In the kingdom of quirk

Museum of the Cherokee Indian photo by Christopher George

What comes to mind when you think of museums? Stuffy assemblages of high art? Historically or culturally significant items sealed behind forbidding glass cases, supervised by scowling guards? Informative yet eminently forgettable school field trips?

Sure, an hour or two in a museum can give lazy vacationers a bit of intellectual stimulation, but can you really make an enjoyable day of it?

To answer that question, Xpress decided a road trip was in order: To wit, a quirky museum tour you can complete in a day, topping out at just over 200 miles roundtrip. Asheville, of course, is home to several such cultural repositories, but in this case we opted to link attractions as far south as Hendersonville and as far west as Pigeon Forge. (Admittedly, there is some backtracking involved, but hey, this is a road trip: The whole point is to meander.) Some of these places are off the beaten track, some are in Splash City — so whether you’re a local or an adventurous tourist, hold onto your hat, and let’s go.

Mineral & Lapidary Museum of Henderson County

Where: 400 N. Main St. in Hendersonville
When: Mon.-Fri. 1 to 5 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Jan./Feb. closed Mondays)
Admission: free
Contact: 828-698-1977; www.mineralmuseum.org

Tucked away in the basement of the Henderson County Genealogical and Historical Society is an impressive collection of beautiful minerals and stones from around the world. Big chunks of petrified wood, agatized coral and Clovis points rub shoulders with minerals found in North Carolina: emeralds, hematite and a huge piece of smoky quartz from Caldwell County. There’s also a replica T. rex skull and a fossilized dinosaur-egg nest visitors are encouraged to touch.

But the real bread and butter here is the geodes. Popular at tourist traps throughout WNC, geodes are hollow stones with crystal formations inside. The museum boasts a pretty nice collection — and you can opt to take one home. Unopened geodes go for $10 to $40 (depending on size): The staff will even open them for you, and the price includes display stands for the two resulting pieces. The free admission makes the geodes a real bargain.

“The geodes and donations are the main ways we make our money,” volunteer Robert Bissonnette explains.

Wheels Through Time

Where: 62 Vintage Lane in Maggie Valley
When: Thur.-Mon. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (through Oct. 31)
Admission: $12
Contact: 828-926-6266; www.wheelsthroughtime.com

After backtracking to Asheville on Interstate 26, head west on Interstate 40 to exit 27, then west on U.S. 74 to U.S. 19 south toward Maggie Valley. The Wheels Through Time museum boasts more than 40,000 square feet with hundreds of items that trace the whole history of the American motorcycle.

Early specimens, more than a century old, resemble bicycles with engines bolted to the frame. Later on, the more familiar looking Harley-Davidsons and Indians dominate the collection. Over the years, everything from tire size to engine size and placement has evolved to produce the cruisers we know today.

Complementary exhibits highlight the vehicle’s history in law enforcement, its use in both world wars, and its popularity among women in the early 20th century, ensuring that you don’t have to be a motorcycle enthusiast to enjoy this museum.

After touring the history of heavy metal thunder, climb back into your comparatively boring four-wheeled transport and continue south on U.S. 19 to Cherokee.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian

Where: 589 Tsali Boulevard in Cherokee
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Admission: $10
Contact: 828-497-3481; www.cherokeemuseum.org

The Cherokee and their forebears have called these mountains home for thousands of years, and this museum illuminates their long history through artifacts and assorted displays.

After viewing a short film on the Cherokee creation story, folks are free to roam at their own pace, moving chronologically through the centuries to the Trail of Tears and on to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ official recognition in the late 19th century.

The numerous multimedia elements include voice-overs relating different aspects of the tribe’s history, a 3-D video of a Cherokee “medicine man” explaining the origin of disease, and an exhibit that flashes and pronounces the letters of the Cherokee alphabet. There are also several realistic wax statues of famous Cherokee leaders.

