We laughed knowingly at the young man's reaction but also felt a deep empathy. He was right to call it awesome; the landscape is awe-inspiring. Even if you have visited the Smokies a hundred times, you still come away with a sense of having experienced a beauty and a natural wonder like no other. As our young friend exclaimed, the Smokies are "like a movie set," their beauty and vividness like nothing you have ever seen.
Yet in the last several weeks, the Smokies have been under a twin environmental assault. This area of East Tennessee has not received substantial rain for five months. The drought has turned fields normally green, even at this time of year, into patches of lifeless brown. Tall oak trees stand with their leaves dried and turned downward. Stream beds lie silent, with no noise from running water.
The drought has created a second disaster: field and forest fires. Many of these fires are in our beloved Smokies, and we didn't need the news media to tell us about them. We can see the plumes of smoke rising from the blue mountains, and on bad days -- and there have been quite a few lately -- the smoke has literally been in our faces.
On Monday, it seemed that we might be in for a change. Rain was in the forecast for the first time in weeks. Rain would have the double benefit of helping restore the green to the fields and tamping down the fires in the mountains.
It didn't work out that way. Before the rains finally showed up, there were high winds that drove the fires down toward Gatlinburg
, one of the main tourist stops in the Smokies. The town, with its souvenir shops and pancake houses, offers a contrast to the awesome beauty of the mountains themselves. But it is also the home of the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts
, where students can learn the finest of woodworking, painting and photography. The town had to be evacuated on short notice, and many of the residents and visitors have described seeing the fires while sitting in lines of traffic as they tried to get away. Now,
the National Guard and emergency responders are working together to help evacuees. Many of the homes and businesses in Gatlinburg and nearby Wears Valley and Pigeon Forge (home of Dollywood) are charred ruins.
And despite a night of rain that followed the winds, the fires are still burning.
From a vantage point not far from my house west of Maryville on Tuesday morning, I could see across about 30 miles into the mountains. Large plumes of smoke rose from at least two fires -- and probably several more -- that continue to burn.
East Tennessee is not unique. The story of a forest fire threatening a populated area or a place of natural beauty is a familiar one for American journalism, as I well know from having practiced and taught journalism for more than 40 years. But more often than not, those stories come from the far Western states. The events of the last few weeks -- and particularly those of Monday -- have put that story on our doorstep.
More rain has been forecast. Again, we hope that the rain will come in abundance, reviving the land and reducing the fires. We long for that to happen but know, after the experience of the last days, that nothing is assured.
Deep within, however, I believe that, despite the current situation, the Smokies will return to their glory. One day, they will again show their power to astound and fascinate.