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  Tourist Traps Ahoy!

Rock City

by Jack Neely

As a kid, I knew Rock City only through the smeary lenses of my Viewmaster, and was puzzled. I remember asking my mom, what are the gnomes for? Depicted apparently writhing on the floor of a dark cave, they didn't look happy. It reminded me of my favorite childhood painting, one of Hiernoymous Bosch's depictions of Hell.

Among my family and neighbors, the word was that Rock City was an aesthetic crime against nature, an embarrassment to a beautiful mountain; kitschy; commercial; and, the ultimate malediction in my family, it was tacky. Rock City was, at best, a joke, and the famously excessive marketing campaign of barn sides and birdhouses—I hear they've been spotted as far away as Indonesia—only seemed to undermine it in my estimation. I've lived 40 years within a two-hour drive of Rock City, but I was never tempted to See 7 States until recently, and my kids had to talk me into it.

So, on a trip to Chattanooga, we drove up to the top of Lookout Mountain, crossed over to the Georgia side, and parked in the rocky parking lot and went through the stony entrance to Rock City. It was not what I expected. It was gorgeous.

Rock City is, to begin with, one of the most interesting natural rock formations in the region, a series of caves and crevasses and mushroom-shaped rocks and steep bluffs overlooking Chattanooga. It's all interlaced with forest and flowers; there's even a waterfall. Rock City seems like one of those encyclopedia illustrations showing all possible land formations in one impossible scene. Even the natural part, sans gnomes, seems busy, as if it's something God cobbled together when He was feeling a little giddy.

Rock City was a tourist attraction for a century before the barn signs and birdhouses, and the gnomes. "Drawn by amazing tales," according to the brochure, people climbed up here on muleback as far back as 1823, even before there was a city called Chattanooga.

After about a century of that, real-estate developers Frieda and Garnet Carter bought the mountaintop. Garnet Carter originally planned to just build a swanky jazz-age hotel up here, and did. Charmed by elfin ways, Carter embellished his hotel with a "Tom Thumb Golf Course," partly populated by gnomes. It was allegedly the first of its kind in the world; Carter is sometimes credited as the inventor of miniature golf. His wife, Frieda, took a special interest in the already legendary Rock City. Using a long string to find her way out of the honeycomb of caves and crevasses, she explored this strange place, and almost immediately had lots of ideas. She'd make it the most extravagant rock garden in the world. She planted it with gardens that earned a national award from the Garden Club of America while her husband painted barns and began charging admission. Somewhere in there, the gnomes arrived. Some of the trolls you see in Rock City's Fairyland Village originally graced the long-gone Tom Thumb Golf Course.

If you prefer your caves with nothing but bat dung and rat bones in them, you'll be disappointed by what the Carters did to Rock City back in 1932. Parts of it, especially the cave interiors where Frieda Carter couldn't plant gardens, are garish; in glassed-in alcoves are dioramas of non-Disney versions of Cinderella, Snow White, and other gnomish stories.

But something happens when tacky things age; they become quaint; then, baroque; then historic. If you saw Rock City in 1950 or 1960, you might have been appalled at the excesses of it. Now the only thing to be is fascinated.

Rock City strikes you like a daydream of the '30s, part The Wizard of Oz, part Lost Horizon, with maybe a little of the character of the original Monopoly board thrown in. Even the lettering on some of the signs looks prewar.

Most of the kitsch is advertised as a direct appeal to children. Ironically, though, kids may be more interested in the attraction's natural attributes, the narrow passages and natural balconies and the Swing-Along Bridge, a long suspension bridge over a fatally deep ravine. We're assured it's safe, even when juvenile terrorists jump up and down on it, sending waves in both directions. Kids also can't resist tempting fate by standing underneath the 1,000-ton balanced rock, said to be the legacy of a prehistoric earthquake. In the end, their parents may be the ones more likely to pore over the weird cave dioramas; they're a museum of a pre-1950 childhood.

There's not much room for political correctness here. The main entrance path leads right through a crevice in the rocks that's called the Fat Man's Squeeze, and that's about all you can call it. If you're overweight, you may well have a positive self image. You may live a long and productive life. You may even be maddeningly attractive. But you may not be able to make it through the Fat Man's Squeeze. Better to be offended—and forewarned—than to be stuck like a grunion in a bilge pump.

The crew is especially able at plucking trash out of the crevasses and ravines, but you have to wonder what they do with portly tourists wedged in the sandstone.

With its precipices and treacherous bridges and narrow passages, Rock City is like a strange '30s movie of fantasy or intrigue; the only reason Hitchcock never made a movie here is that he couldn't have made it through the Squeeze to direct it. The climax is what may have been the original Lover's Leap, the 1,700-foot bluff from which an offending Indian warrior was allegedly thrown, and his Cherokee princess lover jumped. It's as good a view as any in the region. They say you can see seven states from here, and maybe you can, on an unusually clear day—but I was skeptical about Virginia, about 200 miles to the northeast, well past Knoxville, which I couldn't make out, either. When I was there I was pretty sure I could make out parts of Tennessee and Georgia.

I started to understand the inspiration of the gnomes. After making your way through these narrow passageways, between intricate gardens, through low-ceilinged caves, you start to feel like a giant surveying his domain. "Carry on, gnomes," you say.

Then, too abruptly, you emerge into the real world of parking lots and traffic, feeling altogether dull and regular-sized and mortal.

June 8, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 23
© 2000 Metro Pulse