In August 1977, a few days before the death of Elvis Presley, my brother Andy and I were backpacking through the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee. I was sixteen and Andy was 19. We'd taken a Greyhound bus from Columbus, Oh to Knoxville, and then a local bus to the entrance of the park. The only things we had with us were our backpacks, US Department of the Interior topographical maps, and our compasses. The plan was to hike through the mountains for two weeks and then we would meet our parents at a village we picked out on the map without knowing anything about it. I doubt any parent would approve such a ramshackle plan these days, but this was before the world seemed such a scary place.
We'd been in the mountains for several days and had gotten off of our pre-approved hiking route (even in 1977 the park was so popular that hikers had to reserve their back country camping spots in advance to avoid overcrowding). It had rained every day of the trip, for hours at a time and everything we had was soaked through and through. This morning the sun had come out, so we stopped and spread out our sleeping backs and most of our clothes in hopes that everything would dry.
About an hour into our wait, a Park Ranger came by. He was a member of the Park's emergency rescue team, and he was lost. The park had a rescue team made up of Rangers from across the different regions of the park to ensure there would always be someone on the team who knew the terrain expertly. It just so happened that both of the rangers from this section of the park were not available, so this ranger had been shifted from his regular region to cover this one. He was hiking with one of the tourist maps you could get at the Welcome Center, which showed hiking trails but no detail. He was on his way to Clingman's Dome, the highest peak in the Smokey Mountains and didn't know how to get there.
We pulled out our topographical maps and showed him. We had just hiked that section of the park a few days earlier. Andy and I were immediately deputized and made to follow along. Since we were in a camp that we didn't have a permit for, it seemed best not to argue.
An hour later we reached the scene of the rescue. A young woman camping with her boyfriend had had a medical emergency and needed help in the middle of the night. The boyfriend had hiked up the Forney Creek trail to Clingman's Dome, an incline of 3,000 feet in three miles. He had gone into Gatlinburg to get help (No cell phones in 1977) and brought the Fire Department back with him, pointed them down the trail, and then he left.
The first thing I saw when we reached the campsite was a dozen firefighters in full fire-fighting gear: helmets, rubberized coats and pants, heavy boots. They were suffocating in the humid 90-degree heat. The girl was on their gurney, waiting to be carried from the park. About ten Park Rangers were gathered together arguing for the best plan to get the girl to safety. None of them knew this region of the park.
The decision was to carry the girl up to the waiting ambulance, three miles and 3,000 feet of incline, because it was nearly twice as long to carry her down to Lake Fontana, NC. It took six of us to carry the gurney with the girl in it. Andy and I were much taller than any of the Park Rangers, so we ended up on opposite sides of the gurney or it would tip, and she would scream. We could only carry her a few yards at a time before setting her down and switching sides. The entire time, the firemen followed behind, sweating heavily in their heavy gear.
The Rangers violated every rule of back country etiquette we had been taught: they peed in the creek, threw their cigarette butts on the ground, and dropped trash as they walked.
The tail was steep and crossed Forney Creek again and again. To cross, we had to step from boulder to boulder, trying to stay above the icy rushing water. At every crossing at least on the men carrying the gurney slipped and fell into the fast-moving water, so despite the heat of the day, most of us were wet and cold.
The only thing worse than the boulder crossings were when we had to use the bridges. The area had been used for training the Army Corps of Engineers during WWII. They would learn how to cut a deep channel out of the mountain and build a massive wooden bridge across the chasm they had created. By 1977, all that remained of those bridges were the huge support beams that had been laid across the creek, fifteen or twenty feet above the water. These had been scary enough when we hiked over them with our backpacks, but they were terrifying with the girl and the gurney. The beams were only wide enough to allow a man on the front and the back of the gurney to walk across, so instead of six men, there were only two. We would rush across the beam because the gurney was so heavy that everyone was afraid we would drop it, especially the girl.
After four hours and travelling less than a mile, it was decided this path was too difficult. The firemen were sent up the mountain to their truck, with orders to call for a horse rescue team to come in and get the girl. Of course, the horses couldn't cross those derelict bridges, so we had to carry her back to the camp where we had found her, while the horse team rode up from the lake six miles away.
At least our sleeping bags were dry when we got back to our camp. Until it rained again that night.