Blue Ridge Country - November/December 2017 - 66
by Amy Clark
The Cherokee people called the southern Appalachian
mountains "shaconage" (sha-con-oh-hey) or "place of
the blue smoke." One year ago, the name seemed prophetic as deadly wildfires swept through the mountains
surrounding their neighbors in Gatlinburg and Pigeon
Forge, erasing homes, buildings, and nearly 18,000 acres
of old-growth forest. Fourteen people lost their lives in a
perfect storm of wind, flame, and drought.
But one year later, Gatlinburg's capacity for not just
healing, but thriving, is as clear as its horizon on a perfect autumn day.
For nearly 50 years, my family has vacationed in
this little mountain town. My growing-up years are
earmarked with memories there. Coming around the
bend from Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg might as well be
Vegas to a child's eyes, with its shimmering lights and
There were summer weekends with high school
friends, wearing our airbrushed tee-shirts as we zoomed
to the top of the Space Needle, and winter treks to Ober
Gatlinburg with my husband, holding hands as we skated on ice. There was a late night walk after live music,
when we saw a couple, she in her wedding dress and
he in his tuxedo, dancing in the foggy glow of a street
light. We took our children to trick-or-treat for the first
time in the Village where machines still stretch taffy in
the Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen and pumpkin spice coffee fills the air.
Amy Clark is a professor of communication studies at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, where she is a
co-founder and director of the Center for
Appalachian Studies. She is author and
co-editor of the book "Talking Appalachian: Voice, Identity, and Community
(University Press of Kentucky, 2013).
Every night, the dark erases the mountains' scars.
If you remember those images of boiling smoke,
scorched trees, smoldering buildings, and the interviews
with people desperate to find their loved ones, what remains of those awful days can be found deep in the new
forest growth. There are skeletons of homes, their chimneys stubbornly standing amid empty foundation, and
patches of brush and dead trees like healing scabs on
otherwise healthy mountains.
As nature restored itself, so did this little town. Homes
reappeared, businesses were rebuilt, and a new treetop
attraction, Anakeesta (a Cherokee word meaning "the
place of the balsams") has just opened, complete with a
Chondola that takes its passengers to the summit of the
mountain and Firefly Village.
The Cherokee legend of the First Fire describes a
group of animals who try to capture a bit of flame from
a burning sycamore to heat their world, which is growing ever colder. As they battle the heat and smoke, each
animal is forever marked: the owl by his white-ringed
eyes, the snake by his darkened skin, the raven by her
blackened wings. Only the water spider proves brave
enough to carry the hot coals on her back, but she is forever imprinted with the color red where she is burned.
Gatlinburg and its surrounding communities may be
forever marked with a horrific memory. But after several
seasons, evidence of the fires will be erased to all but
those who suffered the most because of them.