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Mountain Tough

The devastation that hit the Smoky Mountain town of Gatlinburg is something here in Nashville that dominates our local news. To outside few know of this place but may be more familiar with the Dollywood theme park and the lyrics of songs that speak of this part of the world in mystical almost ethereal ways.

The belief that those of the Adirondacks, the Smokey Mountains, the "white trash" "redneck" "hillbilly" types are also part of both legend and fact. And that reality is not confined to the outliers, those rural dwellers, they are here within a 25 minute drive to such named townships as Smyrna, Clarksville, Mt. Juliet and many many other places that dot the landscape of Tennessee with its two major cities, Nashville and Memphis as their only urban centers in a state bordered by 8 others all within a days drive.

It was that oddness the reality that I would be in the South but not quite in the deep south that brought me here among other reasons that led to my decision to load my shit in perhaps the worst moving company ever - and yes I am naming names - Allied Van Lines with their asshole driver Dennis the Menance - and come across country with no friends, family or even familiarity to land in music city, the "it" city, the city of "now" or whatever new label they have branded themselves with to make this little big town an actual city. I thought that too would fascinating to see a transition and experience it first hand and perhaps have a role and find my voice here that I had lost in Seattle the city now well becoming Amazonia. I did not want to be a part of that and it was time to leave regardless, the pain and anger I had in Seattle I thought I would leave at least some of it when I crossed the state line. That was not to be.

In the last 6 months I have had hard setbacks, I have been elated and surprised to find a medical team that I can actually work with, a long term dream of getting a fine arts degree possible and the opportunity to connect with writers and finally write. And then I met some absolute morons on my journey that have confused and angered me.  Add to this that I decided to substitute teach in the Nashville Public Schools and in which I have never seen dysfunction quite like it in years of being in and out of this profession that both appalls and embarrasses me as for now I must continue to do this horrific job as it "works" with my needs and long term plans. And all while hating myself and finding myself becoming incredibly judgemental, perhaps even racist and utterly alone in this town of songs that sing of such pain and loneliness. And yet I cannot bear to even listen to single country song as a result as it now seems so contrived and manufactured in ways that one who lives here can see in every fake honky tonk and bar that lines Broadway.

I am exhausted with the words "tough" "hard" as well as "disrupter" as they always seem to connote a sense of renegade and individualism that has zero meaning or point of reference that clearly illustrates what exactly those words mean. You can turn a coin and see two sides so that when I hear someone remark "I work hard" or "I'm tough" I want to them to provide the appropriate three examples that demonstrates how they are so special, different than anyone else who works or does things that are both tougher and harder.

I think we can agree there are professions that are harder than most and have exacting challenges that require special a skill set or knowledge but it is also interesting that they are the same individuals who don't seem to need to remind or tell anyone in every sentence that they "work hard" "have it tough" or any other moniker that seems to segregate them as special with regards to their efforts in life. In fact I find it is just the opposite who seem obsessed with that mantra. And there are those who also think that since they could do that one thing well that it somehow means they can do all things well and that they can cross professions and in do those well too!  Yes a surgeon running an immense housing and development agency, sure, I see that.   Or a developer and con artist as a President, sure I see that.  Well as the expression goes, a jack of all trades is a master of none. And one one wonders why if you are a master of one why one is not enough? I guess it doesn't make you tough and strong and that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger. No it actually makes you not dead.

But here in the deep red sea that mantra is an accolade, a daily chest thumping pride that marks the character here in ways that frankly is tragic, grim and pathetic. I feel for anyone who has to constantly tell you or anyone that they have it harder, tougher and worse than you as if it is the equivalent of a bunch of billionaires getting together and pulling money out of their wallets and seeing who has the most. What it really is is modern day dick measuring and it is tragic, grim and pathetic and explains also why we have Il Douchebag elect as our next President.

