Vanished into Thin Air at the Great Smoky Mountains

Every year millions of people flock to national parks and wilderness areas to enjoy the great outdoors. Here people come to escape the stresses of their hectic modern life, enjoy outdoor activities, and take in the majestic scenery. Yet some of these places seem to have a sinister underbelly, seemingly hungry to pull in people who venture into these wilds and make sure they never return. One place that has long married spectacular nature with baffling disappearances is a mountain range on the east coast of the United States of America, which possesses vast natural vistas, thousands of miles of famous hiking trails, and the most visited national park in the country. It is also is home to ominous mysteries and strange vanishings that continue to remain unsolved to this day.

Sprawled out along the Tennessee–North Carolina border in the southeastern United States, covering a vast expanse that includes 187,000 acres (76,000 ha) of old growth forest is a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains called the Great Smoky Mountains, also known as the Smoky Mountains or simply the Smokies, due to the frequent fog that covers the mountains here and which looks like smoke from a distance. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Great Smoky Mountains are home to a wide array of plants and animals, one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America, and the popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is the most visited national park in the United States.

The Great Smoky Mountains

With around 10 million visitors annually, it is perhaps no surprise that some people may get lost in the wilderness here, and many are, but they are typically located by dedicated rescue efforts within 48 hours. What is surprising is just how many people have come to visit only to seemingly step off the face of the earth and never be seen again. Indeed, for decades these mountains have steadily accrued a rather sinister reputation for a number of mysterious disappearances and deaths that are often as bizarre as they are unexplained.

Perhaps the most well-known, oft-discussed, and indeed stranger of vanishings in the Great Smoky Mountains is the disappearance of 6-year old Dennis Martin. On June 14, 1969, Father’s Day weekend, the boy’s family was out on a camping and hiking trip they took every year in the Great Smoky Mountains. On this day, the family had stopped off at a grassy mountain highland meadow and popular stop-off point along the Appalachian Trail know as Spence Field. As the adults sat out on the grass chatting, Dennis, his brother, and two other boys on the trip thought it would be amusing to play a prank on their parents. They decided that they would split up, go out into the woods, and then simultaneously jump out from different directions to startle the adults in what was meant to be just harmless fun.

Three of the boys went one way and Dennis, who was the youngest, went the other. The reason he had been chosen to be on his own was that he was wearing a highly visible bright red shirt. Just as planned, the three older boys jumped out and scared the adults, but then the men asked where Dennis was. Since the other boys had seen him just a few minutes earlier, they assumed that he had merely missed his cue and so they waited for him to jump out of the trees as well, but he never appeared.

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Dennis Martin

Dennis’ father, Bill Martin, went out to get his son, expecting that he would be there hiding in the bushes as he had been instructed, but an immediate search of the area showed no signs of the boy, and calls into the woods went unanswered. Increasingly worried, Bill and Dennis’ grandfather, Clyde Martin, hiked out in different directions farther and farther from the place where the boy had last been seen and still they found nothing. Park Rangers were notified and a search was launched that would last until nightfall, when heavy rain began to come down along with thunder, which hampered efforts to find the boy and the search was called off until the following day with still no trace of where Dennis had gone off to.

In a rather ominous twist, a mere hours after Dennis had gone missing a family named the Keys reported that they had been hiking around 6 miles from Spence Field when they had heard a boy’s scream. The son also claimed to have seen movement in a bush which he at first had thought to be a bear, but turned out to be a man walking in the woods with something apparently slung over his shoulder. As spooky as this may seem, authorities determined that the location was too far away from Spence Field to have possibly have anything to do with Dennis within the time frame of events.

In the following days the search efforts would quickly grow in size to hundreds of people scouring the area, including park rangers, locals, volunteers, the FBI, National Guard, and even Green Berets and psychics, along with bloodhounds and helicopters, and meanwhile the news of the disappearance had started making major national headlines. Since Dennis was described as a robust, healthy boy with plenty of hiking experience it was thought that he was alive and would be found in short order, but continuing heavy rains flooding roads, as well as thick fogs, made efforts difficult. For their part, Dennis’s parents posted a hefty reward for any information leading to finding their son.

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As the weeks went by, hope that the missing boy had survived dwindled. A few possible traces of the boy turned up in the form of small footprints and a pair of boy’s underwear found in the woods near Spence field, but it was determined that the possibility that the footprints were linked to Dennis was remote, and Dennis’ mother said the underwear did not belong to her son.

