فصل 08

کتاب: قدم زدن در جنگل / فصل 8

فصل 08

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But first we had to get there.It was eight miles from Clingmans Dome to U.S. 441, the first paved road since Fontana Dam four days before. Gatlinburg lay fifteen long, twisting, downhill miles to the north. It was too far to walk, and it didn’t seem likely that we would get a lift hitching in a national park, but in a parking area nearby I noticed three homeward-bound youths loading packs into a large, fancy car with New Hampshire license plates, and impulsively I went and introduced myself to them as a fellow citizen of the Granite State and asked them if they could find it in their hearts to take two weary old guys into Gatlinburg. Before they could demur, which was clearly their instinct, we thanked them profusely and climbed into the back seat. And thus we secured a stylish but rather sullen passage to Gatlinburg.

Gatlinburg is a shock to the system from whichever angle you survey it, but never more so than when you descend upon it from a spell of moist, grubby isolation in the woods. It sits just outside the main entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and specializes in providing all those things that the park does not– principally, slurpy food, motels, gift shops, and sidewalks on which to waddle and dawdle–nearly all of it strewn along a single, astoundingly ugly main street. For years it has prospered on the confident understanding that when Americans load up their cars and drive enormous distances to a setting of rare natural splendor what most of them want when they get there is to play a little miniature golf and eat dribbly food. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular national park in America, but Gatlinburg–this is so unbelievable–is more popular than the park.

So Gatlinburg is appalling. But that’s OK. After eight days on the trail, we were ready to be appalled, eager to be appalled. We checked into a motel, where we were received with a palpable lack of warmth, got honked at twice as we crossed Main Street (one rather loses the knack of crossing roads on the trail), and finally presented ourselves at an establishment called Jersey Joe’s Restaurant, where we ordered cheeseburgers and Cokes from a charmless, gum-popping waitress who declined to be heartened by our wholesome smiles. We were halfway through this simple, disappointing repast when the waitress dropped the bill on the table as she passed. It came to $20.74.

“You’re joking,” I spluttered.

The waitress–let’s call her Betty Slutz–stopped and looked at me, then slowly swaggered back to the table, staring at me with majestic disdain the while.

“You got a problem here?”

“Twenty dollars is a bit much for a couple of burgers, don’t you think?” I squeaked in a strange, never-before-heard Bertie Wooster voice. She held her stare for another moment, then picked up the bill and read it through aloud for our benefit, smacking each item as she read: “Two burgers. Two sodas. State sales tax. City sales tax. Beverage tax.

Nondiscretionary gratuity. Grand total: twenty dollars and seventy-four cents.” She let it fall back onto the table and graced us with a sneer. “Welcome to Gatlinburg, gentlemen.”

Welcome, indeed.

And then we went out to see the town. I was particularly eager to have a look at Gatlinburg because I had read about it in a wonderful book called The Lost Continent. In it the author describes the scene on Main Street thus: “Walking in an unhurried fashion up and down the street were more crowds of overweight tourists in boisterous clothes, with cameras bouncing on their bellies, consuming ice-creams, cotton candy, and corn dogs,sometimes simultaneously.” And so it was today. The same throngs of pear-shaped people in Reeboks wandered between food smells, clutching grotesque comestibles and bucket-sized soft drinks. It was still the same tacky, horrible place. Yet I would hardly have recognized it from just nine years before. Nearly every building I remembered had been torn down and replaced with something new–principally, mini-malls and shopping courts, which stretched back from the main street and offered a whole new galaxy of shopping and eating opportunities.

In The Lost Continent I gave a specimen list of Gatlinburg’s attractions as they were in 1987–the Elvis Presley Hall of Fame, National Bible Museum, Stars Over Gatlinburg Wax Museum, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, American Historical Wax Museum, Gatlinburg Space Needle, Bonnie Lou and Buster Country Music Show, Carbo’s Police Museum, Guinness Book of Records Exhibition Center, Irlene Mandrell Hall of Stars Museum and Shopping Mall, a pair of haunted houses, and three miscellaneous attractions, Hillbilly Village, Paradise Island, and World of Illusions. Of these fifteen diversions, just three appeared to be still in existence nine years later. They had of course been replaced by other things–a Mysterious Mansion, Hillbilly Golf, a Motion Master ride–and these in turn will no doubt be gone in another nine years, for that is the way of America.

