Friday, August 19, 2011

Tourist Traps

Knoxville, TN

Yesterday I had a long day on the bike - started riding at 8:30am, got into Knoxville around 7pm. There were a couple reasons for the long ride, but the primary reason was that I was riding through the mountains, and it's slow going (though extremely fun). Add in some bad rain that I had to stop for, a lack of gas stations that mandated a detour to get to one, and some really slow, annoying cars in front of me, and the day turned pretty long.

In fact, the last few days have been pretty taxing as far as riding goes. Since leaving Tallahassee, I've had three days of at least six hours on the bike. Each one has been almost exclusively on back-roads, which means lots of little towns, lowered speed limits, stoplights, and curvy roads. It's definitely more fun on the back-roads, but it takes a toll, especially so many days in a row. And it doesn't help that the people I stayed with each night had to be out of the house early, so I woke up at 5:30 two of them, and 8 the other one.

Yesterday, after coming out of the Smoky Mountains, I went through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Gatlinburg is right on the edge of the Smoky Mountain National Park, and Pigeon Forge is a little ways away, but they have one thing in common: they're both seemed to be giant tourist traps. And they were my least favorite parts of the entire ride yesterday.

Since I was on the motorcycle, the primary thing that bugged me is the traffic. Going through a small town you'll hit some traffic, but it's usually not bad. Going through a small town like these, which are packed with way more people than most small towns, is miserable. Long stop lights, lots of crosswalks, and a lot of really bad drivers. The number of hotels means that the population density is way higher than for a normal town of that size, which makes it way more crowded than it should be for its size.

Pigeon Forge is a suburban sprawl version of a tourist trap. Hotel next to a go-kart place next to another hotel next to Ripley's Believe it Or Not museum next to a pancake house next to another hotel next to a scooter rental place. And it was like that for miles, one after another, without much variety. I think I saw 15 different go-kart places. The hotels are all trying to look like something - a castle, a log cabin, a 17th century mill. Flashy signs everywhere, 3 lanes of bad traffic and people rushing to whatever cheesy dinner show they have tickets for that night.

Gatlinburg was still a tourist trap, but it was a different breed - it struck me as a tourist trap trying to model itself after a small town. Two-lane roads through town, crosswalks everywhere, lots of pedestrian traffic (and either entitled or oblivious ones too - people sometimes didn't even look before wandering into the street). Not many big buildings, not many flashy signs, most likely becuase businesses are highly regulated on what they can do. It reminded me a lot of going through Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but with very little attempt to look authentic. But it still seemed pretty obvious that it was populated mostly by tourists, who were mostly visiting tourist traps.

As I was driving through both of these, I just kept thinking that I had no desire to go to a place like this at all. I've got the travel bug, and I love traveling to new places - but I didn't find myself wanting to stop at anything in either of these towns, or wanting to ever come back.

I'm sure if I traveled with friends there, I'd probably have a blast. We'd get a room at some cheesy, themed hotel, do the go-karting and zip-lines, and have dinner at cheesy themed restaurants. And maybe when I have a family, I might take them to places like that. Families seemed to be the main demographic, at least in Gatlinburg where there were lots of pedestrians: the average group I saw was a well-dressed family with 2-4 kids who all looked between the ages of 6 and 16.

So I would go if someone else recommended it... but I would never be the one to propose it. Part of it is probably just how I normally travel - I've done a lot of traveling on my own, and those types of things aren't very fun on your own. You might tell a story about the time you went go-karting with your friends, but you usually don't do it on your own. I much prefer hiking, or finding a place to rent a mountain bike or kayak and exploring.

And the thing about doing it with friends is that it still pretty much doesn't matter where you go. You could go to Pigeon Forge or the Wisconsin Dells or Panama City Beach or any other tourist trap, and have basically the same experience, with a few variations. The thing that makes it fun is that you're doing it with friends, not what you're doing.

I can remember as a kid going to the Wisconsin Dells and wanting to do everything I saw. And I still enjoy going up there, though it's mostly for nostalgia - and the only place I've gone in the past few years is Noah's Ark to spend a day going down waterslides.

But now that I'm older, I just can't seem to get excited about a NASCAR-themed go-kart track, or a museum that looks like an upside-down building from the outside. I'd much rather make my own adventure than follow directions on how to have the adventure that someone else thinks I should have.

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