Tuesday, November 02, 2010

the elkmont series: the wonderland hotel

I can't remember the year it was when I discovered Elkmont, in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, but I was instantly in love with the place. The river, the forest, and the abandoned hotel and cabins that you walk past on your way to several trails that are possibly my most favorite hiking trails in the world.

I was alone the time I first found the place, and did not have a camera. But I did have a notebook and a pen, and I sat down many times that day to make notes and to soak in the history and the ambiance of this place.

If you read the sign in the first photograph here, you'll get a quick history of the setting. What you don't get is the absolute sense when there in person of the life that still lingers about the hotel and the cabins. It was so present the first time I visited, and made such a tremendous impression on me, it later took root in my third novel. There is an entire sequence that takes place in Elkmont, and a main character has a reaction that mirrors the one I had - having to do with the presence of spirit there, and how easy it is while walking to tap into the history of the place and its residents.

Although I have been back to Elkmont a number of times since that first visit, I never took photographs. I'm not sure why. Sometimes I don't want to interrupt my full experience of "being" in a place by seeing it through the lens. As a writer I want to see things exactly as they are, the living scene instead of what we capture with a camera.

A couple of years ago the park service made the decision to remove the main building of the Wonderland. I read this online and was absolutely devastated. I had no photographs, and that particular building was the one that felt the most filled with life. Standing in front of it, you could almost see people dancing inside, or leaning on the porch railing, or walking up the series of stone stairways to the front. I felt for awhile that I didn't even want to go back again. Seeing the empty spot where the hotel had been would be too upsetting.

But when we decided to make this trip, I knew Elkmont would be on the itinerary, and that I would have my camera in hand.

When we arrived, I quickly realized there was going to be a problem. The road to the cabins and the main trails was closed off. I parked and went in to ask the rangers what was going on. They said the parking area (which had been quite rustic and often impossible to navigate) was being redone to accommodate not only more visitors, but handicapped visitors. They told me the lodge and one of the cabins had been restored, and they were hoping that one by one, the rest would be repaired enough that they don't continue to deteriorate. This is good news, but not for us - we were leaving the area the next morning and would not get to see any of my favorite place.

I had a moment of frustration but quickly regrouped. The kids and I decided to make the best of it, and park so we could walk by the river which parallels the road into Elkmont. As we drove back in that direction, I realized the old fire road was actually outside the closed off area. Following my rule about not asking if you don't want to be told no, we parked and hiked up the fire road as we have done many other times. Few people ever take this hike, so we were the only ones on the trail.

The fire road is one way to approach the Wonderland - but since the Wonderland had been torn down, I wasn't expecting to see anything except empty space. What we discovered is that although they have removed the main building, they did not remove the outbuildings, and they actually left the chimneys of the main building behind. Nature has already repaired the scars of demolition. I had dreaded seeing dirt and piles of rubble, but there were none. The ugly chain link fencing they'd used for years to keep people off the dangerous flooring was gone too. It actually looked more peaceful than I'd ever seen it.

Of course, given what's happened to the main building, I immediately got my camera ready and began to photograph what was left. This series will show some of those shots.

I hope even a few of them reveal the magic, the mystery, and the sense of life I always find when I visit.


Grey Horse Matters said...

It's too bad they couldn't save an restore the main building. I love historic areas and never miss a chance to visit one if I'm in the area where history lives. I like your rule of not asking, it's the same rule I've taught my children over the years.

Like the new look too, very Autumn.

billie said...

I neglected to mention that the main building had burned and sustained fairly extensive fire damage inside. I think at some earlier point they hoped to save it, but it got rained on in the meantime, and went through a mountain winter, so the damage continued to mount - they finally fenced it in to keep people out (liability issues) and that's how it stayed until they tore it down a couple of years ago.

It all had to do with funding. Prior to the designation as a historic site, the park service would have had to foot the entire bill. My understanding about the historic restoration at this point is that while they can get funding to help, the historic designation also puts very strict criteria on how the work must be done and with what materials - which are generally going to be more expensive. So while they now have some access to funding assistance, the bill will be bigger in the end.

I'm actually surprised they managed to restore one cabin and the lodge in this economy - but I hope they manage to get all of the cabins done - they are absolutely charming and deserve to be preserved.

Thanks re: the blog look - I have not got the background quite right but only had a few minutes to make changes yesterday! It was time to reflect the season!