Article by Vicky Taylor, Photos by Randy Neal
Hiking with Randy Neal – “Papaw In The Woods”
Hiking is a great physical activity. Many people hike because of health benefits. Others hike because of the great adventures and the journey on which a good nature hike can take you. Randy Neal is an avid hiker and loves the Tennessee and Kentucky trails, especially the trails in and around the Big South Fork NRRA. Randy has been hiking the area since he was a small child, where he grew up just across the TN/KY state line in
Stearns, Kentucky. His love for hiking began as a child when his father would take him and his brother to an old cabin owned by his father and some friends, located on Stooping Oak Ridge, in Tennessee, just across the state line. This was prior to the establishment of the Big South Fork NRRA. They would stay the entire weekend and on Sunday the ride home would always be down an old road into No Businesess where they would take another old road back into Kentucky. This was about a 20 mile, 4-wheel drive trip back home.
And that was a long journey in those old Jeeps. Randy remembers houses, cabins and barns standing down there and he always wondered who lived there. Then, when Big South Fork NRRA was established, his father and friends had to let their cabin go. But Randy continued still, to wonder about who lived there, and the type of life they lived. Randy was probably in his late 20’s when he and a friend were out prowling up in there, and his friend said, “I want to show you something”. So they walked out a ridge through a rhododendron thicket and came out on a little cliff where they looked down on a little grown up valley below where an old chimney was standing. Randy was baffled by the chimney still standing. He returned to that site four to five times afterward, alone. He would enjoy sitting there long enough to just feel the family who lived in that place. He said in a little while, he could almost hear the chickens clucking, and the roosters crowing, and just see the farm come to life in his mind. Fast forward, until about 15 years ago, he was hiking in the BSFNRRA and hiked into that very farm. This was the Ranse Boyatt Farm in No Business that started Randy’s mission on locating old home places. Randy says when you go in and around the old home sites, expecially, the old Slaven home sites, if you get still and let your mind relax, you can feel something – a presence – an aura. It’s not spooky feeling, it’s more of a welcome presence. There is a peace there that you don’t get anywhere else. There is something that just seeps right into you from the outside. It makes you want to smile. And it’s a good feeling. “Maybe I feel this because I want to keep their history alive. It’s like No Business keeps calling me back.” Randy feels that whatever this “presence” is, it gives back to him in the way of things such as, capturing the perfect photo, that requires being in the right place at precisely the right time. You can see this in some of the photos of this article. In addition to the old home sites, Randy makes it a point to visit grave sites. He spoke of a father, William Wesley Owens, and his seven children who are buried on a ridge. The father had hand carved each of his childrens’ grave stones. He told us, “when you find these spots it just sucks the life out of you”. This is just one example of the challenges of life that these folks had to endure. The old tombstones can be difficult to read. While the residents of No Business were brilliant when it came to engineering, and architecture, among other things, they were not proficient in the english language. They had trouble with spelling, and running sentences together, etc. Sometimes you have to study the carvings on the tombstones to try to understand what it is saying. Randy has hiked the Smokey Mountains and many other places. He says, “people just don’t know of all the beauty and historical home sites in the Big South Fork that are off trail. It’s a paradise.”
Many arches and waterfalls don the magnificance of the Big South Fork. Randy especially loves the “Twin Arches”. He calls it the “crown jewell” of the Big South Fork. Randy has posted more than 100 YouTube videos of his hiking trips, and has more that he has not posted yet. Randy says out of the 126,000 acres in the BSF, he has only covered approximately a couple thousand acres. We asked Randy if he frequently wanders up on wildlife in the BSF. He stated that the most common wildlife he has seen has been copperhead snakes, and that he has never seen a rattlesnake while hiking. He did say he has had several occasions to walk upon bears. He actually has come as close as 25’ feet to a young bear. He once came across a huge male by a stream, that he estimated to weigh about 400 pounds. Because of the sound of the trickling of the stream, and the direction of the breeze, the bear didn’t act as though he knew anyone was around. He added, “when the bear walked out into the sunshine his fur shined blue.” Randy said, “If you ever see a huge male black bear his shape resembles a polar bear. His neck gets long and makes his head look smaller.” He said he has also wandered upon a momma bear and cubs. We asked if he was scared, and if she saw him. He stated that it is pretty scary to walk upon a momma bear and her cubs. Because usually, the way you will see them, is they will make noise when momma puts the cubs up the tree. Then you know, she has smelled you, heard you, and probably has seen you so she is protecting her babies. Randy said as he around. That gives them a chance to go on out of the way to avoid confrontation.
When he enters the woods, he makes it a point to leave it undisturbed in any way. He stated, “That is their home and I want to respect it because they live there, and I’m just passing through”. He advised that if you encounter a bear, stop
and make noise. Let them know you are there. They will hear you and normally avoid confrontation with you. Randy told us about a time when he and some friends were camping at No Business, they felt a bit threatened by a pack of coyotes. He said the pack was approximately 100 feet away. They all began growling, howling, and barking all at the same time. When they stopped, they stopped all at the same time. While they did not attempt to attack, they certainly expressed their discontent about something invading their area. We asked him about cooking at the camp site. He advised that they do not cook at the camp site. They take enough freeze dried food, along with fruits, nuts, trail mix, cereal bars, jerky, etc. to avoid cooking. If they cook they move up trail to do the cooking to keep wildlife from invading the camp. He went on to say if you know the plants and berries that are safe to eat there is plenty to sustain you until you leave. Randy told us about coming across a deer kill that he said, had to be a big cat kill. He noted, you can tell the difference in a big cat kill and other animal kills.
Randy’s advice to hikers is to get a reliable map and study the general area you wish to visit. If you are
just getting started hiking, know the trails before you set out on your hike. Some of the local trails are challenging.
Go with another hiker. Although Randy at times, hikes alone, it’s best to hike with other hikers. Prepare for your hike by wearing proper hiking boots and clothing. And don’t break in a new pair of boots on the hiking trail. Break them in ahead of time. Check the weather forecast and prepare accordingly. It’s best to avoid wearing bright colored clothing. Bees and mosquitoes tend to attract to bright clothing. Always take a light weight jacket or poncho. Hypothermia occurs when a persons body temperature drops below 35 degrees C. Use an insect spray that is to be used specifically for treating your clothes, not your skin. Always carry bear spray, a water filter, a knife, something with which to start a fire, fruit, nut, cereal bars and jerky, etc. It is a good idea to pack a light weight tarp for shelter. Also, prepare for the unexpected injuries. Pack a first aid kit, and a couple different sizes of rope, not to mention a head lamp and a regular light. In the event of an unexpected injury that needs more attention than just a first aid kit, notify the NPS.
If you are in the gorge area you probably won’t have cell service. Try to get to a ridge top and get a cell signal, or if your phone has the S O S feature, use it. If you’re lost you may follow an old road bed. If you can get to a ridge top you can sometimes find the old road beds. If you are hiking in the Big South Fork, remember the BSF river flows north. So if you plan to hike down stream you will end up in Kentucky. Randy’s passion is hiking and he refers to the Big South Fork and surrounding areas in Tennessee and Kentucky, as “a paradise”. Randy hosts a YouTube Channel entitled “Papaw In The Woods”, where he posts his adventurous hikes and amazing photographs. He says its a great feeling to have been able to lead people from Oregon, South Dakota, and Missouri to the lands of their ancestors. Randy wants to leave this legacy to his grandson, Kenton, age 10, who is responsible for the title “Papaw In The Woods”.