But this toughness, the idea of being mountain tough came to fruition these last weeks here in Tennessee. The horrific fires now attributed to teenagers is something on one level that did not shock me. I can assure you that I meet teens here every day and there are few and I mean few and far between any whom I think are going to become productive rational kind adults. I have written often about my experience in the schools here and the girls as well are equally disturbing and distressing in ways that only seem to fuel stereotypes and beliefs about people from this "neck of the woods" and especially those relating to color. It is as if I am in the middle of a novel written in the 50s and published by today's Breitbart news. I hate myself every day when I think this but it is almost impossible to not. When I meet a young person of color who is funny, articulate and interesting I want to get on my knees and kiss their feet and implore them to stay this way as this little big town will go out of its way to crush that spirit just because they can. As the adage goes, misery loves company, and their is a lot of misery here. Again listen to country music there is little joy there.

So out of ashes rise the Phonenix. I suspect that this town will rebuild but nothing will change. There will be no alert system, no cross burning or work done to prevent this from happening. The south is a place of resignation and desperation that runs deep like the mountain ranges. The phrases that also dominate every conversation here "It's always been this way" or "who'se gonna pay for it" are like commas and periods in every sentence. You can't change those who wont be changed. Change is hard. They are hard people here.

After the flames, ‘mountain tough’ Gatlinburg looks to the future

By Darryl Fears The Washington Post December 8 2016

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — As two wildfires that nearly destroyed this tourist town continue to smolder in the surrounding mountains, officials vowed to reopen for business Friday.

“I want to let everyone know that Gatlinburg is still here,” Mayor Mike Werner said. “The shopping district is intact. People need to know that the beloved pancake houses are still standing. The doughnut shops, the candy stores and caramel corn places are all still here. Our businesspeople are working hard to get open by the end of this week.

“We are mountain tough.”

The drive to reopen downtown less than two weeks after much of the town burned makes sense from a business perspective. Sevier County, where Gatlinburg sits near Great Smoky Mountains National Park just south of Knoxville, raked in $2 billion last year in tourism alone, ranking it third in that category behind Nashville and Memphis, according to Tennessee’s tourism commission.

But visitors who flock to Gatlinburg for the start of the busy Christmas season this weekend will see more than the beloved fun rides and amusing replicas of King Kong scaling a skyscraper and the Titanic hitting an iceberg. They will drive past the frightful remains of hotels and apartments that burned on the main street into the city.

On the steep roads that branch off into scorched mountains, tourists can see where showcase homes were reduced to their foundations. More than 2,400 structures were damaged or destroyed, 14 people lost their lives, and more than 125 were injured.

Two juveniles charged with aggravated arson sat at the Sevier County Juvenile Detention Center awaiting arraignment. On Wednesday, when police handed down the charges, hundreds of people were still in Red Cross shelters and hotel rooms, and the smell of smoke was still strong on the main drag into Gatlinburg.]

Many of the hotel maids, store cashiers, restaurant food-prep assistants and trash-haulers who make the city work are still piecing their lives back together. Hundreds of people lost everything they owned, from driver’s licenses to cars parked by the curb to their household belongings.

April Calhoun, a cashier at a Family Dollar store, said her family barely survived. When the fire struck without warning late Nov. 28, they staggered from their apartment to a sidewalk off East Parkway, the road that ushers visitors into town, struggling to breathe.

Calhoun said she locked eyes with her husband in the orange haze outside their apartment and cried. “To the left, there was fire. Behind us. All of downtown. We were like, ‘We’re not going to make it.’ We just thought: ‘We’re dead. There’s no way out.’ ”

They could barely see three steps ahead. They held shirts over the noses of their children, ages 4 to 11, who were already wheezing. “I knew that if something was going to happen, it was going to happen to the kids first because they are so small,” she said. “We didn’t want to say anything, but they could see their whole world was on fire.”

A stranger in a truck stopped out of nowhere and offered the family a ride that saved their lives, she said this week while sitting at a Red Cross shelter, wearing donated clothes.

