Weekend Excurions

Weekend Excursion in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, TN

It’s not the Hamptons, but living in Nashville offers residents a number of opportunities to get out of the city for the weekend, including Gatlinburg, TN and its neighboring Pigeon Forge, which sit at the base of the Smokey Mountains, just about three hours from home. I found the area to be high on kitsch and holly rollers, light on “culture” — but still a lot of fun.

Downtown Gatlinburg and the Smokey Mountains.

Downtown Gatlinburg and the Smokey Mountains.

Gatlinburg offers visitors a long row of shops peddling knick-knacks and tee shirts, but also an adorable and impressive salt and pepper shaker museum (more on that below), truly gorgeous scenery, and if you’re the outdoorsy type, hikes on the Smokey Mountains. Pigeon Forge is home to legend Dolly Parton, a country singer even New Yorkers have heard of, and boasts a really fantastic amusement park with awesome thrill rides; way too many mini golf courses; a weird, super religious parrot sanctuary; and an alarming number of dinner theater options. It’s a lot of good, clean family fun, so you have to go there with your tolerance for corny, touristy stuff turned way up. This might prove challenging for New Yorkers. (Even coming out of Queen of the Night last week, I resented having to walk through Times Square to get to the subway.) That said, if you’re ready for the silly, you might have a blast. Be prepared to spend on everything. It’s a tourist trap, so they’re going to squeeze you for your last dime.

Here are my highlights:

Dollywood – Pigeon Forge

The high-thrill rides are BOSS at this amusement park. I rode the Soaring Eagle twice and dangled my legs from the front row each time. It feels like flying! The park also has an extensive Dolly Parton museum, and on the way out, Dolly’s Uncle Bill Owens enthusiastically introduced himself! Just going to check out her shoes is worth it. An interesting feature of the park is a bald eagle sanctuary and some bird whisperers that have all kinds of knowledge about the patriotic vertebrates.

Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum – Gatlinburg

My precious favorite attraction was this little, family-run museum, the likes of which I’ve never encountered. The S&P Museum holds over 30,000 salt and pepper shakers, collected by a European lady who simply adores them. The proprietor is her very friendly son, who could easily win the award for nicest person ever. You’re allowed to take all the pictures you want and put your pin in the map on your way out. The little shakers are arranged thematically, and there is so much to take in. Entry fee is only $3, and for that, you can get $3 off on your own set from a neat collection in the gift shop. I bought a Kirk and Spock set, and my boyfriend picked out a neat little bird with a head that twists from salt to pepper. We even were inspired to start our own collection! Definitely don’t miss this gem, even if you’re passing through for a day!

Multiply this by 12 and that's how any salt and pepper shakers are there.

Multiply this by 12 and that’s how any salt and pepper shakers are there.

Weird set that I don't understand but that I'm sure was made in the South.

Weird set that I don’t understand but that I’m sure was made in the South.

Tiny shakers.

Tiny shakers.

Smokey Mountain Alpine Coaster – Pigeon Forge 

As we approached the mountain slide, I said I wouldn’t do it. It’s the longest sled ride in the U.S. with over a mile of track. You get strapped in to a little car (smaller than a go-cart!), hooked onto a moving cable system, and slowly pulled up the mountain. I was expecting the ride up to be long and boring, but it was actually very relaxing. When you get to the top, the speed control is up to you! Even though I was scared waiting in line, I floored it and didn’t slow down the entire ride. It goes up to 27 mph but feels much, much faster. Tip: as your sled starts boarding, ask the attendant to give you an extra minute as the person before you ascends. Since riders control the speed, the person in front of you could be a slow poke, forcing a traffic jam on the way down.

Pigeon Forge from the Wonders of Flight ballon ride--not really worth doing unless you're really into taking pictures like this. If you are, do it!

Pigeon Forge from the Wonders of Flight ballon ride–not really worth doing unless you’re really into taking pictures like this. If you are, do it!

Ripley’s Believe it or Not? – Gatlinburg 

Gatlinburg offers package deals for five or so attractions owned by Ripley’s.  We went for Ripley’s Believe It or Not?, the Aquarium, and the Haunted House. Believe It or Not? is a kitschy blast through Robert Ripley’s collection of bizarro artifacts from around the world. A calf with two heads. John Dillinger’s death mask. Charles Manson’s prison shirt. A medieval iron maiden. There’s plenty of opportunity to play in the optical illusion rooms. A tip: Halfway through the tour, there are restrooms. Check all the doors. You’ll see why.

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies – Gatlinburg

For me, a good aquarium brings an unparalleled sense of tranquility and wonder. Save this for the afternoon when you’re feeling a little tired of the hyper-stimulating main strip and crave the cool, dark mystery of the sea.  It’s voted #1 U.S. aquarium by Trip Advisor and has some rare species, like the mesmerizing sea dragons that cost over $10,000 each. I was too entranced to even take a picture. A tip: Check out their schedule beforehand so you can catch the mermaids and see the penguins get fed. We missed both.

Me and the clownfish.

