Steven and Sean on the Polar Bear Cam
Steven and Sean on the Polar Bear Cam

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Thanksgiving, Southern Style

Steven at a viewpoint on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains

I promise to finish up the polar bear stories. The polar bear cam is down until next year, the ice on the Hudson Bay froze, and the bears headed out on the ice for another season of gorging themselves on seals.

But first, we'll tell about the remainder of our trip that started with our St. Jude visit. We left St. Jude on November 18 in our rental car and headed east on I-40 for an 800-mile drive, our destination Morrisville, North Carolina, where our close friends from San Diego moved a year and a half ago.

They are Polish. We've known this family since Steven was an infant, and we share a number of odd similarities with them. We were married on August 13, they were married on August 10. My friend Ewa's birthday is 3 weeks to the day before mine, and her husband Michal's birthday is 3 weeks to the day before Doug's.

Steven and Marek

Her oldest son, Marek and Steven had the exact same expected due date, both were premature, and Steven's birthday is 2 weeks to the day before Marek's. When I became pregnant with Sean, I found out that she was also pregnant with her second son, Tomek. Sean's and Tomek's birthdays are 3 weeks apart.

We decided to use this opportunity to visit them, since Steven had the week of Thanksgiving off from school and traveling from Memphis is cheaper than traveling from San Diego. We looked into flying, but the cost was prohibitive due to it being the Thanksgiving weekend, the normal fares had more than doubled.

Our drive was pleasant, with the exception of our overnight stop in Pigeon Forge (more on that later).

Thanksgiving Dinner with our friends

We had a great time, just hung out and visited. Steven said it was like a 5-day play date, the perfect thing to help us decompress after our Memphis visit.

We had our Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday, since our flight home from Memphis departed at 6:30 am on Saturday the 26th and I didn't want to attempt the entire 800-mile drive in a single day.

We left our friends in the late afternoon on Thanksgiving day to begin our drive back to Memphis. Steven and I decided we'd like to take a drive into the Great Smoky Mountains Park on Friday before we headed back to Memphis, so we looked for a location close to the park to spend the night.

The North Carolina side of the Smokies

We wanted to avoid Pigeon Forge a second time at all costs, so we decided to stay overnight in Gatlinburg. Approaching from the east, we left I-40 and drove through Pittman Center to Gatlinburg, which is at the north entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains Park.

We arrived in Gatlinburg around 8 pm on Thanksgiving and were hoping to find some dinner somewhere. We made a very costly mistake pulling into town when we drove past our hotel, because we were immediately plunged into gridlocked traffic through the center of town.

Downtown Gatlinburg is filled with restaurants and little shops, and thousands of families there for the Thanksgiving weekend were walking the streets, slowly. It took us 25 minutes to travel half a mile, then we turned around and traveled another 25 minutes in the opposite direction to get back to our hotel.

By the time we checked in and put our luggage in our room, it was 9:00 pm and we headed back out into the traffic to try and find somewhere to eat.

Since it was a holiday, it seemed that every restaurant in town closed at 9:00 pm and we were just too late. We were about to give up and go back to the hotel to make a dinner of whatever snack food we could find in the vending machines when we saw a restaurant that seemed to be open.

It was a combination brewery and restaurant, and the downtown restaurant section was closed, but they told us we could order food upstairs in the bar.

So we ate upstairs in the bar, at the very back so that we could hear ourselves above the very, very loud band that was playing. The main problem was that the place was packed, and every single person in the place was chain-smoking, with the exception of us and another out-of-place looking family with kids.

We finished our meal and when we got back to our room, our clothes reeked so strongly of smoke that we hung them on the chairs outside our room on the balcony so that our room wouldn't smell like the clothes. The number of smokers and the absence of non-smoking restaurants is probably one of the things we like least about traveling to the south.

The North Carolina side of the Smokies

The next morning we endured a 5-mile, 45-minute drive through traffic to get to the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains Park, but once we got there, we were rewarded with a beautiful drive into the mountains. There was snow on the ground (thanks to that hellish storm that made our flight to Memphis so unpleasant).

We drove over the top and down the North Carolina side for several miles, then decided to turn around and head back to I-40. I'd looked at the map and our only other option was to take a 100-mile 2-lane road back to I-40 and I worried that it would take too long.

We headed north again, back through Gatlinburg, and into Pigeon Forge. What a mistake.

