I’m snuggled under the covers in an unfamiliar bed. I yawn and roll over to look out the window. It’s very early morning, and I am grateful I was able to finally sleep. I smile as I listen to Kenny’s soft snoring beside me; he, too, needed some good rest. A sharp crack of thunder shakes the somewhat shoddy structure of the motel we are in, and I close my eyes, delighting in its slow rumble across the valley. Rain! Thank you, Good Father. You are merciful.
In my mind, I hear the whisper, “Immanuel.” Yes, that’s it exactly. God is with us! And He was with us yesterday and the day before that too. We couldn’t be more grateful.
It was almost time for the Eagles game on Monday Night Football. Kenny was restlessly reading one of his Louie L’Amour books by the fire, anxious for the game to begin; I was madly writing, trying to finish a blog for my website before settling in to watch Philadelphia battle Green Bay with him. I was still in my pajamas. I had been at my computer all day, loving the relaxation and inspiration I always find at our lovely timeshare in the Great Smoky Mountains. We were scheduled to be here for two whole weeks, a focused writing and regrouping escape from our hectic pace. Unbelievable! I was going to get a lot written! Already I felt refreshed and renewed. The beauty of the hazy mountains covered with the fading colors of fall always works, capturing my soul and filling me with hope and peace, refocusing me on the Creator.
Earlier in the evening, I had peeked out the window of our third-floor log villa. It was smoky outside; it had been all day. Sadly, there were wild fires near a favorite hiking spot, Chimney Tops, up in the beloved National Park. We had received a text notification about them around three in the afternoon, informing us that the management was monitoring the situation. What surprised me, though, as I peered into the hazy twilight, was the steady, bumper-to-bumper stream of glaring red tail lights that snaked down the winding main road of Westgate Resort, spilling out onto and jamming up the shady parkway connecting Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Where was everybody going…and why? Kenny thought that possibly folks were needlessly panicking because of the smoke and the hurricane-like winds that had blown in an hour or so earlier. Besides, the Eagles were coming on at 8:30. We went about our business until it was time to flip on the TV for kickoff.
The electricity blinked, shuddered, and failed. Only the weak flicker of my Cheerful Giver candle offered us any light at all; we were blanketed in an eerie blackness. Annoyed that we were going to miss the game, Kenny paced around the cozy living area. Amused, I settled on the couch with my fuzzy Eagle’s blanket. Ten minutes passed and Kenny’s phone buzzed. It was a text from Westgate. We were to evacuate. They had arranged accommodations outside of Gatlinburg. Oh, no. Really?
In the darkness, we stumbled around looking for what to take. I hurriedly dressed and fumbled along the bathroom sink and tub for my toiletries. Thinking this was just a precautionary measure and we would return the next day, we stuffed one change of clothes, our pajamas, and a few undergarments into our smaller carry-on suitcase. Kenny threw our pills and his phone cord into our snack basket, and I picked up my computer and my iPad. We were more puzzled than worried. I glanced out the window to find a deserted parking lot below. Had everyone received this text earlier? Why were we seemingly the only ones still here? I decided to go back into the bedroom and grab what I could when Kenny opened the front door to take a load down and get a flashlight from the car so we could actually see what we were doing.
His exclamation chilled me to the bone. “Oh, MY!” he fairly screamed. “Woody, you’ve got to see this. We’ve got to go NOW!” I rushed to the front porch. The entire mountain in front of us was ablaze. Like molten lava spewing from the boiling earth’s core, the flames and smoldering underbrush seemed to be pouring, persistent and unstoppable, down the hillside toward us. The sky glowed with an unfamiliar and angry orange-red, and we could see more fire exploding on both sides of our resort. The wind was relentless, tossing burning embers and sparks ruthlessly through the drought-parched landscape. We blew out the candle—ironically worried about starting a fire—and fled down the longest three flights of stairs ever constructed. Tossing our meager possessions in the backseat, Kenny kicked the car, a Ford Escape (more irony), into reverse and roared backward out onto the empty driveway.
