There are worse things you could do on a wet winter day than get in your car with a travel mug full of hot coffee, slide Johnny Cash into the tape deck and head on up to East Tennessee. Spend the afternoon shopping in Gatlinburg and see a show in Pigeon Forge, have a big holiday dinner served by a strapping mountain girl in an elf outfit. Cute as a button, with Patsy Jo stitched across her chest.
Two weeks ago, I drove up into the jeweled dells of the Great Smoky Mountains, inspired by a press release from Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner Theater in Pigeon Forge. It was time for the annual Christmas at Dixie, a Yuletide jamboree featuring a four-course meal and a 90-minute show. The publicity office promised Christmas music and wreath-tossing and dozens of majestic horses. They promised ice skating and rotisserie chicken, pig races and a live nativity scene. A warm, Dolly Parton-style celebration of the real meaning of Christmas.
Which, after everything that's happened, sounded like just the ticket. I was tired of the city, and of Christiane Amanpour on the videophone and of military tribunals. I wanted a retreat to the rural heartland, a Christmas celebration in the bosom of the Great Smokies. So I called up the Dixie Stampede and they said, "Y'all come."
The way you get there is you drive to Asheville and then keep on Interstate 40 West all the way across the state line into Tennessee. I have never been this far west on I-40; the mountains in the Pigeon River Gorge are colossal, alpish. Here you climb in your car through the upper stratums, breathing ozone, dipping in and out of cirrocumulus. Expanses of craggy granite loom over the highway, giant gargoyle faces threatening to spit boulders that would bounce down the side of the mountain and pick my Subaru off the road like a beer can off a fence post.
Everything is gray: granite, slate, cloud, smoke, vapors rising from warm-bottomed hollows. Diesel-gray semis, puffing gray plumes, grinding on gray asphalt, line up like boxcars to take the inclines. Even the trees, usually as crisply black as calligraphy, appear through the soft-focus of mist, air-brushed against the sky.
I pull into a rest stop, where a man named Jerry Price stands under the eaves drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup. He sips, winces, and pours in another package of Cremora. Jerry has a Bacchic belly and a brown pony tail that's too young for him but that he'll grow into again in about 10 years, when he gets a new girlfriend, has his stomach stapled and starts looking like Willy Nelson. He spackles for a living.
Right now Jerry is on his way to Knoxville to see his sister, who has just had a hysterectomy. Although the sister's prognosis is good, Jerry is anxious about seeing her. "She's gonna want to talk all about it," he says worriedly. "And it ain't that I don't love her--I'd do anything in the world for her--it's just there's only so much I got to say about the uterus."
Jerry brightens when he finds out I'm driving to Pigeon Forge. That and Gatlinburg is where he and his second wife went on their honeymoon and did they have a good time. Danced and cut up and spent a lot of money, I mean! I ask Jerry where he and his first wife honeymooned and he says they went to Asheville, to see the Carl Sandburg house. "That girl loved poetry," he says reflectively. "She had low metabolism."
Driving into Pigeon Forge proper is a lot like arriving at Myrtle Beach. First you go through about 500 miles of the rural South, where women wearing house dresses lean lazy in doorways and elderly men move as if in a dream across sleepy fields. Then you turn a corner and run smack into honky-tonk, the glitter and noise of Ripley's-Believe-It-or-Not America. Carnival rides and funnel cakes and mini-NASCAR racetracks.
Of course, there is no sugar-cube sparkle of sand up here, no wide Atlantic laid out alongside the arcade buzz like a lusty mermaid. There's none of that steamy, tire-squealing, flesh-sizzling teenage courtship thing that happens in the sub-tropics of Myrtle Beach. The good time to be had in Pigeon Forge is more wholesome, hemmed in by the sober Tennessee hills. There is a Bible Factory Outlet nearby, and a three-story-tall illuminated cross and star. On the FM gospel station, a woman implores me to remember the true meaning of Christmas, and to "shop as Christ would shop."
With an hour to kill before the show, I head straight for the outlet malls. Outside the timeshare superstore I meet Tish and Corkie Wheeler, grandparents in festive holiday sweatshirts and sensible shoes. Tish and Corkie haven't driven down to Pigeon Forge since 1997, when their children treated them to an anniversary weekend and they brought home 32 boxes of salt-water taffy. But this year, what with the tragedy and the war, they needed something to help get them in the spirit.
"We needed to get jump-started," says Tish. "The whole winter has just seemed so sad."