The search would stretch on for months with no trace of the boy found, although the manpower behind efforts had withered away considerably, and it was largely assumed by frustrated authorities that he was likely dead. Rumors and theories swirled as to what could have become of Dennis Martin. One idea was that he had been kidnapped, but no one could figure out a motive for such a thing nor who could have orchestrated it with such perfect timing. He also may have gotten lost, but this seems odd considering he was meant to wait right near the field and pop out to surprise the adults. Why would he have wandered off, and why wouldn’t he leave any tracks or indeed any sign of where he had gone? Indeed, why wouldn’t he have called out for help? Yet another theory was that he might have been suddenly attacked and dragged off by some wild animal, but again why hadn’t he called out for help and where were the tracks?

In the end, Dennis Martin was never found, and absolutely no trace of him has ever turned up. His odd case remains open to this day. Over the years, some bizarre details of the case have turned up. Author and researcher David Paulides, most well-known for his investigations into mysterious disappearances and his series of books on the matter, The Missing 411, interviewed author Dwight McCarter, author of Lost!: A Ranger’s Journal of Search and Rescue, who had a strange tale to tell about the Martin case. McCarter claimed that during the search for Dennis, the special forces units that had been called in had barely communicated at all with authorities, rangers, or civilian searchers, instead working on their own, as if they had their own agenda, and that they had been heavily armed as if expecting something big to happen. What could this mean? Another weird detail is that the lead FBI investigator on the case, an Agent Jim Rike, later committed suicide for unknown reasons.

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Dennis Martin is joined by a long list of people who have vanished without a trace under mysterious circumstances in the Great Smoky Mountains. On Oct. 8, 1976, a 16-year-old high school sophomore from Knoxville named Trenny Lynn Gibson was on a field trip to the national park along with 40 of her classmates. The students were hiking from the parking area towards a spot called Andrew’s Bald, and had separated into smaller groups based on how fast they could walk during the hike. It was a well travelled route, yet at some point during the hike, at around 3PM in an area just below Clingmans Dome, it was noticed that Gibson was no longer with her group, and had somehow become separated from them or had wandered off. It was odd considering that she had been with other people and there had been groups of students both in front of them and behind, as well as other hikers, who had not seen her actually go off on her own. Additionally, the area is very popular with hikers, is far from remote, and there are a lot of people around, yet no one had seen Gibson anywhere. Despite an intensive search, no sign of Trenny Gibson was ever found. She simply vanished right under everyone’s noses.

Another strange disappearance occurred on September 25, 1981, when 58-year-old Thelma Pauline Melton, often called “Polly” by her friends, was hiking with two of her friends near the Deep Creek Campground. It was an easy trail that Melton had been hiking for 20 years, so she knew the lay of the land intimately, yet as they were hiking at a leisurely pace she rounded a bend in front of her friends and seemingly stepped off the face of the earth. Her friends searched the area where Melton had been just moments before, but could find no sign of where she had gone. Making the whole scene even more bizarre was that Melton was overweight, and suffered from high blood pressure and nausea for which she took medication, making it bizarre that she could have gotten so far away from her friends so fast. In fact, Melton’s friends had been playfully teasing her about her slow pace not long before she vanished. Additionally, her medical condition had gotten her barred from driving at the time and she had no keys with which she could have driven away. She had also been a happy and well-adjusted individual with no discernable reason to want to vanish.

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Again, a massive search was launched, but no sign of Melton could be found. Authorities were unable to even get a good set of tracks to follow, which would have made things easier considering Melton’s left shoe had apparently had a noticeable crack in the sole which would have made her tracks distinguishable and easy to differentiate from those of other hikers. Nevertheless no trace of Polly Melton has ever been found and she remains missing.

There are other strange disappearances in the mountains here that are even more recent. In 2008, 51-year-old Michael Hearon waved goodbye to his family and went out in his 4-wheel-drive truck to some forestland near their home in Blount County, Tennessee, which lies within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When the man did not return home as scheduled, a search was conducted and Hearon’s truck was found in a clearing, with the ignition oddly still turned to the “on” position, and the mystery would only deepen from there.

