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Backpacker Magazine – April 2007

The Long Trail to Jail

Is he a pilgrim, a victim, or a thief? The Appalachian Trail provides a path and refuge to all sorts of seekers. Few are as baffling as the man they called Saved.

by: Steve Friedman

David Lescoe in VA's Dillwyn Correctional Center  (Michael Darter)
David Lescoe in VA's Dillwyn Correctional Center (Michael Darter)
Photos taken November 15, 2006 (Michael Darter)
Photos taken November 15, 2006 (Michael Darter)
Dan Nicholls with Lescoe - July 29, 2004
Dan Nicholls with Lescoe - July 29, 2004
Lescoe (left) with his mother and brother Andrew in 1975
Lescoe (left) with his mother and brother Andrew in 1975

This article was the recipient of the Gold Award for Travel News/Investigative reporting at the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation's 2008 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition.

The deepest mystery is not how Lescoe fooled so many people–he's funny and self-effacing and has a gift for telling them what they want to hear–but why so many who were fooled still believe in him.

"I told Dave I would like to walk with him up to the top of the ridge and say goodbye there," Nicholls wrote. "As he was packing, stocking up on food and tracts, he said again that this is absolutely the most beautiful day of his whole entire life. He couldn't stop crying and laughing...What a difference true salvation makes! What Satan had meant for evil, God turned around for good! TAKE THAT, SATAN, YOU LOSER!"

Before Lescoe headed south, Nicholls loaded him up with gifts. A bag of trail snacks and a stack of religious tracts. Fifty dollars (the Stehles kicked in $20). A Bible. And finally, a walking stick made from an oak sapling, into which Nicholls had used a magnifying glass to burn Lescoe's new trail name. Injun had shambled down the trail to Nicholls's home. Striding away was a man who called himself Saved.

Back on the AT, Lescoe prayed. He prayed about one sin in particular–how at a shelter near Bear Mountain in New York, just a few days earlier, he had stolen a camper's gear bag.

Her name was Sarah Holt, and she'd been heading north with four other thru-hikers when they came upon Lescoe. He invited them to share the shelter with him. When they declined, saying they wanted to sleep under the stars, he insisted, and they noticed. (He'd apparently not mastered his To Do and Not to Do lists.) Before they slept out, though, they hung their food bags in the shelter, away from rodents.

The next morning, Holt's bag was gone. It had contained some chunks of pita bread and cheese, a cookpot, camping stove, titanium spork, toothbrush, toothpaste, vitamins a Leatherman knife, and insect repellent. The overly friendly hiker from the shelter was gone, too.

"At first I was confused," Holt wrote in the Brunswick, Maine Times Record. "Hikers can almost always trust other hikers. You're sharing an adventure and commiserating together. No distance hiker steals another's gear."

Lescoe prayed often on the trail. He told other hikers how much he prayed. He told them about his near-suicide, the miraculous experience of salvation. He didn't ask for food, but many hikers heard the story and shared their food with him.

Lescoe has a dazzling smile and a friendly manner, all on display during some of the most perilous times of his life. Nicholls snapped a photo of Lescoe, and in it he has a mustache, the beginnings of a beard. He is six feet one, and in the picture, rangy. He has dark eyes, heavy eyebrows, dark skin, and arms covered with tattoos. Another man with those physical characteristics might evoke in strangers mild fear. Lescoe seemed to inspire compassion.

"That's a gift from the Lord," he says, "and I've been blessed with it."

Just days after leaving Nicholls, Lescoe met a hiker named Brian Matthews, who called himself Dances with Moose. Saved told Dances with Moose the suicide/shower/coming to Jesus story. He told him about the stolen gear bag, and the guilt he carried. Dances with Moose offered to buy Saved a hamburger at a bar in Unionville, New York.

The hikers had a couple beers at the bar, too. "And that," says Lescoe, "was where my first compromising began." As most people who have spent even a little time with Lescoe will attest to, it is not an easy matter to sort out the beginnings and endings of his compromising.

On the trail, Saved preached the Gospel to Dances with Moose, who wasn't a believer. They debated spiritual matters, hiked together, camped together. But on the AT, paces differ, and "together" is a liquid concept. Lescoe slowed down. Matthews sped up. On August 13, Matthews arrived in Duncannon, Pennsylvania, hard on the Susquehanna River.

