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To celebrate 30 years of couple-hood, John and I stole a weekend away in Gatlinburg.  Secure in the knowledge that Lorelei and William were in Emily’s capable hands, we headed South on Saturday afternoon.

We are so blessed to live so close to Gatlinburg, which feels like a getaway even though it takes less than an hour to get there.  After getting settled in our lodgings, we went out to explore.  Normally we stay more in the middle of town, but this time we were on the north end which gave us the opportunity to see something new (to us).

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There are several antique shops at the north end of town and both because of their location and the fact that we always have kids with us we’ve never set foot inside a single one.  American Sideshow Antiques was open and we enjoyed browsing through the eclectic wares and meeting Danny, the owner, who told us about his harrowing escape from the recent fires that devastated the area.  He shared with us the support of his regular customers from many states who have come to his aid by ordering from his shop from afar since the fire.  Having experienced similar kindnesses after our own fire, we were moved by his story.

And actually that’s why I’m writing this post, because in our many interactions with the people of Gatlinburg we discovered that businesses are suffering because of rumors that Gatlinburg was leveled by fire and that there is no reason to visit anymore.  This mistaken belief is causing more suffering to those who live and work in Gatlinburg, many who have already lost their homes and belongings.  Whenever possible, I donate money to fire victims–today I am donating my time and this space to convincing as many people as possible to visit Gatlinburg!

After the antique store, we headed to the Smoky Mountain Trout House, a Gatlinburg institution we had never tried before.   When we noticed that the upstairs was closed, the owner told us that he hadn’t needed that space since the fire because tourism is way down.  Let me tell you that people don’t know what they are missing, with super-fresh trout deboned right there at the table and big enough to cover the entire plate, along with the usual fixings.  We only barely managed to eat it all.

The next morning was cloudy but mild.  We enjoyed our motel’s ample free breakfast before setting out to walk along the Parkway.

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When I was a child, Gatlinburg shops consisted primarily of t-shirts and cheap, kitschy items, and if you went in one of them you’d pretty much seen all there was to see.  A lot has changed since then, with multiple outdoor malls showcasing a combination of local crafts and high quality mass-produced merchandise.  Window shopping is always fun, but if you want to buy something you can do it without breaking the budget! And if you don’t want to carry your haul around all day, many merchants will hold items for later pickup.

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Gatlinburg’s main strip was almost untouched by the fire.  There were two or three shops that remain closed, but most everything was in full swing.  I’ll be honest, though–we spent most of our money on alcohol. 🙂

One big change that has come to Gatlinburg in recent years is the proliferation of distilleries and tasting opportunities.  I believe this began with Ole Smoky Moonshine but they are no longer the only game in town.  We warmed up with two wineries, each of which allowed us to try two varieties for free.  But we were just getting started.

At Sugarlands Distilling Co. we learned that a new procedure for tasting has been put in place.  What used to be free now costs $5 per person, but you also get a $5 coupon good toward the purchase of any item in the store.  Since you are definitely going to want to buy some moonshine after you’ve tasted it, this is the cheapest drink in town.  Our bartender was Gyver, and he regaled us with jokes and creative shine recipes.  Gyver was one of many locals who lost his home and possessions in the fire.  He asked us to encourage anyone who wants to help fire victims to vacation in Gatlinburg.

We sampled 12 varieties at Sugarlands and used our coupons on hazelnut rum.

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Moving on down the road we ended up at Ole Smoky, where live music was in full swing.  We took a look at the product in process before heading in to sample the wares.

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D’Brickashawn was our bartender and he won us over by making fun of everyone who didn’t know what snow cream was.  Yes, there is snow cream flavored moonshine and along with blackberry that’s what we used our coupons for.  By now after 24 (small) samples I was a bit tipsy.  That facilitated bonding with our neighbors at the bar who told us that they were high school sweethearts reuniting for the first time in over twenty years.  Gatlinburg is very romantic!

