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At the clearing’s edge stands an open-faced shelter of heavy timber, one of 260 huts built roughly a day’s walk apart on the AT’s wriggling, roller-coaster course from Maine to Georgia.
It’s tall and airy and skylit, with a deep porch, two tiers of wooden bunks, and a picnic table.
They gave shout-outs to other hikers, including one named Skip “Muskratt” Richards, whom they’d met in Monson. They were stopping to take pictures, to study plants, turtles, and salamanders, to bake bread. We sped over the high, wild Presidential Range and down the 2,000-foot Webster Cliffs, setting up camp at the bottom two nights behind Geoff and Molly.
Shortly after midnight, as I snored in my tent and Greg slept in his bivy sack, we were startled awake by a concussive thud: a rotted tree had toppled into the four-foot space between us, coming within inches of my head.
Perhaps the shelter’s remoteness—far greater than that of past trouble—played into our big-city uneasiness about what lurks in the woods at night. Or the questions that lingered when the man responsible would not say why he shot Geoff three times or why he tied Molly’s hands behind her back and looped the rope around her neck. Why he stabbed her eight times in the neck, throat, and back.“It probably took me a good 15 years to just process,” says Karen Lutz, then and now the top staffer in the mid-Atlantic region for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). Molly, a year younger, was a sunny, energetic artist who in high school had won a national contest to design a 1984 U. They ventured onto the AT, as many do, at an unsettled juncture in their lives: they’d learned that, come May, they’d be laid off, and a six-month hike seemed a good way to decide what to do next.
“We got a phone call from her one day,” Molly’s father, Jim La Rue, recalls.
Reading those entries made it obvious to all in their wake that they were enjoying themselves immensely.
Which is how I first made their acquaintance, in a poem Molly left in a Maine lean-to and signed with her trail name, Nalgene.
It is a quiet, restorative place, this clearing high on a Pennsylvania ridge. Sassafras and tulip trees, tall oak and hickory stand tight at its sides, their leaves hissing in breezes that sweep from the valley below.
A few feet away stood the ancient log lean-to it replaced.
When I visited this past spring, saplings and tangled brier so colonized the old shelter’s footprint that I might have missed it, had I not slept there myself.
Not only do they suck any type of freedom out of you, but I would be in serious trouble if I hugged a female friend, gave a woman a ride home even if she desperately needed one, or dated a white person without first getting my parents’ approval: Apparently, if you don’t ban interracial dating like Bob Jones University used to do, then it’s ok…
as long as you treat it like it’s worse than dating someone of the same race.