Allie Ghaman is a writer and illustrator living in Chicago.
These are the bleak facts: Over the weekend, hikers were attacked on the Appalachian Trail by a person wielding a machete. Ronald S. Sanchez Jr., a 43-year-old man from Oklahoma, was killed. An as-yet unidentified woman played dead and managed to escape. The alleged perpetrator of this attack has been arrested.
This attack in Virginia has shaken the hiking community to the core — including the “thru-hiking” community, those of us who walk long trails end to end.
Human violence in the backcountry is rare; the A.T. has experienced only a handful of homicides in decades, despite getting more than 3 million visitors a year. But what violence does occur leaves wide ripples of despair.
I did not know Sanchez or the survivor, but I know a few things about them. Through the communion of shared experience, of literally walking the same steps for miles and miles, we have something in common. I know the trees they passed under, the streamlets they gathered water from.
I know that these hikers chose to walk the trail, to experience the world at a walking pace. And I know, from the outpouring of love and grief I’ve seen on every hiker social network, that they were beloved.
Intimacy comes quickly and deeply on the trail. Because Mother Nature is entirely indifferent to human suffering, empathy for those around you blossoms. Any human may become a friend, and all humans are equally humble against the uncaring majesty of the natural world. I’ve hiked with students and soldiers and acrobats and dropouts and doctors, and there is no difference between us. We eat, hike, sweat, stink the same. We climb the same mountains and we down the same cheap beer and fries in the same irrational quantities.
We care for one another. We put our lives in one another’s hands.
When a friend fell into a roiling, snowmelt-bloated creek in the Sierra Nevadas, I watched as the two nearest hikers rushed to save her. They caught her by just the top strap of her backpack. Even a second’s hesitation on their part and she could have been crushed in a logjam downstream. If they had stumbled, they could have been, too.
It’s not all high drama. I’ve seen hikers cheerily give away their last ramen packet, offer to split their only liter of water in the desert. When my feet were raw from chafing, a near-stranger gave me the single clean sock she had. Kindness is due course.
That’s why these attacks cut all of us so harshly, even those who never met the victims. We are ready with our carefully curated gear to face whatever nature can throw our way. We are eager to help all those around us.
To be hurt by a fellow human is a betrayal.
Hikers are at risk every year from natural causes — snowstorms, river crossings, sometimes just the vastness of the wild. And I do not want to suggest that the grief for those who died by natural causes is in any way less than the grief for those who were recently attacked.
But for the purposes of risk assessment, naturally caused deaths function in the realm of normality. I know, when I put on my backpack and tie up my trail runners, that my safety and that of my husband isn’t guaranteed. We accepted that, even embraced it, a long time ago, and I have been in more than one situation where I thought I might be next.
It’s the human violence that we cannot accept.
I mourn the loss of Sanchez, who was not a friend but could have been. To his family and friends, I can only offer my deepest condolences.
I mourn the fear that the survivor must have felt, as well as the two other hikers who fled, the superhuman strength it must have taken them to make it through the night.
I mourn the shaken faith as others may reconsider plans to experience the splendor of America’s scenic trails. While we may know statistically that the odds for violence are low, it is understandable to feel upset or fearful.
I offer no prescription for my fellow hikers. In the face of raw grief and pain, I will not parrot platitudes about the guaranteed healing power of nature and tell everyone to march out to the nearest wooded area. No one has the right to instruct the grieving in how to mourn.
But for my own part, I know I will be back on the trail. I know that mountain meadows and desert skies have helped me find strength I didn’t know I had. On quiet nights in quiet places, I have set aside darkness from my own past. And at times when I did not feel strong enough to keep moving, I had my fellow hikers walking beside me.
However we can, may we all find peace.