From The Top Of The Smokey Mountains, I Watched Gatlinburg Begin To Burn

From The Top Of The Smokey Mountains, I Watched Gatlinburg Begin To Burn

Our family has spent Thanksgiving in Gatlinburg for 26 years. Only after we returned home this year, though, did we realize we’d seen the fires begin.
Scott Russell
By

I knew it was a mistake to drive up to Clingman’s Dome on the Friday after Thanksgiving. As one of the top attractions in the Smokey Mountain National Park on a holiday weekend, thousands of tourists from around the world would be making the half-mile climb from the parking lot, up what I swear is an 85 percent grade, to the observation tower atop the 6,600-foot mountain, the highest in the Smokies.

The reward is amazing. From the tower you have a 360-degree unobstructed view. On a clear day you can see 100 miles in any direction. It was a sight I wanted my four kids to see.

As we waited the 20 minutes for a parking spot, my grandfather told me of how he and grandma had been coming to Gatlinburg and the Smokey Mountains for more than 65 years, seeing the town change from a quaint village situated outside the national park into a major resort town. While many major businesses moved in, anchored by the eight Ripley’s Believe it or Not attractions, most of the businesses in the area remain family-run concerns.

These families had carved out a great life living on the edge of one of the most spectacular national parks in the United States, running fudge shops, motels, and trinket stores. Grandpa didn’t know what originally brought them to Gatlinburg, but he had story after story of great times with friends and family, hiking through the forest, enjoying campfires, and eating at more pancake houses than he could remember.

Decades of Gatlinburg Memories

My earliest memory of the town was eating at the Open Hearth restaurant on the Parkway. We were camping in the forest and had come into town for the evening. As we walked out of the restaurant, rain poured down on one side of the road, but the other side was completely dry, which amazed a seven-year-old. I also remember playing Hillbilly Golf, watching “Karate Kid” for the first time at the Crazy Horse Campground, and regularly being upset that there was not enough smoke in the Smokies.

My family would make numerous trips to the Smokies. Twenty-six years ago, they decided to start renting a house for Thanksgiving so we could spend the holiday together, as Gatlinburg was a reasonable distance from Ohio, where the family is originally from, and Virginia and Florida, where family had transplanted over time.

A spot finally opened, and I pulled the van in. The four kids, my wife and grandpa all jumped out and started for the trailhead. We met my mother, aunt and uncle, various cousins, their significant others, and Panama’s former United Nations Ambassador Carlos Hernandez, who spends Thanksgiving with our family. He had never been to Tennessee before and wanted to come partly to be with others on the holiday and partly to see a part of America that went solidly for Donald Trump.

This was the last year for us to stay in the house on Baskin Creek Road. The owners were now in their eighties and could no longer take care of the property, so they had sold it the week before we arrived. The new owner, who goes by AJ, has run the North Gate Chinese Restaurant in Gatlinburg since 1980 and was excited to finally move into a home that his 11- and 7-year-old boys could call their own. They stopped by the house the Tuesday before Thanksgiving to measure for a new refrigerator and to show the boys their rooms.

So Much of Our Lives Found a Way to Gatlinburg

We survived the hike to the top of the observation tower, and while the views were amazing, we saw a smoky haze from a fire over in the Chimney Tops area of the park. We had noticed the smoke the day before when we were visiting Cade’s Cove, an 1810 settlement that grew to a population of more than 700 by the 1840s. All that is left now are three churches, each with its own tidy little cemetery; nine homesteads; and a working grist mill. The smoke covered most of the mountains around the cove and the air left a bitter taste on the tongue, but we really never gave it another thought.

After getting married in November of 2004, my wife Nicole and I spent our honeymoon in Florida, followed by our first trip to Gatlinburg for the family Thanksgiving. Needless to say, she wasn’t a fan. She didn’t care for Smokey Mountain Knife Works, the tram going up to Ober Gatlinburg, the artist colony, the general tourist trap feeling, or staying in a house with 25 of my relatives. So, six years ago Nicole and I tried something new.

