The Dating Game sent us to the Smoky Mountains in 1971. We were 21, two kids from different southern California towns who had agreed to be contestants on the show, and now found ourselves to be minor celebrities for a weekend. We had not met before the taping which was a few weeks before the actual date. The show was legit, we really did meet that way. She picked me, bachelor #2.
We were the guests of Outdoor Resorts, an RV park and campground outside Gatlinburg, TN. Our chaperone from Chuck Barris Productions and hosts from the resort took us around the town and the national park. With some of the few moments we had to ourselves, we posed near the resort entrance where they had posted a huge sign announcing our presence there. (More on the date here).
Forty-two years later, almost to the day, we re-posed in front of the same resort entrance. Nancy had saved the colorful vest she had made while in college and wore it again for the shot, but I could not find that ordinary yellow shirt.
The Smokies got in our eyes a long time ago. The images of that scenery are blurry in our collective memory, so this re-visit—our first together to this spot after all those years—will give us a chance to take in the beauty of this area. The beauty of the area was the girl right beside me at the time, so I remember little else.
Our original plans to camp in the national park were foiled by the US government, so we set our sights on a northern Georgia State Park called Moccasin Creek. This was handy, too, for Nancy’s brother and his wife to camp with us over these days. They were planning on coming up to the national park, but in the end, we were able to meet closer to their home in nearby Blairsville.
The campground is “intimate” (as described in some reviews) which means small, 57 sites, and not much distance between them, but there was some kind of charm that overcame this deficit. The charm is partly the lake, hiking and well-kept facilities, but it is mostly the sweet personal culture. In the national park we’d have met people from all over, but all the folks here were from Georgia. Where y’all from? was asked and answered with the names of whichever Georgia city or county is your home. To give California as the answer brought delight and an easy conversation.
Sunday was church. Folks boated in to the camp or drove, and a few campers joined in as well. We sauntered over, coffee in hand. The benches in the open-air pavilion at the side of the lake filled in with a hundred people or so. It could not have been more iconic for our setting that we actually sang I’ll Fly Away.
Religion easily blends here. I thought of whether a California State Park would overlook the church/state arguments and allow a church to meet on its grounds. Of course not. But in decades of this congregation’s existence, no one in Georgia would object. Even the waste management utility used by the park system there put “keeping God’s creation beautiful” as their motto on the park dumpsters.
God let it rain on our camp that night, but there’s no blaming the Deity for leaving the sunroof open on our car. That one’s on me. And it poured, I mean it was torrential. There were puddles in camp come morning, and some unholy self-loathing the moment I checked the puddle in the car. Monday’s side trip up to Gatlinburg gave us a glow in our hearts and wet spots on our backside. I wonder now whether there were wet footprint marks on the pavement whenever we got out of the car on that day.
Fortunately, we were in Gatlinburg where having a John Candy / Steve Martin-type experience (a la Planes, Trains and Automobiles) probably helped us fit in. Wet clothes and footprints cannot out-circus that town, which now presents itself as a mix of Disneyland and Dollywood. (This is similar to the environment at Niagara, about which I wrote earlier).
Visit Gatlinburg for kitsch, but see the park for the scenery. The highway was open through the park, but the government closed even the turnouts, except for Newfound Gap. Making the best of a bad situation, we clicked photos on the fly, got Smokies in our eyes (again) and took our wet backsides back to camp for smores.