Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Three weeks ago, the spate of wildfires that had plagued the Southern Appalachians for over a month took an especially tragic turn when one of them struck the resort town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

The various fires in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina had already burned a significant amount of forest land, produced a lot of aggravating smoke, and even forced a few small communities to take the precaution of evacuating, but as far as I know had not previously destroyed structures or taken human lives.

That changed with the Chimney Tops 2 fire, so named because it was the second wildfire to originate at Chimney Tops, a prominent pinnacle shaped mountain. It swept down the western slopes of the Smoky Mountains on the back of 80-mph (130-kph) gusts of wind and devastated parts of Gatlinburg and its surroundings, incinerating or damaging some 1600 buildings and leaving at least 14 people dead.

It seemed unimaginable that the normally damp, even soggy, Smoky Mountains could spawn a blaze big enough and wild enough to ravage an entire town. (Those mountains get their name not from smoke, but rather from fog and mist.) But it did, thanks to unprecedented drought conditions in the Southeast. In the wake of the fire, Gatlinburg and the national park that is the town’s lifeblood were mostly closed to the public for over a week, also highly unprecedented.

More than any of the almost yearly big wildfires typical of the American West, this tragedy hit home for me, since I have a long, intimate history with that part of Tennessee.

Unlike the world-famous Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks, the Great Smoky Mountains park, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina state line and is a little smaller than Lapland’s Urho Kekkosen Kansallispuisto, probably isn’t familiar to folks in Finland.

Yet it is the most-visited park in the United States, a destination for some nine million tourists, picnickers, campers, hikers, or mere sightseers every year. Luckily, for the sake of the park’s endless wild spaces, the majority of this vast horde of people never ventures more than a few steps from their cars, leaving most of the park untouched by humans.

Most of this recreational car traffic moves over the Newfound Gap Road, a two-lane highway that cuts the park in half as it crosses over the spine of the Smoky Mountain range. At either end of this winding 34-mile (55-kilometer) road lies two tourist towns hugging the very edge of the park boundaries.

The one on the east, Cherokee, North Carolina, within the Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation, always had a tacky feel to it, at least when I was a kid. Along the main street fronted by cheap souvenir shops, you could see black bears in cages and local Cherokee men oddly decked out in Plains Indian war bonnets, all for the sake of attracting and amusing tourists. There was an atmosphere of a carnival midway. 

(This made Cherokee the perfect setting, I guess, for the final scenes of German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s iconic movie “Stroszek”, which weirdly enough includes an arcade chicken dancing to corny music.)

On the other hand, Gatlinburg, at the other end of the Newfound Gap road, to me always had a more up-scale vibe to it, though the town (with a current population of about 4000, about the same as Lapland's Ivalo) did exhibit some symptoms of a tourist trap, such as a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum. 

My first visit there was when I was very young, maybe just a new-born. According to family lore, my parents had such a hard time finding a place to stay that they finally had to settle for a motel so run-down you could see the stars through the holes in the roof.

Things were a bit more prosperous there when I started making my own visits, back in high school and college, and my memories of the place are all good. By that time, my buddies and I were making epic hiking trips in the Smokies, in summer but later also in winter. At the end of some of the winter trips, after a few nights sleeping in tents in below-freezing temperatures, we would drive down to Gatlinburg to check into a motel.

Having just finished walking in the woods for a few days, once in Gatlinburg we naturally switched gears and spent our time walking around the town. I remember wandering around little pedestrian alleyways, deserted, the shops closed, the cold nighttime air filled with music, probably Christmas music, piped in through hidden speakers. It was a nice solitary atmosphere.

I also remember driving into Gatlinburg on a rainy night at the end of December. After coming down the mountain, enveloped in the deep blackness of dense woods in every direction, we ran -- with almost no warning -- headlong into the blaring lights of the bustling resort town. It was startling. Since I wasn’t used to driving at night in unfamiliar places, I found it a bit nerve-wracking cruising down the street, the pavement wet and glistening in the confusion of lights, from traffic and shops, all the while keeping an eye out through the rain for tourists on the verge of stepping off the curb. It was in many ways a premonition of what driving is like in Helsinki in the depths of a November night, still unpleasant.

On that night, New Year’s Eve 1974, we hunkered down in our motel, and celebrated “camping-style”. We set up our little, Swedish-made Svea 123 hiking stove (I still have it!) on top of the motel-room cabinet and fired the thing up (talk about fire hazards) so we could boil tea water and make hot rum toddies. They put us in a holiday spirit, for sure.

By the next morning, temperatures had dropped and the streets of Gatlinburg were covered in a treacherous layer of ice. We put the tire chains on my father’s pick-up truck and left town heading downstream toward Pigeon Forge. As there was no way we were going to risk going back across the mountain, we had no choice but to return to Georgia along the around-about, low-land route. Somehow when I think back on that morning, I always hear in my mind Linda Ronstadt singing a plaintive song, something that must have been playing on the radio as we left.

A year or two later, we started making yearly family trips to Gatlinburg to ski at the nearby ski area, almost 1500 feet (460 meters) above town, called Ober Gatlinburg. Naturally. Underlining the European feel evoked by that Germanized name, the resort operates a giant aerial tramway, like you find in the Alps, that would take us directly from Gatlinburg’s main street up to the ski lodge. Our parents weren’t skiers themselves (far from it), but they were happy to indulge their children by arranging what became a family holiday tradition, one that I still have fond memories of.

Since those long-ago family trips, I’ve been to Gatlinburg only once or twice, the last time in 2001 with my own kids. We mostly just passed through. On a trip to Georgia last year, I could have visited the Smokies, driven over Newfound Gap and dropped into to Gatlinburg to get reacquainted.

But I didn’t, and now I regret that. If I ever get back there, even if it’s years from now, I’m afraid it will still feel forever changed by a tragic wildfire that no one expected. 

Gatlinburg, before the recent fire.
Photo: Bilnutne

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