I hiked a thousand miles of the Appalachian Trail in my early 40s. My wife was asked if I was trying to find myself. The answer was no, but I did want to prove to myself that I could endure a long backpacking trip. I wanted to know if I was man enough to be on my own in that type of environment.
I learned I could make do with very little and that I could eat almost anything if I was hungry enough. I learned not to be so quick to judge people by their appearance. I experienced “Trail Magic” when total strangers went out of their way to help me out.
Hiking the “AT” as the Appalachian Trail is often called reaffirmed my belief in the goodness of man and helped me realize that I was just a very small part of a very large world. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life and to this day I feel the positive influences of that long trip.
Ronnie Sanchez, Jr. hiked the AT for different reasons. Sanchez served as a combat engineer in the US Army for 16 years, including three tours in Iraq. He left with unseen wounds that affected his life as a civilian for years. He slowly made a comeback thanks to his love of the outdoors.
Eventually, Sanchez decided to hike the Trail so he could continue to heal by interacting with nature at a different level. His trail name was “Stronghold”. Mine was “Peanut Plowboy”, later shortened to just “Plowboy”.
He had traveled 545 miles by May 11th of this year. On that day, another hiker approached the spot where four hikers had made camp. James Louis Jordan had already garnered a reputation amongst hikers up and down the trail. The reliable grapevine that hikers use to keep up with each other warned people to beware of this particular man.
Jordan threatened to burn the tents of the four hikers and they decided to leave. Jordan then confronted the hikers with a 20 inch knife. Two hikers escaped. One was stabbed six times before she pretended to be dead in an act that saved her life. Sanchez was stabbed and murdered on the trail where he had only sought peace.
Violent crime is exceedingly rare in the backcountry. There have only been 12 homicides on the Appalachian Trail in its long history. A double murder occurred between my two hikes, in 1996. The two hikers were camped very close to a small parking lot on the Skyline Drive. There was some speculation the murderer parked in the isolated lot before walking a short distance up the trail to find his victims. Never again would I camp close to a parking lot or road.
I only had one bad experience during my months on the trail. I was hiking with a younger couple. We came to a camping area, which consisted of a lean-to, a pit toilet, and a picnic table. Before pitching out tents we decided to have dinner.
As we were cooking, a man appeared out of nowhere. He was dressed in camouflage and it turns out he was camped less than 30 yards away from this clearing. His tent was exceedingly well hidden.
He began cooking his own meal, which was Vietnamese food. He was using a long knife in its preparation. We became aware that he was still fighting yet another war and quickly ate our food before making an excuse about hiking a few more miles before dark.
A couple of miles away we split up. The couple and I made separate camps off the trail, deep in the woods. We made no fires that night. We followed some basic rules of hiking when you encounter trouble. Leave as quickly as possible and get off the trail. Sanchez never got that chance.
I looked at my old maps to see where the murder happened. I remember hiking right through the area. It could have just as easily been me years ago.
Sanchez was confronting his own demons on the AT. A lot of people do that. For many, it is a place of healing, a place to seek peace. For others, it is a test of their own fortitude. For almost all, it is a community unlike any other where all are welcomed and you are measured by who you are and not what you have.
I hope that this spot of terror will naturally become yet another small shrine along the difficult walk. People will leave small bunches of wild flowers or other items to remember this lost hiker. He will be remembered forever in the lore of the trail. Ronnie Sanchez, Jr. is finally at peace.
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]