Our first trip back to the Great Smoky Mountains since a wildfire destroyed the condos where our family has stayed the last 30 years was bound to feel strange.
After the fire last November that consumed 17,000 acres of the national park and 1,684 structures in Gatlinburg, I figured we’d be inhabiting a charred wasteland. For the most part, though, the strangest aspect of our whirlwind weekend was how much seemed the same.
Inside the 800-square mile park, the burned area amounts to less space, relatively speaking, than a skinned knee. And I didn’t arrive in time to join family members who visited the rubble of the Highlands, or stay long enough to make the journey myself, so I chose to remember our old accommodations and that mountainside neighborhood the way it was.
The place we stayed this year wasn’t as nice, nor was the view as breathtaking. But the upside to staying on the edge of town was that we could walk just about anywhere we wanted to go. None of our family’s favorite dining establishments were affected by the fire, so that, at least, felt familiar.
Because of heavy rain one of the two days I was there, there was time for only one group hike. Chimney Tops was the unanimous choice, because that trail had been closed for renovations the last couple of years.
It’s only a couple of miles long, but it’s one of the most arduous trails in our repertoire because it’s a fairly steep grade. (Among the renovations are more than 600 wooden steps in a section where mud always made the climbing that much more difficult.)
We quickly split into two groups, with my sister Traci, my oldest daughter Rowan and I falling back to stay with my brother Brent and his 4-year-old daughter, Kyla. She’d successfully tackled the trail to Grotto Falls a couple of days earlier, but her determination quickly fizzled on Chimney Tops. I carried Brent’s heavy backpack full of water and kid supplies while the other three took turns carrying Kyla.
It was slow going, and Traci couldn’t help fretting about her kids getting to the mountaintop long before we did, where they were bound to climb out on the rocks that always give the parents in our group a virtual heart attack because of the sheer drop off the other side. (I wasn’t too worried myself, as Colleen and Rowan were my only offspring on this hike, and both are terrified of heights.)
“It’s probably a good thing I’m not up there,” Traci said, reasoning that maybe she would be less nervous not seeing them in action.
They weren’t, though. The peak of Chimney Tops was where last year’s fire started, and in our excitement to hop on the trail we hadn’t noticed the sign saying the last couple hundred yards at the top is now closed – maybe for good, as it turns out.
Though the mountain itself will endure, the stability of that outcropping for human passage may no longer be feasible. So “climbing up on the rocks at the top of Chimney Tops” may become just another story from the past – a legend retold by family daredevils with more embellishment each passing year.