Virtue & Mischief


Months ago Krista and I decided to start the summer of 2015 by vacationing in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, with the amigos and Grandma. Krista has fond memories of visits there when she was a youngster, and we both felt it would be fun for her and her mom to relive some of those moments while grandma is still spry enough to hike around the place.

Though it’s not exactly my cup of tea, I had to concede that the kids would also likely have a good time there if we approached the trip with proper expectations and flexibility. Hey, if the amigos and the missus are happy—I’m happy. And Grandma? Well, she’s the perfect travel companion: always easy to please, ready to help with children and happy to pick up a check!

A few semi-random observations about the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge experience: most people down there—whether tourists or natives, I think—love NASCAR, cigarettes and alcohol, particularly beer and whiskey. “Gatlinburg” as a prompt in a word association test would trigger from me a myriad of responses, many of them food related. “Pancake.” “Fudge.” “Fried.” Other responses would incline more in the direction of non-food-related elements of our visit. “Traffic.” “Air brush.” “Expensive.” “Kitschy.” “Loud.” “Drawl.” “Waiting.” Throughout the week I was reminded how slowly people in the south tend to move.

At the grocery store, in restaurants, and on the street I found myself silently groaning “hurryuphurryuphurryup.” When I’m in New York City, by contrast, I quietly grumble “slowdownslowdownslowdown.” Apparently, I find the pace of the Midwest just right. On the other hand, I enjoyed—as I did during my three years in Nashville as a law student—frequently being referred to as “Shugah,” as in “Shugah, can ahh tawp off yore cah-fee?” or “Shugah, y’all have a luv-leee tahm, ‘kay?” The latter was topped off with an amusing-if-mildly-cliched sassy wink.

We enjoyed a lot of the usual tourist fare—consuming mass quantities of food at diners and flapjack joints, racing go-karts, taking gondola rides, playing putt-putt golf and arcade games, driving through the Smokey Mountains scanning for black bears (we saw a couple). Abby’s favorite experience was “Parrot Mountain,” a beautifully preserved garden venue where she could feed and hold and observe exotic birds native to South America, Africa and Australia.

Indeed, all of the amigos were fascinated and delighted by the squawking and clever animals. Several of the birds said “hello” or imitated laughter sounds, but one particularly shrewd feathered front-runner greeted me with “Roll tide!” He or she obviously didn’t know or care I was born in the shadow of Neyland Stadium, once lived in Gainesville, and attended law school at Vanderbilt. Naturally, we spent a sun-soaked day at Dollywood, Ms. Parton’s southern fried theme park in Pigeon Forge. This experience served up some serious good fortune, an opportunity for peace-building between Luke and Abby (their periodic sibling wars make the Hatfields and McCoys look like amateurs), and a theme park-based personality test.

We began by waiting in line about 75 minutes simply to purchase entrance to the park. Luke and Abby made it to roughly the 70-minute mark. Who did what, when, how and why are mysteries I have no interest in solving. Suffice to say that when we were FINALLY ready to enter the park Luke was so ticked off with his sister that he waltzed away unseen and fuming. A frantic two minutes later he was reunited with the rest of us, still eager to pulverize his rival into hamburger meat.

This provided the impetus for our first stroke of good luck: Luke and I separated from the others so he could cool off and everyone could enjoy the park free of their conflict. Krista and her crew went in one direction, where they indulged for a few hours in the low-key, slower moving fare that Daniel prefers, while Luke and I hiked to the roller-coasters that he has a thrill-seeking taste for.

Stroke of good luck No. 2: our wait times for the roller coasters were practically nil, a fact that we both found amazing, so we got a lot of proverbial bang for our buck.

Stroke of luck No. 3: despite my advanced age and increasingly sensitive vestibular sense, I (miraculously) never came close to throwing up. True, several of the coasters snapped my neck violently enough that I’m pretty sure I suffered a couple of concussions, but I was vomit-free. Thank God.

Stroke of luck No. 4: in the mid-afternoon Luke and I accidentally crossed paths with the rest of the family, providing Abby and Krista an opening. They joined us for a couple of hours and rode some of the faster, scarier rides while Daniel and granny soaked up atmosphere and ate ice cream with strawberries. The time apart had allowed Luke the space and perspective needed to simmer down, forgive and be forgiven, and enjoy his sister’s company again.

Stroke of luck No. 5: walking out of the park at the end of the day, hand-in-hand with my equally exhausted partner, I heard the east Tennessee anthem “Rocky Top” playing in the background. I grinned to myself as I remembered a chunk of its lyrics. “Once I had a girl on Rocky Top, half bear, the other half cat, wild as a mink, sweet as soda pop, I still dream about that.”

Stroke of luck No. 6: I don’t have to dream.

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