This is my first time seeing the devastation up close. I’m struck by the view of Gatlinburg’s glitzy buildings through a rather convenient hole in the trees. Somehow, the tourist town is still going strong. I find myself staring at the large black swaths cutting across the Appalachian greenery across the valley. Fire scars.
My teammate Jenna, a petite blonde with a permanent smile, points to a towering stack of bricks before disappearing around the back of the van to grab Princess, our aptly named 441 Stihl chainsaw. “It’s so amazing that there was a structure here. The house across the street is mostly fine.”
Upon further inspection, yes. There is a foundation spanning the break of the treeline that I had missed while admiring the view of the smoky grey mist rolling across the opposite mountain. The tree line is dotted with black stumps. The trees that remain have fire damage spreading up their trunks. Oh.
I pull my helmet on as I walk away from the van. Under my boots what was left of a set of china snaps and crunches. As I approach the edge of the hill, I notice a set of stairs leading to more foundation built into the mountain. At the bottom, small chunks of debris are wedged between two partially standing walls. Beams of metal lay, blackened, on the ground nearby. Mostly though, there is just ash.
“Can you tell me why this fire burned so hot here, but only left smoke damage on the neighboring house?” Tennessee is not Jenna’s first time volunteering in a disaster, nor mine. However, fire behavior is tricky. Although we are both certified wildland firefighters, we had yet to see something quite like this. Floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes at least tended to leave more behind.
“I would guess because this is a ridgeline? This house was at the top, so the fire grew and gained momentum as it burned it’s way up.” As the younger woman approaches, I note with some amusement that she already has a bit of bar oil on her face. Well, we’re both bound to be filthy by the end of the day. “That house sits further back, a bit downhill.”
I smile at her. “I agree. Plus I guess the road was a fairly successful firebreak. You want to saw first?”
As Jenna begins to size-up the charred tree she was about to take down, I crisscross the property to make sure we don’t get metal bouncing back at us while we work. As I walk I can’t help but allow myself to wonder: Who had lived here? Where are they? The fact that two volunteers are cleaning the property heavily suggests the owners couldn’t pay for the work to be done themselves. Quite a few residents were still living out of hotels, even months after the Chimney Tops fire. Was that the case here? How do you rebuild, and keep on, I wonder, when you’ve lost this much?
A Hand Up
“I evacuated, didn’t bring none with me.” He has a deep East Tennessee mountain drawl and an easy-going smile full of crooked teeth. In the sunlight from the office windows, his long ponytail glints almost silver. I peer forward over my desk as he points at the floor. His bare toes are wiggling against the carpet. Do social work offices have to follow health code?
“Your case manager can probably find your shoes, sir. She’ll be along shortly if you’d like to have a seat?” My smile feels plastered on my face, cartoonish. The man’s smell has begun to overpower the lavender candle to my right. Ashamed, I remind myself that this man is possibly homeless; it’s entirely probable he has no access to a shower.
“Well ma’am, I don’t enjoy wearing shoes anyway. I feel much more free without ‘em.” For a long moment, I’m afraid he’s going to remain where he is, but he makes his way over to one of the chairs against the wall. His coveralls look out of place in the small room, which is cheerfully decorated with what I imagine to be bank furniture cast-offs. As he sits, he chirrups: “Did you meet Dolly?”
To the residents of her hometown, Dolly Parton is a Goddess. Parton set up the My People Fund a mere 48 hours after the Chimney Tops II Fire raged its way down Smokey Mountain National Park. She’s raised over $4.8 million for the survivors. The Gatlinburg Mountain Tough Recovery Office exists because of that same generosity. Their worship isn’t unwarranted.
“No sir, I’ve never met Dolly.” She doesn’t actually work here.
“Do you think I’ll be able to get some of that money?” He’s bouncing his feet up and down in the chair, radiating an incredible mood for someone homeless. “I had a house before this you know. I’ve never asked for anything. If I were young, I wouldn’t ask for anything even now…but I’ve retired. Money’s tight. If I get it upfront I can stay in this hotel across the street.” He smiles and shrugs.
