Sometimes travel can be a bitch. On my way to Pigeon Forge I got a flat tire, went the wrong way on a one way highway, watched a 16-wheeler overturn in front of me, and witnessed some haz-mat guys spraying down a field that had been ignited by chemicals. Oh, by the way, I was on my way to throw myself off a 60-foot tower and insert myself into a giant rubber ball that would be rolled down a mountain. I was not feeling too upbeat about my prospects.
Let’s be clear. Pigeon Forge is one of the worst places on the planet. Not that it doesn’t have a powerful appeal for a certain type of tourist. But for me it was horrifying.
Maybe it was because the place I had just come from, the Mississippi delta, is a rich repository of deep cultural traditions, a little rough around the edges, but utterly authentic. Pigeon Forge, on the other hand, is a hodge-podge mess of tacky tourist traps, culturally bankrupt and almost entirely soulless.
All up and down Hwy 441 are cheesy dinner theatres offering cornpone humor (men in bear suits, girls in daisy dukes), adventure golf, go carts, the Dixie Stampede (a horse and hillbilly show endorsed by Dolly Parton), a half dozen “As Seen on TV” stores and outlet malls, Cooter’s Place (which is the Dukes of Hazzard’s Museum), and the “South’s Largest Christmas Store” – oh, joy!
But I was here for a reason. I came to throw myself off a 60 foot tower and roll down a hill in a giant rubber ball.
There are lots of places in America you can throw yourself off a high place with a bungee cord. But given the keen interest of the legal community most of these places are now closed. Pigeon Forge, with its 60 foot tower and hover-craft sized air pit has one of the few still operating.
I was familiar with air pits, those giant cushions filled with compressed air that make for soft landings. They are used in jumpy castles, and, once upon a time, were employed by high school pole vaulters, until I broke my neck pole vaulting on one and sued the crap our of my high school, whereupon the NHSAA discontinued them for that purpose.
Now, however, I was getting ready to plunge down into an air pit with a rubber cord attached, thereby checking off another box on my bucket list. But before I could do that I would have to brave some other hazards.
On the interstate, enroute to Pigeon Forge, I ran into a giant backup. Everyone was slowing down to look at a crash, and had been for eight hours. Two semis had collided and it was ugly. When I finally got to the crash site I saw men standing in a blackened field with fire hoses. Then I saw a 16-wheeler at the side of the road; its side caved in and torn open like a box of cookies savaged by a Labrador. Further on I saw a second semi charred and shrunken, the victim of a horrendous blast.
I tooled on, accepting the tragedy for what it was. But 50 miles on I witnessed something scarily similar. A hundred yards ahead of me a 16-wheeler was descending an entrance ramp, getting ready to merge onto the freeway. The truck dropped off the edge of the pavement, jerked back up, wangled back and forth like the head of a serpent, and then swerved and turned over, banging down on the freeway in front of me, the cab turned sideways and throwing sparks.
I whipped around it, to avoid a collision, and carried on, checking my rearview mirror. The interstate is a dangerous place. But there was more.
My tire had a slow leak. This had been going on for weeks. But now, as I ascended into the Appalachians, things were getting intense. Switches, ascents, plunges and swerves. The final verdict was that I had stressed an already weakened tire and blown out the sidewall. Had it happened on that winding road I might be dead, but thankfully it waited until I got safely into a small town and then gave out all at once. I limped into a tire shop with minutes to spare before closing and got it repaired. My luck was holding.
And then I found myself on a parkway. Do you know what a parkway is? It’s basically four lanes of freeway, moving at top speed with no shoulders and plenty of curves, usually with a broad median in between, heavily vegetated, and – if you were like me – so densely forested, you can’t see the other two lanes – the two that are running in the opposite direction.
To gain entry into this menace I had come over a bridge and descended into a small town. As I was leaving the town I never noticed that the two lanes had expanded to four, and then diverged to form a parkway. So I went barreling along, blissfully ignorant. Until I decided to turn around.
