SILLY BEASTS IN SACRED PLACES
Karin Bolender on the secret truths that Dollywood reveals
As published in Arthur No. 8 (January 2004), with illustrations by Emily Ryan and art direction by W.T. Nelson
. . . And me astride a mighty rooster, with a raging red crown and swelled breast and silver claws, and it running, running: but suspended, rising and falling slow like tides, like a horse in a dream who gallops without going anywhere-rising and falling with hydraulic and dreamlike monotony, round and round, the same dim motion ascribing its circumference of colored lights and warped music round and again like a lathe into the world’s great big empty bowl. The next time around, it was a goat I rode. (1)
Oh it may have all started way back, when I was nine and saw a unicorn while on a honeymoon in Mexico. It was 1984: the beginning of the end for so many of us, God’s children. Of course nobody believed me. We also saw the Love Boat on that honeymoon, docked in Puerta Vallarta. It was my mother’s second marriage, the real one. But what does it matter now, anyway? That was another age, a virgin country.
And I can tell you, because you already know, how the paths that bring us from childhood to this are crooked and fraught with pitfalls. And this is what we get for our troubles: a soul full of rusty fish hooks and bullet holes, eyes that squint, hands that shake. But there are certain little comforts of adulthood. Whatever your poison happens to be, you seek succor where you can. In a time of great need—starvation, privation, aggravation, a broken heart and a broken head—I found succor at Dollywood.
I suppose I should thank the Bearded Menace, because I never would have discovered Dollywood if he had not smashed up a dream and sent me packing. So it was a fine gift he gave me, in the end. This hotblood from sweethome Georgia who said, “Come on baby, let’s go down south where I am from: I’ll build a mansion in your name, we’ll swim in the black creeks, lay down in the weeds, anywhere we want, lay back on the front porch or on piles of old tires and rock and rock until we are old and wise and ugly to everyone but each other, ourselves. And we’ll hold hands and murmur this dreaming talk with dogs at our feet licking and scratching, rolling in play with our naked children, who will cackle in raucous joy and swing from the scuppernong vines-wild flesh, dying light, faint music wafting in from somewhere. Ripe peaches and pokeberries’ll be washed clean and brought to the porch steps for us by possums and coons. Fruits of the land collected and carried to us by the crows and ants and snakes, who will all gather round in the evening to hear us speak in tongues and sing tales of these very days we are living now and the glory days to come, full of moon-age romance and steamy concupiscence, and don’t forget adventuring, on the sea, in the air, by camelback and purple Triumph: come on baby, let’s go down. Go down with me.”
Back in 1984, when I saw the unicorn in the month of November, I knew that you only have to believe in something enough to make it come true. I knew this because my mama told me, and it was confirmed by Robert Vavra’s 1984 “Unicorns I Have Known” calendar, which advised the following “to the pure of heart: watch carefully entering each forest glade as though you were the first human to set foot there; take time to sample pollen carried on a golden breeze; do not use deodorants or insect repellents or wear leather shoes or belts; and believe. Yes, above all, believe, and you will surely meet as lovely and noble and snow-white a single-horned creature as any who pirouette upon these pages.”
And so I did. All over 1984, I scrawled with the new calligraphy pen that was also a Christmas present that year: “I BeLIeVe! UnICorNS arE ReAl! UniCoRNs LiVe in 83! I [HEART] UNicOrnS!” And almost a year later, on the honeymoon, it came true. Nobody saw it but me. Not even my mother, who was wrapped up in her own love dream in the Mexican jungle, brighter and more free and happy than she had ever been before, or has been ever since.
* * *
“Women are so wise. They have learned how to live unconfused by reality. Impervious to it.” (2)
This comes from William Faulkner. But it might just as easily come from the pages of Dolly Parton’s autobiography, Dolly, if you read between the lines. Or it could be painted like a motto in twenty-foot letters, alongside a gigantic pink butterfly and an even more gigantic image of Dolly herself, all a-sparkle with sequins and high nest of golden hair, on one of the billboards along the highway in northeast Tennessee, advertising how many miles are still to go before the pilgrim shores up at Dollywood.
But of course, that couldn’t be. Because what lies under the however-many square acres of the Dollywood park is not the glitterful attractions and family entertainments that lure people in, but an old organic thing buried beneath. A mighty powerful secret. Primeval, even.
