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An icon of Casper, a monstrous purple mothman, snarling at a 3/4ths angle with his mandibles out. His yellow eyes drip glowing fluid. Casper Cielo (midwayMothman) wrote @ 2022-11-30 08:25:05PM
Entry tags: comics, road trip, roadside attractions, roller coasters, caverns

Hello, oldweb! I'm coming out of an impromptu hibernation following artistic burnout! I spent the past three or so weeks feverishly working through my contribution for Interlude: Stories of Azeroth at Rest. Interlude is a World of Warcraft community zine project that explores what everyone's characters have been up to in the midst of the time-skip between Shadowlands and Dragonflight. I was initially hesitant to explore the idea myself, but quickly realized that a rest for the game's narrative was much-needed. My contribution explored my mechagnome, Intamin, and how he handled settling into domesticity. If that sounds interesting to you, please give the whole project a read! We all worked so hard on it.

A crop of a comic page. It depicts Intamin, a mechagnome with gold upgrades who is dressed in tweed, reflecting on how he's spent his past few years in Boralus. The High Tinkertory is superimposed on the background.

Sometime before I finished up my comic, I was contacted by my mother who was a few states away in Pigeon Forge for an unplanned meetup. Freshly moved into Georgia, both my husband and I have been itching to get on the road and see some of the sights of the south, particularly because none of them require a minimum of twelve hours tacked onto our itinerary in order to escape The Sunshine State. Suffice to say, we jumped at the opportunity to take a trip out of town. I sent off my comic and we hit the asphalt at about 9 PM on a Friday for our sudden adventure.

We made a pit stop to a local gas station before we started our trip, looking to load up on snacks for the four hour drive ahead of us. Stepping into the crampt building, my husband pointed out a set of casino cabinets in the corner. He'd recognized them immediately: COAMs, or Coin Operated Amusement Machines, are what they say on the tin. These coin-operated slots are often posted up on gas stations, and rather than the typical payouts they instead offer coupons for the venues they occupy. This skirts Georgia's gambling law, where they're considered legal video lottery terminals. We snapped a few pictures and ogled the games tempting idle screens, but shortly thereafter paid for our things and were on our way.

A picture of a corner in a gas station convenience store. There are two COAM cabinets. One of them depicts a dragon-themed slot machine game, while the other is a generic slot cabinet. A picture of a corner in a gas station convenience store. There are two COAM cabinets. One of them shows multiple games under the catch all title Pick N' Play Skill. The other is mummy-themed.

Driving through the rural south in the dead of night is probably one of the most surreal experiences one can have as an American. Many of the sights associated with road-tripping quickly become swallowed up by the darkness, illuminated only by your headlights if they're lucky enough to be close to the median. The familiarity of cows in a field were instead replaced by towering billboards spotlit not too far from the road, commanding attention when only our car and the moon provided ample light elswhere. It was fascinating watching ads for local lawyers and exterminators dissolve into something more sinister: demands to repent, usually. The devil was real and he was charming your neighbors, and yes, even you! Call this toll-free number or chance going to hell! Before hitting the road I'd read about a museum that collected these signs for display. I wondered what they must've said if these were tame enough to remain looming over roadsides.

We cut through the empty back roads at a steady gallop, working through our snacks at a similar clip. I spent a half hour or so watching the glass and steel of Atlanta replace itself with one-story wood and cobble. Retro neon sometimes cut through the gloom, particularly archaic motels and movie theaters echoing a time when roadside America was king. But eventually the novelty wore off and I retreated back to my phone to pass the time, interrupted only when my husband's hand clapped over my shoulder about two hours into our drive.

He told me he'd seen something in the dark, up on the mountains, impossibly shrouded giants that we couldn't hope to see the silhouettes of this late at night. "Someone put a cross up there." He explained. The trees were blocking the view ahead, but I waited patiently to see what he'd sworn was there, and sure enough, it eventually peeked out from behind the pines. The Rabun County Cross overlooks multiple sleepy towns from its perch atop Black Rock Mountain, three thousand feet above ground. The original incarnation was wood, unnoticeable from the road, but at night mercury-vapor bulbs would assure it was visible from up to seventy miles away. It seems the current incarnation is not much different, burning brightly even just shy of midnight.

A picture of a silhouetted mountainscape at twilight. A bright cross is illuminated against the dark.

