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Recently Ann and I found ourselves sitting in a ghost town deep in the Smoky Mountains. Dusk was falling fast as our book club unfolded our camp chairs and settled in to wait for dancing fireflies. The location is home to a particular subspecies of firefly that performs a synchronized light show every year as part of their rituals. It’s reported to be spectacular.

We were really a week or two early for the main event so instead of fireflies we had time to
absorb our surroundings. We were hoping that our calendars and their rituals would coincide but alas it was not to be. I think our group of eleven collectively saw five fireflies total or maybe one firefly five times. We’re not sure.

As the light faded a different form of dance surfaced. The puzzle of the place started to coalesce. There’s always been a little mystical fragment floating within me and sometimes, just sometimes, that mystic piece asserts itself and everything becomes more lively. Not a nice illustration or metaphor but a sense of being in the middle of something interesting, something important. This evolved into one of those.

The history of the ghost town provided the foundation. The rail spur built along the small river supported the logging industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s. When the trees ran out, the loggers moved elsewhere and the train brought wealthy cottage builders escaping summer heat. As a vacation destination Elkmont,Tennessee flourished until it was mostly abandoned. Eventually the town became part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A dozen or so of the cottages are being restored as part of the Park’s history while the most expensive structures were demolished leaving only the stone work for visitors to see.

But then it got interesting. We had chosen to set up our chairs in the shadow of one of those wealthiest stone chimneys. There were some shards of broken glass underfoot from the demolition but the sound of the river was as pure as only a mountain stream can be. The dark was deepening but seemed to accentuate the oaks and maples soaring skyward in and around the destruction. Clear cut logging followed by one hundred years of undisturbed tranquility now produced aromas and sounds that would make any forest breather smile. Voices were muted and soft as if waiting for something sacred. Waiting for fireflies to dance.

All dark forest imagery was totally ignored and I reveled in the moment. Adventurous fictional tales intruded bringing a palpable quickening of the senses. The ghost town became lively indeed and I breathed deep. Perhaps my imagination was running amok but in that moment my body, soul, and spirit connected with the wonder of the Creator’s presence.

As we departed the only thing I knew for sure was that in this remote corner of the Smoky Mountains the creation is healing and the fireflies are celebrating. It was important.

Al Schipper

Al Schipper is a retired chaplain and teacher. He is optimistic by nature and enthusiastic by choice. Retirement brought interim challenges, foreign ministry, Red Cross adventures, and authoring COPACETIC: God’s People Transforming Chaos. Now abiding in Grand Rapids, Michigan but always with an eye toward the horizon.

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