There's Something in the Smokies
by Gina Bowen
The way the smoke spilled across the landscape to blanket the vibrancy of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains during autumn season was a picture that struck me seasonally. It had been October again, and I found myself on a Sunday afternoon parking my car in a hollow off of Cade’s Cove to lose myself among the many trails that covered the area. This was compulsive for me, almost ritualistic, maybe even sacred. It was not unusual behavior and would not be as strange as the contents of the woods I would stumble upon that day.
The woods had always been whispering my name; and like a moth to a flame, I would answer the call all too willingly. In autumn, the mountains would breathe into life a traveling carnival; one of crimson, gold, and sweet-chilled air. It would crest its secrets and summon all of the wandering hearts to explore her mysteries. She would lay open and gaping. I would reach out with exhausted fingers to seek her answers and discover more.
That day, the flora and fauna hummed their hymns as my periwinkle hiking boots crunched along the slender trails. The skeletons of the trees lay their bones to rest upon the path as I walked along. I had paid no attention to where I had been going, which is often the case when I immerse myself into these woods. I always seemed to think I knew them so well, but this time I made the choice to mingle with the unfamiliar and solely followed the wind. Seductive in her whispering, I eagerly listened to the instructions I was given. I instinctively answered a siren’s call and had not even known that I had done so.
Jamming my hands into the pocket of my thermal, I realized the insects were sleeping. The trees grew thick and my heartbeat heightened, the path splitting before me with a beggar’s plea. It demanded of me to make a decision, and choices were something I had never been able to handle appropriately. I breathed into myself as the woods breathed into themselves. I wandered onward, the crows flitting about through the birches, watching me seal my fate in judgement.
The sun had melted away and time was lost. I recalled the last time I spent in these mountains, with my younger sister, when there had been laughter mixed with the rushing water of the creeks. These woods had strung us together with an invisible chord back then, one the Fates had cut to allow radio silence to settle in. I still remembered how she made us a family. She was always good that way. Yet now I was journeying alone, the creeks were unwelcoming and silent, and the earth stood still as if it were curious as to what move I would make next. Without a plan in mind, I descended into the heart of her spirit more deeply. There was still too much I hadn’t known, even though I had walked these woods so many times since childhood. These Smoky Mountains deceived, for she was a cunning shapeshifter.
Hours had gone by before the path cleared and my eyes settled upon an open area. It was infested with the smell of something old and ancient. Wooden buildings collapsed inwards in their decay, imprinting themselves, a blemish in the woods I had often praised a perfection. Carefully, I made my way around the small, forsakenly abandoned town as the only sign of life it had seen for quite some time.
The tip of my boot caught itself on something beneath the dirt. Bending down, I removed my gloves and brushed away the soil covering the hard plank my feet had discovered. The forlorn sign I now held in my hands read: ELKTON. Moss covered the half-eaten edges of the sign and I placed it back down in the earth, wondering when the last time anyone had been here. The emptiness of town ignited my indecisiveness and I considered turning back then, but my eyes settled upon a giant barn splattered with worn-out red wherever the wood wasn’t rotted. I made my way to the doorway, letting curiosity get the best of me. I failed to notice the leaves rustling more noticeably, nor the temperature dropping to a near-frozen state.
Darkness flooded the inside of the building, death suffocating my nostrils to mark the staleness. There were stories here. Things happened. Such a place as this was haunted.
Yet, aren’t there always stories? Always happenings? Aren’t we all haunted?
I remembered the ghosts that sat in my stomach; the ones I kept swallowed down in the hopes I would not have to regurgitate them. My mind instantly moved to the spaces where my family lay broken apart in the basement of my childhood home, wrecked and beginning to be forgotten. It was easier to drown out the angry screams of my mother and shut my eyes to my father’s turned head. It felt relieving to deafen my sister’s rage-filled slurs and the stuttered “I’m sorry”s that would float from my blue lips. Instead of all the bodies I preferred to leave buried beneath those cellar floorboards, I would keep my mind on the majesty of my mountains. I would do photography. I would explore. I would make sure it seemed as though as I was living. But there were the ghosts. They stained me the way they stained the interior of these buildings, or what was left of them.
Perhaps they would dissipate into the waterways of time, as this town should have done. Perhaps they would play phantom and make me a home for their play, like the ghost town of Elkton, clearly alive in its death. Lost somewhere within the Smoky Mountain woods.
About the Author
Gina Bowen lives, breathes, and photographs the mountains of Eastern Tennessee. She spends her time writing poetry and short stories on her porch and getting lost in the woods with her pups to photograph the beautiful landscapes. Gina's poetry and photography can be found on Instagram under her handle @gina.bowen.creative.