Mysteries of the Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a great place for tourists; millions head there every year for a variety of reasons.  Maybe they’re attending a wedding, having their honey moon, hosting a family reunion, or maybe they just want to see this treasured national park for themselves. It’s a great place to escape the hectic day to day life that people typically have, and just relax and enjoy the nature.  There are tons of activities for them to enjoy, especially if they enjoy hiking, biking, or photography. There’s no doubt that this is a popular place that draws in people like bees to a honey pot.  For the most part, this place is a pleasant, relaxing place where people can allow their worries to melt away while taking in the natural beauty.  Yet… maybe it’s not all sunshine and roses. Perhaps there’s a secret underside to a few of these places.  An underside that draws people in… and doesn’t let them return.  Perhaps these mysterious disappearances have a neat and tidy explanation, or perhaps the park just doesn’t want them to leave! Decide for yourself.

The Smoky Mountain National Park spans across the Tennessee and North Carolina border at the south eastern United States. It covers over 187,000 acres, and is considered to be an old growth forest in the Appalachian Mountains.  It’s often referred to as simply the Smokies. This is partly due to the common fog that envelops the mountains, and can resemble smoke from far away. The Smokies are home to an entire plethora of plants and wildlife – making it one of the most diverse and unique ecosystems in the country! The National Park is the most frequented parks in the country!

Home to over ten million visitors a year, it’s no real shock that some people get lost while out in the wilderness.  Yet, these people are normally found by rescue teams in as little as forty eight hours. The surprising part is the number of people who aren’t found. They seem to simply vanish, leaving no trace that they were ever there.  It’s like they fell off the edge of the earth and are never seen again. For several decades, the Smokies have managed to gain a reputation for the the vast amount of deaths and disappearances that are as strange as they are unexplained.

One of the most repeated and well known cases is that of young Dennis Martin.  He was six years old when his parents decided to go and visit the Smokies.  The date was June 14th, 1969, and it was Father’s Day weekend.  They were in the Smokies as was common – they came annually for the hundreds of different hiking trails and beautiful landscapes.  In this instance, Dennis and his brothers decided to play a prank on their parents.  They had stopped at a  mountain highland grassy meadow along the Appalachian Trail, named Spence Field.  The prank was simple – they would go separate ways, go into the forest, and jump out at the same time in order to startle their parents. It was harmless fun, but sometimes harmless fun can go wrong.

The three older brothers went one direction, and Dennis, the youngest, headed the other way.  He had been picked to go the other way because he was sporting a very vibrant red shirt. Like they had planned, the three who’d gone off in the first direction jumped out at the same time, and startled the adults.  However, Dennis didn’t join them.  They assumed he’d simply missed the cue, and passed the time while expecting him to turn up. It had only been a couple of minutes since they had last seen him, after all.  As time passed, though, Dennis never appeared.

Bill Martin, the boy’s father, went to find Dennis, expecting to find him hiding behind a tree or hidden behind the bushes as he’d been told to by his brothers.  However, a quick inspection of the area offered no sign of Dennis, and no matter how much they called out in the woods, there was no answer.  The family became more worried, and Bill and his father Clyde Martin, went out in opposite directions, heading further and further away from the area the boy had last been seen. They didn’t find anything.  Park rangers were soon told and an extensive search party was quickly put together.  This lasted until late that night when a heavy rain with thunder and lightning forced them to call off the search for the evening. They picked it up again the next day, but still found no trace of Dennis or signs of where he might have gone off to.

In a surprising twist, a while after Dennis had gone missing, a family, the Keys, told the rangers that they’d been hiking about six miles past Spence Field when they heard a boy screaming.  The son of the Key family also said he’d seen movement. He assumed it was a bear or another large animal, but when he saw who it was, it turned out to be a man, carrying something over his shoulder. As ominous as this seemed, paired with Dennis’s disappearance, the park rangers decided that the time frame didn’t fit – the area was just too far apart from Spence Field to really warrant any investigation of the man. It was just too far away.