In the vicinity of the truck there could be found no trace of where Hearon could have gone or what had become of him. No footprints could be found, nor any trail through the dense underbrush that he could have used to go off on his own. Additionally, dogs could not pick up a scent and authorities could find no torn bits of clothing, no blood or tissue, no bones, no sign of a struggle, and indeed no sign that Hearon had ever even been there at all. It was as if he had just spontaneously ceased to exist. An ensuing search involved hundreds of volunteers and police officers, which faced heavy rains that moved in and threatened to erase any evidence there might be to find. None ever was, and Hearon seems to have vanished into thin air.

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In March of 2012, a 24-year-old man named Derek Joseph Lueking failed to turn up for work, and calls to his cell phone went unanswered. 2 days later it was determined that Derek had checked out of the Microtel Inn and Suites in Cherokee, NC, near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on March 17, with surveillance video of him wearing a backpack to prove it. The video footage would be the last time anyone would ever see Derek Lueking.

The family went out looking for him that same day, and managed to locate Derek’s car by chance in the parking lot of a nature area called Newfound Gap. Authorities found in the abandoned car an impressive wealth of newly purchased survival gear, including a pack axe, compass, lamp, pocket knife, knife sharpener, tent, sleeping bag, 100’ of black parachute cord, granola bars, and a survival belt containing a multi-tool, flashlight, and fire starter rod. There was also found in the car pages from a military survival manual, and Lueking’s wallet and cash. He had obviously been well prepared for a trip into the wilderness, but strangely he had not taken any of this stuff with him. Another eerie clue was a note that Leuking had left behind in the car that simply said “Don’t try to follow me.”

Despite the note, authorities certainly did try to follow him. An intensive search was launched of the area, and rangers interviewed campers and hikers in the vicinity on whether they had seen Lueking, but no one had. It was strange, since it had been a sunny and clear Saturday and the area full of people engaged in outdoor activities, yet no one could recall seeing the missing man, leading authorities to speculate that he may have gone off trail and gotten lost, but they could not figure out why he would have done that minus all of his shiny new equipment. This was worrying, because although the trail itself was well travelled, off trail led into thick wilderness, decreasing Leuking’s chances for survival. One ranger said at the time:

We would have felt better if he had bought all this gear and brought it with him. In this case, he made preparations, but he didn’t follow through.

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Derek Joseph Lueking

Authorities unsuccessfully continued their search and were baffled as to why he would have gone out on his own without his equipment or why he had gone out to the park to begin with. Derek’s family claimed that he had been a big fan of the TV show of Man vs. Wild, in which host Bear Gryllis gets left out in the wilderness by himself, with little to no gear, to find his way back to civilization while surviving off the land and his wits. This has led authorities to speculate that he may have been trying to emulate Gryllis and this could have been why he had suddenly decided to leave his own equipment behind; to make things more challenging like in the show. However, according to his family, Derek was not himself particularly experienced with the outdoors, so he may have perished in his efforts.

Another theory is that Derek went off to commit suicide. The family has stated that the day he disappeared was the one year anniversary of the death of his grandfather, with whom he had been close, so maybe he had gone off with no intention of coming back. The problem with this idea is that if he was planning to kill himself, why go through all of the effort to buy so much new survival gear? Other ideas include that he went out to scout out the trail, planning to come back for his gear and somehow getting lost on the way, or that he was attacked by a wild animal or kidnapped. Derek Lueking remains missing without a trace.

Another recent disappearance is also in its own way rather strange, as the person in this case keeps popping up in unconfirmed sightings, like some sort of cryptid. On June 5th of 2014, a man who would later be identified as Paul D. Paur walked into the Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center and offered $200 to the clerk if she would watch his car for him. When the clerk asked how long he’d be gone, the man replied that he would be away for 4 to 6 months. And so begins the bizarre tale of Mr. Paur.

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A few days after this strange meeting, some hikers came across a backpack lying right in the middle of the trail, as if carefully placed there, only around a quarter of a mile from the center. The pack looked like it hadn’t been moved for a while and it was turned over to authorities. Inside of the pack was found an array of gear, including hiking boots, tent, and sleeping bag, as well as a GPS system, a GoPro camera, and $3,000 in cash. There was also a wallet with the man’s ID card, which identified him as 50-year-old construction worker Paul D. Paur. An interview with Paur’s girlfriend suggested that the man had been having some mental health issues, and she also told them that he had been musing about taking “a sabbatical.” She also said that he had withdrawn $5,000 shortly before he had gone missing. A Sergeant Darren Osborn, of the Union County Sheriff’s Office, said of the situation:

His girlfriend was very concerned. He had prepared for a hike, but he just left it all behind. What made it even more strange was the $3,000 he left in his backpack.

