On July 13, 1973, near where Rough Fork Creek intersects with the end of the main Cataloochee Valley road, seasonal national park ranger Charles Hughes had a violent encounter with the “wild man” of Cataloochee. Hughes was checking up on fishermen along Rough Fork when he met a man with a fly rod and a heavy beard.
When asked his name, the man replied, “I’ve got no name, I’ve lived in these woods all my life.” When the ranger demanded to see his fishing license, the man reached into his heavy canvas hunting jacket for a pistol.
During a prolonged scuffle, the ranger succeeded in punching the man in the face but failed to subdue him. As Hughes attempted to turn around his vehicle and drive up the narrow gravel road for help, the “wild man” heaved a large rock at the ranger’s Jeep and broke a window. Hughes then sped to the nearby ranger station for backup; subsequently, a group of rangers and volunteer tracked the man by bloodhound along Rough Fork well into the night but never found him.
The “Wild Man” became the subject of much discussion in the local press, and a song commemorating the event, “The Cataloochee Wild Man” by Sam Parsons, a Texan, was popular throughout the region.
Additional “wild man” sightings occurred over the following decades. Some campers in Cataloochee Campground would reportedly leave food out for the man. Rangers and families caught glimpses of the man along the fringes of the historic farmsteads and other developed areas of the valley. Like a ghost, he possessed an uncanny ability to melt into the forest whenever someone became alarmed at his presence.
Yet, for some of those who lived in Haywood County’s tiny White Oak community, near the entrance road to the Cataloochee area of the park, the “wild man” was no mystery; he was Arley Phillips.
Arley had a modest home in White Oak, as well as several friends and family members who helped him when he needed it. They would drop off food and supplies on occasion and stop in to see how he was doing. Arley was frequently seen at dumpsites and Dumpsters in the rural community foraging for food and useful cast-off items. But apparently, especially during the warmer months, he preferred to live in the woods of Cataloochee Valley. He was a very successful angler and good at gathering wild plants.
Friends and family members describe Arley’s childhood as very hard. The Phillips family had moved from Cataloochee in the 1930s to make way for establishment of the national park. They took the money from the sale of their land and purchased a farm in White Oak community. Arley was one of four children. His mother and brother were put in county homes, and Arley’s father died in 1962.
Shortly after their father’s death, Arley and his brother Arvil became entangled in a violent feud with local moonshiners. After these experiences, and perhaps out of fear of being institutionalized himself, Arley avoided most people and often sought solitude on his small farm and in nature.
Arley died in January of 2010 at age 77. A concerned friend stopped by and found him gravely ill in his hardscrabble abode, which had neither electricity nor running water. He called an ambulance for Arley and rode with him to the area hospital, where he passed with family and friends at his side.
The “wild man” of Cataloochee was part fact and part fiction. He did exist, but not in an altogether wild state. Had he the opportunity and inclination, he could have taught us invaluable information about living off the land in the Great Smoky Mountains and about the locations and habits of the real wild things of Cataloochee Valley.