highway in search of East Tennessee's kitschiest roadside attractions.
JUNE 12, 2000: While some may define "summer vacation" as trips abroad to exotic lands, anybody with sense knows it really means piling into a four-door American sedan and hitting the highway. There, you will find spectacles of uncommon wonder just a few short miles from the exit ramp. Why, you can climb into the heavens to see seven states all at once, or go deep underground to find lost seas.
If it's culture you want, there's all manner of roadside museums featuring everything from country music near-legends to historical battles. Heck, you can even find spiritual fulfillment via wax figures. And it's all but a short drive away.
As a kid, I knew Rock City only through the smeary lenses of my Viewmaster, and was puzzled. I remember asking my mom, what are the gnomes for? Depicted apparently writhing on the floor of a dark cave, they didn't look happy. It reminded me of my favorite childhood painting, one of Hiernoymous Bosch's depictions of Hell.
Among my family and neighbors, the word was that Rock City was an aesthetic crime against nature, an embarrassment to a beautiful mountain; kitschy; commercial; and, the ultimate malediction in my family, it was tacky. Rock City was, at best, a joke, and the famously excessive marketing campaign of barn sides and birdhousesI hear they've been spotted as far away as Indonesiaonly seemed to undermine it in my estimation. I've lived 40 years within a two-hour drive of Rock City, but I was never tempted to See 7 States until recently, and my kids had to talk me into it.
So, on a trip to Chattanooga, we drove up to the top of Lookout Mountain, crossed over to the Georgia side, and parked in the rocky parking lot and went through the stony entrance to Rock City. It was not what I expected. It was gorgeous.
Rock City is, to begin with, one of the most interesting natural rock formations in the region, a series of caves and crevasses and mushroom-shaped rocks and steep bluffs overlooking Chattanooga. It's all interlaced with forest and flowers; there's even a waterfall. Rock City seems like one of those encyclopedia illustrations showing all possible land formations in one impossible scene. Even the natural part, sans gnomes, seems busy, as if it's something God cobbled together when He was feeling a little giddy.
Rock City was a tourist attraction for a century before the barn signs and birdhouses, and the gnomes. "Drawn by amazing tales," according to the brochure, people climbed up here on muleback as far back as 1823, even before there was a city called Chattanooga.
After about a century of that, real-estate developers Frieda and Garnet Carter bought the mountaintop. Garnet Carter originally planned to just build a swanky jazz-age hotel up here, and did. Charmed by elfin ways, Carter embellished his hotel with a "Tom Thumb Golf Course," partly populated by gnomes. It was allegedly the first of its kind in the world; Carter is sometimes credited as the inventor of miniature golf. His wife, Frieda, took a special interest in the already legendary Rock City. Using a long string to find her way out of the honeycomb of caves and crevasses, she explored this strange place, and almost immediately had lots of ideas. She'd make it the most extravagant rock garden in the world. She planted it with gardens that earned a national award from the Garden Club of America while her husband painted barns and began charging admission. Somewhere in there, the gnomes arrived. Some of the trolls you see in Rock City's Fairyland Village originally graced the long-gone Tom Thumb Golf Course.
If you prefer your caves with nothing but bat dung and rat bones in them, you'll be disappointed by what the Carters did to Rock City back in 1932. Parts of it, especially the cave interiors where Frieda Carter couldn't plant gardens, are garish; in glassed-in alcoves are dioramas of non-Disney versions of Cinderella, Snow White, and other gnomish stories.
But something happens when tacky things age; they become quaint; then, baroque; then historic. If you saw Rock City in 1950 or 1960, you might have been appalled at the excesses of it. Now the only thing to be is fascinated.
Rock City strikes you like a daydream of the '30s, part The Wizard of Oz, part Lost Horizon, with maybe a little of the character of the original Monopoly board thrown in. Even the lettering on some of the signs looks prewar.
