From the 1930s to the 1960s, barns across great swaths of America were covered with hand-painted letters that yelled out to passing motorists: SEE ROCK CITY. For hundreds of miles, dotted throughout nineteen states, the black-and-white advertisements blanketed 900 barns and lured countless drivers to Tennessee. Some of the painted barns still exist, though I have never seen one in the wild. If I had, I probably would have rolled my eyes, as I’ve done at billboards for Wall Drug and South of the Border, and kept driving. But suddenly I want to do something corny and all-American, something touristy and hokey and overpriced. So I am going to Rock City, at the top of Lookout Mountain high above Chattanooga.
Lookout Mountain is technically in Georgia, so as my rental car slogs up the winding road, I feel like I’m cheating on my Tennessee trip already. (I justify this with the thought that if any state is okay with being cheated on, it’s Tennessee; they’ve had decades to write the playlist.) I continue slowly up the mountain, crossing what has to be one of the weirdest state lines I’ve ever seen, the marker stuck in the woods halfway up the rugged slope. I finally reach the parking lot, across from what has to be one of the strangest places anyone ever thought to put a Starbucks.
Then I pay $19.95 and enter through a sort of turnstile into a bizarre yet familiar hybrid of natural wonder, theme park, and rich developer’s fantasy, with a dash of Christianity and European folklore thrown in. (America in miniature, if you will; there was even a Civil War battle here.)
Rock City is, in the simplest terms, a spectacular ancient rock formation “discovered” in 1823 by two missionaries who came to convert local Indians. One called it “a citadel of rocks,” naturally arranged in a manner “as to afford streets and lanes.” Long after the missionaries and the Indians were gone, Garnet Carter looked at Lookout Mountain and saw a business opportunity. His wife Frieda had planted flowers, arranged rocks, and mapped out a path through the boulders on their property; Garnet thought people might pay to see it. Today, tourists follow a stone walkway that wends between towering cliffs and stretches high above caverns. Along the trail are various opportunities to spend more money, like restaurants and open-air shopping areas where vendors peddle local crafts. Birdhouses hanging from tree branches are painted red like barns, with SEE ROCK CITY on their roofs.
Numerous signs warn politely, “Please stay on the trail.” But it would be difficult not to without tumbling down the rocks to the valleys below. The trail loops and drops, widening like a garden path then contracting into tight spaces with names like Needle’s Eye and Fat Man Squeeze. It crosses pretty stone bridges to expansive views from atop the crags. These have names too, like Lover’s Leap, where everyone congregates to take pictures of the blue and green below. They claim you can see seven states from up here, but although this doesn’t seem impossible to verify, no one has ever confirmed it. Perhaps that’s because some larger barns were painted with SEE 7 STATES FROM ROCK CITY, and changing it to two or three would ruin a perfectly good slogan.
As the crowd shuffles its way along, the massive rock formations are damp from a recent rain shower, and the ground is still slightly wet. The rain is a jarring reminder that this attraction – apart from the lampposts and carefully labeled flower gardens, the rainbow lights that fill one corridor and the swinging bridge that spans a green abyss – is natural. The absurd, oversized “Mushroom Rock” is real; so is the tilted “Balanced Rock” suspended precariously above us. Parents take pictures of their children posing underneath it, perhaps forgetting that it’s not a photo-op, like a painted board you stick your face through at a fair, but an accident of geology, one which the slightest of tremors would instantly topple.
The gardens are inhabited by white-spotted fallow deer, who apparently live harmoniously beside a painstakingly constructed community of gnomes. Or maybe they are goblins, or fairies, or maybe these are all the same; in any case, the diminutive bearded figures might be less child-friendly than they seem; among other things, they brew moonshine in a tiny still. An enclosed area lined with garish dioramas of nursery rhyme characters is lit like a Christmas-themed horror movie and called Fairyland Caverns; this is a nod to Frieda Carter’s love of German fairy tales and her husband’s early, unsuccessful attempt to build a neighborhood called Fairyland up here. (One of the community’s perks was to have been a golf course; out of its failure came the invention of miniature golf.)
Fairyland Caverns is near the end of the trail, perhaps to keep visitors from bailing early due to creepiness. Shortly after exiting this dark land of unsettling pocket-sized beings, you reach the gift shop, where SEE ROCK CITY birdhouses and other branded clutter are sold.
You leave Rock City the same way you entered, feeling as if you have been dumped back too soon into the dullness of reality. Maybe, if Lookout Mountain had been located elsewhere, it would have become a state park, its stunning geology preserved with just the additions of the lighting and smooth walkway. But now, it is nearly impossible to picture it without restaurants and gnomes.
