Head toward the light 

Worms make Alabama's Dismals Canyon glow

My friend Steven was turning 30, so what better place to go than the Dismals?

However, if I was looking to impress upon him the crushing despair of broken dreams known as the 30th birthday, I failed. Who could have known that the Dismals Canyon is actually a pretty happy place? Situated in northwestern Alabama near Phil Campbell (that's a town, not a guy by the side of the road), the Dismals is an oddity in a number of ways. Ancient earthquakes waffled the terrain into an almost impenetrable maze of boulders and sheer rock. For as long as anyone knew, the only entrance to the place was a 16-inch-wide crevice known as "Fat Man's Misery." It wasn't until contemporary times that one of the canyon's owners built a stairway of wooden planks from the lip of the canyon down, allowing the hefty and robust access to the canyon at last.

Due to its relative isolation, wildlife no longer found anywhere nearby still flourishes in the canyon. Many of the plants and trees are exotic enough to lend the place a primeval air. There's even a pair of giant, centuries-old hemlocks, hundreds of miles from their normal contemporary range.

But the real stars of the Dismals are the glowing worms that infest the canyon walls. These have been known to swarm forth and skeletonize unsuspecting hikers in seconds. Ha! Just joking, of course. The worms only eat the brains of their victims.

No, really, there are glowing worms in the Dismals, though they're actually harmless (as far as we know). The worms are colloquially known as the "Dismalites," and they only exist in a couple of other pockets on the planet, and nowhere else in North America. "Dismalite" is a much better moniker than the critter's actual name, which is "fungus gnat" (or Arachnocampa luminosa). The tiny worms are the larval stage of the gnat, and they glow in order to attract other mites and flies to capture and eat.

The canyon is privately owned, not a public park, but it's run much like a public facility. However, we'd heard that the owner is a bit on the crotchety side; so, when we visited, we made sure that one of the sweet young gals in our party did all the talking. Presto, we had a reservation at the apocalyptically named "Bringing Down the Sun." There was even a gift basket of cheese, crackers, Italian sausage and pink chablis. Just like home!

There are only two cabins (the other is "Bringing Up the Moon") and a scattering of campsites. The whole property is not huge -- just about 40 acres in all, with a 1.5-mile trail looping through the canyon itself. However, the Dismals are off the beaten track and still relatively unknown, so crowds are minimal to nonexistent.

The setup was perfect, as it allowed us to pack the cabin with rowdies and hooligans to celebrate the aforementioned birthday. In fact, we were too distracted to make the nightly guided tour to see the glowing worms. Not to be denied, a small detachment of us flouted the rules and stole down into the canyon in the wee hours past midnight (despite being in no condition to walk a straight line, much less clamber over a suspension bridge). Given the worm hype, we were fully prepared to be underwhelmed. Then, we thought, we'd mask our disappointment with droll city-slicker cynicism.

Unfortunately for all the sarcastic bon mots I had prepared, the worms blew us away. Due to all the overhanging rock and trees, the canyon is extremely dark even under a clear night sky. And all we had to guide the way was a blue halogen keychain light (masterful planning on our part). As we picked our way down the wooden staircase, I looked down and saw a few tiny spots of light below. I pointed them out, and we all stared over the railing. Kind of neat, but not terribly impressive. Then I glanced at the rock face opposite, and erupted in amazed profanity. Soon, the others followed suit.

There were thousands of the worms on most every rocky

surface. They're small -- millimeters long at most -- and their individual light is dim enough that it would take low-light film to capture. However, in the pitch-blackness of the canyon, they're perceived collectively as an unwinking field of stars. Their light is bluish and constant; they don't blink or twinkle like some other glowing bugs.

There followed a headlong rush into the canyon's labyrinth, with each turned corner bringing us up short with another luminous tableaux. The spectral atmosphere worked wonders on our addled brains, and we couldn't stop jabbering at how surprisingly cool it all was. We eventually managed to make it back to the cabin, and spent the next day exploring the Dismals by daylight. While not as spooky under the sun, the canyon is still a very pretty place for a hike.

We even came back the following night for the guided tour. Steven, perhaps feeling teacherly due to his now advanced age, spent a long time instructing our guide on how to properly pronounce "bioluminescence." Though the tour lacked the spontaneity and guilty pleasure of our midnight raid, I'm pleased to report that sobriety didn't make the Dismalites any less impressive.



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