Two of her daughters, Alexis and Piper, sat on either side of her, staring blankly. A Red Cross official said they appeared to be experiencing trauma.

“My daughter is having to deal with her best friend being found dead with her mother,” Calhoun said of Alexis, 11.

Her friend, Chloe Reed, 12, set out with her mother, Constance, and sister Lily, 9, in an attempt to escape the fire in another part of Gatlinburg, off Ski Mountain Road in Chalet Village. They were found dead after a five-day search.

The girls were sixth-graders at the Pi Beta Phi K-8 school. On the afternoon before their lives were threatened, they talked and laughed during recess the way they usually did.

Alexis knew Chloe was missing and became emotional at the shelter when she learned her friend did not make it. “I was kind of crying. I was really sad and crying. I just couldn’t believe she would die,” the girl said.

April Calhoun, 31, of Gatlinburg hugs her daughter Piper, 10, at the emergency shelter. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
April and Terry Calhoun relax with their children Alexis, 11, Piper, 10, and Julian, 4, and two cats at the emergency shelter. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

“I’m really happy that all of my children are alive and that we are here and that we’re together,” said April Calhoun. “I know that could have been us, and my entire heart goes out to that family. They must’ve been so scared.”

The Chimney Tops 2 and Cobbly Nob fires, as they’re known, were freakish blazes fueled by drought, high winds and a decades-long buildup of underbrush resulting from the rush to douse previous fires to protect the park and county.

Thirty-mph winds pushed flames over mountains and catapulted burning material onto parched brush. Soon the fire took on the personality of monster blazes that ravage California, New Mexico, Nevada and the rest of the West but rarely the Southeast.

Sevier County, Gatlinburg and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency are on the defensive, trying to explain why many residents were not warned, why news stations broadcast reports that the fire was far away even as the wind pushed over the mountains and down the slopes toward their homes.

Officials said winds damaged communications equipment, hampering their ability to alert residents. “No one could have predicted that a front would come in with near-hurricane winds,” said Henri Grissino-Mayer, a geography professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

[Few women fight wildfires. That’s not because they’re afraid of flames.]

Yet while the sudden wind that carried fire to the welcome mats of hundreds of homes was unpredictable, Grissino-Mayer said, the wildfire was foreseen. As a fire ecologist, he has issued warnings that for years went unheeded by people who said the temperate Great Smoky Mountains are too wet to burn.

Local lore holds that the mountains are called the Smokies because of the clouds and fog, but before the park was established in 1934, the mountains burned all the time, Grissino-Mayer said. Meanwhile, the resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge kept expanding into burn zones.

“I will tell you it’s going to happen again,” he said. “These forests are supposed to burn. It might not happen till 10 years from now, but it will. And they [people] will rebuild from this. It’s what we do. In the face of catastrophe, we want to show how resilient we are as humans.”


Despite two days of rain earlier this week, fires are still burning in the surrounding forest; Chimney Tops 2 covers 17,000 acres, and Cobbly Nob is 815. Both are about half-contained, with 780 firefighters and 61 fire engines, helicopters and bulldozers fighting to put them out.

Downtown Gatlinburg has been closed but is intact, suffering little more than smoke damage and two weeks of revenue loss.

“It only takes one building to catch fire and they would have all gone up,” Grissino-Mayer said, because the stores are connected like rowhouses. “The downtown area is extremely lucky.”

“I love Gatlinburg. But it’s all wood, and as a fire ecologist, I look at it as all fuel to burn. It looks beautiful. It’s very rustic. It’s what we all want to see. But it’s wood.”

Forests need fire to grow and diversify, and there is debate among ecologists across the United States over whether officials should let more fires burn. Fire clears away pine needles and leaves so seeds can reach dirt. It opens pine cones to release seeds. It brings down branches and other nutrient-rich shrubbery so they can enrich the soil.

Without fire, many conservationists say, the fires next time will be larger and more aggressive.

