the kind of vacation we never, ever expected (vaca part 2)

After visiting the incredible Ark Encounter, we drove another 3.5 hours to one of our favorite places: Gatlinburg, Tennessee. We arrived late Sunday night (but not too late for the kids to investigate the whole cabin!), and woke up Monday morning to a kettle corn breakfast by the fire:

It was actually delicious. :D Totally unplanned because we had zero groceries, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. :)

As we headed out to Pigeon Forge to eat lunch, we noticed half of the sky was a murky brown, and the other half blue. It looked so odd, but a quick search of the internet showed old articles that forest fires in neighboring states had created some smog over the city. 

After a fantastic lunch at Big Daddy's Pizzeria/Arcade, we drove the few miles to explore my favorite little town. Only the brown smoke kept getting worse as we drove into Gatlinburg:

As we toured the city from the car, we noticed the street was so smoke-filled that no one was there, and the few who were left were wearing masks. It seemed like the fire was much closer than North Carolina like we thought. And there were these huge wind gusts that felt like they were moving the car, far greater than we normally experience in Texas. It was all so very strange.

We still didn't have an idea of what was happening that Monday afternoon, but we surely didn't want to attempt to venture out in the smoke. Instead we left to do some shopping and went to Walmart that evening. Even miles away from Gatlinburg, the heavy smoke was still pervading the air in Sevierville.

We arrived back at the cabin, groceries in tow. While I cooked dinner, the kids ran upstairs to jump in the hot tub. Robert, in disbelief, called me to the balcony to see what Noah had spotted just over the far mountain ridge:

We couldn't believe our eyes. The picture is blurry, but we could see individual trees going up in flames. It was 2-3 miles away, but within 20-30 minutes it had burned the top of the ridge and was coming over. And the wind was still crazy high, with no sign of stopping.

We turned on the TV to hear that all of Gatlinburg was being evacuated, as well as some parts of Pigeon Forge. We had to figure out exactly where we were on the map- how long did we have before we needed to leave?

We starting repacking all of our bags in case we needed to make an exit, and prayed together for the Lord to stop the fire from getting to us, and to help us to have wisdom to know what to do if we needed to evacuate.

And then, over the next hour we watched over the balcony as the wind changed, and the direction of the fire stopped coming over the ridge altogether. The fire went the other way.

We glued ourselves to the local news until the late hours of the night, shocked as we watched clips showing the flames take over miles of Gatlinburg.

But it looked as if we were safe for the moment. Late into the night, God sent rain everywhere that seemed to turn our bright orange sky back to nighttime gray. The big fire we could see seemed to be extinguished before dawn.

We woke up several times in the few hours we slept to make sure there was no sign of fire. The next morning, it was difficult to distinguish the normal fog of the Smoky Mountains from regular smoke, but the view from our balcony was somewhat clear:

the last night's fire had been on the mountain area just above the neighbor's roof ridge.
We kept the news on all morning and stayed close to home. We had a scary night, but how much more for those who had to leave everything they had behind? What about those driving through the midst of it to escape? The hundreds of firefighters? It didn't seem like the media had much more information on where the fires were or if everyone was safe, but we kept watching as the kids played games. It seemed the worst was over.

Finally, in the afternoon, we ventured out again. The heavy brown smoke over Pigeon Forge had subsided after the rain, and the sky was clear as we unloaded at Mel's Diner.

Lots of businesses were open that Tuesday, but everyone's heart was on the fire, as most knew someone who had to leave their home behind. The servers even asked how we were doing, and if we were affected, and strangely all made us feel like we belonged there even though we lived hours and hours away. 

After enjoying that giant banana split we decided to head back to the cabin and stay in for the rest of the day. We made dinner, cleaned up, played another round of games and went to bed.

Only to be woken up by the emergency alert siren on our phones at 2:15. 

It was a tornado warning, and said to take shelter now.

I stumbled out of bed and out on the balcony to realize I've actually never been in a thunderstorm on a mountain before.

We decided to wake all of the kids and bring them into the living area. Robert built a shelter of a table and a mattress, and we took cover and tried to watch the local weather at the same time. We were in the area between the blue and the hot pink:

The tornado dissipated before it hit our area, thankfully. And after two more warnings, we finally headed back to bed, praising God for His protection again. The thunderstorm was still raging, and if you've ever been close to lightning striking in a cabin hanging over a mountain ridge, you could imagine why I was quoting Psalm 46 to myself as we went back to sleep. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble...

This vacation wasn't turning out quite like we expected, that was for sure. We wondered aloud as to what God was trying to teach us on this trip.

I think it was that He takes care of us, no matter where we are.

It rained most of the next day, so when it cleared out a bit, we drove to the other side of the Smoky Mountain National Park, to the Cade's Cove scenic loop:

We saw a ton of deer, but it started raining again before we left. Even with the rain, we had fun just getting out to do something nature-related.

Our last day in Tennessee, Thursday, we headed to the historic Old Mill area:

It was one of the highlights of the trip, walking from shop to shop and watching the potter make vases:

A couple hours before sunset, we decided to head back to the scenic loop again. I'm SO glad we did! 

We had fun exploring these old cabins:

And another mill:

But one of my favorite moments of the entire week? 

Seeing this:

Four bears. 

Wild in the forest.

You see, as we drove through the day before, I told the children to look carefully for bears in the forest. I have no idea why I thought we would see one, but my heart secretly petitioned the Father that we might be able to see one if it was possible. I didn't even consider it a prayer, really, just something I thought would be wonderful to see. And for some reason I truly believed we would see one, so I kept looking diligently until dark.

We didn't, and I wasn't disappointed at all, because the odds were pretty slim, and it didn't matter, of course. We were quite content with all the scenery and deer. 

But God. :) He drew us back there the next day, just because we really didn't have a way to do much else with the time we had left.

And then in His majesty, what did He do? He called four bears to come near the road on the scenic loop, out of 522,427 acres to hide in. At the exact time we happened to be there.

I hopped out of the car almost running, squealing with delight over and over and over again.

Real, live, bears in the wild!!! (Far enough away to take pictures, of course :)

Why? Why does He love me so?

Why does He even hear those little desires? Why does He do miracles to show me how much He cares?

He stops the fire, and even calls out bears and their baby cubs just so we can see them. He protects us from danger. He gives us wisdom to know what to do when we are uncertain.

All because He truly, steadfastly loves us. And sometimes He takes us to stormy places and showers us with tender mercies to remind us of who He is.

Oh, we bless His holy name.

Psalm 103:
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
2Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
3who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
4who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
5who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
6The LORD works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
7He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
8The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
13As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
14For he knows our frame;a
he remembers that we are dust.
15As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
16for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
17But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children’s children,
18to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.
19The LORD has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.
20Bless the LORD, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his word,
obeying the voice of his word!
21Bless the LORD, all his hosts,
his ministers, who do his will!
22Bless the LORD, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the LORD, O my soul!

Sadly, we later found out that 14 people died that night and over 2400 homes and business were destroyed from that single fire. If you would like to help those sweet people in Gatlinburg who were affected by this tragedy, here is a great list of ways to help or donate.