The road to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, takes us through the Smoky Mountains, slow rising and sinuous like cats moving under a blanket. It’s late April 2018, and blooming, budding trees stipple the stony hillsides with neon green and purple.
Descending into the foothills, we begin to see small towns. Old barns and mills collapse under vines, while neat blue trailers and tan prefab homes collect around intersections. Given the giant Confederate flag billowing over the interstate, I am surprised to find fewer such flags on these back roads, and only the same amount of anti-abortion billboards you might see in the rural, northernmost counties of California where I grew up.
We round a bend, make a right, and find ourselves driving down Pigeon Forge’s main tourist strip. Here, go-kart tracks spiral upward into coliseum-like plywood structures. Billboards flash steak platters and open-mouthed performers, advertising Motown, Dolly Parton, Bible- and barn animal–themed dinner theaters. Scrolling LED signs over souvenir shop entrances promise live sharks and baby goats inside. Mini-golf courses roil with enraged, fang-baring fiberglass animals, concrete replicas of world monuments, arthritic dragons, and several wrecked ships.
The so-muchness of it all transforms the town’s theming into a kind of anti-theming, a black hole that spaghettifies cultural signs into a symbolic goop. But then, who am I to judge? The three of us — my partner, Luke, my 24 year-old brother, and me — fit quite well in this mismatched storm of visual information. My brother and I both look ethnically ambiguous anywhere Mexicans are not commonplace. My brother — pale, tall, and dressed in baggy jeans and T-shirt — wouldn’t seem out of place in the South if the rest of him did not look so feral, his dark, long hair and matching untrimmed beard fraying in the humidity. My hair and beard are neater, but I’m wearing a woman’s bright-blue denim jacket with a tropical print and blousy hot-pink shirt, tight jeans, and acid-washed denim high-tops. Then there’s Luke, my partner of seven years, who looks both very Jewish and very genderqueer, an appearance that causes people to project whatever gender they please.
Here in Pigeon Forge, the three of us blend oddly well with our circus-like surroundings. A joke, if you will: Two Mexicans and a Jew walk into a hotel, a sushi place, a mini-golf course, and a theme park in the South. Two of them are transsexuals, one is genderqueer. All of them are gay. The punchline? Nothing happens. We are accepted by fellow tourists as something else to stare at and then forget, while the Southerners treat us with the courtesy, if not warmth, afforded to other tourists.
We are here for different reasons. My brother is a roller-coaster enthusiast. Luke, a writer like me, is fascinated by tourists and tourist traps. I too enjoy roller coasters, but I am particularly obsessed — if you haven’t already noticed — with theming and immersive environments, with their particular combination of trompe l’oeil, forced perspective, plastic likenesses, distressing, and special effects that transport me (or fail to transport me) into a different reality.