The Great Smoky Mountains—Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, TN

To say the year of our Lord 2020 has been a year like no other would not only be cliche, it’d be accurate. So much has been written, videoed, photographed, even sung about since the word Covid-19 has entered our lexicon.

As I type, we’re in the midst of the large 2nd outbreak, holding on to any glimpse of hope December may bring of good news.

But during the week of Thanksgiving, the kids had the week off, and we traveled with my wife’s family to the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area for a little escape.

We stayed in a very nice cabin that could accommodate the whole crew and still allow for some quiet mountain time.

Hit the Road

When the kids got out of school, and I got out of the office, we embarked on the trek. Instead of going the whole 8.5 hours after work, we split the trip in half, stopping in Birmingham.

I’m often of the opinion that one hotel is the exact same as the other, but in reality, that’s only partially true. I try not to take a clean place to stay with a comfortable bed for granted. We stayed in the SpringHill Suites Downtown near UAB. Clean. Comfortable. Just off the I-20. It worked.

Plus, it was close enough to one of my kids’ favorite places—Top Golf. (Ok. It’s one of my favorite places too.)

There’s always something fun about watching your kids and your wife hack away at a golf ball. Something about it reminds me of going on a date to the bowling alley with someone you’re trying to impress. For the talented golfer, there are plenty of games to play.

For the Chapmans, we have two simple objectives:
1—Laugh at each other as we hit the ball
2—See if you can hit the back net. We do a lot of No.1 . Only one of us can actually do No. 2, and that’s either a hit or a miss (no pun intended).

The menu is great for any time, and the layout really kept us socially distanced naturally. Needless to say, we love Top Golf.

Smoky Mountain Bound

After an hour’s worth of Happy Gilmore swings, we loaded back in the Explorer and headed to the Smokys. Traffic was backed up in Chattanooga, and, thanks to the Waze App, we got that heads up pretty clearly.

So, we took the scenic route. Instead of going through the easy, wide path, we headed towards the narrow gate to a higher altitude—Lookout Mountain.

We didn’t stop and look at each of the seven states you can see from Lookout Mountain, but we did meander through the winding roads.

The car full of Chaps from Mississippi had to get a little used to mountain roads. I had to take care not to go too fast or take turns to sharply. Doing so would tip the balance of “I’m not feeling well” and “I’m okay.”

We drove by Rock City and finally hooked back up with the Interstate near Knoxville. And, of course, you can’t go to Knoxville without taking a quick detour by the University of Tennessee. I’d never been there before, so I just wanted to take a peek at it and tell the kids that it’s just not the same without Peyton or Phillip Fulmer (and to the joys of the SEC East, that’s ok).

We finally made it to the main drag in Pigeon Forge around 6:30pm just in time to hit the traffic. It took us a good half-hour to go our 3 miles until the turn, but we had plenty of time to sit and get a good look at Pigeon Forge lit up in lights. Once we made it to our turn, we headed up the narrow road to Alpine Mountain Village.

You Gotta Visit Dollywood

Like any good, touristy, red blooded American, we started our first full day at Dollywood. There’s a large group of people who make the trek on an annual basis, and I could tell why. It wasn’t quite Disneyworld but it felt cleaner and more intimate than Six Flags (if that even makes sense).

Instead of faux mountain facades, the mountain where Dollywood resides is on full display. With thrilling roller coasters and real craftsmen and craftswomen on location, it was very welcoming.

The crowd wasn’t too hectic, and in our Covid world, that was nice. They looked out for the safety of others and encouraged each visitor to look out for his/her neighbor.

One of the coolest parts of Dollywood is the Dollywood Express. Pulled by a real Baldwin Locomotive Works 2-8-2 Mikado named “Cinderella,” the experience wasn’t much different than any ol’ train ride. We sat down, were divided by clear dividers (because, Covid), and enjoyed the ride.

However, the beauty of it was knowing that we were riding on a genuine coal burning locomotive. The same trains little boys and girls grow up watching on cartoons was actually pulling the car I was in.

The train whistle was exceptionally loud as Cinderella puffed up and down the tracks. We were told Cinderella burns close to 2 tons of coal a day.

Again, the authenticity of the ride and the care put into keeping a genuine relic running is something that sets this plain ol’ train ride apart.

Lunch was pretty good for amusement park grab and go lunch. We had the BBQ and ate next to the Eagle Sanctuary. Luckily for us (and for the eagles), it was feeding time, so we watched dozens of bald eagles ready themselves for a meal.

We closed out the day with a quick race around the track in some true American muscle with the boys narrowly beating the girls (depending on who you asked). The walk back to the car was a bit of a hike, but in the almost chilly November evening, it wasn’t too bad.

Tourists are suckers (sometimes)

There are quite a few odd sights in Pigeon Forge, but one that doesn’t really fit with the Great Smoky Mountains milieu is the Titanic Museum.