I know the world is ever in motion, but the speed of change in the United States is simply dazzling. In 1951, the year I was born, Gatlinburg had just one retail business–a general store called Ogle’s. Then, as the postwar boom years quickened, people began coming to the Smokies by car, and motels, restaurants, gas stations, and gift shops popped up to serve them. By 1987, Gatlinburg had sixty motels and 200 gift shops. Today it has 100 motels and 400 gift shops. And the remarkable thing is that there is nothing remotely remarkable about that.

Consider this: Half of all the offices and malls standing in America today have been built since 1980. Half of them. Eighty percent of all the housing stock in the country dates from 1945. Of all the motel rooms in America, 230,000 have been built in the last fifteen years. Just up the road from Gatlinburg is the town of Pigeon Forge, which twenty years ago was a sleepy hamlet–nay, which aspired to be a sleepy hamlet–famous only as the hometown of Dolly Parton. Then the estimable Ms. Parton built an amusement park called Dollywood. Now Pigeon Forge has 200 outlet shops stretched along three miles of highway. It is bigger and uglier than Gatlinburg, and has better parking, and so of course gets more visitors.

Now compare all this with the Appalachian Trail. At the time of our hike, the Appalachian Trail was fifty-nine years old. That is, by American standards, incredibly venerable. The Oregon and Santa Fe trails didn’t last as long. Route 66 didn’t last as long.

The old coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway, a road that brought transforming wealth and life to hundreds of little towns, so important and familiar that it became known as “America’s Main Street,” didn’t last as long. Nothing in America does. If a product or enterprise doesn’t constantly reinvent itself, it is superseded, cast aside, abandoned without sentiment in favor of something bigger, newer, and, alas, nearly always uglier. And then there is the good old AT, still quietly ticking along after six decades, unassuming, splendid, faithful to its founding principles, sweetly unaware that the world has quite moved on. It’s a miracle really.Katz needed bootlaces, so we went to an outfitter’s, and while he was off in the footwear section I had an idle shuffle around. Pinned to a wall was a map showing the whole of the Appalachian Trail on its long march through fourteen states, but with the eastern seaboard rotated to give the AT the appearance of having a due north–south orientation, allowing the mapmaker to fit the trail into an orderly rectangle, about six inches wide and four feet high. I looked at it with a polite, almost proprietorial interest–it was the first time since leaving New Hampshire that I had considered the trail in its entirety–and then inclined closer, with bigger eyes and slightly parted lips. Of the four feet of trail map before me, reaching approximately from my knees to the top of my head, we had done the bottom two inches.

I went and got Katz and brought him back with me, pulling on a pinch of shirtsleeve.

“What?” he said. “What?”

I showed him the map. “Yeah, what?” Katz didn’t like mysteries.

“Look at the map, and then look at the part we’ve walked.”

He looked, then looked again. I watched closely as the expression drained from his face. “Jesus,” he breathed at last. He turned to me, full of astonishment. “We’ve done nothing.”

We went and got a cup of coffee and sat for some time in a kind of dumbfounded silence. All that we had experienced and done– all the effort and toil, the aches, the damp, the mountains, the horrible stodgy noodles, the blizzards, the dreary evenings with Mary Ellen, the endless, wearying, doggedly accumulated miles– all that came to two inches. My hair had grown more than that.

One thing was obvious. We were never going to walk to Maine.

In a way, it was liberating. If we couldn’t walk the whole trail, we also didn’t have to, which was a novel thought that grew more attractive the more we considered it. We had been released from our obligations. A whole dimension of drudgery–the tedious, mad, really quite pointless business of stepping over every inch of rocky ground between Georgia and Maine–had been removed. We could enjoy ourselves.

So the next morning, after breakfast, we spread our maps across my motel room bed and studied the possibilities that were suddenly opened to us. In the end we decided to return to the trail not at Newfound Gap, where we had left it, but a little farther on at a place called Spivey Gap, near Ernestville. This would take us beyond the Smokies–with its crowded shelters and stifling regulations–and put us back in a world where we could please ourselves. I got out the Yellow Pages and looked up cab companies. There were three in Gatlinburg. I called the first one.

“How much would it be to take two of us to Ernestville?” I inquired.

“Dunno,” came the reply.

This threw me slightly. “Well, how much do you think it would be?”


“But it’s just down the road.”

There was a considerable silence and then the voice said: “Yup.”

“Haven’t you ever taken anybody there before?”


“Well, it looks to me on my map like it’s about twenty miles. Would you say that’s about right?”Another pause. “Might be.”

“And how much would it be to take us twenty miles?”


I looked at the receiver. “Excuse me, but I just have to say this. You are more stupid than a paramecium.”

Then I hung up.

“Maybe not my place to say,” Katz offered thoughtfully, “but I’m not sure that’s the best way to ensure prompt and cheerful service.”