I had missed a site I had wanted to see so I turned a U-turn and headed back. Drivers were honking and flashing. Weirdos, I thought and kept going at 70 mph. And then I saw the traffic. Two lanes of it hurtling at me at the same torrid pace. I slammed on my brakes and cut the wheel, fishtailing around and straightening up with my grill facing in the correct direction. Then I slammed my foot down on the accelerator and burned rubber. My heart was pounding.
The next day I was planning to throw myself off a 60 foot tower. My wife said, “Maybe that’s not such a good idea.”
Surrendering to the Void
I was looking up at a scaredy cat. Son of a bitch wouldn’t jump. Tattoos and all. He kept bending his legs, trying to psych himself up. But he could not make himself do it. Finally he backed down, head hung. The only thing I had on him? I know what an air pit is, and that damned pit was ten times the size of anything I had ever pole vaulted on, so I walked out to the edge of the platform, heart beating fast, and felt that familiar twinge of fear – the one that goes, “This is dumb. Don’t do it.” Then I jumped.
When you’re falling, all your blood, all your tissues, your whole physical self seems to rise up within you, yearning back to the place you came from, that safe place on top of the platform. And just about the time you begin entertaining notions of surrendering to the void, of reaching down into the gravitational catharsis, no matter what it means, death, disaster, a new beginning, the cord snatches you back, with a resilient snap, a kind of good-natured smile, and sails you back up, dropping and bouncing, until it slackens, and they lower you, gently, into the pit and it ‘s done.
It was nothing compared to driving the wrong way on the parkway.
But tumbling in a ball? That’s not so pure; that’s like the stuff your mind erases when you’re in a horrific crash: the tumult, the velocity, the verging violence. Welcome to Zorbing.
Having a Ball
There is only one place in the United States to Zorb. A bunch of Kiwis came up with this concept and have only been able to convince the good people of Pigeon Forge to take it on. Here’s how it works: You climb into a giant rubber ball, strap in, and get rolled down a long, steep slope for about a hundred and fifty yards. That’s it.
You go head over heels about thirty times watching the sky and the ground whip around and around through the semi-transparent walls of the sphere. Occasionally the ball bounces, dealing you a scary jolt, and then the ball rolls up a slight incline, slowing, and one of the attendants comes over and wrangles it to a halt.
A variation on the ride is the Water Zorb, where they fill the ball halfway up with water. You slip and slide around the inside walls of the sphere as you tumble down the hill, getting soaked. You can do this by yourself or with friends and family. I can’t imagine how many inadvertent elbows and knees are administered to loved ones in this arrangement.
In any case, I survived my experiences with bungee jumping and Zorbing, and, perhaps more remarkably, I survived my trip to Pigeon Forge during which exploding semis, a ruptured tire and a wrong way drive down a parkway had threatened to relieve me of life and limb.
I wound up my visit to this redneck Orlando by stopping for lunch at one of the many restaurants specializing in southern cuisine, which is to say various combinations of starch and fat served up in gratuitous portions.
These places all have names like Granny’s, Clem’s and Momma’s. People sit with their thighs spread, their feet splayed out, and shovel it in. This is “good ol’ fashion home cookin’’, and if you aren’t a candidate for diabetes after eating this slop, you can snuff yourself by consuming endless silos of corn syrup and soda, as well as funnel cakes, ice cream, and fudge.
I left before finishing my meal. Having survived Pigeon Forge, I damned sure wasn’t going to let granny kill me.
Check it out…
The Track Recreation Center
Pigeon Forge, TN 37863
Zorb Smoky Mountains
203 Sugar Hollow Rd.
Pigeon Forge, TN 37863
About the author: Malcolm Logan is a freelance writer who specializes in US travel and US history, designing one day driving tours, seeking out interesting US destinations and exploring US adventure travel.