The weather was so nice last weekend that we could hear the mountains calling! We piled everything you need to pack to keep a toddler happy, healthy, clean, and dry for a day in the car and drove to Cade’s Cove on Saturday (not before a quick stop at Honeybee Coffee in West Knoxville – DELISH). The sky was blue, the grass was green, the birds were chirping, the deer were frolicking and the tourist were flocking.
It’s a long drive for a 3 year old, so we made plans to wander the picnic area before the cove loop road opened at 10am. We had a blast looking for rocks to throw into the creek and I was grateful for the bathroom stop. We started the loop and within 10 minutes saw three gorgeous, healthy deer literally leaping across the road. Ya’ll it was like the beginning of Jurassic Park when it’s just cute little leaf-eaters doing their wild thing. We parked and walked to John Oliver’s Cabin and E somehow got into his head that we would be seeing a bear in the cabin. Too cute…but for serious, I started to get nervous.
We stopped at the “half-way there bathrooms” and tried our hardest to support the park with an apple butter purchase but they were out. Thanks to expert preparation and packing, we ate lunch in the car before starting on the second half of the loop road. Undoubtedly the quieter half, this is where E fell asleep. Since he was out and we were lucky enough to be in the mountains on the day they reopened the road to Clingman’s Dome, the hubs and I called an audible to spend the rest of the day in the Smoky’s. By the time we got to Clingman’s Dome parking lot, E was awake and ready to hike*. A short but steep trail takes you to the height of 6,643 feet, the highest point in Tennessee and the third highest point East of the Mississippi River. The views from the observation tower were worth the sweat (and tears) and it brought our hiking total to 4.5 miles for the day.
*Hike is a loose term for a toddler. I spent the majority of the steep half-mile walk up and my husband spend the majority of the step half-mile down carrying our 40lb bundle of joy. Props to my personal trainer (moi)! But seriously, shout out to my girl Katie for pushing me so hard in the gym.
On the drive up to Clingman’s Dome, you pass the trail head for the Chimney Tops Trail – a rigorous but short trip up to an iconic part of the park. The trail has been closed over 4 months and even with the glaring Spring sunshine, there was an air of solemnity driving through our mountains.
The fire that burned through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and then Gatlinburg last November will forever change the narrative in our area. Most of us will never forget the rise and fall of our hopes for rain before it spread out of the park, and then again when we hoped for the best news about those who were missing. I remember hitting refresh on my internet browser every few minutes to get the latest news, hoping for the best and fearing the worst.
The fire, now infamously known as the Chimney Tops 2 fire, claimed the lives of 14 people, including two children, and destroyed over 2,000 homes. There is no way to capture the grief and sense of total loss felt by the Gatlinburg community. Even living in Knoxville, a community over 40 miles away, I can remember the faces of those confirmed dead. Fire burns without discretion and without respect for life. I’ve seen house fires and wildfires at a distance but this tragedy brought the realities of catastrophic loss into our homes everyday on the news and in our social media feeds.
In moments without words, I fill my head with songs that speak for me. Last November I was listening to the soundtrack from Hamilton on loop already but these words from the poignant song, It’s Quiet Uptown, spoke volumes:
There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
Gatlinburg and the surrounding communities are learning to live with the unimaginable. There are no words but there have been attempts to capture the impact of the wildfires. Mostly notably for me was the project Jeremy Cowart, a photographer in Nashville, produced Voices of Gatlinburg. These photographs of families on mattresses in the remains of their homes capture not only the extent of the damage to personal property but also the stories behind each pile of rubble. Each family owns up to the fears they face but also shares their hope for the future.
Driving through the national park last weekend, it was impossible to miss the charred trees and trail closing signs at the Chimney
Trail. Also impossible to miss were the vibrant green patches of grass springing up out of the charred ground. It’s undoubtedly Spring in East Tennessee but this new grass came up the most brilliant and vibrant in the Smoky’s where the fire had raged. Driving up the road to Clingman’s Dome, we saw blankets of wildflowers following the same trail the wildfires had made. Even with the windows up, the smell of the flowers was recognizable.
Now, there are scientific reasons that this happens and we know now that fires in places such as national parks are typically left to burn because of their benefits. But on this drive in these mountains, I wasn’t thinking about science or park service policies. I was thinking about a couple of verses in the Bible that promises God will give those who mourn a crown of beauty for ashes and the oil of gladness instead of mourning. The author was using a bit of science to show how the same rebirth and vibrancy that comes to the earth through fire is what can be done in the human heart after tragedy.
I’ve experienced my own bit of beauty from ashes, nothing compared to some, but it’s enough that I hope and pray for our neighbors in Gatlinburg. I have to believe there will be beauty for their ashes.