For days on end, millions of Americans watched, glued to TVs and mobile devices, as one of America’s favorite vacation destinations burned. The Smoky Mountains were on fire, and the flames have spread to Gatlinburg.
By the time the fires were put out, 14 people had been reported dead and countless more injured or pushed out of homes. Entire neighborhoods up in the mountains burned, and classic buildings that have delighted visitors for generations are gone. Owners vow to rebuilt.
And it looks like the people who love Gatlinburg are ready to help make that happen. Less than a week after the last flames were extinguished, tourists once again jam the streets and shops of East Tennessee’s premier tourist town. And that’s with the cleanup still going strong. While the main strip, with its two-story storefronts and cable car to the top of the mountain was packed, side streets still offer a stark reminder of the 2,500 buildings damaged by the wildfires that ripped through the East Tennessee mountains, beginning just after Thanksgiving.
Up in the hills, home to artist communities and strings of small chalet villages, workers have chainsaws working overtime, and utility trucks are working day and night.
The mostly wooden structures, many of them rentals, both cabins and hotels, went up like kindling. While some buildings remained intact, barely missed by the fast-moving flames, others are gone, foundations and the odd charred appliance the only thing left to remind anyone stood there just a few weeks ago.
But, down in the valley, the tourists are back, hordes of them flocking to the city they love. Creating memories and swapping stories of the First Time they came or other fun anecdotes with both friends and strangers.
That’s one of the strengths of this place, and one of the reasons the easy money is on Gatlinburg to not only survive but to thrive again very soon. People want it that way. They want to make more memories and share those already made. They want to introduce future generations to what they love about their home away from home in the smoky blue mountains.
Because of this, hotels are full, and businesses that were sick about the potential of a Christmas season without any trade, are seeing the turnstiles and tills moving again. Some might call it “charm” or “kitsch” or any manner of quaint terms to encapsulate what it means, but the plain truth is this — Gatlinburg has become indispensable to too many people. They won’t let it die.
David Milberg is a financial analyst in NYC.