Chasing rainbows at Dollywood with three generations of difficult women

Alexandra Charitan took her mom and grandma to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, on a road trip devoted to the reigning Queen of Country Music, Dolly Parton

Parton memorabilia in the "attic" of the Chasing Rainbows Museum. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

I know I’m not the only person who had to postpone, rearrange, or outright cancel travel plans last year. In the beginning of 2020, I had planned to leave the New York City apartment I intermittently shared with my mother, and travel around the country. The first place on my itinerary was Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. 

If you’ve heard of Pigeon Forge (or Sevier County) at all, it’s likely because this area was put on the map by the reigning Queen of Country Music, Patron Saint of the Smokies, and Tennessee native Dolly Parton. This part of eastern Tennessee was already a tourist destination before Parton opened Dollywood in 1986. But since then, visitors drawn by the natural beauty of Great Smoky Mountains National Park have had dozens of other larger-than-life attractions to choose from. Gatlinburg has its own Space Needle and a museum with more than 20,000 salt and pepper shakers; 10 miles north in Pigeon Forge, you’ll find a half-size replica of the Titanic, the imposing Alcatraz East Crime Museum (modeled after its notorious namesake to the west), and of course, Dollywood.

Before our Grey Gardens-era as roommates ended for good, I had planned to bring my mom to Parton’s eponymous park. Dollywood briefly opened for its regular season in March, 2020, but as its doors closed and face masks went on around the country, my dream of roadtripping to the Smokies (and beyond) evaporated. The park eventually reopened in mid-2020—but by then I had settled in Washington, D.C., and my mom had moved back to Ohio to help care for her ailing father. 

a gold sign that spells out "Dollywood flower and food festival"
A sign at the entrance to Dollywood. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

When finally given the choice between COVID-19 vaccines, I chose the Moderna shot—in part because it was developed at Vanderbilt University using funds donated by Parton (she celebrated receiving the first dose of her own medicine by remixing her 1974 hit “Jolene”). After my mom got vaccinated as well, it seemed only fitting that we resume our Dollywood plans; when my grandpa died, we asked my grandma to join us. So on the Monday after Mother’s Day, I take the wheel and drive three generations of difficult women (myself included) 525 miles south to where Parton learned how to “dream more, learn more, care more, and be more.”

Pigeon Forge

Dolly Rebecca Parton was born on January 19, 1946, about an hour southeast of Knoxville (and 12 miles east of Pigeon Forge) in Locust Ridge, Tennessee. She would leave for Nashville as soon as she was able to, with dreams of becoming a singer, songwriter, and star—but she never forgot where she came from. Her undeniable talent as a writer and performer may have come natural, but her iconic appearance did not. She has famously said, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” 

Parton was one of 12 children born into a family whose meager means were immortalized in her 1971 song “Coat of Many Colors.” Parton sings about being teased for wearing a coat her mother had sewn from rags: “Although we had no money, I was rich as I could be, in my coat of many colors, my momma made for me.”

But after decades of best-selling albums, movies, books, and other successful business ventures, Parton’s estimated net worth is now $600 million—and that doesn’t reflect the millions more she has raised for, or donated to, charity (her Imagination Library has sent out more than 130 million free books to children since 1995). It may seem as if everything Parton touches turns to gold, but when she decided to buy an existing Pigeon Forge theme park called Silver Dollar City in the late ‘80s, people told her it was a mistake. “I had no notion of how to run a theme park, but I knew that I would find the right people, as you always do,” Parton told Billboard recently. 

Parton may not be known for modesty (she is, however, surprisingly humble), but the main objective of Dollywood was never just to promote its namesake. Providing jobs for locals—including many who still have familial ties to Parton—was one of the reasons she purchased a theme park. In addition to Dollywood, Parton’s acrylic-tipped tentacles extend into several nearby resorts and spas, a separate water park, and two locations for her popular Dolly Parton Stampede Dinner Attraction (in Pigeon Forge and Branson, Missouri). 

Thirty-five years later, it’s obvious she found the right people—and then some. Common advice says to avoid mixing business with family, but I imagine it’s similar to taking a road trip with them: equal parts thrilling and frustrating, with long stretches of time where one person does all the work while the others take a nap. I’m sure her friends and relatives are fine workers, but clearly Parton has always been the one behind the wheel. On this trip, my mom and grandma will have to settle for me. 

an art installation featuring dozens of colorful umbrellas suspended above the main street at dollywood
An umbrella art installation above Showstreet. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Chasing Rainbows

It’s a gray and rainy Wednesday morning when we visit, but Dollywood is so clean and colorful it sparkles like Parton’s signature rhinestone-studded couture. The park has adjusted capacities and practices in keeping with COVID-19 guidelines, and Parton is actually on-site for the first time in more than a year filming for Good Morning America. 

The GMA segments highlight this season’s new attractions and Parton’s continued positive impact (more than $1 billion per year) on the Tennessee economy. While “businesswoman” might not be the first b-word associated with Parton, she has continued to expand and diversify her valuable brand, most recently announcing plans for a half-billion-dollar renovation to the park and surrounding area, including a 302-room lodge and new campground. 

Currently, Dollywood has more than 50 rides and attractions, including roller coasters, a bald eagle sanctuary, several performance venues, carnival games, gift shops, and water rides. The park is known for its food options but none of us feel like attempting to try them all in one day. We do stand in line for cinnamon bread at the Grist Mill and the mouth-watering loaves are absolutely worth the wait (one of the many souvenir t-shirts for sale reads, “I’m just here for the cinnamon bread,” and now I get it). 