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Our last stop was also Ole Smoky, at their whisky location on the other side of the road.  We got 13 samples there and took home a bottle of Tennessee Mud.  There is one more distillery in town but they weren’t open when we walked by.  That may have been for the best as each tasting was the equivalent of about 3-4 shots!

After more window shopping we walked back to the motel.   In the evening, we drove to The Peddler restaurant, one of the few old homegrown places left in town.  Because there was an hour wait, we went for a drive up the mountain to pass the time.  This is where you see the devastation wrought by the fire–burned foundation after burned foundation.  It’s unbelievable and heartbreaking.

We had a great dinner–worth the wait–and went back to the motel, enjoying the Winterfest lights along the way.

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It was back to Knoxville, reality, and hungry children the next morning but it’s nice to know that an inexpensive and fun weekend is always such a close drive away for us.

Now, you want to help the people of Gatlinburg, don’t you?  Here are two easy ways:  You can schedule a weekend getaway of your own–or a day trip if you are local!  Or you could share this post to let folks around the country know that Gatlinburg is open for business.

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Happily, none of the attractions I wrote about below were damaged by the recent wildfires.  My understanding is that downtown Gatlinburg will reopen for business very soon.  Please make plans to visit soon to support the business owners and the local economy.  I know I will never take it all for granted again.

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It’s been a couple of months since I let you know that I would be visiting all of the Ripley’s attractions in Gatlinburg and reviewing them here.  That’s because there are EIGHT separate attractions, and we needed to pick a time that we could visit them all.  Originally we had intended to go up for the day (Gatlinburg is less than an hour away from us) but we ended up planning a weekend trip–just me, John, and the “little” kids (not really so little, but that’s what we call them here!).

We left Knoxville on Thursday evening and couldn’t even make it all the way to Gatlinburg without stopping to eat.  We picked Joe’s Crab Shack.

gburg 2 gburg 1We all love seafood, so this was a good decision.

We made it to the hotel with barely enough time to enjoy the pool for half an hour, but since the pool is the main point of staying at the Glenstone Lodge (a family favorite from when the big kids were small, but where the little ones had never been) we stayed until they turned off the lights!

gburg 59The next morning we got up early and headed to the Pancake Pantry, a Gatlinburg tradition.  Once we were fortified, we headed out for our Ripley’s adventure.

We started with the Aquarium, because that’s where we had to pick up our tickets. (I received free tickets for my family in exchange for my honest review of the attractions.)  Okay, you ask yourself, why is there an aquarium in Gatlinburg? There’s no ocean there.  Is this an aquarium highlighting things like salamanders and crawdads?

But that’s one of the things that’s really neat about Ripley’s–they always find a way to link their attractions to the locale, and I will be showing you several examples of that in this review.  Here’s how they frame Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies:

gburg 3I don’t know about you, but I thought that was pretty clever.

I have a lot of pictures to share with you.  The Aquarium is a good-sized attraction and took us a couple of hours to go through.

gburg 5 gburg 4Every exhibit is accompanied by an informative sign like the one above.  What was fun for me was having William announce what the creature was before reading the sign, and being right about 99% of the time.

gburg 25 gburg 6 gburg 8 gburg 7Y’all, I could not stop taking pictures of the jellyfish.  I think they are magical.

gburg 24 gburg 16 gburg 15It’s probably a good thing that Lorelei kept stealing my phone to make You Tube videos.  I couldn’t stop taking pictures.

In addition to all the interesting species, we also got to take a peek into the way the Aquarium operates:

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There are also interactive opportunities.  Below you will see Lorelei petting a horseshoe crab and William getting his dead skin eaten by some kind of fish (NOT piranhas, although they had those too!).

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gburg 27These things are scarier than piranhas to me though:

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Apparently they actually EAT spider crabs in Japan.  I know it would amount to a lot of meat, but those things seriously give me nightmares.

