ASHBY GAP, Va. — The hikers who embark on the Appalachian Trail are less a community than an extended family, an outdoorsy hive that trades gossip, commiserates, treats blisters and shares provisions along 2,190-odd miles of narrow dirt path stretching from Georgia to Maine.
So word spread quickly last month after a disheveled 30-year-old man appeared on the trail in North Carolina, acting erratically and clad in a heavy winter coat and knit cap instead of the usual shorts and T-shirt.
Hikers filled log books along the trail with cautions after the man was arrested April 25 at the Tennessee-North Carolina border, apparently after threatening to kill his dog unless campers gave him food. When he reached Damascus, Virginia, the symbolic heart of the trail, in early May, the town’s “trail angels” — people who regularly help hikers with gifts of food and other necessities — tried to help him, too.
“A couple of folks pulled him aside and said, ‘Hey, the trail’s not your place,’” said Ben Bolek, a 35-year-old from Austin, Texas, who quit his job this spring to make the hike. “‘Can we get you a bus ticket?’”
But the man, James L. Jordan of West Yarmouth, Massachusetts, apparently traveled only a short distance before leaving the bus or being ejected from it, Bolek said. And about a week later, police officers charged him with the murder of one Appalachian Trail hiker and the stabbing of a second one at a remote spot on the trail in southwestern Virginia on Saturday.
Federal authorities Tuesday identified the murdered man as Ronald S. Sanchez Jr., 43, of Oklahoma. The name of his female companion who was stabbed has not been released. Two other hikers who were traveling with the couple fled into the woods after the attacker chased them and threatened to set their tents on fire.
For many on the trail Monday, the shudder triggered by news of the murder seems to have lingered only briefly.
“It definitely upset me when I heard about it,” 32-year-old Amanda Gannon said as she settled into the spartan confines of Rod Hollow Shelter near Ashby Gap in Virginia after logging 23 rain-drenched miles for the day. “I was feeling so confident and really proud of myself, and it kind of made me get off my high horse for a little bit. On the trail, anything can happen. But anything could happen anywhere.”
Sacha Servan-Schreiber, 24, who said he was hiking the entire length of the trail before embarking on a computer-science doctorate, said he had met one couple who had left the path to take a bus from Tennessee to Virginia after the man threatened them. “They seemed pretty stressed,” he said.
Then again, he added, “the trail is probably safer, statistically speaking, than just walking down the road, even if something like this happens. It’s important to look at the bigger picture, in my opinion, and understand that a lot of people are going through here — a lot of people with different backgrounds.”
The bigger picture is reassuring. Deaths along the trail are exceptionally rare, and killings even rarer; 2 million to 3 million people hike all or part of the trail annually, yet Saturday’s murder was only the 10th in 45 years of record-keeping, according to a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. (The trail was conceived in 1921 and completed in 1937.)
The trail’s travelers are an eclectic bunch, from dedicated outdoors-lovers to dreamers taking a break from life, but they are almost uniformly supportive and neighborly. Only some manage the entire length of the trail. Many more do 100 or 200 miles at a time, or less.
“Police officers, doctors,” Gannon said of the people she has met on the trail. “People that retired early. People that retired late. All sorts and all walks of life, from all over the U.S., Australia, the U.K. — like, everywhere.”
“The majority of the time, I’ve been telling people this has restored my faith in humanity,” she said.
Many of its hikers consider the trail — also known as “the A.T.” — a respite from civilization. Hikers take to the trail in part to get away from the news, and cellular service may be blessedly impossible for long stretches. The principal concerns are not politics or paychecks — and certainly not human attackers — but rain, cold and the occasional black bear.
The trail is empty enough to bask in its solitude, should one wish, and crowded enough to easily join others on the path or in a community slumber party at one of the many rudimentary shelters along the way. Devoted hikers are awarded trail names that allude to personal quirks or physical traits. Servan-Schreiber is “Scepter,” for the knife-hewn walking stick he totes; Gannon is “Axolotl,” a salamander nicknamed the walking fish — a coded reference to her love of swimming.
Jordan, the accused attacker, was called “Sovereign,” but he sometimes bridled at the name, insisting that his handle was “Night-owl” or “Tallahassee Red,” Bolek said.
The area where the attack occurred, near Massie Gap in deep southern Virginia, is a carpet of dense forest draped over softly rolling peaks that can top 5,000 feet, some of the state’s tallest. A section of the trail was closed over the weekend, following the attack, but had been reopened by Monday.
Even in mid-May, daytime temperatures in the area may only reach the 40s, and oak trees are still leafing out amid the blooms of rhododendrons, flame azaleas and other wildflowers. Rocky creeks gurgle and zigzag through the hollows. Towns are few, small and far apart.
Hikers who encountered Jordan before Saturday’s attack said they feared for their safety.
Bolek said he encountered him “five or 10 times” over several weeks, including a late-April run-in at a southern Tennessee shelter packed with campers shortly after Tennessee authorities had released him.
“It was just weird, erratic behavior,” he said. “He had a dog bowl and accused us of stealing it from him. He started yelling at us, and I told him, ‘Hey, we know who you are. We’re not looking for any trouble. We don’t have your bowl. Just go back to your campsite and be on your way.’
“I felt the threat of violence wasn’t far away,” he said. “I spent half the night at the campfire awake, making sure he didn’t come back.”
Days later, Jordan was evicted from a hostel in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, after insisting that “he was the keeper of the trail” and controlled entry to it, said Madeline Gossee, a 24-year-old Canadian hiker with the trail name “Pit Stop.” He was behaving erratically, she said, but “didn’t seem that dangerous.”
But authorities said that last weekend, less than two weeks later, a male hiker sent a distress signal on his mobile phone after being stabbed. His female companion played dead after being stabbed, then walked for 6 miles, assisted by other hikers, before getting medical treatment. Two other hikers called 911 early Saturday after being roused from their tents and fleeing a man who threatened to burn them to death.
On Monday, Jordan was charged in federal court with one count of murder and one count of assault with the intent to murder, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia said. Jordan did not enter a plea, said Brian McGinn, a spokesman for the office.
At the Grayson Highlands General Store & Inn near the site of the attack, the owner, Dennis Conroy, 69, said he had just taken in some hikers who wanted to stop at least briefly to reconsider their plans.
“They are concerned and getting off the trail,” he said. “Others are just marching on. Most are not concerned, but you never know.”