This past November, right after Thanksgiving, I was watching the morning news and a quick alert flashed across the screen about fires in The Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee. It caught my attention because we love the Smokies, we love Gatlinburg, and we even have a certain affection for the craziness of Pigeon Forge (ever heard of Dollyville?)
A day later, the wildfires in the National Park had exploded into a full-blown emergency and flames were licking at the mountain village Gatlinburg itself. The town was evacuated. Vacation housing and resorts in the area were at risk or, in several cases, consumed by fire.
When we travel south in our Airstream in the winter we typically avoid the I-95 corridor and instead go west through Pennsylvania, then south through western Virginia and into Tennessee, where we relax for a day or two in the Gatlinburg area. We were especially interested in the area this year on account of the fires.
We normally stay at the Riveredge Campground in Pigeon Forge, right at the base of “the spur”, which is the access road to Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We had heard that the fire had approached the very edge of the campground but not harmed it. I don’t have any pictures, but sure enough, right along the back edges of the campground, which are carved into a hillside, are signs of intense fire damage. Very close call. We were glad to be able to stay there again this year.
Driving along the Spur up to Gatlinburg, and further up into the National Park to Newfound Gap at the top of the Smokies, fire damage is everywhere. Very impressive. I’m not a photographer, but these images should tell the story. Burned out cabins, large resort complexes, formerly elegant homes perched on the mountainside, nothing but burned bones. Even driving through the middle of Gatlinburg, some buildings burned to the ground, while others next door mercifully untouched.
One painful loss was The Mountain Lodge Restaurant, which had been our favorite place for an excellent breakfast, with home made bread and astonishingly good home made cinnamon rolls hot out of the oven. A small family business, gone.
Aside from the reality of the recent devastating fire, we had fun during our stay. We went to our usual haunts, including the Cherokee Grill in Gatlinburg and, especially fun, Calhouns on the River in downtown Knoxville. We’ve been going to that particular Calhoun’s each year on our way through, and each year we try to get there on a Thursday so we can catch up with our regular group of “barhounds” who we met on our very first visit some seven-or-so years ago, who meet there weekly. It’s such fun to be recognized when we sit down at the bar that we only get to once a year! Here’s a shout-out to this great bunch of compadres: we enjoy our visits with you and our excellent bartenders immensely. See you next year!
We always try to end our stay by driving across the Smokies on Newfound Gap Road. Sometimes it is closed due to snow, but this year it was open, so over we went. It was impressive to see how the fires had ravaged the forest. And there was cold and snow at the top. Always a great ride, and often, including this year, some spectacular views.