The Aquarium is very kid-friendly, with play activities, interactive opportunities like I’ve already shown you, and entertainment (like these mermaids):

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gburg 22At 14, William was not as interested in the kids’ activities, but he was fascinated by this prehistoric specimen, which he of course already knew EVERYTHING about:

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But the highlight of the Aquarium for all of us, and I think for pretty much anyone who visits, is Shark Lagoon.

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In addition to looking down on the sharks from above, visitors have the opportunity to get closer they ever though possible by going THROUGH the lagoon in a transparent tube, being moved along via conveyor belt.

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If it’s not obvious, we loved the Aquarium.  It’s expensive, but it’s worth it, and I recommend it to anyone who is visiting Gatlinburg.

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Now, that would have been enough fun for anyone, but remember we were still getting started at that point with seven attractions left to visit!  We made it out through the gift shop relatively unscathed and then started heading to our next destination, which we picked because according to the map we’d been given, it was the next one we would come to as we walked along the main road.  That was the Mirror Maze, which was pretty much exactly like the one in Baltimore, which I already told you about here.

Our next stop was the Guinness Book of World Records Museum, a place that has been in Gatlinburg for as long as I remember, and which I’m assuming Ripley’s acquired at some point as its most likely competitor!

Here again a lot of effort was expended to showcase records that would be of particular interest to local folks:

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gburg 33Aside from the local exhibits, I was most impressed with the Space area, which included a neat video about the moon landings.

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The exhibit below reminded me of my grandmother and the many, many afghans she made for us:

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There were some fun interactive displays also, like these:

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And of course we all loved this:

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This is just a small sampling of what was available, much of which will be familiar to regular readers of the Guinness Book of World Records–tallest man, fattest man. et cetera.  I think we spent about an hour here.

Our last stop of the day was the Ripley’s Odditiorium.  I remember this when it was called the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum.  Or I should say that’s what its predecessor–a much less impressive affair–was called, before it burned in a fire some years ago.  It’s a Gatlinburg attraction I remember from my childhood, although we never went there.

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I’m going to get my complaints out of the way at the beginning: it was crowded and hot, especially the first part, which is a balcony over an area that is open to the street and hence is not climate-controlled.  I much preferred the set up of the Baltimore Odditorium, but there were plenty of new curiosities to see here.

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gburg 48We were welcomed by a holographic version of Mr. Ripley himself, inviting us to come along with him on his adventures.  I thought that was pretty cool!

I learned in my last Odditorium experience that I could expect to see authentic artifacts and I was not disappointed.  This actual piece of the Berlin Wall was a thrill:

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There was a dark and creepy area that showcased instruments of torture and other creepy things:

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gburg 55There was a very interesting prison display, that managed to insert some local color:

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We met an old friend from our last Odditorium visit:

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And here are just a few more interesting sites.  I wish I had more pictures, but I had to fight with Lorelei for the camera all day, as she is an avid filmmaker and needed footage, 😉 and by this time my battery was running low as well!

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The above portrait of Eminem is made of M & M’s, by the way!

Luckily at this point we were right by the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.  We’ve tried most restaurants in Gatlinburg by now, and frankly most of them aren’t very good now that all the ones I remember from 20 years ago have closed up shop.  But we hadn’t been to Bubba Gump, and we did enjoy it.  After that, exhausted by our long day and the searing heat, we trudged back to the hotel and spent the rest of the evening enjoying the pool and the air conditioning.

Day Two of our Gatlinburg-Ripley’s adventure began with a buffet breakfast at the hotel and one last quick swim before checking out.  We drove down to the main road and found a centrally-located garage and then made our way to our first destination:  Ripley’s Haunted Adventure.

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See that guy in the bottom picture? He leans out of there and heckles passersby! I had never been there–frankly, I’m not big on seeking out scares because life is frightening enough already–but I was a little bit excited about this.

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See Lorelei’s sweet little smile? It was about to get wiped right off her face.

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After we passed by that lovely sight, we headed for this cage-like elevator that you have to board to get up to the top of the attraction.  Along the walls we read the set up for the whole thing which I won’t explain except to say that it was another way of anchoring the attraction to the area.