Most of the kitsch is advertised as a direct appeal to children. Ironically, though, kids may be more interested in the attraction's natural attributes, the narrow passages and natural balconies and the Swing-Along Bridge, a long suspension bridge over a fatally deep ravine. We're assured it's safe, even when juvenile terrorists jump up and down on it, sending waves in both directions. Kids also can't resist tempting fate by standing underneath the 1,000-ton balanced rock, said to be the legacy of a prehistoric earthquake. In the end, their parents may be the ones more likely to pore over the weird cave dioramas; they're a museum of a pre-1950 childhood.
There's not much room for political correctness here. The main entrance path leads right through a crevice in the rocks that's called the Fat Man's Squeeze, and that's about all you can call it. If you're overweight, you may well have a positive self image. You may live a long and productive life. You may even be maddeningly attractive. But you may not be able to make it through the Fat Man's Squeeze. Better to be offendedand forewarnedthan to be stuck like a grunion in a bilge pump.
The crew is especially able at plucking trash out of the crevasses and ravines, but you have to wonder what they do with portly tourists wedged in the sandstone.
With its precipices and treacherous bridges and narrow passages, Rock City is like a strange '30s movie of fantasy or intrigue; the only reason Hitchcock never made a movie here is that he couldn't have made it through the Squeeze to direct it. The climax is what may have been the original Lover's Leap, the 1,700-foot bluff from which an offending Indian warrior was allegedly thrown, and his Cherokee princess lover jumped. It's as good a view as any in the region. They say you can see seven states from here, and maybe you can, on an unusually clear daybut I was skeptical about Virginia, about 200 miles to the northeast, well past Knoxville, which I couldn't make out, either. When I was there I was pretty sure I could make out parts of Tennessee and Georgia.
I started to understand the inspiration of the gnomes. After making your way through these narrow passageways, between intricate gardens, through low-ceilinged caves, you start to feel like a giant surveying his domain. "Carry on, gnomes," you say.
Then, too abruptly, you emerge into the real world of parking lots and traffic, feeling altogether dull and regular-sized and mortal.
There are 13 of us, if you don't count our guide. We're floating in a dirty old pontoon boat in the middle of the Lost Sea, 500 feet under a hill just outside of Sweetwater. The Lost Sea doesn't seem nearly so lost now that we're out on it. In fact, even though it's billed as North America's largest underground lake, at 13.5 acres, it doesn't seem very much like a sea. When I was here on a middle school field trip in 1986, I thought I heard the guide say that, in the farthest reaches of the lake's back room, the bottomif there was one!had never been reached by divers. Maybe he didn't say that. I do know that now they say the deepest part is 75 feet. That's still pretty deep, but it doesn't sound like a sea. The sea's the ocean, and this isn't like that at all.
Besides me, there are three retired couples in the group, the men wearing the standard uniform of RV nomads from Florida: crew cuts, sporty golf shirts, casual shorts with elastic-backed waistbands, and sensible walking shoes. There's a teenage girl with a long ponytail and a class of '99 T-shirt ("The Last Class of the Millennium!"). She's accompanied by her boyfriend and a set of parents, whether his or hers it's impossible to tell; either way, they're apparently mindful of the catastrophic potential of loosing adolescents in dark prehistoric caverns with unseen hideaways and a long history of intemperate behavior. There's one last couple, in their 20s and quietly anonymous, who listen intently to our bubbly teenage tour guide Jessica as she points out the blind fish in the lake underneath us and describes the geological details of the lake and its caverns.
To get to the sprawling caverns, we descended a steep, artificially-lit tunnel built with dozens of curved steel plates, painted bright yellow and connected with industrial-sized bolts, that leads down from the combination gift shop/tour lobby. It's a space-age prelude to our descent into the bowels of the earth and our visit to the second-largest underground body of water in the world, just a few acres smaller than one in Africa. You'd think the spectacle of a cave opening might be a highlight of this descent into these dim nether regions. Instead, you go inside an ugly, glass-fronted 1960s park ranger-style building, where you buy a ticket and head through a turnstile and down the yellow tunnel. At the other end of the tunnel, you're standing in the large, musty-smelling cave room where the tour starts. Small lamps dot the room and are lined along the trail, illuminating significant points along the route to the lake. There are formations that supposedly resemble George Washington and Abraham Lincoln"You have to have some imagination to see them," Jessica says, and I apparently don'tand the Devil's Hole, a two-foot wide opening that drops 13 feet. A woman once mistook the face of a maintenance worker changing the light bulb in the hole for the devil; that's how the hole got its name.
