GATLINBURG, TENN. | The demise of Gatlinburg was greatly exaggerated. It’s merchants thrive selling Smoky Mountain-themed T-shirts, fudge pegged to the price of gold, rooms with balconies overlooking creeks and the city’s signature pancakes.


Commerce carries on along Parkway, the main drag, and its tributaries, but look up to the hills and there are the burned out condos and chalets. The Chimney Tops 2 Fire did the most damage, sweeping out of Smoky Mountains National Park and, with gale force winds pushing it, across Gatlinburg. It was like the infantry, though, taking the high ground.

It was fought by the Southern Area Red Team, a name familiar to those who followed the West Mims Fire in and near the Okefenokee Swamp in April and May.

Vonette and I didn’t go to see the fire damage. We went because of a milestone; a marriage that started 40 years ago on a hot July Saturday in Anderson, S.C.

We got a nice enough room with a short walk to the pool and a good balcony view of the bear that came strolling through our first night. A guy told me later the bear made it up to the third floor.

Most people gave it room, but one guy walked up in front of it, clapped his hands and yelled, “Go on, bear. Get out of here.” He explained he’s from North Carolina where they have to deal with bears all the time. I wonder if his method would work with 11-foot alligators.

We were sitting by the pool Thursday afternoon and I said, “I hope the bear comes back.” About 15 minutes later as a dark cloud rolled over, I saw one coming. It was more interested in foraging around the river cabins, but I rushed off to get some pictures.

Our own experience with a bear was camping in the park at Elkmont in the early 1980s when a big black bear strolled into our campsite, ripped a hole in our tent’s screen and ambled up the hill scattering campers. So what’s the capacity of a camper shell on a Chevrolet pickup? About six when under normal circumstances, 18 when a grown bear comes in the night.

We saw a lot of other sights including interesting people. There were a lot of foreign visitors who were easy to spot. They didn’t wear as much camoflague, had fewer tattoos and seemed to be thinner.

We met some young brothers from the Netherlands at the pool. As usual, we talked about sports. They favor football — or soccer in the U.S. — rowing and wrestling. I was thinking Greco-Roman or Olympic wrestling but they meant WWE, which we in the south call rastlin’.

The brothers tried out rastlin’ moves in the pool, happily getting each other in wet headlocks and body splashing each other.

We rode around the Smokies a little where we observed a vacation tradition: I would look deep into the woods trying to spot the source of the sound of the rushing water as Vonette gasped as the car wandered over the center line on a curve. I managed, however, to keep her under a record low two dozen gasps.

We also played miniature golf, something we haven’t done in years. I think the scorecard blew into a water hazard so I can’t say who won. The course was owned by Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, which is appropriate because I couldn’t believe the price.

Here’s some advice. Ride one of those mountain coasters. They have great views coming off the mountain, brakes and seat two. Ride them together only if you’re under 40 and your wife has short hair or rides in the back seat. I was a little hurt that she seemed to be more relaxed riding the coaster than being in the car with me at the wheel.

One day we drove to Townsend to get into the national park through a side door. Winding the mountain road, we saw how much things had changed. Signs offered new things, at least for the mountains, hot tubs, massages with a mountain view and my personal favorite, “Fudge, jelly, honey, salsa.” Nothing says Appalachian culture like salsa.

The Dutch teens and their parents had started their trip around Boston and were headed to Miami. The boys wondered why we were there.

“We’ve been married 40 years,” I joked. “We’re here trying to figure out why.”

Well, why not? That’s the secret, getting past the why nots. We’ve had some tough times, cried together, comforted each other when someone died, sat by hospital beds and hoped and prayed.

I still tear up when I hear “The Water is Wide,” an old Scottish song Vollie McKenzie sang at our wedding. It opens with:

“The water is wide, I cannot get o’er

“Neither have I wings to fly

“Give me a boat that can carry two

“And both shall cross my true love and I.”

“Near the end the song says, ” But love grows old and waxes cold

“And fades away like the morning dew.”

Vollie substituted some happier lyrics, but it’s true that our love has grown old although comfortably so. And like the dew, it’s new every day.

I have always thought things would get better if you could just ride out the hard times. We’ve stood together and smiled through some very happy times especially those that came with name changes. Terry and Vonette became Mama and Daddy and more recently Gammy and Granddaddy.

We have a bigger boat. Why not stay in it?,(912) 264-0405