Y’all, I don’t think we need to tell you that it’s been a weird year.
But as 2021 approaches, we thought we’d take a moment to look back on some of the biggest (and in some cases most bizarre) news stories from the Smokies and the surrounding areas of Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Sevierville.
Most of which, ironically, happened just this month – so what better way to end a crazy year than with some crazy headlines that you never thought you’d read.
And so, without further ado, we present you with our list of most bizarre news stories and headlines of 2020:
6. Gatlinburg evacuated due to suspicious backpack
We thought we’d start the list off with one of the most recent headlines that is still making its way through social media: The backpack scandal of 2020.
On Monday, Dec. 28 at around 10 am, the Sevier County Police Department was notified of a suspicious package (later revealed to be a backpack) near Puckers, a local bar and grill, in downtown Gatlinburg.
The police evacuated a portion of the downtown area and created a 300-foot perimeter around the abandoned bag. The Sevier County Sheriff’s Department bomb squad later determined that the backpack posed no threat, and operations returned to normal shortly thereafter.
It has not yet been determined who the backpack belongs to, however, you can only assume there might be a child somewhere out there tonight getting a stern lecture.
The call came on the heels of the Nashville Christmas bombing. That threat was unfortunately very real. It involved an RV full of explosives parked near the AT&T building in downtown Nashville in the early hours of Christmas morning on December 25.
While the Nashville explosion appears to have been nothing more than a suicide mission, it understandably left us all feeling a bit shaken, and is undoubtedly one of the reasons the abandoned backpack created such a stir.
5. An unprecedented Christmas snowfall in the Smokies strands tourists
Contrary to popular belief, snow isn’t really that common in the Smokies, at least not in the lower elevations.
Sure, each year you might see a bit of a light dusting, or if you’re really lucky, a couple of inches of snowfall in the mountains that quickly disappears the next day.
But this Christmas, what started out as a dreamy picturesque winter scene for some, quickly became a nightmare for others with snowfalls measuring a nearly a foot in the higher elevations.
The unprecedented snowstorm left more than 20,000 residents without power and trapped many lesser-prepared tourists in their cabins without food or a way out.
The Citizen Tribune spoke with Walt Cross, chief of the Grassy Fork Volunteer Fire Department, in neighboring Cocke County who said some tourists, many of whom were reportedly from Florida and were not dressed for snowy weather, chose to ignore warnings from local authorities and had to later be rescued.
“We set up cones to divert motorists but they chose to believe their GPS over us, and they drove around the cones. We are having to pull them out,“ Cross told the Citizen Tribune. “If you are not from around here, don’t follow your GPS. Talk to local folks and follow their directions.”
As for our local advice – we here at TheSmokies.com like to remind everyone that preparation is key. During the winter months, bring an AWD or heavy duty vehicle if you can. Dress in warm winter-appropriate clothing. Keep your rentals stocked with extra food, and never ignore advice from local law enforcement.
4. A not-so-active shooter situation at Walmart in Sevierville
This one was reported just a couple of days before Christmas on December 23 at the local Walmart in Sevierville.
Once again, we are thankful this news story ended up being less about an “active shooter” as it was initially reported, and more about a customer dispute that led to guns being drawn with no actual shots fired.
Multiple police were dispatched, including a police helicopter. The store was evacuated and the nearby Chick-fil-A reportedly provided safe harbor and free snacks to those escaping the scene.
According to police, two men got into a shoving match before each drew their handguns and pointed them at one another.
Both men are now facing assault charges.
3. The mysterious accident near Dollywood’s Mystery Mine roller coaster
On July 11, 2020, three Dollywood guests were reportedly injured after a decorative chain fell from the Mystery Mine roller coaster and struck them while they were walking below.
The chain was believed to have been a decoration and not a functioning part of the ride itself.
While two of the three guests opted to be evaluated at a nearby hospital, no major injuries were sustained.
Dollywood has since made the necessary adjustments to the ride’s decorations to ensure the safety of all guests.
2. Guest nearly crashes into a family of black bears on a mountain coaster
This one made national headlines after going viral on Tik Tok.
Mountain coasters are a popular attraction in the Smokies, and Anakeesta’s Rail Runner attraction is no exception.
But there’s a tiny detail about mountain coasters that you might not ever think about until you are moments away from colliding with a jaywalking bear family as they casually cross the coaster tracks: You can slow down, but you can’t stop.
And that’s exactly what happened to an Anakeesta guest, who can be seen slowly approaching a mama bear and her cubs in a viral Tik Tok video posted over the summer.
Luckily, the bears cleared the path just in the knick of time and no one was injured.
1. Dollywood opens and closes … and opens again
Little did we all know back in early March how quickly our world was about to change.
For us, our first sign was Dollywood choosing to close after only being open for a single day due to health and safety concerns on Friday the 13th.
Our staff was scheduled to be at the park covering the season opener. At the time, we all expected the delay to last a couple of weeks.
The delay ended up lasting more than three months with the park eventually reopening in mid-June.
The Dollywood website posted a comforting video message alongside the announcement featuring Dolly Parton herself.
“Growing up the Smoky Mountains, I learned that everything goes quiet for a spell,” Dolly Parton says in the video message. “Then one day, everything starts to bloom and grow again.”
The video featured footage of the Dollywood theme park, including the Dollywood train, Wildwood Grove and DreamMore Resort with Dolly’s song “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”.
I can see the light of a clear blue morning
I can see the light of brand new day
I can see the light of a clear blue morning
Ooh, everything’s gonna be alright
“Things have changed for all of us, but that’s okay,” Dolly continues in the video, “because now we’re ready to see you happy and here with us again, to share the beauty of our mountains, to just be together — safer and stronger than ever before.”