Traveling north on highway 441 we leave the valleys and mountain ranges of the Blue Ridge interior behind. Drifting along the pavement, we wind our way close to the banks of the Oconaluftee River. It was nearing midnight when we entered the Smoky Mountain National Park in Western North Carolina and too late for sightseeing.
The wonders and beauty of the Smokies were shielded from us by the night’s darkness with only the highway as our guide, the road was lonely of travelers, we spotted just a couple of vehicles during our half hour climb up the steep mountain slope. Reaching the Newfound Gap at the crest of the Smokies, Mrs. Highlander and I glided into the observation parking lot and took a midnight break. Having reached the top of the mountain we shut off the headlights slipped into our jackets and stepped out to enjoy the view.
Darkness ruled the night as we stood there at the pinnacle of a world of natural beauty and wonder. We were nearly blinded to the very core of our senses. The longer we stood and stared into the night the more our beings could feel the lack of light. The blackness of night began to lift as the tiniest of distant lights slowly found their way to our welcome sight.
In the distance valleys below, lights gathered together clustering in small to large groups creating an aura of light that soon ascended along the mountain ridges exposing only a silhouette of their dominating grandeur. The heavens above were clear with only a ceiling of stars twinkling against the night sky. The moon was low on the horizon slowly pulling away from the mountaintops pursuing its appointed journey. After a while the wind and chill of the air got the best of us. We slid back into our vehicle, put it into second and started our descent into the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Thin patches of snow powdered the sides of the road with ice clinging to the exposed rock face, adding a nice winter touch to our holiday journey. The downgrade was dry and perfectly smooth but it’s always best to keep a watch out for possible ice patches. Check with Sugarland Ranger Center to make sure the roads are open before you make your trip. Our destination was less than a half an hour away now as we round one curve after another.
Mrs. Highlander and I planned on spending three days on the other side of the Smoky Mountains doing a little Christmas shopping and taking in the sights and atmosphere of the Winterfest, recreated each year offering an experience that’s uniquely Smoky Mountain style.
Reaching the base of the Smoky Mountains we soon pass Sugarland Ranger Center where highway 441 exits the National Park leaving the land of darkness and tree-lined wilderness road, we came into full view of a spectacle of lights that began at the edge of the Park and stretches for miles across Sevier County Tennessee. Traveling under the lights of downtown Gatlinburg we soon reach our destination. It’s past 1:00 am before we checked into our spacious two-bedroom cottage on the edge of Gatlinburg; tomorrow we’ll go exploring the land of lights.
We began our quest by taking in the sights and roaming the shops of Gatlinburg. The lighting displays of Sevier County emerge after sunset.
As one of the most popular resort towns in the United States, Gatlinburg has a long history of early settlement and the reputation as Tennessee’s Gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains. Gatlinburg is a town that’s both warm and friendly, catering exclusively to the needs of the many visitors escaping to Smoky Mountains each year.
Neighboring the town of Gatlinburg to the north along highway 441 is Pigeon Forge. In the past, Pigeon Forge was a sleepy little town with a historic old mill on the banks of the Little Pigeon River. The mill and its enormous waterwheel have been in operation since 1830, it currently houses a restaurant and still offers tours of the working mill.
Today, Pigeon Forge is a boomtown. The success of the town is due in part to the brainchild of the legendary entertainer/hometown girl Dolly Parton. Pigeon Forge is one of the shopping, dining and entertainment Mecca in the Southeastern United States. The shopping and entertainment district of Pigeon Forge lines both sides of highway 441 for several miles and it continues to spread out far and wide with a picturesque backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains spread out along the eastern horizon.
Adjoining Pigeon Forge on the north along 441 and flowing out into the Tennessee Valley is the Sevier County seat and namesake, the town of Sevierville. The old county courthouse and local architecture within Sevierville reflects the strength and longevity of the county’s history. Sevierville also reflects the culture of the people of this mountain region. Shopping, dining, lodging along with the festivals in Sevierville add to the flavor of Sevier County as a great mountain getaway.
Mrs. Highlander and I finished our daylight scouting trip and shopping tour thru the heart of Sevier County and headed back to our cottage, it’s the night that brings out the true holiday spirit of the these three towns as they celebrate their Winter Festival of Lights. Night comes quite early this time of year with twilight beginning around 5:00 pm.
After enjoying a fine dinner at one of our favorite Smoky Mountain restaurants, we begin to explore the lights of Gatlinburg’s Winterfest. As we walked, we followed the lighting displays down Main Street. Along the way we wove in and out of cobblestone shopping villages just off the main street’s sidewalk. We found vast array of unique shops and eateries. Due to the local geography, Gatlinburg sits in a tight little valley. Its architecture gives the town the appearance of a quaint mountain village. The village has so much to offer, if you chose to, you could spend the entire evening, strolling the streets and come full circle to your starting point.