We were in the elevator with two middle-school aged boys.  When we debarked, our guide gave us such a speech about how scary this was going to be and the need to decide RIGHT NOW if it was going to be too scary that the boys left!  He then told us to grab hold of the shirt of the person in front of us and no matter what happened not to let go and not to run.

You may notice the absence of pictures in this part of my story.  That’s because it was too dark to take pictures, nor did I have a free hand.  The first couple of rooms we were in were very well done.  This isn’t like a warehouse with people jumping out and screaming at you (not that there weren’t people jumping out and screaming too of course!).  It’s well-decorated, well-done, with a theme running through it.  But it wasn’t long at all until Lorelei was sobbing, and then we made a wrong turn and were in a completely pitch-black area, and when our guide asked us if we wanted to leave we were all thrilled to say YES!

Well, John wasn’t thrilled.  And although William was walking through with his eyes closed, he was hoping we would finish and that someone else would tell him what happened!  But Lorelei and I were VERY glad to be out of there.  I guess if a scary house scares you that much, it’s a good one, right?

Happily, this was right next door:

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They were showing the same two movies that we had already seen in Baltimore, and the motion makes both William and me sick, but it was just what was needed to calm Lorelei’s nerves.  So William and I sat on a bench outside and waited while John and Lorelei watched the movies.

The last two attractions were outdoors, and the weather was looking a bit foreboding:

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Still, we didn’t have anything else to do, and I wanted to be able to finish my review, so we retrieved our car and drove toward Pigeon Forge, stopping here:

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This is another place I’d never been.  For years there was another golf place here, Jolly Golf, with a dinosaur theme, and before that there was Mystery Hill, which is somewhere I did visit as a small child and have never forgotten.

Did you know that mini-golf was invented in the Southeast?  So that makes this the most appropriate attraction of our weekend, even though the connection between Davy Crockett and the decor of the course (at least the course we chose–there were two) escapes me!

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It certainly gave off plenty of that hillbilly vibe that visitors to East Tennessee seem to crave.

Anyway, we had fun.  Lorelei was the first to get a hole in one!

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William was a bit sulky at first, but as he proved surprisingly good he began to perk up a little bit.

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Toward the end of our game it–you guessed it!–began to pour down rain!  We intrepid golfers did not let that stop us from finishing, however!

We had one more attraction left to see at this point:  Ripley’s Old MacDonald’s Farm Mini-Golf.  But y’all, we were golfed-out, and hungry, and ready to stop having fun, honestly.  We went to a favorite restaurant in Pigeon Forge (Fusion Cafe), and then went home to collapse.

But the awesome thing is that our tickets are good for one year from the date of issue.  And our final destination is in Sevierville, not Gatlinburg–right next to Joe’s Crab Shack. 🙂  And also by the Tanger Outlets, if that’s your idea of fun (it isn’t mine).  Anyway, we will head back out there in a few weeks and I will update you then.

So what are you waiting for?  You can go right here to read more about all the attractions.   My readers will save $3 off Adult and $2 off Child Admission to all of Ripley’s Attractions in Tennessee.  You’ll need to make your purchase online and enter the following promo code when you check out: USFAMILYGUIDE  Click here for more information about this offer and about U.S. Family Guide.

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Please consider a donation to the fund Dolly Parton has set up to support families who lost their homes.  Over 700 structures have been reported destroyed so far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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You will no doubt have noticed that I have written several sponsored posts lately–this one included–and since that’s a departure from the usual here, I want to give you a little explanation.

I was referred by some of my blogging friends to U.S. Family Guide, a resource for family fun which also connects bloggers and family attractions.  That means my readers get coupons, the attractions get publicity, and my family and I get free admission to some awesome attractions.  Obviously, I’m not going to lie and say I enjoyed visiting this places if I don’t, I promise you that!

So the flurry of recent activity in this regard is because it’s almost summer and time for family fun.  I am excited to have a coupon offer that local readers can take advantage of.