A 1979 Washington Post article explains how the ACLU fought its occupation of National Park land, arguing that it blurred the lines of church and state. They were successful, and the court ruled for the removal of the cross in 1981. Sometime after, the Rabun County Cross Society, founded to keep the landmark maintained, purchased its own spot of land on the mountain and erected a new cross in June of 2009. It still stands there today, where motorists and county residents alike can see it burning night after night. As someone who was raised Christian I have some pretty strong opinions of the faith, but I was thankful to peek into this little slice of roadside history regardless.

Before long the cross faded from view, and the sleepy towns of the Georgia north were gradually overtaken by a creeping tide of green as we approached Tennessee. Our GPS had seen fit for us to cut through the Smokies, and this late I wasn't too hopeful we'd see much to justify the rather harrowing drive. Down in Big Cypress the rangers have a saying: "Half the park is after dark!" I'd argue much of this is true for the Smokies as well. As we approached the entrance of the park, we spied some signs on the roadside that warned of elk ahead. I didn't pay them much mind - how many times had I seen those signs before only to be treated to a quiet drive instead?

My husband chattered nervously at the wheel, expressing fear of hitting any sort of large animal and stalling the vehicle's acceleration to accomodate. I assured him we weren't likely to see much on our commute, but promptly ate my words as I saw bulky shapes emerge from the darkness. Just shy of the median, massive elk grazed on the roadside. Some lifted their heads to watch us pass, their bright eyes reflecting red. Others didn't rouse at our approach, continuing to get their fill now that the night had fallen and afforded cooler temperatures.

They seemed to hug the front of the park, as the further we pressed on the more they thinned. Eventually we were crammed onto a series of tight, winding roads, fenced in on either side with an endless sea of trees. In the dark we couldn't see how far they must've stretched up, nor how steep the plummet downwards must've been as we gradually gained elevation. I could hear the engine straining and see the cliff-faces bristle with icicles the more we climbed, and when I stuck my head out of the car window I could see how the space between the stars, far more innumerable than I'd ever seen, brimmed with a galactic milkiness. We stopped at the overlook, the highest point of the bypass, where we could see Gatlinberg down below; a space needle strobed in time to some unheard music, lit cabling climbing up an adjacent mountain to give safe passage to the aerial trams of Ober Gatlinberg, a mountainside amusement park.

A picture of a view from the Smoky Mountain Bypass Overlook. Gatlinberg, a tourist city, is lit up brightly. There are hotels and a space needle.

Our climb down was less eventful, but we were lucky enough to see a fox scamper across the road and into the woods unharmed. Thirty minutes later we found ourselves entering Pigeon Forge, already trimmed for the holidays well before Thanksgiving had come to pass. We arrived at the hotel where my mother had holed up for the weekend and turned in early, excited for the whirlwind day ahead ... and the treacherous drive we'd have to repeat at the end of it.

We woke early with the intentions of making our way out to Tuckaleechee Caverns. The cave system, rated the best and largest east of the Mississippi, was one I was no stranger to. I'd visited it back in July of 2012 on a family trip. We'd made the decision to check it out on a lark, suckered by roadside signs scrawled on wood that insisted that there were CAVERNS THIS WAY. What greeted us was the greatest sight beneath The Smokies, and I was excited to show my husband the caverns after a decade of hyping them up to him.

The drive to our destination was a joy for someone who's interested in roadside America and its aesthetics. Pigeon Forge is, for all intents and purposes, a tourist trap town - sensory overload given architectural form. The buildings are loud and in-your-face, themed to the point of gaudiness. Several points of interest along the way included a jump park trimmed in 80s-esque colors, a circus-themed arcade, piratical dinner show, and Jurassic river ride infamous for its animatronic's state of disrepair - a submechaphobia mecca. I made a point to visit the latter on a future excursion.

A picture of a roadside arcade taken from the perspective of someone sitting in the passenger seat of a car. The arcade is circus-themed and called Big Top Arcade with extravagantly themed architecture in primary colors. A picture of a roadside restaurant that is pirate-themed. It has a giant skull and crossbones over its entrance and is extravagantly themed to look like a big stone building with wooden rooms.

The colorful city faded eventually, giving way to the rolling mountain roads of the Smokies. Tuckaleechee is an unassuming attraction when first approached. In a refreshing display of modesty, none of the pomp of a touristy cavern system like Ruby Falls is visible here. Gone are the zip lines, 4D theaters, and on-site restaurants. Instead, from the parking lot you're lead into the gift shop, a small one-story building boasting a sundry of thematically appropriate offerings. Postcards, pins, stickers, and magnets are a few of the items that brandish the cavern's name, and where all else fails there's the typical tchotchkes in the form of gemstones and children's toys.