I want to ask where he’s been sleeping, but I know better. Although this man is essentially a refugee in his own town, he exudes a quiet pride. His attitude seems typical of these survivors. In the week I’ve volunteered at the office, no survivor seems to want to be seen taking a “handout”. Yet, many ask me how they can help others before they leave. Mountain Tough, indeed.
“It’s very possible, sir. Your social worker can usually write you a small check in the case of an emergency.” How do you reassure someone when you have no idea what they’ve been through? Does he even want my assurance?
I decide to reassure this proud man who is so ashamed to receive: You’ll find a way to pay your community back, won’t you? First, though, you have to accept our help. After all, that’s what we’re here for.
Standing in the stream, my hiking boots slowly soaking through, it is difficult to remember that most of this forest is blackened. The rhododendrons are in “big bloom”, a largely unpredictable occurrence. The large white flowers are like clouds interspersed between the thick foliage blanketing both sides of the riverbed. Every time the wind picks up, the trees set adrift blossoms and a heady smell like spiced vanilla root beer drifts over the water.
It has taken over an hour of hiking to reach this section of Grapeyard Ridge. The heavy grey sky made lingering a risky endeavor. Even in the coolness of the creekbed, our skin is sticky with the humidity of a promised storm. However, with only one day off a week, we don’t mind the risk of summer rain.
Jenna and I have been promised an interesting find by our benefactors: an upbeat middle-aged couple who had been so appalled at the idea of two women sleeping alone on a church floor they had strong-armed us into moving into their basement. They delight in showing off their hometown. For your day off, they had said, hike Greenbrier: a natural and historic treat to pay for the long days of navigating through the remains of Gatlinburg’s charred homes.
They had certainly delivered on their word: in the water directly in front of me, the oxidized metal of a Nichols and Shepard Steam Engine lay on its side. Two wheels the size of my body lay mere feet away. My teammate stands perched on the third, wondering out loud how the engine ended up on top of a mountain.
However it got here, it clearly isn’t leaving The train is easily 100 years old, slick and mossy in places, but overall the color of wet limestone. It was easy to imagine that the engine had been crafted straight from the rock, built to endure the mountain and equally as unyielding.
The clouds overhead begin to boom ominously. We make our way back along the Porters Creek trail to our van, past more eerie reminders of the Mountains strange past: a graveyard in the middle of a National Park, littered with browning leaves, eerie and silent. Despite the threat of a deluge, we decide to investigate.
As I inhale the lingering scent of decaying leaves and rich dirt, and I note how well cared for the graveyard seems. Judging from the dates on the cracking stones, it has been over a century since anyone has been buried here. Yet several crumbling graves are marked with bouquets. I stop and peer at a grey headstone topped with a set of bright daisy’s. It belongs to an infant, born and died on the same day in the early 1900’s.
“Jenna, I think we ended up rooming with the oldest family in Gatlinburg!”
It certainly appears so: the headstone is engraved with the last name of the couple who is graciously housing us. Perhaps like the train, the people of the Mountain are equally immovable.
A Hand Out
The only illuminating things in the dingy, exhaust-choked air of the Knoxville Bus Terminal are the bright faces of my teammate Jenna and the dark-haired stranger she arrives with. It’s been a 12-hour ride, and I’m so exhausted Jenna has to load my luggage into the gleaming SUV. The stranger greets me with a warm drawl.
Emily has the kind of presence that seems very typical of a Southern Belle: demure and mild-mannered. Her dark hair is flawlessly curled, and her makeup classically impeccable. She has a youthful face, although she must be at least 40. Despite the lateness of the hour, she remains fresh and welcoming. She cheerfully informs me that I am to be sleeping in her home in Sevierville, rather than the hard church floor I had expected, and no amount of persuading will change her mind.
