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The mountains are on fire. I woke up this morning to terrible news reports of the Smoky Mountain communities of Gatlinburg, Wears Valley, and Pigeon Forge ablaze. Like many others, it broke my heart to see the area in flames. The Smokies have become a second home for many in the rural South, including my family. It’s a place of hollowed memories, not only for the Cherokee and those born in the area, but for the many who have grown to love the mountains over the course of several generations of visits. Going to the mountains always feels like coming home. It’s a safe place, the best of old-fashioned living personified. Many years ago, the Osborne Brothers recorded a bluegrass hit that went something like this: “Don’t let Smoky Mountain smoke get in your eyes. If you do, I’m telling you…you’ll want to live there the rest of your life, if Smoky Mountain smoke gets in your eyes.” Daddy and I used to perform that song together during our travels on the bluegrass circuit. It was always a favorite with the crowds. I think that’s because the Smokies have come to represent all that is good about this country to a great many people, at least to a great many Southerners.
Although I am in general opposed to federal intervention in local affairs, I have to admit that the national park service was a good idea. I remember a few years ago, as a boy, Daddy and I were hiking the Sugarland Mountain Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We were talking about the way the park came to exist, about the families that had to leave, and the many people who must have felt angered by the fact that they had to abandon their homes. Daddy made a remark I’ll never forget. He said, “I guess if the park hadn’t been created, we wouldn’t have this beautiful place to enjoy.” He was right. I’ve studied the history of this region for a long time, and I continue to write my doctoral dissertation on how the mountain South changed during the twentieth century. That being said, I’m thankful to whoever came up with the idea to create a park out of this pristine mountain paradise. It’s come to mean so much to us as a family, as I know it has to many other families here in the South. The mountains are the place where many traditional families come home to, even though they might not live there everyday. These mountains are far more than a tourist destination. They are among the final strongholds of old-time, traditional values. The history, places, people, and memories that these mountains hold keep visitors coming back time and again. Why? Because Americans are nostalgic, almost by nature. We know when we have lost something of great value, and we have this uncanny ability to find those places that remind us of what that loss really means. The mountains take people back, to a time and place that the modern world has tried remarkably hard to destroy.
I can’t help but notice that most Airstream bloggers write a lot about visiting the national parks out west, maybe Yellowstone or the Grand Tetons. We hope to visit those places once we hit the road full-time next year, but I must say, those places could never hold the meaning that the Smokies do for us. It is, after all, the most visited park for a reason. It matters to people. If we simply traveled around the mountain South for a year, parking our Airstream in those places we’ve already grown to love, that would be perfectly fine. I don’t have to see Yellowstone to be happy. I do, however, need to spend time in the Smokies. It’s really, truthfully, a magical place. I once heard Mississippi comedian Jerry Clower say that we Southerners have a tendency to prefer those places where God is most likely to be found. I guess for me, that’s always been the mountains. When in the Smokies, I’m reminded of what the prophet Isaiah said to his Lord: before the night was separated from the day, before the mountains were separated from the sea, you were God.
As Gatlinburg and the surrounding communities begin to recover from the recent wildfires, I only wish to say that the mountains will survive. Nothing will change. It can only get better. Homes have been destroyed. Family businesses have been devastated. People have died. But the spirit of the mountains, the great legacy of the mountain people, is much bigger than any destructive flame that nature could muster. Press on. We of the South need these mountains to remind us of a time long ago, of a time when country people governed our culture, when the farm was more important than the factory, when men knew the patterns of the weather, and when God’s creation meant more to us than being a playground for our recreation.
If you visit the Smokies anytime soon, do so with more in mind that eating at the best restaurants, sleeping in the newest vacation cabins, and riding the fastest roller coaster. Go there with the expectation that you will find something old, meaningful, and lasting. Find something a fire could never destroy. Go to the mountains, but spend time in the quiet. Remove yourself from the hustle and bustle of Highway 441. The Smokies have the power to tell you a story of an older, rural America that most of us have all but forgotten. The mountains speak of the people and the past that make them important to us. The chief lesson is to learn how to listen.
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