Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Gatlinburg's Fiery Visitor

Last night, Gatlinburg was under the gun.

Eastern Tennessee’s popular resort town faced a mandatory evacuation notice as wildfires swept perilously close.  Nestled within the heavily-wooded flanks of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Gatlinburg’s very identity was threatened by a natural disaster stoked by one of the region’s driest summers in a decade.

Up to 14 separate conflagrations are believed to be eating up dried timber around the scenic community, which thousands of tourists each month use as their launching-off point for excursions into the lush park. 

I’ve been there, and indeed, the scenery is beautiful.  Mountains are impressive, hills are steep, and trees hug even the rockiest of slopes.  The views through valleys and from vistas can be poetic in their charm.  It’s kind of a mix of misty Appalachia, Old West bravado, and sultry Deep South charms.  And it’s not posh or remote, meaning it’s surprisingly accessible, both geographically and economically.  And that makes it especially popular, as you might imagine.

My brother and his family used to live in Sevierville, which is Gatlinburg’s largest neighbor, and home to even more Western-themed hotels and attractions.  Shucks, between Sevierville and Gatlinburg sits Pigeon Forge, a place that used to only be famous as Dolly Parton's hometown.  These days, however, Parton owns a world-class theme park there called Dollywood, based on the trifecta of historic Americana that gives the region its flavor:  Appalachia, the Old West, and the Deep South. 

In fact, that whole three-town area from Sevierville to Gatlinburg has exploded into it’s own sprawling theme park of sorts, with a plethora of kitschy kiddie parks, go-cart tracks, outlet malls, down-home-cooking restaurants, BBQ joints, music halls, water parks, Christmas stores, and other middle-class, blue-collar happiness that keeps traffic snarled and hotels full for most of the year.

Of the three towns, Gatlinburg is probably the most high-brow, with expensive hillside homes perched amidst heavily-treed slopes rising from the center of town.  And unlike some burgs whose old downtowns have died, Gatlinburg retains its vibrant, bustling main street, called a “parkway” since its final destination is actually the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Indeed, despite its redneck proclivities, Gatlinburg itself is a hip new urbanist’s dream.  Nestled along the riverbottom of scenic mountain ravines, the town is very densely developed, since buildable land is at a premium.  And development has been centered on the main drag, both to capture the most tourist dollars, and because the topography isn’t easily suitable for big-box sprawl.  That makes most of Gatlinburg charmingly intimate and easily walkable, with scenic pathways and nicely-landscaped sidewalks running along a bucolic, babbling waterway – an urban tableau that many cities would deeply covet.

Unless you’re driving into the national park, there’s no reason to drive around town, or from your hotel to any of the many restaurants, for example.  Traffic moves too slowly anyway, since again, the topography doesn’t allow for lots of wide roadways.  Visitors to Gatlinburg may drive in, but they park, and then walk around the center of town.  Traffic snakes through on relatively narrow streets, lined with famous attractions such as Ripleys, the Ober Gatlinburg ski lift, and a Guinness Book of Records museum.  There’s an aquarium, new hotels being constructed all the time, and even a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream parlor.

Regular readers of my blog know I’m not easily impressed by much of anything, but during my couple of visits to Gatlinburg years ago, when my brother’s family lived in the area, I was struck by how appealing, functional, and vibrant a town it is.

Again, the urban planning geek in me would attribute much of that appeal to the town’s lack of sprawl and big-box development, but it also has to do with the town’s overt desire to perpetuate its quaintish, yesteryear-type vibe - and thus maintain its appeal to tourists.  Yes, much of the architecture is tacky and unapologetically exploitative of tired rural themes, but on the other hand, there are no garish glass skyscrapers to make the place look more like one of those big Yankee cities.

Indeed, I got the impression that Sevier County's Appalachian-Western-Southern motif was overdone mostly to remind tourists that they were definitely not in the North.  Even though historically, most folks in eastern Tennessee tended to sympathize with the Union during the War Between the States.

Architecture isn't all that Sevier County's attractions take liberties with.  Historical accuracy also takes a hit.  But then again, across much of America, what else is new?

Fortunately, today, word is that Gatlinburg dodged the worst bullets from those wildfires.  Most of downtown remains untouched, with the only damage being from heavy smoke that has blanked the area for a couple of days.  Unfortunately, however, at least three people are confirmed dead by the wildfires, and 150 homes and businesses on the outskirts of town have been destroyed.  In a community with 4,000 year-round residents, those are especially significant statistics.

For owners and occupants of those properties, of course, and the loved ones of those who were killed, last night was devastating.  But for Gatlinburg’s economy, as well as the region’s, it was mostly a close call that hopefully can soon pass into the history books.

It could have been much worse.  The way much of those three towns are built into the mountains, with sloping hills covered with vegetation reaching down into subdivisions and strip-malls with no buffer from a national park teeming with timber and tinder, forest fires in the area are surprising only because they’re as rare as they are.

These current fires have started and spread mostly because the area is in a drought.  And as we all know, from watching wildfires from California to Canada, nature itself uses conflagrations that humans often can’t control to clear deadwood and aging trees.  Not exactly something that makes us humans safe, especially the closer up against – and within – the forests we live.  But at least these Appalachian towns have been around a while, remnants of bygone settler days, when folks stayed behind as other pioneers kept moving westward, mining the various mineral deposits and farming what flat stretches of rich earth they could find.  Newer parts of Gatlinburg have been carved into the surrounding forests by real estate speculators, but that's only because there are literally no open patches of ground left to develop.

Of course, the science of forestry didn’t exist when towns like Gatlinburg were originally settled.  But as the science has evolved over the years, and we’ve learned more about wildfires, perhaps the prudent, purely utilitarian approach would have been to clear-cut swaths of forest ringing the town, and maybe even bulldozing some of the smaller hillsides to prevent mudslides in the absence of soil-holding trees.  Such preventative measures likely would give Gatlinburg’s residents and businesses a significant sense of safety and confidence that a wildfire near their borders could be successfully controlled, since vegetation – fuel for a fire – was being kept to a bare minimum.

However, obviously, that would also mean that Gatlinburg’s sole industry – tourism – would cease to exist.  As it is, there’s little else keeping folks in the area – or attracting them there – except the scenery.  There is no other industry to speak of.  That’s one reason why Appalachia has suffered so much economically over the years.  It shore is mah-tee pur-tee, but good jobs shore are scarce.

Cut down some of the trees, level some of the hills, and then what’s so special about the place?  Interestingly enough, when the Great Smoky Mountain National Park opened in 1934, it was mostly the result of efforts to stop commercial logging around the town.

As scenic as it is, I have to admit that I never would have visited Gatlinburg – or Pigeon Forge, or Sevierville – if I hadn’t had family there.  And they haven’t lived there for years now… and I haven’t been back.  But that’s just me.  Plenty of other people love visiting Sevier County.  And for the folks who make their living on their hometown’s scenic beauty, I hope the wildfires that have ravaged Gatlinburg haven’t damaged the woodlands too severely to keep tourists away.

But even if the tourists stay away, one can never be sure that wildfires will.  As popular a resort as Gatlinburg may be with us humans, nature can be both a blessing and a dreadfully unwanted visitor.

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