This was truly an adventure worth doing

Published 11:00 pm Friday, July 1, 2011

“If it ain’t an adventure, it ain’t worth doin.’”

Well, it was an adventure and it was worth doin.’

“You’re going to drive 400 miles to see. …lightning bugs?” family and friends jeered with their brows scrunched together and their mouths snarled.

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Of course I was.

I had never seen synchronous “fireflies” and that was on my bucket list so, yes, I was going to drive to the Smokies and see this wonder of nature.

Synchronous fireflies, also called lightning bugs, are uncommon in North America and just about everywhere else on Planet Earth. They were not well known here until 1994 when a Knoxville resident told a scientist that she had watched the firefly light show in the Elkmont area of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park for 40 years.

The scientist had been studying the synchronous lightning bugs in Southeast Asia and was delighted to find them so close to home.

The synchronous lightning bugs are the only species in the Americas that can synchronize their flashing light patterns. Why they do, no one knows. It may be competition among the males that all want to be the first to flash or, maybe, if the males flash all at once, they have a better chance of being noticed.

But, no matter the why-fors, the synchronous lighting bugs put on a light show like no other, flashing together like a chorus of can-can girls and then leaving their audience in deep darkness for nine to 10 seconds before illuminating the woodlands again. The dazzling display of yellow ‘bug” lights will literally take your breath away.

Not knowing what to expect, I planned to get to the park’s visitors’ center an hour before the trolleys were to leave for Elkmont. To my surprise, the park ranger was stopping the long line of cars, “Sorry, we’re full. Come back tomorrow.”

That I could not “come back tomorrow” would have made little or no difference to the young man. It’s true that when one door closes another opens. Sometimes it takes a good bit of pushing and shoving, but another door will open.

The line to the trolleys snaked around a country mile and the drive up to Elkmont with a packed can of sardines singing “A hundred fireflies a-flashing” set the mood.

Upon unloading, attendants gave the multitudes either red or blue cellophane to cover their flashlights. I didn’t have one. I took the cellophane anyway.

Each of the 2,000 other people on the mountain that night had brought along a folding chair. I did not.

They placed their chairs along either side of the trail that lead up the mountain facing into the woods, giving them a ringside seat for the light show.

I found a place on a ledge above the mountain stream, unpacked my picnic and settled back until it was time for the show to begin.

As the sun slipped behind the mountains, I let my mind slip back to the times when catching lighting bugs was a favorite summertime activity. At the time when day grudgingly gives way to night, we would run around catching lighting bugs and putting them in Mason jars with holes punched in the lids so they could breathe.

Most of the time, I would take the jar inside and put it next to my bed and watch the lights flash on and off until I feel asleep.

But sometimes I would try to smash the lightning bugs with a hammer while their lights were on. If you could, the light would stay on and you could string it to make a necklace or a ring but I only succeeded in killing scores of little lightning bugs. The thought of it made me sad.

Another thought that stood clear was of many years later when I had children of my own. We had camped along the river in the Mohican Wilderness in Ohio and the lightning bugs were out in full force. My little daughter ran and jump in an effort to catch one but couldn’t. She came to me crying.” Mama, will I ever catch a lightning bug?”

I assured her that she would. She did.

As night fell like a heavy black curtain in the Smokies, the synchronous “fireflies” began to appear and their performance that night was spectacular – a beautifully choreographed woodland dance done only to the noise of wings. Two thousand people and complete quietness on the mountain. What we witnessed was too incredible to interrupt.

When the trolleys arrived to take us back down the mountain, we walked in silence. Following the blue light of someone else, unknowingly, I stepped on one of nature’s wonders and its little light stayed on.

A sign? Maybe.

A wonder of nature? Yes.

Will I drive 400 miles again to see lightning bugs? Of course, I will.

It’s an adventure and it’s worth doin.’”