The true, insidious nature of Niagara Falls is revealed in the presence of a Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, five haunted houses, four wax museums, several themed restaurants including a Hard Rock Cafe and a Planet Hollywood, two casinos, one IMAX theater, and a partridge in a pear tree in a downtown area roughly the size of my underpants. Its concentration of tourist traps per square yard is exceeded only by one small town nestled amongst the Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee, and Venice, Italy.
Of Niagara Falls' thirteen million anual visitors, approximately half of which are newlywed couples on their honeymoon, only a small percentage escape each year with their lives, their souls or their dignities intact. Despite all this, according to the United Nations' esteemed Council on Human Rights, Niagara Falls remains an estimated 60% more "life-tolerable" than Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Perhaps this disparity is due to Niagara Falls' close proximity to its namesake, which is at least one of the most accessible natural wonders of the world, if not the most spectacular.
The second worst town in the world is Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Founded by a sect of radical satanists in 1804, Gatlinburg's continued existence and inexplicable prosperity is one of the great tragedies of human history. Its mere presence stands not only as a stinging rebuke to the viability of the human race as a species, but as a disconcerting threat to the continued survival of life on this planet. While Gatlinburg manages to encompass all of Niagara Falls' worst attributes, it contains none of that city's admittedly meager charms. Gatlinburg is a barren wasteland, a moral and intellectual black hole, a morass of evil and depravity barely contained by the mountains surrounding it. Twelve thousand couples are said to wed there each year. Pity those unlucky few who marry in Gatlinburg and honeymoon in Niagara Falls.
The absolute worst city in the world is, of course, Venice, Italy.
Bandito's mother picked us up at Newfound Gap. I was continually surprised by the lengths his parents would go for him, at the distances they'd willingly drive just to see him for a few hours. Maybe I was jealous, or maybe I just missed my own mommy.
One of Bandito's friends, Caleb, had made the drive up as well. He was planning to join Bandito on the trail for a few days. He was older than me, and seemed nice enough, but I worried about him. I had the sneaking suspicion his clothes were more than 5% cotton.
Our goal for the afternoon was to resupply, eat lunch, and then return to the trail, spending as little time in town as possible. That proved exceedingly difficult, as Gatlinburg's labyrinthine layout made even finding the grocery store a Homeric misadventure. We might have been better off taking our chances with the supplies we had. We always could have resorted to cannibalism in an emergency. There were always fat, juicy day-hikers around.
I felt my will to live ebb as we sat in the Smokey Mountain Brewery eating lunch. In my anxiety and paranoia, I failed to appreciate that this would be the last decent meal I would enjoy before arriving in Hot Springs some five or six days later. The India Pale Ale was delicious, though.
As we drove out of town we passed several forlorn hikers unsuccessfully trying to hitch. I ached for them, truly, but we had no room left in the truck. I hoped my friends, Merf, Freeman, and Jason, would be able to make it out of there alive. Merf and Freeman would. I never saw Jason again.
There was a minor commotion in the parking lot when we arrived. A rumor was rippling through the crowd that a woman had broken her leg on the trail some three miles north of the Gap. I shuddered to think what the trail conditions were like if someone had been so grievously injured, but we had little choice but to trudge on. I said goodbye to Bandito's mother for what I thought would be the last time, thanked her profusely for all her hospitality, and then left. Bandito and Caleb would be following me shortly. I trusted they'd catch up before long.
Even before they had, I found myself forced to duck off the trail. A procession of Forest Rangers was headed in the other direction, taking turns carrying the crippled day-hiker on a single-wheeled gurney. She was unconscious. I wondered if they'd knocked her out with drugs or if she'd passed out from the pain. I never found where she supposedly hurt herself. To this day I don't know how it might have happened. Perhaps she tripped over her own shoelaces.
The Icewater Spring Shelter was hopelessly overcrowded, forcing me to tent for the night. Bandito and Caleb arrived, but I still felt surrounded by strangers. Somehow, I had never felt so alone on the trail. My thoughts were drawn ever back to Merf, Freeman, Jason, Shorts, and everybody else I'd left behind. I went to sleep hoping tomorrow would be a better day.