It was on a Monday night, March 12th, 1993, that we experienced the “Storm of the Century”. I was working the front desk at the Hidden Mountain West office, the original main office for the resort. We had our usual heavy schedule of arrivals that day, every Friday was always busy at West. When I arrived that day, the forecast was bussing with reports of a big snowstorm. I was a ripe 22 years old, and very skeptical of the weather forecasts. It was March, spring fever was upon us already. I figured they were just boosting grocery store sales of milk and bread. To further elaborate on just how far snow was on anyone’s mind, there was the yearly Chevrolet Corvette show scheduled that weekend. We had around 30 or more Corvette enthusiasts expected that night. For the record, the Chevrolet Corvette was never, ever engineered as an all-terrain, off-road style means of transportation, but we soon found out they function much the same as a bobsled, only with a gigantic high-performance engine. Within 24 hours, nobody was having the weekend they had originally planned.
If memory serves me correctly, the snow began to come down in sizable flakes around 8:30-8:45pm that night. I was scheduled to get off work around 10pm. By 9pm the accumulation was taking hold, and my father-in-law called to let me know not to try and drive home, he would be out to get me in his Ford Bronco, which was all wheel drive. By 10:30pm, when I made it home (about 5 miles away), it was already past six inches and still rising rapidly. There were already scattered cars littering the sides of the road. This storm was dumping a LOT of snow FAST! But still, who figured it would get to what it eventually became. We lived in a small 2-bedroom, one bath farmhouse, with well water and a wood stove. When I woke up the next morning, the power was out, and nothing was stirring on the road in front of our house. I figured everything would still be ok, we had a wood stove, some oil lamps, candles, and plenty of food. By 10am my mother-in-law had already dispatched my father-in-law, and he was at our house to fetch us to go back to stay with them. The momma hen was calling all her baby chicks back to the nest.
So Saturday, I found myself in the basement of my mother-in laws house, with my two brothers-in-law. I had to sleep on the floor of the basement with those two, while my wife and her two sisters shared a bed upstairs next to their mother’s room. So by Monday morning at around 4am, Brian had experienced all the love and companionship this family could offer and wanted to go back to work! I went upstairs and began putting on my snow boots and jacket, and my wife woke up to investigate what I was doing. I explained I was going to work. She said there hadn’t been a single car on the road in over two days, and I was not going to try and drive back to Hidden Mountain. I told her I would just have to walk there. It was nine miles away, and there was over 24 inches of snow on the ground. I didn’t care. Hidden Mountain needed me, and sure as HECK needed Hidden Mountain!
I managed to walk along the remnants of the main highway and get into downtown Sevierville. Inside the area around the courthouse, the roads were fairly manageable, and the streets had several four wheel drive vehicles buzzing around. As I kept on walking, a vehicle passed, honked its horn, then pulled over just ahead of me and stopped. It was Kelly, Sandy Houser’s daughter, and she was driving over to Hidden Mountain East to take some things to her mother. She recognized me and asked where I was going, I told her, and she graciously offered to give me a lift to East.
Can you imagine the surprise when they saw me amble into the East office covered in snow and ice?!? They were so happy to have help, and it turns out several employees from various departments had made their way to the office, just eager to help. That was one of the most special things about that mountain, we all seemed to have this bond, and sense of pride in coming together whenever that mountain needed us. There was clearly plenty of stuff to do, and all of us went from specific job titles to ALL HANDS ON DECK.
One of my first duties, march up the hill just past the office to check on an elderly couple that lived nearby. So, I drug my fat little front desk body up the Mt Everest level driveway, only to find these two senior adults all, nice, warm, dry, and very happy in their living room. They were very delighted to have a visitor and pleased that Brenda had thought to look in on them. I suppose the only worry or fear they experienced was whether they should have to do CPR on this pizza-eating desk clerk gasping for air in their foyer.
That evening, Brenda decided to leave everything under the command of her nephew Nicky, and me. The East office had electricity and phone service, and the phones hadn’t stopped ringing since they came back on. While everyone was concentrated on evacuating all of the stranded guests at West, people were now calling from other resorts looking for ANYTHING to stay in. Our computer system was still down, the main system was at West, and East used the phone system to connect to it for reservations. Nicky had the idea- why don’t we just go up and check all the units that didn’t have any paper registration cards, and see if there was heat and water, and if anyone’s personal belongings were still there. I was put in charge of this task. Turns out, every single unit I went to was empty and didn’t have any luggage or clothes left in it. We had the bright idea to start re-renting these units, and within an hour, we had a whole bunch of new guests on the way. I went back up and started making beds and folding towels, and straightening up. We were so excited the next morning to tell Brenda how we had booked so many new rooms.
