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Backpacker Magazine – January 2014

Readers' Choice 2014: Dream Trips: Family Drama

Two brothers return to the spot where one almost died.

by: Peter Rives

Randy (left) & Bill McDaniel (by Peter Rives)
Randy (left) & Bill McDaniel (by Peter Rives)

“Unfinished Business”

Winner Randy McDaniel, 56,
of Florissant, MO

Guest His brother Bill, 58

Where to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC/TN, August 17 to 23, 2013

Winning pitch A heart attack cut the pair’s 2010 Smokies trip short; we took them back to complete their dream.

The new story: August 2013

Bill, Randy, and BACKPACKER contributor Peter Rives plan a trip to re-create the brothers’ 2010 intended route on the park’s northeast side. Conditions force them to change course, however: Bear activity has closed several campsites, and Bill isn’t quite up to the area’s most rugged climbs, due to a lingering illness (his transplant meds suppress his immune system). But that’s not what matters: What matters is the return. “The truth is,” Randy says, “once we got past the point where we were stopped last time, everything else was gravy.” As the group approaches this spot where Bill never made it last time, Rives asks him what he’s feeling. “My brother is a hero,” Bill replies. “He saved my life.”

Bill is struggling and campsites are closed; significant itinerary changes will be necessary to complete a circuit. 

As climbs turn to descents, Bill feels instantly better.

Basecamping allows time to explore a forest of towering oak, maple, beech, and poplar beside crystal clear and churning creeks. Over hot dinner and around a roaring fire, the brothers share stories of their love of baseball.

Peter and Randy climb to the top of the 150-foot series of falls, ledges, and slides while Bill opts to quietly reflect on his journey of the past three years.

In a deluge, a rock overhang offers shelter for lunch and a nap. 

Our crew opts to continue on toward camp in the wet conditions.

Friendly campground neighbors marvel at the brothers’ stories while a break in the weather lets the group dry out.

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