Our ministry together hadn’t even begun. We were merely days into our time living in a run-down shack of a house that hardly had a front door and no air conditioning, which was problematic because we were living in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, at the time. If you can imagine a home that needs to be flipped, but is barely live-able in the meantime, you can imagine our home on Smokey Lane that summer. Snakes slithered in and out of the floor boards, mice chewed their way through our walls, and Brown Recluse spiders crawled through the undersides of our bunk beds. Not an ideal living situation for six young adults about to begin a summer of ministry in the national park together, but there was something about that house on Smokey Lane and that summer that I look back on with wonder.
Every day that summer we would come home to its rustic charm after spending a day doing what we each came there to do. It was also to this home that we returned late on the night we escaped deep into the mountains to experience something like a theater or musical put on for us by nature.
It was Page’s idea. She had heard that early in the summer, deep at a particular spot in the woods, was the only time we would be able to see them, and we had arrived in the Smoky Mountains just in time. It was our first adventure together as a team.
I didn’t even know something like this existed, which reminded me that I should always expect to be surprised—captivated—by nature.
The six of us, nearly strangers, packed into Gabe’s SUV and drove the dirt road from Smokey Lane, passing the Arts and Crafts loop, through downtown Gatlinburg, and into the windy, narrow cliff-like roads of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. All the while we spent asking each other questions that would soon unravel further as we spent the summer as housemates.
We squinted through the darkness as we tried to make sense of the mountains. What were the landmarks we were soon going to become so acquainted with as we made this drive every Sunday? Could we see any black bears lurking behind trees or up on the rocks? Where was the waterfall we had heard was a great place to take an afternoon swim along with a picnic lunch? Would we pass any of the hiking trails that led to the best scenic overlooks?
We arrived at the spot that we were told was just a short hike away from nature’s grand display of beauty we were about to experience. We grabbed our backpacks and water bottles (an essential to have at all times in the Tennessee heat) along with a few flashlights because there was nearly no light left in the sky. Because we didn’t know each other well yet, it was uncertain who was to lead the way, but of course, Page took the lead. This was something that became consistent to her drive and passion for exploring that summer. I was fine with it. She knew what she was doing, and to be honest, I already trusted her more than anyone else in the group.
After just a few miles of hiking, we soon arrived at the place deep in the woods, so dark I wasn’t sure if my eyes were even open. We found tree stumps to perch on as we waited in silence, looking around eagerly, trying to see who would be the first to spot them.
Then suddenly, there was one. And then there were a few more. And a few more. Then we were surrounded by what seemed like a million tiny little floating lights. Fireflies. They lit up as if they were synchronized by an invisible conductor directing their lights to flicker on and off all by some soundless metronome. We were amazed. This was exactly like what Page described but better. It was silent, but the fireflies filled the sky and the air around us with a sound that was only recognizable with our eyes.
Just when I think the world can’t surprise me anymore, I remember the fireflies and my time living on Smokey Lane. I don’t live a very adventurous life, but I look back on that summer and remember that the world offers itself as a theater for the mind, the heart, and imagination. Perfect strangers came together and were delighted simply by a gift given to us from the earth. I hope to never lose those memories. Even as I write, I am drawn into an adventure. And I plan to stay there for a little while.