I Beg Your Parton?
Pigeon Forge, Tenn. -- Dolly's little piece of heaven -- is everything we hate in a vacation spot. We can't wait to go back.

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 28, 2002

PIGEON FORGE, TENN., would make a perfect field trip so urban planning students could see what happens when development runs amok. Billboards and neon signs along the main drag advertise the town's outlet malls, miniature golf courses, racetracks, Laser Tag parlors and country music theaters. There's even a billboard signed by God that asks if you know where you're going.

The town is one big, tacky, Ocean City boardwalk, with a little touch of Vegas, which is probably why we had so much fun there.

Besides, if America at its base middle begins to wear the senses, it's a short drive from Pigeon Forge to the area's more majestic, tranquil side, in the unspoiled Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

For our part, my family and I were drawn to the area by the season's grand opening of Dollywood, the amusement park/country jamboree owned by Grammy-winning, movie-starring Dolly Parton. Dolly (as everyone calls her) was scheduled to give a free concert on opening day.

Dolly's stage presence, like some of her body parts, is bigger than life. Yet in stature she's tiny. It's a heady combination. Seen up close and personal, the 56-year-old makes Barbie look potbellied and flat-chested.

Dolly changes outfits each time she appears at different areas of the park, and we catch her in a tight, sparkly yellow dress at lunchtime for a promised short interview about the region. To her credit, she plugs the surrounding mountains more than the park.

"This area is the best place to visit," she says. "It's the most-visited national park in the country and has got to be one of the most beautiful places in the whole world."

Dolly was raised in these mountains in a little house wallpapered with newspapers, along with five sisters and six brothers. She has homes in Nashville, Los Angeles and New York, but says she comes here often. "All my family's here," she says. "I bought the old home place and fixed it up. This is my Smoky Mountain DNA. I anchor myself here."

The mountains, she says, have the power to restore. She does most of her songwriting here and immerses herself in her spiritual side during visits, she says.

I pump country music's reigning bombshell for travel tips. She recommends going fly-fishing with a guide on rivers and streams that crisscross the town and the national park. She suggests hiking in Clingmans Dome in the national park. Don't skip the park's Cades Cove, she adds. "I tell everyone not to miss Cades Cove. It has a beautiful river, and wildlife, and old houses and churches that show how people used to live. It's like a sanctuary of beauty."

She cooks for herself when she's home, she says, and can't really recommend restaurants in town, except to say we should look for catfish. And Dollywood, she adds, has good country food, like ham and beans, fried green tomatoes, biscuits with gravy, and barbecue. We'll take her advice on trying the barbecue and Cades Cove, but later. For now, Dolly has a show to give.

She hits the stage, offering an old favorite of her fans, "Coat of Many Colors," about a coat her mother made from rags. The coat itself is one of the items exhibited in a Dolly museum next to the theater.

She notes that when she received her first royalty check for that song, she went to her mother's house and offered to buy her a mink coat. "She said, 'Now where am I going to wear a mink coat around here? Just give me the money.' "

Onstage, Dolly is proving something she'd said earlier, in our interview: "I look like a big phony, but I'm real, or at least I hope I am." She tells the audience, when discussing royalties, that "I need the money, because it costs a lot to look this cheap."

Like its owner, Dollywood has its kitschy and its stylish sides. In fact, for an amusement park, the place is quite classy. The landscaping takes advantage of the terrain's rocky hills, and many rides are shaded by trees. A quiet garden path lined with flowers and weeping willows meanders through part of the park, and a small picnic grove sits in woods near a netted sanctuary for a dozen bald eagles that cannot be released into the wild. Local craftsmen make and sell their wares on the grounds and offer lessons. A country church that predated the park not only remains but also hosts services on Sundays.

The roller coaster isn't the biggest I've ever seen, but it twists upside down several times. A separate water park opens May 11.

Compared with, say, a Six Flags property, Dollywood has many fewer rides, but a lot more music. At various stages around the park, hundreds of country and bluegrass musicians strut their stuff, including some of Dolly's relatives. Many are top-notch performers.

Prior to my visit to Pigeon Forge, I don't think I'd seen more than two country music concerts in my life. But after Dolly's performance, I take in a bluegrass/clogging group in the park, and that night we're in the mood for another. There are 10 shows in town to choose from.

We settle on Louise Mandrell -- Barbara's sister. Fans of Louise, whom we hadn't previously known about, line up at 5 p.m. for autographs. We're content to arrive by 7:30 for the rousing musical variety show that includes numerous dancers, scenery and costumes, and a tribute to the U.S.A. Louise sings country, pop and gospel. To our untrained ears, she sounds as good as her sister.

The following day, we're scheduled to head for the Smokies, but I find I've been captivated by a whole town that feels like a boardwalk in August.

So instead, we hit the Track Family Recreation Center. We watch the thrill-seekers on the bungee-jumping crane, bypass the mini golf and head for the Go-Kart track. It's fun, but we later discover that the Nascar Speedpark, with its big track and mini racers, is even better. It's a good way to channel any frustrations that have been building toward road rage.

We catch glimpses of what appear to be superior golf courses of the real, 18-hole variety just outside of town, on our way to a petting zoo. A fellow guest at the Hampton Inn said the petting zoo is her kid's favorite activity in Pigeon Forge, so we try it. Feeding goats and sheep from your hand is rather old hat, but holding grain in your hand for the soft lips of camels is new.