"We come down here to get in the holiday mood," Corkie says. He's bandy-legged in spiffy Lee jeans, his feet surrounded by bags and packages. He and Tish have eight grandchildren, he says, and they expect to have a Santy-Claus Christmas in spite of Osama bin-whatsisname. So here they are, cheerful in the rain, loading up on factory-low gifts and looking forward to a steak dinner and maybe a show down at the Anita Bryant Music Mansion.
I ask if they got all their shopping done and they say yes, all but for their son Tony. Tony was the only one of their children that went to college, which was all right, but then he surprised everybody by moving to San Diego to live with a man named Christopher. Christopher wears tiny diamonds in his ears. "He's the sweetest person," Tish says beseechingly.
"He's awright," Corkie rumbles, looking out into the rain and jangling the change in his pocket.
The first thing that hits you when you enter the Dixie Stampede Dinner Theater is the smell of livestock urine, eau-du-horse-pee. I cannot disassociate the barnyard smell from my image of 250 pounds of pork tenderloin steaming in the kitchen, but nobody else minds. The crowd is in high spirits, ready for the show. Little girls wear velveteen Christmas dresses sprigged with ribbons, and shiny shoes and leotards; boys fuss with slicked-back hair and pull at their collars. The grown-ups wear blue jeans and crisp shirts and big hair and aftershave.
The theater is enormous, a sparkling ornament on the bright strip of shops and restaurants that dissects Pigeon Forge proper. Inside, the 35,000-square-foot performance arena is horseshoe-shaped and draped off at one end by a back-drop of wintry mountains. Dinner guests sit on cushioned benches that curve along the line of the stage floor. There are more than 1,000 people here. The Church of God Leadership Team and a half dozen Brownie troops are here. So are groups from National School Products, the Tennessee School for the deaf, several Baptist churches.
Soon, the lights dim and the fog machines begin to hiss and Dolly Parton's recorded voice issues from the warm, pungent dark. She remembers for us her childhood Christmases, when all her daddy could afford to put in his babies' stockings was an orange and a stick of candy. But still, everybody loved each other, and Christmas in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee was pure magic. The snow machine begins to whirl, the lights spin and the show begins.
What's not to like? There's old-fashioned carols and ice skating and magic tricks. There's ostrich racing and pig racing and barrel racing and chicken chasing. There's trick riding and jumping and roping and galloping. There's hollering and stamping and whooping and whistling. There's buttery corn on the cob and flaky apple pastry and unlimited Pepsi.
There's a man named Jay in a shiny jacket and a Garth Brooks cowboy hat, and he emcees the whole thing from atop a big black horse with a muscled neck. There's J.D., the redneck reindeer hunter who keeps sneaking out into the arena to mess with Jay. There's a manger scene that descends from the ceiling with Mary and Joseph, who are real, and baby Jesus, who's not, and shepherds and barnyard animals and camels with long eyelashes and velvety muzzles.
The whole thing is very exciting and polished, and I can't think of one bad thing to say about it except that it gives me that feeling you get when you eat a whole bag of potato chips by yourself. Here I am in the bosom of the Great Smokies, watching a 250-pound ostrich thunder around the arena with a cowboy on its back, and I find myself wondering what Christiane Amanpour is reporting tonight from her grainy post in Central Asia.
I'm alone in that, though; people in the audience cheer and yell, and there's a lot of collective "oooooohhhing" whenever the lights go down and the snow falls and the strobe lights spin. At the finale, when the music swells and Jay rides out in his spangly jacket to tell us that Christmas isn't about fussin' and fighting, it's about being one big happy family, the crowd is smiling, and full of apple pastry, and ready to believe it.
Outside, the parking lot is shiny with rain. A couple--honeymooners--run for their car in the downpour. A few seconds later they are back under the eaves, searching for car keys. The man goes inside to look for them, and the woman, pretty in a poinsettia-motif sweater, pulls a tissue from her purse to wipe her face.
We talk about the show and I tell her I drove six hours to see it. "Oh my gosh!" she says. "But wasn't it worth it? Doesn't it just make you forget all the"--here she waves her arm out to indicate the black night--"all the bad stuff that's happened?"
Her eyes are shining and she holds her souvenir cup against her chest like a girl clutching a toy. She looks so happy I say, "Oh, yes, absolutely!"
Then we all race to our cars and head out toward the bright road, and the dark mountains beyond, going home.