The breakfast waiter at our hotel in downtown Atlanta asked us where we were headed; we said Nashville, and I asked him if there was anything in particular we should check out along the way. He said that as we’d probably be taking the interstate, the obvious place to break our journey was at Lookout Mountain just by Chattanooga. Then he said a whole lot more stuff about the Last Battle of the Cherokees, and also a famous civil war bust-up on the flanks of this notable acclivity. (I use the term “acclivity”, I hasten to add, not out of wilful obscurity, but because it’s a favourite of the writer Ambrose Bierce, much employed by him in his celebrated civil war stories.) I began to get the impression that our waiter was something of a history buff, but I didn’t let that deter me from being an ignorant tourist. “What exactly is there to see there?” I pressured him.
“Well,” he rejoined, “there are seven states to be seen from the summit, for a start.” “And from what vantage point exactly,” I persisted, “can you apprehend this magnificent vista?” Here the waiter began to demur a little: “Well, truth is, you have to go into this place Rock City, which is kinda corny – though the kids might like it.” The kids, who closely resemble extras from the Planet of Apes movies (the originals, not the remakes), looked as if they might like to dismember this talkative human, but I spoke for us all, I think, when I said, “Cool, Rock City it is, then,” because I’d been trying to convince the kids (and by extension myself) that European ideas of folk authenticity existing only in contradistinction to crass commercialism are quite inapplicable to the American scene. “You have to appreciate,” I’d lectured them, “that this is the country where popular culture was invented, so no matter how cheesy something seems, it’s still rooted in the American soul.”
Eight hours later, standing in an underground cavern hacked out of the stuff that gives Rock City its name, I had cause to reconsider this judgement. In front of me was the most lurid tableau I’d ever seen in my life: a vast glass case, some 60 feet long, housing myriad individual little scenes from fairy tales, each one illustrated by posed figurines and ditsy bits of model-making. Here was Little Boy Blue tending his sheep, and over there was Rapunzel letting down her golden hair; Cinderella bent to try on the glass slipper and Jack bartered for the magic beans. It would all have been perfectly unsettling in the clear light of day, but lit with fluorescent lights the colours had a hallucinogenic intensity – this was the fairy tale repurposed as a bad LSD trip.
Just as Rock City itself was a perfectly acceptable, thousand-foot eminence repurposed as a new kind of landform, one beyond mimsy, beyond whimsy, beyond even the outermost event horizon of Hitlerian kitsch, what with its crazily paved paths, its Lover’s Leap and Wishing Well. There were goblin caves and trolls’ bridges, magic grottos and prosaic pinnacles; all right, I made that last one up – but the point is, that not one inch of the hilltop had been left unaltered. Where some might wish to experience untrammelled nature, the creators of Rock City had chosen the most plangent form of artificiality there is: landscaping.
Of course, it ill behoves the English to criticise such behaviour, given that we invented the landscape garden. Indeed, such was the etiolated condition of the English bon ton in the 18th century that the only place they felt comfortable strolling about was in a simulacrum of the natural world, rather than that world itself. I suppose Rock City might fulfil the same function for tourists of our own era: terrified by the prospect of coming face to face with the very real beasts of the Southern wild, they opted instead for a close encounter with Little Boy Blue. And had been opting for this since 1932 (a year before Hitler’s election as chancellor), which made this not just any old kitsch, but rather yet another example of classic American folk art.
Or so I’d tried to convince my apes as they swung from branch to branch, chucked peanuts at the other visitors and generally did their best to ridicule the entire experience. However, the acidic tableau was the bendy straw that broke the cuddly camel’s back – when we’d arrived at the ticket booth I’d assertively queried the prices: “Jesus Christ! Seventy bucks just to take the family for a walk to see a view!” The woman inside was sincerely aggrieved: “Please, sir,” she implored me, “if y’all don’t feel your money was well spent in Rock City I’ll be truly surprised.” Surprised she duly was: I wanted to save her tender heart, but she spotted me hightailing for the exit and called out: “Didja enjoy yourselves?” I couldn’t help myself, and called back: “I want my money back! This place sucks like dog shit!”
I suspect she’s still reeling – but then so am I; to this day, if I close my eyes, I can see a Little Boy Blue-shaped after-image. And as for the view of seven states, that turned out to be hogwash; you can descry only three from Lookout Mountain: the view comprises mostly Chattanooga’s world-famous choo-choo museum.