Into the Smokies: Mysteries persist in visitor disappearances

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Photograph overlooking a progression of denseley wooded riges becoming increasingly more shrouded in bluis haze. Low-hanging clouds look like layers of cotton filling the proximate valley bottoms of this vast, undisturbed laandscape.
The western end of Great Smoky Mountains National Park as seen from Foothills Parkway.   Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press 

Four visitors have disappeared without a trace from the Great Smoky Mountains in the last 50 years. Where did they go?

In a lateral move from late-night doom-scrolling, I've grown obsessed with reading about people who have gone missing in national parks. The National Park Service website currently lists ​28 “cold cases”​ ranging from unsolved murders and suspected suicides to just ... gone. No body, nary a footprint or broken branch, no lingering scent for search dogs. Just ​poof​. The silhouette of a life vanishing into mist.

I lie awake at 2, 3, 4 o’clock, hypnotized by the white glow of my phone, trawling abandoned blogs and conspiratorial subreddits for clues. I turn their disappearances over and over in my mind like a piece of quartz, glassy yet opaque, a fogged-up window I can’t quite see through.

Eight of these cold cases are from Yosemite, five are from the Grand Canyon, two are from Shenandoah Valley, and there’s one apiece from Mesa Verde, Crater Lake, Hawai’i Volcanoes, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain and Chiricahua National Monument. Another four are from the Great Smoky Mountains, the wild and tangled backdrop of my east Tennessee home.

I’ve ventured furthest down the rabbit holes of the ones gone missing from the Smokies. Having spent a lot of time in the Park I’m familiar with the trails from which they disappeared. I’ve hiked them myself, one in an oblivious single-file search party of so many other Park visitors. It’s a strange feeling to know that you’ve literally walked along a path which, for someone else, led to … where did it lead?

 
MP Martin
 
Dennis Martin (1969):​6-year-old boy, dark brown eyes and hair, gone missing on Father’s Day weekend. He was playing with other children while on a family outing at the Spence Field area of the Appalachian Trail. Dennis hid behind a bush, planning a sneak attack on the parents, and was never seen again. Search efforts spanning 56 square miles, a grid combed by 1,400 volunteers -- the largest search in the history of the Smokies -- revealed no answers, although one sock and shoe were found. Several years afterward, an illegal ginseng hunter came forward, claiming he had found the skull and other remains of a small boy in the vicinity.
 
MP Gibson
 
Teresa "Trenny" Gibson (1976): ​16-year-old female, 5’3 and 115 pounds with brown hair and brown eyes, last seen wearing a brown plaid jacket, blue jeans and Adidas shoes. She was on a field trip from Bearden High School, with 40 other students and one teacher chaperone, to hike Clingmans Dome to Andrew’s Bald. Students last reported seeing her in the distance, bending over and taking a right turn off the trail. When the group reconvened in the parking lot to go home, Trenny was missing. A can of beer and three cigarette butts were found near the spot where she stepped off the trail, causing speculation that she was abducted in nearly plain view.
 
MP Melton
 
Pauline "Polly" Melton (1981): ​58-year-old female, tall and matronly with glasses and a poof of graying hair, last seen wearing a pink and white blouse, tan slacks and glasses. She and her husband, Bob, wintered in Florida and spent the warmer months in their airstream at Deep Creek Campground with a group of friends. One afternoon Polly set some spaghetti sauce to simmer for dinner and went for a walk on an easy, well-marked trail with two friends, Red and Trula, as she did most days. About an hour in, Polly suddenly picked up the pace and left the women behind. When they called out to her, they said she looked back, laughed and kept going. She never arrived back at the campground.
 
MP Lueking
 
Derek Lueking (2012)​: 24-year-old male with a ½-inch beard and a tattoo of Japanese characters translating to “life” on his chest. He was a fan of survivalist TV shows and bought a bunch of supplies before heading to the Park -- maps, a Gerber ax, a military survival manual, a knife sharpener, a Coleman combination compass and thermometer, 100 feet of paracute cord, a headlamp, a pocket knife, granola bars, an iPod pouch, and a Bear Grylls survival tool pack including a small flashlight, a fire starter and a multi-tool. His white Ford Escape was found at Newfound Gap, but he’d left much of the supplies in the car, including his tent and sleeping bag. Also a note that read, “Don’t follow me.” Derek’s family maintains a Facebook page dedicated to finding him, last updated in November 2020: “As you slip farther and farther away, we miss you still.”
 

The details of each disappearance have been outlined by others in harrowing detail, and for each one a multiplicity of theories abound about what may have happened. They range from plausible tragedy, both of the natural and manmade variety, to the paranormal stuff of late night a.m. radio shows.