The one thing I wish we had done in Pigeon Forge, in retrospect, is "indoor skydiving." At this attraction along the main drag, you dress in baggy flight suits and enter a round room with padded walls. A huge vertical wind tunnel shoots you into the air, bouncing you off the walls and ceiling as you go up and down. Put off by the $24.95-per-person charge, I just watch.

But at $19.95, kids free, how could we pass up the Comedy Barn? The big draw for us is the trained dog act, especially since all of the dogs have been rescued from the local humane society. The dogs did not disappoint the child in my family, especially since the audience could talk to the trainer and pet the dogs during intermission.

The show is part Catskills resort humor, part "Hee-Haw" and part "Saturday Night Live," all supplemented by an adept country band. The emcee, a portly man, introduces himself as a rapidly recovering anorexic. He asks all the ministers in the audience to stand, then invites all veterans to join them. At that point, most of the men in the audience are standing, being applauded, and I realize what the phrase "Outside the Beltway" really means.

The town, I decide, is a lot like Dolly Parton: deliberately and self-consciously gaudy, just for fun, but wholesome, and quintessentially American.

And we still have the Smoky Mountains to explore.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, thanks to its proximity to the heavily populated East Coast, is the most-visited national park in America. I grew up in mountains like these, part of the same range, and strongly prefer parks along the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the incredible canyons of the West. But we've come this far, so we drive 27 miles farther to Cades Cove, as Dolly suggested.

Just a few miles outside of town we hit Sugarland Visitors Center. Marked trails of varying lengths begin here, and we take a short route to a waterfall. On the walk back, three whitetail deer run across our paths, then stop to graze, paying no attention as we pass within a few yards of their lunch.

Back in the car, we take the 11-mile loop around Cades Cove, a 6,800-acre valley in the Appalachian range. This was Cherokee country before the U.S. government under President Andrew Jackson ordered the natives to move west of the Mississippi. More than 14,000 Cherokees were driven toward Oklahoma in 1838, and more than 4,000 died along the way on what is known as the Trail of Tears.

Many of the white settlers who replaced them left on their own accord over the years. Others sold their land, some under pressure, so the federal government could create the park.

The Park Service left standing houses and churches built in the 19th century. Stopping off the road to see them is a favorite pastime among those who drive the one-way loop around the valley.

At the Cades Cove Campground, bikes can be rented for just a few dollars per hour. The nearby Cades Cove Riding Stable offers hayrides, horse-drawn carriage rides and trail rides.

We hadn't bought a Tennessee or North Carolina fishing license before visiting the park, so fishing is out of the question. Swimming, or wading beneath one of the park's many waterfalls, is equally unlikely on an April afternoon. Even in summer, the water in the mountains rarely gets above 65 degrees.

But walking along quiet paths framed by ancient maples and elms, I realize that perhaps I was jaded by growing up in the isolated embrace of the Appalachian Mountains, and could learn to appreciate their full glory. Come to think of it, maybe I, like Dolly, could find an anchor here, and a place for restoration.

And I really would like to try that floppy suit, wind-tunnel thing.

Details: Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

GETTING THERE: Round-trip airfare from the Washington area to Knoxville, 35 miles from Pigeon Forge, starts at about $210, with restrictions. We snagged a bargain $140 weekend fare on US Airways, which, along with United, offers nonstop service. Pigeon Forge is about an 8 1/2-hour drive from Washington.

GETTING AROUND: Unless you've come on one of the numerous bus tours or like very long walks, a car is advised.

WHERE TO STAY: Pigeon Forge is chain-motel heaven. Rates at individual properties vary dramatically, depending not on room differences but on demand. The Hampton Inn on the River (2492 Parkway, 800-388-1727) was our pick, and we were pleased with the river view. Rates for doubles in May range from $55 to $165. The Music Road Hotel (303 Henderson Chapel Rd., 800-429-7700) is larger and features three pools, including one with a water slide. Rates range from $79 to $189.

Alternatives nearby include cabins and chalets ranging from rustic to luxurious. For a catalogue listing various real estate companies' properties with pictures, call 800-277-7800. Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (800-365-2267, www.nps.gov/grsm) is another possibility. Le Conte Lodge (865-429-5704) is the only indoor lodging within the park. You must hike in and make reservations far in advance. Doubles, $90 a night, include two meals.

WHERE TO EAT: The Alamo Steakhouse (3050 Parkway) specializes in Black Angus beef cooked over an oak fire. Entrees range from $14 to $26. For Memphis-style dry barbecue, try Corky's (3050 Parkway). Entrees from $9.99 to $17.99. While it wouldn't satisfy gourmands, Dollywood's food is better and more reasonably priced than at most amusement parks. The BackStage Restaurant, for example, has fried chicken dinners for $8.99, ribs for $12.99 and peanut butter pie for $3.49.

PARK FEES: Dollywood admission is $37.55 for adults, $27 for children over age 4. A three-day pass, including admission to the adjacent water park, Splash N Play, is $58.55 for adults, $43.10 for kids. Details: 865-428-9488, www.dollywood.com.

Unlike many other national parks, admission to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free. Details: 865-436-1200, www.nps.gov/grsm.

GOLF COURSES: Eight golf courses are in, or within a half-hour drive of, town. Call the visitors center or book tee times through a for-profit discounter, 800-209-4840, www.tenngolf.com.

INFORMATION: The town's official visitors center (800-251-9100, www.pigeonforge.org), not to be confused with "Official Welcome Centers" run by time-share companies, is at 2450 Parkway, next to the Incredible Christmas Place and Bob Evans.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company