This was a prompt from the 8-Minute Memoir. The prompt was ‘billboard’ and I kept seeing the board for Ghost Town enter my mind–I kept writing long past the 8 minute mark, however…
If there was a delicious ice cream sundae of cherished family memories in my brain, Ghost Town (and Santa’s Land!) would definitely be the vanilla bean bones of the sundae. This place was so special for our family, and for me as a child, and not just because it was a happy place.
Obviously we didn’t do a lot of normal family activities, unless ‘normal’ equals ‘Little House on the Prairie’, which for most people in my generation, it does not. That is kind of what I felt like a lot as a kid anyway; Laura Ingalls stuck in a time warp and going to school in 1990 and returning home to 1874. Going to my first theme park illustrated this clearly. I was a sheltered, ignorant kid with no idea what a theme park even was, I hadn’t even seen National Lampoon’s Family Vacation by that point.
The first trip we made to Ghost Town was on my birthday. Both of my parents knew of this place and were excited for it, which was weird, because my parents didn’t get excited for anything except the first day of school and the day our food stamps went through every month. All I had to go on was “Ghost Town” so I was cooking up imagery of the most terrifying place on earth. They swore it was my birthday present, but like most things my parents bought for “my” enjoyment, it was mostly for them (see: drumset, Taco (my pet donkey), my guitar, and so on…) and so their earnest “YOU’LL LOVE IT” fell on deaf and terrified eleven year old ears, because the damned place was named GHOST TOWN.
Props, because they were right, I loved the place. Ghost Town was not just a theme park, it was a small theme park in the sleepiest, quietest little North Carolina Appalachian town bordering the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Due to this it had neither the draw or the notoriety of bigger parks like Dollywood, and the atmosphere was completely different. It actually reminds me a lot of Utah’s theme park, Lagoon–there are no Six Flags tier crowds and certainly no worldwide advertising, it’s mostly for the locals. And it was still a theme park, still fun and creepy and weird in that way only theme parks can be, and like everywhere else I was dragged to as a child, it was set in the most breathtaking atmosphere on earth: the Great Smoky Mountains.
To get into the park you have to ride a ski lift up a mountain–unique already. I remember seeing the lift as I exited the car, and feeling my stomach turn. I was like, what is this monstrosity? I love comparing that fear to the things I’ve done now–multiple plane rides across the Atlantic, jumping off Vegas’s tallest building, countless ski lifts and mountain rides out here in the West–my fear all began there, at Ghost Town, with that stomach-pain-inducing chair lift. That day and every trip afterwards, I rode the lift with my dad, due to Ariel’s obsession with our mother and needing to be by her side.
I have to say it was always the most peaceful and happy memory going up the lift with him. Being in that area made him so happy, happier than he ever was, and when he was happy I could feel that he loved me. Half of the long ride would be us chatting about things, usually wilderness/forest/survival related (as we do) and the other half would be a comfortable quietness while we took in the scenery. And oftentimes Ariel’s screams would drift back to us from her seat in front. I think there are probably still dents in the lift bars where she gripped with a death vise. My mom always exited the lift looking rattled and strung out, while my dad and I exited serenely, like Buddhist monks after an hour of meditation.
At the top, THE FUN BEGINS! I was raised on Westerns and could recognize Monument Valley at five or six years old, but living in the east I had no concept of what a Western town would look and feel like in person. Imagine my shock when we arrived and lo and behold it was just like all the movies! The Silver Dollar Saloon! Dance hall girls! Boot Hill! GUNFIGHTS IN THE STREETS. I didn’t understand what was happening until I heard shooting, we ran outside with the rest of the crowd, and BAM! A cowboy flopped lifelessly down inches from my feet. My mom always said after that, that my eyes were “wide as dinner plates” — again, no concept of a theme park, I thought it was a real cowboy bank robber who was really dead!
Apparently those actors loved my childish wonder; they came into the saloon after the gunfight to show me they were alive and well and posed for photos. They told my mom what a treat it was to see first my reaction, and then my relief (and then my crippling shyness when they spoke to me.) Again, in years since I’ve seen every show you can imagine, even helped direct a few, made sets, and watched everything from symphonies to the Swedish Opera–I’m not saying I’ve done everything there is to do, but I’ve done a lot!!–and no matter what, there’s always that kid in me who is completely mesmerized by a scripted gunfight in the street, and the twirling skirts of the can-can girls in the saloon.
And then there were THE RIDES. What kid doesn’t get pumped for that? I do remember being three, and very vividly I recall screeching my way down the big yellow slide at the Georgia Mountain Fair in my mother’s lap and hating every second of my life because no one told me we were suddenly going to careen down into darkness on a damn burlap sack. She tried to goad me into the Ferris Wheel afterward and I squealed my no like a banshee, but even so I have the clearest memory of wanting to ride it, but being too afraid and indignant about the slide to even consider it. So here I was eight years later, turning eleven, with a chance to make up for that. My first theme park ride was the Sea Dragon. I rode with Mom and Ariel in the very farthest back seat. I don’t remember how Ariel, being a tiny toddler, handled it, but I remember being absolutely terrified beyond words. (To this day as an homage I always ride any theme park’s Sea Dragon first)
So many more firsts every year we went. My first looped roller coaster, the Red Devil. My first shooting gallery. My first haunted house. My first pow-wow dance (and thus my first crush on a Native American boy). My first ski lift. My first scrambler. It’s so weird to me that despite both parents having a sour disposition and two polar opposite children (me: independent and moody, Ariel: clingy and social) we always managed to get into Griswald mode and vacation the shit out of that place.
And every year, the park declined a bit. You could feel it. Paint was slightly more faded, crowds were slightly less, prices on things went up and up and up. The employees seemed disenchanted, rides got rickety. My parents commented every visit how different it was getting. One year I had a cast on my foot–the last year we went, when I was 14–and the crew drove us around all day on golf carts. The owner picked us up and quietly mentioned who he was, and as he drove us to our next ride, offered us free tickets for tomorrow. Unfortunately we had to decline (“gotta get back to the animals” my dad said) but afterward my mom worried that the place wasn’t doing so well if he had offered that.
In hindsight, that park was so hilariously unsafe it’s a wonder I myself didn’t die on one of the rides. You can google their numerous accidents and safety inspection fails, but of course at the time that wasn’t an option. We didn’t know the future of Ghost Town, or its dangerous statistics.
Sure enough, the place shut down. Then reopened. Shut down again. So on and so forth. It’s now at the point of being as cursed as the Great Saltair after it got burned about ten times and flooded and probably invaded by giant brine shrimp. Ghost Town was supposed to reopen this year, 2016, and I was cringing so hard because I want it to open, but the owner had the vision to turn it all Biblical and was going to erect a 225′ cross on that gorgeous mountain. I’m sick of the modern resurgence of southern evangelism sticking its big unwanted weiner in every bit of southern culture–IT WASN’T ALWAYS LIKE THAT! OLD TIMEY DOES NOT EQUAL SUPER GODLY!!! but, bittersweetly, the owner had to sell before reopening anyway. I, along with many others, were upset by this but remain hopeful someone will come along and restore this beautiful place. And hopefully they’ll do it without wrecking the spirit of Ghost Town and turning it into Jesus Town.
But, as my final word–I’m currently planning a trip to Tennessee and can’t get Ghost Town off my mind. I may be crazy for attempting to enter the place (scaling the mountain alone is a stupid idea) but I’m going to try anyway. That will be happening in October.
All photos are from Google; special shoutout to The CarpetBagger and his awesome Ghost Town photos and posts.