• Jesse Williams, LPC-MHSP

The Chimneys of Elkmont: Shadows of the Past

It never ceases to amaze me the insight that is able to be gained from a walk in the woods. Nature, hiking trails, and forests have endless lessons to share with us if we only make ourselves available.

Lessons can even be found amidst ruins of the past.

On my most recent hike in the GSMNP, I decided to make my way to the Elkmont area and to hike to backcountry site 30 via Cucumber Gap Trail and Little River Trail. On the way to Cucumber Gap Trail, I had to go down Jakes Creek Trail, passing by the multiple chimneys along the trail. Chimneys from the cabins of the past, echoing the glory of a resort town that's now slowly returning to nature.


As I walked down Jakes Creek Trail, it hit me: I'm walking amongst memories of the past. Walking in the shadows of another time. Past monuments that remind us all of days gone by.

I remember the first time I heard about the Elkmont area and the "Ghost Town" resort that was hidden there. About the Wonderland Hotel and Daisy Town. About the abandoned cabins. Millionaire's Row. Society Hill. And I was fascinated with the history of the place and haunted by the pictures that I saw. And I had to go.


And in 2006, I did. I drove up from my home in Louisiana and discovered the chilling remnants of the abandoned resort.

Now, over fourteen years later, I live in East Tennessee and regularly get the honor of visiting Elkmont. But I've seen it change. The last building of the hotel burned down years ago. A few of the cabins were fixed and stabilized. Many others were demolished, with only chimneys remaining to tell the story of the past.


So many changes, and yet, the chimneys remain. And they grabbed my attention on my hike.

Silently remaining: like guardians standing still, protecting the memories of those demolished cabins. They remain in beautiful decay, beckoning us to honor the past and to embrace the beauty of nature. They show us glimpses of what once was. Remaining? Yes. The same? No. They are now adorned with beautiful mosses and ferns that pop out of the cracks. Some are crumbling. Stones are missing; bricks are breaking.


And yet, they are respectable and beautiful in a way that they never were before. In a way that wasn't even possible while they remained whole and new. They are weathered and worn. And yet, in their brokenness, captivating beauty has settled.


In a lot of ways, these chimneys mirror the process of trauma resolution, healing, growth, and empowerment. It mirrors the energy of the archetype Apocolypsis. In short, they show us life after destruction.


How many of you feel as if you used to be a new, fresh cabin that was filled with light and life? Then destruction happened. A fire. A tree fell. Rot set in. Termites wreaked havoc. Trauma happened. You became an uninhabitable and unstable structure. And all that you thought you were had to be torn down and demolished due to the damage.


And you knew that you would never be the same.


But that's not the rest of the story. That's not how the story ends.


Because the chimneys: they're still there.


But in that trauma phase, when all was torn apart, maybe those chimneys thought that it was. Maybe they thought "My newness is gone. My beauty is finished. My life and light are gone. My very being is mostly destroyed. This is my end."


Just like you. Maybe the your trauma happened. Your very idea of who you were had to be destroyed, because it was no longer strong and able to withstand the winds of life. And maybe you thought, "I'll never be who I was again. I'll never recover from this."


And we can't just disregard those thoughts of hopeless times, because they do contain truth. The newness is gone. The beauty has vanished. All feels hopeless. And you will never be who you were again.


The light and life is no where to be found... for a moment.

Your very being is destroyed... for a moment.

Growth is not happening... for a moment.

Recovery seemed hopeless... for a moment.


After the trauma happens, after everything is destroyed-- there is a limbo period. A waiting that occurs between the destruction and growth. A period where all stands perfectly still.


And yet, after the demolition--after the stillness and the silence-- nature begins the healing process. Out of the silence, darkness, and stillness comes life and light.


And now, no one can deny the life and light that surround those chimneys. One look at them on a sunny afternoon will show the beauty that embraces them. Deer walk past. Turkeys explore the grounds. Mushrooms pop up. Vines grow up the sides. Moss covers the moist stones and bricks, vibrant green in the golden afternoon sunlight.


But what about you?


Take some time to admire and look upon your chimneys. What about the shadows of your past that still remain? What part of you was damaged and eventually destroyed? Where is the destruction of what you thought you were?


Then decide what your chimneys look like. Has moss begun growing on those structures? Has natural beauty taken over the ruins of what was, turning into a noteworthy landmark? Something that you can take pride in? Something that--despite what it went through--still has value? Or are you still stuck in that waiting period? Do your chimneys look like they are still stuck wondering where their newness went? Is the destruction still fresh? Is the ground still scorched? Are there still bulldozer marks all over your soul from the destruction that took place? Is the focus still on the broken glass and remnants of rotten wood that are still lying about?


Regardless of how your chimneys look, ask yourself how to honor what remains. How do you honor what you went through? How do you honor that life that was? Maybe that looks like a tattoo. Maybe that looks like journaling. Maybe that looks like reclaiming identity and building the life you always wanted. Maybe that looks like embracing who you now know yourself to be. Maybe that looks like accepting your hurt and your pain and your joy and your excitement and your anger and your love.


And if you are still in that limbo period of waiting between destruction and growth, ask yourself how to get moss to start growing on those structures of the past. How do you find beauty in those ruins? How do you fill those shadows of the past with love and life once more?Maybe that looks like talking with a friend. Maybe that looks like calling a therapist. Maybe that looks like beginning to look at the trauma you went through and allowing yourself to actually feel the experience. Maybe that looks like completing a Medicine Wheel. Let your inner compass guide you into the next steps of your own healing journey. Use your intuition to look at and honor your chimneys, those monuments to your past. Trust yourself. Trust nature. Trust your intuitive, higher self.


And may you find a way to let your chimneys remain, growing in beauty and purpose. May they stand tall for all to see. May you find them filled with life and love that they never thought possible.

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