The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tokyo to Tennessee (Dollywood, really… + The Great Smoky Mountains National Park)

“Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” ~ Dolly Parton

“Did you guys really go to Dollywood?” Yes, we did. We really, really did.

Can’t even count how many times we’ve been asked in the last couple of weeks. Did we really? Yes, we really have been to Dollywood and it was everything we imagined…almost. I mean, seriously, how could it not be? It’s DOLLYWOOD PEOPLE! So featuring today is the last little bit of our whirlwind travels through Tennessee. Culminating in the mega highlights that we discovered high over the Smokies and deep in the heart of Dollyland.

This is an excerpt from an old blog post from 2011. For the FULL story and some photos, make sure to click the link here.

You know you’ve made an impact when there are lanes, avenues, roads and theme parks named after you. And a Dixie Stampede. We knew we had arrived in terra firma Dolly as soon as the sparkling neon glitzy lights of Pigeon Forge beckoned. We had no idea it would be so… developed…and touristy and flashy and tack-a-rama and well, just a little bit us.

But here we were. And we were glad we were there, too.

Just a little bit giddy as the gates to Dollywood welcome us, with the iconic butterfly and well, Dolly. Here. There. Everywhere. And a lot of seniors. Busloads and busloads of them on this particular Monday. And us.

Only very very few are privy to Tracey’s story of why standing in the middle of Dollywood was such a poignant and, well, just huge moment. Momentous. It all happened way back in 1984… But give her a drink or two, and she’ll regale you with her highly embarrassing Dolly story. And we may even coax her mum into sending over the newspaper clipping. Yes, it made the news. Trace finally came to visit Dolly. At the time she was on tour in Australia. Irony.

BUT we were certainly on Dolly excitement OVERLOAD when we discovered her tour bus and had to wait 5 minutes (because of the crowds…) before we could enter. I mean, this was really her tour bus. And she lived and toured in here. And there we were looking in at her bedroom, kitchenette and vanity. Love you, Dolly. Love you, so much.

“The magic is inside you. There ain’t no crystal ball.” ~ Dolly Parton

Such true sentiments below. Wise and so very on point. And it was a massive test of willpower not to purchase everything in Dolly’s Closet. After all it was her style, your size. For real.

If I’m being truthfully honest, while we had a fabulous time I would have preferred a little more focus on the Dolly-side of things. After the tour bus it was pretty much a massive theme park full of roller-coasters and albeit very, very fun/slightly nauseating (after you’ve been to Reds Drive-in and got the 2-for-1 lunch deal with coupon…) rides. Loved them all. Even that tragic car ride Trace made me take – for the photos, she said… But, now if it had been a roller-coaster in the shape of Dolly’s wigs or other such features…now wouldn’t that really be something…Just sayin’. But it was a hoot. Here are a few highlights and some of the Tennessee touches that make it very Dolly-a-rama.

And just to prove to everyone back home that we are always thinking of you, here’s what we would have bought for you if we had enough room in our cases after all our own personal Dolly purchases.

At the entrance to the park there was a professional photographer taking portraits for people. We asked her if she wouldn’t mind taking a photo of us with our own camera. This is the blurry shot we got. Wonderful. And for some reason it reminds us of one of our favorite Dolly quotes (and there are many…)

“I’m not offended by dumb blonde jokes because I know that I’m not dumb. I also know I’m not blonde.” ~ Dolly Parton

Wish we had the same excuse…daily.

At least the pumpkins are in focus… Which brings us to the Fall displays. They were EVERYWHERE. And scarecrows. Lots of scarecrows. Would have preferred some Dolly art.

Trace’s favorite shot of me with the weird scarecrow gospel singers (it was gospel month) and our new senior friends…

Yep, and more pumpkins.

Very sadly it was then time to call it a day. Park closed at 6pm. We will make it back again some day, perhaps when Dolly herself visits the park as she does a few times a year. And we will wear something a little more dazzling. And as we left the park, after almost failing to locate the car we were reminded of this Dolly wisdom…

“If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one.” ~ Dolly Parton

So with Dollywood in the rear-vision mirror of life for now we looked ahead to the next morning. Our early, early AM departure from the motel was well before the sun rose. Our first taste of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was mysterious and shrouded in darkness. It was a dream to finally be there. But as we crept higher and higher towards famous Clingman’s Dome there was sheer panic as the sun rose behind us. It came up so fast. The most fantastic orange fanfare to a morning we have every seen. And it was then we found ourselves high above Tennessee at the rooftop of the stunning Smokies. No haze in sight this morning. Just clear as clear can be. And equally as freezing and as windy. We braved it all. Here are the favorites.

And then with the sun firmly awake and hypothermia fully set in it was time to head off and explore the park. We de-thawed a bit in the car park and then took off back down the road. We hadn’t gone perhaps 50meters when we spotted something by the side of the road. Oh. Yes. It really was. A bear. A black one. Looking right at us. And so naturally the pro photogs go into hyperdrive. And here are the incredible, mind-blowing results. It was a combination of utter chaos with the volume dialed WAY UP. Starting with the inability to hold the camera still, followed by forgetting to take the lens cap off, then there was the small matter of focus and forgetting to breath. We’re masters. We know.

