18 May 2010

See Rock City

Have you ever seen Rock City? I've been there about four times in my life. As a child, my parents used to take me on trips to the Smoky Mountains, and we'd always stop in at this mecca of all roadside attractions. It's like the epicenter of cheesy childhood road trip Americana--not quite real, not quite totally fake, kitschy, yet not sublimely so, but simply a shamelessly tacky illusion, without pretense. It is what it is, and when you enter the magic fairyland cavern, you can see the chicken-wire holding it all in place.

When we made a trip up to Knoxville, TN last month we drove through Chattanooga, so we stopped in. I'm often reluctant about revisiting touristic places that captured my imagination as a child--because, typically, revisiting them subtracts from their grandeur in my memories. Returning to Rock City, paying the $19 entrance fee, I couldn't help but see cultural consumer negativity at work. I didn't even bother taking any photos of the winding path you follow through Mrs. Frieda Carter's bourgeois rock garden. An adventure through stone alleys and over wobbly bridges, to the dreadful Lover's Leap overlooking a fake waterfall, through sites like Goblin's Cave and Fat Man's Squeeze, was always thrilling to me as a kid. But, now, it wasn't even vaguely inspiring.

However, upon entering Fairyland Cavern, the inevitable denouement of a Rock City adventure, my child spirit was resuscitated. As packs of screaming, laughing, jesting elementary school children on a field trip ran passed us, totally uninterested in the florescent lighted, life size dioramas of fairy tales, we leisurely ambled through the hallucinatory vision of Mrs. Frieda--a lover of german folklore.

Unfortunately, these pictures don't quite capture the experience. They look more like paintings than huge dioramas. Every turn of the cavern presents new vistas to peer into, framed fantastic worlds that beckon with a sinister dimensionality. You could just climb in, if you really wanted to. You may just find them as the commonplace props they are, or another world full of young blushing girls, savage sexy wolves and lumber men, gnomes at the whiskey kiln, belching moonshine, warty witches, pumpkin carriages, underground coral lakes, coral and crystal ceilings in endless, chimerical corridors.

I thought of psychoanalysis and alchemy, the caverns of the subconscious mind, where folk stories are deposited like jewels--terror, lust, bliss, magic, silence, annoyance, hate, war, and death. And the recent oil spill spewing black poison into the gulf. I remembered the smell of burning on the air when I left New Orleans the day before.

And there was this Ferris wheel, on a gnome midway, turning and grinding itself into existence for half a century under the mountain.

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