Gatlinburg is 15 harrowing downhill miles from Clingman’s Peak. Luckily, Bryson successfully persuades a group of reluctant teens into driving them there. Bryson finds Gatlinburg appallingly ugly. It seems to thrive off people who say they want to see nature in the mountains but really just want to play miniature golf and eat bad food near the mountains. Despite this, Bryson and Katz are thrilled to arrive. They check into a motel and head to an overpriced burger joint. The town is full of overweight tourists with cameras; everyone eats junk food, piles into Gatlinburg’s mini-malls, and plays mini golf. Bryson notes that the attractions will likely be replaced by similar nondescript ones, “for that is the way in America.”
Having realized that the wilderness as something of a disappointment, Bryson now turns his attention to the urban sprawl that surrounds most national parks. It’s abysmally ugly here, and it bothers Bryson that so many Americans treat nature as a novelty—it’s almost like visiting an amusement park. Even when tourists do come here, it seems that they want to do the same commercial things in the same commercial places that they’d do at home, except with a nicer view. Bryson thinks this an endemic issue in the United States when he says “that is the way in America.”
Bryson is astounded by the rate of commercial growth in the United States. In 1951, Gatlinburg only had one general store. By the 1990s, it has 100 motels and 400 gift stores. This is common in the United States. The next town over, Pigeon Forge, now houses Dolly Parton’s theme park and 200 outlet stores. Meanwhile, in 1996—the year of Bryson and Katz’s hike—the Appalachian Trail is 59 years old. Few highways have lasted that long.
In emphasizing the commercial sprawl surrounding the Smokies, Bryson emphasizes that there seems to be no happy medium between the extremes of ugly urban sprawl and the punishing Trail. Once again, Bryson implies that Americans are underserved by this situation, as it limits their opportunities to engage with nature in an enjoyable way.
Bryson spots a map of the Appalachian Trail in a shoe store. On the map’s scale, the whole Trail is four feet six inches high. Suddenly, Bryson realizes that so far, they’ve only covered the first two inches. Both Bryson and Katz are stunned. They sit in silence thinking about their grueling days and weary evenings. It’s immediately obvious that they’re never going to hike the whole Trail—and strangely, the realization is liberating. Enlivened by the possibilities this opens up, they pore over their maps deciding on the parts of the Trail they do want to hike. At first, they decide to pick up the Trail a bit further on, past the Smokies.
Having discussed the ugliness of urban sprawl around national parks like the Smokies, Bryson now portrays the alternative to being in Gatlinburg: miles upon miles of grueling trekking in a remote, mountainous wilderness. Neither option seems particularly appealing at this stage. Bryson reinforces the idea that the choice between urban sprawl and punishing wilderness is disappointing. He would much rather enjoy some sort of rural life—say, a small village—but seems to be unable to find anywhere between the two extremes of wilderness and strip malls.
Bryson calls around to inquire about cab fare to Ernestville, 20 miles up the road, but he’s dumbfounded when none of the drivers know how much that will cost. He grows irate as Katz warns him that his attitude won’t help them get a cab. Eventually, one cab driver agrees to swing by later and drive them. Based on their conversation, Bryson thinks that the guy is an idiot. When they arrive at a motel, Bryson reads a newspaper as they wait outside the office. He learns about legislation to ban teaching evolution in schools and start teaching Creationism. Suddenly, Bryson decides that he doesn’t want to be this far south anymore, and he suggests picking up the Trail at the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia instead. Katz is ecstatic about skipping a large slog of the hike.
In order to leave the hellish commercial environment of Gatlinburg and head back to nature, Bryson has to take a cab. This reinforces the idea that it’s actually quite hard to have a spontaneous adventure in the woods in the United States. It really does seem to Bryson like he’s surrounded by an uncomfortable mashup of urban highways and remote mountains. Feeling disappointed by the experience, Bryson and Katz happily agree to skip a large chunk of the Trail, hoping that other options will await them in the north.