But oh, the unicorn: it’s not that I ever really forgot it, it’s just that after a while, in time, that quarry was overrun with the dream of other beasts-boys and men, but mostly boys. And with pubescence, I began a metamorphosis into a new and strange kind of being myself: some kind of rootless hairy hallucinating mushroom with linguistic and motor skills.
As if the hormones of pubescence themselves are this bewitching and infinitely powerful kind of hallucinogen, the effects of which never quite wear off, and make you hear and see, and more so believe, all sorts of beautiful monstrosities and warped miracles that fall under the rubric of sexlove. Wild imaginings like “I saw a unicorn” get replaced by wilder ones, like “I will love you forever.”
And somewhere along the seam between childhood and this circus that is sexlove, we are supposed to weed out illusions and fantasies and find out what reality is. A dark time is had by all, for a while anyway. But most of us make it out of adolescence somehow, and emerge as more mature human beings with hopes and desires and even, heaven help us, beliefs. Beliefs are great and all, until they stray toward the sayings and doings of other people. Then, we are all screwed. Yes, that’s exactly what we are.
Well, that’s how I got screwed by the Bearded Menace anyway. Hell, you heard what he said! Let’s see you try to not fall in love with somebody who vows, with an avowal disturbingly familiar to the last letter-every pitch and note and rhythmic twang-to work to construct the world newly every moment, build it with words and woods and other raw materials into what he believes it should be, all the forms and lights and glories, that seem to be exactly what you have been longing and working for all this time, and trying to build, alone. Just see if that doesn’t get all your electrical juices flowing. Silly beast, you believed in this—that the words and deeds building up between the two of you were plank-for-plank making something real and solid of a dream, and not just playing around in funhouse mirrors.
Well, when the blue lightning was over down in Georgia, the darkness that followed was profound. I was thinking all this over one evening, lying there alone in twisted sheets, in the fall, in his parent’s attic, when it was dead. That is when it came to me like a startling burst, hovering over the dark filthy futon, in the sheets full of our scabs and little bloodstains left over from the plague of seedticks we had suffered together with our mutts. And the last kiss—a desperate end-kiss. I will tell you. It was something I had never thought of before, but suddenly there it was. DOLLYWOOD. That’s how it came, a vision, like Jim Morrison’s Indian. Except it was not a figure but a booming sourceless voice that came into my head, out of nowhere, and commanded, “YOU MUST GO TO DOLLYWOOD.”
What? You mean Dolly Parton’s theme park? What the hell?
“NO, NOT HELL, THAT’S TOO EASY. DOLLYWOOD. GO THERE. GET THEE.”
And how can you argue with a booming sourceless voice that commands you to go somewhere, especially when you are no longer welcome where you are, and you have nowhere else in mind to go?
* * *
I lit out of Athens early the next morning, after I looked up on the Web where Dollywood was. I had never heard of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. By a stroke of luck, it was only about four hours north of where I’d been dumped-a straight shot up 441, straight out of Georgia and right up through North Carolina to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, through the flames of autumn foliage. But the scenic beauty was the least of my concerns, just then; I just needed to get to Dollywood, as soon as possible. It was like a fierce hunger, or a full bladder. Somehow, overnight, the vision of Dollywood had blossomed into a shining new hope, something rising out of the ashes, perhaps. I just had to get there. It had become a quest.
There isn’t room here to chronicle the tribulations of that day-long journey, in a doomed silver wagon I bought down there from a Bible salesman. But with every setback, every breakdown, every hold-up in some roadside gravel spit or tourists’ gold-mining village in North Carolina, I knew with more panting urgency that I had to make it to Dollywood somehow. That if I could only get there before it closed at 6 p.m., I-and my children, and my children’s children, and so on and on-might be saved. It was a race against time, and maybe fate even more so.
I hit Gatlinburg, the famed Smoky Mountain tourist village just south of Pigeon Forge, at around 4 p.m. I made it this far by the blessings of electrical tape and a nomad named Uel who roamed the country selling machines that make snow. The silver wagon just barely made it over the mountains, barely topping 20 m.p.h. and coughing a thick black smoke.
