It sounds like a plotline from a B-list movie starring what is left of Jamie Lee Curtis. A sketchy guy, known to everybody around, stalks hikers on a local trail and then finally begins to terrorize and attempt to kill said hikers. Some get away and go to tell authorities, who rush back to the suspect’s last known location, only to find death and carnage. In the end the good guys track down the killer and take him into custody.
Except it is not a movie or a Stephen King novel — it is a far too accurate description of a terrible drama that played out last week on a Virginia portion of the Appalachian Trail. And it breaks my heart.
I used to be one with the AT — or at least the part that runs through Georgia and up into North Carolina. I never tackled the whole beast — which runs all the way from Springer Mountain in Georgia — near Amicalola Falls — to Mount Katahdin in Maine. I know folks who have, including my friend Joe Cook. I used to promise myself that I would do so. But life got in the way. Marriage and kids and work just always seemed to preclude me taking a five-month walk in the woods.
But there was a time, back before I met my lovely wife, Lisa, that I spent hours and hours and hours backpacking the trail whenever I could find a willing hiking partner — and sometimes when I had to coerce friends into joining me. If you happen to know Monty Hill or Ron Wiley, they have a great story to share about one such adventure.
Sometimes I would take my Scout troop hiking and camping on the AT. Once we got caught by a sudden spring snow storm that hit Blood Mountain while we were sleeping on top of it. David Chandley was still in high school or we would have known better. We survived. Another time, another group of Scouts and I got caught in a drenching downpour on the trail with only a box of macaroni and cheese between us and starvation — or so we told ourselves. Thank God for Baden-Powell. Because of his organization’s training I knew how to build a fire despite the monsoon and we slept warm and eventually got dry again.
My buddy Jimmy Hutchins and I shared the cabin on top of Blood Mountain with a couple of newlyweds one November night. I have no idea why they thought that would be a romantic place to begin their marriage. I do know that they had not the first clue as to how to build a fire, and we probably saved them from death by hypothermia. That was 45 years ago. If they weren’t divorced 44 years ago, I’d be shocked.
Many, many weekends I would just head north and spend a couple of nights on the AT, all by myself, alone with my thoughts and the beauty of God’s creation.
Never, ever, ever did I worry about any danger — not from the animals I might encounter, even the snakes and bears — nor the people. I especially didn’t worry about the people. Those I encountered were kindred spirits who appreciated the tranquility of God’s creation and wanted to test themselves against the elements and get away from the stresses of normal human existence.
Which is exactly what the four campers were doing last weekend when they were set upon by a disturbed maniac who answered to the trail name “Sovereign.” According to authorities, this person was well-known to the trail community as someone to avoid. He had been arrested in April for threatening to do bodily harm with a shovel to a group of hikers down in Tennessee.
It’s a shame he was free to be terrorizing the trail a month later, but he was. That’s a fail for the legal system. Friday night he approached four hikers in Virginia and threatened to pour gasoline on their tent and set them afire. Two of the four ran away to report the incident to the police. But that’s the thing about the isolation of the trail. They were 6 miles away from help.
Meanwhile, the attacker started slashing the remaining two campers with the large knife he always carried. He killed one. The second played dead until he had moved on and then she ran for help.
The authorities found and arrested the murderer known as Sovereign. I won’t give him the satisfaction of using his given name. Understandably, other hikers in the region were devastated by the news and justifiably upset.
Just one more sorry event in the long, long history of the decline of civilization. Just one less place to feel safe in the world. But I know that those who hike and camp along the Appalachian Trail will not be cowed. They are strong people who will make sure that good overcomes evil.
And as to the perpetrator of this crime? He defiled what is sacred ground to me. May God have mercy on his soul, because God is in the mercy business — but I hope the courts of the state of Virginia have none.