The trail through the caverns loops aroundit's nearly a mile down to the lake, winding past rock formations with funny names and remnants from various enterprises that have been attempted here, from moonshining to guano mining, and then a steep quarter-mile route back up. Jessica leads us along the dirt path, lined with wooden railings for handholds, into the room known as the council chamber, where the Cherokees held important meetings during the 19th century.
The caves around the lake are officially known as Craighead Caverns, after a Cherokee chief who acquired the property in the 1820s. That's about the time, according to a brochure available at the gift shop, that white settlers first moved into the area around Sweetwater and began using the cave themselves to store produce. During the Civil War, the caverns were mined for both saltpeter and bat droppings, each of which can be used, to different degrees of success, in the manufacture of gunpowder. After that, the caverns became a popular destination themselves, as several entrepreneurs tried to make money out of guided tours. There was even, in the 1940s, an establishment known as the Cavern Tavern located here. The dance floor from the Tavern is still on the tour, but the Tavern itself didn't last long. Patrons would drink and drink and drink, but apparently couldn't feel the effects of intoxication in the cool, humid underground airat least not until they began the climb back out of the cave, up a steep flight of more than 130 stairs. The Tavern closed just a few months after opening after several patrons were injured on their way back down the stairs.
The Lost Sea itself was discovered in 1905, by a local boy named Ben Sands, who slid through a tiny crawl space, now blasted out and known as the Ben Sands tunnel, and stepped directly into standing water. It wasn't until years later that the extent of the lake was fully known, and not until 1963 that the lake was opened in its current form as a tourist destination. The corny logo that decorates billboards and tacky souvenirs, with its inexplicable drawing of a Viking ship, seems to date from about that time, as do the rusty pontoon boats that take us out onto the lake.
We pass more of the fascinating geologic displays on the way down the trailthe Vale of Tears; Crystal Falls; the niche where the remains of a Pleistocene jaguar were found in 1940. Jessica tells us that the cat probably fell in while hunting and just never got out. To demonstrate what the cat must have found, she turns off the lights, blanketing us in a thick cover of impenetrable dark.
There's no way to adequately prepare for the total darkness you experience when you're 300 feet underground. Several of the retired women offer startled gasps, and I hear people shuffling to get closer to each other. "The only places where you can get total darkness like this are underground and at the bottom of the ocean," Jessica says. "If you put your hand right in front of your face, you won't be able to see it." I do, and I can't. "If you were to stay in total darkness for 14 days, you'd go blind."
That's what happened to the trout that were stocked in the lake in the 1970s. They're not completely blind, but they have lost much of their sight over time. The trout were part of an experiment to find passages out of the cave. Scientists tagged them and hoped to find them in nearby lakes and streams, but never did. Now they're stuck in the lake, nearly-blind, unable to mate (deposited eggs, awaiting fertilization, float off of the sandy floor of the lake to the water's surface, where they're eaten by the fish), and completely dependent on the liver pellets tossed to them by the guides on each tour. They've become something like the mascots of the lake, just as inexplicable and incongruous as the Viking ship logo.
The lake itself is...Well, it's a lake. It's hard to get excited about a lake, even if it does have 500 feet of rock and dirt and trees and interstate highway above it. Even if it's the biggest one on the continent. The part that we get to see, the front room that's open to the public, is only 30 feet deep. There's a brief, five-minute boat ride around the front room, and in the distance we can see the dark passageways that lead back to the closed parts of the lake. The fish follow us, trained by the liver-pellets that are dropped into the water on each tour. We see even more rock formations, like Betsy the Milking Cow, a stalactite that drips down into the boat as we pass under, and we're told about the flood of 1994 that filled the room, banging the small fleet of pontoons on the ceiling. There is one cool spot, just a few feet away from the dock, where part of the roof fell into the lake 2,000 years ago, an example of the powerful forces that have shaped the caverns through hundreds of thousands of years. Other than that, it's pretty humdrum. One of the retired ladies puts it pretty well: "You don't hear cars or trucks or nothing. It's so peaceful and quiet."