Smoke smothered the car, and we couldn’t see a foot in front of us. From memory, Kenny plowed through the ash-filled cloud, hoping to be on blacktop, praying he would know when to turn, when to slow. A howling blast of 80 mile-an-hour wind cleared the roadway as we barreled through the abandoned security gate; the resort was a ghost town. Again, we wondered how everyone else had known to leave earlier. We hadn’t spent more than ten minutes getting out of our villa. There wasn’t anybody around. Quite suddenly, another car, then another, sped up behind us, their headlights bouncing and useless in the smoggy night. Okay. Somebody else just got the message. Their presence oddly comforted me. We weren’t alone here.
As we veered around the corner to Westgate’s exit, burning shrubs by the roadside fell across the driveway. Kenny paused only an instant then floored it. We raced through the flames, instantly engulfed in sooty smoke and searing heat. Safely out to the parkway, we could see the road to Gatlinburg was impassable, the trees and wires burning on both sides of the dual roadway. A frightened fireman frantically waved us to the right, down the one way side of the parkway toward Pigeon Forge--going the wrong way. For several glorious minutes, we sped through the flying embers riding the gusty winds and bursting into flames around us. We plunged over and around blazing branches and whole smoldering trees that had crashed onto the desolate highway. I tried to breathe a sigh of relief, but my lungs were beginning to ache from the pervasive smoke filling the air. Kenny checked the Eagle’s score. I shook my head in disbelief. We prayed. Help us, Dear Father. Oh, we need you.
All at once, screeching around a sharp curve, our hearts sank. Dozens of ash-covered cars cluttered the winding road, their bright red tail lights signaling unwelcome messages of thwarted escape, of fear and of frustration. Why were we all stopped? What should we do now? We looked around to assess our already dismal situation. It was getting worse by the moment. Kenny checked the scores again. It was pretty dismal for the Eagles, too. The fires burning on both sides of us were encroaching with no penalty flags. Cars had moved in behind us, encroaching too; we were literally trapped. The only movement of vehicles over the next several minutes happened when drivers sought to maneuver closer together away from the steady onslaught of flames. Kenny said he felt we were in a crockpot that was very slowly heating up. The air was thick and we were feeling the heat. We prayed some more. We calmed each other with verses, long-known and loved. We sang old hymns. Kenny checked the score. Something about that calmed me too. In spite of our grim situation, the rest of the world was going on as usual. Kenny didn’t seem to be worried. He reached over and held my hand. Maybe things weren’t as desperate as they seemed to me.
Up until then, I think we were operating purely on instinct. We were adrenaline-driven to “flight,” set on automatic pilot. Every action had been rushed. Everything just happened. But sitting still in our little car, stuck in that long line of evacuees, we had time to really think. We had nothing else to do. The longer we sat, the closer the fires came. We could see and hear the violent wind fanning the flames toward us. And the fire marched on, devouring anything in its destructive path. I remembered marveling at how incredibly beautiful it all was. Then we prayed some more, realizing that flames now were within 3-5 feet of our car on both sides. They didn’t seem so lovely to me then.
Tentatively I whispered, “Do you think we should call the kids?” Kenny knew what I was really asking him. He nodded. “Eileen Beth, I don’t think we are going to get out of this.” We dialed Tracy, our oldest child, our only daughter, who lives far away in Idaho. Miraculously, we had cell service. Even more miraculously, I was able to steady my shaking fingers and remember how to make a call. I hadn’t realized up until then how nervous I really was; the casual and calm atmosphere that flooded our car belied the fears raging inside of me. But did they? Yes, there was a war going on, but peace and hope were definitely winning out. We smiled thinking that no matter how this would end, we were together and we would be fine. No, if we were to die, we would be even better than fine; we’d be fantastic! We’d be with JESUS!
