Mike Maples: The Man, The Jedi, The Legend
written in memoriam of Mike Maples, a simple man from Tennessee that became known to the world as the Smoky Mountain Jedi.
Mike Maples will forever be known to the world as the Smoky Mountain Jedi, but as those that spent time with him know, there was far more to him than just his knowledge of the Smokies and his ability to explore off trail in a way that is rarely witnessed. Mike had a charisma about him that is difficult to describe in words. If you ask someone that met him, even once, they’re sure to have a never-ending story about their experience.
Mike was a joyful spirit that was filled with beauty, love, curiosity and simplicity. He loved his Momma, chocolate milkshakes and making his friends laugh. Mike often baffled fellow hikers by showing up to “take a stroll” to a peak, like Mount LeConte, wearing just blue jeans with a flannel shirt and carrying very little on his back. There are even stories of him popping out of the woods from out of nowhere, after hours of off-trail hiking, yet with his hair perfectly in place. However, it wasn’t just the hiking community that was blessed by him. Mike Maples also spent much of his life sharing his gifts within the surrounding communities. For 20 years he coached girls AAU basketball, as a youth he ran track and he was a naturally talented musician as well. One quick search on YouTube will bring up videos of him playing the piano beautifully yet he also loved to play the guitar. Mike was a simple man with many gifts and unending knowledge, but the skills that he will be known for throughout many generations to come – are his skills that gave him the name Smoky Mountain Jedi.
“Why do they call him The Jedi?”
That is a question that has been asked more times than, “Why is 441 closed?” And if you’re familiar at all with the Smoky Mountains then you know that it would be impossible to come up with an exact number of times that someone has inquired. It’s about has complexed as trying to truly describe the magic within Mike that led to his infamous title. The simple side of it is that Mike loved Star Wars. The magical side of it is that The Jedi had a spirit that was so entwined with the Smokies that he was able to read the hills and valleys that make up The Land of the Blue Smoke.
To see it in person, in an off-trail setting, was an experience that would not soon be forgotten. Many hikers that have roamed by his side will tell you that Mike was never lost, even at times when he didn’t know where he was going. When hiking with him, others would warn new hikers that regardless of where they went Mike would never be seen sweating, 200 yards was far different to him than others and if he popped open a can of Coke then you needed to be prepared for trouble. Yet, trouble always led to a magical experience in parts of the Smokies that few had seen in decades. They say you should hike your own hike, but with
It was also not uncommon to find The Jedi in the middle of the mountains, surrounded by ladies… Ladies of the human kind and ladies of the blooming kind. Afterall, Mike loved them both – especially the yellow lady’s slipper. Even when off trail Mike never used a GPS, until he decided to record coordinates for homesites and other Smoky Mountain treasures so that future generations would be able to find the places that he had discovered using only his innate ways of reading the mountains. Mike had far more knowledge about the genealogy of the Smokies than he was ever able to record in his writings, but it became very important to him to plant as many seeds as possible in hopes that the past would never be forgotten. He placed those seeds in his blogs, social media posts, videos, books and within his friends. He shared his information generously with anyone that would take time to listen and so today, though he is no longer with us, the facts and stories that he did share along the way are spread throughout the mountains and will hopefully continue to grow.
Mike Maples, the man. Mike the Smoky Mountain Jedi. Together, they formed a human that was a replica of what many of us would envision the spirit of the Smokies to be if it could possibly be placed into a person that we could call friend. A person that could wander the woods and climb to the mountain tops as if it were as natural as a walk around the neighborhood. Someone that had a deep and unmatched connection with not only the natural surroundings of the Smoky Mountains, but also of all of the spirits of the past that once called the park home.
A simple man that was placed in the mountains and in the lives of so very many to perform a priceless and crucial job. The job of making certain that even long after he was gone – homeplaces, graves, communities and the history of the hills would continue to be remembered. What Mike didn’t realize during his time, of doing what came so naturally to him, was that he, himself was becoming a legend. A part of the Smokies that will never be forgotten. He is gone far too soon, but his spirit will live on in the stories and in the love that he shared with the world. The best way to honor his work, is to just simply take time to reflect on the days of yesteryear while visiting the Smoky Mountains. Marvel at the old chimneys, explore the cemeteries, research the trail that you’re planning to hike and that was likely once someone’s path to home and while doing so think of the countless days that Mike, the Smoky Mountain Jedi, wandered the woods in hopes of finding a doorway to the past.
And when you think of Mike, remember to not only his time in the mountains but also the simple life that he lived. A generous life that was focused on a great respect for the past, the beauty of the natural world and love for others. Even in the midst of hardships, he remained a fountain of hope and joy. During the last few months Mike fought like the true Jedi that he was, refusing to allow the illness to define him or how he chose to live life. He was human, just like the rest of us, but he rarely let the cloudy days take his focus off of the rainbows of life… Like Mike once said, “When life gives you rain, remember there are clear skies above… You just have to believe.”… Now, try to remember that the next time you’re on trail and in a monsoon…
The following is a poem that Mike wrote about his view of Wooly Tops on March 13, 2018.
I’ve hiked here to see you
Like so many times before
You always seem to make me grin
You may remember my grandparents
They visited you as
well One dayI won’t be able to come anymore
But, I hope you will remember
I’ll always be your friend-Mike Maples