The Real Reason that the Great Smoky Mountains are Smoky

Driving through Pigeon Forge is an experience that I can't adequately describe in words. Pigeon Forge basically consists of one street 2 1/2 miles long. The street is 6 lanes wide, three lanes in each direction with a wide grassy median in the center.

On either side of the streets is a maze of hotels, stores, and attractions. Along this 2 1/2 mile street are a dozen miniature golf courses, a dozen go-kart rides, half a dozen laser tag arcades, the entrance to Dollywood, such fine restaurants as The Catfish Corral, complete with a larger-than-life catfish dressed up like Santa Claus, the Alabama Steakhouse which is lit up in a style that would put Las Vegas to shame and a large flashing "Tour Buses Welcome" billboard, T-Shirt shops, the "As Seen On TV" store, Ma and Pa Kettle's gift shop (not its real name) where you can shop and PET THREE LIVE BEARS!!!, and outlet mega-malls, seven to be exact. Seven outlet malls within 2 miles.

We were surrounded on all sides by pickup trucks and minivans with license plates from Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. Some of the trucks had what appeared to be Uncle Earl's garage band playing fine country music in the back. The fumes generated by the cars in that gridlocked mess was intolerable.

A list of the fine businesses that operate in Pigeon Forge can be found here. They offer helicopter tours, and Steven and I figured out why-- it's the best (albeit expensive) way to avoid the GRIDLOCKED TRAFFIC that defies description. I spent the entire TWO HOURS and TEN MINUTES it took us to travel 2 1/2 miles through that hellhole they call Pigeon Forge trying not to use inappropriate language in front of my son. I am sorry to say that I didn't always succeed.

We stopped in Sevierville, after we'd gotten through the gridlock, for a cup of coffee at Starbucks. The young man behind the counter asked me in his southern accent if we were there to shop. I had to exercise great self-control not to let him have it, but it wasn't his fault. I asked him if he was joking, that we had another 420 miles to drive that day to Memphis, and that I'd just spent the last 2+ hours trying not to scream, and that it was a really good thing I wasn't armed that day.

He laughed and admitted that it was terrible. I asked him if there was secret route that avoided the main street, and how did the residents tolerate it. He told me that there used to be alternate routes, but the city had decided to close them all off, and that the residents had to endure the same traffic hell as the visitors, they just tried to live outside of town and to travel at times when the businesses were closed. The exhaust fumes generated by the idling cars in Pigeon Forge is degrading the air quality in the area.

If we never go back to Pigeon Forge again, it will be way too soon. When you see Dolly Parton with tears in her eyes waxing emotional and nostalgic about her hometown and how beautiful it is, don't believe it. It's a trick, Pigeon Forge is not beautiful, although if you look into the distance you can see places way off that are beautiful. If you ever have the misfortune to find yourself there, my advice is to drive another 10 miles south to Gatlinburg, which is full of tourist shops also, but on a completely different scale, no outlet mega-malls, and it truly is beautiful there, and the town is set up in such a way that you can walk to everything from your hotel.

I never thought I would be so glad to get back on the interstate, but what a blessed relief. The area around Knoxville on I-40 is beautiful also, and not filled with gridlock. We passed through Nashville and shortly after it got dark.

I was driving fast, trying to make up time after our journey through Pigeon Forge and anticipating that we would have to get up at 4:00 am to make our morning flight out of Memphis. About 40 miles outside of Memphis, I was pulled over by the Tennessee State Police.

He'd clocked me at 88 miles per hour in a 70 mph zone. Our rental car had a Great Lakes license plate, and my driver's license was California. The officer gave me the third degree.

Are you driving home? Is this your car? Where is your final destination? Why are you going to Memphis? Do you have family and friends there?

Since he had asked me so many questions, I told him our story-- that Steven was a St. Jude patient, that he had brain cancer, and that although we had many friends in Memphis, our reason for going to Memphis was St. Jude.

The officer thought about it for a moment, handed me back my license and said, "You can consider this a donation to St. Jude, slow down, first because its dangerous and second because there are lots of officers out looking for speeders this weekend".

So I did. I obeyed the speed limit all the way to our friend Mary's house, where we spent the night before rising at 4:00 am to come home.

This week it's back to school and the beginning of the holiday whirl of activity.

This Thanksgiving we are ever so glad to be home again after good MRI results and to have things like Pigeon Forge to complain about.

Happy Belated Thanksgiving to everyone.

- Kathleen


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