Then, in the tunnel through the last mountain between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge-so close now-the traffic jammed. Sitting there in the semi-dark, staring at the wide rear of a Volkswagen camper, that grayer version of reality struck again. It was late; I could see through the mouth of the tunnel ahead that the gold post-meridian sun was streaming low through the reds and oranges and still-greens of the old oaks, and Dollywood was still half an hour away. I knew from the website that the admission price was thirty bucks, and I had just handed over my near-to-last silver dollar to the Bible salesman in exchange for the sputtering slab of rust I had been patching all day with coathangers and rubber bands.
But even as these reasonings thudded through my brain, I knew I wouldn’t give up, not so close. I was determined at least to see it, at least to lay eyes on the giant pink butterfly. So when the traffic started to move several minutes later, I crept out of the tunnel clutching the last scrap of enthusiasm, crazy as Clark Griswald and more determined than ever to make it to Dollywood before the sun went down, maybe for good.
The sign of the giant pink butterfly is where the ordeal ends and the dream begins. I am not just talking about my dream, either. I am talking about Dolly’s.
When you push through that shiny silver turnstile into the theme park, it’s clear to one and all that you are passing into a dreamworld. That is brightly obvious. But the secret of Dollywood, well, that is something you have to search for, beneath the shimmering surface. But seek and ye shall find. Among the old, old rocks, in the mud and waters and crevices and tiny caves of lizards and bugs, and in your very mitochondria, it is there. And Dolly knows it, too.
It was 4:30, almost early evening, late in the season. The park was nearly empty. Maybe it was the perfect weather—hat slight fall chill with warm sun just knocking through, the leaves rasping in the little benevolent winds, the warm asphalt stretching on toward unknown wonders. Welcoming doorways every few feet, inside of which people were baking or candle-making or carving wood into animal shapes or talking quietly and smiling.
I know it seems unlikely, and I admit I was drunk on Coca-Cola. Sure, there were all the expected kitsch monstrosities and clichéd “down-home country” entertainments. A replica of the tiny shack where Dolly grew up poor with her flock of brothers and sisters-all the rags-to-riches platitudes. And of course a profusion of images of Dolly herself, starring as the queen, the angel, the sticky-sweet little gal. But there was something else, too. In the late evening sun, as I wandered alone along the flower-banked paths, I swear to you, in the spell of that evening, I truly felt Dollywood was one of the most comforting, mysterious, and beautiful places I had found in this world, since I was launched from my mother’s lap.
Gone for a while was all my anxious megalopolitan darkness of soul-lostness in love, in geography. There you are nestled into the earth, tucked into the mountains. A place. I sucked down the Coca-Cola. It was everywhere, like manna. Coke reigns in that country. I have always known that Coca-Cola is of the earth, loamy, molecularly similar to rich dark dirt: elemental. Never did I feel the truth of it more than at Dollywood.
But the day was waning fast, and I had to make the most of it. First thing I did was rush to the Emporium; I knew I needed physical artifacts-memorabilia, sacraments-because our days on the earth are so easily forgotten. Inside the gift shop, I was overwhelmed by the surreal colors and variety. I gathered an armload of baubles and trinkets—snowglobes and monogrammed mugs—gifts and raw evidence. I paid and stuffed them into my bag, then emerged blinking back into the sunlight, with a little over an hour left to see as much of the park as I could.
Up in the right-hand corner of the map was a prominent, wild-looking swirl of line and color. Next to it were the words “Tennessee Tornado-New in 1999!” Dollywood’s brand-new rollercoaster! This is where I rushed first, up a dappled lane. I found the mile of maze unpeopled, clambered to the loading dock. The clanking and the smell of grease and iron and exhaust were ripe in the air. The little black train pulled into the station, and I ducked on board near the front and locked my body down.
Lord, what a ride! Quickened into a warped timespace of less than two minutes, the spiraling madness rocked and shook, rose and spun and plummeted. And in the furious foaming moments on the Tennessee Tornado, hanging upside down over the tangled green and some of the oldest rocks in the world, millions and millions of years, all the little heartbreaks and burdens rolled down away for an instant and gave way to a pure glee-and I understood, no, felt, felt with every electron and all the empty spaces in them reverberating like bells, as I hung there still, upside down over the old, old mountains, what Beckett was talking about when he said: “Yes, even then, when already all was fading, waves and particles, there could be no things but nameless things, no names but thingless names.” (3)
I rode the Tennessee Tornado three times, alone. Hanging upside-down high over Dolly’s ancient green rocks and mountains, the leaves swelling and rolling like waves of the sea. The wildflowers exuding. The insects calling and calling. The birds murmuring from below.
