It was quite dark when Dan Nicholls got home that night, out-in-the-woods dark. So it wasn't until Nicholls got out of his car and saw one of the shadows twitch that he realized there was a man standing silently in his front yard. Nicholls was startled at first. Then he saw the man had a backpack. Whew: a hiker.

Nicholls, who lives in Hewitt, N.J., expects hikers. He invites them, in fact, with signs he posts on a nearby ridgeline where the famed Appalachian Trail crosses from rural southern New York to rural northern New Jersey.

"I own a log cabin east of here, down the ridge," this one said. "You hikers are welcome to use an outdoor, rustic, but with privacy, hot/cold SHOWER/stall."

It's bait, truth be told. Nicholls is an evangelical Christian, and he uses the promise of running water and a hot meal as an opening to proselytize about "the new, fantastic water, which is life in Christ."

You hungry? he asked the hiker in the dark.

Was he ever. The hiker introduced himself as David, though he was using the "trail name" of Injun, in honor of some Native American heritage. The hiker talked while he downed a cold Snapple and two hamburgers in Nicholls's kitchen, and it soon became obvious to his host that Injun's potential was stunning. Nobody had ever walked off the trail so ready for the Lord.

To wit: Injun described himself as a drug user at the end of his rope. His family had abandoned him, he claimed. He had driven from his home in Rhode Island to a trailhead north of New York City, resolving to walk south awhile and then kill himself.

That was more than 10 days before. Now he was very hungry -- Injun said he had recently eaten both a rattlesnake and a turtle -- but still not dead. And Injun said it wasn't just hunger that had brought him down off the trail. He had felt strangely drawn to Nicholls's place, and even more so after he saw some of the Christian tracts that Nicholls keeps in a little waterproof box in the shower.

"To me . . . it was totally arranged by God," Nicholls said later, remembering that night. "So you just go with it."

Nicholls started talking about redemption. The two watched a Christian video starring TV-sitcom-star-turned-evangelist Kirk Cameron, "Hell's Best Kept Secret." And, at the end of the night, before Injun sacked out in a spare bed, Nicholls offered this suggestion: Why not spend the night praying?

By morning, the conversion was complete. The hiker was crying and laughing so much that his face started to ache. He was saying that this was the most beautiful day of his life. He even, in the spirit of the moment, felt moved to confess a pair of very recent sins.

One was theft: While he had waited for Nicholls to arrive home the previous night, he had stolen tomatoes from his

garden. The other was potentially more troubling. When he had originally seen Nicholls's sign on the trail, the hiker said, his first thought was not of some divine religious calling but rather, "Oh, that's probably some sucker Christian guy."

"We laughed," Nicholls recalled later. Remnants of a past life. That day, before the formerly famished hiker headed out on the trail again, Nicholls gave him a stock of food, a $50 bill and a new trail name. For the next six months -- during a bizarre odyssey that would strain the faith of Christians, the patience of law enforcement officers and the unshakable confidence that Appalachian Trail hikers have in one another -- David Lescoe would be known as "Saved."

"What Satan had meant for evil, God turned around for good!" Nicholls exulted in an e-mail to another Christian after his success in reaching Lescoe. And then, in big, bold letters, he typed, "TAKE THAT, SATAN, YOU LOSER!"

A quick primer on the Appalachian Trail is in order here -- if, for no other reason than to explain why its hikers might be enticed to God with only hot water and hamburgers.

First, the trail is not usually lighted or paved or even tremendously scenic. It mainly winds through woods, woods and more woods, where hikers find their way by looking for tree trunks marked with rectangular "blazes" of white paint. The actual path on the ground is narrow, muddy, rocky and often steep -- essentially like any other hiking trail in every dimension except one. That is its length, an astounding 2,175 miles. The AT, as hikers call it, starts at Springer Mountain in north Georgia and doesn't stop until it reaches Mount Katahdin in the vast, empty woods of northern Maine.

The idea of a trail along the East Coast's wooded spine was concocted in the 1920s by Benton MacKaye, a former U.S. Forest

Service employee. He was looking for an antidote to dreary urban life, and he came up with the idea of a series of rural work camps, connected to one another by a trail along the Appalachians. In this isolated archipelago, MacKaye argued, "cooperation replaces antagonism, trust replaces suspicion, emulation replaces competition."

But the U.S. government was not interested in building radical backwoods utopias. Of MacKaye's vision, only the footpath got built, and that was done mainly through private initiative.

