Another Roadside Attraction
Once upon a time, they say, nearly every barn on nearly every road to Chattanooga — well, Lookout Mountain, Georgia, but they’re kin — had the same slogan painted in big, Futura Bold letters on its roof: SEE ROCK CITY.
Today this savvy ad campaign is being viewed, correctly, as an important part of regional folk culture, and there’s a chap out repainting as many barns as haven’t been turned into firewood or furniture.
Meantime Freida Carter’s 1932 gardening project is still pulling them in off the interstate, though they’ve messed with the logo some recently. Indeed, one suspects See Rock City was the model Howard Finster had in mind when he began building Paradise Gardens, about an hour away.
The thing is, see, we like being hustled. And even when sophistication rears its ugly head and you can see the hustle coming — something about the clothes it wears, mostly — well, then you can still get trapped in the art of the con. This explains the popularity of pro wrestling, of infomercials, and of Nevada: We know it’s fake, but this is America, and we respect fakery as a carefully nuanced art form here.
This is also the hard lesson of Wall Drug in South Dakota. Travel west and those signs are the only promise the landscape offers until, hours later, you have to stop, if only for a break in the inaction of driving west across South Dakota. And then of course you feel cheated, after, and the trinkets break before you get home, but at least the soda’s cold.
See Rock City is the leading attraction on attractive Lookout Mountain, where they say on a clear day you can see seven states from one cliff, where the long, winding road takes you by enviable homes and past Civil War battlefields, Ruby Falls, old churches. See Rock City began as a 14-acre garden — the legacy of all those 18th-century Europeans with too much time, money and land on their hands, and a need to confirm man’s dominion over the plants and animals — and so is less a hustle, more a harvest of unrepressed depression desires.
Still, Mrs. Carter once won the Bronze Medal of Distinction from the Garden Club of America, the brochures say. Meanwhile, husband Garnet spawned the marketing phenomenon, so pervasive in the South today that one may purchase See Rock City birdhouses at every Cracker Barrel restaurant.
Seeing Rock City itself, at $9.95 per adult, places you dead center amid those two conflicting impulses. It takes about an hour to walk the garden paths, which take you over, under, sideways, and down rock walkways, past lovingly marked plants and carefully placed gnomes. Dioramas change with the season; some are quite elaborately carved into the stone and highlighted with black lights. Birds are plentiful; a small, sad, gray herd of White Fallow deer sits in one grotto; but your fellow tourists often offer the best viewing.
It’s beautiful, you know. Wrong, like somebody tried to carve a fairy tale world atop the mountain and forgot the magic, and yet the carving and the gnomes are so obviously filled with…love, I suppose…that it’s hard not to take pleasure in the thing. Okay, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky has more grandeur, but I heard more kids squeal with delight at See Rock City.
The trick is to come either with children of your own, or midweek when school’s in session. It will never have the stillness of a Buddhist monastery in Kyoto, nor will See Rock City ever attain the hauteur of a proper palace garden. But, then, princes don’t advertise on barn roofs.
(See Rock City, 1400 Patten Road, Lookout Mountain, GA 30750; 706-820-2531;)