My wife Leslie and I booked a trip to Europe in the months after 9/11.
It was an uncertain time for American tourists – even in a friendly place like England.
My brother’s high school trip to Europe was canceled that year.
“What are you going to do?” people would ask. “You’re not going to still go?”
Of course we were.
“But what if people figure out you’re Americans?”
First of all, I was a seasoned world traveler. I could blend in, disappear. Be non-descript. It’s not like we were going to a part of the world where we would stand out.
In a place like England, I could blend in with the locals easily, as long as I didn’t speak.
If I spoke, it was Dick Van Dyke time.
“Wot that, Govnuh? Crikey!”
When I travel, I also like to do tourist-y stuff. I proposed on top of the Eiffel Tower, after all, so it’s not like I’m terribly original.
But I do like doing the normal stuff, too. I enjoy going to grocery stores and everyday shops that don’t cater to tourists. I especially like the development of Airbnb.
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. The idea of experiencing the mountains and the neon mayhem of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge as a local would.
But it’s – understandably – somewhat hard to do.
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.
So, I’m going to go out on a limb here and give you the inside stuff. Here are our top five ways not to look like a tourist in the Smoky Mountains.
5. DON’T get cocky on mountain roads
We are politely aggressive drivers. Sure, we will 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. Barring the presence of law enforcement, the rules of the road are malleable.
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.
Our 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.
4. DON’T wear long pants
I’m looking at you here, men.
Wear ball caps and shorts from Valentine’s Day to Thanksgiving and any other day where the high gets to 40 or better the rest of the time. Okay, maybe 50 and bring a jacket along for the higher elevations.
I see posts every so often from the New York Times or whatever saying shorts are for boys and men should wear long pants all the time.
Nah, son. Shorts are where it’s at. We ain’t out there trying to be fashionable. We’re out here trying to be comfortable.
Of course, you’ll have certain sects that don’t adhere to these policies. Frat boys, for instance, are known to get wild hairs. And suddenly it’s cool for everyone to wear seersucker pants before going down to the frat house.
But for the most part, it’s cargo shorts and an old ball cap. Exceptions would be somebody’s getting hitched, wakes or attending church.
3. DON’T dress like a tourist
Look at it this way, our gift shops are tourist traps.
Don’t get me wrong, people need tourist money and some folks do good business selling souvenirs.
But remember, if you bought something here, it’s for back home. We don’t purchase our clothes, hats or anything else from the gift shop. The exception to this rule – as with most rules in East Tennessee – is Dolly. 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.
2. DON’T try to use the lingo
Look, y’all isn’t some cute little word we cooked up to please the tourists. It’s a useful, multi-faceted word capable of carrying heavy burdens and hidden meanings. Certainly, it’s utilitarian. It’s lived in. The edges are worn, even frayed.
However, y’all should know that the quickest way we can spot an imposter is through an inauthentic y’all.
Tourists think it’s a catchall, employed willy-nilly like when Smurfs say “Smurf”. But we don’t just give our y’all away. It’s earned.
When is it okay to say y’all for the first time? If you have to ask, you ain’t ready. And if you’re ready, you won’t have to ask.
1. DON’T equate your store-bought ‘shine to the real thing
This one is nuanced.
Surely, this one is tricky for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is we want you to buy the ‘shine. Good for the tax base and all that. Also, we too 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. And in truth, in general terms, laws made by outsiders and things like taxes with our upbringings that warn of the of things like adult beverages.
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 that never came down from Rocky Top. And it seems, never will. It’s complicated.
At any rate, maybe “don’t buy the ‘shine” is the wrong message. Buy it.
Just don’t brag about it as if it’s the real deal. It’s good. But we all know it’s the lite version of the real stuff anyway.
What do you think is the best way to spot a tourist? Let us know in the comments.