The body of Donald MacIntyre was found at 5700’, directly below the point where the contour lines on the USGS Mount LeConte quadrangle bunch together so tightly that they form a solid mass. The head was down, the legs were up, the feet tangled in spongy mounds of myrtle. The neck was broken. The eyes, wide open, had a certain look of the dead, the sudden possession of a knowledge inaccessible to the living—perhaps some shimmering equation that scrolled across his vision as he fell.
For certainly he’d fallen a good distance—it looked as though he’d fallen from the top. And that was what bothered backcountry ranger Hector Jones. When MacIntyre’s wife sounded the alarm that he hadn’t returned from a hike, the details she gave indicated he was climbing the Jumpoff from the bottom—probably not directly up the most precipitous route, but working his way a bit to the right or a bit to the left, bushwhacking his way up the high clear trickling headwaters of Lester Prong to reach the top. If he’d fallen as he made the difficult scramble upwards, he would have bounced and tumbled down over rock and brush—not dropped like a stone through open space.
Not that MacIntyre’s route was one recommended for anyone, certainly not by the Park Service. What people were supposed to do was to hike out the Appalachian Trail 2.7 miles from Newfound Gap to the junction with the Boulevard trail, turn left, then follow the side trail a half mile to the top of the Jumpoff. There they were supposed to dutifully admire the view of Charlies Bunion and its companion ridges, gaze into the Lester Prong valley—they would not know the name of that stream, and over to Porters Mountain—they would not know the name of that mountain, and then safely return the way they had come.
But there were a few hikers—Hector called them the “hard cores”—who liked to venture up the steep, narrow valleys that had no trails. These were the peculiar souls who chose to spend hours to go maybe a single mile, rockhopping up the long cascading watercourses, flailing through rhododendron, hanging onto flimsy laurel branches as they scrambled up the bluffs. Climbing over blowdowns, clinging to handy spruces, tiptoeing across the brinks of waterfalls. There was very little walking involved in this activity—more like slithering, sliding, crawling, clambering, squirming, leaping.
Hector knew all about it, because he did these things himself.
MacIntyre’s wife had placed the call at midnight, when he was hours overdue from his outing. She said he’d gone by himself—he was in the habit of doing that (very unwise, of course), and he’d left her a note. It contained only eight words: “Lester Prong to Jumpoff, return via Shutts Prong.” They had the vehicle description (2005 Subaru Forester) and the basic info about the hiker (6’0”, 170 pounds, 47 years old, brown/gray curly hair, carrying blue daypack). He’d probably taken the Porters Creek trail to the Dry Sluice manway, then turned to the right up Lester Prong after multiple creek crossings. But he could have worked his way down to Lester Prong via any of the scary draws around the Bunion. Fortunately, they found his Subaru at the Porters Creek trailhead right away, so that narrowed things down. At dawn some of the search and rescue crew went up Porters Creek and others went out the Boulevard trail to drop down into the east and west forks of Shutts Prong, in case he’d made it that far.
Hector went with a party of twelve up Porters Creek. It was a cool foggy morning in June; overnight showers had dampened the leaves. Two shapes predominated: the glistening dark green tangles of rhododendron and, rising from that understory, the great vertical columns of trees. The rhododendron spoke of teeming, uncontrolled profusion, the trees of calm and dignified immensity. Hector couldn’t look at the rhodo without thinking about what it was like to crawl through its contorted, rubbery limbs.