The phoenix — a bird of Greek mythology that grew to maturity and burst into flames, only to be reborn from its own ashes — is an absolute fake.
That is, unless we do the necessary work to make it our reality — to deliberately direct a rebirth after watching the things we once held dear consumed in the inevitable flames of time's passage.
It's a lesson I gleaned from a recent family trip to the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its surrounding eastern Tennessee communities — one that clearly applies to Northwest Indiana if we permit it.
The lesson is timely for this Easter Sunday, a day associated with rebirth.
Mountains of visitors
For generations, the Great Smoky Mountains region has economically thrived by building and continuously cultivating a vacation and tourism industry around its central strength.
The Smokies contain some of the most beautiful natural sites, trails and wildlife on the planet. It's a natural asset not entirely unlike our Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, one that thrives with respect for nature and a will to create symbiotic tourism attractions.
The Tennessee mountain communities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and others have thrived by building a hotel, resort and attractions mecca within and on the outskirts of the Smoky Mountain vistas.
The communities have done so in a way that maximizes potential profit without bulldozing the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains.
It's a careful balance, in part protected in perpetuity by the national park status.
Regular consumers of national news will remember a grave threat faced the Smokies and their surrounding residents and industries late last year as a massive forest fire swept through portions of the mountain range.
Misguided youth allegedly sparked the flames, which reduced multiple tourist cabins, homes and portions of natural wildlife habitat to ash.
The flames burned perilously around downtown Gatlinburg, destroying some buildings and threatening major attractions within the area’s most busy tourism district.
Fourteen people lost their lives in the conflagrations that claimed or damaged 11,410 forest acres, according to the National Park Service and public safety reports.
Nothing positive comes from the senseless and tragic loss of life.
Smokies bounce back
But there is one silver lining in the context of the fire's scope. The affected land was a tiny fraction of the 522,076 acres of beauty that is Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Months before the fires, my family had booked a vacation there. Our family of six journeys to the Smokies about once every couple of years, driven by a deep affinity for that area.
Like many who frequent the Smokies, we were heartbroken by news of the fires and braced ourselves for the charred carnage we imagined we might see.
We witnessed some burned acreage of trees and some scattered cabins reduced to their concrete foundations.
But the bigger story lies in the reality that most of the Smokies natural beauty survived the fires.
Crews were busily rebuilding — or already had repaired or rebuilt — much of what the fires touched in the main tourism and business district of Gatlinburg.
The entire region was bustling with spring break tourists, perhaps even busier than we've experienced during past spring or summer trips there.
Cars were bumper to bumper getting into the Gatlinburg tourism district. Fellow Hoosier plates abounded on the roadways.
During nature hikes to Laurel Falls or through Cade's Cove — both park locations popular for their stunning beauty — we shared the trail with dozens of other travelers.
Much of what had been touched by the tragic fires had adapted. Many more features were spared entirely by the flames.
And human grit and tenacity were rebuilding much of what had been reduced to ash just a few months earlier.
The National Park Service confirmed what my eyes already beheld.
In its most readily available statistics, the numbers of Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitors were up 30 percent in February 2017 from the same month the previous year. And 2016 had been a record year.
Lesson for NWI
So what's the parallel and lesson for Northwest Indiana?
We’ve experienced our own figurative fires threatening the institutions to which we had grown accustomed.
A Region built on the steel industry still struggles to find an evolving identity decades after NWI steel began to drastically shrink and scores of its jobs were consumed in the fires of economic reality.
An imagined inferiority — perhaps to the economic behemoth of neighboring Chicago and certainly to the political power of Indianapolis — continues smoldering in Northwest Indiana, though it’s improving.
Meanwhile, we have all the tools around us from which to rebuild and rise from our own ashes.
Potential of Indiana Dunes
Vistas and trails of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, already under the auspices of the National Park Service, can rival much of what I so cherish in the Great Smoky Mountains.
A move is afoot in Congress to obtain full national park status for the Dunes, which remain one of the true and natural building blocks for Region tourism and quality of life.
Our Region rests on one of the busiest travel corridors in the nation for both freight and roadway passengers, and we are symbiotic — not competitive with — neighboring Chicago and its many economic and cultural amenities.
If the Smoky Mountain region can come back stronger than ever a mere four months after national news stories depicted decimation, surely our Region can rise decades after steel lost the greater share of its luster.
Human grit and tenacity are qualities expediting the Smokies' recovery. Nature, and its ability to spawn beauty where fire once decimated, also is hastening that region's bounce-back.
All those qualities live in the hearts and minds of hardworking Regionites — and in the beauty and marketability of our natural assets.
We can be the phoenix personified if we can ever get past our own stubborn doubts and insecurities.