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My readers will save $3 off Adult and $2 off Child Admission to all of Ripley’s Attractions in Tennessee.  You’ll need to make your purchase online and enter the following promo code when you check out: USFAMILYGUIDE  Click here for more information about this offer and about U.S. Family Guide.
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I’ll bet you weren’t aware that there were so many Ripley’s-owned attractions in Gatlinburg.  I know I wasn’t, even though I have visited some of them in the past.   The Guinness World Records Museum, Ripley’s 5D Moving Theater, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Odditorium, Ripley’s Davy Crockett Mini-Golf, Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, and Ripley’s Marvelous Mirror Maze are all owned by Ripley’s and are included in this promotion.  I’ve been to the World Records Museum, the Odditorium, and the Aquarium in the past, but it’s been many years and I know they’ve been updated since then so I am very excited.  One of the coolest things about the Aquarium is a tunnel that goes right through the shark tank!

I’m not sure when my family and I will make our visit but I will be back to tell you more about it when we do.  And in the meantime, if you use my promo code and visit for yourself, I hope you will come back here and comment!

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My Facebook feed is filling up with pictures of beach views, because both Knox County public and Catholic schools are on break this week.  Were I to post a picture of my view, it would be the same one everyone has seen before:  my back yard.  I’m not complaining, though, because I do have some future travel plans to look forward to (more on that later!) and  a week at the beach would bore me to tears anyway.

The Spring Break that’s been on my mind took place last week, when both Jake and Teddy were frolicking at Panama City Beach.  Now that they are back safely (well, Jake is back safely; Teddy was here briefly and is driving back to Notre Dame today) I can let out that breath I was holding and get back to thoughts of my own “vacation”–a break, at least, from getting up before dark and spending hours driving kids around.

Teddy went to Panama City last year, and seemed surprised and irritated this year when I texted the boys occasionally to make sure they were okay (I did not hear from Teddy ONE SINGLE TIME last year). “Stop texting Jake,” he said.  “You are killing his vibe.  I didn’t die last year and I won’t die this year.”  Jake, on the other hand,  called of his own accord a couple of times to tell me how much fun they were having and ask how I was doing, and to assure me that they were being safe.

Now there was never any question of my going on a trip alone with my friends sans parents while I was still in high school.  I remember begging my mother to let me and a friend drive to Coalfield to watch a basketball tournament, returning the same evening, and she wouldn’t even allow that.   (My sister got to go on Spring Break with friends HER Senior year.  Go figure.)

My first year of college, I came home for break, bringing my roommate, who was from Seattle, eager to share Tennessee with her.  We spent one day in Gatlinburg (which back then was more or less shut down that early in the season) and one exploring the mountains.  I don’t remember what else we did.  Sophomore year we decided we wanted to go to Daytona Beach.  Even as a sophomore in college, I had to beg to be allowed to go, and promise to stop and call my mother every two hours while driving to let her know we were okay.

From what Jake told me when they got home last night, the scene at Panama City sounds something like what Daytona Beach was like back in the day.  Not that I would know firsthand or anything, because my roommate and I and our friend STAYED WITH THE FRIEND’S GRANDMOTHER.  We took a day trip to St. Augustine, and another to Disney World.  Oh, we were such good little Catholic girls (typed completely without irony).

The next year we went to Charleston, and John came along.  I was the only one who’d been there–it was the last vacation I ever took with my family, the summer before I left for college–and I was excited to go back and to show them the beautiful and historic sites.  Charleston remains a place I want to get back to.  Senior year I was busily planning an August wedding and I think I went home for Spring Break to conduct wedding-related business.  Since having kids, Spring Breaks have usually been Easter Breaks and occasionally included a few days in a hotel in Gatlinburg with an indoor pool.

Below are some pictures from a couple of those college trips.  Please excuse their condition, remembering they’ve been through fire and flood and that I have them at all is a minor miracle.