In the days that followed, the search efforts expanded to hundreds of people looking through the area, searching for the young boy. This included park rangers, locals, the FBI, the National Guard, volunteers, and even psychics. There were bloodhounds called in, and helicopters flew overhead trying to find him.  It quickly became national news.  The boy was used to hiking, and the thought was that he would be found quickly.  However, the weather took a nasty turn and the rains and storms hampered search efforts because of the the thick fogs.  Dennis’s family offered a decent sized cash reward in the case of someone having information on their missing son.

Weeks went by, and hope that Dennis had survived began to die.  There were a few possible leads, including muddy footprints and a set of boys underwear.  However, the chance that the footprints belonged to Dennis was unlikely and the mother said the underwear were not her son’s.

The search went on for several months with no trace of Dennis.  The search parties began to wind down and most people began to believe the boy was dead.  Rumors and theories circulated, including the idea that he’d been kidnapped.  Nobody could come up with a motive for this, though, and it was decided that the timing would have had to be perfect in order for someone to pull it off..  He might have gotten lost, but this too seemed unlikely since he was supposed to stay close enough to jump out and scare his parents.  Why would a six year old boy wander off on his own? Where were the footprints he would have left? Why wouldn’t he have called for help? If an animal dragged him off, how come nobody heard the screams he would have emitted?

In the end, Dennis was never found. No trace of him ever turned up.  His case remains open to this day.  Author and researcher David Paulides had a weird tale: during an interview, he discovered that the during the search for Dennis, the special forces who’d been on scene barely communicated with the rest of the search party.  They worked on their own, and were heavily armed as if they expected to find something bigger than just a missing boy.  Another odd twist was the fact that Agent Jim Rike, the lead FBI investigator on the case committed suicide a few years later.  The reason is unknown.  

Dennis Martin is not the only person to have disappeared in the Smoky Mountains.  On October 8th, 1976, a 16 year old from Knoxville named Trenny Gibson went on a field trip with her schoolmates to the national park alongside her teachers.  The high school students hiked from the parking area to an area called Andrew’s Bald.  They had broken into smaller groups depending on how fast they could walk.  Though it was a common enough trail, it was around three PM when it was noticed that Trenny was missing from her group.  One of the strange things about her disappearance was that she was in a middle group, with hikers both in front of her and behind her.  Yet nobody saw her wander off on her own. On top of that, the trail is very popular and yet there was still no trace of her found. An extensive search was launched and there was never anything found of her.  She seemed to have simply vanished into thin air.

Another weird disappearance happened on September 25th, 1981.  A 58 year old woman named Thelma Pauline Melton, usually referred to as “Polly” by the people who knew her was out hiking with a couple of her friends close to the Deep Creek Campground.  It was a fairly simple trail that Polly had been hiking on for over twenty years.  Because of this, she knew the trail very intimately.  The three of them were hiking a leisurely pace, when Polly turned a bend ahead of her friends and seemed to just fall off the edge of the earth.  Her two friends searched where Polly had just been, but could find nothing to hint at her whereabouts.

Adding to the strangeness of the disappearance, Polly was an overweight woman with high blood pressure that she took medicine for.  It makes no sense how she could get too far ahead of her friends. In fact, they had been teasing her for most of the time for slowing them down! Adding to this, due to her illness and her medication, she did not have a license nor the keys to a car, so she couldn’t have even gotten back to the start of the trail and drove off.  Polly was said to be a well-adjusted and happy woman with many friends and had no discernible reason to want to disappear into the mysterious mountains.

Again, a huge search party was organized to search for Polly.  No sign of her was ever found though. Authorities were baffled, and were unable to even find some tracks that would have been good to follow. Polly had a crack in one of her shoes, which would have made her footprints very distinguishable and distinct from the other hikers who took the same trail.  She is still missing to this very day and absolutely no sign of her was ever even found.

