We Still Like Ike
Volume III, Issue II - Fall 2012
  • Stella Parton is not nearly as—ahem—big as her older sister, Dolly. Still, people in Maggie Valley hope her near fame and buxom bloodline might resurrect what once was: a wooden sprawl of fake Wild Westernry atop Buck Mountain, not far from what had been the Trail of Tears. Last month, Alaska Presley bought the place from the bank, and here comes Stella to remake the past.

    But, of course, an amusement park named Ghost Town in the Sky has been doomed by irony since the beginning. Today, there’s no one to even manufacture the rolling of tumbleweeds through the grown-over streets; the chairlift to the top waits stilled and rusty, and the gunslingers have taken jobs at the Wal-Mart or aimed hopes of stardom at Dollywood in Tennessee. The town’s fake general stores and banks and churches all list slightly, hinges loosening, roofs sinking. Ghost Town in the Sky is, in this moment, the realest version of itself it has ever been.

    But the glory. Remember the glory: The smoke-spraying gunfights and the rickety, ridge-running roller coaster. Flirty, middle-aged can-can dancers sliding back into character after a smoke break. Indian Village! Red Dog Saloon! The Apache Kid!  ............

  • The lines of families boarding the chairlift climbing above Highway 19, them wholly suspended there: Ghost Town itself not yet in sight, their hopes and fears now collected and dangling from a cable pulling thousands of feet upward, and the lift stalling and jerking all the way—Is this part of it? Should we scream? Where does the Wild West begin?

    Raising up a Wild West theme park in southern Appalachia might just have been brilliant. Because of the region’s isolation and behind-the-times-ness, George Vincent called it a “retarded frontier” in 1908, a place more closely aligned with the unexplored West than modern America. In the 1930s, Berea College’s president, William Goodell Frost, started a campaign to rename the area “Appalachia America”—so distinctive and distinct that it ought to be given its own country. In the 1960s, Ghost Town came into this land of Hatfields and McCoys, of Deliverance, of moonshine running and all around outlawing. But the Wild West has always been here.

    For miles below Buck Mountain, the road splitting the valley appears flanked by extensions of Ghost Town—wooden strip-mall-like structures sprinkled here and there on the way to Tennessee.  ............

  • Some promise passersby a chance to try their hands at pan-mining for gold: a giant wooden man with a corncob pipe and overalls planted on a hill’s knob, marks the stop; gold in them thar hills, he says by way of a cartoon speech-bubble. Other shops advertise the chance to see a caged black bear or meet an Indian.

    Surrounding all of this stand the seemingly untouched Smoky Mountains, protected as a national park. They played their part in the drama, too. By hiding any sign of modernity, of man-made life behind them, the hazy mountains allowed the Wild Western fantasy to take hold, to settle in.

    This seclusion and the backward letters on the handwritten signs along the highway and the shaky chairlift to a hidden and forgotten town above it all lured over 600,000 people a year to Ghost Town in the Sky in its 1980s prime. Giddy grown men stood in the streets watching borrowed tropes from old Westerns play out: a prisoner transport held up by the Apache Kid; shooters crouch behind wooden barrels to escape the marshal’s stray bullets; a watchman with a rifle on the saloon’s balcony is shot to fall thirty feet onto a thick cushion in the street. Kids smiled all the way back down the chairlift with new cap guns and  .........................

  • adrenaline still rattling around inside their chests after riding the Red Devil high into the sky. And there was me with my faux bearskin canteen and a beaded, Cherokee change purse telling anyone and everyone at school about dead bodies and cotton candy and saucy ladies.

    But my dear Ghost Town, the modern world would not wait at bay forever. And you stayed so far behind, a retarded frontier of your own. You watched the weeds strangle and the gears stick and slip. You stranded tourists on the chairlift for over two hours one summer. You sent packs of boys on un-inspected rides that broke down with ease.

    And the bankruptcy and the rock slide that sent pieces of you into the valley. The interstates. The new casino in Cherokee. The gas prices. Political correctness. Computers. Time. Everything worked against you. Until you finally quit.

    Now, not even Stella Parton can bring you back. Not the Geronimo Drop ride bought in Memphis a few years ago. Not the constantly re-aired television commercial from the 80s. Not the movie filmed on location in 2008, Ghost Town: The Movie,  ............

  • starring Stella herself and reinvigorating those old gun-slinging storylines. Oh, Ghost Town, even Lazarus died again. Just lie back and let go.

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