Even me. Especially me. Here, all were purportedly safe. There is no divorcing the lack of diversity in the outdoors from a history of violence against the black body, systemic racism, and income inequality. Few seemed to understand that simply because hikers had not targeted me did not mean I had ceased being a target. That I viewed every road crossing as a cue to raise shields, eyes open, ears alert. Here, they were free, truly free, whereas I was only a little freer than before. That the difference between the two held centuries of slaughters in its maw.
That we all carried fears. That some fears never slept. My presence brought more Confederate flags than expected into focus for white eyes, and that saddened them when they were sad enough as it was. I explained that casual physical mobility had never been never a luxury for those who shared my hue.
That the reasons few people looked like me on the Appalachian Trail were steeped in violence, lynchings, rapes, countless hate crimes, and a fear of the aforementioned that persists to this day. That the world kept going even when, for months, we watched our foot placement instead of the news. That there were few fellow hikers in early July who could understand what it felt like to hear about a rash of black deaths. Fair enough. And yet. That solitude might be hard to find on the trail but isolation would always come far too easily to some. People ask me why I chose the Appalachian Trail, and I tell them it was the clearest shape of freedom for who I was before it.
I needed to prove it was possible not to give up on myself, day in and day out, when giving up felt like the most natural thing in the world. I can confirm that one does not walk 2, miles across the face of this country as a black woman without building up an incredible sense of self. I have seen what I can be. I have heard the voices stop. When did you last wish you could? What I know is that I moved to New York City in at the start of the recession, and after a few years a vanishing began. You stop being yourself without even knowing it. You withdraw. You retreat like a glacier, slowly, until people wonder if there was ever anything more to their memory of you than an inconvenient pile of rocks.
And then you decide what you can still fight for. Active literary citizenship can take many forms, particularly during times of transition. For years, my fight has been promoting writers of color. In , I ran Short Story of the Day, a project where I shared one short story a day by underrepresented writers. This year, I created a library of black excellence along the Appalachian Trail. It symbolized a great deal more.
Terror on the Appalachian Trail: Hikers Battle Mountaineer Serial Killers
I hold no expectations of it lasting. Erosion is part of the point. Pages will be ripped out for fires. Rain and moisture will destroy the rest. For all I know, a trail maintainer has already stuffed a book or two of mine among her gear and grumbled about having to pack out the trash hikers leave behind. What matters is that I tried, and that it kept me whole, and that was good enough. There are countless articles on post-trail depression about how to deal with the crash that follows.
People almost immediately regain the weight they lost. Their bad habits and nervous tics return with a vengeance. Once again, they must look the country in the face, at its politics, its intolerance, and it is nothing, nothing at all like the trail where every day was about community and one step after another. People face their personal shortcomings. They have to find a way to eat. The means to procure both. They must find new methods of battling inertia.
He watched as, a little chastened, they strung up a clothesline and hung their socks and T-shirts. They started a fire and cooked dinner, offering him some. He demurred. As they ate, Ralph left the shelter and wandered into the trees, returning with an armful of wood for the fire. He made another trip for more. Went back a third time. Still, he told her, they should leave first thing in the morning. Margaret crawled into her sleeping bag not long after. Darkness had yet to fall.
As she drifted off, the men built the fire into a fierce blaze. Neither said much. Previous Next The Low Gap shelter today. Earl Swift. She woke to Joel urging her to get moving. Margaret sat up in her bag.
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Morning had come, and he was already loaded up; his big green pack leaned against a tree outside, cinched tight. She watched as he walked to the stream, splashed water on his face, and doubled back toward the fire ring. At the same time, Ralph threw off his blanket and stepped out of the shelter. She was lacing a boot when there came a loud, sharp noise, a blast, and when she looked up, Joel had dropped into an awkward crouch. His head rested on the fire ring.
He was motionless. Before Margaret had time to process the scene, Ralph was leaping into the shelter to stand over her. Wait, what? What had just happened? He ordered her to her feet, then guided her up the narrow path that led to the privy and into the trackless woods beyond. He stopped her beside a slim hardwood, ordered her to sit on the ground, pulled her legs around the tree, and tied her feet together.
He blindfolded her. He walked off.
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Margaret sat on the forest floor, surrounded by the sounds of trees and birds, frantic. She willed herself to calm down, to imagine that it was all a story, a fiction. Ten minutes passed, maybe fifteen. Ralph removed her blindfold, untied her, and led her back to the shelter. Joel was nowhere to be seen. She asked Ralph where he was. Remembered today, when he is remembered at all, for his unfortunate place in history—the first documented murder on the Appalachian Trail. In the decades since, seven other hikers have died in acts of violence on the footpath.
A few southern newspapers wrote of his murder in the days after. Who he was, and how he passed the 26 years before that May morning, are such a blank that many mentions of him in print and online misspell his name Polsom. This much is known: He was from Hartsville, South Carolina, a paper-mill town 60 miles northeast of Columbia.
The youngest of three children born to John E. Joel was intrepid as a kid, into scouting, playing soldier. Then, when he was 13 or 14, he suffered a mysterious accident.