Just like when you shake a bottle of milk or sodapop, the wild rocking of the rollercoaster brought all the buried secrets of organic being up to the surface in a great foamy mass. Post-rollercoaster, I began to see everything as if through a kaleidoscope of clarity, if you can imagine such a thing. The surface of Dollywood, just like Dolly herself, is all artifice, all smoke and mirrors, sequined and lace-trimmed. It is an explosion of what American culture holds as essentially feminine. What you see is all ephemeral colors and flashy forms, as captivating as an oil slick rainbow on water. But what you don’t see, while you are distracted by all that glittering, is that the dreamworld of this one painted lady is rooted deep in the earth, in prehistory, in some of the oldest rocks in the world.
One could go into a reverie here about Dolly’s religious faith, invoke the Rock of Ages, but even Christianity is mere baby’s breath compared to what really lies under Dollywood. The park blooms among those Great Smoky Mountain thrusts of Proterozoic quartzite, conglomerate, and shale. Nearby-not exactly a stone’s throw, but close enough to matter-you can find outcroppings of Cambrian, Ordovician, and Silurian limestone, sandstone, and shale from the early Paleozoic sea. Wherein lie tales written in minerals and tiny bones of the earth’s incomprehensible ages. All within the lordings of Dolly Parton Enterprises.
Not to suggest Dolly consciously chose the location of her theme park for its geological attributes: anybody who knows the first thing about Dollywood knows the park exists where it does for one reason only—that it is Dolly’s “Smoky Mountain home.” Dolly was born and raised a few miles from where her theme park now thrives. That terrain around the Little Pigeon River is the landscape of her girlhood, where she discovered the natural world whole, before it got broken. She first found praying mantises and birds’ eggs there, strange insect music and worms in the dirt, violence and pain and beauty and strange longings. In the land she found loneliness and company, in the plants and animals, and in herself and her flock of siblings. In time she learned to paint her lips red with pokeberries. In that landscape a raw little hillbilly girl met the world and dreamed of her own becoming.
And as if you didn’t know it, as if it wasn’t the first thing you think of when you hear the name “Dolly,” I can confirm that Dollywood is really about one thing and one thing only—and that thing is sex. Sex sex sex, girls girls girls, XXX. Yessir, it is all about sex. Well, sexuality, to be more precise. The grand allure.
What struck me most that afternoon of the first trip to Dollywood was that the prevailing symbol of the enterprise is not what you would expect-Dolly’s famous feminine endowment-but the butterfly. Like the crucifix in a church, the butterfly symbol is everywhere at Dollywood: napkins, ticket stubs, trolley cars. This is what’s interesting; this is the subversive gesture that hints at how the whole show is not about an icon in the form of a single person, a country star, but something much broader, much more human. And, significantly, much more androgynous. I submit that this is Dolly’s greatest triumph.
In the lonely winter months that followed my return from the Southeast, I began to understand how the obscurities of sexlove were what had drawn me to Dollywood, like a moth to a lamp. But like a moth, I just kept bumping up against the glass. I couldn’t get in. I was trying to put the revelations into words, but all I could seem to come up with was this: “Dolly Parton is an insect.”
Scrabbling with the rudiments of language one dim winter afternoon in a new century, I managed this elaboration: Dolly is the insect, the He/She, the naked bones of a soul—what we all want to glimpse, if only we could get there. The clack of leathern wings, oh yes, fluttering. Don’t you see? You might think that butterflies are girlish, but think again . . . they are INSECTS. Transforming creatures of the nonhuman world. And this is what Dolly is. And Dollywood is her hive. Her sweet honey hive, oh yes.
Carved into the some of the oldest rocks in the world, though. She is powerful. Oh, there was so much more going on there than met the eye, on that clear day when a person fled there to escape the Bearded Menace. I need the power of this vision now; I need it to get my sexuality back from the Bearded Menace who battered it, you see. And Dolly alone can help; beautiful, sexless Dolly, disguised in her glitter and sequins and sparkles, inside there hides her dry, prehistoric, insect soul.
Dolly Parton is an insect. You think the butterfly image is a coincidence? Dolly Parton will lead us out of the bondage of sex; a beacon, a glow we will follow into the sexless world. Yes, as sexless as the bugs, the rocks, the physics of pinball, the colors of the rainbow, the light, oh the light, and the stars.
