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Author: Alun Davies

AT founder Alun Davies recalls a scary encounter on an adventure in the Great Smoky Mountains…

There is a geometric equation that one can apply when hiking through the wilderness in the USA and it goes like this: the deeper you forage into the outback, the closer you are to encountering something alarming or bizarre. Take, for example, the time I was hiking on the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains.

If you’ve ever seen The Last of the Mohicans then you’ll have a good idea of what the Smoky Mountains look like – mile after mile after mile of dense forested mountains with steep, razor-sharp ridge-lines protruding through. If you wanted to hide out from the boys in blue then it’s as good a place as any.

I was on my seventh night out in the hills and came across a three-sided hut in a shaded hollow quite a way off the ridge-line trail, but near the source of a stream. The lean-to was about 40 miles from the nearest roadhead and way off the beaten track; seclusion, or so it seemed. 

I was busying myself collecting deadwood for a campfire when I heard voices coming down the overgrown trail. It turned out to be six guys from Knoxville on their annual trip to the Smoky Mountains. They were surprised that I had found the campground as, they explained, over the past 10 years they’d been using it they had had it to themselves.

Mountain hut on the Appalachian Trail

The good news was these guys were up in the hills for a great time and had carried plenty of food and a case of Jack Daniels for refreshment, which they were keen to share with a lone Welshman – Jack Daniels himself was of Welsh origin.

The fire was roaring, the JD had hit the spot and the conversation had reached that happy merry-go-round place which only a half bottle of bourbon can take you. Life was good. And then, we heard the noise, it was impossible not too.

It sounded like a bear crashing through the undergrowth in an area where there was no trail. What emerged from the greenery was bigger than all of the black bears I’d encountered over the past week and we all sobered up in an instant.

‘Dusty’ was around 6ft 7in tall, could not have been less than 20st in weight, wore a battered black baseball cap back to front, a filthy sleeveless shirt, which left the full, mighty power of his arms on display, and denim jeans cut off just above the knee. Dusty had what I call that whiff of sulphur about him; he looked dangerous and every nerve and instinct in my body told me he was, too.

This huge man walked into the campsite as if he were walking into an empty room, his head dipped, his line of vision no more than two foot ahead of his fake, muddied and ripped Nike trainers. He settled himself on a large rock about 15 foot away, his back fanning out to reveal lats that could only be a product of years of heavy-duty gym work. There was no greeting, no eye contact and no recognition that there was a living person within his presence. 

The atmosphere was heavy with tension and apprehension and I could detect a look of fear building in the eyes of the mountain men from Tennessee. Who was this enormous, hulking, silent man buried in his own mind and thoughts, and what was he doing so high up in the cold and wet Smoky Mountains wearing just a shirt, cut off jeans and a small daypack? 

sunset in the Great Smoky Mountains

Dusty just sat there, his head bent forward and supported by huge hands. Every 20 or so seconds, his body would shake, from head to foot, as if he were entering hypothermia. With the air so damp, the thermometer plunging and in his state of unpreparedness for a mountain environment, that could well have been the case but he was not acting in a way that would suggest so.

Without warning, one of the guys stood up, walked over to Dusty and asked if he was OK. There was no answer in return. He asked again. No answer. He asked if Dusty would like a hot drink. No answer.

All Dusty did was take off his small daypack and pull out two cans of beer. He drunk them in silence, shaking more manically by the minute. As the man from Tennessee walked back over with an unnerved look on his face I had no doubt that this stranger would reveal a sinister side as the night wore on.

As the sun dipped lower in the sky, the shadows lengthened and the temperature of the Smoky Mountains dropped noticeably. One of the guys motioned for us to huddle together and, suggested that, under cover of collecting firewood, he would set off to a mountain ranger’s hut he reckoned was a couple of miles back down a side trail.

In any other circumstance I would have suggested that this was overkill or unnecessary. After all, there were seven of us and one of him, and this mountain of a man had not even talked, let alone made any threats. But on this occasion the only feeling I had when it was pointed out that an armed mountain ranger could be in camp within the hour was one of relief.

When we’d collected enough wood a fire was lit. The heat and light of the flames had a slightly calming effect and also caught the attention of Dusty, who rose to his feet, walked over and planted his enormous and powerful frame on a nearby log and introduced himself.

Within five minutes he had described how he had lost his wife in a car crash four days previous, his mother had been killed by an armed robber within the past month, he was a special forces veteran from countless wars, he was a champion rodeo rider and he had walked to this campsite near the Appalachian Trail all the way from Alaska. There was zero doubt Dusty was mentally unstable and delusional, and the deep scarring on his arms and face were a powerful hint of something far more menacing.

Time stood still over the next hour, as Dusty explained how his two children had been kidnapped and murdered, his brother had been killed in Iraq, his house had been burned down by the FBI and his new car stolen by local gangs.

Unnerving is a word that does not come close to the feeling I had that night while sitting at a campfire in the middle of the woods of the Smoky Mountains, far away from anywhere with a delusional colossus of a man describing a series of brutally violent events.

The sense of relief as the ranger walked into camp was as palpable as the fear that was hanging in the air, as Dusty’s stories were becoming more extreme and violent and his demeanour noticeably more agitated and aggressive.

After introductions, the ranger took Dusty aside and began to question him. After a short while he walked over and told us he was not happy or comfortable with what he had heard, but would need to return to his hut and use the comms to find out more information before he was prepared to act.

nighttime on the Appalachian Trail

Within 10 minutes of the Ranger setting off, Dusty also made his exit from the camp into the pitch-black woods of the Smoky Mountains. Not one of us slept that night, and when the ranger returned before sun-up he told us that he’d received disturbing news about Dusty and a search operation was being organised.

The guys from Tennessee packed up and headed out on the trail leading to their cars. I headed north to re-join the Appalachian Trail and, while I enjoyed the day’s hike, I could not get the vision of Dusty being around every twist and turn in the trail out of my mind.

Some time in the late afternoon I turned off the Appalachian Trail and set off down a side trail to a small campground. As I approached the three-sided shack I could make out an older man and young girl sitting uncomfortably close to each other against the sidewall, and both had that look of fear that I had seen in Tennessean eyes the night before.

Call it instinct, but I knew what the cause would be and sure enough, as I walked closer to the hut I could see Dusty towering over them and hear him reciting how all his family had recently died violent deaths.

Dusty turned to face me as he heard my approach and, without taking any time to think, I just carried on walking towards him, looked him in the eye and said: “You need to move fast, the police are following just behind and they are looking for you.” Every nerve in my body felt like there was an electric charge gushing through as I raised my voice and forcefully said: “Leave now.”

To my surprise, and the serious relief of the man and young girl, Dusty took off from the hut in the opposite direction. “Thank you,” they said, and both of them hugged me in relief. “How far away are the police?” they asked. “I’ve no idea,” I said, and explained to them what I did know. “I thought he was going to kill us,” the young girl said.

The Texan father and daughter and I decided to walk through the night until we arrived at the roadhead, where they had parked their car. We later found out that there were five outstanding arrest warrants for Dusty (not his real name), the most serious being suspected murder.