Authorities began putting up flyers asking for any information on Paur’s whereabouts, and also warning hikers not to approach him and that he might be suicidal. Over the next few days, reports began to trickle in from hikers who claimed to have come across a man hiking by himself wearing the quite inappropriate hiking attire of khaki shorts, a t-shirt, and flip flops, who they said slept inside of a plastic bag. Those who talked to him said that the strange man told them he was planning to hike 2,000 miles north to Mount Katahdin, in Maine. The man was thought to be Paur, and he was spotted several times along different stretches of the Appalachian Trail. One witness even claimed to have shared his shelter with him, and claimed that Paur often read the New Testament and spoke of “finding God in the pathway of the mountains.” Other witnesses also spoke of him rambling about religion.

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A flyer for the missing Paur

Authorities began searching all along the trail where Paur had been sighted, interviewing hikers, campers, hostels, and national park employees, but the man remained elusive. In the meantime, sightings kept coming in. On June 17, he was spotted 100 miles from where he had started, at Wesser Bald, in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. In this case, the witness claimed to have talked with Paur for several hours, and that he had been carrying a black duffel bag and some pots.

Even now, long after his 4 to 6 month goal, occasional sightings of the wayward man crop up, with a more recent account stating that he is barefoot, and he has achieved somewhat of an almost mythical celebrity status among the hiking community on the Appalachian Trail. The whole case is a strange one to be sure. Why did he leave all of his gear behind, along with his hiking boots, and venture out in flip-flops and a t-shirt? Why did he go to begin with? Where did he go? No one knows. It is unclear what has become of Paul D. Paur or if he ever made it to his destination. Despite the ongoing sightings, authorities have never been able to actually locate Paur, and he remains officially missing.

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While many of these baffling disappearances remain unsolved and the fates of those involved an enigma, some missing person cases in the region reach tragic conclusions while even then still retaining an air of mystery. One widely reported such case is that of 62-year-old Jenny Bennett. The avid writer, hiker and outdoorswoman was extremely experienced in the outdoors, and was known for her vast, intimate knowledge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, having conquered even the remotest and most inaccessible areas. She was also known for being extremely determined and tenacious. A frequent hiking partner of Bennett’s, a Chris Sass, said of her:

She was absolutely devoted to off-trail exploration in the Smokies, and made trips almost every weekend. She had a moderate fear of heights but enjoyed facing and overcoming that fear: I’ve been with her on harrowing cliff faces and towering waterfalls. She would doggedly plunge through the thickest and most punishing vegetation in pursuit of her destination. At the conclusion of an outing, her clothes would often be torn, and she would be dirty, bruised, scratched, bleeding—and smiling ear-to-ear.

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Jenny Bennett

On June 1 of 2015, Bennett failed to make an appointment with movers who were to help her relocate from Sylva, North Carolina to Vermont in order to be closer to her sister, Betsy. For 6 days Bennett could not be located and was declared missing by authorities. On June 8, Bennett’s abandoned car was found at the Porters Creek trailhead, and the next morning her body was found in the creek near a remote campsite in the Greenbrier area of the park. It was surmised that she had planned to take one last hike along Porters Creek, an area she knew very well and often frequented, before her move.

It was all a little bizarre because Bennett knew the area so well and it should have been a routine hike. The area of the Porters Creek Trail where the body was found was furthermore considered to be a relatively tame area, even boring by hiker standards, compared to what the woman had braved on many occasions before. It also could not be determined at first what the cause of death could be. She had been found sitting upright against a rock in shallow water, as if she had simply reclined there to rest, and although she had minor bruises consistent with a fall, there was no apparent sign of serious injury. The only thing authorities could do was rule out being attacked by a predator and foul play.

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It would be another 3 months before autopsy reports would finally be released and determine the cause of death. The coroner had concluded that Jenny Bennett’s injuries had indeed not been life threatening, and that she had ultimately died of environmental hypothermia brought about by her partial immersion in and exposure to the frigid water of the creek, in combination with a toxic level of the antihistamine and sleep aid diphenhydramine, although it could not be determined if the overdose was intentional. Friends and family were also skeptical that she would want to commit suicide, as she had seemed well-adjusted and looking forward to her coming move and further hikes she had wanted to embark on. In the end, the details behind Bennett’s death are still murky and the case still largely remains unresolved. Jenny’s brother, Peter Bennett, has said of the whole mysterious incident:

Details of what actually happened to Jenny are unclear. The Park Service launched an investigation after her body was found, but they still don’t know everything. It is likely that we will never really know what happened. We do know that Jenny died in her favorite place in the world, the beautiful Smoky Mountains.

