As I was wrapping up the writing on my blog "Heading For The Light" on November 28, news reports were slowly filtering in from the other side of the Smokies:
Gatlinburg was literally on fire.
The Chimney Tops fire that I mentioned in the previous blog had suddenly, wildly expanded, as promised and much-needed rains were preceded by hurricane force winds, some reaching up to 90 MPH. Those winds picked up burning embers from the Chimney Tops fire and rapidly deposited them at random throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Sevier County, setting new fires - fourteen separate fires in all - that engulfed areas quickly with no warning. The area that was already choking under a fog of heavy smoke from a distant fire was now itself part of the blaze. The city was evacuated, as best that could be done with such little warning. Yet still, sadly, fourteen souls perished, another 175 were injured, and over 2,400 houses, businesses, and other structures were destroyed when all was said and done.
And as so often happens when devastating news like this breaks, reports in the early stages varied wildly; unintentionally of course, yet still often conflicting and confusing. One report had said Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort was destroyed; at least until the morning after, when it was discovered perfectly intact. Another said that River Edge Motor Lodge, a place I have stayed in the past, was gone; when in fact River House Motor Lodge, just down the street, was the buliding completely destroyed. There were even reports that downtown was heavily damaged. As it turned out, the only visible damage downtown was a sign from the site of the old Ramada Inn that was bent over from the high winds.
Eventually, order - at least, some semblance of it, amidst the understandable chaos - was restored, the area was secured, firefighters and first responders doing their duties nobly. Still, it would take nearly two weeks for the city of Gatlinburg to reopen to the public.
In the meantime, there was a tremendous outpouring of support for my favorite town. Lots of money and donations of necessities were raised to help all involved, from those displaced to the firefighters and first responders. I might be here all night if I named every single celebrity or friend who originated some cause to help those in need. It was a joy to see, and an even greater joy to contribute.
In the coming days, the overriding message that came from the officials in Gatlinburg and Sevier County, after the smoke literally cleared, was this - "We need your business."
For the businesses that were spared, they were in dire need of revenue. Being closed for nearly two weeks is devastating for some businesses, less so for others; all the same, if there was a way where I could contribute further, it would certainly be by visiting my beloved town and "doing what I do," every time I visit - enjoying what it has to offer, by patronizing the many great businesses that give Gatlinburg its prestige and reputation as a great resort destination.
There was no other place I was going to visit this past Sunday - I had set my sights on Gatlinburg, I had already booked my room, and I was going to show some love, the best way I knew how.
I knew going in however that seeing my Smokies in the face of such devastation was going to be difficult.
So, in true "Jedi Mind Trick" style, I decided to set myself a bit of a challenge, just to keep things light and fun in face of what I knew I would see.
About a year ago, I decided to buy a very old camera on eBay; on a lark, and for a song - a Nikon D2Hs, one that predates my custom-modified and upgraded Nikon D2X, which itself is mighty old, yet is still my go-to camera body in most situations. This old, totally obsolete beast of a camera boasts a measly 4 megapixels (as opposed to 12 MP on my D2X), and was designed to be a fast action sports camera - which it does very well, and is why I bought it - to use at minor league baseball games. The layout of the camera is identical to my higher resolution D2X, making the transition between the two cameras virtually seamless.
Yet I had never really used the D2Hs for landscapes before. I figured, "Today was the day," so I made that obsolete beast my camera of choice for this trip.
When I drive to Gatlinburg, I often use the Blue Ridge Parkway to bypass the town of Cherokee; and since I'm a volunteer photographer for the Parkway, I figured I'd try and get a few images in with the D2Hs. And I was pleasantly surprised at how well this old, technologically limited camera performed in the situations I presented it with. The image quality of that camera resembles that of old 35mm camera film:
Once I entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the drive seemed normal as always - at least until I passed over Newfound Gap. And that's when I knew things were going to change.
As I descended from Newfound Gap, Chimney Tops - the origin of the devastating wildfires - came into view, appearing relatively untouched in comparison to the rest of what I saw on the way down:
As I descended into Gatlinburg however, I could see the damage done. Roadsides were charred, with trees down. Looking up from the Campbell Overlook, there were obvious scars in the various hillsides, with one scarred area in particular resembling that of an angel. The Gatlinburg Trail at Sugarlands was closed off due to the damage. The Chimneys picnic area and Chimney Tops Trail were shut down, needless to say.
