Dwight McCarter: The Tracker

During his thirty years tracking lost souls through the Smokies and beyond McCarter rescued twenty-six people, many of them children. These days he’s still in the mountains, often thinking about those he found—and the few he didn’t.

The last lost boy he found was named Phillip Roman. Phillip, who was ten years old, had wandered away from his family while they were at Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smoky Mountains, and as happens more frequently and more suddenly than you could ever imagine, he simply seemed to disappear. This was in the summer of 1994, and Dwight McCarter, who had been a backcountry ranger for almost thirty years and was just about to retire, was called in to track him. Phillip had been lost for three days by then.

Listening to McCarter tell a story is to understand why stories are told: It’s a rush, the sound his sentences make, the voice his words come to me on. It’s better than a book.

McCarter is sixty-nine years old now. He has kind, intelligent eyes and a Lincolnesque beard, lightened by gray. He’s thin, sturdy, but not tall, and when he’s telling a story—which is what he does, really, from the moment you meet him until the moment you’re gone, he laughs a lot, the kind of laugh that begs for company and gets it. He is amused by people, history, and nature itself.

He was two years out of the army before becoming a ranger, in 1967. His first job was a seasonal position, manning fire towers. It was a job he loved. During fire season he’d sit in a cane chair on top of the tower and watch for lightning strikes, then he’d map the strike, “run a line out to it,” and they’d check the position out for smoke. But he wasn’t long for the tower. He had skills other rangers didn’t, and still don’t. McCarter can track a human being.

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