[Ten animals that will disappear with Western sagebrush]

Ronnie Buckner and Beverly Tarver examine the remains of their parents’ home in Gatlinburg. The siblings grew up in the house — a structure built by their family, one room at a time, and expanded to be more than 5,000 square feet. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The lingering smoke on Nov. 28 was annoying enough for some hotel guests to cut their visits short and go home. It seemed to get worse by the hour, and no one seemed to know why.

Katrina Mills looked at the sky, wrinkled her face and went back indoors at her place off East Parkway. Coty Weaver went Christmas shopping with his wife and 7-year-old daughter, Kylie. Michael Gentzkow returned home to his place off the parkway and undressed to his boxers to watch a movie.

Like most of those people, April Calhoun, 31, watched the television news for signs. Her husband, Terry, 32, covered every opening in the apartment with heavy-duty duct tape because the smoke was so thick.

“The news stories had said all day it was from the Chimney fires 10 miles away. No one was in any danger,” Calhoun said.

About 8 p.m., it was clear to everyone that the reports were wrong. Mills’s son burst into her door. “The mountain’s on fire!” At 8:30, Gentzkow looked out his door and shouted to his fiancee, who was on the phone with police. “Oh my God, we’re getting the hell out of here,” he said. “This place is burning.” “The whole side of the mountain was flames shooting out everywhere,” he later recalled. On the road home, Weaver stopped at a police blockade that would not let him pass.

It was not until 9 p.m., after the television and phones suddenly cut off, that the Calhouns peeked out the door. April recalled that her husband’s face went pale.

“He turned around and said, April, we got to get out. We got to get out now!”


Her anger remains strong. “It’s ridiculous that that many people had to die in something like this when it could’ve been prevented,” she said at the shelter, while a man dressed as Santa tried to cheer children into singing carols. “I can’t believe there were no alerts.”

Sevier County officials said they contacted the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency to ask for an evacuation alert to Gatlinburg late that Monday. But the wind had already disabled phone, Internet and electricity service, interrupting all communication.

Weaver’s house and black Mazda 6 burned to nothing in a fire so hot that it melted the car’s tire rims. But he gave his misfortune a positive spin.

“A lot of that comes down to our faith in Christ. We look at this and see so much good is coming from it. Our nation’s divided, and so many things are keeping us apart . . . and all of a sudden here, it doesn’t matter what color or race, all of a sudden we’re helping each other,” he said.

Logan Coykendall opened two hotels his company owns to firefighters, National Guardsmen, his own newly homeless workers and others who needed shelter.

“It’s obviously a catastrophic event going on that my team is in the middle of,” Coykendall said. He was forced to evacuate guests from threatened hotels in Gatlinburg and put them up at hotels in Pigeon Forge. He estimated that his losses at the two hotels amounted to $10,000 per day.

[More than 10,000 aquarium animals, dozens of bald eagles spared as fires rage in Tenn.]

“It wasn’t a hard decision for us,” he said. “Emergency responders were sleeping on the ground.”

Calhoun saw all the good of a community coming together, and Red Cross workers have been so kind to her family that she has decided to stay as long as they will let them.

But part of the reason she is staying in the shelter is a growing distrust in her community — the emergency managers who failed to alert everyone, the inaccurate reports on the television news, neighbors who panicked and left her apartment complex without bothering to knock on her door.

“No one had done anything to tell me. They said they went door to door. They did not in my neighborhood,” she said. But there was a silver lining, a stranger whose name she did not get after he drove her family through the fire.

“He’s an angel,” she said. “He saved all of our lives.”

“The past 11 days have been the most challenging and emotional days our community has likely ever had to endure,” said Cassius Cash, superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He said love, strength and support, such as that from the stranger who helped Calhoun, eased the pain. “Our community has shone brightly in the midst of this disaster and proven that we are truly mountain tough.”

This post first appeared on Green Goddess VV, please read the originial post: here

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Mountain Tough


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