Our morning was spent exploring charming Gatlinburg and getting all kinds of lost. And still reeling at the bear encounter. Then we took the back-roads Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail which was as good a way as any to enjoy the early fall colors. It was lovely and tranquil and just right for some landscapes. And where our love of photography has always been. We passed old mills, pretty waterfalls, historic log and frame buildings. Very Tennessee. The early gold foliage sparkling in the sun like Dolly and her rhinestones.

It was here at the old grist mill, taken back in time… that we of course had our first giant mishap of the day. Trace can never see a river and not fall into it. So deeply focused on getting her HDR shots from the middle of the stream, she lost her footing, smashed her shoulder on a boulder, landed face-first in the stream. But got the shot.

Back through Gatlinburg and our love of a good drive-by shoot is revived with this fabulous, surprisingly current find.

But wait there’s more just up the road back in Pigeon Forge. Almost had a major run in after being taken by surprise by the dramatic sit-in on the nature strip of Dolly’s info center. Goodness. What a protest. Forget Occupy Wall Street. What a drive-by. Shame on them for shaming Dolly. And shame on your lawn chairs, too.

Sensory overload is what Pigeon Forge is. Endless drive-by ops everywhere. Had a ball driving the strip, on the way to the outlet mall, either side sunrises and sunsets in the Smokies with a Denny’s trip and a Walmart visit in between. Love the way we roll all this into one day.

We had one important stop to make before heading back up into the hills for the magic of sunset. We were dreaming of misty, hazy, smoky mountains. But before then we had a date on the lawn of the Sevier County Courthouse in downtown Sevierville. We were there for this little celebrity landmark. A statue. Dedicated to Dolly, of course. In all her bronzed glory. It’s a life-size bronze, part of a 28-stop downtown walking tour of Dolly’s hometown. Nearly everyone in town claims to know her personally. Love that.

And this brings us to an interesting pastime we pursue in our endless search for the best of the worst of Roadside America gems. And that is the art of Statue Burnishing (basically rubbing the funny bits of iconic statues). It’s a thing. A real thing. And there is special Statue Burnishing Etiquette to follow. Including among other points…to touch the shiniest parts. And this is what we did for Dolly. And you can just imagine what the shiniest part was. The left one was grope-able, the right one covered. For more, much more detailed info on the rules of Statue Burnishing go here. You rub the shiny bits for good luck. We needed to rub Dolly so a bit of luck would rub back onto us.

With our latest foray into statue burnishing done and hopefully heapings of luck bestowed upon us… it was time to wander back through Pigeon Forge then into the park again this time for sunset. Here are a few highlights we missed the first time down the main drag (side-note, the Dolly protestors had packed up and called it a day by then…).

And off we go for sunset. We had been dreaming of a sunset filled with layers and layers of clouds upon clouds. Smoky to the max.

We found endlessly clear skies, overlooking 4 states, with just a little added flare for drama. And then some epic and dramatic after-setting colors. Oh and a bear and 3 cubs up on top of the summit which we avoided at all costs. It wasn’t the sunset we imagined but it was stunning all the same.

Following dreams filled with sequins and smoky mountains, big hair and bears we woke then next morning preparing to leave to head back to Nashville. We commented as the coffee brewed that it really would be good to come back some day. There was still so much left to see and mountains to revisit. And that was way before we discovered the incomparable beauty that is Cades Cove. Idyllic and enchanting, it’s like something out of a movie set. A few locals recommended we visit and so we thought we would try and tuck it in before the drive back to Nashers. It took longer to get to than we predicted and so unfortunately missed the best light. But no worries…This just means we have to go back. And for sure we will. Because it was Ahhhhh-mazing. Simply teaming with wildlife, stunning nature, well preserved homesteads, scenic mountain views, and bears. Yes, more bears.

Just gorgeous, leaving us breathless in the early morning glow and mist.

Abundant wildlife everywhere.

We were a week or so early for the show that is the Fall Foliage in the Smokies but we kind of had a feeling of just how spectacular it would be.

We rounded another little corner on the quaint 11-mile loop road. We were surprised to see a park ranger who notified us that up ahead on the road was a mama bear and 3 cubs. For real. We were told to drive slowly, not stop, but after we passed the next ranger up ahead we could park and observe from a distance. So we had a chance for drive-by redemption. Which ended up just as pathetic as the first while I emphatically relayed to Trace that all the camera settings were good to go. So we rolled on up and of course in my bear-mania I was accidentally on the wrong metering. Say howdy to more blurry bear pics. Someone stop us please. I take full ownership of this fiasco. It could have been fab…look at the cub at the back…this was just before he launched himself into the tree. Sigh… They weren’t at all concerned with any of us. Just fully committed to eating and storing treats for the coming hibernation.

So with another bear-miss we just know we need to come back without a shadow of a doubt. Third time lucky…we’d love to explore the back-country of Tennessee and once again have Dolly Parton and her greatest hits on the entire time. 24-7. You can never get enough of 9-5 or Apple Jack. Or maybe you can, it’s hard to know at this point.

Leaving with another Dolly-ism to live by…

“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.” (and hopefully when the time is right – the camera settings.)

With love & all things Dollified,

Trace + Dee x

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