Rikki Hall in 2011 at Mouse Ear Falls, GSMNP


A giant hemlock fell in the forest on Sunday.  Saturday afternoon I stopped by to see my friend Rikki Hall as he struggled in what turned out to be his last day on earth.  I was reluctant to view him in that condition and had put it off for a week or two.   It was a rainy day and friends and family were passing through the home he shared with his wife, Kim in South Knoxville.  Stoking the fireplace was a familiar face, it was Thomas, the guy with Rikki when we all first met on Hangover in early 2000.  

I remember Rikki setting up a tent on a typical fall afternoon in the forest where the leaves had begun to start their subtle changing.  We stood in the beech/birch grove now felled so carelessly by the National Forest Service for no reason whatsoever.  It is a weed and brier field, as all Highlanders can now attest.  He was wearing a Madeline for Mayor shirt and we were instant friends.  As the two joined our campfire later, Thomas sang songs and we reveled in the beauty of the Southern Appalachians in usual Highlander fashion.   Rikki and I determined that we had corresponded via email on several occasions.   He was the promulgator of an environmental newspaper called the Hellbender Press.  I was a longtime fan of the outdoor writing that characterized this publication.  I especially appreciated Rikki’s personal literary contributions.   He was one of those people who “got it” with regard to the outdoors.   As a result, I chose to advertise my business in that publication and Rikki assisted me in ad layout etc.  It was great to finally have put a face with a name in this, my favorite of all places.

As the months passed, we became friends and met for different backpacking excursions.  One particular trip found the two of us plus Martin bushwhacking up to Bob’s Bald from the Cherohala skyway.  We were all eaten up as if having exited a slasher film festival.  That night, Rikki and Martin started wrestling around and I remember laughing profusely trying to determine how that even began.  Rikki was laughing as hard as Martin but he held his own.  Anyone who knows Martin can testify that he is a solid ground fighter that I would put up against anyone.  Rikki was laughing and grinning ear to ear.  There was no malice in this guy.  Much like Martin, it was all in the spirit of good fun.

As the months turned into years, I would run into Rikki out on the town in varying dives and usual haunts.  We would invariably spend a few minutes catching up and throwing out plans for the next backpacking trip.  Rikki knew everyone and everyone knew him.  By this time he was putting in the occasional piece for the Metro Pulse, penning articles about everything from etymology to extreme local politics.  I would always contact Rikki to get the “real” scoop on candidates before making any decisions.  And I trusted his sources completely.  He pulled no punches and his courage often put him at odds with the big shots in town.  Such was the courage of this guy.

I remember a few heated discussions he had on religion.   On that front we held divergent views and agreed to disagree.  But I still enjoyed the fervor he brought and how he would call you to task on the facts, not the emotion.  As a graduate of MIT, this fellow was a force with which to be reckoned and I’m certain a source of some consternation with the editors at Metro Pulse.  But he was always smiling.    Walking through the woods with him was like sitting in a lecture hall at the university.  Rikki could identify every living creature and provide the taxonomic name to boot.  Call it nerdiness, he laughed off what probably was a compliment in his mind.  Our last backpacking trip was a Highlander excursion to Walnut Bottoms.   It was a particularly raucous festival and Rikki enjoyed the redneck Olympics.  He even appreciated his new trail name, naked Rikki, which was in no way reflective of his behavior that weekend, but that is a different story.

At the height of the fee fight, I ran into Rikki at the Indian restaurant on Kingston Pike.  In typical Rikki fashion, he asked how things were going and I recited the usual litany of untruths spouted by park management.  By the end of the week, Rikki had penned THIS article in defense of fee freedom in the Smokies.  Such was the character of that man.

Rikki was once asked how to identify the hemlocks in the forest.  His reply was typical Rikki.  He responded, “They are the dead ones.”  His wry assessments of varying situations was blunt, as was his attitude.   I noticed a change when he met Kim and it seemed to soften the guy a bit.  Like me, he was one to become impassioned about injustice, political or environmental.   The Hellbender folded, unfortunately but folks still talk about its groundbreaking articles, mostly by Rikki.  It paved the way for his columns in the Metro Pulse.   When we attended the fundraiser in his honor at the Scruffy City Hall a couple of weeks ago, I missed my friend by about 30 minutes.  They had wheeled him into the packed venue but he wasn't able to stay very long given his declining condition.  Someone described the scene there as filled with love and I had to agree.  Even though Rikki had departed, the spirit of Rikki Hall filled two floors.  There had to be 300 folks in attendance as we danced to Warren Zevon music in his honor.

I’m thankful to have run into Rikki on Hangover Mountain and more than blessed to have shared some trails and campfires.  Knoxville is a better place for his short time in this town and his legacy is cemented.  Somewhere in the great beyond I hope there is a forest teeming with insects to keep him busy.  His final act was to keep them busy on earth.  Rikki was buried the day of his death without a casket and interred directly into the ground in a nature preserve in a new procedure that will allow his remains to return and replenish the planet.  I think that says everything about this giant of a man.