Three weeks later I find myself sitting in Emily’s open, airy kitchen listening to the sizzling and popping of the pan as she fries the dinner she insists upon making. The sharp smell of onions wafts through the room. Jenna chops garlic at the counter, her knife hitting the cutting board rhythmically. She is chatting with Emily easily, looking for all the world like she belongs there. The kitchen doors stand open, letting in the humid summer air and the view of the rich Tennessee woods that surround the house.
There is some shuffling from the hallway, and Emily’s husband emerges cradling a worn square of canvas. Phil is neither rigid nor imposing, as I would have expected from the Police Chief of a small southern community. He is a soft-spoken man with kind eyes and bushy silver mustache. Indeed, it’s hard to find anyone imposing when they’re cradling a piece of artwork like a child.
Phil turns over the canvas to reveal a painting of what appears to be a mountain homestead. The simple brown and green paint has faded with age but a modest home and a large barn are visible behind the long grasses.
Phil’s looks incredibly proud as he explains in his gravelly twang that the barn still stands. Built in 1875, it is now a historic site in Greenbrier, Tennessee due to its unique double-cantilever design rarely found outside of this part of Appalachia. The piece of land Jenna and I had hiked a scant handful of hours prior had once belonged to Phil’s family.
“People stick around here forever,” Emily chirrups from the stove. Like Dolly Parton or all of the Chimney-Tops Fire survivors, you can’t help but stick close to your home, even when you find that home is gone. Community in the Smokies seems to trump almost anything else.
As I set the table for dinner, I realize that without the intervention of Phil and Emily, Jenna and I would have probably been spending our night making frozen microwave dinners and sleeping on army cots. We had traveled to Tennessee seeking to extend a hand to a devastated community. Instead, it seemed, a devastated community had extended its hand towards us.
The sleigh bells on the door twinkle out our arrival. Towering stacks of children’s books line the entrance hallway. In the main room, a receptionists desk sits, unattended, buried under papers. Jenna and I approach the front desk, wide-eyed. The debris seems to box us in.
As we contemplate turning tail, two middle-aged men in impeccable suits appear out of a frosted glass door. We are warmly greeted and ushered into a conference room to sit around a large wooden table. The ruby lips of Dolly Parton smile beatifically from a glossy poster on a wall opposite us: “ The ‘My People’ Fund”, it declares.
The Executive Director, a balding man with kind eyes, catches me looking. “Our main purpose here is to manage Dolly’s Imagination Library, but this means a lot to her and well… we have no idea what we’re doing,” the genuine humor in his laugh is colored with stress.
Jenna and I had been confused at the meeting invitation from the Dollywood Foundation, but at this last line, I feel Jenna relax next to me. I can relate: this, we can handle.
The two men sit in rapt attention while Jenna and I explain the ins and outs of disaster relief, recovery, and repair. We discuss population retention, construction permits, and tourism with the Project Coordinator, whose glassy red-eyes suggest he’s been living off of coffee for at least a month. The Executive Director takes notes like a dedicated student picking the brain of a respected teacher. The intentions in the room become increasingly obvious. It fills me with hope.
“I’m not wrong in guessing that you want to spearhead this recovery project, am I?” I ask two hours later. It makes sense. A nonprofit is a perfect agent to create change and healing. It doesn’t hurt that they’re fronting the bill, either.
The men insist that they don’t want to step on our metaphorical toes. Jenna actually laughs at this: “It’s been a lovely visit, but I want to go home, sir.”
There is a saying in the disaster world: disasters start local, and they end locally. Easier said than done. Once the emergency teams leave, key community leaders inevitably argue over who will be in charge and what changes will occur. However, the local community has to be empowered to enable their own recovery, or the process stagnates and the community decays along with it. The tight-knit people of Sevier County already seem miles ahead.
I’m ready to leave, to wash my hands and let this community pull itself up and dust itself off. However, I say, recovery won’t be easy. It’s long hours. Difficult work that lasts years. Are you sure this is a project you can undertake? The outside world will lose interest in you. Can you band together and fix your broken home?
The Executive Director gestures to the poster behind him and shrugs, “This is our home. We’re a community.” His tone suggests there is no other answer.
Perhaps there isn’t.