Today, most of the 3 to 4 million people who use the AT annually aren't planning an escape from reality. They are dog walkers, day hikers or Boy Scouts who want to hike a small stretch -- like the sections of the AT that run through outer Loudoun, Fauquier and Frederick counties -- and then return to the Starbucks-and-Wal-Mart world they left. Then there are the "thru-hikers." Every year, 1,500 to 2,000 people get on the trail intending to walk it all at one go. Some years, more than 20 percent actually make it. During their five- to seven-month journeys, thru-hikers typically subsist on 4,000 calories a day of gorp, Powerbars and pasta. They drink filtered water they pump out of natural springs. They walk 14 miles or more a day and become so conscious of the weight in their 30-pound packs that they will cut the handle off a toothbrush to save a few ounces. They also, after hiking day upon showerless day, develop a smell that would turn heads in a sewage plant. When a thru-hiker comes by on the trail, the heads of passing day hikers jerk like Frenchmen in a Pepe Le Pew cartoon.

It is these smelly, half-starved people -- cut off from the real world and inducted into an alternative, minimalist society of backpackers -- who actually come the closest to making MacKaye's dream come true. "They all have the same gear to carry. They all have the sore collarbones and the sore feet, so there's a commonality," says Bob Peoples, who runs a $4-per-night hostel along the trail in Hampton, Tenn. "You'll have multimillionaires hiking with homeless people. Where do you see that in society?"

The kindness that these hikers show to one another is legendary: They share food and water, and have been known to carry the packs of strangers who seem to be faltering. And beyond the hikers themselves, small-town churches run cheap hostels, volunteers maintain wooden sleeping shelters, and regular people fill up coolers full of food and drinks and leave them along the trail.

Hikers refer to all these good deeds as "trail magic." And there is a lot of it out there, offering thru-hikers a pretty encouraging vision of humanity in the wild. But the trail has a serious downside.

Because of its anonymity, isolation and ample charity, it's a good place for bad people to hide out. Though serious crimes are rare in this American Garden of Eden, they do happen.

In 1988, for instance, two women were shot, one fatally, by a drifter named Stephen Roy Carr who had been living along the trail in Pennsylvania's Michaux State Forest. Two years later, near Duncannon, Pa., a thru-hiking couple was murdered -- one shot, one stabbed -- in a trail shelter by a man who was on the run from Florida police. In 1996, two women were stabbed to death on a side trail near the AT in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park. Police eventually charged a man with the murders, but DNA evidence from the crime scene unraveled the case against him. It remains unsolved.

Trail officials insist the AT is as safe as any small town. But it still draws odd characters who don't fit in elsewhere. This past summer, there was "Greenhorn," a drug user who aggressively panhandled from other hikers for 10 months until he was tracked down by a ranger, and another man whose habit of lugging heavy suitcases over the steep mountains of Virginia earned him the nickname "Samsonite Man."

During the summer of 2004, it was David Lescoe who was looking for an escape.

Lescoe, who turned 33 that summer, had grown up in an outdoorsy family living in Nanticoke, Pa., near Wilkes-Barre. His family members took him to Nebo Baptist Church every Sunday, but they knew early that he was troubled. While Lescoe had once brought a gun to school and was charged with a break-in, his overriding problems were drugs and alcohol, family members say. He could never fully quit his addictions, but he was gifted with an honest face and a genius for making his family and friends believe he had.

"He would promise you the world," says his younger brother, Andrew Lescoe, who still lives outside Nanticoke. "He would promise you that he's going to straighten up, and he's going on the straight and narrow path. He would do it for a couple days." And then, most of the time, he would go back to his old ways.

Family members recall a couple of his most painful relapses: Once, his grandfather turned over to him an air-conditioning repair business that had been built up over 30 years. David suddenly left town, and the business died. Another time, he persuaded his mother to co-sign for a house note, then again left town and stuck her with the bills.

"David is a very loving, loving boy, but you know what I think: He played roles for the people he needed," says his aunt Shirley Sincavage. One of his frequent tactics was to promise to go back to church. "Pretty soon you didn't know who the real David was."

By last summer, the teenage delinquent had grown into a slender man covered in tattoos who supported himself with occasional carpentry jobs. He'd moved to Woonsocket, R.I., where he ran into some kind of trouble regarding his only child, an elementary-school-age daughter from a failed marriage. There was an accusation of abuse, and -- though to this day it still hasn't lead to a charge against him -- Sincavage says he felt the world closing in.