I decide I need some culture to balance out the kitsch, so I follow the curving road back down the mountain to downtown Chattanooga and find the Hunter Museum of American Art, a historic Classical Revival mansion with an awkward modern addition balanced on a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River.
Inside, I wander into a room full of the “word paintings” of Chattanooga native Wayne White. These juxtapose oversized, often brightly colored and cartoonish letters over bucolic scenes. They are captivating, the kind of thing you instantly want in your living room even if you typically can’t stand contemporary art. Later, I pore over images of them online, trying to decide which of them most perfectly encapsulate the personal and national uncertainty and pessimism I can’t escape from. Maybe the one with “All That Fake Laughin For Nothin” tucked into an autumnal scene in which a little girl and some geese stand in front of two houses by a stream. Or the one where rainbow letters spelling “But All Things Fell” swirl out of the trees. Or the one that blends the word “Clusterfuck” in hazy yellow letters with a matching, pastoral landscape and a tortured tree. Or the one that spells out “Eastern Fuckit” in minty blue and white over a what looks like an early promotional campaign for a cross country journey, a pale rendition of a path leading temptingly towards distant mountains.
The first of the word paintings, I later read, was inspired by the oversized letters of the SEE ROCK CITY barns, themselves an artistic feat led by Clark Byers, who, the New York Times noted in its obituary of him, “braved charging bulls, slippery roofs and lightning bolts to get the job done.”
I move on to another exhibit, titled “With Liberty And Justice For All: Art and Politics during the 1976 Bicentennial.” This begins with Union Mixer by Colleen Browning, a deconstruction of the American flag reassembled in quilt-like squares and blended with images of different faces, facing each other, all in shades of red white and blue. It, like several other works in the museum (including Robert Indiana’s Liberty ’76, which grabs me with its advertising-like pull and makes me want it in poster form every time I see it) were part of the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio, for which edgy, slick, independence-themed works were commissioned from various artists. That’s Kent as in the brand of cigarettes; the fine print beside the works notes that they were a gift from tobacco company Lorillard.
I drift through the rest of the museum in the wrong order and at the wrong pace, just absorbing, unfiltered, a rush of Americana, all of it seemingly urgently relevant and newly meaningful.
Edward Henry Potthast’s In the Far Northwest, Montana, which captures the foreboding mountains and dense fir trees and glimpse of clear water that once lured me, like so many others before me, along the Missouri into the cold.
George Luks’s Allen Street, a 1905 New York street scene where imprecise strokes muted tones with a dash of vivid brightness capture a life lived in tenements and on sidewalks, a world my own family could have lived in.
Thomas Hart Benton’s Wreck of the Ol’ 97, in which the occupants of a horse-drawn car confront a steaming locomotive in lurid colors.
Ralston Crawford’s Grey Street, a gloomy monochrome screenprint of an empty highway, created sometime between the two World Wars, an “uncertain time,” says the sign, when “people are scared and the world seems unsure.”
Charles F. Blauvelt’s The Immigrants, painted around 1850, of a weary, Scandinavian-looking woman with a baby and a toddler sitting amid bales and crates on a dock. Between 1830 and 1900, the sign says, President Andrew Jackson had inspired “great hope and optimism,” and the “promise of opportunity for all Americans led artists to paint well-established Americans and new immigrants, women and children, rich and poor.”
Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of George Washington.
Alfred Jacob Miller’s The Trapper’s Bride, in which a Native American girl in a gleaming dress is offered to a slightly perplexed-looking young white man in fringed over-the-knee boots.
Edward Moran’s The Burning of the Philadelphia, in which the captured American frigate, daringly set alight in Tripoli Harbor, seems to glow from within the canvas.
The works on paper by Edna Pennypacker Stauffer, a New York socialite in the era of early 20th Century luxury travel, who, while magazine photographers snapped pictures of the rich and famous in the hotspots of the moment, chose instead to record the places themselves, devoid of people, in black and white.
And then, James Hope’s Chattannoga From Lookout Mountain, an unspoiled, late 19th century version of almost the same view I had earlier at Rock City. There are no crowds in the scene, no gnomes or rainbow-hued lights. Hope, an artist and captain in the Union Army, sketched what he saw as he traveled through the South during the war. I wonder, when he returned to New York to transform his memories into paintings, whether he felt anything like I do now: overwhelmed by the sheer scope and contradiction of America, the hopelessness and exhilaration, not sure I can ever untangle it all in my mind and lay it out on paper in a way that anyone else will understand.