- What You Know Is Real
Gatlinburg is the gateway to the Smokies: tucked in the pocket of Tennessee, it is a patchwork town of a long-lost and long-gone American dream. It is the city of elopements and cheap chapels, second to Vegas. It is peppered with distilleries claiming the world's best moonshine, overrun with wooden bears holding signs that say Beary nice of y'all to stop by.
It is a town of you-only-live-once and once-upon-a-time. And it is where you find yourself accidentally drunk on sour-mash moonshine on a warm evening in May just before sunset. "Stories in every jar," the slogan on your shot glass reads.
You listen to the bartender perform for his customers and you listen to the stories his patrons swap back and forth like verbal currency. They share wild adventures and comforting commonalities and in the dim of the bar, you begin to question your own narrative. What is it that makes any of your stories real? You began this road trip alone with little money and lots of time and now that you've burned through both, you feel as though you have nothing to show for it. You have been on the road for weeks now and you are the only person to witness your entire journey. Did it happen at all? Do you trust that you're remembering it right? [End Page 89]
The bartender looks like a cowboy from a classic Western and he is behind a bar made of whiskey barrels. He pours you one after another from his personal stash, because this is a long way for a sweet gal like you to travel all on her own and don't worry, the 'shine is on him. You consider taking him back to your tent, but leave a ten-dollar tip instead and sneak away when he goes to write his number on a napkin.
In a moment of drunken clarity, you realize this is what you do now.
You like to believe that people have been abandoning you; but maybe you're the one who has been unwilling to stay.
So you buy maple ice cream in a cone because it reminds you of home, of simple summers in a sweet New England town. You spend the last of your cash on a ticket to the top of the Gatlinburg Space Needle. For a moment you dream of Seattle, that you drove from east to west instead of north to south and you're not stopping until you reach the Pacific.
It is breathtaking at the top. It is a perfect contrast of cityscape and endless peaks and valleys of the historic national park. Steep slopes of dark, smoky forest envelop you on all sides and you can see the sliver of the silver moon and the broken yolk of the yellow sun and the blinking neon city and the paling slate sky all at once, and you are acutely aware of how beautiful everything is. You feel like you are skimming the bottom of a giant fishbowl glittering with glistening fish. For the first time on your entire trip, you feel a distinct desire to share it with someone; anyone. For the first time in years, you feel lonely.
You blame the moonshine and try to blink that feeling away.
There is a young couple holding hands across from you, silhouetted against the sky. The man is anxiously patting his pocket and you know he is going to propose. You cannot tell if his pretty girlfriend will say yes. She smiles at him but looks off into the mountains with a longing you identify right away. An untapped wildness boiling inside her, waiting to crack through her ribcage and crawl out of her chest. The two of them look like they are barely eighteen and you love them and hate them for their adolescence. [End Page 90]
You take photos on your phone when the man gets down on one knee. A shot of him in tattered jeans and a plaid button-down; her fair face beautiful and shining with...