Lookout Mountain, Georgia
Garnet Carter invented miniature golf. That would be enough for most people. But his mini-golf franchises foundered during the Great Depression, and by 1932 Garnet was looking for a new way to make money. He didn't have to look far.
Frieda, Garnet's wife, had turned part of their Lookout Mountain estate into an elaborate garden. She had marked a trail through its giant rock outcroppings, populating it with odd statues of gnomes and fairytale characters. Garnet guessed that people would pay to see such a thing. He advertised it with the slogan, "See Rock City," which he had painted on the roofs of barns and birdhouses from Michigan to Texas.
Eight decades later, over a half-million people a year still obey Garnet's command.
With so many barns and birdhouses, Rock City is easy to find. But the famously ubiquitous roadside advertising doesn't offer many clues as to what you'll actually "see" when you get here. It almost doesn't matter; the attraction is so cleverly laid out that you're on your way through it before you know what's happening. Everything is situated along the "Enchanted Flagstone Trail," and once you pass through the turnstiles there's no turning back. The Trail is so narrow, and the volume of pedestrian traffic is so persistent, that you're propelled forward whether you want to be or not.
What Frieda Carter did at Rock City was to take Nature and make it better. Her trail winds through grottos and glens, up crevices and along cliff ledges, while crossing and recrossing itself at different elevations. Improvements have been added along the way, and everything is labeled. Needle's Eye and Fat Man Squeeze offer claustrophobic challenges to the supersized. Swing-a-Long Bridge hangs suspended over a deep gorge, and it's fun to bounce up and down as the nervous people behind you look for a way out -- but there is no way out. Lovers Leap and Observation Point lie beyond, and from these unobstructed heights you can supposedly see seven states. Most people can probably see only two, but the lack of landmarks makes the claim at least possible.
Rainbow Hall provides a similar vista, seen through windows that have been covered with a different colored gels, answering the unasked question, "What would Chattanooga look like with purple or green air?" Along the way the Trail crosses directly over the brink of thundering High Falls, an impressive feat of engineering that is only slightly less wonderful when you learn that High Falls was built by Rock City.
The trail carries you onward, through Goblin's Underpass, under 1000-Ton Balanced Rock, and into the Hall of the Mountain King, which is occupied by concrete gnomes tending a moonshine still. Finally, footsore and perhaps a little winded, you find yourself at the tunnel entrance to Fairyland Caverns. It looks ominous, but you must enter. Fairyland Caverns is Frieda's masterpiece, where Rock City abandons the real world and ventures into its own wobbly realm of fantasy.
You descend through a long series of cave-like galleries. Elves and gnomes leer at you from above, perched on trapezes and simulated rock shelves. The ceilings are covered with coral and fake stalactites, all painstakingly glued into place.
Set into the walls are a series of dioramas of children's fairytales. All of the characters are hand-painted in garish fluorescent colors, lit only by ultraviolet light. Each shines in the darkness with a brilliant, radioactive rainbow glow. It is the greatest black light showplace on earth -- and it's terrifying. Frieda has put distorted old peoples' heads onto healthy children's bodies. Huge goggle eyes. Bloated lips. Exaggerated lines and creases on every face.
Fairyland Caverns climaxes at Mother Goose Village, a dark room the size of a small auditorium. It stretches into the black void -- an alien ultraviolet landscape of dozens of intermingled nursery rhymes, topped by a ten-foot-tall castle. Families shuffle through like zombies, barely illuminated by the glowing tableaus. There's Humpty Dumpty. And Little Miss Muffet. And a dish running away with a spoon. Hushed voices mingle with prerecorded children -- or maybe adults trying to sound like children -- singing nursery rhymes over hidden loudspeakers. Who needs drugs? Life doesn't get any freakier than Mother Goose Village and Fairyland Caverns.
And then, suddenly -- you're out in the sunlight. Back in the real world. You spend $30 in the gift shop for a Rock City birdhouse and $10 for a Rock City birdhouse hat. Then you're through the front gate, back in your car, driving down Lookout Mountain toward Chattanooga. You ask yourself, "Where was I? What was that?"
Rock City, brother. See it.