Jenny Bennett first crossed my radar when I happened upon her website Endless Streams and Forests. She writes about many things, but among them are trail and hiking reports for areas of Great Smoky Mountains National Park that were very familiar to me. What intrigued me about Jenny’s reports was the type of hiking she does. Jenny is what is known as an off-trail hiker or bushwhacker. She hikes the less-traveled manways and unofficial trails to the Smokies famous landmarks.
Off-trail hiking isn’t for everyone. It requires precision skill with topographic maps, a compass, and altimeter. Frankly, it is physically demanding. That is one of the reasons the practitioners like it so much. The pathways are usually significantly steeper than official trails. You will find yourself hiking through and under rhododendron and laurel thickets. Quite frequently it means crawling on your belly under scrub or scrambling on all fours up steep and slippery rock ledges. For the small cadre of bushwhack hikers in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the mother lode of off-trail terrain.
Reading about Jenny Bennett’s off-trail adventures was my introduction to her. One day recently I noticed Jenny was selling a book she had written on another of her websites, JennyBennett.net. It is a murder mystery set in and around the Smokies. I thought to myself that it might be interesting, so I ordered a copy and received it post haste. I spent my Christmas holiday reading Murder at the Jumpoff.
When Donald MacIntyre, an avid off-trail hiker, fails to return from a quest to bushwhack through difficult terrain up to the top of the Jumpoff, a dramatic cliff in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the good-natured backcountry ranger Hector Jones leads a search and rescue team into the remotest depths of the Greenbrier section of the park and discovers the body. From the nature of MacIntyre’s injuries, it’s clear that he had fallen
— or been pushed
— from the top.
The job of investigating the suspicious death goes to Sally Connolly, a 31-year-old detective with the Sevier County, Tennessee, sheriff’s office. Due to Hector’s expert knowledge of the terrain, Sally enlists his help in the investigation. She follows several leads. One reveals a feud between MacIntyre, who was a professor at U.T., and a rival professor at Emory. The second concerns the illegal digging of plants in the park, and a third pursues a complicated relationship with an older female hiking friend.
That is the synopsis for Murder at the Jumpoff. For me, the setting is very cool because I thoroughly enjoyed a hike on the Appalachian Trail this past May to Charlies Bunion and the Jumpoff. What I learned about in the first chapter of the book is the myriad of creeks and drainages that are beneath and between Charlies Bunion and the Jumpoff… the off-trail wilderness.
Bennett weaves a tale of relationships, old and new, of the most despicable scum in the national parks, the rare wildflower poachers, and of mystery and deceit. But because of my passion for hiking, I found the most fascinating and compelling sections of the book to be the detailed descriptions of the off-trail hiking found particularly in the Greenbrier area of the Smokies.
I have hiked to Ramsey Cascades, but I haven’t really hiked to Ramsey Cascades like Bennett has.
She described a search and rescue for some clueless hikers who set out for Andrews Bald from Clingmans Dome, but instead ended up lost down Forney Creek. Hey, I was there just this past summer… not lost, but down Forney Creek. It is fun to read about places you have been and enjoyed, especially from another’s perspective, and in the context of engaging fiction.
Jenny’s descriptions of the landmark places in the Smokies are genuine and authentic, plus she adds the insider’s knowledge of getting there off the well-traveled tread. For me, documenting these locations that used to be trails a hundred years ago is a valuable service, because each year these non-maintained tracks become harder and harder to find and follow as the native vegetation consumes the pathways.
Murder at the Jumpoff is an easy read. I’m not an especially fast reader, but I was able to knock off this 213-page mystery in two half-day sessions. The characters and the places enticed me to keep reading. The topographic details and descriptions about some of my favorite places to hike encouraged me to take notes, and make plans. While I’m not likely to be as bold and daring as Jenny Bennett herself, she has enlightened me to an entirely different aspect of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Jenny Bennett has worked as a journalist, editor, and landscape designer. She reported on international energy markets for 18 years for the London Financial Times and other news organizations. She currently has a freelance editing business called Summer Afternoon Editing. She received a B.A. in Philosophy at New College in Sarasota, Florida, and an M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts.
Her major enthusiasm is off-trail hiking, or bushwhacking, a subject she explores in her book, Murder at the Jumpoff. She also writes about hiking and other subjects in her blog, Endless Streams and Forests. More biographical details may be found at http://www.jennybennett.net.