See Rock City. That’s what the highway signs said. So here I stand, atop Lookout Mountain. Seeing Rock City.
I am 2,389 feet above sea level. The world beneath me looks like a train model set, filled with thousands of itty-bitty Walmarts and Burger Kings.
I’m overlooking seven U.S. states from a cliff known as Lover’s Leap. I can see Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.
“Long way down,” says a nearby tourist. The man leans over the guardrail and spits, just to watch his saliva fall.
He stares admiringly at his airborne spittle. “Long, LONG way down,” he adds.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen slews of highway signs saying, “See Rock City.” They are scattered along backroads between Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and God only knows where else. They are painted on every barn, cowhouse, birdhouse and doghouse.
I have even seen these three words engraved on the boys’ bathroom wall in a local junior high school. “See Rock City” was written just beneath the phrase, “Mrs. Biderbecke stinks,” and “Writing on bathroom stall walls is done for neither wealth nor critical acclaim, therefore it is the purest form of art.”
I’ve also seen those famous three words in places far from home.
One time, in the Philadelphia International Airport, I saw a guy wearing a “See Rock City” T-shirt. I was homesick and thrilled to see anything familiar. I immediately stopped swatting rats and approached him.
“Excuse me, sir?” I asked. “Where are you from?”
“Who the [bleep] wants to [bleeping] know?” he asked.
“Your T-shirt,” I said. “See Rock City? I know where that place is.”
“How about that.” He said. Then he stole my wallet.
But somehow, I’ve never actually been to Rock City until today.
I pulled into the park at lunchtime. I bought a ticket. One adult pass cost me a little over $25. Not a bad deal when you consider that I went to Disney World last summer and had to take out a reverse mortgage.
“We get visitors from all over the world,” said the lady in a nearby gift shop. “Today alone, I had people from Japan, Australia, Norway, even Milwaukee.”
After 90 years of being in business, everyone still wants to see Rock City.
I met a local man on the trail. He has visited the attraction dozens of times. I asked him what was the most memorable thing he ever saw in Rock City.
“One time, in the eighties, there was an old man who was wearing a thong bikini who wanted to see Rock City. It was a pretty small bikini. He saw Rock City, all right. But Rock City wasn’t all that crazy about seeing him.”
The park was busy. I met a man from Sweden who was with his girlfriend. A family from Brazil, just passing through.
A young man from Spain told me he’s seen Rock City five times. “I adore it here,” he proclaimed.
There were smatterings of American children, running in circles, eating cheap, bowel-obstructing amusement park food.
There were elderly couples dressed in activewear. There were entire youth groups who took a four-hour bus ride to visit the park simply so they could scroll on their phones.
It was great.
Rock City is in located in Georgia, technically. But you’re within baseball-throwing distance of the Tennessee line, and only 20-odd miles from Alabama.
The 4100-ft walking trail is filled with geological marvels. You see a 90-ft waterfall. You see a 180-ft long suspension bridge overlooking the Chattanooga Valley that will make every sphincter inside your body tighten.
There is also an impossibly narrow passage leading between two giant rockfaces called the Needle’s Eye.
At times, it feels like the Needle’s Eye passage is only three nanometers wide. So if you’re claustrophobic—how do I put this?—you are dead.
In the Needle’s Eye, I met an older couple from Detroit. They were mid-70s. The man was frozen in place, rapt with fright. He was breathing heavily and sweating through his shirt.
“George,” his wife kept saying, “just keep breathing, sweetie, we’re almost there.” She turned to me and said, “My husband is claustrophobic.”
I asked George if he was okay.
“Oh, I’ll be doing great,” said George, “once I’m able to change my shorts.”
I walked along the meandering pathway, tucked in the Appalachian forest. I took pictures. I oohed and ahhed as I read my brochure.
Rock City first opened its doors as a tourist attraction in 1932 when a man named Garnet Carter decided to develop a residential neighborhood here. The idea fell through.
So instead, Carter created this enchanting place. He did it for his wife, the pamphlet said. Out of love. Out of devotion. And even though the flier didn’t say it, I’ll bet he created Needle’s Eye for his in-laws.
I emerged from the wooded path at Lover’s Leap. I peered over seven states, standing atop the granite precipice. I was overawed.
There were a few kids next to me. And I felt ancient in their presence. Really old. And I felt a little nostalgic, too. Because, you see, I’ve been seeing highway signs and painted barns advertising Rock City for as long as I’ve been alive.
But today, I finally saw it.