But I was on the wrong track then. Dolly is NOT sexless AT ALL. I had yet to get the real revelation of Dollywood. I had work to do. But back then, I was bitter as a dandelion after the BM busted my love dream. My dream? Yes, the dream was mine, my dream alone, impervious to reality, I have been told, being a silly dreaming beast.
* * *
But back to that afternoon. After the rollercoaster ride, I wandered with new eyes. The light was dimming, but something else was dawning. I was Coke-drunk and dizzy, shaken up; it could be my authority from this point on is unreliable. So you don’t have to believe me, then, when I tell you what transpired at the Carousel.
It was about nearly closing time, and pretty much everyone but a few employees were gone from the midways. Ice troughs leaked shiny black rivers across the asphalt. Concession booths were battened down for the night. I didn’t bother to look at the map, just wobbled aimlessly in a daze of low golden sunlight, sucking at a five-dollar dose of Coke I bought for the commemorative plastic mug it came in, showing the rollercoaster and a shiny Dolly with her arms raised like an angel.
I sat for while on a bench beside the banks of the raft ride. The dirty pale blue water churning riffling gurgling in its concrete chute. Every so often one of the round eight-seater yellow rafts floated by, spinning emptily and bumping against the sides. I got up and wandered on, haunting Dollywood as the purple dusk approacheth. In that dimming light I remembered the sacred epigraph: “No soul shall walk save you.” (4)
Dusk was coming on for real when I came around a last bend in the path and saw the Carousel. The attendant was just closing it down. It took a minute to understand what I was looking at. I had seen carousels before, but never one like this.
It was still lit up with rows and rows of golden lights. They sprayed out in perpendicular lines across the eaves of the spherical roof, with orbited mirrors set into the core of the structure at perfectly spaced intervals. Set against the darkening evening, this whirligig nearly blotted out the horizon.
But the most striking thing about the Carousel was that the herd of animals impaled there were not just the familiar prancing horses, but a whole endlessly galloping menagerie of beasts both domestic and imaginary. Giant birds and mammals-a phyletic spectrum of creatures, frozen at varying altitudes in a kind of baroque equipoise. The first long look from the side where I stood in amazement revealed among the chargers a zebra, an iridescent dragon with little bat wings, a three-point stag, and a brown bear. All the steeds, horses especially, were garbed in ornately carved tack-saddles and bridles crusted with jewels and sculpted flowers and feathers, shapes and patterns of every color and degree of shine. Most were bridled-excepting the pig, the dragon, the white rabbit, the red cock, and the cat who carried a fish in its mouth-as if impalement on golden spikes wasn’t quite enough to keep their flung limbs and silent roaring under control. A black iron fence surrounded the entire carousel, like a corral to keep the whole thing from rolling off wildly in a stampede of silver sparks and clatter and obscene whinnying.
The attendant saw me staring and waved me over with a smile. I managed to string together a few crooked sentences about how amazing the Carousel was, and she told me a few facts about its maintenance, with what seemed like genuine pride. Then she offered me free rein to wander among the animals while she finished closing down.
So this is what I did. I walked the buckled silver floor amid the copse of fiberglass mammals. The animals glistened, and felt cool and slick to touch. I fingered their teeth and pink tongues, their flared nostrils, their bunched and shiny muscles. I ran my hands along their legs to their silver-shod or cloven hooves or paws or claws or flippers, where they thrust at the empty air. I mounted the ostrich, the pig, the lead stallion with his flaming arc of mane. I was up on the rooster when the lights flickered for an instant and a warbling music kicked up; the animal under me began slowly to rise. The trees and buildings slid backward. I grabbed the golden pole and looked at the attendant. She smiled at me from the control box.
Halfway into my second ride, the lights flickered again and went out. The music died down. The circling wound slowly down and stopped, and the attendant called that she really had to shut it down now, it was getting late. The goat I was on was arrested at its full risen height; I swung down six feet to the ground and patted the goat’s shoulder out of rider’s habit.
I rejoined the attendant to thank her, and just then a handsome middle-aged man came up. He was wearing an understated Dollywood uniform, just a butterfly patch on a khaki shirt over black pants. He introduced himself as manager of operations for the park.
He greeted us, the attendant and me, and she told him I was from New York, and how I had been admiring their carousel.