My roommate, Renee, in the Gatlinburg wedding chapel, March 1986

My roommate, Renee, in the Gatlinburg wedding chapel, March 1986

Me in the cantilever barn in Cades Cove, March 1986

Me in the cantilever barn in Cades Cove, March 1986

John in Charleston, not doing a very good job at simulated hopping, March 1988

John in Charleston, not doing a very good job at simulated hopping, March 1988

 

What about you?  Are you going somewhere special for Spring Break this year?  Do you have any memorable trips from your past you’d care to share?

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Just a little over a week ago I wrote of the fires that have been consuming East Tennessee.  One of those fires raged out of control last night and destroyed over 150 homes and businesses in Gatlinburg.  Just about all Knoxvillians have fond memories of Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains, and we are all grieving today.  Thinking about all this made me remember this post, one of the first I ever wrote, which alludes to a side of Gatlinburg most people probably never see.

My family and I spent part of our Easter Break in Gatlinburg.  Most of our vacation time and money is used for trips to Baltimore to see my husband’s family, but we try to make little trips to Gatlinburg at Christmas or Easter.  It’s close, there’s plenty to do, and we’ve found condos to stay in so that we don’t have to pay for two hotel rooms and can cook some of our own meals.

Despite living so close to the Smokies, my family rarely visited when I was a child.  Once a year at the most we picked up some fried chicken at the Kentucky Fried Chicken at the last stop light in Gatlinburg–it’s still there!–and took it to Metcalf Bottoms for a picnic.  My father hated Gatlinburg so we hardly ever stopped there, although we did stay at the Glenstone Lodge just one time.

Gatlinburg has changed a lot since those days–it’s even changed a lot since I was in college.  The family owned gift shops that used to line the streets (like Rebel Corner, which was lost to a fire), full of hokey gifts like Indian headdresses and souvenir shot glasses, are mostly gone now.  In addition to a lot of tacky t-shirt shops and martial arts stores, there are many nicer gift shops.  Ripley’s seems to have taken over the town.

I do love The Village.  Anchored by the 50-year-old Pancake Pantry, this copy of a old-time European town is attractive and peaceful, and we love the German restaurant there.  The golf course at Reagan Terrace Mall is well done too, with little plaques at each hole that detail the history of Gatlinburg.

There’s more to Gatlinburg than the main strip, though–there’s a side of it that many tourists never see.  It reminds me of those Old West Towns with their false fronts, which made the little buildings behind them seems fancier, with two stories instead of one.  That strip isn’t the real Gatlinburg.  Back behind it there are homes and neighborhoods.  And there’s history.  We discovered some of it when we were there.

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 Keep reading this blog and you will discover that there’s nothing I love quite so much as a stroll through a graveyard.  Taking a shortcut, my teenagers discovered an enormous cemetery that was established in 1830.

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 In nearly 40 years of driving through Gatlinburg, I had never seen it or known that it was back there, just one block behind all the excitement.

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My little boy kneels by the stone of an infant, which made him sad.

From the graveyard, you can see all the activity down below, all the changes that have come about since 1830–really most of them since 1930.  Yet the graveyard remains, testimony to the Gatlinburg that once was White Oak Flats, and most of all to the Ogle family, who were the first settlers.

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ogles everywhere

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My children have learned to enjoy visiting cemeteries along with me.

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Two nice surprises in the graveyard: this trillium (I think!) . . .

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and my Great-Uncle Clayton’s grave! I had no idea he was there!

The graveyard wasn’t the only surprise in store for us.  We found a shortcut back to our condo that took us right past this lovely Methodist church.

Gatlinburg Methodist Church

Look at the interesting contrast in the photo below.  I call it “Two Spires” and it’s a view of the steeple of the church above juxtaposed with the top of the Space Needle, as seen from Reagan Terrace Mall.

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Maybe there’s a message for us in the sign below:

Please consider donating to help alleviate some of the suffering of those who have been affected by this tragedy.  There’s a partial list of efforts available here.

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