I liked seeing the clownfish.

This stunning jellyfish.

Even my camera could capture the stunning jellyfish.

Please Don’t Bother 

Please don’t bother with Dolly’s Dixie Stampede Dinner Theater. With the exception of Biscuit, the pretty awesome banjo player in the pre-show, the dinner theater is a far cry from entertainment. You sit in a huge arena on benches that circle a pit of sand. Here, you’re served your meal with factory-style precision by a team of cheerful waiters (who were by far the best part) as you watch people ride around on horses in scenes that are just slightly strung together to resemble some kind of narrative the of settlement in the New World. The opening act of Indians complete with a day-glow headdress and bird costume, dancing around with horses nearly made me click together my ruby slippers. It was followed by a herd of terrified bison making a quick cameo, further reminding us of the rape of the this land. I didn’t have time to dwell on history though because a hoard of white people driving covered wagons came onto the scene, and some hillbilly shenanigans ensued. The event is made further bizarre by a North vs. South theme. One side of the auditorium (mine, for what it’s worth) was dubbed the North, and the other side, the South. The states battled relentlessly all night long, as pigs ran amok and people hid in barrels. While I’ve always found Civil War themes to be quite fetching, I simply couldn’t embrace the spirit of competition. The final irony came when — just as dinner was served — some children were invited to chase chickens around the circle in a contest, during which time, a little girl picked up a large hen and carried it about 100 feet. My neighbors laughed uproariously, spewing bits of their chicken dinner everywhere. I played with my vegetarian dish: cold noodles with corn and ketchup.

Please don’t go to Three Bears General Store, otherwise known as the sad, sad bear pit. It’s a horrendous spectacle in Pigeon Forge that I did not patronize and you shouldn’t either.

From what I hear, Parrot Mountain is not worth the money, and from reading Trip Advisor, I got the feeling that only the most religious zealots enjoyed their experience in this Christian bird land. But the owner’s replies to negative ratings are a hoot.


We researched our options pretty thoroughly before booking. I was rooting for a romantic cabin, but my boyfriend, forever logical, pointed out that there probably wouldn’t be anyone around to, say, fix the a/c if it broke. We stayed at the Econo Lodge in Pigeon Forge. It’s on the main strip, had an excellent Trip Advisor rating, and was super cheap at about $80 a night. It included a really good breakfast (with eggs!), a clean pool and hot tub, a comfy bed with fluffy pillows, and a friendly, helpful staff. The Wifi worked great and we had cable! I usually think that talking to people is overrated, but I kind of liked chatting with folks pool-side. It’s just 15 minutes to Gatlinburg, so you’re close enough to everything.

The Only Thing…

Here’s where my northeastern predisposition for the secular made me bristle. Be prepared for some serious Christian kitsch. Jesus Saves signage is posted everywhere. Even the magician Terry Evanswood at Wonderworks lectured the audience about God, claiming that he “couldn’t stand here in arrogance and ignorance and not give credit where it’s due to the Lord our God” RIGHT AFTER explaining that as a magician, he must constantly be rooted in reality while the audience gets to enjoy illusion. I don’t know. To me his words were out of place, but everyone else seemed gung-ho, as applause and supportive cheers followed his sermon. He was a decent magician and did excellent slight of hand, but it totally killed the mood for me. I even wondered if he believed it himself or just knew how to placate the southern crowd.

Okay, the only TWO things that irked me. For being in the South, the area is super homogenous. As a New Yorker, I am used to seeing people from all over the world when I walk down the street, hearing a chorus of languages I don’t understand, and being exposed to cultures I otherwise would have no knowledge of. It was a predominantly white crowd. What’s with that, South? Maybe it’s because Pigeon Forge includes very little diversity in its attractions and programming, or because any depictions of people of color are tokenized, stereotypical, or — let’s just say it –downright racist. This is something about Tennessee life with which I may never find peace. I’ll write more on that in the future.

Photographically, I’d like to represent these opinions with *just a few examples* of Duck Dynasty merchandise I saw while in East Tennessee.

At Dollywood.

At Dollywood.

In an arcade in Pigeon Forge.

In an arcade in Pigeon Forge.

In a candy store.

In a candy store.

But overall, a good time was had by all. If I ever find my way back to East Tennessee AKA “God’s Country,” I’ll probably do some hiking and stay away from the strip malls. To see it once was enough.

s&p farrah creature

Quilt Week 2014

with photography by Tony Youngblood

Paducah, Kentucky is a town of about 25,000 people that boasts a cobble stoned downtown, an arts enclave, and the “Wall to Wall Mural Project” of over 50 murals that adorn the floodgate. It’s also the home of an Artist Relocation Program that offers incentives to artists who will move to Paducah and hopefully contribute to its evolving scene. It’s just about two hours north of Nashville, which is just perfect for a weekend trip.


