They say good jazz is about the notes you don’t play.
I don’t know if that’s true, but as a former sax player who had quite a solo during the 9th-grade band’s rendition of the Herbie Hancock classic “Watermelon Man,” it sounds good enough.
Like jazz, a good vacation is sometimes about the choices you don’t make.
Now, one interpretation of that idea is that it’s best to play it safe. But Miles Davis wasn’t scared to make a mistake and play a note in the wrong place. He was speaking in praise of expertise. And he had the experience and the knowledge to know when to let the music breathe.
Specifically, he knew when the absence of a note could be more powerful than any note he could play.
With this in mind, I know the Miles Davis of Smoky Mountain vacation planning.
In fact, that’s me if you’re scoring at home. And I want you to play it safe on your vacation.
It’s about preparation and planning. And it’s about understanding when to play a note and when a piece of music needs to breathe.
In the words of another musical maestro, it’s about knowing when to hold them and knowing when to fold them.
And so, as you plan your next trip to the Smokies, I want you to be prepared. I want you to understand the risk vs reward of the choice you make.
Here are some of our best don’ts when it comes to visiting Pigeon Forge.
7. Don’t play it safe
A lot of people come to the Smokies and have the same vacation experience over and over again. They stay in the same hotels. And they eat at the same restaurants. They see the same shows and shop at the same stores. And, if they enjoy that, who are we to tell them differently?
Well, we’re the Miles Davis of Smoky Mountain vacation planning so we can tell them a little something.
One of the great things about the Smokies is that they’re always changing.
In the mountains themselves, those changes can take eons, but down amongst the people in Pigeon Forge? They come a bit faster. Try the new things when they come.
Try for the right balance of familiar favorites and something completely different. Do you have to visit Dolly’s Stampede every year? Try the Pirates show. Does everyone know your name at Pancake Cabin?
Maybe give the Lil Black Bear Café a try.
6. Don’t go for the gemstones
Don’t go mining for gemstones at one of the many, many mining attractions in Pigeon Forge. However, this one comes with a caveat. If your kids like to treasure hunt and you want to spend $20 mining, by all means, let them do it. But for the rest of us, mining does not always offer good odds.
Sure, occasionally someone buys a $125 package and walks away with a valuable stone, but the house almost always wins. If you really want to do some mining, there are some places in Western North Carolina where there is an actual tradition of finding some gemstones that are a little more of an authentic experience.
Again, if you enjoy gem mining, more power to you, just understand you’re paying for the entertainment experience and not any real chance to get lucky. Also, verify before you pay that you’ll have the chance to win authentic gemstones.
There are some places that don’t even offer the real things.
5. Don’t go looking for real ‘shine
Look, I kid the tourists about the commercial distillery version of moonshine because I know a guy or two who can put their hands on the real thing, made in a secluded barn in Cocke County.
Once or twice I’ve even run across some real, high-quality aged stuff. I’ve also – once or twice – run into a mess of ‘shine that was of significantly less quality.
A guy I know got into a batch of it that was poorly made and it messed up his digestive processes for more than a week. He was sure the moonshine had eliminated his gut bacteria. You hear about people going blind because of ‘shine, but you never hear of what can happen to millions of innocent gastrointestinal tract microbes.
Look, the commercial stuff is good enough; a tourist involving themselves in the actual trade is never a good idea.
To illustrate, years ago, my wife and I went to New York and to Chinatown to check out the knockoff purse action. First, we followed a very nice lady to the trunk of a car in a parking lot – a great place to do some shopping.
Then, we followed another lady into a building, down some stairs and into a large windowless room. I wish I could tell you I had enough sense not to go into the large windowless room, but they had purses in there, so we went.
We were there a few minutes when voices buzzed over a walkie-talkie about police being nearby and they locked the door – with us on the inside. I felt like an absolute rube moron, mostly because I was.
Anyway, don’t get yourself in a similar situation in Pigeon Forge. Just stick to the tastings.
4. Don’t go chasing waterfalls
No. Sorry, that was TLC. Rest in peace, Left Eye.
You can chase waterfalls in the area. Just practice trail and bear safety. Never offer access to food, do not get close and do not leave any trash behind.
3. Don’t overthink it or over plan
Look, vacation planning is hard. But not really.
For example, look at the things that are popular, look at the things that are doing well. Dollywood attracts trillions of visitors each year for a reason, you know?
If they like it, chances are you and your family will like it, too.
It’s a vacation, have fun, and sit back and relax.
2. Don’t hold yourself back
Not everything is for everybody. I have – in my life – felt a certain way about the stereotypes of the mountain people and where I fit into that melting pot.
Because I was afraid to be seen a certain way, I declined to do certain things. Comedy Barn? No, thank you sir. Not for me. I’m not one of the hill people amused by Hee Haw cornpone humor. I’m a sophisticate.
Now excuse me while I make plans to see the latest Johnny Knoxville extravaganza.
Then, finally, I went and had a great time, despite myself.
There’s some risk involved in this. You may find an activity that you legitimately didn’t enjoy. But, often, in the days, weeks, months and years after our vacations, it’s the parts that weren’t a success that we remember and tell others about.
1. Don’t go to a celebrity restaurant for Southern food
If you want traditional Southern foods, I don’t recommend going to Paula Deen or Guy Fieri’s bowling alley/flavor emporium.
Of course, everything is subjective. I know people who really love both of those places. But do they offer traditional food from this region or an authentic experience? That’s a stretch.
There are, in fact, legitimately good and interesting restaurants in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg and a fascinating foodie scene developing over in Sevierville.
Give those people your money instead of ol’ Paula and you’ll be happier for it.
Do you have a tip on what not to do in Pigeon Forge? Let us know in the comments.