Just say, “Yes.” As the 2022 Steve Kemp Writer in Residence, that’s been my philosophy whenever opportunities have been presented for a new experience in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
When Jaimie Matzko, Discover Life in America’s Biodiversity Program Specialist, invited me to visit the Smokies’ notorious “fairy house,” I wasn’t just in, I was ALL IN. The reason was simple—I live for magicalness.
Yes, magicalness. If there’s one thing I possess in spades, it’s a vivid imagination and childlike belief in the qualities of being magical. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t see faces and creatures in clouds or have a sneaking suspicion that fairies and their kin came out to play in the woods once we humans skedaddled from sight.
I am grateful to my mom for inadvertently bestowing me with this great gift. From the time I was six or seven, she took us to the library every week in her steadfast belief that books opened the doors to new worlds. If I wasn’t picking out new biographies to learn about so many people doing amazing things, you could find me poring over fairy tales, always eager to hand over the reins to anything that spoke to this sense of magicalness.
Aging doesn’t have to diminish that sense. On the contrary, as a 60-year-old, it grows ever stronger. Here in the Smokies, my imagination gets a steady aerobic workout. In my mind, mushrooms double as fairy umbrellas—reishi can protect an entire family! I think of fairy play areas whenever I see water gently trickling along moss-covered boulders. I wonder if the moss makes for a good resting place for them. I have knocked, from time to time, on what look to be elf-like doorways in countless trees, all the while laughing with myself in the quest to see if I might find them at home.
The flowers present even more opportunities to explore magicalness. Pink ladyslippers, when viewed from behind, seem like regal fairy queens ready to offer some benevolent ruling. The blossoms of cardinal flowers look like they are about to join hands in a communal circle dance. Larkspur reminds me of Merlin the Wizard from King Arthur legends. When I see Dutchman’s breeches, typically found in clusters, I imagine a troop of muscle-clad heroes waiting to swoop in and rescue some damsel in distress. I’ve laid out these and other flower characters for a children’s book that has been swirling around my mind as well as the pages of one of my journals.
With all of that said, could a fairy-loving grownup BE any more privileged than to have a personalized tour of a fairy house? In a quick search, I discovered park visitors can access it by hiking the Twin Creeks Trail, starting out from either the Ogle Place parking pullout or Mynatt Park.
After a short walk, Jaimie and I climbed some rather narrow, incredibly slick stairs, and I quietly wondered where a fairy house could possibly be. This simply didn’t feel right, especially when I slipped and almost nosedived on one of those mossy patches. Then I saw an old, rundown outbuilding. This, she told me, was it.
No. JUST NO. Standing before me was an old spring house, which, after a quick peek inside, held not the least bit of magic in my estimation. I simply couldn’t imagine any self-respecting fairy, gnome, or other netherworld creature living there.
Curious, I went online to see if I could learn about the structure’s history. The spring house was built by Louis E. Voorhees as part of a mountain retreat. Perhaps fairies did indeed frolic there once upon a simpler time, and maybe even played sneaky games with his larder. Looking at it in its current state of disrepair, though, I would place odds on the fact they had long since vacated the premises.
Here’s the thing—magicalness abounds if we invite it to the party! And it’s not limited to any one place because some book or website says that’s where it’s found.
Let me tell you: Enchantment reigned supreme in late September when my equally imaginative sister Debbie and I ventured out along the Middle Prong Trail in Tremont. We had walked a little over a mile when we came to a weather-worn, moss-lined bridge sitting slightly tilted over a gently trickling creek. In the instant our eyes fell upon it, we looked at each other and said, in tandem, trolls most certainly live there. I’m not sure I could have loved anyone more in that moment. Being our mother’s daughters, we envisioned the foul-tempered troll from the Norwegian fairy tale Three Billy Goats Gruff living somewhere beneath that bridge.
The magicalness swirled around us, holding us in its joyful, childlike embrace as we explored it further. Laughter brought with it a burst of energy for the rest of the journey. I noticed, too, the lines on my face softened, all while my body grew lighter. I felt renewed.
I invite you to use the Smokies to find and embrace your own version of magicalness—for yourself, for your children, for your grandchildren. The key, I believe, is simply letting go, disregarding, at least for a short time, what you believe you know. The only thing you need to do is say, “YES.” Nature, and your imagination, will gladly help with the rest.