When Winter Comes to the Smokies

dsc_0039When I first got Daisy, we all know I had hallucinations. I imagined her snuggled against a flowing river as I sat on the bank and penned the Great American Novel. I pictured my driving her across the desert plains as scorpions crunched beneath her tires. I fantasized taking her to Bonnaroo where hippies of all ages walked past our awesome retro setup and mumbled, “Cool, man. Like wow. That camper is rad, dude.” Come to find out my hallucinations were greater than any Bonnaroo hippie’s.

Daisy did make it to Bonnaroo, but shan’t do it again. Just read those posts. I’m too old and cranky for Bonnaroo and pulling Daisy is bad for my blood pressure because Daisy bucks and kicks more than Girl Child’s horse when she’s let out to play with her herd. We have determined that Daisy is a stay-at-home kinda gal.

Still, I like to imagine that someday I’ll have a renovated Airstream that I will take on road trips and I continue to have imaginary itineraries for places such as the Grand Canyon, Florida Keys and Smoky Mountains. I’d love to take my imaginary Airstream to the Smoky Mountains.

I love mountains. I grew up in West Virginia. I love everything about mountains. When I first moved to Nashville, I felt exposed and vulnerable. There were no mountains to wrap themselves around me and keep me safe. Nashville felt flat to me until I started biking it and I learned that not having mountains doesn’t mean flat. Nor does riding a bicycle mean fit, but that’s another story. Despite Nashville’s hills, I could only get my mountain fix when I went back home, or to East Tennessee. I need mountains and mountain people.

There is an equestrian center in East Tennessee that hosts several horse shows a year. It’s in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, just outside Knoxville. We love going to River Glen; even the moody horse loves going to River Glen. My favorite part – besides watching my gifted daughter ride – is getting up early on Sunday morning to stand on a knoll overlooking a foggy field next to a river and listen to a bagpiper play. In full Highland Dress, she stands where thundering hooves will pound the earth scant minutes after her last note is played. She stands in the foggy valley and plays the instrument that has always reached across foggy valleys and tall mountains. The blessing of the battlefield, they call it, scattering notes as if they were whispers of prayers, asking that the brave athletes who run their horses over this field to jump all the things will be safe.

My history with the Smoky Mountains goes back a lot further than a few years’ of horse shows. As with almost everybody else growing up in Milton, West Virginia in the 70s, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge were our go-to vacation spots. If times were good, it was an additional long weekend coupled with the annual trip to Myrtle Beach. If the plant was on strike, then the long weekend WAS vacation. We loved the kitsch and we love the natural beauty. My mother was obsessed with wading in creeks. My sister and I were obsessed with tacky souvenirs and outlet malls. My dad was obsessed with the pancake place. The Smoky Mountains contained them all.

After I grew up, got married and moved away – not necessarily in that order – I became a copywriter for the Bohan Agency and Pigeon Forge was our biggest client. Pigeon Forge was my FAVORITE client. The people were amazing and I loved the road trips to East Tennessee for “research.” My only caveat for these trips was that I did not ride roller coasters.

One of the highlights of my advertising career happened one autumn day when Spousal Unit was mowing the grass. He stopped the mower, mouth agape and came running to me. He put his Walkman headphones up to my ear. The radio was playing a spot I’d written for Pigeon Forge. It had the one and only Dolly Parton saying my words, “When winter comes to the Smokies, Pigeon Forge comes alive!”

The grand dame of Sevier County was speaking words I had written! In my world, that’s about as good as it gets. She’s mountain people’s mountain people.

I still love mountain people. I hate their politics and I believe that they shoot themselves in their Redwing-clad feet every time they vote, but I love mountain people. Mountain people have your back. Years after I left the ad agency, we took our young family to Kiawah Island for vacation. Hurricane Floyd decided to drop by, so we evacuated. We wanted to salvage what we could of our vacation, so I called one of my old contacts in Pigeon Forge. Thousands of other people had the same idea, so they were booked solid, but she finagled a cabin in the woods for us. And gave me a discount. Mountain people.

After 26 hours in the car for what should have been a five-hour trip, we landed in Pigeon Forge and unpacked our beach gear at a cabin in the woods. We had a blast. Boy Child was chosen to chase a chicken at the Dixie Stampede. He was four years old and the chicken got away. Girl Child rode a pony. She was thirteen months and has been riding ponies ever since. Vacation was salvaged; memories were made; love for Sevier County and mountain people held firm.

Sixteen years passed before I visited Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg again. We stayed with friends on a mountain high above the outlet malls last Christmas break. I would say we stayed in a cabin, but something that is as big as my high school should probably be given another name. Armory? Castle? Fort? Chalet? I was as shocked by the growth of Pigeon Forge as I was with the size of the “cabin.” The area has exploded with commerce and I barely knew my way around.

Once again, we had a blast and even though we didn’t chase chickens or ride a pony, I DID ride a roller coaster. I wondered about my old Pigeon Forge friends. I wondered if I kept their names listed somewhere. I wondered if I should renew the connections.

Nearly a year after our visit, a raging storm of flames, heat and burning wind rampaged over those mountains, turning Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg into front-page news. Many people lost everything they had. Some lost even more than that. My stomach drops each time a lost soul is identified and I selfishly hope it’s nobody I know, nobody with whom I haven’t renewed connection. I can’t get them out of my mind and I can’t quit being sad. Adding this tragedy to the overwhelming hopelessness I have after the election and I feel like I’m just dragging through life like a broken mop over a nasty floor. I don’t have what it takes to clean it all up.

I don’t, but I know that mountain people do. They’ll work to put it all together and once again the area will “come alive!” Dolly is giving one thousand dollars per family per month to those whose lives were affected by the wildfire that swept through her community. She’s doing it because she’s Dolly and that’s what mountain people do.

As these mountain people continue to work and struggle, I hope they hear the faint notes of a ghostly bagpiper, standing in a valley filled with embers and swirling smoke. I hope they hear mountain music whispering prayers that they, these mountain people, will jump all the things that are the obstacles before them and that they will be safe.

photo credit: Camilla Caldwell