Destruction of East Tennessee wildfires evokes homage to the land

December 1, 2016 GMT

After marrying an East Tennessean, I became one for eight years. It was my home. I was thus saddened to hear of the wildfires this week that destroyed homes, businesses, and resorts around Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Wears Valley. As I sit here writing, reports indicate that it also took the lives of seven people, with more missing. Although I was never fond of the touristy, kitschy side of Gatlinburg, I enjoyed visiting the Smoky Mountains. The pristine beauty of that wooded mountain range is so varied from those peaks out west, where valleys between mountains are flatter and afford open vistas. By contrast, the mountains of East Tennessee offer expansive foliage, waterfalls, and bird songs. East Tennessee can even be a world apart from West Tennessee. While West Tennessee is more culturally akin to the Deep South, East Tennessee is Appalachian. And you’d better say it right, or the natives will let you know: the pronunciation is Appa-LATCH-uh, definitely not Appa-LAY-shuh. The food is different on the east side of the state: instead of fried catfish, it’s rainbow trout; instead of Memphis-style pork BBQ sandwiches with slaw—to which I happen to be partial, it’s North Carolina-style pork BBQ sandwiches for which slaw costs extra; instead of pinto beans and cornbread, it’s soup beans and cornbread. In East Tennessee, it’s almost a requirement for dessert to be topped off with a thick dollop of Mayfield’s Ice Cream, made at a local dairy in Athens and shipped around the country—at least as far away as Key Largo, Florida, where I found some in a Winn-Dixie on the Overseas Highway during my last fall break from teaching. The people in East Tennessee may seem a mite cliquish at first—but perhaps we are as well in West Tennessee and North Mississippi. Once you get to know the folks, though, they’ll invite you onto their porches and into their homes and almost demand that you eat some of that aforementioned cuisine. You’ll also discover—after the East Tennesseans warm up to you—that it also gets colder over there earlier in the fall than in West Tennessee, which is more influenced by the Gulf Stream. Therefore, the leaves there tend to change colors earlier. In the middle of October, I chaperoned a group of high school students on a trip to Knoxville to tour the campus of The University of Tennessee, where I taught English for five years. While the leaves were still mostly green in the still sweltering summer-like 80-degree temperatures on this side of the state, the leaves along I-40 on top of the Cumberland Plateau and on Rockwood Mountain west of Crossville began to meld into golden and amber hues as we drove along. Finally, I believed it might be fall. Now, a mere month and a half since I visited East Tennessee, some of the prettiest of those leaves farther east are gone. The charred remains of the trees from which they fell lay scattered among the once-peaceful, now-apocalyptic terrain where people made their homes and others vacationed with their families. Accordingly, the place holds a fondness for both residents and visitors alike. A cousin of the East Tennessean I married hails from Mobile, Alabama, and had the following to say about the area: “I grew up visiting the small town of Loudon on the banks of the Tennessee River in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains where my aunt and her family lived. She and her husband had three boys and we spent two weeks camping every summer. They lived on the top of a hill which sloped to the river and had a pool and a huge patio where we learned to skateboard. My aunt had a big freezer with ice cream bars and a refrigerator full of Cokes, which we could have anytime without asking. But the best thing was those unfamiliar words of freedom: ‘You all go on outside now and don’t be bothering us until dinner time.’ Heaven!” For many, that description fits what that little segment of East Tennessee was to them: a sort of paradise. Now a swathe of it is gone, swallowed up in the flames that ravaged the even quieter, now desolate landscape where only memories remain. (Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT Martin and has served on the board of directors at Corinth Theatre-Arts. She enjoys being a downtown Corinth resident.)