It’s probably not the view sightseers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were expecting last week when they pulled into the park’s most popular overlook at Newfound Gap, a 5,000-foot mountain pass traversed by the main road through the park.
Instead of the standard photo-op of sweeping vistas and endless ridgelines, visitors were greeted by a blue minivan, decorated with “Find Derek” signs, pictures of a missing son and his teddy bear sporting a plaid and red bowtie.
The family of Derek Joseph Lueking spent their days last week pressing flyers with his photo into the hands of anyone who would take them. They were there all night sometimes, too, looking out at the mountains for the glimmer of a small campfire that just might belong to Lueking. In particular, they pleaded with anyone setting out on the trails to be on the lookout.
“We tackle the hikers,” said Tim Lueking, Derek’s father.
Every hiker is another set of eyes — another person looking for his missing son, Tim said. Some of the hikers emerging from the trailheads caused them to do a double take, for a half second thinking, wishing, it could be Lueking.
Lueking, a 24-year-old from Louisville, Tenn., isn’t your typical lost hiker. Most search and rescue missions are launched after a hiker fails to come home after a day in the woods or doesn’t show up at the appointed hour after a camping trip.
But, Lueking went missing before he ever set foot in the park. His family grew worried when he didn’t show up for work and stopped returning their phone calls.
“They had been trying to find him. He had not been acting in a normal way,” said Molly Schroer, a spokeswoman for the park.
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Two days passed before his parents discovered he was staying at a hotel in Cherokee. Concerned, they set out for Cherokee in hopes of finding him, but they arrived too late.
He had checked out at 4 a.m. the morning of Saturday, March 17. He was last seen on the hotel surveillance cameras with a daypack.
On the drive back toward Tennessee, his family spied his white Ford Escape in the Newfound Gap parking lot and convinced rangers to launch a search immediately.
Park rangers questioned park visitors and hikers in the area about Lueking to no avail. And, the search teams traversed more than 50 miles of trail radiating from Newfound Gap during the first two days before moving the search off-trail.
Needle in a haystack
The most “disturbing” thing about Lueking’s disappearance is that no one they talked to Saturday had seen him, said Bob Miller, a spokesman for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
“There was a ton of people in the park that day. It was a nice day,” Miller said. “Does it mean he got off the trail right away? Maybe.”
Had he been on the trails, someone, somewhere would have seen him. But, off-trail is another story. Once off-trail, only the most experienced outdoorsmen can successfully navigate the Smokies’ half-million acres of wilderness, steep terrain and dense forests. Lueking, by all accounts, was not in this category.
Going off-trail not only increased Lueking’s chance of getting lost or injured but decreased his chance of being found.
Rangers are not sure what gear Lueking had with him beyond the generic term “daypack.”
“It’s whatever you put in it,” Miller said.
SEE ALSO: Anatomy of a Smokies search
What the park does know is what Lueking did not have on him — a tent, sleeping bag, his wallet, cash and other newly purchased backcountry gear found in his vehicle at in the parking lot at Newfound Gap.
Lueking would sometimes go on day hikes but rarely went out for several days at a time and was not adequately prepared for such an endeavor when he left the Newfound Gap parking lot Saturday morning.
“We would have felt better if he had bought all this gear and brought it with him,” Miller said. “In this case, he made preparations, but he didn’t follow through.”
If that weren’t puzzling enough, Lueking also left a message in his car that read: Don’t try to follow me. The ambiguous note still left park leaders wondering what Lueking was thinking when he wandered into the forest.
“He could have been going just to clear his mind. He could have been going with an intention to harm himself,” Schroer said.
The family told park rangers that the date of his disappearance fell around the one-year anniversary mark of the death of his grandfather whom he had been very close to — and one possible reason why he went missing.
Real-life wilderness reality show?
Lueking was also a fan of ‘Man v. Wild.’ In each show, host Bear Gryllis is dropped into the wilderness with limited resources and forced to survive on the land while finding his way back to civilization. It has been postulated that Lueking may have been in search of a similar experience.
“It opens up one more scenario,” Miller said. “If somebody’s trying to avoid you, they could do it.”
While most rangers dedicated to the search effort spent their days combing the trails, one of the rangers assigned to the search, Caitlin Worth, spent most of her time with the family, keeping their spirits up.
“Stay up beat; stay positive; keep talking to people,” Worth said Thursday of her advice to the Lueking family. “Stay positive until we tell you a reason not to be.”
One of the worst things for the family members to do is hang their hats on each tidbit of information, be it positive or negative.
“Don’t get on that roller coaster of the up and down,” Worth said.
Park rangers kept the Luekings informed of their actions — where they looked, what they found.
“They are looking hard. We really appreciate their efforts,” Tim said.
However, as time wears on, it’s difficult not to grow increasingly more concerned.
“As it gets longer, you get a little more worried,” Tim said.
After park leaders decided to scale back the search Friday afternoon, the Lueking family, with help from more than 25 civilian volunteers, continued looking for two more days.
“It just doesn’t seem to be the case that he is not in the park,” Tim said Thursday. “We still think he’s here.”
Lueking is still missing.
He is 5-foot 11-inches tall and 220 pounds with short brown hair and a short beard. He has the Japanese symbols for ‘life’ tattooed on the left side of his chest and was last seen wearing black track pants, white tennis shoes and a shirt. Lueking was possibly carrying a Realtree camouflage rain gear suit.
Another day, another search
While the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was in the throws of a massive search for a missing man thought to have disappeared into the backcountry last week, news that a second person might be missing in the park had rangers carrying out two searches simultaneously.
The second man was not a hiker nor outdoorsman but was suspected of possibly being in the park after his car was left at a parking area for two days.
Michael Giovanni Cocchini, 23, of Nashville, had been staying in Gatlinburg and was last seen by friends at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 18, at the Walmart in Sevierville. His car was first noticed by rangers at a parking area near the park visitor center outside Gatlinburg that same day. No long-distance hiking trails leave from the parking lot, and Cocchini is not known to be a hiker and had no gear for hiking or overnight camping.
So when his car was still in the same spot two days later, rangers initiated a search. He is 6 feet tall, weighs 160 pounds, and has short black hair and a scruffy beard. He was last seen wearing blue jeans, a white t-shirt and gray or silver tennis shoes with blue stripes. Although he was reportedly sighted in Gatlinburg, it is still unknown if he did in fact walk or hitchhike back to Gatlinburg.