East TN local offers tips for visiting like a local in the Smokies
When I travel, I like to do touristy stuff. I proposed on top of the Eiffel Tower, after all, so it’s not like I’m super original. But I do like doing the normal stuff, too. Ultimately, I find the idea of inserting yourself into another life – of getting to feel a bit like you’re someone else – very appealing. So I understand the idea of coming to the Smoky Mountains and not wanting to look like a tourist. We’re trained from a young age to be on the lookout for outsiders – even tourists. The accent is most often a giveaway. However, most of the time we know even before you speak.
There are a few ways to avoid looking like a tourist when you visit the Great Smoky Mountains. Notably, make sure you stay bear-aware and give the black bears their proper distance. Also, put the phone down, take in your natural surroundings and watch how you drive on the mountainous roads.
1. Don’t drive like a tourist
In the Smokies, we are politely aggressive drivers. Sure, we tailgate. And we will speed – within reason. We’ll cut corners and cross lines through the curves of the mountains like a NASCAR racer finding the right groove on a road course. But we also expect you to operate within the bounds of good sense. For example, if a sign warns you should take a curve at 20 mph, you don’t want to go much higher than that.
The goal is to keep the river of traffic flowing smoothly and effortlessly ahead. In addition – and this is important – whatever you do, do not honk. A single tap of that beeper is an affront, an insult to generations of our family members. Unless you’re in a tunnel, that’s different. Otherwise, do you want to see me make a left-hand turn at 0.5 miles per hour? Hit that honker at me when I haven’t seen the green arrow yet. I will wait for the red light and then drive through traffic like Axel Foley just to mess up your day.
Editor’s note: The takeaway here is to keep your eyes on the road and not slow down much to take in your surroundings. Please drive safely.
2. Don’t dress like a tourist
Don’t get me wrong, people need tourist money and some folks do good business selling souvenirs. But remember, if you bought something here, wear it back home. The exception to this rule – as with most rules in East Tennessee – is Dolly Parton. Dollywood gear, Dolly Parton merch – it’s all good. You don’t want to overdo it. If you’re wearing a Dolly T-shirt don’t accessorize with a Dolly hat – but otherwise, Dolly is a safe haven for all.
3. Don’t get close to the bears
Nothing grinds a local’s gears like seeing a tourist get too close to a black bear. Bears who become too comfortable with humans are more likely to be put down. So if you see a bear, you can take a photo, but please do so from a safe distance. And while we’re on the subject, be sure you never feed them under any circumstance. This includes offering them access to food, so lock up your car doors and garbage.
4. Don’t forget to put the phone down
I get it. You’re in a majestic place when you visit the mountains. However, take a few photos and then soak in the nature. It’s a place that is not meant to be observed through a screen. For better or for worse, you’re also not likely to have a very good phone signal depending on where you go. So print out your maps and be prepared, and then unplug like nature intended.
5. Don’t confuse your ‘shine
Surely, this one is tricky for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is we want you to buy the ‘shine from places like Ole Smoky and Sugarlands. Locals also buy fake ‘shine. We like the distilleries and the tastings and yelling “shweew” also. The difference is we know what we’re doing. We know what we buy in the dozens of distilleries around town is “’shine” and we also know where we can get the real stuff, too.
‘Shine is a complex mountain tradition that combines our natural distrust of outsiders. It’s how for generations we elected sheriffs who would make a well-timed bust or two every four years and spend the rest of the time looking the other way. It’s how the major institution of higher learning in the state got a fight song that brags about tax officials who never came down from Rocky Top. And it seems, never will. It’s complicated. So, buy the moonshine. However, just don’t brag about it as if it’s the real deal. But we all know it’s the lite version of the real stuff anyway.
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What do you think is the best way to spot a tourist? Let us know in the comments. And if you’re planning a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, be sure to check out our coupons page.