My memories of Gatlinburg go back more than fifty years. My first visit was in the early sixties, when I was seven or eight years old.   On later visits, we always camped in the Smokies, but that first time we needed a hotel. That’s when I learned what the word vacancy meant, as Daddy instructed us to look for hotels that displayed only that word (without a no in front of it). I was snacking on Bacon Thin crackers at the time and kept thinking how similar vacancy sounded to bacon.

When we discovered every hotel was full, Daddy went into one and pleaded for help in finding a place for our little family to stay. The manager directed us a block off the main street to a home whose owners occasionally rented out rooms. The people gave us an upstairs bedroom from which we could see the lights of the town. It felt strange to be in a house with people we didn’t know, nice though they were; I’m pretty sure my dad kept the bedroom door locked and didn’t sleep a wink.

In those days it seemed every other shop in Gatlinburg was either a Christian book store, a candle-making store where you could watch candles being made and even dip into melted wax to create your own, or a candy shop that sold many varieties of chocolate. We went into every single one of these stores. My parents especially loved the atmosphere in the bookstores, filled with the sound of Southern Gospel music. I, too, enjoyed the music and books, but confess they didn’t compare to eating fresh-made fudge.

We discovered the Pancake Pantry on that first visit and their Silver Dollar pancakes, made just the right size for me. The Cliff Dwellers gift shop intrigued me because it offered fairy stone cross necklaces for sale. I had never seen one of these naturally-formed crosses before, but treasure mine to this day.

And then there was Christus Gardens. Wow. The scenes from the life of Christ, depicted with wax figures, were beautiful, but the most spellbinding display was the marble face of Christ. It was a concave sculpture and wherever you stood, He was looking at you, a great reminder that the eyes of the Lord are in every place.

I believe that even now, in spite of the destruction caused by fire, God is there, watching, loving, and interceding for His people. He weeps with those who lost homes and loved ones and with those who were injured. He cares for the animals that died, were displaced or hurt. He is even praying for the person or persons who started the fires, longing to touch their hearts, convict them of sin, and assure them of His love.

I haven’t been to Gatlinburg in years–it’s grown much too crowded for me–but on my last visit, I noted most of the Christian bookstores and candle shops are gone, as is Christus Gardens. The town is no longer an overtly Christian place and is more reflective of current culture. But I know God is still there. He sees and He cares, so I ask for His mercy on this beautiful town, its people, and its animals. God bless Gatlinburg.

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