By Rita Welty Bourke
The shuttle from Gatlinburg drops us at the Elkmont Campgrounds and heads back to Sugarlands Visitor Center to pick up the next group. We walk up an old logging road, Rory and I, carrying our camp chairs and cooler. In my pocket is a flashlight covered with red cellophane. When I called the National Park Service for reservations a week ago, the agent told me I needed that. I found a red tab from a hanging folder, and I was able to cut it into a circle that exactly fit the flashlight.
We’ve come to this place to see a light show that is as mysterious as it is rare. Synchronous Fireflies occur here in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and in Southeast Asia, and in no other place on earth. I’d read a newspaper article about it a year ago. My husband was less than enthusiastic, but that’s often his first reaction to new adventures. Now that we’re here, I can tell he’s glad we came, and maybe even a bit excited.
Choose a spot where you can see into the woods, a Ranger advises us, handing us a brochure. As soon as it starts to get dark, they’ll start flashing. Look for the blue ones. They’re called Blue Ghosts.
We thank her for her advice and start up the gently-rising gravel road, looking for a vantage point where we’ll be able to see the fireflies.
Dozens of people have already picked spots along the road. Some have chairs, but many sit on logs, rocks, and blankets spread on the ground. Others simply wander up and down the road, waiting for darkness.
Away from the city, conversation is easy. An enormously large man dressed in coveralls tells us he’s been coming here for the last ten years. The Park Service says the show has peaked, but he doesn’t believe them. He has a friend in Cherokee who was here last night and said it was wonderful.
He gives us hope. The government website said the fireflies had shown up earlier than in previous years, they thought because of the mild winter. We can’t guarantee anything, they said. And we can’t refund your money if they don’t show up.
A few brave souls have gone into the woods, and the big man does the same. Rory and I continue along the road in search of the perfect spot.
Logging companies set up shop here a hundred years ago. They harvested the lumber, and when the trees were gone, they sold lots. Wealthy people from Knoxville and other parts of East Tennessee bought them and built cottages in the valley between Little River and Jakes Creek. This section of Elkmont became known as Millionaire’s Row.
The National Park Service acquired the land in the 1930s, and the owners were given lifetime leases. By 1982 the Park Service had purchased the last of the cottages, though they allowed the original owners and their families to continue using them for another twenty years.
The buildings that still survive are in a state of dilapidation. Paths jutting off the gravel road lead to what’s left of these once lovely cabins and summer homes. Roofs have caved in. Trees grow out of foundations and up through floors. Windows are broken, gutters sag under the weight of rotted leaves and vegetation, vines cover whole buildings. Some structures have completely collapsed.
I go off the trail to have a closer look. Some of the houses are so unstable I keep a safe distance. But then I go closer, wanting to see what remains of lives from so many years ago. I peek through windows and see scraps of wallpaper still clinging to walls. An old bedstead, a cracked sink, discarded pans and crockery, old newspapers and magazines, bits of rubber hose, broken screen doors on rusted hinges, three-legged chairs.
I’ve always wanted to be in the forest at the moment when some man-made thing, a cabin, an out-building, a shed, collapses. I want to know why, at that moment, did it happen? Did an animal jump onto the roof, and that tiny half-pound was all that was needed to cause the building to crumble? Had gnawing termites so weakened the foundation that a gust of wind brought it down? Did a tree fall, and open the building to the elements? Wind, rain, sunshine, insects…. or is it all these things that will bring about the ultimate destruction of these homes that once comprised Knoxville’s very own Millionaire’s Row.
I go back to where Rory is waiting. He can’t come with me into the woods. Poison ivy is his enemy, but not mine. I can pick the stuff up in my hands and rub it on my arms and nothing will happen.
I love being able to walk along this old logging road and take detours down paths so I can see more closely how nature is reclaiming what was once hers. Her goal is to erase the footprint of man and for that I applaud her, but at the same time it makes me sad. The trees that were logged are being replaced by new trees. The vacation homes built along Little River are collapsing.
But not Spence Cabin. It’s one of 19 properties the Park Service recently marked for preservation. As of June 2012, the cabin has been completely restored and made available for rentals. I can’t resist. I leave Rory again on the gravel road and go off to see what they’ve done.
There’s a new flagstone path leading up to the house, landscaping, fresh paint, a cement walkway around the house, a stone patio beside Little River which is bubbling down from Mount LeConte. I walk to the cabin next door, one slated for demolition. A tree has fallen on the back corner, so one whole wall sags. If I come back next year, it will surely be gone.
Darkness is still hours away. We sit on our camp chairs and eat the dinner I’ve prepared: Capellini Pomodoro, served on clear plastic plates. Rory calls it Glorified Spaghetti. I take offense.