I don’t believe in Bigfoot but I do appreciate a good uncanny coincidence. One of the Park’s missing persons, Polly Melton, disappeared on the same day that I was born: September 25, 1981. As a result I feel a sort of kinship with this woman who faded into the ether just as I was gasping my first breath.

It was a Friday. Warm but cloudy. Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in as the first female justice of the Supreme Court. A John Belushi rom-com was released in theaters. The Rolling Stones began a 40-city world tour. I came into the world. Polly disappeared.

People go into the woods for many reasons. From what I’ve read Polly suffered bouts of depression, especially since the death of her mother two years before. Friends say she struggled with her weight and other physical consequences of aging -- by all accounts, she’d been very beautiful as a young woman. Bob, her third husband following two divorces, was 20 years her senior and in poor health. Polly had revealed to her pastor that she was heavily dependent on valium and made some comments he interpreted as guilt about an extramarital affair.

There were, in all these missing persons cases, a fistful of loose ends. For Polly, there were the uncharacteristic phone calls she made from the food pantry where she volunteered the day before. Who was she calling, and why? The bottle of valium that Bob later discovered missing. Did she take it all, or just take it with her? The check cashed in her name several years later, ​for interest due on a bank certificate. The signature appeared to be Polly’s, but the teller had no recollection of her face. ​Whether Polly’s vanishing was an accident, a suicide or a calculated ruse to run away with a lover, it was almost certainly an escape.

Disappearing into the lives of the disappeared is its own sort of escape, I guess. The static buildup of white noise in modern life overwhelms -- the endless social media scroll, the 24/7 fever pitch of the news cycle, the ticker tape death toll of a ruthless pandemic, the whirring din of a president who won’t shut up.

If great outdoors mysteries fascinate you, we recommend for further reading:

Project SNOW storm's A Long, Long Way from a Mickey D story about how modern technology solves long-pondered secrets of a furtive species’ life history. Coincidentally, its writer crossed the tracks of Hugh Glass, who survived getting mauled by a bear and left for dead in the wilderness — 200 years ago.

A new hypothesis about the 1959 Dyatlov Pass Incident in the Ural mountains is based on research funded by Disney for the production of its 2013 film Frozen. Two excellent articles set forth many known facts and pictures, along with illustrations of what might have happened to nine very experienced snow hikers. They were discovered naked and frozen near their tent, which appeared to have been slashed from inside.

We list both articles here because they may require registration or subscription to view in full. You might find them in a library, though, or perhaps you can borrow the respective magazine from a friend who has a hardcopy subscription.

Smithsonian Magazine: Have Scientists Finally Unraveled the 60-Year Mystery Surrounding Nine Russian Hikers’ Deaths?

National Geographic: Has science solved one of history’s greatest adventure mysteries? (this online version includes fantastic animations!)

People go into the woods for many reasons. From what I’ve read Polly suffered bouts of depression, especially since the death of her mother two years before. Friends say she struggled with her weight and other physical consequences of aging -- by all accounts, she’d been very beautiful as a young woman. Bob, her third husband following two divorces, was 20 years her senior and in poor health. Polly had revealed to her pastor that she was heavily dependent on valium and made some comments he interpreted as guilt about an extramarital affair.

There were, in all these missing persons cases, a fistful of loose ends. For Polly, there were the uncharacteristic phone calls she made from the food pantry where she volunteered the day before. Who was she calling, and why? The bottle of valium that Bob later discovered missing. Did she take it all, or just take it with her? The check cashed in her name several years later, ​for interest due on a bank certificate. The signature appeared to be Polly’s, but the teller had no recollection of her face. ​Whether Polly’s vanishing was an accident, a suicide or a calculated ruse to run away with a lover, it was almost certainly an escape.

Disappearing into the lives of the disappeared is its own sort of escape, I guess. The static buildup of white noise in modern life overwhelms -- the endless social media scroll, the 24/7 fever pitch of the news cycle, the ticker tape death toll of a ruthless pandemic, the whirring din of a president who won’t shut up.

What must it feel like to draw a chalk outline around your life then stand up, step out of it, walk away or vanish completely.

Sometimes, half-conscious and exhausted from another midnight stretch of insomnia-induced amateur sleuthing, my own thoughts come unmoored and I slip into the bodies of the disappeared. I stare up at the stars through a black canopy of old growth forest, my heart shot through with the crisp wonder of being simultaneously somewhere and nowhere. Here and yet gone.

Moonlight collects on waxy magnolia leaves. I hear a rushing stream somewhere nearby, an owl, a coyote. In this liminal space between waking and sleep my breath hangs frozen in the air -- irrefutable proof submitted by my subconscious that I do still exist. And for that, when my eyes flutter open a few hours later, I’ll be grateful.

In memory of my first editor, Hellbender Press co-founder Rikki Hall,
who went missing from our lives in 2014.
Wherever he is, I hope there are mountains.

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