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OP/ED: Smoky Mountain Memories Can’t Be Destroyed In Flames

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As I’m hiking up the dirt path that is decorated with roots going in all directions, I hear something that I haven’t heard before.

The sound of water hitting the rocks as I near closer around the bend, creates a unique splish-splash sound. At the same time, birds are chirping and animals are ruffling through the bushes.

Once I make the turn, I find myself standing by a ravishing river that lies hidden in the mountains. I watch as the water flows from a magnificent 80 foot waterfall, that is surrounded by rocks and trees. Nearly covering the bright, vibrant trees, I notice a sheet of hazy smoke passing through.

The sight of this masterpiece reminds me of a breathtaking portrait I once saw in a museum. But the feeling of nature felt very real. It was unlike any other feeling I’ve ever felt before.

In that moment, I heard the mountains calling my name.

And now, I’m calling out for them, as ravaging winds and fire have put them under great destruction.

***

Everyone’s heard the expression, “love at first sight,” but how many have actually experienced it?

Back in the summer of 2007, I did. And no, it’s not with a person. Instead, it was with a location: The Great Smoky Mountains.

The sight of wildlife running freely, historic homes still standing with nature wrapped around, and the beautiful mountain scenery was brand new to me and stood there looking fascinating. The amount of stars that I was able to view when I looked up at the night sky was more than I’ve ever seen before. Maybe it was mixed with the feeling of a cool spray from the waterfall, and the sound of animals shuffling around me, while they stayed hidden.

Perhaps what made it truly love at first sight was after the greater feeling of accomplishment when I hiked up the highest point of the Smokies called Clingman’s Dome. From up there, I was in awe at the sight of mountains stretching beyond the horizon, as the smoky haze tangled between each like a wicker basket.

It was something I never expected, as I took the exit off the interstate, and onto the main road. Little did I know that I checked all my worries off on the highway, so I could enter a new state of mind.

The sight of the ‘Welcome’ sign sent me to a childhood excitement; acknowledgement that I was in the mountains sent me to a place of serenity. And that long and winding road led me to downtown Gatlinburg, which is located inside the Smokies. Gatlinburg is more  or less the Myrtle Beach of the mountains, with all the attractions they hold (but prettier).

***

As of last week, CNN began broadcasting the wildfire that was spreading throughout the Gatlinburg and the Smokies. It’s been noted as the worst wildfire the mountains have seen in nearly decades. The only exception is that this fire was caused by arson from two teenagers outside of Sevier County.

When each news coverage came on, as I watched, I felt my heart slowly breaking, as I didn’t know what to say.

I looked at pictures posted over social media of the fire scattering through the mountains, as the skies turned orange and heavy dust smoke gathered it’s way through Gatlinburg’s main strip, covering all it’s attractions.

Seeing pictures of this put a damper on everything for me, that it even made me sit and pray.

***

Two years ago, my brother and I begged our parents to go back to Gatlinburg for vacation. We didn’t just beg to go at any time of the summer, we wanted to go away for Fourth of July, like we did a few years prior. After a few days, they both caved in; we left two days before the holiday and headed on our way towards Tennessee.

It may seem strange for someone to pack their bags and take a 15 hour drive to spend the Fourth of July week away, as so many people head down to the shore, which is approximately about an hour or two away. My family prefers the mountains, I guess you could say. I mean, we are not beach people.

The mountains weren’t the only reason we decided to take that 15 hour drive. Every year Gatlinburg holds their annual midnight Fourth of July parade, where millions come out to see it. This is when they have all their floats with lights brightly lit and decorated with music blasting, while veterans of all branches of the military are walking.

By this point, everyone standing off on the sidewalks always cheer and clap, showing the true American pride.

I remember the first year we went, all I heard was Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue. Whenever I hear that song now, it’s as though the melody sounds like a memory, as I vividly watch the parade go by in my head.

One thing I’ve learned while spending the holiday in the mountains are that it’s not 4th of July without fireworks.

What made it even great was the resort my family stayed at had a road that allowed their guests to drive up to the top of the mountain and watch the show.

I remember the sound of the gunpowder ricocheting off the mountains, as I watched the sparkling designs fade into a light gray smoke that overcasted the purple night sky. It’s an image and sound I will never lose sight of.

***

Imagine if many of the places you’ve visited, ate, and stayed at – remember, this is your favorite place in the whole world – all burned to the ground. How would you feel?
It’s as though I watched all of my Smoky Mountain memories go up in flames – literally.

My heart dropped to my stomach when I found out the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort was demolished. This was the true “Smoky Mountain” experience. The buildings were made to look as though they were cabins, as they were right in the heart of the Smokies.

This resort had the best seats in the house when it came to Fourth of July fireworks as they rolled in like thunder.

The only thing rolling like thunder now, were the wildfires as they spread throughout the mountains.

Forest fires are natural, as it is part of the life cycle, burning away old, deadwood and allowing new to grow in its place, but it causes me to sit here and wonder. 

I wonder if it was the smoke that caused me to choke up this way. Or maybe it was the burning feeling I had in my lungs that forced me to have a deep, profound sadness. No. It’s the emotional connection I have with this place that makes it feel like the fire is burning inside of me.

The Smokies are where I saw my first white-tailed deer and black bear.

The Smokies are where I ziplined for the first time. Right in the heart of them.

The Smokies are where I first heard country music and gained my love for the genre.

The Smokies are where I enjoy spending my Fourth of July and have never seen a firework show quite the way they put one on.

The Smokies are where I watched my first sunrise over the mountains and where I first stood behind a waterfall.

The Smokies are the reason I love the beauty of nature and hiking as much as I do, which is perhaps the reason why I’m not a beach kind of girl.

The Smokies are where my favorite family vacation is located; my home away from home.

The Smokies are my favorite place in the world.

***

With the destruction the flames caused, the welcome sign was destroyed for all to see what truly happened. But visitors don’t need a “Welcome” sign when entering the Smokies to feel the excitement like I once believed. There’s already a feeling of knowing you’re welcomed as you’re driving on the long and winding road with nature on either side of you.

My heart goes out to all the first responders who did everything they could to save the Great Smoky Mountains; for the families who have lost their homes, the businesses who are starting from the ground up again, and for the fourteen and counting people who lost their lives and those who were injured during this tragedy.

As I call out to the mountains, as they once did to me, I hear something I haven’t heard in awhile. All the beauty that lie in the depths of the Smokies are calling me back.

Their outward charm may have taken a toll, but they will soon become what they once were: as magnificent and beautiful to be a portrait hanging in a museum.

#PrayForTheSmokies

 

 

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OP/ED: Smoky Mountain Memories Can’t Be Destroyed In Flames