I’m writing this from my room in the Le Conte View Motor Lodge, right across the street from the Gatlinburg Convention Center, site of the 2015 Gatlilnburg NABC Regional Tournament. I’m down here with Hugh, Trish, Judy and Dee from the Columbus Bridge Center, hunting for gold “in them there hills” ;-).
I didn’t really know what to expect when I started this adventure – I just wanted to come down here and play some bridge, maybe earn a few points and experience a regional tournament. I drove myself in my trusty Ford F-150 pickup (not your normal bridge vehicle, that’s for sure!). I put the hotel address into my Tom Tom GPS, and ‘Lucifer’s Hammer’ by David NIven into my CD player, and hit the road, expecting to arrive in some sleepy town in southeastern Tennessee. What I did not expect was the abrupt transition from suburban Knoxville to some sort of combination of alternate-reality, fun-house carnival, beach resort, and mountain hideaway! I first realized something strange was going on when I started passing Hollywood-themed establishments packed side-by-side with each other; King Kong clinging to a skyscraper on this side, the Titanic complete with water rushing by its bow on the other, and a 3-story upside-down courthouse, complete with upside-down lawn and trees! Then there was another abrupt transition from all the fun-house madness to an idyllic mountain road (albeit a modern 4-lane one) by an idyllic mountain stream, with no human habitations in sight. This continued up into the Smoky Mountains right into the city limits of Gatlinburg. In fact, I had begun to wonder whether I had missed a turn or something, when, with no warning at all, I was deposited back into the fun-house/beach resort alternate reality. Ripley’s Museum, a quickie marriage chapel, a ‘Space Needle’ (how did I get from Tennessee to Washington state?), and everything else a person might dream of (in a nightmare about being lost on the boardwalk of a beach resort). People everywhere, walking along the one main street. Cars everywhere, driving at 5mph. Long lines of motorcycles, also driving 5 mph, most with two riders. Pickup trucks filled with hillbillies with the confederate flag prominently displayed. Buildings crammed together check-by-jowl as if every square inch of real estate was more precious than gold (and I suspect it is!). I found my hotel without any problem, because it, like every other hotel/motel in Gatlinburg, fronts on the one main street. As I pulled into the hotel parking lot, I noticed that the hotel buildings (there are three, I think) are all oriented perpendicular to the street, reinforcing the impression that street frontage is hugely expensive.
I got checked into my room and decided to walk around a bit and get myself oriented for tomorrows tournament start. I found the convention center OK (right across the street, hard to miss), and wandered around inside a bit. I peeked into the main playing area on the first floor, and was in for another shock. The main room is at least 100 yards long and at lest 50 yards wide, completely full from edge to edge with bridge tables. Down the middle of this huge room was a line of bridge tables with a single chair sitting on top of the table; For a while I thought this was maybe a setup mistake, but there were too many of them for that. Then I realized there was one such table for every column of tables – they must be game section boundaries of some sort. Later, after taking the phtograph below, I realized that it showed only one half of the main playing area – there’s another entire section beyond the far wall!
After this I walked from the convention center to what I think was the southern edge of town – maybe 1/2 mile – no more. And each foot of the way was crowded hotels, restaurants, the fore-mentioned quickie marriage chapel, a real church right next to it, tatoo parlors, tee-shirt/gift shops, and everything else imaginable. The other way from the hotel was the same – every imaginable themed entertainment/fun ride establishment, plus lots of themed restaurants (Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, for one), plus a few ‘normal’ franchises like Dunkin Donuts, Five Guys Hamburgers, and TGI Friday thrown in for good measure.
All this incredible variety of tourist-oriented businesses crammed into such a tight area stoked my curiosity, so I spent some time reviewing the town’s history on Wikipedia. Turns out it’s location at the entrance to the Smokey Mountain National Park made it a natural tourist stop. From Wikipedia: in 1912, the town consisted of about 6 houses, a Baptist church, and a blacksmith’s shop. In 1934 (the first year the park was opened), 40,000 tourists visited the town, with that number swelling exponentially to 500,000 within a year! In 1992 an entire city block burned to the ground and was subsequently rebuilt (that explains the strange new/old character of the place, I guess). Now the place is all hotels, motels, restaurants, and arcade-style game places of all descriptions, but no houses at all (or at least I never found any).
All for now – its late and I want to get some sleep before the opening day tomorrow.