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.
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.
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.
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,”
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.
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.”