Jenny Bennett died in the flowing waters of Porters Creek, her body shutting down from a toxic dose of diphenhydramine before succumbing to hypothermia from exposure.
She’d been missing a week before her disappearance was reported and a search began. Officials found her body about four miles up the trail, in a place that’s a gateway to some of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s most unusual and challenging terrain.
The death of the well-known 62-year-old shook the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club and outdoor community throughout Appalachia. Jenny Bennett always wanted to know what was over the next ridge.
Since the early ’80s, she explored huge swaths of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, seeking out challenging technical hikes and enjoying the journey as much as the destination. Bennett documented many of her hikes on her blog “Endless Streams and Forests” and participated as an active and much-loved member of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, both in the ’80s and then again when she returned to the area in 2010. She explored mountains in California, Colorado, New England, and New York, but she wrote on her website that the “Smokies were my formative influence, involving rockhopping up rhododendron-choked streams in dark mysterious forests of giant tulip poplars and hemlocks.”
Bennett worked as an editor and a writer who traveled the world covering coal markets. She published two novels, both of which featured off-trail hiking. Murder at the Jumpoff hinges on a suspicious death in the terrain around the Greenbrier-area cliff in the title. The Twelve Streams of LeConte follows a woman who embarks on a quest to hike the titular mountain’s 12 streams, blending vivid, autobiographical descriptions of off-trail hikes with the plot of an adventure novel.
Chris Sass met Bennett in 2010 when the two tackled Bear Pen Hollow hike. He got so involved in the experience he neglected to drink enough water and had to take a long break. Bennett never got impatient and waited for him to suggest they move on.
“She was absolutely devoted to off-trail exploration in the Smokies, and made trips almost every weekend,” Sass says. “She had a moderate fear of heights but enjoyed facing and overcoming that fear: I’ve been with her on harrowing cliff faces and towering waterfalls. She would doggedly plunge through the thickest and most punishing vegetation in pursuit of her destination. At the conclusion of an outing, her clothes would often be torn, and she would be dirty, bruised, scratched, bleeding—and smiling ear-to-ear.”
In late spring 2015, Bennett was set to move from Sylva, North Carolina, north to Vermont to help care for a family member. She failed to meet movers on June 1. Six days later, she was reported missing. Her car was found that night at the Porters Creek trailhead, and her body soon was located up the trail near a backcountry campsite.
Bennett knew the Greenbrier section of the Smokies well. She’d hiked it numerous times, beginning in 1984. The Porters Creek Trail itself is nothing to brag about, says Clayton Carver, who hiked with Bennett many times in the last few years before her death. “It’s a really boring trail, up until you get onto the manway” above the campsite, Carver says. “Where that takes you is a whole new world, really.”
On her blog, Bennett wrote: “Porters Creek and Lester Prong in the Greenbrier form pathways for rockhoppers that lead to mysterious and difficult places.” The manway runs to the Appalachian Trail, connecting with Dry Sluice Gap Trail near Charlies Bunion. Other turns may take off-trail hikers to Rocky Crag and the Jumpoff.
Another trait that makes the area distinctive: “The rock is different,” says Hiram Rogers, a geologist and member of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club who knew Bennett. “Most of the bedrock in the Smokies is that thunderhead sandstone, which forms rolling but massive outcrops. Most of the Porters Creek and Lester Prong area is Anakeesta, more of a slatey rock. The way it breaks, there’s steeper terrain. It’s harder to climb, with small handholds instead of big handholds. It’s a real rugged, steeper part of the Smokies.”
The runs go vertical at times, and they’re often choked with rhododendron and clogged by logjams.
“It’s the land of cliffs, drop-offs, landslide scars all over,” Carver says. “It’s pretty much different than any area in the smokes you’re going to find, in terms of verticalness. Pretty much every time you go down into that area, it’ll be different. It won’t look the same as the time before, from the flash floods that rage through there.”
Carver met Bennett shortly after moving to Gatlinburg from Toledo, Ohio. He’d posted on the GoSmokies social network with photos from his first off-trail hike, which he thought went to No-Name Ridge. Bennett realized he’d missed a turn and corrected him. Carver, who had found her blog and looked up to her as a local hiking legend, was then invited to join her and others for a hike up to Charlies Bunion. They took another wrong turn and ended up elsewhere. Bennett was furious at herself; Carver was starstruck. They hiked together another 20 times or more, chatting the whole way.
In June, Carver was headed back from a trip to Toledo when he received the broadcast email about Bennett’s disappearance. By the time he completed the eight-hour drive, he decided to go to the Porters Creek trailhead, just to rule it out.
“I told my wife, let’s just drive here real quick so we can say we checked,” Carver says. “I remember I came around the corner. I saw her car instantly. I just started crying. Still to this day, it makes my hair stand up. Her car, the place I found her at, was the same exact place she’d parked that first time we hiked together. I jumped out just to look inside. I looked in the back. Her hiking pole was in the backseat. I drove out of there as fast as I could and reported it to the rangers.”
