Monday, March 6, 2017

Gatlinburg: Beauty from the Ashes

"He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted.....
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor." Isaiah 61:1-3
The devastating fires that engulfed Gatlinburg Tennessee, this past November, was a tragedy beyond words. Several lives were lost, and countless homes reduced to ashes. That night was the stuff of nightmares. Viral videos captured the unbelievable scenes of destruction, panic, and heroism. I was not physically there that night, but I, and many of members of my family were awake through the wee hours of the morning, praying hard for this place we loved so dearly. Falling asleep finally, when we realized there could be no more word until morning light provided a report of the devastation. So many were praying for rain that night, and thankfully, the rains came. After seeing the destruction first hand in December, I realize now how sweet those rains had been. If they had not come, I firmly believe all would have been lost.
I cannot begin to describe how precious Gatlinburg has been to our family. For multiple generations it has been a nearby sanctuary. Always welcoming and peaceful, helping us forget the stresses of life, as we literally climb closer to spiritual comforts: Like a balm, renewing our mind, body, and soul. It has been a place of happiness, discovery, and love.
I have also been acutely aware of its sense of history and timeless existence. Its mountains echo thousands of years of nature's cycles: Its relatively short history of man, farming nearby valleys, harvesting nature's bounties, and passing on of ancient traditions. If you have never stood, barefoot, in the rushing mountain stream, and just listened to the symphony of nature around you, then you have not fully lived.
For the past several years, our family has been fortunate enough to spend Christmas in Gatlinburg. Each year, a week of family joy, surrounded by one of our most dear places on earth. During the night of destruction, our reservations for Christmas were a mere afterthought....we just prayed that Gatlinburg would survive to see another Christmas. Miraculously, our little corner of town survived, and we made the trek as planned, due to the pleas of the owner and local officials. Their message? "Please come visit!"

There were many false reports indicating that much of the town was gone. Don't get me wrong. The loss is tragic. There are large pockets of town that are no longer with us....but there are very large pockets that survived! The main strip, for example, and most along River Road, have all survived. It was comforting to see these places still standing - beacons of hope and strength.
Our Christmas of 2016 was wonderful as always. Family and relaxation, and a true sense of thankfulness that the rains had come that night in November. Yet, along with the joy of Christmas, there was grief. Our family had enjoyed a small group of cabins along the Roaring Fork stream for about a decade. They were very much like second homes to us. We had heard reports that they had been lost in the fire, but until we arrived to see for ourselves, reality was still at bay.
It was heartbreaking to see the destruction. Our ritual of walking this road along the stream, and basking in the beauty of history and nature would never be the same. Just last June, we had celebrated my Mother's birthday in one of these cabins. We had walked the road, taking pictures, and breathing in the restorative, oxygen-filled air.

One loss felt most poignantly, was a beautiful red barn, tucked up along side of the mountain base, just across the stream. Local lore said this was one of the first riding stables built in Gatlinburg for the use of tourists back in the 1930s. Seasonally framed in the trees, this picture of history will live on only in our memories, and the photos taken over the years.
The areas of destruction were sobering and heartbreaking. They also served to remind us of the frailty of life, and the savage, unpredictability of nature. Yes, it was man that started the blaze that destroyed so much life, but it was the winds of nature that carried embers in strange patterns....burning some pockets, and turning abruptly in a split second to spare a grouping just next door.
Many of the areas downtown are also still here today because of the valiant efforts of so many firemen. After seeing the videos of folks being flanked by burning forest on either side of their escape route, the firemen were very much in danger that night, and they deserve medals of valor, in my opinion.

As for the beauty rising from the ashes: I was encouraged by other sights we witnessed. During the day, we can see the darkened earth and scorched trees, sprinkled with ghostly chimneys standing as monuments to the pre-fire days. But in the night, standing on the balcony of the condo rental, looking towards downtown, I could see pockets of light sprinkling the hillsides. You could clearly see the areas that survived, and there were many more than I expected. Sadly, there were large pockets of complete darkness, but those surrounding clusters of light were perfect messages at Christmas. Beacons of hope, reminding us all that Gatlinburg will survive, and flourish once again. 

In fact, there were some parcels that had already bulldozed the rubble and had framing already in place, as the sound of construction remained steady. This was a wonderful sign of new life. As we are reminded that beauty comes from the ashes, I can't wait to see the spring growth take over. The area will rise stronger than before, as long as we continue to support its people. The weather is warming up, and the blossoms are unfurling their splendor. For those of you who share this heartfelt regard for Gatlinburg, get those reservations in - it's time to come back!


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