Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Caught between Heaven and Hell

I've just come back from the National Storytelling Conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The conference was a blast, I'd urge you all to go to conferences related to what you love, but that's not what I'm interested in writing about today.

Gatlinburg is nestled in the midst of the Smoky Mountains. It's surrounded by absolutely gorgeous landscape. Deep woods. Rolling farmland. Some rustic (and likely poverty-stricken) communities. Gatlinburg itself, while it once may have been a charming town and likely does still have some nice sections, has all the glitz and smarm of the Las Vegas strip, with none of the sin, all condensed into a mile-and-a-half main street.

I expected this, something kind of touristy but pretty:

I got this:

There are no fewer than five museums run by the Ripley's corporation. Bear in mind, I have a love of tourist traps. Feejee mermaids, the largest ball of twine, haunted houses, death cars, I'm there. But this was relentless. Faux town square next to faux museum next to chain restaurant next to another strip mall. The whole place smelled like fudge, as there were candy shops every 50 yards. It was all designed to separate you from your money in the most expeditous way possible. Which leads me to heaven and hell.

I have a theory about places like this, those locales designed to separate you from your money as quickly as possible while you think you're having fun. This theory was spawned by time spent in Las Vegas and Atlantic City as well as the surrounding landscape.

Think about it. Places like that (Vegas, AC, and yes, Gatlinburg) want to take something from you. They want your money. They want your attention and energy. They distract you with neon, sex, flash, unattainable dreams. They make you long to be someone else, someone richer, prettier, different. I have come to believe these places are gates to Hell, because the most effective way to get your money, attention and energy is to distract you, to make you forget who you are while you're longing to be someone else. Would you really buy that tourist nick-nack if you stopped to think about it? Would you really gamble away your rent? Would you prefer the attention of a paid companion to those who love you? While you're longing for all of these temporary dreams, while you're forgetting who you really are, Hell can sneak in and steal a little bit of your soul. You don't have to watch, because you're distracted by the next tourist attraction, glamorous show and slot machine. I know. I've been there.

But. These places, these gates to Hell are all balanced by nearby gates to Heaven. Think about it. Las Vegas is in the desert. Atlantic City is next to the ocean. And Gatlinburg is tucked in a valley amidst the Smoky Mountains. When you are in these places of such astonishing natural beauty, when you're face to face with the vastness of the desert, the enormity of the ocean, the timelessness of the forest, you have no choice but to be face to face with yourself. You have no choice (if you're honest and don't distract yourself) but to look at your own, small self in the face of all the universe and say I am here. You have no choice but to look into your own soul and see that it is enough. You don't need the glitz and glam and false promises. You are all you need.

For all that they are repellent, these liminal places fascinate me. I've told stories about this balance between Heaven and Hell, posited that the suburbs are the real battleground, but ultimately, it's the battle for my own soul and identity I am most interested in. To retain my integrity in the face of hell is almost impossible, but I am soothed by the hope of heaven, just next door, by the comfort of trees and water and sand and sky, all telling me that yes, I am still here. 

(c) 2008 Laura S. Packer
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  1. Wow. What a hatred of Ripley's. They absolutely rock! I love their museum and haunted house particularly. Some of the most fun things to do in Gatlinburg!

  2. Haven't been to Gaitlinburg and now know another place to avoid. Have only been to the Las Vegas airport [connectiong with a plane] I am not a Christian of any strip but these places, especially Las Vegas with it's ersatz architecture and gross waste of water in a desert where native American tribes don't get enough water to irrigate tiny gardens -- that is my definition of present day Sodom and Gemorrha. The greedy uglifiers rush in anywhere they think people will come -- ugh!

  3. What an interesting sharing of your time in TN and placing the NSN conference in the midst of the the "destination" that Gatlinburg is...well done.


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