If Bennett did indeed commit suicide, then it would fit in with statistics that show national parks seem to draw in those who wish to end their own lives. A 2010 report was released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that had tracked the suicide rate in 84 national parks from 2003 to 2009. It was found that there had been a total of 194 suicides, along with 92 unsuccessful attempts, and that mostly these were carried out with firearms, jumping from high places, or drug overdose. Does this lie at the heart of these mysterious disappearances? Are these people going off to erase themselves while intentionally making it so that they are never found?

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The Great Smoky Mountains are not even the only major national park where inexplicable vanishings have occurred, and it seems that these wild places have a habit of swallowing people up without a trace, many of whom were experienced in the outdoors, and often under decidedly bizarre circumstances. This topic has most famously been investigated by David Paulides in his series of books called The Missing 411, which go into great depth reporting on the myriad mysterious disappearances within national parks in the United States which seem to defy all rational or logical explanations. Examples include people disappearing practically right under the noses of nearby friends or family, bodies turning up without shoes or proper outdoor clothing, children who have gone missing only for their bodies to turn up in inaccessible areas where they could not possibly have climbed to on their own, belongings left behind often neatly folded or arranged, bodies that have turned up in areas that have already been thoroughly searched, and people who have disappeared without leaving a single scrap of evidence behind; just as we have seen in many of the cases outlined here.

Paulides has pointed out the spooky detail that among the over 1400 cases that he has investigated that meet these criteria, most of them appear to have happened in clusters within national parks, and he also frequently laments the curious lack of cooperation shown by authorities and park services in his efforts to try to get to the bottom of it all, leading him to think that the government is somehow complicit in covering these vanishings up. Paulides also claims to have found other ominous patterns to these disappearances, such as that many of these disappearances seem to happen near bodies of water, that with bodies which are found the cause of death is often unclear or difficult to determine, that there is a lack of tracks, and that search dogs often cannot pick up the scent. Often people who were with the missing explain that they just happened to get separated somehow without being able to pinpoint when or how. If you’re paying attention some of these patterns seem to fit with many of the Smoky Mountains cases as well.

So what lies behind these disappearances? As for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it could just be the land itself. As with many other national parks, there is a vast amount of untamed, rugged wilderness out here in which it would be easy for someone to get hopelessly lost to never be found again. There are also many dangers out here, such as sudden drops, flash floods, difficult terrain with poor footing, wild animals, and numerous other perils, even for seasoned hikers. The inaccessibility of the region, combined with the work of the weather, elements and scavengers, also might mean that their remains are never found. Could these cases just be the unfortunate who got lost or injured and were just never found due to the remote wilderness? Or is it perhaps that these people chose to go out into the wilderness to live out their final moments before ending their lives?

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This all may be true in some cases, but then there are the strange clues and patterns surrounding some of these vanishings that make them harder to explain away. This has led to more far-out theories that have encompassed everything from mysterious vortices, earthbound black holes, government conspiracies, Bigfoot attacks, and alien abduction. In the end, no one really knows for sure. Paulides himself hasn’t really settled on any one explanation and remains evasive as to what he thinks is behind it all, although he does implore people to think outside of the box and step outside of their comfort zone when pondering what the culprit might be. He has said on the matter of these sorts of disappearances:

Folks, I have never given you a theory. I have given you a series of facts. What happens if I come out and I tell you, ‘It’s that.’ And then the next day somebody comes out and proves it can’t be that. My credibility is shot.

The Great Smoky Mountains offer up a great amount of natural splendor and invite a large number of people to come here for outdoor activities or to simply to enjoy the view. However, they also offer up a great amount of sinister mystery and invite a large number of people to come here never to return. Are these people merely victims of unfortunate accidents, suicide, or getting lost, or are there more malevolent forces at work? Are there rational explanations for all of these cases or are some of them decidedly more mysterious and menacing? Considering that many are cold cases that may never be solved and that many of those missing will likely remain that way, we may never know. The only ones who know for sure are those who have vanished or died under mysterious circumstances in these wild lands, and they’re not telling.

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