I was surprised by my tears. There I was Tuesday morning at the hairdresser,
covering the grey just getting a trim and scrolling through the news to bide the time. What—Gatlinburg was on fire? My twitter feed showed me glowing orange images and videos shot by evacuees, the wall of flames right at the side of the road, and even in town. I could almost feel the heat coming out of my phone. Gatlinburg, Tennessee, this place of so many childhood memories, was on fire. And I was in tears.
Almost every summer growing up, we spent a few days in the Smoky Mountains on our way back to Virginia after visiting my grandparents. The Smokies are gentle mountains, not like the in-your-face Rockies, all young and exuberant. These are mature, rounded mountains whose charms are more subtle. (Dare I say like we women of a certain age?) The Smokies are lush and green, with cold mountain streams that babble over moss-covered rocks, nothing like the wild, class-IV-rapids that crash through the canyons out west. It was in these gentle mountains that a fall into a stream showed me the depth of my father’s love.
I must have been about 6 or 7 and my parents had taken me out for a day hike along one of those streams. Dad and I were picking a path through the water, jumping from rock to rock, while Mom stuck to dry land. She always said I reminded her of a billy goat, the way I loved to jump and climb, “just like your Dad”. Even though my legs weren’t nearly as long, I was determined to follow Dad without his help, and I studied each rocky step carefully. But my Keds didn’t give me much traction on the wet moss and next thing I knew, I was under the icy water. It didn’t take Dad but a split second to be in that water with me. I still remember the feel of his hands pulling me up, a feeling of utter safety. I probably wasn’t in any real danger—the water couldn’t have been more than than 3 feet deep—but I know it wouldn’t have mattered. Dad would have jumped into 300 feet of water for me.
I remember Dad after we had hiked back out to the car, cleaning out his waterlogged wallet, laying money and receipts on the hood of the car to dry. His pipe didn’t get lost in the creek, but the Borkum Riff was soaked. He gave me a conspiratorial grin. “Well, that was some water slide. Let’s not do it again.” But I knew he would do it again in a heartbeat if he had to. In the years that followed, there were many times Dad wasn’t able to protect me from life’s pitfalls, most of them of my own making. But on this one day in the Smokies, he could.
My dad could be a hard man, not quick to conversation or an easy show of affection. But those Smoky Mountains gave me a glimpse of the depth of his love for me and for the mountains themselves—and I will always love them for it. As I write this, 15,000 acres have burned, more than 1,100 structures are destroyed and 13 people are dead. But the fire will not destroy Gatlinburg or the Smoky Mountains. I know this resilient community will rebuild and the resilient earth will renew the forest. I know when I return again this spring I will see signs of new growth—buildings rising on charred foundations in town and green shoots growing through the ashes of burned timber on the mountaintops. And it will remind me of Dad. Because even though I lost him six years ago, death didn’t destroy his love. It lives on in my memory, and in his love for this part of Tennessee that I carry in my heart.