Traversing Gatlinburg’s Amazing SkyBridge

I stood a couple of weeks ago on the platform leading to the longest pedestrian swinging bridge in North America, anxiously waiting to take my first step.

It’s not that I was nervous. Well…maybe a little nervous. But the handrail was shoulder-high and the horizontal metal cables beneath it were close together and strung tight. The 680-foot bridge, the newest addition to Gatlinburg’s iconic Skylift Park, is only six months old and was—no doubt—designed and built to the highest safety standards. Though I suffer from a fear of heights, I knew I was unlikely to fall to my death from this bridge.

So that’s not why I was hesitating. I simply needed time to recover from the Skylift, the cheery yellow swings that transport tourists 1,800 feet to the top of Crockett Mountain on a heart-pumping nine-minute ride. It’s the only way up to the new SkyDeck plaza, which offers not only spectacular views but also a concession stand, gift shop and restrooms, in addition to access to the SkyBridge.

You’d think that someone who’s been skiing as many times as I have wouldn’t be afraid of a chair lift, but you’d be wrong. Maybe I was scared because I had no dangling skis to help block the view beneath me. Or maybe because there was no snow to cushion the blow if I did fall. But I think it’s because there are times when the SkyLift is really, really high above the ground. So high I decided to heck with the view and closed my eyes tight. When I finally made it to the top, I took a few minutes to calm myself by focusing on the spattering of autumn leaves that still clung to the trees, blazing red and orange and yellow against the incredible blue sky.

I watched people traverse the bridge. And I talked to some of those who’d already done it.

Most told me it wasn’t all that scary, especially if you walked in the middle of the treadway where the bounce wasn’t so noticeable. Others advised hanging on tight to the railing. Still others recommended that I not look down when I came to the glass panels in the floor.

But it was the woman I talked to just before stepping onto the bridge who said something shocking. “I really don’t see what’s so great about this,” she said, not even trying to hide her disdain.

“You didn’t like it?”

“No. It’s not all that pretty here,” she said. “And they need to do something about the landscaping underneath the bridge. It’s a mess.”

Mortified, I drew in my breath. Did she not know what happened to this swath of mountain three years ago? “There was a terrible fire here in November 2016,” I said. “You’re looking at part of what burned.” I didn’t tell her that the fire was the worst the Smoky Mountains had suffered in more than a century. I didn’t tell her that 2,000 buildings and 11,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were destroyed. I didn’t tell her that 14,000 people were forced to flee. Or that 14 people lost their lives.

I simply told her I was sorry she hadn’t had fun.

A few minutes later, I boarded the SkyLift for the ride down the mountain. Built in 1954, it was the oldest continually operating attraction in the Smokies until the fires turned it into a melted, mangled wreck. It took six months and millions of dollars to rebuild. Now, like the people of Gatlinburg, the SkyLift is better than ever. Mountain strong. Just like I want to be.

That’s why I crossed the SkyBridge without fear. And why I kept my eyes wide open on the ride down the mountain.

(December 1, 2019)