"Auntie," she remembers him saying on July 14, 2004, "I swear to you, I did nothing to that girl." The next day, he was gone.

Ten days later, thru-hikers using the trail names Coyote, Buckeye, Big Stick, Erik and Dave were stopping for the night near Bear Mountain, N.Y. As they settled in, the group was pestered by another hiker, who insisted they sleep in the shelter with him. "There's plenty of room! Look, there's even bunks," he said, according to Coyote -- real name Sarah Holt, 27 -- who wrote about her thru-hike for her hometown paper in Brunswick, Maine.

"I just remember thinking to myself that he wasn't a thru-hiker," says Buckeye, real name Kevin McClellan, 24, of Columbus, Ohio. The guy didn't have the fancy polymer-fiber clothes that thru-hikers wear, and his boots looked too clunky for someone hiking more than 2,000 miles. "He was probably out for a couple days."

The group told him no thanks, and pitched tents and went to sleep. In the morning, Holt went to retrieve a bag that she had hung in the shelter, to keep it safe from rodents. It held all her food, her camp stove, her insect repellent, her toothbrush and even her titanium spork. The bag was gone. "So was the section-hiker," she wrote.

Lescoe. Or so it turned out. Nobody knew the thief's name for almost three weeks, until, after his encounter with Nicholls in New Jersey, the hiker now called Saved walked into the dead-end Susquehanna River town of Duncannon, Pa.

Duncannon amounts to one street of pizza parlors and run-down buildings, long since bypassed by the highway to Harrisburg. But it's a landmark to hikers, because it's one of the few towns the AT actually runs right through.

For them, this little place has two chief institutions. One is the Doyle Hotel, a century-old pile where a room costs $17.50 a night. The other is Trail Angel Mary.

Mary Parry, 56, started helping out hikers about five years ago, when she was evicted and living among the backpacking crowd at the town's small campground. The first thing she gave them was bananas, for potassium. It built from there. Now, Mary's good works include filling up coolers along the trail with food and cold drinks. She drives hikers to outfitters for new boots. She takes them to the hospital for bad cases of poison ivy. She lets them sleep in her home and drive her car. During her Sunday-night "feeds," she cooks for a dozen at a time, serving up dishes like stuffed trout, Amish-style baked corn and her famous peanut butter soup.

Parry frequently spends up to 40 hours a week helping hikers. One day, after she'd been doing this for a while, she heard a hiker named "B-Man" call her "Trail Angel Mary." She had never heard the title before, but it fit: Trail angels are the highest and most prolific practitioners of trail magic. And, in a world with few authority figures, the title has made Parry a kind of moral arbiter, a person to whom problems are brought. That's how she came to know Lescoe: After his encounter with Nicholls, he had confessed his theft to another hiker, who passed it on to Mary.

"I hear you did something you have regrets about," she said when he finally arrived in town.

"Yeah." He showed her Holt's food bag and camp stove.

She didn't call the police to report a theft. In fact, Mary says she wasn't even aware that the trail had police. (It's easy to get that impression, since a grand total of two U.S. park rangers are assigned to the AT full time.) Instead, Parry imposed her own kind of trail justice: Clean my apartment for two hours, she told Lescoe. In exchange, "I will send [Holt] a food bag in your name."

A few days later, a surprised Holt checked in at a post office in Hanover, N.H., and found a cardboard box waiting for her, full of Pop Tarts, Fruit Roll-Ups, macaroni and cheese mix, and Ramen noodles. "About 30 pounds of hiker food," Holt wrote.

By that time, Lescoe was headed south on the trail again.

No one can carry six months of food at one time. So most thru-hikers arrange for someone back home to mail regular care packages to post offices along the trail.

Lescoe, of course, didn't have access to that, because no one back home knew where he was. So how did he eat? The answer, according to those who followed his career on the trail, was a blend of Blanche DuBois and Yogi Bear. He mostly depended on the kindness of strangers, but then sometimes he stole their pickanick baskets.

One of his hiking companions was "Dances With Moose," real name Brian Matthews, 27, from Wakefield, Mass., who hiked with Lescoe for two weeks in late July and early August. He says Lescoe ate a lot of stolen food from Holt's bag, and routinely scavenged in "hiker boxes," where previous backpackers had left behind excess food.

