As idols go, mine really run the gamut. The women who inspire me range from the everlasting chic and celebration of simplicity of Coco Chanel to the cool intelligence of Diane Lane (that woman wears the hell out of a pantsuit) all the way to the star spangled disco ball of feminine allure that is Dolly Parton.
It took little more than this quote “I describe my look as a blend of mother goose, cinderella, and the local hooker” to convince me that this woman has something special I should pay attention to, and then this movie to seal the deal.
It isn’t just the fact that she is uncompromisingly, unflinchingly fabulous, or that she has stood by her image and confidently pursued her own idea of beautiful all of these years. It’s also her prolific music career. She grew up in a family of 12 siblings in the great Smokey Mountains of TN and pestered her siblings unendingly to sing with her, which I can relate to, after being bribed on many a family road trip with popsicles in exchange for shutting up (I had a really long “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” phase.) She started out poor, flat chested and above all, hungry for music and has since written more than 3,000 songs and sold an estimated 100 million dollars in records. As a fairly unendowed non-millionaire who aspires to one day be both things, I just can’t help but look up to this country music goddess.
Thus, it has been my dream for a while to celebrate my quarter life crisis with a girls’ trip to Dollywood, the amusement park she made in the Great Smokeys. In my mind this place was going to be the mecca of big haired and big dreamed women everywhere, a place where country music would fill the air and Dolly impersonation drag queens would saunter down the glittered sidewalks while singing along. So maybe I over-thought it just a bit.
We pulled into Pigeon Forge around ten in the evening, which we thought was nine, because we neglected to realize that we’d driven into Eastern Time. (Sad fact about the Drllevich sisters: we did not actually comprehend the time change until we arrived back in Nashville the next day and magically showed up one hour early to a show. Thank the lord we have street smarts.) Forty-five minutes and several ‘recalculatings” later, we had booked the cheapest room we could find on Priceline and finally found our way to the Days Inn. After a night of Christmas-eve quality sleep, I woke Venise with a good old fashioned steamroll the next morning and started smearing on my war paint. Venise joined me, with only a bit less enthusiasm.
The Days Inn continental breakfast was an experience that I can only imagine as similar to a scene wherein Maury’s “Who is the Father of This Baby” guests and Oprah’s “Women Who Changed the World” are sharing a waiting room. The elderly guests stared at my thighs like they could see my soul in there and maybe save it via meditation. That should have been the first sign. Still, I was convinced that upon arrival I would be among kindred spirits and bulk Aqua Net buyers.
The day we arrived the news was out that a cold front was moving in to the Great Smokies. This was cause for grave concern among the local residents. Despite the balmy forty-nine degrees, weather that a Seattlite might not think to button their coat in, the Tennesseans were engaged in a full-out scarf and mittens panic. Sitting in our rented red Toyota and watching the queue of parka clad and dour faced citizens marching up to the Dollywood tram was the second sign, and Venise and I decided that a drink was in order. A few warm strawberry-ritas and a quick selfies session later, we had the fortitude to join the very small group of buttoned-up guests and head in.
The first thing we saw as we pulled in was a sign welcoming us to the “National Southern Gospel & Harvest Celebration.” This was the final sign it took for me to realize that Dollywood is much more about the humble, God-loving heart of gold side of Miss Dolly than the bedazzled, buxom blonde side.
We toured the park with laughter and wide eyes following my short shorts everywhere we went; a reaction that I hope had more to do with the weather than the audaciousness of my outfit— if only they knew what I wear in Vegas! I soldiered on because one of the things I admire most about Dolly is her refusal to take herself or anyone else too seriously and I know that had she been there, her shirt would have been tighter than mine and her hair higher.
First stop was the Dolly museum, a visit that made the 7 hour round trip car ride and $60 admission prices worth it for me. The sweet woman working the entrance (no one employed at Dollywood is under 40 for some reason) told us she wished her grandson was there to see such pretty girls, which was my first and last compliment at the park. We saw the Coat of Many Colors, retired wigs and her wisp-waisted dresses. We also learned more about her inspiring forty seven year marriage to her elusive husband Carl Dean, of whom she has said, “it’s just he doesn’t really like to be with anybody but me. He loves staying home and working on the farm.” Venise and I can definitely relate to that!
Next we saw a show in which some of her nieces and nephews play her hits and I tried to practice a yogic gratitude ritual to keep the jealousy from eating me alive as I imagined a birthday party thrown by Aunt Dolly. We also got to tour her retired bus (spoiler alert, 1990’s RV décor was hideous) before deciding to say ‘uncle’ and don some more practical roller coaster riding attire.
The best thing about a cold front and touring Dollywood on a school day in the off-season was no lines! We tested the strength of our Aqua Net hairdo’s on several, but the wooden mining themed rollercoaster was the fastest and best. Appalling the other guests one more time, we even rode the splashing river ride. After a sampling of Appalachian sorghum treats while watching a sorghum harvest with a draft horse and mill, we called the day a success.
Our day in Dollywood was not the flamboyant fantasy experience I had imagined. It was basically what’s advertised: an amusement park that celebrates the homespun fun of mountain life and aims to educate its guests on the customs and music of the Appalachian hill people. It was not a gathering of sequined kindred spirits reciting Dolly trivia in Tennessean twangs. In reality, as Venise and I found out, it is a prime destination for the over-fifty leaf gazers who make their way from the northeast down through TN tourist spots each Fall on their way back home to Florida. It is a place where locals can pay $30 more on their ticket price to get a season’s pass to bring their children on school breaks. In that way, it is really not that different from our local Wild Waves amusement park. And yet it is, because of her. ￼