Another great feature of Gatlinburg is their town trolleys. The trolley chauffeurs guests, shoppers and sightseers around the town at a surprisingly minimal cost. The mountain town of Gatlinburg expands in every direction up the mountainside, extending the town and holiday lights high above the horizon, creating a coliseum of colored lights stretching to the edge of the sky.
Gatlinburg’s Festival of Lights also flows up and down the side streets and along the banks of the Little Pigeon River. Perched above the river and located in the courtyard of Ripley’s Aquarium is the town Christmas tree with a modest overview of Gatlinburg.
We found many people casually shopping in an environment where there’s no pressure or hurry, leisurely enjoying a holiday stroll along the city streets while cradling cups of hot coffee or cocoa, making the chill in the air quite enjoyable.
The close confines of the town, puts everything at your fingertips. There an atmosphere of freshness and innocence with a holiday spirit gleaming from the lights, giving a feeling of Christmas that has a child like sensation. The lights are bright, yet it’s the simplistic nature of this mountain resort town that puts the Rockwell family portrait back in your heart for the holidays.
Although, the Winterfest of Sevier County begins at the beginning of November each year, the Gatlinburg Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade, kicks off the Christmas season around the first of December. You’ll find special holiday rates on hotel rooms, suites and vacation rentals, along with shopping bargains at the stores and outlets not to mention, holiday entertainment everywhere you look. Winterfest parades, concerts and events in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville last throughout the holiday season ending in late December.
From Gatlinburg we travel thru the night north on highway 441 to Pigeon Forge, the route takes you along the Little Pigeon River and back thru the woods for a few miles. This scenic route travels between two ridges with the Little Pigeon River acting as a boulevard dividing the north and south bound traffic’s double lanes.
Exiting the woods we’re once again showered with holiday lights as we enter the Pigeon Forge Winterfest. The river stops dividing highway 441 here and a grassy medium takes over. The wide corridor divides the world of lodging, shopping, dining, entertainment, theaters and theme parks for several miles.
Pigeon Forge is a town that was built to be a destination within itself; many of the visitors to Pigeon Forge have seen the Smoky Mountains before, and come back, just to enjoy all the town has to offer.
You’ll find a diversity of entertainment, shopping centers, and restaurants spread out all over the place grabbing your attention. The variety of dining extends from unique to original menus to those dependable national and regional chains of both finer dining to quick on the go meals, something for the whole family and their diverse appetites.
Unlike the strolling intimacy of Gatlinburg’s cozy downtown, Pigeon Forge is spread out with larger businesses easily accessible to the driving public. Both towns offer the very popular trolley services. In Gatlinburg the Trolley is a choice, in Pigeon Forge it’s a necessity if you don’t want to drive.
Decorative lighting displays cross the boulevard. Large light displays carrying holiday themes decorate both sides of the street. Most of the display, are huge at least three stories tall and many lights are animated.
Mrs. Highlander and I hit a couple of interesting shopping malls taking in the indoors as well as the outdoors, finishing up at a coffee and pastry shop before returning to our holiday light tour.
As we cruised around town searching for holiday photographs we took time to read all the marquees offering holiday shows in Pigeon Forge. We found musical and stage performances, comedy theaters and even an Asian Acrobatic shows.
There’s a theater on the main drag dedicated to the musical King himself…Elvis. I started to hear “Blue Christmas” in my head, I’m sure it will probably be playing in the theater throughout the holidays.
Our holiday journey around Pigeon Forge took us to Patriot Park, several large lighting display were spread out over a large flat open field. The Little Pigeon River borders the park on one side where a lighting display of a Riverboat reflects off the surface of the water. There’s also a lighting display of a Southern Plantation in the background. On the other end of the park is a lighting display of a mountain stream with a waterfall, pine trees, mountains and an animated sequence of a fish swimming downstream leaping out of the water and over the edge of a waterfall where an eagle swoops down from the sky to catch the fish and fly off.
The central theme of Patriot Park is its namesake, our patriotic troops. Spread out across the center of the field was a large military display in lights. Navy ships, aircraft and an armored tank, bordering a demonstration of the flag raising at Iowa Jima, a reminder of how many families that have sadly been separated for the holidays. It’s a good reminder for us to take time from our holiday rush to share a prayer for those serving in the armed forces.
Each year during Pigeon Forge’s Winterfest, Patriot Park holds a Veteran’s Day Celebration ceremony in early November with orchestral tributes, a patriotic choral, a fly-by and an appearance of an American Bald Eagle from the American Eagle Foundation.
On the outer edge of the Pigeon Forge’s commercial strip we came across an avenue that had several animated lighting displays depicting Mother Goose stories. Mrs. Highlander and I thought our Highlander readers would like to share them with their own little house elves.