He also was good at getting money and food from strangers, who were impressed by the long story about his plans for suicide and subsequent conversion. "People gave him things all the time, but he never asked," says Matthews, who heard about Lescoe's suicidal thoughts right after meeting him on the trail ("That's kind of a rare thing to hear, especially within the first 10 minutes," he says). That night, he found himself offering to buy Lescoe a hamburger at a bar in Unionville, where the trail hugs the New York-New Jersey border.

Even the trail's few authority figures helped Lescoe out. When he was in Delaware Water Gap, along the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border, Lescoe had eaten bad mushrooms and collapsed. This was long before he was known to be different from other thru-hikers, and park rangers and others did a "carryout," lugging Lescoe out of the woods on a stretcher so he could be treated at a hospital.

But the trail's famous charity appears to have run out on him in early September in central Virginia, when his food and money were exhausted and the weather suddenly became fierce. Soon, he found himself as he had been at Dan Nicholls's place -- hungry and desperate.

Though the Appalachian Trail passes within several hundred yards of Wintergreen, the world of the trail and the world of the affluent Virginia ski resort could not be more different. Wintergreen is a place where a 12-member police department protects a few hundred year-round residents. It is a place where crimes get solved.

On September 10, the first of several curious burglary calls came in to Wintergreen Police Investigator Steve Southworth, a button-down police veteran who had moved west after working in the Richmond suburbs. At a house up on Laurel Springs Drive, the closets had been ransacked, some liquor had been drunk, and there was a bowl of soup sitting in the microwave.

Already, this one was strange: The TV, VCR and other burglar-friendly valuables were untouched. "Looked like somebody that was really hungry and thirsty," Southworth recalls.

The pattern repeated itself three times over the next few weeks, as weekend residents came home and discovered more break-ins. In one of the houses, where the window had been pried open, the burglar had drunk hard liquor and had eaten an astounding four cans of Progresso soup ("I mean, I can hardly put one down," says an impressed Southworth). In that house, the intruder left behind old socks, a map of the Appalachian Trail and a battered fishing tackle box. In another house, the only thing stolen was a fanny pack. At the hardest-hit house, the burglar had taken a North Face tent, a backpack and a nice set of hiking poles. Also gone: a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle and bag upon bag of crabmeat the house's owner had picked to eat over the winter.

Two weeks after the burglaries, the stolen VW Bug was recovered, drenched with the smell of spoiled crabmeat. It had been left at a remote Appalachian Trail entrance at the James River Footbridge, north of Lynchburg, Va. The burglar, the police concluded, was back on the trail.

Law enforcement figured he was making eight to 12 miles a day, which meant that, a few days after the car was found, he had to be somewhere in Bland County, south of Pearisburg, Va. And, when Teddy Mullins, an officer for the U.S. Forest Service, went out looking, there he was.

"Howdy. How are you doing?" asked Mullins, blocking the hiker's path but remaining friendly. Mullins had little more to go on than a description, taken from a security camera in Wintergreen, of a white man with a beard and a backpack, which describes pretty much every male thru-hiker. He wanted to make sure he had the right guy. So he made small talk, asking about damage from a hurricane that had recently passed.

"Oh, by the way, I'm Teddy Mullins," the officer said. "What's your name?"

Lescoe told Mullins his trail name: Saved.

"But what's your actual name?"

Lescoe gave it up, first and last (though Mullins didn't ask him to spell it, and originally thought it was "Lasco"). Mullins saw hiking poles and a backpack that seemed to match the descriptions of loot missing from Wintergreen. "All the little pieces together, it was adding up in a hurry."

But he was under orders not to make an arrest by himself, since the word on the trail was that Saved had a large knife and might be suicidal. Mullins politely excused himself, walked up the trail to a mountaintop and called for backup on his cell phone. Then he doubled back to his car and drove to a spot on the trail that was eight or nine miles ahead of the hiker. He waited 4 1/2 hours, until long after Lescoe should have passed. Nothing. "Then I was concerned," Mullins says. He left his hiding place, and along with other officers, searched all eight miles of trail back to where he and Lescoe had met. Still nothing.

Officers searched trail shelters, rousting out hikers in late evening with flashlights. No Saved. By 2 a.m., more than 12 hours after Mullins and Lescoe had met on the trail, the searchers gave up for the night.

Over the next few days in October, investigators heard about two more stolen cars at AT trailheads, one in Bland County, Va., and one in a nearby section of eastern Tennessee.

But these leads, like the others, always ended fruitlessly back at the AT. "He was gone," Southworth says.