It was from there that the decision was made to send me over to West. I caught a ride with Chuck, Brenda’s brother. The ride over was like something out of an apocalypse movie. There was just a narrow, well worn path in the snow that served as a “road”, littered with fallen trees and debris. Frank Barker, the maintenance foreman, was in the middle of the parking lot at West, water gushing from a hole in the pavement, a main water line was busted. I hopped out and asked Frank how things were going and got the default Frank Barker response to any question like that: “Oh buddy, you don’t even want to know”. Imagine Frank as Scotty, on the original Star Trek series, only crustier, saltier, and with a morbidly fatalistic demeanor. But if you needed a miracle to get something to work, Frank was your guy.
The next face I saw was Greg Fernatt, who oversaw the grounds crew. He was working with Butch and the construction crews to tackle opening the roads and driveways, and repairing any water line and utility issues, and removing fallen trees. The resort looked like it had been carpet bombed by a squadron of B-52s. It seemed there were more trees laying on the ground than standing up. The buzz of gas-powered generators combined with the growling whine of a thousand chainsaws filled the air with a symphony of orchestrated chaos. When I got into the West office, Teena, Greg’s wife, was operating a front desk/primitive kitchen/crisis center. She was happy to see me.
One of the most memorable experiences from all this was the food. (Of course it is, Brian Murr is writing this story!) In the very large old stack stone fireplace at the west office was an iron kettle on a swinging arm, that you could cook with. Teena had employed this to supplement all the gas grills for fixing stuff for the crew to eat. She had made soup beans, chili, and other wonderful meals out of that iron kettle. With the gas grills there was a smorgasbord of steaks, chicken, and pork. Butch Smith is hands down cosmically the best griller in the history of man’s mastery over fire. So, let’s just say I was very happy to be at Hidden Mountain West.
We even had nightly entertainment, an Evel Knievel style stunt show, performed by someone from South Florida who had come in for the Corvette show. Rather than be evacuated, he chose to stick it out in his cabin. Instead of a Corvette, he had a late 70’s Pontiac Trans Am, Navy Blue, very similar to the Smoky and the Bandit car. Also very ill-equipped for three feet of snow and ice. The car had been stranded in the parking lot at west since Friday. We were having to shuttle him back to the cabin whenever he would walk down for something to eat. Every night, around dusk, he would decide to make a go at driving his hot rod back up the mountain to his cabin. People would come out onto their porches, and the staff would stand around the parking lot, and watch this crazy man back his car down to where the wood sheds were, then rev up his engine to 7,000 RPMs, and skid about three quarters of the way up the hill beside the office, then hover just about even with the office, providing us one monster level burnout for about five minutes. Then he would finally give up, slide his trans am back into the parking space, and be transported back to his cabin in one of our Jeeps.
One of the biggest lessons we learned from that snowstorm is what does and does not actually function in that level of snow and ice. Prior to the Blizzard, there was practically every make and model of truck and SUV amongst the working fleet, and our personal vehicles. From the Friday of the snowstorm through the first few days, a clear list of the vehicles that had what it takes emerged. At the top of the list was anything with a Jeep brand logo on it. They became the backbone of the recovery operation, and Butch went to work building up a grand fleet of wranglers and post office Jeeps. There was also one little Suzuki mini sport utility that seemed to navigate with ease. The most surprising performer of all though, was the beaten up, rusted, very abused and mistreated junk yard dog of the fleet, Old Orange. Old Orange was a Ford flatbed truck, that had once been a part of the Sevier County Electric fleet, where it got its orange color. It was bought at a surplus auction and had been the grounds crew truck for years. Its DNA was clearly of Mule descent, because it was rugged and stubborn, but very reliable and would go anywhere you wanted it to, packing a load.
A lot has changed since those glorious weeks in March,1993, but I am proud, and truly blessed to have been lucky enough to have been a small part of that operation. Hidden Mountain had always been a great atmosphere to work in, but during that moment, we had all become part of a family. I will carry those memories, and my love for all the people involved, till my last day on this earth…