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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”