Peel open the updated and expanded 1992 edition of The New Roadside America (Fireside), and you'll find it on page 113. Amid the giant walk-in muskies, the mummified FeeJee Mermaids, and the always mysterious Oregon Vortex, is a photo of a simple fort-like building with medieval ramparts on its roof. Any misconception of it being a White Castle burger stand is immediately dispelled by the big, bold letters emblazoned along the front: "CONFEDERAMA." Two Confederate battle flags on either side drive the point home.
The photo caption reads: "Yankees beware! Chattanooga, TN, is the home of Confederama, which recreates 'the battle that sealed the fate of the Confederacy' on a giant electromechanical map."
That's all this indispensable reference book to America's bizarre roadside attractions has to say about Confederama. Which only leaves many unanswered questions, important ones like: What is a Confederama? What is an electromechanical map? And who was the P.T. Barnum-like genius who fused the word Confederate with the non-word rama? As all road veterans know, any tourist trap with "-rama" in its name is surely worth the price of admission, a veritable guarantee of schlock excellence. And if it also includes a device described as being "electromechanical"...well! What we have here is potentially one of the earth's kitsch axis points.
With visions of miniature, robotic Civil War soldiers waging bloody animatronic warfare, I ventured forth on a quest to find this fabled Confederama. Naturally, this took me to Chattanooga's famed Lookout Mountain, home to such illustrious tourist wonders as Ruby Falls and the barn-endorsed Rock City. But alas, when I arrived I discovered a fallen outpost in the battle between good and bad tasteand good taste had won. What was once Confederama was now "The Battles for Chattanooga Electric Map & Museum." It had been moved up the mountain by its owners at Rock City, polished up, and lodged into a respectable-looking structure near the fanciful, castle-like gateway to Point Park. It wasn't even "electromechanical" anymore...
Undaunted, I forged ahead. Inside T.B.F.C.E.M.&M. I found a rather straightforward Civil War gift shop, with model cannons, rebel caps, and Confederate and Union costumes for kiddy reenactments in the back yard. Shows are given any time anybody asks for one, and the clerks seem really happy whenever someone inquires. They'll quickly guide you into the small theater set up in the rear of the building. It is here that the electric map is finally revealed.
Stretching before a few dozen seats is a dramatically-lit diorama of Lookout Mountain and its surrounding terraintiny trees, hills, ridges, and the Tennessee River, all dotted by 5,000 ant-like blue and gray soldiers. None of them looked particularly electromechanical, but I held back my disappointment for the moment.
The house lights dimmed and the soundtrack music cued up with a portentous "Da-DAAAA!" Then, an authoritative voice spoke up: "It is 1863, the third bitter year of the war between the states. The conflict goes badly for the confederacy. In the north, Lee's thrust into Pennsylvania has ended in the terrible defeat at Gettysburg. To the west, on the Mississippi River, Vicksburg has fallen to Ulysses S. Grant. Now, Union armies are massing in Eastern Tennessee in a determined effort to cut the South in two. The small town of Chattanooga is about to take its place in history..."
What followed is basically a radio play aided by the visual stimulus of the map, which twinkles with lights to indicate where the particular battle being described took place. The best effect is gunfire which is reproduced via blinking red lights. It lasts about 15 minutes, and is a fine primer on the important battles that took place here. But I must point out to unsuspecting travelers that T.B.F.C.E.M.&M is severely lacking in kitsch value.
Nevertheless, it is a throwback to an era of longer attention spans and more practiced imaginations. Not interactive and barely qualifying as multi-media, the electric map is almost quaint in its refusal to succumb to MTV production values (despite the brochure's frightening promise of a "Digital Phase Sound System"). According to the shop's clerks, the map was originally built in "1930-something," though they're not sure who did it. Perhaps it's just as wellthe faint whiff of mystery gives the diorama that much more appeal, as if it were an actual fragment of our roadside attraction history, surfacing here on Lookout Mountain without explanation or apology.
