A walk to remember at Anakeesta
The owners and planners of Gatlinburg's new attraction, Anakeesta had no idea what the end of November 2016 would bring. The same was true for the thousands of people who called Gatlinburg home or who relied on the tourism industry to make a living. Extremely dry conditions had wildfires burning throughout East Tennessee, but the one burning at the Chimney Tops took a dramatic turn on November 23rd, when hurricane forced winds blew it into the city of Gatlinburg and through the Anakeesta property.
In the end, more than two-thousand structures were damaged or destroyed, more than a dozen lives lost, and thousands of acres of land were scarred. At Anakeesta, construction had not yet started, so no buildings were lost, but according to Marketing Director, Michele Canney, plans had to be changed. One thing in particular was the construction of a wedding chapel on a knoll in what is now Firefly Village, a place with incredible views of the Great Smoky Mountains. The owners made a choice to put off plans for the chapel, and instead create a Memorial Forest Walk, so visitors could learn more about what happened.
Much of the Memorial Forest Walk centers around a photo project called "Voices of Gatlinburg" created by Nashville-based photographer Jeremy Cowart. In addition to photographing fire survivors on the ground, he also used a drone to photograph them lying on white mattresses inside the charred ruins of their homes. Several of those pictures along with the survivors' stories line this introspective walk. Just beyond each of the photos, hundreds of charred trees and stumps help illustrate the scope of the fire, but at the same time shows how the mountains, and the people are bouncing back. (There is also a small wind chime in the center containing all the notes needed to play Amazing Grace.)
Anakeesta, which opened on September 1st, is just one of many signs that Gatlinburg is back in business. The downtown area was in danger during the fire, but somehow managed to escape the flames. Tourists returning to Gatlinburg will see the visible scars the fire left behind, but they will also see the spirit of being Mountain Tough at work as homes and businesses are rebuilt and Mother Nature works to heal the scars on the mountains. Anakeesta's Memorial Forest Walk is part of that healing effort and is serving as a visible sign that Gatlinburg is truly open for business and waiting for you to visit.