The Vegas post from last Friday spawned one of my favorite comments of the many thousands that have been posted here over the years:
Vegas is what people who have never seen America, or who have never seen an America that exists past the nearest Circle K, imagine when they think of "having a good time." All the things one can do in Vegas–Eat, Drink, Gamble, Watch Sump'n Purty/Dirty–these are not recreations of substance, but of quantity. They appeal to people who literally have no idea how to have a good time, because either their culture or their income doesn't allow it. Vegas offers them plenty of what they've been *told* is a good time–or a *lot* of what they've had to made do with in order to have a good time (booze and carbs and throwing a little money away at the OTB parlor.) If "Steak" is good, "All You Can Eat Steak" is better. If pissing away a few bucks on the Lotto is good, pissing away the mortgage at the slots is better.
But what I'm aware of in Vegas is how *forced* it all seems–how the people there are actively *trying* to have a good time. Because they came all this way, and spent all this money, and yet somehow, *somehow*, it's not quite filling the emptiness inside. So they overcompensate, with "Wooo"s, and drinking-dares, and forming into roving gaggles. But you can see it in their eyes, especially when they're briefly stuck–waiting for the elevator–in line at the buffet–at one of the endless lights on the Strip's crosswalks. They're worried that everyone else seems to be having such a good time, and what's *wrong* with them?
This struck me as an excellent description of Vegas and why I find it more sad than fun. Then on Monday of this week I had the – misfortune? luck? blessing of divine providence? – to visit Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Briefly. But for far too long. And I staggered away from that experience feeling certain that the core of this comment is absolutely correct; Americans are so psychologically off kilter that many of us do not appear to know how to have fun. We follow the rest of the herd and do what Everyone describes as fun. I am unsure what conclusion is reached at this point – Do we convince ourselves that we had Fun even though we didn't, or do we conclude that Fun isn't actually fun and resolve that it's not worth the effort? – but I do know that you'll never see a more confused, disappointed, and defeated mass of humanity than you'll find wandering the streets of American tourist traps. At least Vegas has liquor everywhere.
If you've never been to Gatlinburg, you probably have. It goes by lots of different names in this country. Myrtle Beach. Wisconsin Dells. Panama City. Niagara Falls. Williamsburg, VA. Ocean City, MD. The Bourbon Street part of New Orleans or the Wharf in San Francisco. Any place that looks like a state fair (where anything can and will be deep fried or airbrushed), smells like an outdoor toilet, boasts establishments that feature the terms "Ripley's" or "Guinness Book of", promises "handcrafted" things from "natives", and where the local economy appears to be based entirely on t-shirts bearing the name of the town, the Confederate flag, Jesus, or all three. If you like watching middle aged people who have trouble walking roam aimlessly (with their sullen, miserable children) while gorging themselves on fudge, funnel cakes, cotton candy, and corn dogs, book your visit today. Otherwise, pass.
As a former Midwesterner I have taken many trips through Wisconsin Dells, to which Gatlinburg is strikingly similar (albeit without the Jesusy overtones, which the Dells replace with "Indian" kitsch). Other than Noah's Ark, which I suspect would be fun even as an adult, I was always struck by how not-fun it was. And I was not alone in that regard. My parents looked miserable. Everyone looked miserable. Everyone looked like they were about to start screaming, pointing fingers, and accusing each other of dozens of personal failings at any moment. It looked like the kind of place that pushed bad marriages into divorce and made kids realize that if this is Good Clean Fun then maybe drugs aren't so bad after all. Everybody simply went because everyone else went, and then presumably returned and told everyone at the office that it was great – the cheap buffets, the dingy motels, the tsunami of Chinese souvenirs – for fear of going against the prevailing wisdom. It's a great place to take The Kids!, thus ensuring that another generation will grow into adulthood with a warped, pull-lever-to-receive-pellet understanding of how to have fun and that another generation of Eastern European summer workers will experience America at its sweatiest and most miserable.
In closing, 45 minutes in Pigeon Forge made me want to join al Qaeda. If people honestly enjoy that place, we are beyond saving. Bring on the flood.