1. When the police officer outside London, Kentucky, pulled Erin over for going 81 in a 55, he sounded a bit disappointed to hear we were coming back from vacation in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. “Thought you’d want to go someplace warm,” he said. Apparently it was warmer in Cincinnati than it was in Tennessee. And less rainy. This is one reason why MTV will never film spring break in Pigeon Forge.
Another is that Pigeon Forge is — in the words of Mike Allen — “the longest strip mall city in America.” He might be exaggerating, but only slightly. By our unofficial count, Pigeon Forge has three laser tag joints, four miniature golf courses, six go-karts tracks and not more than two vegetarian options on any menu in a ten-mile radius. We ordered a vegetarian calzone at one dining establishment and were given meat sauce on the side. When we requested a non-meat dipping sauce, the waiter furrowed his brow and said, “Let me check on that.” He returned with a small cup of spaghetti sauce. “We’re out of the marinara,” he told us.
2. So why did we go to Pigeon Forge? For one, to get this picture:
Fact: Erin became a member of the Official Dolly Parton Fan Club at age 5. All of her elementary school drawings feature women with enormous lips and bosoms til Tuesday. This is Dollywood’s 25th anniversary. We didn’t go, but we did take the picture.
3. In addition to a paucity of vegetarian dining options, Pigeon Forge also does not stock organic milk. We visited Food City on our first night there to stock up on groceries. (The cabin we stayed in had a kitchen.)
ASIDE: Yes, go ahead and say it — we are snobs for only drinking organic milk. Fair enough. But ever since we saw a documentary called The Corporation, we could not drink a glass of regular milk without picturing a cow injected so full of a milk-producing hormone that its distended udder hung at over twice its normal size. That image still haunts us. Once we started drinking organic milk, we couldn’t go back. It’s worth it.
Back to Food City. They had exactly one brand of organic milk — a Horizon half gallon carton of skim. Erin, as is her habit, took the carton behind the one facing out. Never trust the top copy of anything.
Our first morning we prepared a delicious bowl of Basic 4 cereal with fresh cut strawberries and banana slices. Simple, elegant, beautiful in presentation. Ben took the first bite. Something was not right. But he didn’t say anything for fear of ruining this, the first morning of their vacation together. He continued eating despite his growing displeasure.
Erin took a bite and also thought something a bit off. But she hadn’t brushed her teeth yet and she’d already had a sip of coffee, so maybe her taste buds weren’t acclimated. And Ben had not said anything, so they smiled at one another and continued their breakfast until finally Erin spoke up.
“Does something taste wrong to you?” she asked.
“Yes, thank you,” Ben said. “I wasn’t going to say anything but something’s disgusting.”
“Why weren’t you going to say anything? Something is disgusting.”
What was disgusting was the milk. It tasted like — and we have discussed this at length in our attempt to specify exactly what kind of disgusting it did indeed taste like — cow dung. Liquid cow dung.
We promptly threw our bowls in the trash and had toast.
So yes, Pigeon Forge does stock organic milk. If you like your organic milk to taste like manure, that is.
Later we discovered there’s a Kroger in Pigeon Forge off the beaten bath. (We apparently missed it behind the neon lights of the Comedy Barn sign.) We’ll never get that breakfast back.
4. So wait, why did we go to Pigeon Forge?
ASIDE #2: An anonymous friend of ours once spent his vacation in Pigeon Forge but his girlfriend-now-fiance doesn’t like him telling people that. “I don’t want people knowing we spent our vacation in Pigeon Forge!” she said. They also went to Dixie Stampede while they were there.
Dixie Stampede is, according to its website, “More than a Show … It’s an Adventure!” To wit:
It’s the only place that brings together stunning performers, amazing horse feats, fantastic stunt riders, magic and audience participation with a delicious four-course dinner extravaganza for one amazing price!
