Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Returning to the Smokies 6 Months after a Deadly Wildfire

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Returning to the Smokies 6 Months after a Deadly Wildfire

Article excerpt

GATLINBURG, Tenn. * When Dolly Parton dreamed up the idea of an amusement park in East Tennessee, she said it would be "a fantasy city, a Smoky Mountain fairyland."

Over the next three decades, Dollywood became the state's biggest ticketed attraction, with nearly 2.5 million visitors annually. Tourism in Pigeon Forge, where Dollywood is located, regularly brings in $1 billion a year in revenue. Nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a massive draw, too, with a record 11.3 million visitors last year.

But a deadly wildfire last November scorched a path through the park and surrounding Sevier County, threatening to disrupt the only industry the region has: tourism. Gale force winds spread the fire in a wild, erratic path for 24 hours. Fourteen people died. More than 2,400 structures were damaged or destroyed.

Images and news of families fleeing the wildfires were terrifying. Growing up in Tennessee, I was one of those millions who'd vacationed all my life in the Smokies and at Dollywood. When I was sent to Gatlinburg last year to report on the aftermath of the fire, I worried that many of the sites of my favorite childhood memories had gone up in smoke.

But while tourism took a hit, Dollywood and Pigeon Forge, along with most of downtown Gatlinburg, were mostly unaffected. And in late May, six months after the fire and just before the start of the busy summer season, I returned for another visit.

This time, I went as a parent, bringing my own daughter to make new memories.

My family rode the same roller coasters and water rides my brother and I rode as kids. We saw cowboys and cowgirls at Dollywood's Dixie Stampede show perform the same amazing tricks on their horses. Three generations of my family including my parents, my brother and his wife and his daughter, climbed aboard Dollywood's old steam train.

My 2-year-old daughter laid her head down on my lap as we chugged along slowly and I felt like time was standing still. My memories were merging with the ones forming in her young mind of a special moment we could share forever.

All around us there was music. Often it was Parton's signature high-pitched voice warbling through the Dollywood sound system, or bluegrass or gospel from a stage. The whole region peddles nostalgia, which felt both delightful and a bit staged Dollywood workers dressed in plain gingham dresses or dirty coveralls, for example, the ostensible uniforms of mountain folk.

In many ways, the Smokies tourism industry goes hand-in-hand with Parton's famous brand of folksy charm and family friendly entertainment. I was heartened to see so much of what I remembered from my childhood 20 years ago. And I was also glad to see that despite the fire, Gatlinburg was busy with tourists window shopping for T-shirts and hats, handmade candy, artwork and knickknacks, like carved figurines of black bears. …

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