By the time we stopped hunting Christmas lights in Pigeon Forge, most of the stores and shops were closed, the restaurants were winding down and the live shows were coming to a final curtain.
Leaving the north edge of town we entered Sevierville. Traffic was thin and the night was late when we reached the Sevier County courthouse square where we found the streets deserted.
Just one more stop in Sevierville and the last shot for the night. A single Christmas tree decorated the front lawn of the courthouse; two Christmas wreaths decorated the two streetlights on the courthouse square. In front of the courthouse at the base of the tall Christmas tree stood a statue of their beloved Dolly Parton, strummin’ a guitar accompanied by her gracious smile. Not a lot of bright lights here, no holiday hoopla adorning the square, just a simple and humble Smoky Mountain Christmas.
We arrived back in Gatlinburg around midnight and managed to acquire another hot cocoa for our short stroll around town. Once again we enjoyed the casual no hurry, small town holiday feeling of Gatlinburg before we retired to our nearby cottage. It’s been a long night and we don’t have to get up early, just follow what the next day may bring.
We spent the next day Christmas shopping and sightseeing. Celebrating our last night in town, we made our way to another one of our favorite restaurant, while enjoying our meal we received a call to find out that Mrs. Highlander and I needed to be back at the at the ranch first thing in the morning. That not being the overnight plan we had in mind, we decided to pack up at midnight and head back.
Checking out at 12:55 am, we left Gatlinburg behind, its streets empty. Business was done for the day, yet the Winterfest lights continued to illuminate the entire town as though the festivities never ended, and for two months each year they don’t.
Exiting Gatlinburg on the south side along highway 441 we once again entered the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. As we left town I noticed one tall solitaire toy soldier covered in lights right at the edge of town (I’m pretty sure that’s as far as the electricity went.) A sentry at the forest wall, a lone guard standing between the town’s comforts and a vast empty dark wilderness.
Another pitch-black night and another viewless ride thru a mountainous paradise. The asphalt ribbon paved our way, the headlights of the SUV followed the trail up the mountain, the yellow lines along the road guiding us back to the mountains and valleys of the Carolinas. The drive back was quiet; our bodies were in the vehicle yet our minds were back at the cottage curled up in front of the fireplace sipping warm holiday spirits.
Thoughts of a crackling fire soon turned back into our rolling journey as we climbed the curves and switchbacks up the steep mountain slop, heading non-stop to the rooftop of Tennessee, I don’t recall if I saw anyone on the road, it was so quiet I didn’t notice. We continue on thru the solitude of a land destined to stand alone, void of humane habitat preserved in its innocence. The quite beauty of the mountains in the winter months is seductive; the isolation can be addicting to some and feverish to others.
We reach the highest point on the mountain road at Newfound Gap maybe the highest mountain gap in the Eastern United States.
Once again we take a break before we descend the mountain into North Carolina. We turned off the headlights and threw on our jackets before we exited our vehicle to step into dark of night. Hanging close to each other, while our eyes took time to adjust we move slowly towards the edge of the parking lot and over to where the overlook should be. The wind was mild and steady and the air was warmer than it was the first night when we stopped. The sky was clear the lights were faint in the valley below, more defused by the low-lying fog in the valley. The moon made no show but its white aurora was noticeable rising behind the mountain ridge. There was nothing but silence within a sea of darkness.
I glanced up to the stars trying to make out constellations, I found myself just gazing to the east, fixing my sight on lone star. The longer I looked the brighter the star seem to appear, my eyes were growing more accustomed to the darkness revealing light in the small places growing brighter by the moment, feeling as if a nocturnal sight from within was guiding me to new light of awareness. A need to see beyond what appeared to be the obvious, total darkness.
Light is the natural source that sustains life, we hunger for it and feel lost and separated without it. Darkness is a primitive threat to mankind stemming from man’s fear of the unknown, while light guides our way. We often feel threatened by the sinister presence of what we believe the darkness around us is.
Wherever you find fear and doubt, you’ll find the absence of light or rather the lack of life. What powers the fear of the unknown is our lack of control over the unknown. Control is our ability to master the light concerning certain matters or at least the light of our own understanding.
Our senses are powered by an internal light that most are not generally aware of, the more we seek a way out of the darkness, the more we become aware of this light and the keener our senses become.
It’s the light of the spirit that leads us, it inspires us with its a gift of internal light not a light we have created for ourselves but a light granted to us by the Creator. A merciful gift intended to guide and deliver us from the clutches of darkness. Darkness is a non-reality a false threat to the living and nothing more than the absence of light, and should not be feared, for light itself is the abundance of the living and a substance based in true reality.
my eyes on the star to the east I began to understand what motivated
Mrs. Highlander and I to journey across the darkened wilderness,
instinctually drawn to the celebration of the illumination…the
light of the world.
God Bless, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to All