All in all, it’s a sad and sobering tale, told honestly and without pulling any punches. And if the multimedia elements’ distinct ’90s feel seems a bit dated, the museum nonetheless gives visitors a chance to understand the real Cherokee culture, as opposed to the stereotypes and distortions still very much in evidence elsewhere on the reservation.

Museum of Salt & Pepper Shakers

Where: Winery Square (461 Brookside Village) in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
Admission: $3
Contact: 888-778-1802; http://thesaltandpeppershakermuseum.com

To cheer you up after that tale of near genocide, continue on U.S. 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and into Tennessee to visit one of the more unusual museums you’re likely to find anywhere.

Arranged thematically (transportation, beverages, pigs, cows), the more than 20,000 pairs of salt and pepper shakers showcase an almost unbelievable variety of what most folks would consider mere utilitarian containers.

High-heeled shoes that look like flamingos, a dachshund in two halves, light bulbs and even toilets are all put to work dispensing our most popular condiments. Whatever far-fetched concept some cracked visionary was inspired to turn into a set of salt and pepper shakers will pretty likely be represented here. And if the idea of devoting an entire museum to such ostensibly pedestrian items displays a certain eccentricity, there’s also plenty of leeway for artistic expression.

Owner Andrea Ludden wasn’t there the day we visited, but her son Alex, who works at the museum, said she started it partly as a way to get the incredible collection out of her house. “The main thing she likes is how creative people can be with the shapes,” he explains. And after spending time wandering the venue’s 3,500 square feet, it’s tough to argue with that.

Meanwhile, for budding collectors, the best news is that the modest admission fee can be applied to any set of shakers in the gift shop.

Titanic Museum

Where: 2134 Parkway in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
When: open daily (hours vary)
Admission: about $23 (prices vary)
Contact: 800-381-7670; www.titanicpigeonforge.com

A mere 10 miles down the road sits the final stop on our tour: the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, which is clearly the crown jewel in this kingdom of quirk. Opened just last year, it’s one of two such venues owned and operated by the same man (the other is in Branson, Mo.).

Former network television executive and producer John Joslyn first became interested in the Titanic back in 1987, when he produced a syndicated television special called Return to the Titanic … Live. Fast-forward a couple of decades — long enough for a box-office smash film to firmly anchor the ship in the public consciousness — and a monument was born.

The idea is paradoxical: a gigantic memorial in a landlocked state to a luxury liner that sank in the north Atlantic nearly a century ago. But this place is quite impressive, if perhaps more of an attraction than a traditional museum. True, there are artifacts that were carried off by surviving passengers or recovered from the debris field after the ship sank (though none from the wreck itself).

Mostly, though, it’s a kind of tangible narrative concerning the ship and the living, breathing people who were on it. Upon arrival, each museumgoer receives an audio player explaining the exhibits, along with a mock “boarding pass” featuring a brief biography of an actual passenger on the ill-fated vessel. Near the end of the tour, an exhibit lists all the passengers, noting who perished and who survived; visitors crowd around it to learn the fate of the person named on their respective cards.

Portions of the ship are re-created in great detail, including the famous “grand staircase” (here annoyingly marred by legally mandated handrails). Other displays include the third-class hallways and rooms, first-class suites, the bridge and dining rooms.

Interactive elements abound. Visitors can wield a weighted shovel to experience how it felt to feed coal into the ship’s massive boilers. Elsewhere, they can touch a huge chunk of ice resembling the one the Titanic struck and thrust a hand into 28-degree salt water, to viscerally comprehend the fate that awaited most of the ship’s passengers.

The informative, immersive two-hour experience gives a sense of life on the Titanic; at times, you might even forget that you’re hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean. And while the ticket price is steep, it’s not out of line considering the museum’s sheer size — or the level of luxury its subject exemplified.

So there you have it. Our oddball museum tour serves up a little bit of everything: the serious, the unusual, the subcultural and the downright peculiar. And now it’s time to turn the buggy around and head home again — perhaps with a pause or two to admire the lush mountain scenery en route.

— Christopher George can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 140, or at cgeorge@mountainx.com.

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