My mom and I wait in much shorter lines to ride two of the park’s nine roller coasters: The 73-mph Lighting Rod scrambles my brain in less than 30 seconds; the wooden, rickety-in-a-good-way Thunderhead is way more fun. We all test the limits of our rickety-in-a-bad-way knees and hop onto the Village Carousel’s carved wooden animals. In the Country Fair area, I stay on solid ground and watch two future versions of myself spin in circles on the Sky Rider swings until I get dizzy. 

At the Rockin’ Roadway, when it’s clear that only two of us will fit in each of the child-size vintage cars, my mom declares, “I’m driving myself.” My grandma slides into the passenger seat next to me and we take off down the track. You don’t have to actually steer, so I take a blurry selfie of us instead. I don’t think Parton’s 9 to 5 co-star (and fervent climate activist) Jane Fonda would approve of the park’s two World War II-era coal burning trains, Klondike Katie and Cinderella, but my grandma looks like she’s having fun.

My favorite corner of the park is the Chasing Rainbows Museum, which is packed with Parton’s personal possessions, movie props, and costumes. If the photos that plaster the walls are to be believed, Parton has been featured on every magazine cover and met every celebrity imaginable. She has won so many awards, including 11 Grammys, that they have their own room. Although she hasn’t yet achieved EGOT status—winning at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award—she has been nominated for all four. 

A hologram of Parton welcomes visitors to the museum’s “attic” full of family photos and mementos, including the handwritten lyrics for “Coat of Many Colors.” The walls are covered with elaborate fan art, concert posters, and a street sign for the Dolly Parton Parkway (not to be confused with Dollywood Lane or Dollywood Parks Blvd). Her hologram, projected onto a dark stage, explains, “I decided to call [the museum] ‘Chasing Rainbows’ because that’s exactly what I’ve been doing since the day I arrived on this good earth.”

a hologram of dolly parton is projected onto a dark stage
A Dolly hologram. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
a display case containing two of dolly parton's costumes including a stars and strips outfit and a red gingham dress
Two of Parton’s many costumes. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Abundant love

Parton may have left home to chase stardom as soon as she could, but her heart has always remained in the holler. Married to the elusive Carl Dean for more than 50 years, Parton never had children of her own, but she has been a devoted daughter, sister, and aunt. Her dad, Lee, never learned to read, so she founded the Imagination Library to promote literacy in children. A replica of the two-bedroom house where Parton (and her 11 siblings) grew up is on display in Dollywood’s Rivertown Junction. According to the park’s website, “Though it lacked electricity and running water, love was abundant in this tiny little mountain house that Dolly and her family called home.”

When Parton chased a rainbow back to her hometown, she found a pot of gold. It’s not hard to be inspired by Parton’s rags-to-riches backstory and I imagine there’s no place where the extremes of her life are more evident than at the mega-successful, 150-acre amusement park she created so close to where she grew up. In a normal year, 3 million visitors make the winding-road pilgrimage to Pigeon Forge—located at least an hour from a major airport—just to go to Dollywood. 

Whether it’s the natural beauty—or the attractions owned by one of the world’s most famous unnatural blondes—there’s a reason Great Smoky Mountains is the most-visited national park in the U.S. Driving in silence would be possible with views this good, but thankfully, Parton has written more than 5,000 songs—and leant her signature voice to countless others. Despite her 25 number one singles on the country music charts, we keep coming back to the classics: “9 to 5,” “Jolene,” and “I Will Always Love You.”. 

a black woman plays the ukulele on the steps of a white chapel
Kelle Jolly, “The Tennessee Ukulele Lady.” | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
a white man in overalls and a straw hat wears a facemask and plays the banjo
A banjo player. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Take me home

During our 5-day road trip devoted to Dolly, I don’t have any revelatory or tearful bonding moments with two of the most important female figures in my life. But we shop for souvenirs, squish pennies, eat at a Shoney’s, and take several more blurry selfies. Even after a slow start due to lingering rain and film crews—and with only two original knees between the three of us—we’re still able to get a good overview of Dollywood in just one day. 

“Wouldn’t it be something if we could have things we love in abundance without their losing that special attraction the want of them held for us,” Parton writes in her 1994 memoir, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business. Turning Silver Dollar City into Dollywood was just one of Parton’s many attempts at capturing the abundant love she has always had for the people and places who shaped her life. 

And she’s been trying to give that love back to the diverse communities that rightfully worship her; today, the list of Parton’s various philanthropic efforts is longer than the Grist Mill’s line for cinnamon bread. When wildfires tore through the Smokies in late 2016, Parton quietly donated millions of dollars directly to the victims. She said she received hate mail for her 2006 song “Travelin’ Through,” written for the Transamerica soundtrack—but it also got her an Oscar nomination. 

As the park is closing, we entrust a stranger to take a photo of the three of us in front of the Dollywood sign. It’s not perfect: We’re still dressed in rain gear and I’m carrying a souvenir wax hand in a plastic bag like takeout. When I show the photo to my grandma, she zooms in and says, “I look old.” The shiny rhinestones on her face mask obscure her expression, but I think she’s secretly smiling. Parton, who is 74, has attributed her own timeless beauty to “good lighting, good doctors, and good makeup.”

While my mom and grandma nap in the passenger seats, I begin the long drive home. I have control over the radio, but one particular 1971 song has been stuck in my head for the whole trip—not a Dolly, but a Denver (as in, John). I listen to “Take Me Home, Country Roads” several times on the drive and even hear it once on the overhead speakers at Dollywood. Replace “West Virginia and the Blue Ridge Mountains,” with “Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains,” and it feels like a song Parton should have written—but we all have our own rainbows to chase.