It’s not spaghetti, I tell him. I used olive oil instead of marinara sauce. Cherry tomatoes and black olives. Organic chicken strips instead of hamburger. I brought bran muffins made with ripe bananas and fresh blueberries. Unsweetened iced tea.
When he finishes his plate, he asks for more. I take it as a sign that he likes it. I think it’s delicious, though I wish I had a nice chardonnay to go with it. But this is a federal park. No alcohol allowed. Rangers walk up and down the road.
The sun sinks behind the folds of the mountains and the temperature drops. I have a sweater, Rory a jacket, but many are not prepared. They cover themselves with blankets. They walk up and down the road, trying to keep warm. The temperature plummets.
We begin to see fireflies in the forest, and the cold doesn’t matter anymore. Conversations, once so lively, begin to lull. A woman sitting on a blanket thirty feet away from us is the exception. She’s telling a story about taking one of her children to the emergency room, and how awful the nurses treated her. She’s loud and irritating, and no one cares about her story. We’ve come to see the fireflies. I ask Rory to go stuff a sock in her mouth. He won’t do it, of course. He’s too kind. Considerate of others. A pacifist. I glare at her, but she doesn’t notice. Finally, she shuts up.
The fireflies become more numerous, though still random. Darkness fills the woods, and it becomes very quiet. Even the kids are quiet. When the last hint of light has gone out of the sky, and all around us is black, it begins.
They come in groups, lighting up first one part of the woods, then another. They flash in perfect unity, and there is not a single outlier in the bunch. For five or six seconds the forest is lit, then it goes dark. Light again. And dark. They come in waves and it’s like Christmas here on the banks of the Little River, the forest twinkling with a thousand tiny lights. The show is in progress.
The man who’s been coming for ten years is in the midst of it, in the woods, between us and the Spence cabin. He’s sitting on a flat rock above the forest floor, leaning back, looking up at the fireflies all around him.
Next year, I whisper to Rory. That’s where we’re gonna be. Down there where that man is sitting. If you cover up, wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, and you don’t touch anything, you’ll be fine. I’ll bring calamine lotion, just in case.
Simultaneous bioluminescence, he whispers back. That’s what it’s called. If you catch them and take them someplace else, they’ll stop the synchronous flashing. They have to be at 2200 feet, which is what the elevation is here.
I’m not surprised he’s done some research. He might have been reluctant at first, but the thrill of coming to this place and seeing this wondrous thing pulled him in.
It’s a mating ritual, he continues. No one knows exactly how it works. It may be that the males are in competition for the females…
….and they light up so the girls can see how pretty they are?
Well, the girls don’t have wings, so they’re down on the ground. They do respond….
Not fair, I tell him. Why no wings for the girls?
I don’t know, but it all works out. When the males display like this, they’re near the end of their life cycle. They mate, and then they die.
It’s a sobering thought, here in the darkness, in our comfy camp chairs. Yet it makes it all more beautiful, to know this is their swan song, the thing they’ve been living for. Most of them will procreate. Then, like the cabins on Millionaire’s Row, they will disappear from the face of the earth.
The Blue Ghosts, when they appear, are not like the others. They don’t flash. Instead, they glow with an eerie blue light, and the glow lasts long after the flashes have ended. We begin to see more and more of them, until there is a ghost in nearly every wave of fireflies. They are the outliers, glowing long after their friends have quit.
One flies out of the woods, directly toward us, and we duck our heads. The ghost zooms past, we think, but we aren’t sure. When he was just a few yards away, he extinguished his light.
An hour later we pack up our camp chairs and cooler and begin the trek down the
logging trail toward the waiting shuttle, the red beams from our flashlight aimed at our feet. Like the man who has come here every year for the last ten years, we’re hooked. Next year I’ll plan a different menu for our dinner on the old logging trail on Millionaire’s Row. I’ll bring plastic goblets, but we’ll wait till after dark to open our bottle of cabernet. Down in the woods on that flat rock, the Rangers will never see us.
3-4 large tomatoes, diced (cherry tomatoes cut in half are prettier)
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 handful basil, chopped
4 oz. angel hair pasta (If you use Barilla Plus pasta, you up the protein content and
your blood sugar won’t spike.)
Optional: sliced black olives
Baked chicken strips (available at Costco or Trader Joes, a great timesaver)
Vegetarian version: use Boca Chick’n Patties instead of baked chicken strips
Toss diced tomatoes, garlic, and basil with olive oil and salt in large bowl. Cook pasta. Drain. Toss in bowl with tomatoes and garlic. Add rinsed black olives, chicken or boca, and butter, if
desired. Serve hot, room temperature, or cold.
Rita Welty Bourke has published numerous works of fiction and nonfiction in literary magazines including The Chattahoochee Review, The North American Review, Cimarron Review, Black Warrior Review, Shenandoah, and Witness. Five of her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart prize. For more information visit www.ritaweltybourke.com.