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Whatever his condition, by the time he was able to return to school, he was two years older than his classmates. He was also shy and nerdish, clumsy in his interactions. Photos from his high school yearbooks depict a bespectacled straight arrow with a mission-control haircut and a fondness for cardigans and chinos. Joel Polson in Courtesy Johnny Polson. Still, Joel was difficult to overlook at Hartsville High. He got into photography, and he and his camera became fixtures at every campus event. Classmates nicknamed him Flash.
That primed him for further involvement. He was president of the Photography Club, was a DJ on the school radio station, and worked the counter in the student store. At the shelter, Margaret was numb with shock. Joel was probably dead. It made no sense. The men had not said a word to each other that morning. He asked whether Joel had any money. She pointed out where Joel stashed them. She had change in her pocket.
She handed it over. Pack up, Ralph told her. He led her back into the woods—deeper this time, yards from the shelter. She asked whether he was going to kill her. He had her again sit facing a tree and once more positioned her legs around the trunk, binding her feet together. He tied her hands behind her back. He covered her backpack with leaves and wedged his own rucksack behind her as a backrest.
He dropped a bag of granola in her lap. He had her demonstrate that she could reach both with her mouth. It could be that somebody will come in an hour, he said.
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Then again, it might be tomorrow. This time he dispensed with the blindfold. Margaret watched the sweep of the second hand. It seemed preternaturally slow. Minutes crawled by. She strained her ears, dreading the sound of footsteps, certain that if Ralph returned it would be to kill her. After fifteen minutes, here he came. Getting that way, she realized, did.
She found herself thinking, with eerie calm: OK God. Here I come. Ralph surprised her. I just wanted his gear. I had to do it because he was such a big guy. So you have a choice, Ralph told her. You can stay here if you want. Or you can hike out of the mountains with me. Margaret did not dwell on her options. She did not want to sit tied up in the woods. A few minutes later, they were packed up and headed back to the AT, Margaret in the lead, Ralph and his gun a pace behind. At the junction, they could have turned south, backtracking to a road less than five miles away.
Instead, Ralph ordered her north. Listen up, he said as they walked. After high school, Joel continued to hone his skill behind a lens. He landed pictures in the local papers and won first place at the Darlington Arts Festival. Joel hiked frequently into a local arboretum to photograph flowers and the blackwater swamp at its heart. He took up cycling, too, and invested in a lightweight road bike he took on marathon rides across the coastal plain. Around , he pedaled from Hartsville to Kent, Ohio, and a couple of years later, says his brother, he set out to ride across the country. Inevitably, his interest in the outdoors and arcane gear fused into a new passion: Joel started talking about hiking the Appalachian Trail.
His kindness chilled Margaret. She believed none of it. She was the only person who could link him to a murder. Surely he planned to kill her. But for now she was still alive, and she recognized that staying that way meant doing everything he said, buying one minute at a time. For nearly four miles out of Low Gap, the trail followed an old roadbed ruffed with ferns. On their left rose dark stone, bearded in moss and punctuated with small waterfalls. On their right the ground fell sharply away. Margaret expected at any moment that Ralph might shove her over the precipice or shoot her in the back and kick her down the mountainside.
It made sense that he would. She steadied her nerves by talking. She said it seemed like he was running from something and asked what it was. The FBI was probably looking for him. He was preoccupied. It was he, not Margaret, who needed to stop every few minutes. They were resting not far into the hike when two men with chainsaws came into view, one of them the same forester she and Joel had spoken with the day before. Margaret panicked. This was no chance for rescue. Just the opposite: if the forester saw that she was hiking with a different man, she was sure Ralph would start shooting.
And in fact, the guy did notice. He said no more about it.
Their ride was picking them up miles to the south later that afternoon. The men hurried off, unaware of their luck, leaving Margaret with a deepening dread that she and Ralph would spend the night in the woods. He looked like a hippie out of central casting—beard, granny glasses, hair spilling past his shoulders and held in place with a headband. But appearances aside, he was out of step with the Woodstock generation.
He lived with his parents. He remained a quiet misfit. He continued to dive deep into hobbies: He took a liking to bluegrass tunes and built his own washtub bass, carrying the unwieldy instrument wherever he went. He bought a fiddle, too. Family and friends never heard him play it, but it ranked high among his possessions. In time, Joel moved to Columbia and was hired on as a night watchman at the Joyful Alternative. All he had to offer was that fiddle. It was studded with rocks and knuckled with roots, and it rode the knobby spine of a ridge high above the infant Chattahoochee River.
There he could scratch by with just a pocketknife.
Not so in these southern Appalachians: here he felt out of his element. The afternoon sun crossed the sky. Just beyond, they came to the Rocky Knob shelter , where they rested before descending a steep, yard side trail to a spring. Even they could cover the distance by nightfall. All but Margaret dropped out as the time to leave approached. Hiker Midnight is a collection of 13 fictional stories of horror taking place on the Appalachian Trail. With long distance hikers and trail fans in mind this series of dark fiction is perfect bedtime reading while you're snuggled up in your sleeping bag, inside your tent or in a shelter.
As darkness settles in you better hope the campfire has enough wood for the night, because sleeping anywhere on the trail will no longer feel as safe. Experience the chills and terror of the trail today, Read Hiker Midnight. Add to Basket. Log in to rate this item. You must be logged in to post a review. Please log in. There are no reviews for the current version of this product Refreshing There are no reviews for previous versions of this product.
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