Outdoor Gravity’s got the balls to throw my kid down a mountain

PIGEON FORGE, Tn. — You know what you shouldn’t mess with? Gravity, friends.

Well, also Texas. But especially gravity.

This rule should only be broken if you’re in a controlled environment, like, say, an 11-foot plastic gerbil ball filled with water hurtling down a mountain.

We brought Trevor to Outdoor Gravity Park for some gerbil-ball action. The giant OGO orbs, billed as good clean fun, are “constructed from over 300 square feet of plastic, more than 1,000 little plastic anchors, about 600 multicoloured strings and endless hours of welding, gluing and tying combined with sweat, tears and billions of teensy little kisses.”

So that seems safe enough, considering all those kisses. It took Trev about half an hour to stop shaking after his minute-long ride, but he said he enjoyed it. Or he said he’d never forget it. One of those.

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Pigeon Forge: The brighter the lights, the closer to God?

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pigeon forge tennessee (6)PIGEON FORGE, Tn. — Turns out I’ve become far less tolerant in the past five years.

The first time we drove into Pigeon Forge, I was awed by the glitter and lights, delighted by the themed museums and curiously charmed by the emphasis on Scripture.

I still love the glitter and kitsch, and the architecture of the town’s many museums is fabulous. Yet this time the bold public exhortations to love God, trust Jesus and be saved felt hypocritical and vaguely threatening.

Each property along the main strip proclaims its faith more loudly than the last. While I admire the depth of their belief, to an outsider it seems like they’re trying to score points with God.

I seriously doubt some sinner will, one dark stormy night, crash his Trans Am into a lightpost outside yet another tacky tourist trap and have an honest-to-god come-to-Jesus moment because he regains consciousness under a storefront with two taxidermied bears and a giant JESUS SAVES sign.

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Added to that is that most stores display or sell Confederate flags with the brazen sort of idolatry one can only wonder about.

What would Jesus do? Probably overturn some tables and call it a day.

The Christians I know are sincere and welcoming in their faith. Prayers and Scripture are offered unconditionally and without judgment. Godliness is not a competition.

Pigeon Forge hasn’t changed in the past five years, but I—an unbeliever still—have been changed by the gentle evangelizing of kind people who do not wag fingers or post road signs condemning my family and I to damnation.

Melani used Neil Gaiman’s American Gods to explain the death of this roadside attraction: “I mean when a place is less sacred than any other place. Of negative sacredness. Places where they can build no temples. Places where people will not come, and will leave as soon as they can. Places where gods only walk if they are forced to.”

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Tennessee: Mist in the mountains, music on the streets

GATLINBURG, Tn. — The towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are joined at the hip. The hip is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We spent the better part of a day driving through the park, which stretches south and into the sky. We hiked up to Clingman’s Dome—at 6,643, it’s the very top of Tennessee. There, Jilly filled the mist with bubbles and danced on the observatory, waiting till the sky cleared enough to be able to see half of the state laid out before us. At dusk, we approached the edge of the park and discovered a field of grazing elk.

Drivers were extremely courteous and careful. In our entire day drive, we only encountered one ass. He was from New York.

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Though it was full dark, we made the last-minute decision to turn away from our cabin and hit Gatlinburg for some live music. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re in Tennessee.

Gatlinburg is a little more sedate than Pigeon Forge, but there was still plenty to see at nearly 10 p.m. There was a fat lady singing outside the circus museum, and greater-than-life-size superheroes across the street at the superstar car museum.

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I was headed to the superheroes when I heard banjo music and Melani called me back—there was the live music I was looking for, just hanging out ripping tunes on the wide sidewalk.

I sent Jilly over with a dollar bill for the upturned hat and a lady in pioneer costume grabbed her little hands and did the polka while her companions strummed away. Within moments other children had joined till there was a dance party going on outside a discount jewelry store.

We had crossed the street but hadn’t stopped giggling when we encountered a second group of performers and Jilly was caught up again with even more children—where were all these kids coming from?—in a joyful square dance and a semi-successful chicken dance.

We had stumbled upon Smoky Mountain Tunes & Tales, a troupe of singers, dancers and other artists who take to Gatlinburg’s streets to surprise and delight tourists.

We capped off the night with live music, margaritas (virgin for our preschooler, natch) and key lime pie at the brewery.

Gatlinburg doesn’t sparkle and holler the way Pigeon Forge does. But it puts on a good show and makes outsiders—even Northerners—feel welcome for a spell.

My GPS is trying to kill me

SEVIERVILLE, Tn. — We name our things. It’s just something we do.

The old car was Joe the Truck, and he was a relaxed good ole boy who was always up for an adventure. The new one is Josephine, and she’s a bit haughty, a little hipster, but we’re learning to love each other. Sometimes I call her “Whoa, Nelly,” like when she’s speeding on narrow country roads.

The old GPS was Hester, named harshly because of her finger-wagging and guilt-tripping. When Hester added “out of date” to “cranky,” we upgraded her. The Tom-Tom has more bells and whistles (really), plus we can download celebrity voices, so we take John Cleese on every road trip with us. Although the new GPS knows more and does more than Hester did, we quickly learned he can be a little persnickety, too, with a tendency to stroke out every few thousand miles and give us several directions in one pukey mouthful.