The HMS Titanic set sail on its maiden voyage in 1912 headed for New York City, and, well, you know—
Iceberg ahead.
Jack and Rose.
Never let go.
All that stuff.

How a Titanic Museum ended up in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, I’ll never quite fully understand. But it certainly was a cool museum and experience.

Each visitor is assigned a passenger or crew member boarding pass with the name of a real passenger or crew member from the 1912 voyage. In much the same manner as the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, you’re to keep up with your assigned named to see how your person fared.

I was a 17-year-old waiter from Italy. I worked in the first class dining area. According to my boarding pass, it was a great opportunity for me and my brother who also worked on the titan of a ship. So what happened to my brother and me? We both drowned.

Visitors aren’t allowed to photograph inside the museum where there are real artifacts recovered from the wreckage. There are letters written to people, ledgers kept on the ship and photographs taken by a Catholic priest, recording the only images of patrons enjoying the ship during its only voyage.

Visitors get to also enter the grand staircase, or rather an exact replica of it. We get spoiled today with inauthentic fancy decor. Knowing the real staircase was handcrafted and was truly a work of art makes the loss even more difficult to fathom.

The part that sold me on this being something worth writing about was the music room. Lore tells of the musicians on the Titanic continuing to play, even as the ship went down.

The band leader, Wallace Hartley, is said to have put his prized violin in his bag and put the bag on his back. Hartley was found face down in the water, but his bag and his violin were preserved above the water.

The collection is said to have sold at auction for $1.7 million. It certainly is something great to behold, and something I’m glad to have added to my collection of memories.

Following the Titanic Museum was lunch at Local Goat. The food was fantastic, but the staff was top shelf. In a town where performers run rampant, our waiter fit right in, keeping all the cousins entertained while also putting on a show for the rest of the restaurant.

Keeping with our Traditional Tourist Theme, we headed over the Gatlinburg proper. The drive was scenic, but once we arrived on the main strip, there was a clear understanding that we needed to park as soon as we could.

In a time of social distancing, there wasn’t much distancing going on in Gatlinburg. People were everywhere.

We made our way to the famed Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. If you ever needed an entire building to manifest what the word sundry means, this is the place.

We saw real shrunken heads (or were they?), wax statues of famous “Circus Freaks” like General Tom Thumb and a host of other side show spectaculars.

There was an entire section dedicated to optical illusions, scientific anomalies and crafts that seemed to have gone too far.

After our tour of the spectacularly strange, we took a left and looked at some Hollywood classics. Literally, we saw real cars from decades worth of films at the Hollywood Car Museum.

The kids recently watched Back to the Future, so they were ecstatic to see Doc’s DeLorean as well as the original Batmobile, Dolly Parton’s Cadillac and James Bond’s BMW.

I was excited to see one of Elvis’s cars and a car driven by Steve McQueen. And on the ground floor is a Lambo previously owned by Mike Tyson.

The Hollywood Car Museum also has one of the remaining General Lees and Dragula from The Munsters. And if you’re a Fast and Furious fan (I’ve only seen the first one), there are plenty of rides to drool over.

The Real, Great Smokys

Our last full day started with an early lunch at the Smoky Mountain Brewery.

I love a local brewpub. They’re run, mostly, by locals who have put their literal life’s savings into these locations, so there’s real passion in what they create. Mostly.

I tried a flight and was very pleased with the different tastes and textures each brew provided. The food was good too.

My wife ordered a Mushroom Swiss Burger and I got their version of a patty melt. My daughter ordered pizza and my son ordered a kid’s steak (because, why not?). It really was all very good, and I highly encourage anyone to visit.

After we were properly stuffed, we headed to Cades Cove. The entire preserved area in one of the valleys of the Great Smoky Mountains shows what life looked like in the early 1800s.

If you’re a hiker or simply enjoy unadulterated nature, this is the place for you. Numerous trails abound, going on for miles. You can ride a bike or drive on the paved sections, visiting historic buildings like the Primitive Baptist Church or the John Oliver Cabin.

Close it out

Since we started the trip at the end of a work day and cut the travel-to-time in half, we decided to make the full trip home back to central Mississippi, starting early in the morning. With no traffic, the drive home was a synch.

The trip allowed for some much needed rest, even though from the itinerary above, it may seem like rest wasn’t an option.

The mountain ranges were beautiful. The kids asked why they were called the Smoky Mountains, and when the clouds hovered as they do, they saw perfectly why.

The mountain smell every morning was very different than the Mississippi morning air. This fragrant reminder that I wasn’t at home allowed me to intentional with my holiday.

It truly helped me dwell in the plethora of reasons why I am truly thankful.

I’m thankful because I am blessed beyond measure, and I’m reminded to take nothing for granted.

Photo Gallery by Robert Chapman

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