Last Sunday, I tried to explain Christus Gardens to my father, a lapsed Catholic (as playwright Christopher Durang said, "I don't know any Catholic adults") who has little patience for kitschy tourist attractions. In fact, as a kid, even though I remember quite a few trips to historical monuments of all size, shape, and significance, I can't recall any trips where the gift shops contained snow globes or seashell sculptures. Selective memory on my part, perhaps, but I don't think I even ate a corn dog until I was 25. Consider it a childhood more Mount Vernon and Fort Pitt than anything-o-rama. Downright un-American, I know.
The conversation started benignly, with Dad asking what I'd done over the past couple of weeks. Nothing major, I told him. Gardening, yelling at the cats, pondering home improvementsthe usual stuff. And then, I told him, yesterday I went to Christus Gardens.
"You went to what?"
"Christus Gardens," I said, finally pronouncing the place name correctly, which would be with a short "i" like the y in "tryst" instead of a long "i" like the i in, uh, "Christ."
"Which is what?"
"It's a tourist attraction in Gatlinburg, Dad, built by Nashvillian Ronald S. Ligon after he made a pact with God while he [and by this I meant Ligon, not God] was on his deathbed in the late 1950s. After Ligon recovered, he flew around the world to gather ideas for such a monument, finally deciding two things, more or less. One, Gatlinburg was ideal for such a devotional space and, two, that 10 dioramas filled with wax figures would be the best way to portray the life and teachings of Christ," I explained. "They say it's non-denominational."
"I doubt they get many Jews," Dad said, covering his confusion about the whole idea behind the Gardens with a light joke.
"The brochure says 'indicative of its universal appeal is the fact that many of its visitors have been from non-Christian nations.' Can't argue with a brochure, Dad, can you?" The other end of the line was silent. "Well," I blundered on, "all of the folks who were there on the day I visited looked awfully white and awfully Christian. Some Mennonites were walking in as we were leaving. But you can't judge a book by..."
"Why would you make the life of Christ into a series of wax figures?" Dad interrupted, after starting to wrap his mind around the idea.
"I don't know. They're really good wax figures, though. Kind of like a Madame Tussaud's for the WWJD set. You almost expect them to breathe as they pose. And Christ himself looked as benevolent as the day is long, his Willie Nelson red hair flowing down his shoulders even when he was a kid." I continued, not entirely sure there was an answer to why one would create such a monument to their chosen faith. "It was, I admit, fairly dramatic and all. Voice-of-God-type narration that led us through the exhibit. Soaring choirs. Dynamic lighting. Quite engaging, really, until a bored 12-year-old boy wearing a WWF black T-shirt decided to open the emergency exit during Christ's ascension. Kind of wrecked the mood."
"I can imagine."
"The outside of the building was neat, though, a monument to low, white marble buildings that look like low, white marble non-denominational churches. The garden was a bit of a let-down. Full of mostly plastic plants."
"Yeah. And the voice-over tape must have warped or something. It randomly sped-up and slowed down, like it was possessed. Andrea [a friend of mine who almost got us kicked out of the Alamoa long story that I'd already told him] had to visibly restrain herself from leaping up onto one of the marble benches while screaming 'get thee behind me, Satan.' Fortunately, she decided that might be a bit rude. But there was a marble carving of Jesus whose eyes followed you around the room, which was a neat trick of optics."
"I've always liked Andrea." Dad was really just kind of babbling now, latching onto a topic with which he was more comfortable. I knew it was time to give the Gardens a rest. After all, he's at that age where new topics, like weird tourist traps that have no historical significance whatsoever, unnerve him.
"You'll be happy to know that it was Andrea who found the Christus Gardens shot glass in the gift shop," I concluded. "And I also got this great snow-globey thing filled with a thermometer, some blue flowers and stars, and a pair of praying hands."
"A shot glass in an attraction devoted to Christ?"
"Sometimes it's better to not ask questions, Dad."
"Tell me again why you went there?"
"It's my job. I do bizarre things so I can tell people about them. I've been nibbled by an alpaca. Hit on by drunken musicians. Called all sorts of filthy names. All for our readers. It's what I do, Dad," I explained. "Besides, it also gave me a chance to ride a ski lift up to the top of Ober Gatlinburg."