Because of that, we named him Alpha, after a Joss Whedon character with multiple personalities. Alpha was also a sociopath and serial killer, but we weren’t really thinking that far ahead.

Lately he’s been losing the mental battle. His confidence is failing, so sometimes he replans our route midway through even though I’ve been loyally following every step. And there’s been a lag in his instruction-giving, so he tells me to make a turn only when we’re right on top of it going 120 km/h. On the parkway to Gatlinburg, he suddenly and insistently told me to “Turn left. Then, turn left. … Turn left.” There was a fast-running river to my left.

I could live with all that. We all have our quirks, right? That river thing was probably just an honest mistake.

The evening we arrived in Sevierville, all we needed him to do was get us quickly to our cabin. Melani double-checked our route with her phone, because she isn’t as trusting as I, and she said conversationally, “It’s interesting that there’s a 10-minute difference between what Alpha says and what Google says.”

I ignored her and listened to Alpha when he told me to turn left onto Dollywood Lane. I mean, come on, guys! We were in Dolly Parton’s hometown and we were going to drive on Dollywood Lane! Then, treat of treats, he told me to turn right again: Onto Boogertown Rd.

Boogertown Rd.? It was too good to be true.

It was, in fact, too good to be true. Alpha was screwing with us.

Our driveway is wider than this section of road. Just sayin'.
Our driveway is wider than this section of road. Just sayin’.

We took Boogertown to King’s Branch, through Boogertown Gap and on past Ski View Lane and nearly as far as Treebeard Way. Doesn’t sound so bad, except we were deep in the Smokey Mountains, creeping along one-and-a-half-lane trails without the two things I like best about roads. (Remember what those two things are? Shoulders and guardrails.)

It was dusk when we turned onto Boogertown and the sun dropped quickly with such a high, stoney horizon. If I have to drive hellishly twisted roads, I at least like to do it at dusk, when I can see headlights coming over a blind rise. My shoulders were aching, like they did that time I took a left at Leggett and had to force the truck through hairpin turns and S-curves that pointed nearly straight down.

We had rented a cabin in this mountain range before, though, so I was mentally prepared for these roads, guardrails or no. That time, I wasn’t as confident a driver and it nearly killed me. Alpha wasn’t with us that time, but he’s heard me talk about it. He knows how I feel about these roads. He knows how tired I am by the end of a hard driving day and that this weighty giant of a truck could tip right over if I miscalculated. He knows all that. I know he does.

So when we finally arrived at our mountain retreat, Melani looked up our location on Google Maps and discovered … Alpha had taken us several dangerous miles out of our way.

He tried to kill us. He tried to kill us on Boogertown Rd. He failed this time, but the good lord only knows what he’ll try next.

Ghost town: Return to Centralia

CENTRALIA, Pa. — On a tour at Pioneer Tunnel in Ashland, our guide retold the story of Centralia, a ghost town done in by a mine fire that started in the 1960s.

After our tour, we took another shot at finding the town itself (we had tried in March, and found the Grafitti Highway). For an hour or so, we walked its abandoned streets, overgrown lots and broken sidewalks.

That time we took a wrong turn into NASA

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GREENBELT, Md. — We knew we’d made a mistake as soon as we turned in. This was not the NASA we were looking for.

There were two layers of barbed-wired-topped fence and uniformed men carefully scanning badges at a checkpoint that might have been borrowed from a Hollywood set. Beyond that, where the Goddard Space Flight Center’s manicured lawns and giant Hubble banner could be seen, were a dozen NASA-branded security cars.

I swung the car into the visitor’s lot and left it running while I bolted through the dense Maryland heat into the glassed-in office to the side of the checkpoint.

According to the space agency, “Goddard scientists stare into the sun, grind up meteorites for signs of life’s building blocks, look into the farthest reaches of space, and untangle the mysteries of our own changing world.”

The folks at Goddard are so enthusiastic about their work, it’s hard not to get excited with them.

But standing in line in the glass box, waiting to ask how that checkpoint was going to affect our touristing, there were big-screen reminders that the fun they were having on the other side of the fence could have unintentional repercussions.

It wasn’t a big room, but there were two big TVs advising guests of emergency and evacuation procedures. The lists detailed which sirens would sound and how to proceed safely, cautioned 911 callers to not hang up until the dispatcher did, promised that directions would be given over loudspeakers—that one comforted me, because the damn heat was making me forget things as soon as I read them, but I was still pretty good at just doing what I was told.

I was asked to step forward into a little kiosk. I tried my damndest to not look like a tourist, even though I was saying, “I was looking for the visitor centre, and I don’t think this is it.”

She didn’t roll her eyes; she was kind when she told me to keep driving. I don’t think she was annoyed with me, she probably just thought a bunch of rocket scientists should have better road signs.

Me? I was just happy to get a little farther away from a potential Ground Zero.

Here is the sun.

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