I called up another cab company and asked how much it would be to Ernestville.

“Dunno,” said the voice.

Oh, for Christ sake, I thought.

“What do you wanna go there for?” demanded the voice.


“What do you wanna go to Ernestville for? Tain’t nothin there.”

“Well, actually we want to go to Spivey Gap. We’re hiking the Appalachian Trail, you see.”

“Spivey Gap’s another five miles.”

“Yeah, I was just trying to get an idea. . . .”

“You shoulda said so ‘cause Spivey Gap’s another five miles.”

“Well, how much would it be to Spivey Gap then?”


“Excuse me, but is there some kind of gross stupidity requirement to be a cab driver in Gatlinburg?”


I hung up again and looked at Katz. “What is it with this town? I’ve blown more intelligent life into a handkerchief.”

I called up the third and final company and asked how much it would be to Ernestville.

“How much you got?” barked a feisty voice.

Now here was a guy I could do business with. I grinned and said, “I don’t know. A dollar fifty?”

There was a snort. “Well, it’s gonna cost you more than that.” A pause and the creak of a chair going back. “It’s gonna go on what’s on the meter, you understand, but I expect it’ll be about twenty bucks, something like that. What do you wanna go to Ernestville for anyway?”

I explained about Spivey Gap and the AT.

“Appalachian Trail? You must be a danged fool. What time you wanna go?”

“I don’t know. How about now?”

“Where y’at?”

I told him the name of the motel.

“I’ll be there in ten minutes. Fifteen minutes at the outside. If I’m not there in twenty minutes, then go on ahead without me and I’ll meet you at Ernestville.” He hung up. We had not only found a driver, we’d found a comedian.

While we waited on a bench outside the motel office, I bought a copy of the Nashville Tennessean out of a metal box, just to see what was happening in the world. The principal story indicated that the state legislature, in one of those moments ofenlightenment with which the southern states often strive to distinguish themselves, was in the process of passing a law forbidding schools from teaching evolution. Instead they were to be required to instruct that the earth was created by God, in seven days, sometime, oh, before the turn of the century. The article reminded us that this was not a new issue in Tennessee. The little town of Dayton–not far from where Katz and I now sat, as it happened–was the scene of the famous Scopes trial in 1925, when the state prosecuted a schoolteacher named John Thomas Scopes for rashly promulgating Darwinian hogwash. As nearly everyone knows, Clarence Darrow, for the defense, roundly humiliated William Jennings Bryan, for the prosecution, but what most people don’t realize is that Darrow lost the case. Scopes was convicted, and the law wasn’t overturned in Tennessee until 1967. And now the state was about to bring the law back, proving conclusively that the danger for Tennesseans isn’t so much that they may be descended from apes as overtaken by them.

Suddenly–I can’t altogether explain it, but suddenly–I had a powerful urge not to be this far south any longer. I turned to Katz.

“Why don’t we go to Virginia?”


Somebody in a shelter a couple of days before had told us how delightful–how gorgeously amenable to hiking–the mountains of the Virginia Blue Ridge were. Once you got up into them, he had assured us, it was nearly all level walking, with sumptuous views over the broad valley of the Shenandoah River. People routinely knocked off twenty-five miles a day up there. From the vantage of a dank, dripping Smokies shelter, this had sounded like Xanadu, and the idea had stuck. I explained my thinking to Katz.

He sat forward intently. “Are you saying we leave out all the trail between here and Virginia? Not walk it? Skip it?” He seemed to want to make sure he understood this exactly.

I nodded.

“Well, shit yes.”

So when the cabdriver pulled up a minute later and got out to look us over, I explained to him, hesitantly and a bit haplessly–for I had really not thought this through–that we didn’t want to go Ernestville at all now, but to Virginia.

“Virginia?” he said, as if I had asked him if there was anywhere local we could get a dose of syphilis. He was a little guy, short but built like iron, and at least seventy years old, but real bright, smarter than me and Katz put together, and he grasped the notion of the enterprise before I had halfway explained it.

“Well, then you want to go to Knoxville and rent a car and drive up to Roanoke. That’s what you want to do.”

I nodded. “How do we get to Knoxville?”

“How’s a cab sound to you?” he barked at me as if I were three-quarters stupid. I think he might have been a bit hard of hearing, or else he just liked shouting at people.

“Probably cost you about fifty bucks,” he said speculatively.

Katz and I looked at each other. “Yeah, OK,” I said, and we got in.

And so, just like that, we found ourselves heading for Roanoke and the sweet green hills of old Virginny.

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