That amazing price, incidentally, is $70. For that sum you get a show of “32 horses, dozens of cast members, live buffalo, amazing ostrich races, magic and seating for 1,000 around a 35,000 square-foot arena.” According to our anonymous friends, it also includes a reenactment of the Civil War — or, as it’s called around those parts, “The War of Northern Aggression.” When our friend’s fiance called to reserve seats, the customer service rep asked which side they wanted to sit on. “Which side?” she asked. “North or South,” she replied. “Oh. Which side wins?” “It’s historically accurate, m’am.”
(Hint: Our anonymous friend’s name rhymes with “Spike Talon.”)
5. You still didn’t answer the question: Of all places, why Pigeon Forge for your spring break?
Well, we got a good deal on a great cabin, where we could sleep in and lounge around and read books and, when the mood struck us, play pool on the table upstairs. (In five-plus years of marriage we had never once played a game of billiards. Erin, Ben learned, is a shark.) We also trekked into Smoky Mountain National Park and got some good hikes in, rain or shine. (Despite her pregnant state, Erin outhiked numerous overweight vacationers, the majority of whom were wearing Purdue sweatshirts.) And in what we both agreed during the “highs and lows” portion of our drive home was our favorite day of vacation, we also day-tripped to Asheville and hung out with Stephen and Sarah Edge, who took us to Malaprop’s, a fine independent bookstore, and a number of other hip local establishments.
6. Ben’s vacation reading included You Are Not A Stranger Here, a collection of short stories by Adam Haslett. It is a great collection, and terrible vacation reading. The stories all centered on sad young men crippled by mental illness and social alienation, bruised by dysfunctional relationships with their families, especially their fathers. It is a heartbreaking collection. Do not read it when you should be relaxing.
7. Erin read Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott, which was slightly more suitable vacation reading. It’s encouraging to know that a single mom just three years sober (and with a whole host of other shortcomings) can still raise a kid without killing him. We also started, but did not finish, four crosswords. This made us feel inferior.
8. We watched “Lost,” and it was a so-so episode. We knew it would be Desmond in the locked room. We already knew a war was coming. And as Dave Powell observed, Are we really supposed to believe that Sun just sort of ran into a tree? D’oh. We’ll resume our regular analysis next week (a Desmond episode!).
Speaking of MTV, we did discover “16 And Pregnant” one night flipping channels. This show may be the greatest public service MTV has ever done for teenagers.
We also saw “The Soup” for the first time. Joel McHale is a funny dude.
And we saw the Nick Swardson special “Seriously, Who Farted?” on Comedy Central.
Cable. It’s amazing.
9. This was, we realized, our last vacation without a kid. Of course, it’s not like we’ll never have time away together once we’re parents. But we also understood, as we have each week Erin’s belly gets a little bigger, that things will be changing pretty soon. “It’s crazy to think that next year there’ll be a baby sitting right there,” Erin said over dinner one night, gesturing to the empty space next to Ben. Will we one day bring the brood down to Pigeon Forge for mini-golf and family hikes? Are we going to be that kind of a family?
We’ve been having an ongoing discussion lately about what family traditions we do — or do not — want to carry on with our kids. We were raised in good families and there are many things we want to continue. But one we do not involves the “pee jar.”
Ben’s dad hated to stop for anything on long car rides. Being that he had only sons, he was able to institute the law of the pee jar. When Ben or his brother needed to pee, we were handed back an empty jar (usually a Jif Peanut Butter container). We did our business in the pee jar and then handed it back to Mom, who dutifully stowed it until the next rest stop.
This was just one of those little family oddities that Ben grew up thinking was, as far as these things go, normal. Whenever it was that Erin learned of the pee jar, she found it repulsive. Erin did not grow up with brothers. Regardless, she has firmly vetoed any pee jar traditions being carried on by future Vore males. Not that Ben was keen on continuing it.
10. Erin did not get a speeding ticket. He was the nicest officer we’ve ever met. It was a good vacation.