The Wild Man of Cataloochee
This story has become my family's personal ghost tale of sorts, told around a campfire (or, when I was still a kid, at my friend, Laura's request for her slumber parties). My brothers, being older than I, may have a different take, but, with a little bit of added information from my parents, this is how I remember meeting...The Wild Man of Cataloochee.
When we were kids, my family spent a great deal of time in the woods, on hikes, camping trips, picnics, fishing, etc. One of my dad's favorite places to camp was in the Great Smokies National Park, in the Cataloochee Valley (I've written previously of this beautiful place here). So it was really no surprise that one summer in the early seventies, we found ourselves in Cataloochee again. I was 6 or 7 years old, my brother Stephen was 7 or 8, and my brother, David, four years older, at 11 or 12.
It was the last day of our trip. We had been camping for a day or two and had visited all of the historic homes and barns we cared for. Dad stopped the station wagon at the bottom of an old dirt road, closed by the Park Service with a barrier. A ranger--a tall, red-headed man--stopped as we were piling out of the car. Dad asked him where the road went.
"Oh, it goes up there about a half-mile or so and there's an old cemetery you can visit," he said. "It's a nice walk through the woods." Dad chatted with him a while longer, then he tipped his hat at us, got into his truck, and left.
We started on our walk. My brothers, as they always did, ran ahead, joshing and shoving one another. I dawdled, as I often did, looking up into the trees or scoping the ground for just the right stick or stone or other treasure. My parents strolled easily along with us, talking lightly, or pointing out wildflowers, trees, and other objects of interest.
It was a lovely day and we were on a typical family walk in the woods.
Then my brothers decided to leave the trail. I don't know why (maybe to be goof-offs, maybe to water the trees). Looking ahead at them, I saw David stop and stare into a thicket of trees. Stephen nearly stumbled into him. They called to Dad, who joined them.
Suddenly Dad's demeanor changed. He turned and herded my brothers back toward where my mom and I stood, waiting, curious. His face was serious. I don't know if Mom saw whatever it was or she was struck by the tone in his voice as he said "Get the children to the car. Now." She responded with haste. We turned and half-ran down back down the path. Dad followed cautiously behind us, as a bodyguard.
"Did you see him?" David asked.
"Yeah, he was all pale and dirty," Stephen said.
"Who? What was it?" I asked, breathless, my heart pounding.
"He looked like he was crouching down to go to the bathroom," Stephen said.
"He was definitely watching us."
"Who was watching us?" I said, alarmed.
"Stop you two." My mom said, scolding. "Let's just get to the car."
We fell silent then, each imagining we heard heavy footsteps following in the woods beside and behind us.
We made it to the car, jumped in, and pressed our faces to the window, looking for Dad. He was quick behind us, sauntering boldly, carrying a huge limb on his shoulder. As he came out of the woods, he glanced behind him, shrugged the limb aside and climbed into the driver's seat. He exchanged a look with my mom, started the car, and drove away, three young faces watching out the back window for...someone to appear from the dark edge of the forest.
We talked about it for days, of course. Finally I was able to piece together the story.
David had seen him first--a face, watching us from the rhododendron thicket. He was grubby, his face dirty and clothes like rags hanging from his thin frame. He was crouching, as if hiding, and he was definitely watching us. To Dad and Mom, he was menacing.
They thought we must have stumbled upon some moonshine still, and they weren't about to stick around and learn what a mountain man might do to scare us away from such an operation. Dad had lagged behind in case anyone followed, and he had picked up the limb to use as a weapon, if necessary. He had a young family to protect, and the movie Deliverance had only recently premiered.
A few months later, we learned more when an interesting article appeared in the Asheville newspaper. On the front page there was a photo of the nice red-headed ranger we had spoken with, posing before an impromptu lean-to in the woods around Cataloochee. Someone had been living there--perhaps for years.
Turns out the man was "simple-minded," as the old folks say, and had left his family, who lived in the nearby Cove Creek community, to live off the land in the region settled by his ancestors. People of the community often left food out for him, and supplies. Once the story broke, visitors at the Cataloochee campground left him food, as well, until rangers put a stop to it because of bear activity.
As for my family, we were to encounter him again, a couple of years later.
This time, we had stopped along the barricaded road to pick wild strawberries which grew in abundance on the banks. As we worked our way along, eating as many as we saved, we noticed someone in the ditch a ways down and across the road.
He was grubby, his face dirty, and his clothes ragged and hanging on him. He was picking strawberries into a cloth sack.
This time, he wasn't menacing at all. In fact, he seemed nervous, casting furtive glances at us over his shoulder. He appeared to shrink smaller and smaller into his body as if trying to make himself disappear.
My brothers, full of the bravado of young boys, kept trying to get closer and closer. The man kept inching away.
"Boys!" my dad called, "Come on, now." He figured the man was better left without harassment from some city kids.
We tumbled into the station wagon, the three of us pressed to the back window for our last glimpse of The Wild Man of Cataloochee. Watching us over his stooped shoulder, he moved to the other side of the road where we had been picking berries only moments before.
It was the last time we ever saw him.