The most interesting thing in the store is likely a seismic monitor. A needle tracked the motions of the earth behind its glass, scrawling a steady jagged line that betrayed no immediate disruptions in the ground below. I wondered about its sensitivity, and the owner of the shop informed me that it'd recently recorded missile launches as far as North Korea.

We purchased our tickets and were ushered into the entrance of the cave in short order. I've described the scene that unfurled before us multiple times to friends, but I don't think words will ever truly do it justice. Descending down the ramp and into the entrance room is a surreal experience - carpet doesn't so much fade to stone as it does stop abruptly, the creature comforts of human architecture interrupted by what appears to be a hole that's been quite literally blown into the ground. The entrance of the cavern yawns in welcome, stones haphazardly cleared atop eachother to grant passage to a tunnel that's lined with rickety lights on fraying wires. There are points where you need to crouch just to squeeze down the steps - of which I was told there were a few hundred on the descent alone.

Before long you stand in the heart of Tuckaleechee caverns, a cave system whose internal temperature rests at a cool sixty degrees year round. What awaits you is a snaking natural wonder with rare, intact palette formations, a waterfall, and flowing river system. The most disarming part of the visit was how relatively alone we were left for a good portion of the tour. I was traveling with my mother who lagged behind the group at regular intervals, and I must confess it was pretty easy to feel entirely alone as the guide walked ahead of us with the group in tow, often entire minutes of walking time ahead.

We did a lot of the typical cavern fare with our tour guide: experiencing total darkness, looking at formations, and something unique to this cavern system - drinking river water! After an hour or so we saw the sunlight again, and set our eyes to something far more important ... food! Pulling back into Pigeon Forge we happened upon Elvira's Cafe, a seasonal cafe with southern eats. The unassuming little mountainside establishment obscures some of the best roadside food I've ever had, and I highly recommend checking it out if you're ever in the area!

There I got to eat my first savory crepe, warm buckwheat stuffed with grilled chicken breast, feta and ricotta cheese, blended with basil pesto, spinach, caramelized onions, mushrooms, and sliced almonds. It was served alongside a sweet and spicy honey sauce I frankly couldn't get enough of. I polished off my lunch with a blackberry cobbler and then we toddled over to the home goods store beside it to check out the mountainy tat on offer before we were back on the road.

One of the reasons why I was so excited to visit Pigeon Forge was for one of the area's most thematic tourist features: alpine coasters! An alpine coaster, while not considered a "true" coaster by enthusiast spaces like Coaster Counter, are often found in elevated areas such as ski resorts or mountain towns. Riders sit in a train similar to a bobsled, often outfitted with a hand brake that controls its speed, and are pulled up the side of the mountain on a track with a mechanism similar to a chain lift. Following the first drop, gravity is left to do the rest of the work, careening you down the side of the mountain on a track fitted with tight turns and unbeatable views.

I'd set my eyes on two in particular: The Goat Coaster at Goats on the Roof and The Rocky Mountain Alphine Coaster.

The latter was most interesting to me. I'd asked around at work a few weeks prior regarding what interesting tourist attractions there were in the area, and one of my coworkers responded with Goats on the Roof in, funnily enough, Rabun County Georgia. It's exactly what it says on the tin: a roadside attraction where goats are, in fact, on the roof, often walking between buildings on rickety rope bridges. You can use hand-cranked delivery devices to feed them at a distance, or if you're looking for something more intimate, pet them! If that isn't enticing, maybe the fudge they sell is.

In any case, the Pigeon Forge iteration of Goats on the Roof is what we decided to hit first. To describe it as distilled southern USA would be a disservice and an understatement. From stepping on property you're immediately aware of what Goats on the Roof is about: rootin', tootin', gun totin' America and the fear of God. This time of year the area was trimmed with all manner of Christmas decor. inflatable Santas were hastily zip-tied to columns, twinkling lights criss-crossing beams with no real organization. This should've been my first clue as to what waited for me up the mountain, but we coughed up enough to pay for our coaster tickets and ambled on over to the dispatch station anyways.

The queue yawned before me, empty pavement snaking through a switchback queue - I wondered if crowds ever poured into the space, because the ride ops sure acted like it did. They waved me down impatiently, ushering me into a scuffed toboggan before buckling me up and sending me on my way. Alpine coasters usually boast long, slow lift hills that pull you up the mountain, and the Goat Coaster was no exception. There's usually a moment of zen as the cable clunk-clunks along, pulling you closer to the summit at a leisurely pace, allowing the excitement to smolder rather than

Shoot for the moon!

Casper Cielo

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