I then drove into Gatlinburg, making a bee line for my room at the Econo Lodge; yet I couldn't escape the carnage the fires left behind on the hillsides, particularly the houses overlooking to River Road. As I checked in to my room, I chatted some with the desk clerk, who was up close and personal with the situation, as she was one of many who were forced to evacuate when the fires came upon town. As we talked, I found myself getting emotional as I described what I saw as I came into town, and as she told her story of what happened. Above all else, I found myself most grateful that the town was up and running again; so I made my usual stops at Ole Smoky Distillery (I have a not-so-secret fondness for bluegrass music, which always seems to be showcased at Ole Smoky), Five Guys for lunch, the Candy Kitchen, Fannie Farkles, The Village, and so on.
I also rode to the top of the Space Needle for the first time in four years, to catch a sunset (as seen in the top photo in this blog). Before I settled on a sunset sky, I wandered over to the other end of the needle, to catch the eastern sky as it approached "blue hour." And though the sight was a lovely one with the city lights and streaking headlights from passing cars, still, one could not avoid seeing some of the destruction, particularly at upper left and lower right of the image:
But that would be the extent of the damage I would capture while I was there - a small part of a larger, more beautiful, more optimistic scene. A scene of resilience and strength.
My friend and fellow photographer Kristi Parsons is an endless fount of optimism and joy; and in a post she recently made on Instagram and Facebook in reference to the wildfires, she summed up my sentiments perfectly, better than I could express:
I will share with you the beauty of these mountains, the magic of their hills, the resilience and rising of them and their people... I will share with you the light that has out shined the darkness, the strength that has overcome the unimaginable... But, I will not share with you the sadness, the ashes and the rubble.. I will not share with you the burnt homes, businesses and tears of those that have lost loved ones... Simply because the people, the mountains... They are so much more than their hard times, they are not defined by their struggles; yet instead they are defined by the characteristics of the Appalachians.
Strong, beautiful and fearless.
That is my goal here in this blog, and that was my goal in my time spent in Gatlinburg - to share the beauty that still remained. I purposely avoided the hardest hit areas, out of respect for those who suffered, and because no one needed further reminders of what they were desperately trying to recover from. I wanted to capture and show the beauty and resilience of my favorite area, so that's what I set out to do, obsolete camera and all:
The next morning, I gassed up at the Pilot and bought lunch in Pigeon Forge, but decided to return to Gatlinburg to walk along River Road, and to make a stop at one of my favorite spots, the inspirational garden at "Christ In The Smokies," formerly known as Christus Gardens.
I parked along River Road, in front of the charred, twisted remains of River House Motor Lodge. I saw passersby taking photos of the old motel, built the year I was born - 1971. But there was no way I would take gratuitous images of those ruins, which in any case was bounded by "crime scene" tape.
Just 100 yards or so up the road, the old Christus Gardens was virtually untouched and intact. The fires seemed to stop only a few feet away from the building. To be sure, I checked their Facebook page, where they credited firefighters to a degree; yet still, they marveled at "Heavenly Protection" - how the out-of-control fires seemingly halted before they could do any real damage to the gardens or the building.
Proof of that was the statue of Jesus, the centerpiece of the outdoor gardens. If you look carefully, the fencing at lower right behind the statue was partially melted. The landscape was charred, though the Ski Lift appeared relatively unscathed. A fir tree and shrubbery directly behind the statue also were partially charred. Yet, the statue of Jesus and everything around it was untouched:
The plaque below the statue was cracked, perhaps from the heat of the fires, yet with no visible signs of charring:
And all of the other, inspirational signs of hope in the gardens appeared untouched as well:
The praying hands read, "I said a prayer for you today."
When people ask why I have faith in Jesus, it's things like this that I point to, aside from my own personal testimony. The fact that the fires decimated buildings on either side of the gardens, yet left this property untouched is a miracle. I saw the images of the mountain on fire. I saw the devastation all around, and I saw how the fire seemed to miraculously stop short of this physical witness to Christ. He was, and is, and always will be the great I AM.
On the way back to my car, I saw that the fires had not extinguished the bountiful wildlife along the Little Pigeon River. Squirrels and chipmunks were playing along the river, and ducks were quacking and otherwise happy to see someone approaching them. Typically, they go scampering off when I approach; but this time, they didn't seem to mind my presence, particularly this little mallard:
So yes, I saw ruins. But I also saw the signs of renewal, of rebirth. Of a town pulling itself up by the bootstraps and moving forward by the grace of God. I will leave you with the last plaque I saw at the gardens, a fitting testimony to my favorite town:
The plaque reads, "...those who hope in the LORD with renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles." ~ Isaiah 40:31
This has been a very difficult year for a lot of people, myself included. Our faith has been stretched and tested to the limit; and yet God, through His grace, always sends us reminders through the storm that recovery and renewal is near. That's what keeps us going, and seeing this final plaque with devastation only yards away on either side of where I stood was a message to me, to the city of Gatlinburg, and hopefully a positive message to you if you are struggling.
We will rise from the ashes and soar again.
Merry Christmas, y'all.