In October, Janet Hensley, the owner of a trailside hostel in Tennessee, posted a message on the hiker bulletin board www.whiteblaze.net. Its heading was one word: "Thief!"

"It is with a certain amount of anger and sadness that I feel that I have to start letting the AT community know about a situation," she began. The posting included most everything that authorities knew about Lescoe at the time: his height, age, tattoos and trail name.

A few days later, the same description wound up in the e-mail inbox of Dan Nicholls, back at the log cabin in New Jersey where the whole thing had began. "I thought, man, it does look like him," Nicholls says. He was hurt by the idea: "If this is him, then he's making a mockery" of the whole conversion experience.

He contacted authorities, and they at first had hopes of tracking Lescoe down using a voice mail he had left Nicholls. But that turned out to be too technically difficult. Finally, there came a good opportunity: In January, Lescoe sent Nicholls an e-mail, asking for a copy of the "TAKE THAT, SATAN!" memo that summarized his conversion.

Nicholls wrote back: What's your mailing address?

The next day, a woman in Lizella, Ga. -- a town outside Macon hundreds of miles from where Lescoe had been last seen -- opened Nicholls's e-mail at work. Thinking she was being helpful, she wrote back, giving the address of the trailer next door to her home.

That was where a nice man named David had been living for three months, since he had shown up out of nowhere, smelling to high heaven, and had been taken in by the Lizella Baptist Church. He had a job, fellow parishioners willing to share their trailer and their Internet account, and he was scheduled to speak about his conversion during the church's upcoming ski trip. That's why he was asking Nicholls for his account of the conversion: He was preparing his talk, says Todd Remaley, a park ranger who worked on the case.

About midnight the next day, January 21, a task force of federal marshals and local law enforcement officers knocked on the trailer's door. Six months and more than 1,000 miles after he left Woonsocket, Saved was under arrest.

Law-enforcement-wise, the Lescoe case was a cinch to wrap up. On the ride back to Virginia, Lescoe told the same story he'd been telling to everyone along the trail -- only this time with Wintergreen investigator Southworth's digital recorder running.

In all, he talked for seven hours, even telling Southworth about a break-in he didn't know about: Lescoe had gotten hungry and hit a concession stand in Pennsylvania's Caledonia State Park, taking money, hamburgers and boxes of taffy. There was also a two-page confession, and a fingerprint that matched prints from the burglarized houses and the stolen Beetle.

So far, Lescoe has been charged in three Virginia counties. Two charges are for the Wintergreen burglaries, which happened to straddle a county line. The other is in Bland County, where Mullins met him and then lost him on the trail that day. There, authorities believe he laid low for four or five days, breaking into four empty cabins and stealing another car.

So far, he's pleaded guilty in all three and has been sentenced to a total of 10 years. Through a jail official, Lescoe declined to be interviewed for this story.

For the people Lescoe met on his journey, the ending hasn't been as neat. In the months since his capture, they have struggled to figure out: Was he just a genuinely lost, friendly soul, who had moments of weakness on the trail? People in Georgia think so. "If there was something malicious about him, it didn't show up in the nearly three months that he was here," says Doug Davis, pastor of Lizella Baptist. "There was nothing not to like about him."

But many in the world of thru-hikers take a harder view: Lescoe was a flimflammer, who exploited the AT community's charity and trust. Before he was caught, angry posters on whiteblaze.net entertained fantasies that he should be shot or his gear should be burned.

"He's a criminal, and that hurt. That hurt the community," says Janet Hensley, the Tennessee hostel operator whose posting helped lead to Lescoe's capture.

Of all the people involved in Saved's story, nobody has had a harder time figuring him out than Dan Nicholls. In February, after Lescoe was captured, Nicholls sent a letter to him in Virginia's Charlottesville/Albemarle Regional Jail. He told Lescoe that using the name Saved while committing burglaries was "like spitting in the face of your Saviour." And Nicholls asked a question that had been on his mind for months. "Did you really receive Christ as your Saviour at my place?" he wrote. "If you didn't, you have got to be the world's ultimate con man."

Nicholls waited more than three months for a reply. He got none. Then, in June, he re-sent the letter to Lescoe. This time he attached a $25 money order. The money got Lescoe's attention. He wrote back, citing a verse in the King James Bible that Nicholls had given him, Romans 3:23: "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God."

David A. Fahrenthold is a Boston-based correspondent for The Post.