Initially, friends thought she may have gotten into trouble while trying to pay tribute to Charlie Klabunde, a longtime hiking club member who had died earlier in 2015 at age 83. Bennett organized a memorial hike, during which Carver and others spread Klabunde’s ashes near Lester Prong. Bennett’s knee blew out when the terrain got steep, and she was forced to turn back. Some theorized that perhaps she was making one last hike for Charlie.
The autopsy report by the Sevier County Medical Examiner’s Office, released three months after her body was found, noted bruises on Bennett’s right hip and elbow that indicate she fell, but suffered no real muscular or skeletal damage from the injury. Instead, the medical examiner declared Bennett’s official cause of death to be hypothermia via exposure due to submersion in Porters Creek. Additionally, her blood had a toxic level of diphenhydramine—the generic name for antihistamine and sleep aid Benadryl—which points towards an intentional overdose, said Great Smoky Mountains National Park spokeswoman Dana Soehn.
Bennett’s apparent suicide left her close friends struggling to find answers. Sass says she had emailed him on May 26 about him coming to visit her and hike in Vermont. All his communication with her in the days before her death suggested she was looking forward to the future.
“For those of us who knew her, we’ve been tortured. It’s something we’ve all spent a lot of time talking about,” Sass says. “At least personally, I’ve accepted that I’ll never have any real certainty about what happened and why.”
Like Sass, Carver recognized no warning signs or red flags in Bennett’s behavior over the months leading up to her death. The two had been emailing in the days prior to her disappearance, with her trying to link him up with another off-trail hiking buddy.
“Now looking back and with everything that’s happened, I can say she was in a different place than where she’d normally been—very moody, edgy, irritated,” Carver says. “The last couple of hikes we had done together, when we first met and got out of our cars, you could tell something. At the time I didn’t know she was down, but she just wasn’t herself. After we got hiking, she’d come alive.”
Ed Fleming, a resident of Gatlinburg and longtime member of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, says that Bennett ran into some issues while serving as editor of the club newsletter that eventually led to her resignation. But like Carver, he didn’t connect the dots until after her death.
“Apparently she had some issues going that she didn’t really share too much with a lot of other people,” Fleming says. “A lot of people think we should have seen the signs and been able to do something to help her. She didn’t really want any help from anybody.”
Suicide ranks with drowning and heart attacks as one of the leading causes of death on public lands. In 2010 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report on suicides in national parks. From 2003 to 2009, 84 national parks reported 194 suicides, along with 92 unsuccessful attempts. The most common methods were firearms and falls.
We don’t know what was going through Bennett’s mind or happening to her in the moments leading up to her death, but it’s easy to see the appeal of Lester Prong as a final resting place. It’s the gateway to a world of adventure and possibility. Perhaps Jenny Bennett found its appeal as a portal irresistible.
The Porters Creek Trail runs by Fern Branch Falls, which falls more than 40 feet into a boulder field on the left side of the trail. A little more than a mile and a half of steady climbing later, hikers reach the backcountry campsite.
Late May marks the end of peak spring wildflower season. Dutchman’s pipe vine, wild ginger, speckled wood lily and Indian pink bloom that time of the year. The weather that week was typical: highs in the 80s, lows in the upper 50s.
It’s tempting to envision Bennett’s final moments as peaceful ones, with the brook babbling, wildflowers wafting in a soft breeze, spring songbirds warbling through the rhododendron.
Her body was found just downstream from the first crossing on the manway above the campsite. She was sitting in Porters Creek, with her head resting against rocks as pillows for her final slumber.
“There was a significant pool in the stream there,” Fleming says. “She was just lying back against a rock, like she just reclined there.”
In September, a few months after her death, Carver joined Fleming and Jenny’s brother, Peter Bennett of Bozeman, Montana, to take her up Lester Prong for a final time. They bushwhacked past boulders, overgrown brush, and downed tree trunks to a spot at about 4,400 feet, where they spread some of her ashes at the same place where they’d placed Charlie Klabunde’s earlier in the year.
Peter Bennett spread more of her ashes in the woods behind a house where they’d played growing up in Arlington, Virginia. Then he headed north to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, climbing the kind of steep, rocky trail she loved so much, and spread ashes near the top of Mount Jefferson.
“She had climbed all these mountains many times and I knew she would want to have a final resting place here,” Peter Bennett wrote in what has become the final post on Jenny’s blog. “I felt it was important to honor Jenny by scattering her cremains at these important places in her life. Her life was full of adventure and the hikes to her final resting spots were the kinds of challenges that she enjoyed the most.”
Carver has been continuing to take the off-trail hikes that he and Jenny Bennett had talked about before her death. In January, he took his 11-year-old daughter to a waterfall that Bennett had told him about.
“We would climb up ridges and once at the top, Jenny would point out all the ridges and peaks around us and tell me what their names were,” Carver says. “Now most of those places that she pointed out are my destinations.”