Most of the hiking-related books I own are strictly guide books. They help me find interesting hikes, and provide historical and geographical information. Sometimes I purchase thru hiking memoirs, and sometimes I purchase ‘how-to’ or survival guides. For Christmas my parents gave me Death in the Great Smoky Mountains by Michael Bradley. This is not a typical purchase for me, but I was happy to check out something new. At 183 pages (not including the introduction) this is a quick, enjoyable read about deaths, disappearances, and survival in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It included airplane crashes, bear attacks, weather-related incidents, drownings, and unsolved disappearances. It sounds morbid, but it is not. I absorbed information about all of the people who had unfortunate incidents in this great mountain range, giving context to many notable trails, summits, and historical sites. Another thing I enjoyed is the detail Michael Bradley goes into about the park search and rescue operations and how they’ve changed over the years. This aspect of each incident was probably my favorite part. The book describes ordeals park rangers and other personnel go through to find a missing person. Much of the book is also about survival, giving an optimistic contrast to the title of the book. It is not just about death, it is also about how some people survive. I definitely recommend this book if you’re looking for something different about the Great Smoky Mountains.
The book is divided into chapters, typically 10-15 pages. There is an introduction at the beginning about the Great Smoky Mountains and its national park origins. The first few chapters follow a general timeline, starting with some of the earliest known recorded incidents in the mountain range. As you progress in the book doesn’t go in exact order of year. The chapters involving incidents during modern times are grouped together by the type of situation, more or less. This provides a convenient compare and contrast for how missing persons responded to a dire situation. When a chapter focuses on a certain type of situation (e.g. solo hiker getting lost), it usually present 3 or more hikers that had similar situations. I think this is a much better way of presenting the stories of the individuals rather than sticking to a strict timeline.
Types of Incidents
The first few deaths or disappearances occurred more than a century ago before modern communications and before the national park was established. Once the national park was established in 1934 there seems to be more thorough information about each death or incident, but that also coincides with an uptick in tourism after the park was established. More hikers = more possibilities for accidents. I was surprised by the variety of incidents in the park. There was a whole chapter dedicated to military-related plane crashes during World War II. There are disappearances where bodies are found, or bodies are never found and the mystery still remains. Many of the chapters are grouped by similar incidents. For example, one chapter focuses on solo hikers getting lost and another chapter focuses on groups getting lost. Often within these chapters there are wildly different responses by the hikers. Their responses determine whether they make it out alive or not. This book does not only focus on death and disappearance, something I appreciated. Some chapters are solely about survival, providing an uplifting tale in contrast to the title of the book. There are many stories of hikers who are rescued either by being smart or being lucky. This book does a great job highlighting how search and rescue operations are affected by the choices of the hikers. It reinforces information I’ve read in countless guide books and survival guides. If you’re in a bad situation, stay put or quickly find the nearest trail/landmark/shelter and stay put.
What did I want more/less of?
I would’ve liked more stories about search and rescue operations and how they function, and hikers who made it out safely because of the rescue personnel. In general I found this more interesting than some of the deaths, although maybe the contrast between the deaths and the rescues is necessary to maintain interest. The book is short as I’ve already noted, so I wouldn’t have minded another 100 pages of material. It is possible that this is the full scope of material from the park and any additions would be filler.
Do I recommend it?
If you’re an outdoorsman interested in the history of the North Carolina or Tennessee mountains I think you’ll love Death in the Great Smoky Mountains. I also think anyone who is tired of generic information about Great Smoky Mountains National Park in every hiking book published will enjoy this tangent. The accidents, disappearances, and search and rescue operations give context and enrich your next hiking experience in our beloved national park.
About the Author
Michael R. Bradley has taught U.S. History at Motlow College in Lynchburg, Tennessee, since 1970. He has hiked and camped in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for more than forty-five years. He is the author of It Happened in the Revolutionary War, It Happened in the Civil War, and It Happened in the Great Smokies.
**Disclosure – Zachary Robbins received this book as a gift**