Three years ago Eddie Thorpe left his Northern Virginia home to spend three weeks hiking 900 miles along the rugged Applachian Trail between Georgia and Virginia.

On Monday the 21-year-old muscular, brown-haired Thorpe returned to the mountains, as he would often do when he was troubled. This time, however, he didn't come back.

Maryland State Police Sgt. Elmer Baum said yesterday a group of hikers had discovered Thorpe's body near Annapolis Rock, 10 miles east of Hagerstown on the Appalachian Trail.

Baum said the hikers had been traveling along the range three miles north of U.S. Rte. 40 yesterday when they spotted a small tent. Inside, Baum said, they found a .22 caliber rifle, assorted camping gear, and Thorpe, who had been shot once through the right temple.

"We're listing it as an apparent suicide," Baum said. "It's a very rocky area that is well up into the mountains. A medical examiner said that he died about 5 p.m. Monday."

Thorpe, who attended John Tyler Elementary School in Alexandria but never was graduated from high school, had been "despondent," according to his father, Eric Thorpe, a printer for The Washington Post.

For the past year the young man had tried unsuccessfully to make it on his own, his father said, working briefly as a roofer and at a Roy Rogers restaurant in Tysons Corner.

"He always had his ups and downs," said his father in a telephone interview from his Stafford County home yesterday. "It was hard to tell about Eddie.He couldn't seem to make it on his own. He would come back to us, but he moved in with friends in Vienna."

Whenever Eddie Thorpe suffered a setback, his father said, he would go camping for several days at a time, always alone, and frequently up on Annapolis Rock. His parents had not seen him since April 10.

"There was no note, no indication that he had gone up there to do this," said Baum, who added that there was evidence at the small campsite of suicide but refused to disclose details. There was no indication of foul play, Baum said.

"Everybody's living fast these days," Baum said. "He [Thorpe] was a loner type who liked staying away from the outside world. You get suicides like this. It's not an uncommon thing, unfortunately."