While the rest of the family stayed at the house, we stayed at the Westgate Smokey Mountain Resort, right on the end of the national park. The cabin was amazing, they had a great waterpark for the kids, and we had all the privacy we needed. Then this year, to my surprise, Nicole encouraged us to go to Gatlinburg again. We had lost my dad several years before, then grandma two years ago, and with grandpa turning 91, there were few opportunities left for the entire family to enjoy a place that had become near and dear to our hearts.

After running back down to the parking lot so my daughter could use the restroom, I heard a voice off to my left say, “Honey, are you going to say hello to Scott Russell?” I look to see an old friend, Adam Fennig, standing there. I hadn’t seen Adam for almost ten years.

Soon his wife, Abbey, joined him, and my wife squealed with delight. Abbey’s dad and mom were there also. Her dad married Nicole and I back in Minnesota. They were in town from Florida for the holiday, visiting relatives from Virginia. We caught up, took pictures, and wished each other well before making the trek back into town for lunch at Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort. It is a bit of a throwback, with the interior out of the 1980s, but it remains incredibly popular. After lunch we headed back to the house so the kids could play while the adults walked downtown to sample moonshine and window shop.

Then the Realization Hit

While most of the trip was good, there were a couple hiccups, because that is what happens when 20-plus people spend a week together. My sister and I fought because she was still trying to sleep and all of my kids wake early. Then there was the fight over the election. While most of the family would describe themselves as conservative, several are outspoken in opposing Trump, while others can see why he was elected.

It left a bad taste in my mouth, so on Saturday, when it was time to leave, I was ready to go. The vans were packed and we all said goodbye to the house we will never get to stay in again after 26 long years. As we headed out through Pigeon Forge, we stopped to race go-karts and get a birthday cake milkshake from Zaxby’s.

The vans were packed and we all said goodbye to the house we will never get to stay in again after 26 long years.

The drive home was miserable due to an hour and a half traffic jam because of an accident and four cranky kids who could not wait to get home. I texted my mom in frustration, telling her that I doubted we’d head back to Gatlinburg anytime soon, it just wasn’t worth the hassle. As soon as we arrived home, everyone went off to bed.

I turned on the computer on Monday morning and was left in shock. Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge were being devastated by what Gov. Bill Haslam called the worst fire that Tennessee had seen in 100 years. Hillbilly Golf, where we used to ride the tram to the top of the course, was heavily damaged. The Westgate Resort where we had such a great time with the kids lost more than 100 structures, buildings, and homes that we had just seen days before. The Mountain Lodge Resort and Dennis Bolze Mansion were reduced to ashes and more than 14,000 people were displaced.

Updates since then show that at least seven people have died and more are missing, more than 400 homes and businesses have been damaged or destroyed, and other business owners who were devastated to hear their buildings burned have found out their buildings are fine. Newmansville Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Bobby Balding put it this way: “The center of Gatlinburg looks good for now, it’s the apocalypse on both sides (of downtown).” And the house on Baskins Road, where we spent so much time as a family? It was right in the path of the flames. At this point, emergency crews have not been able to make their way into the area to assess the damage, but it doesn’t look good.

Only then did I realize what a special place Gatlinburg is. The memories came rushing back and I regret not fully appreciating the great experiences my family has had there over the years. I pray fervently for the first responders and the victims, and for the home owners who bought the house on Baskin Creek and only take comfort in knowing that leaders like Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner, whose home burned to the ground on Monday, show optimism and perseverance to predict Gatlinburg will rebuild and come back better than before, like only a Tennessee Volunteer can.

Now I can’t wait to take the family back to Gatlinburg and the Smokey Mountains. Until then, stay strong, we are praying for you.

Scott Russell works in nonprofit management in Richmond, Virginia. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and four children.

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