Campsite 37 in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park resides on a beautiful and civilized trail that follows Big Creek, featuring picturesque swimming holes and trout-laden pools.
For the past three years, I have reserved a spot there, only to have the campsite shut down because of aggressive bear activity. The day before leaving for the trip this June, I got a text that Campsite 37 was closed, effective immediately, not due to bears, but a tornado that ripped through the area the night before. All campsites and trails in the area were closed due to the tornado’s extreme damage.
A ranger suggested taking Anthony Creek Trail with the hope of finding mountain laurel in bloom at Spence Field, a highland meadow traversed by the Appalachian Trail. Our hike into Campsite 9 for two nights would be three miles, where we would set up camp followed the next day by three miles to Spence Field.
The next morning, our bellies full of “hiking carbs” from Gatlinburg’s famous Pancake Pantry, we drove out to Cades Cove as I lamented about Campsite 37. But Travis, a glass-half-full kind of guy said, “It could be worse; it could be raining.”
Within the hour we were hiking up Anthony Creek Trail, and it did get worse: It started raining, hard. But as Travis pointed out again, “It could be worse; we could be in a car,” and he was right, for any time in the Smokies is a treat.
We donned our expensive, breathable rain suits and headed up the trail but found they could not exhaust the sweat and body heat generated by climbing the fifth-hardest trail in the Smokies with 40-pound packs. After 20 minutes, we took off our rain gear and, like two old dogs on a hot summer day, stood there, faces to sky, and let the rain baptize and cool us. We continued to hike another hour in the pouring rain, crossing log bridges and small streams.
The campsite had eight tent sites, but the rain had chased out everyone else.
We set up our tents on the edge of Anthony Creek, its many cascades roaring constantly. Just a few feet away we collected water from a beautiful cascade. We filtered it, then quenched our thirst with true, cold mountain water.
After supper we talked of life, its “shouldas, couldas and wouldas” when we saw them. First a hundred, then thousands.
“Them” were synchronous fireflies, unique in the United States only to the Smokies. We knew they were present this time of year, but mostly in the lower elevations where their season was nearly over.
Our gain of 1,200 feet in elevation moved this population one week back in time. Over 100 yards wide and 40 feet high, thousands of resident male fireflies blinked randomly, then, as if someone flipped a switch, they stopped. After a two- to five-second pause, they started up again for 30 to 60 seconds, then off again, stopping and starting in synchrony in an attempt to lure a female.
Slowly and deliberately they moved down the hill and through our camp. It was completely unexpected; it was perfect. Sitting on a wet log, I applauded.
The next morning we were ascending through actual tunnels of rhododendrons and post-bloom laurel. Large loose rocks added to the already difficult and steep climb, but today we carried only fanny packs.
Three miles later and 1,700 feet in elevation gain, we got to the Appalachian Trail and Spence Field, and, oh, what a field it was! The trail was full of standing water, it was overcast, foggy and misting rain, but none of that could diminish the aura of this park-like setting. Hundreds of mountain laurel plants were just beginning to bloom.
A few orange and red azaleas were at their peak and dotted the landscape, but this show belonged to the laurel. Purple rhododendrons were scattered here and there, and a blueberry hedge bordered the trail for about a 100 feet, punctuated on the far end by a 6-foot-tall blooming, blackberry plant. We expected none of this.
Each person has a vision of Heaven on Earth, their Garden of Eden, and this one was mine. It was a privilege God bestowed upon me.
At 4,920 feet, it was windy and hard to take pictures of the wavering flowers. In an attempt to reduce weight, we only brought our cellphones to get pictures, so most of the images we have of that day are burned into the retinas of our memory.
We planned to go another mile, climb another 500 feet but heavier fog was moving in. It began to mist. Travis was undeterred and wanted to go on. I told him I had a blister. He challenged me to go on. I told him I had two blisters. He challenged me again. Finally, I suggested we leave the mountain and lightning behind, and live to hike another day.
Suddenly, and without warning, raindrops the size of New Jersey began to pelt us, as we quickly donned our rain gear. Mother Nature, as mothers will do, had settled the quarrel and we began our descent to safety. Another fireside meal, another hypnotic firefly show.
Doug Skinner is a semiretired veterinarian. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.