This sleepy artistic village is transformed each year for one week as Paducah dons the badge of “Quilt City USA”, and 40,000 quilters and artists flock to the Four-Rivers Area for workshops, contests, shopping, and a huge quilt expo. The show ran this year from April 23rd – 26th and included plenty for the palates of veteran quilters and those new to the craft. As a beginner quilter myself, I was thrilled to see such diversity in style and conception. The crowd was predictably retired, although part of me was surprised: there are a lot of young contemporary quilters out there, but I was the lone thirty-something last Saturday.

It doesn’t matter so much because there was tons to take in. The expo showed hundreds of quilts from the U.S. and abroad, most notably Japan,Egypt, and Australia. Contests were sponsored by machine and fabric companies such as Moda and Janome, and categories ranged from hand quilted bed quilts to miniature quilts.

One highlight was an Egyptian artist hand quilting at top speed, cutting fabric as he sewed. I pulled this video of the same guy off YouTube from last years AQS show.

He has been quilting for thirty-five years and works ten to twelve hours a day. Here’s a finished quilt made in Egypt in the same way:

Quilt Makers of Cairo Hand-stiched quilt.

Tent Makers of Cairo Handstiched quilt. They’re making a documentary about these guys! Stay tuned.

The studio quilt collection was definitely my favorite.  I veer toward these nonconventional beauties that do strange, amazing things with the color wheel, add texture, show stitches, and bend traditional block patterns. Artists often dye their own fabric, use silk screening, or paint the fabric using various media.  These quilts bring out something that I love about quilts in general: they’re recycled pieces of art, made from scraps. They grew popular because they were useful and inexpensive. While studio quilts are not known for their utility, they share the spirit of reuse.

Studio quilts also speak to me of landscapes. This quilt below made me think of my old neighborhood in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Intersected by the toxic Gowanus Canal, it’s a skinny slice of Kings County.

Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn

Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn

gowanus quilt

“Night Rain in Venice” by Fenella Davies (U.K.)

Modern quilts also tend to use mixed media. This studio quilt used what looks like brass.


“Alternating Currents” by Patricia Malarcher

Keep going for more studio quilts!


“Mimiquilt VI: Degradation” by Mirjam Pet-Jacobs (Netherlands)


“Hunted 2” by Bente Vold Klausen (Norway)


“Mid-century Modern II” by Serena Brooks


“Jardin du Wiltz I” by Anna Torma (Canada)

laura's favorite

Oh my! I didn’t get the name of this beauty! If you happen to know the artist, please leave it in my comments.

tesoro escondito

“Tesoro Escondido” by Patricia Kennedy-Zafred (Pennsylvania)


While these studio quilts left me in awe, I wished that there were more of them, and that they weren’t hidden in a back room. I might not have found them if my boyfriend hadn’t scouted the scene for me. The fact is that a lot of women and men are creating quilts that have a fresh perspective, but if you use the AQS show as a guide, the quilt world is not evolving as quickly as its quilters are. I’d love to see more studio quilts and untraditional perspectives like these. Then, perhaps AQS would draw a younger crowd–a crowd that will be its future.

Here’s the Best in Show. When I read that the entire quilt was stitched by hand, I admired the craftsmanship. It most likely is technically a masterpiece. But it doesn’t make me feel any kind of way.


“Elated” by Ted Storm (Netherlands)

Some traditional bed quilts and wall quilts really were thrilling. I especially loved checking out the Japanese quilts, like these ones.


“Oriental Puzzle” by Hitomi Kanzawa (Japan)


“Autumn Freshet” by Noriko Endo (Japan)

I like these because they engage colors and shapes that I don’t normally see together.


“Dotting the Inside Box” by Sandy Snow (Florida)


“The Road to Love” by Elizabeth Dackson


And check out this lovely echo quilting:


“Red Flowers in Hawaii” by Noriko Hasegawa (Japan)

The miniature collections didn’t get more fun than this one “For the Baby Mice”:

baby mice

And the quilt below takes a modern look at the traditional log cabin:

wonky log cabin

“Abstract 16” by Cynthia Felts (Missouri)

Here’s my final favorite:


“Spirit” by Georgia Spalding PIerce


Shopping was insanely fun. I scored some gorgeous hand-dyed and printed fabric from Quilt Tapestry Studio, met some very  passionate folks from Accomplish Quilting (they’re opening a store in Nashville, ya’ll!), fell in love with Australian Aboriginal and Robert Kaufman prints at Color By Hand, and discovered Tambani Applique Blocks. Tambani is a quilting and embroidering collective  in the northern part of South African from a culture that is rich in folklore. They make blocks that tell these traditional African tales. Their brochure says, “The women are poor, illiterate and unemployed. Husbands often drift toward the cities, many never return.” Not only do these blocks carry out their oral tradition, but they also employ the women who make them; they keep all of the profit.


I also picked up this stunning batik from . The owner, Mary Ogwell, is from Kenya and gave us a great deal because she was anxious to close up and see her newborn grandson in Phoenix.


Finally, a true highlight was getting on a long armer for the very first time. Someday, when I am making a living as a quilter, perhaps I will look back at the Paducah Quilt Show as the day I found my calling!


As soon as I got home, I started my own art quilt. (blush.)

my modern quilt