“Oh, well, this carousel is special,” he said, “Its one of the few in the world with what is called the Dentzel menagerie. Most have only got horses, but the Dentzel company let its carvers make any animal they wanted. They filled up a warehouse with all these crazy creatures, then customers would just walk around and pick out the ones they wanted.”
The man said all the animals on the modern Dollywood Carousel are fiberglass replicas of original wooden Dentzels.
“And look at the detailing,” he said. “It’s all hand-painted by artists.”
He pointed to the nearest charger; along with all the carved folds and bright breastplate of flowers and inset jewels, on the flank was a small scene of a Native American on a pinto pony, looking out over an unseen landscape. Every detail of the picture, from the feathers on the rider’s headband to the whiskers on the horse’s muzzle, was represented with exquisite care and realism.
We all three studied the painting, me newly, and the others with renewed admiration.
“And it isn’t just this one,” said the man. “Every animal got this much attention in its making.”
“But I have to go,” he said, looking at the lateness. “We’re having a wake in the Dollywood Chapel for a long-time employee who just passed away. But I’m glad you found the Carousel. We are very proud of it here.”
He went away, and though it was nearly dark, I had to take one more look at the detailing of the animals before leaving. I saw scenes in cracked paint-all sorts of breached little imaginings. Like tattoos, all the creatures wore them. The zebra, the stag, the leaping gray mares. Then—it’s not that I was looking for it, but it didn’t really surprise me to find it there; on the offside of the cock, on the saddleblanket of the stallion with the mane of tangled fire, I discovered a small image of a unicorn. It had a twinkling golden horn, and reared prettily as two hovering fairies held it by frayed reins of pink ribbon.
But the darkness had come, and it was time to go home.
* * *
That there is a form of sex, one’s own sexuality, that is whole, an excitement of atoms whose flow can never be stopped up for good, or taken away by anybody-because it is not one’s own dream, but maybe a dream of nature made into flesh. The fleshed-out forms that nature dreamed us into-genome, phenome, beast and human being. What we are born with, a shape that changes as we grow into it, as it grows all up into us. But still the rock is at the bottom of us—that’s the old secret, Dolly, that you know, that you taught me. I can’t tell you how much it means. I am sincere. I don’t care if I die. I needed to know something about the mysteries of beasthood, and you showed me, delicately. Sweetly. It is old old old. The old secret element: how the dark earth gives birth to us. That is what I learned at Dollywood.
(What happens in these hallowed spaces, place of amusement, explosive colors, rose gardens of mystery? Emphasized, larger-than-life womanhood, femininity, for one thing. The overblown blossom. Go there. Get thee. If you want to know.) The secret behind the pink butterfly: Dollywood is a wholeness, a great realization of a sexuality that belongs to itself, completes itself, but in this case it’s as much for the enjoyment and enrichment of others as it is for herself. Sure, Dolly is a woman, all woman, at least in the prevailing American perception of what a woman is; but when you get down to the meat and bones, the muck and salt and mess of sexuality the way Dolly does, the distinction is less significant. Her caricature of femininity is a grand disguise, almost a fantasy in itself. Dolly is the first to admit this—how she is all wigs and make-up and plastic surgery. She jokes in her book that she doesn’t know how long it takes to do her hair, because she’s never there when it gets done. She is a drag queen extraordinaire. And in this case, the disguise points like a flashing neon arrow to what lies beyond it. It becomes androgynous, more elementally human-mammalian as the great udders Dolly is famous for.
I would venture to guess that most Dollywood patrons are not as open to-or maybe in need of-sexual revelation as I happened to be on the occasion of my first venture there. But that does not make the fact of Dollywood any less provocative. Pretty little gal she may be, but you are standing in the actual realization of that gal’s vision, what clearly required millions in capital to create and maintain . . . and what is more powerful in this country, in this day and age, than the almighty buck? Her vision made solid, real, in acreage and clanking machinery. I doubt any grown-up walks away from Dollywood without a little awe for what it is. It may be true that there is nothing else in the whole world quite like it.
* * *
You don’t need to scratch too deep at the painted surface of Dolly’s colorful fantasy world, before you get a notion of the grit that lies under it. You can find it in the blacksmith’s sparks, the woodcarver’s scrapings, the buggymaker’s sawdust-how the Dollywood Foundation works to preserve the old crafts of the mountain folk. And it’s in the music, of course-its evolution and perfect presentness. And beyond that, those old rocks again, the minerals that are the source and the elements of all matters-scales, flesh, and feathers, love and electricity. And then there is the light, and who can say for sure what that is?
