“As long as no one is standing in its way, a wildfire is a natural event. Put people in front of it, and it becomes the stuff of tragedy.”— John MacleanAuthorFrom, “Fire and Ashes: On …
“As long as no one is standing in its way, a wildfire is a natural event. Put people in front of it, and it becomes the stuff of tragedy.”
— John Maclean
From, “Fire and Ashes: On the
Front Lines of American Wildfire”
To best feel the raw pain of disaster, you must sometimes see its impact for yourself.
Then, and only then, can you bow to its power. Then, and only then, can you shed inevitable tears at its finality.
This was my experience after cresting the Memorial Forest Walk, a solemn gravel trail whose gradual uphill climb atop Anakeesta Mountain offers a quiet reverence — and a subdued tribute — to the 14 souls who died, and the 2,800 structures that were damaged or destroyed, during the horrific wildfires last November that brought the city of Gatlinburg to her knees.
Ten months into the wake of the Smoky Mountain tragedy, my wife and I finally returned to our “go to” site of serenity. Gatlinburg, and her Pigeon Forge and Sevierville sisters, have served as our beloved weekend getaway for as long as our 40-plus year marriage has lasted.
We even honeymooned in those forested hills in ‘77, and few years have drifted by since then that we haven’t visited at least once, and sometimes twice.
When Gatlinburg’s perimeter burned, as well as a few isolated parts of the town itself, our hearts broke.
Shortly after the fires, we had planned to visit — not so much to view the damage for ourselves, but to show support for the town, as well as for the people and their small businesses, who had made our previous stays so special.
But life kept getting in the way. Canceled reservations became the norm and our frustrations grew.
Finally, we set a firm date — the last week in September — and we stuck to it. It became a visit well worth the making.
What we found when we got there was a town on the mend, a people determined to emerge from an abyss of hopelessness, and a new spring in the step of all who call this community home and especially those whose visits and revisits have made it a home away from home.
Commerce is alive and well in Gatlinburg.
The tourists have returned. The scenery is amazing. And the views from chair lifts, trams and skyway passages remain as breathtaking as ever.
Yet, the wildfires did leave scars.
To this day, crews continue to fell giant, blackened trees along busy roadways. A few scenic overlooks once known for their green slopes of thick vegetation in summer and rainbow rides of color in autumn are now dotted by tall, dark skeletons. They stand as the aftermath of disaster, one whose blame lies at the hands of man’s carelessness ... or his cruelty.
But, from the pain of loss emerges the warmth of recovery.
Homes are being rebuilt.
Damaged restaurants have stitched their wounds and again stand tall, their “Welcome” signs blinking deep into the heart of the night and their crowds swarming like the days of yore.
Old businesses have reopened their doors.
New businesses signal the power of hope and the hope of a new day.
One such addition to today’s Gatlinburg experience is called “Anakeesta.” Located in the city at the foot of the mountains, and just across the way from Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, it appears — at first — to be just a new chair lift.
It is. It’s also much more. Much, much more.
Think Ober Gatlinburg ... a major attraction, especially in the winter, whose mountain amenities serve as their own little town.
That’s how I’d describe Anakeesta. It’s a Cherokee word meaning “high ground.” Literally, it is referred to as “The place of the balsams.”
The chair lift — which is about a 14-minute ride using either of two types of carriages: the traditional quad chair or an enclosed 6-person gondola cabin — is a calming, high-hanging ride that starts at the Gatlinburg street level and climbs to the Anakeesta Mountain summit.
And there, visitors will find the Firefly Village, a growing nest of activities that — so far — include gift shops, informal dining, a Treehouse Village playground for the kids, a zipline and a treetop canopy walk. As I am told, more is on the way — like a single-rail mountain coaster and an amphitheater, among others.
Had we spent more time atop Anakeesta, we would have enjoyed some of these amenities. But time was short and my wife was hobbled by a bad foot, thereby limiting her mobility.
But the one attraction that caught my eye, and the one of which I partook, was the Memorial Forest Walk. To me, this became the highlight of Anakeesta.
Having just opened Sept. 1, the mountain park — and its accompanying memorial walk — still rely on word-of-mouth advertising. But word will spread, and quickly.
In tribute to those who died, and to the heroes whose courage saved hundreds more, as well as to the thousands of wooded acres destroyed by those devastating wildfires of November 2016, the Memorial Forest Walk offers an emotional glimpse of what fire leaves behind.
A gradual climb up the gravel trail, flanked on both sides by placards telling the story of those terrifying moments, unveils the stark reality of disaster. Charred trees, reaching into the white of puffy clouds and blue skies, come as a sobering reminder that life is fragile ... so fragile, in fact, that man’s reckless ways can snuff it out like a candle, all in a matter of minutes or hours or horrifying days.
The afternoon I made the short trek up the somber path, a handful of others did as well. With voices low, most conversations seemed muted. It wasn’t visitors’ lack of will to talk, it was their acceptance of this high ground as being a place of quiet reverence.
On my climb, I spoke to no one ... my only voice being the silent click of the camera held at my side.
At the top, a couple sat on a rock bench, their arms locked at the elbow, their gaze fixed on the nearly year-old destruction below.
A group of three read quietly, their placard telling a tale of heroism, the next recounting a story of heartbreak.
A little boy stared aimlessly into the heart of the black forest.
An old man wiped at one eye, then the other.
Another man, this one much younger, strolled down the walkway toward me; his nod a knowing one, his frown a pained one.
At the trail’s crest, I scanned the vast surround of devastation. I noticed, too, at the base of charred trees surfaced new life, signaling a fresh beginning. Its lovely green hid the ugliness of untimely death.
Like the old man, my eyes felt the familiar sting of despair.
Yet, the Memorial Forest Walk is not just a suggestion of that we see as bad. It is a hint of all things good, and the value of hope in finding new paths and comforting ways.
For those who visit Anakeesta Mountain, take the memorial walk ... not for a good cry, but to experience the promise of life.
And for those who listen closely, you’ll hear the voices of Gatlinburg.
(About the writer: Rick Norton is an associate editor at the Cleveland Daily Banner. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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