by bj max
On the front porch of a cabin at the edge of the Smokey Mountains I relax in a rocking chair, drinking strong coffee and listening to the rain drumming on the tin roof. It’s not quite daylight, but the dawn is evident as the tree line gradually takes shape towards the east. Our three night stay is winding down and we will have to vacate these peaceful quarters this morning to make room for a flock of Southern Baptists.
The clinking of saucer and cup from the kitchen interrupts my solitude and shortly Hillbilly emerges with a steaming cup of the bitter brew hooked in his fist. The creak of wood and bone signals that he has settled himself into a second rocker that sits next to me. We mumble our good mornings in muffled tones so as not to wake the ladies, sip our coffee and long for cigarettes that we don’t smoke anymore.
This is our last day in these beautiful mountains. We left Memphis under threatening skies almost a week ago and we’ve been dodging storms ever since. Did a pretty good job of it to, until this morning. But the rain shows no sign of slacking up and our luck appears to have run out.
It’s been a busy week. We began our vacation with a visit to Lookout Mountain and we’ve been in “go” mode ever since. We’ve ridden the North Georgia Triangle, a series of the finest twisties you’ll ever put a tire to. We rode the Blue Ridge Parkway, did Cades Cove, hiked to Laurel Falls, hiked to Anna Ruby Falls, and crawled to Clingman’s Dome. Clingman’s Dome, at 6,643 feet, is the highest point in Tennessee and the steep grade of this challenging climb makes a mockery of the much vaunted treadmill stress test. By the time we reached the summit we were really huffing and blowing. But it was worth it. What a view. And the skies were crystal clear, a rarity for this location.
But without a doubt, the most unforgettable thing on this trip happened on Friday night as we made our way up a wilderness trail in search of some unusual fireflies, or litenin’ bugs as they are known here in the south.
Elkmont Campground is located roughly ten miles from downtown Gatlinburg and is known for the fireflies that concentrate there in the late spring and early summer. These particular fireflies, technically Photinus Carolinus, have become celebrities of a sort for their bizarre tendency to flash in unison, a phenomenon that puzzles even the experts. But, for those who choose to make the hike up to where the fireflies perform, there is a catch. Elkmont sits smack dab in the middle of a bear habitat. Signs warning of bear activity are posted everywhere and wouldn’t you just know it. Out of all the thousands of acres in the Smokies, this is the very place that our fanciful co-riders want to visit. We are being asked to risk our lives just so they can observe swarms of sex starved show-bugs trolling for females. And of course, viewing fireflies is a nocturnal sport; meaning we would have to hike to their hangout in the middle of the night. In bear country. Not my idea of a good time, but I reluctantly agreed.
We arrived at Elkmont around nine PM, took a left and rode about a mile up to the trailhead. We pulled over on the shoulder, shut the bikes down and were immediately plunged into total darkness. Couldn’t see a thing. I fumbled in my saddlebag and located my flashlight, and flicked it on. There. That’s much better.
We spotted the trail off to the left and with me in the lead, not because I was the bravest of the foursome, mind you, but because I had the flashlight. We warily made our way into the woods and up the trail. Every now and then, a firefly would wink. But I wasn’t really paying attention to the little buggers. I was too busy worrying about bears. And rightly so. Not long ago, a hiker was attacked and killed in this area so my fears were not unwarranted. I’m certainly not one to tell Mother Nature how to run her business. But if I had been in charge, I would have put the lights on the bears, not on some harmless little bug.
About a quarter mile down the trail the trees gave way to a grassy meadow, twinkling with fireflies. These fireflies are not the same kind we have back home in the flatlands. These are a mountain variety usually found around two thousand feet. According to ethnologist Dr. Jonathan Copeland, Elkmont is the only place in North America where synchro-fireflies have been documented. In the Elkmont spectacle, the flashes come not only in unison, but if you’re positioned just right, they come in waves beginning at the top of the mountain and rolling to the bottom. Quite a sight, I understand.
We continued on down the trail thinking we were all alone, only to stumble over a pack of huge animals that began snarling and snapping at our heels. I quickly flashed the light towards the beasts. We gasped simultaneously and shrank back in horror at the sight of the hideous and grisly creatures. There were about thirty of ‘em wrapped in blankets, sitting in lawn chairs and nursing coffee from thermos bottles. These animals, officially tourist idioticas, but more commonly known as Human Beings, migrate to the Smokies every summer by the millions. And although they are usually harmless, they can sometimes be a real pain in the neck. We kept our distance from these surly animals, found us a spot and settled in to watch the show.
At this point I could make up some kind of fantastic tale about a show stopping performance but I never, ever lie so I’m afraid this story must end without an eyewitness account. We actually waited for an hour or more but nothing happened and since we had an early departure scheduled the next morning we gave up and left.
But it could have happened. I spoke with a Park Ranger and according to him the bugs perform some nights and some nights they don’t. Fireflies only live twenty one days so if you want to try and catch this strange event, be at Elkmont next month and be prepared to wait awhile. It’s a show that not many folks will ever see. But even if the bugs are shy on your visit, hiking through the woods at night in bear country beats sittin’ around the motel room watching TV any old day.