- The Context
- State of the State
For news to spread on the Appalachian Trail in 1990, it was usually by word-of-mouth. Or perhaps a note tacked up at a shelter.
The rattlesnakes are active in Virginia. Bears are awakening from their winter slumber. That sort of thing.
And if you were out on the trail back then – no Facebook, no phone, no town within miles – it could take days for news to get to you. Even word of a tragedy.
Earl Swift was in the Shenandoah National Park when he heard about what happened on September 13, 1990.
“A couple of ‘day hikers’ bought me a milkshake, and they mentioned very idly, ‘I guess you heard about the trouble in Pennsylvania,’” the author and journalist recalled.
No, Swift told them. He hadn’t heard that two hikers were slain five days prior just outside of Duncannon. It was a rugged area of the Appalachian Trail he’d recently traversed.
He pressed them for more. The two victims weren’t day hikers, they were “through hikers,” like himself. And like Swift, they had been heading south to complete the 2,100-plus-mile AT journey from Maine to Georgia.
As soon as he could get to a phone, Swift called The Virginia-Pilot, where he was a reporter at the time, and he heard the news for himself.
The victims were Geoff Hood and Molly LaRue. It happened at the remote Thelma Marks Shelter on the trail on Cove Mountain overlooking Duncannon. He was shot three times. She was tied up, raped and stabbed eight times.
“Molly and Geoff,” Swift recalled Thursday. “I was shocked.”
Memories of their murders re-emerged for many with another Appalachian Trail killing last week.
Back in 1990, Swift had hiked and camped with Hood and LaRue for three days back in New Hampshire. They were slower hikers, sleeping in and soaking up the scenery, and Swift ended up parting ways with them, pulling ahead.
“Of all the people I met on the trail, they seemed to be the best equipped to avoid that kind of trouble,” he said. “Their personalities, their training, their experience, all of it led me to believe they were the least likely people I met to run into that sort of thing.”
Hood and LaRue were smart, capable and adept in the outdoors. They had worked with disadvantaged children, Swift said, adding if anyone could peacefully diffuse a bad situation, it was them. This convinces him they were asleep when it happened.
It was eight days after the killings that Paul David Crews, a stranger who happened upon the couple along the trail, was apprehended. According to Swift’s account, after the murders, Crews hiked north on the trail, hitched a ride on I-81, and rejoined the trail in the guise of a hiker. At his trial in May 1991, evidence was presented that Crews was wearing Hood’s hiking gear and was carrying both murder weapons, Swift wrote. He had left his own gear at the scene near Duncannon, and DNA linked him to LaRue’s rape. He was convicted and sentenced to death.
The savagery of those killings is still with Swift.
“It’s always sobering to be confronted with irrefutable evidence that sometimes, things don’t have a reason for happening, that chaos exists, that there might not be an order to the universe,” he said. “It was the first time I had personally known victims of violence well enough to have that brutal reality presented to me.”
Many hikers quit that year. Though he was deeply apprehensive at first, Swift still finished the trail.
Now, 29 years later, Swift is shocked at the news of another killing. James Jordan was arrested last week and charged in the Appalachian Trail stabbing death of Army veteran and hiker Ronald Sanchez Jr., 43, of Oklahoma, and the brutal assault against an unidentified woman in Virginia.
These are far from the only killings on the trail. Nearby in the Michaux State Forest in Adams County on May 13, 1988, a man named Stephen Roy Carr opened fire on Claudia Brenner and Rebecca Wight as the couple, who thought they were alone, began to have sex, according to an account on AdventureJournal.com.
Brenner was injured and Wight, who was 28, was killed. Brenner has since written a book about the ordeal called “Eight Bullets: One Woman’s Story of Surviving Anti-Gay Violence.”
As jaw dropping, painful and in violation of everything in nature as all of the killings on the trail are, many hikers, like Swift, seem to know they are far from the norm.
“The Appalachian Trail is about the safest place you can be in terms of encounters with people,” Swift said. “Three to four million people hike the trail each year. We’re talking about a population bigger than the St. Louis metropolitan area. Yet since 1937, there have been 10 killings on the trail.”
A group passing through Duncannon on Tuesday – leaving the Doyle Hotel, where Geoff and Molly once stayed – felt the same way.
“I feel safer on the trail than I do in most towns, really,” Kostas Gouzias of Massachusetts told PennLive as he and his traveling companions packed their bags and tied their boots.
Hikers will persevere through times of pain and suffering, said trail volunteer Matthew Weinstone of Philadelphia, who was working at the Doyle Hotel this week. And it’s in pushing through the pain that a sense of camaraderie is renewed.
“Any time we have a tragedy, our trail family pulls together. We have a word – Tramily,” Weinstone said earlier this week. “That’s our trail family, and we heal each other, because we need it after something like this.”
Swift agrees. He lives about a mile from the Appalachian Trail in Virginia and hikes five or six days per week, running into countless hikers.
“I can’t remember the last time I had anything but a wonderful experience talking to those folks,” he said. “People who are seeking fellowship with the wilderness are unfailingly friendly.”
The camaraderie Weinstone speaks of seems to be connected to something deeper, something linking us all, and something we all have access to.
The Japanese call it “forest bathing,” Swift said.
Every walk along the Appalachian Trail, whether it’s in his backyard, the furthest reaches of Maine and Georgia, or in a return trip to a shelter near Duncannon, is a new experience. The passage of time unfolding in the cycle of the forest. Shady summers under guardian trees. Fall colors heralding the calm, winter snow. The restorative, exploding green of spring.
“It has become increasingly clear that spending time outside, especially in the woods, is like a prescription for good health,” Swift said. “No matter what kinds of problems I’m mulling or challenges I’m dealing with, I find spending that hour and 40 minutes in the woods every day gets me closer to an answer.”
All we have to do is walk outside to find it.
Swift is the author of seven books, most recently “Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island.”
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