The Rev. Steve Doyal shared these memories on his blog, The Not Quite Right Reverend, as news began to pour out about the Sevier County wildfires last week. Reprinted with permission.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Dec. 5, 2016) -- One of the ways I deal with things is to write. I started this the day after wildfires raged through the city of Gatlinburg and the surrounding hills as a way of giving expression to my grief over what was happening in that unique mountain town.
I did not originally intend to share this, but here it is 4 a.m., and I figured some of my memories might trigger some for others. This is not an exhaustive list, but just the first thoughts that came to my mind when I think about a lifetime of visiting Gatlinburg and the surrounding area.
My first recollection is a youth trip from Trinity United Methodist Church in Greeneville to the Gatlinburg Mountain Mall in early '80s, where I discovered for the first time something called “white chocolate.” I remember being fascinated by the big Jesus who watched me no matter where I moved at Christus Gardens.
One of the buildings destroyed in this fire was a restaurant named The Alamo. When the structure was first built, it was called "T.G.'s North of the Border Cafe and Cantina" after its owner, country singer T.G. Shepperd. My college roommate and I went there not long after it opened and were underwhelmed with the food. A fellow stopped by our table to ask what we thought and we were both, "Meh." We did not realize until later that it was T.G. himself.
I picture my buddy David and I people-watching while sitting on a stone wall in front of First United Methodist Church of Gatlinburg where his dad Eldon was pastor. I can still smell the candied apples and see all the airbrushed T-shirts. I recall the fun of the Sweet Fanny Adams show along with entertainment co-workers from Silver Dollar City.
I still think about trying to speak words of comfort to a crowded gym at Gatlinburg-Pittman High School following the tragic death of one of the youth from First United Methodist Church of Pigeon Forge where I was Director of Program at the time.
My wife Becky still teases me about not dancing with her at The Social Club and getting mad when she danced with someone else. We were “just friends” at the time, and it years before dating.
After work one day at Silver Dollar City, my friend Hank and I took a couple of train groupies to play Hillbilly Golf and then rode the rinky-dink two-person Sky Lift up for a pretty neat view.
My wife and I had our “Reception After the Reception” with our closest friends and spent our wedding night at the Edgewater Hotel. Some time later, I would spend many evenings killing time waiting on my new bride to finish work at Humdinger’s yogurt shop.
This time of year makes me think about cruising the Winterfest lights with my daughters when they were young. I remember riding the tram (excuse me, "Aerial Tramway") to Ober Gatlinburg to ice skate with my family. We celebrated my father-in-law's retirement at Mynatt Park.
Of course, there have been years of Holston Conference Resurrection youth events at the convention center. Going to the Space Needle and playing in the arcade at its base was a favorite pastime for many of those trips. Breakfast at the Pancake House was another annual tradition for one of the youth groups.
Most recently, we rented a huge cabin for the whole family on Ski Mountain to celebrate our anniversary. This does not even count hikes up to the Chimney Tops where this fire originated. The last time we had a birthday party at the Chimneys picnic area, we saw a Momma Bear and two cubs.
Needless to say, the Smokies and Gatlinburg are a huge part of my life and will continue to be so. As devastating as this is, I know the people and the town will bounce back.
This sounds like a eulogy, but the mountains are not dead. This is just my way of honoring what a special place it is.
Doyal is pastor at Bookwalter United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.