It was precious to have this truth to hold on to. It was also precious to talk to Tracy and pretty much say goodbye. We explained our grim situation and asked her to call her two brothers in case we didn’t have a chance. We asked them all to pray for rescue and for rain. We hung up, expressing our deep love for our family. We agreed that God had blessed us incredibly and that we were so thankful for our love and life together. We prayed ourselves. Thank you for Your peace that passes all understanding, Father. Please rescue us; we know You can. Please send rain. But Your will be done. We trust You. We know You are near.
When we looked up, Kenny shook his head incredulously. “The wind has changed!” As we watched, the flames that had been moments away from eagerly lapping at our tires—just stalled. The threatening gusts were now pushing the fire away from us. No, that’s wrong. It wasn’t the gusts that did that. It very clearly was GOD, Lord over the wind. HE pushed the fire away from us. And, as if that weren’t enough, the smoke cleared enough that we noticed (He showed us!) a pull-off/parking area alongside of us that we had not seen before. We nosed out of our place in line and were able to drive more than 200 feet forward; we were out of immediate danger. The wind continued blocking the advance of the fire. Those cars behind us also moved in to the pull-off in relief. Amazed and grateful, we realized that flames no longer surrounded us. The ridge to our left had already burned and we were buffered by another vehicle; on our right side, fire was raging on the other road, a good distance from us. Peace filled our hearts. God was answering the fervent prayers of our children and grandchildren who, we found out later, had specifically prayed about the wind and for a way of escape to open up. We felt like we were in a protective bubble, the eye of the storm, the hollow of His hand. You’re a good, good Father! You are right here with us, aren’t You?
As we waited, I tried to call our sons, KJ and Greg. I couldn’t get the phone to do what I wanted. I was shaky and my eyes burned. Soon, texts and calls from our kids, words of love and encouragement, prayers for our rescue, began to pour in. How precious! They all knew. I thought about each one with sheer delight and prayed for them to love Jesus. A firefighter appeared, walking toward us from the blocked roadway in front of us. We had noticed the revolving lights from emergency vehicles dancing on the trees far ahead of us and assumed that something had happened up there to trigger the blockade. Kenny rolled down the window, choking in smoke, and asked the young man what was going on. He told us of a car on fire, downed wires, and falling trees. Emergency workers were frantically working to get us all through safely. We watched him walk back to the inferno behind us and tears welled up in our eyes. We couldn’t wait to get out of the fire and save our lives; he was walking bravely into the fire and risking his. Humbling. We prayed for him; we prayed for all of them. True heroes.
And then we were moving. Three firetrucks edged by us on the rocky shoulder. The dam was breached. One by one, with incredible courtesy, the line of cars slid forward, soberly passing the blackened shell of a car that had been pushed aside by the rescue workers so the rest of us could squeeze by. Like a flighty thoroughbred out of the gate, we fairly flew down the parkway, the road empty before us. We marveled how quickly those ahead of us had disappeared into the smoky distance. But we were not out of the woods yet…literally. At each twist and turn of the exit route, flames leapt out at us from the burning shrubs and trees that lined the road. Fiery branches fell around us. Smoke slowed us. It was raining embers, ash and soot. Downed trees still burning toppled in front of us and we drove right through the flames. Brush caught under our car, and we were dragging it along our escape path, hoping and praying it wasn’t burning. We were too afraid to stop and see.
Pigeon Forge came into view, and I was giddy with relief and gratitude. We pulled over to remove the debris and call our family. It started to rain!
The fire hadn’t gotten this far, though the hills on the edge of town glowed the orange-red warning of impending doom. We had traveled about 4 miles to get here from Westgate. It had taken us nearly an hour, the longest and most stressful hour I had experienced in a very long time. I think we were both crying. I know we were rejoicing in our Savior. And so were our kids. We KNOW He rescued us--again. He was with us every single minute. Thank you, Mighty and Merciful Father!
His name is Immanuel, God with us. His Presence is a present we get to enjoy every single day. He’s not just for Christmas. He’s not just for life-threatening wildfires. He’s for right now.
Aren’t you grateful too?