Up until Nashville, we have had a rough idea of the route we were going to take and the places we were going to visit, albeit with some to be determined stopovers along the way. After Nashville, knew we were wanting to head to Washington DC, but between the country music capital and the US capital, it was more of a blank sheet of paper.
Along the way, a number of people had been recommending the Smoky Mountains, and websites told us that Gatlinburg was the gateway to the Smoky Mountains National Park. That sounded as good a recommendation as any, so that became our destination for tonight.
There was one pitstop to make on the way, and that was to drive south of Nashville (Gatlinburg is northeast) to visit the Jack Daniels distillery. Although I’m not a fan of bourbon, I had read that the distillery was in a particularly picturesque area of Tennessee which was well worth the visit.
The Jack Daniels distillery is on the outskirts of the small town of Lynchburg, which ironically is in the dry Moore County. After prohibition, the county chose to remain alcohol free. So it is only by special decree that they are able to make bourbon (they call it Tennessee Whiskey), even though they are not able to sell it in the county.
The distillery has retained the original distilling process first used by the Jack Daniels in the late 1800’s, and to the casual observer, the distillery still seems like a throwback to another era (peer around some corners and it is a highly sophisticated plant). Amazingly, every single drop of Jack Daniels sold worldwide is produced by this small distillery, and there is a single source of spring water that is used to produce every bottle. The outlet of the spring features in a number of Jack Daniels advertisements, if you recall.
Just beside the spring water, they have placed a statue of Jack Daniels, standing on an outcrop of rocks. I’m sure the tour guide uses this line every day, but he encouraged us to take a photo of the statue, saying that as Lynchburg is in a dry county, this was the only place you could get “a shot of Jack Daniels on the rocks”.
Our 45 minute tour took us through each step of the process, but again due to the “dry” regulations of the county, visitors are not able to drink a sample of Jack. The only way we got a “taste” of the whiskey was when the tour guide lifted the lid off one of the charcoal filtration vats, and we were able to breath in the fumes of the whiskey. Surprisingly, even though that gave us a good “taste” of Jack, I didn’t feel any inclination to break into a verse of Khe Sahn or to grow a mullet.
From Lynchburg we had a five hour drive to Gatlinburg, mainly on B-roads. Unfortunately, the day turned out to be our first real day of wet weather. So although we drove through some pretty countryside, most of it was through rain and mist.
As we came over one mountain range, a billboard advertised that we were about to see “A view that will stay with you a lifetime”. In better weather, it may well have been, but all we got to see was a valley shrouded in low lying cloud.
Towards the end of the drive, it was becoming a bit tedious. Travelling on the B-roads is fine if you can take in the view, but on a day like today, we were praying for an Interstate. I could tell Jane was feeling a bit car-bound towards the end of the trip, as many times as we passed a hotel or a lodge, she would look back wistfully and suggest “that looks like a nice place to stay …”
Just before we arrived in Gatlinburg, we drove into Pigeon Forge. As our guidebook we are travelling with suggests, the only reason Pigeon Forge exists is as a homage to Dolly Parton, as it is in the area where she grow up. It is also home to her Dollywood theme park, which unfortunately is closed for the winter. That was a shame, as I’m sure it would have been mountains of fun.
We had been expecting quite a quaint little mountain town with log cabins and eco-friendly type tourism. What greeted us in Pigeon Forge was a neon-light fueled winter wonderland. The main strip was hotel after hotel, restaurant after restaurant and strip mall after strip mall, many draped in so many decorative neon lights that they would have made the best Australian Christmas lights display feel like a poor cousin by comparison.
We thought this must have been the tacky end of the area, and that by the time we got to Gatlinburg, we’d find the mountain resort, log cabin experience. WRONG !!! Pigeon Forge turned out to be just the training ground for Gatlinburg, where garish decorative lights went into overdrive.
Every tourist trap you could think of had found a home along the main strip of Gatlinburg – Ripleys Believe It or Not, Mirror Mazes, Miniature Golf and Guiness Word of Records were just the beginning. We felt like we had driven into Surfers Paradise on steroids rather than a gateway to a National Park.
After a long day of driving and having crossed into the East Coast timezone, we found a hotel and fell into bed, intrigued by what Gatlinburg would look like in the morning.