Mountain MistThere are even more strange disappearances that are more recent than that of Dennis and Polly.  In 2008, 51 year old Michael Hearon went out in his four wheel drive truck after saying his goodbyes to his family.  He was supposed to go some land located near their home in Blount County, Tennessee that is actually part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  After he didn’t come home when he said he would, a search was organized and conducted.  They found his truck in a clearing, with the ignition still running.

The mystery only rose from there.  In the immediate area near the truck, there was no clue leading to where Hearon might have gone, or what could have happened to him.  There were no footprints, and no trail through the heavy underbrush.  The dogs brought in for the search could find no scent, and authorities never found any bits of torn clothing, no splatters of blood, no tissue, and no bones.  There was no signs that there could have been a struggle, and it seemed, other than his truck, that Hearon had never been there at all! It seemed as though he had just ceased to exist.  A following search of hundreds of volunteers, and police officers turned up nothing, and a heavy storm and rainfall moved in, and threatened to destroy any evidence that there could have been.

During the month of March of 2012, Derek Lueking, 24, didn’t show up at work and was not answering his cellphone. It was two days later that it was figured out that Derek had checked out of the Microtel Inn and Suites in Cherokee, North Carolina.  This is located right by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  There was video footage on March 17th that proved this, and also showed that he had a backpack on him. That footage is the last anyone saw of Derek.

His family went to look for him immediately and eventually found his car in the parking lot of a nature area called Newfound Gap.  Appropriate authorities searched the car and found an abundance of survival gear, that included a lamp, pocket knife, a pack axe, knife sharpener, a tent, a sleeping bag, granola bars, and a survival belt that contained a multi-tool, flash light, and a fire starter rod.

They also located pages from a military survival manual, and his wallet that had cash in it.  He was clearly prepared for a vacation in the wilderness.  The strange thing was that he’d taken none of his gear with him.  Another strange clue was a note that was found. Derek had written a note that said, ‘Don’t try and follow me.’

Of course, the authorities ignored the note, and attempted to follow him. A huge search party was put together and rangers interviewed campers and hikers in the area, asking if they’d seen Derek, but nothing came from it.  The day had been a sunny and clear Saturday and with an area full of people, it was odd that nobody had seen him at all. This led to the idea that he’d gone off trail and had gotten lost. Nobody could figure out why he would go out alone and leave all his brand new equipment behind.  This was certainly worrying: the trail itself was well-traveled but going off trail into the wilderness greatly decreased his chance of survival, especially without all his tools alongside him.

The search party continued their hunt for him but were ultimately forced to give up the search when they found no clue to where he might have gone.  His family said that his favorite show was Man vs. Wild, in which the host would go out in the wild all alone, with minimal supplies.  There was a long running theory that he decided to emulate his hero from the show and see if he could survive on his wits alone.  Perhaps he wanted to create a more difficult experience, but his family also said that Derek was not a particularly experienced man with the outdoors, so he might have died in his efforts.

Another popular theory is that Derk decided it was time to end his life and went off to end his life.  The family said that he disappeared on the day of his grandfather’s death anniversary.  He was close to his grandfather, so he might have chosen this day as his time to go out with no intention of returning.  This in itself is baffling because of the vast amount of supplies he bought and then left in his car. What was the point of buying it if he wasn’t going to use it?  Another thought is that he decided to scout the trail he was going to take, and was intending to come back and get his gear, but became lost or was mauled by an animal, or even kidnapped.  He remains missing to this day.

There are many more stories about disappearances, and perhaps we will cover them another time.  For now, be aware that if you are hiking in the mountains to keep your protective gear with you and make sure that if you’re with someone, you stay with them.   The Great Smoky Mountains National Park might have had its share of disappearances, but it’s also a great place to go and relax and soak in the nature that the place offers.

Bring your camera, bring your supplies, and bring a buddy. Don’t wander off the trail, and most of all, stay safe! You never know what might happen.