"I didn't think you all still had snow."
"We don't. I rode up there to listen to a three-piece string band and watch people clog."
It was at this point, I think, that he wished me a good week and hung up.
It was with no small anticipation that this Metro Pulse reporter chased the pale, gray horizon of Interstate 40 westbound on the way to Crossville, in earnest quest of a Grail only faintly remembered from long years past. While busy with a much earlier assignment for this famous publication (a visit to a local "naturist's park"a nudie camp for bored, well-heeled suburbanitesback in 1994), I had stumbled across an unexpected trove of delight: a roadside museum devoted to preserving the hard-bitten legacy of Bocephus himself, Hank Williams Jr., the burly country music bad-boy and notorious progeny of the genre's acknowledged King.
Exactly why said museum had been stationed in this unassuming little middle Tennessee hamlet had never been established; as best I remember, Junior lives in Montana, or some such place, and the two Tennessee towns that play any part in the Williams family mythology, Nashville and Knoxville (where Senior imbibed the fateful morphine cocktail that ended his life), are both a tedious hour-plus drive across sparsely-populated pastureland in either direction.
Nevertheless, it was there, as no fewer than six billboards between K-town and C-ville affirmed my remembrance, stirring the cauldron of my excitement into a froth (Tennessee's Largest Weekly Flea Market and the Jack Nicklaus Something-Or-Other Golf Course were also touted at the same exit, but let's not diddle our knickers.) And sure enough, as I pulled off Exit 317, I saw the same long, western-style edifice, the same unfinished wooden storefront and matching 2-by-4 supports, capped by a large green sign announcing, in brash, vainglorious type...GiftsFromTennessee.com???
Two weeks. A mere 14 days. That's how long it had been since new owners Larry and Sherry Sanders had converted the erstwhile Hank Jr. showplace into a theme store vending gifts and crafts made in Tennessee. The Sanders' are old pros when it comes to trawling for tourists, as Larry is president and CEO of an attraction that brandishes the name of country chanteuse Loretta Lynn, with outposts in Franklin, Ky. and Hurricane Mills, Tenn.
According to Larry, a barrel-chested, 50-ish fellow whose sad-eyed countenance is belied by a cheerily resolute demeanor, former owner and Hank Jr. associate James Scott sold the Crossville space to concentrate on his Nashville holdings (including a like-themed museum/gift shop near Music Road.)
With Scott went most of the Junior knick-knacks and memorabilia, commemorative plates and statuettes and personal mementos, including a shiny champagne-hued 1986 custom-built Dodge pick-em-up truck complete with in-cab bar, formerly displayed in a glass-enclosed enclave on the western end of the store.
"I think Hank Jr. himself wanted to buy it back, but James Scott wasn't selling," Larry cackles. "That thing was probably worth $100,000."
In place of honky-tonk icons and theme gifts, the Sanders' now offer an array of...stuff, and not just any stuff, but stuff produced by local craftsmen and manufacturers. Ceramic Jesuses. Porcelain pirates. Eagle figurines. Frogs and owls and lighthouses and Victorian dolls and...teddy bears. Lots of teddy bears. And brass music boxes, Native American motifs, T-shirts, license plates, ball caps...
"We're trying to offer lots of nice stuff, upgrading our gift selection," says Sherry. By way of example, she points to a stand-alone porch swing with a varnished cedar finish.
Of course, the store will continue to peddle (as it also did in its Junior guise) those two staples of regional roadside commerce: plenty of bright orange Vols merchandise, and fireworks. Half of the store's 6,600 square feet are given over to the latter, enough bottle rockets and cherry bombs and Roman candles and what-not to blow several small Eastern European republics to perdition in a fetid cloud of smoke.
For disappointed die-hards who trek out to Exit 317 in hopes of observing miscellaneous flotsam floating in the choppy wake of Bocephus's stardom, a few pieces of Junior merchandise still remainguitar picks, plates, jackets, and the like. That won't be the case for very long, however. "If you know any Hank fans," Larry Sanders warns, "tell 'em it's going fast."
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