But all this is just chickenscratch. Here is what Dolly knows, the root and stalk Dollywood blossoms from. Here is what she wrote:
“It was an old abandoned church. It had been the chapel in Caton’s Chapel, the little community we lived in. Most of its windows were broken, and the old floorboards were buckled and dusty, but to me it seemed like God still lived there. Ironically it had become a place for all types of sin and vice. Boys would meet there to shoot craps or drink beer and moonshine. Couples would use it at night for sexual encounters. Men and boys fought there. There had been more than one stabbing. And yet, for me, God still lived there.
“I would often play in the space under the floor of the old chapel. . . . It was while I was playing under the old porch that I sometimes found the gold foil packages that had contained condoms. I used to put the two sides back together and pretend they were coins. I knew exactly what they were and would never dare take these coins home. It was because I knew what they were that I was fascinated by them. I knew what had come in this package, what it had been placed around, and what it had ultimately been placed into. That to me held more mystery and attraction than real gold would have.
“Inside the old church, the drawings on the walls were more testimonies to youthful sexuality. I spent a lot of time looking at them, studying the way the sexual organs had been drawn and at times trying to add to them.
“Also inside the church was an old piano, with a cracked sounding board and rusting strings, that had been left behind when the congregation moved on. So, here in one place was God, music, and sex. My fascination was complete. I picked up the flat pieces of ivory that had been the tops of the piano keys and kept them as treasures. I once took some strings from the soprano section and affixed them to an old mandolin I had found in our barn. It was more like a dulcimer, really. And when I strummed it, it sent up a droning sound that I could sing to. I wrote a lot of songs with that old mandolin. And so I would sing hymns to God for a while and look at dirty pictures for a while and pray for a while, and one day as I prayed in earnest, I broke through some sort of spirit wall and found God. Away from the stares of boys and the mothers and the preachers, I had met him not as a chastising, bombastic bully but as a friend I could talk to on a one-on-one basis. He is our father, after all, and that’s the kind of heavenly father that made sense to me. Here in this place of seemingly confusing images, I had found real truth. I had come to know that it was all right for me to be a sexual being. I knew that was one of the things God meant for me to be.
I also knew that my dreams of making music, of traveling outside the Smokies and pursuing a greater purpose, were not silly childhood ideas but grand real schemes ordained and created by my newfound heavenly father. I was validated. I was sanctified. I was truly reborn. I was happy. I thanked God long and loud . . . I sang with a strength and conviction that only God, and possibly Curt Dockery, could have understood. The joy of the truth I found there is with me to this day. I had found God. I had found Dolly Parton. And I loved them both.” (5)
It is just this. Here this . . . no, wait. This is delicate. I mean, it needs delicacy. It needs honor. It needs honesty. I have tried to peel back the layers and look at Dollywood as I saw it that day. How a person can ride the cock with new dignity and calm, and learn that sex is not a burden, but maybe a great flowing gift, from old times on. And forgive the bearded menace or the bitch who broke you, because no one means to harm the love dream-they only appear and lend it flesh for a while, breath, and sometimes that’s the best one can do. So then you go on: you hang upside down over the old, old mountains, the green tangle, rollercoaster rock. And find something truly wholesome. And by wholesome I do not mean morally-it’s not that kind of bestiary. I mean a real wholeness, hidden substrates keeping up appearances-a sense of elements in place, being in place. Being in a place: a Smoky Mountain home.
There in the land of Tennessee, Dollywood exposes an open seam of a dream: a dream of who a person wants to be, who and what one wants to love and behold. The strange beasts we are born, and the ones we become. Along the way to this becoming, we get lucky sometimes; we find sanctuary where belief in some wild dream meets land and flesh and machinery. Imagined forms mingle with architectures, hills and hollows-those sacred spaces where we sometimes find ourselves.
1. I owe much inspiration for this piece to William Faulkner’s story, “Carcassonne,” found in Faulkner, Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Random House, 1950.
2. William Faulkner, “Carcassonne,” Collected Stories, p. 895.
3. Samuel Beckett, Three Novels (New York: Grove Press, 1991).
4. O, Suttree.
5. Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business (New York: HarperPaperbacks, 1994), p.77.