Matthews entered the town limping, and lucky for him, one of the first people he encountered was a 56-year-old bartender and cook named Mary Parry, better known to hikers and Duncannonians as Trail Angel Mary.

A trail angel, in the misty and ripe oral tradition of the Appalachian Trail, is a person who bestows acts of kindness upon tired and bedraggled hikers. If you have emerged from the woods onto a lonely rural slab of highway, thirsty and tired, and a car has appeared from nowhere, and the driver stops and offers you a can of soda, then you have encountered a trail angel. The legendary trail angels are those men and women who seem to fashion careers out of helping others. Dan Nicholls, with his offers of free showers and grilled hamburgers, certainly qualifies as an angel, though attaching prayer and salvation to hot water and grilled burgers might strike some as, while technically angelic, perhaps not as blessed as the same acts of kindness delivered with no strings attached. Which explains why Nicholls isn't known as Trail Angel Dan.

Trail Angel Mary is revered among AT thru-hikers. That's because of the Sunday night "feeds" she prepares, the three coolers she stocks with juice, water, and snacks and leaves on the trail near town, the way she lets hikers stay at her place, and her offers to help with broken gear and medical emergencies.

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star


Jul 25, 2010

i pray he has been healed
i miss my cousin
he is an honest to goodness man who made mistakes and payed for them to,let us not judge

Apr 02, 2010

Im related to him and miss him and love him from the bottom of my heart,,,,JR!

Trail Angel in Lizella
Nov 25, 2008

I knew him for the brief time he was here before he was arrested. He obviously wrestles with demons, maybe in the form of mental illness. He has a heart of gold and a servant's attitude, but he does need to pay for his crimes. We pray that once he has served his sentence he will indeed walk in the ways of Jesus.

Oct 25, 2008

It was an interesting article...for another magazine. Just bring us the usual great information about backpacking that you have done so well.

Oct 25, 2008

I hike with my kids, so I'm glad the perp is in jail and off the trail. As far as people saying only God can pass judgement, that's a bunch of bull. Imagine a world without any accountability. I hope the guy changes his ways, but let him work on that for 10 or so years away from other people. Bottom line, it's good to be friendly to passing hikers on the trail, but you don't know them.

Oct 23, 2008

I remember reading this article. It was very interesting and different from what I am used to reading in Backpacker. Good to see it was honored with an award. Keep up the good work.
Now back to the boot reviews!

Oct 23, 2008

And, most who read this mag are worried about bears?
I figured it for crap before reading the article, but with lines like "why is it that the people who offer the most meaningful answers to the most difficult questions are so often men like Lescoe?
REALLY??? Horse shit!

Oct 23, 2008

What ever happened to "Don't judge lest you be judged"? No one knows what happened except him and God. Let God be his judge.
It's a great story about how the "trail" can do miraculous things for people searching or running. It doesn't matter. Maybe he really did find his answer. We will never know.

Don Asper
Oct 23, 2008

God does change the heart and lives of individuals if we are truly repentant. I emphasize true repentance. Even with a change of heart we are still responsible for the consequences of our actions. Time will tell if there is a true change.

Oct 23, 2008

this article goes nowhere. what is the point? is it just about a refugee that traveled the AT and then got caught? hmm.

Oct 23, 2008

This guy is user and still convincing people that God is in his heart. Rediculas.

Oct 23, 2008

Just like all crooks he is looking for away to find a communities weakness. He used religion to work his way into a small town so he could hide. I don't think this story has anything to do with the AT other then it was an escape route.

Oct 23, 2008

What a waste of space in such a good magazine. He is still conning and you have fallen for it by providing this space. When he is released from prison he will use and steal from people again and you will be partly responsible.

Oct 23, 2008

I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I am a fairly cynical person who is not surprised by the actions of a person like Lescoe. One of the few things that keep me from abandoning altruistic behaviour is the realization that only a small subset of the population is capable of such insidious acts. Granted, what the “right” thing to do under strenuous circumstances is sometimes debateable but most people agree on what should be tolerated. This article not only explores a rather interesting personality it also shows me that the problems caused by this individual are not normal within the community that surrounds the AT. The next time someone breaks my trust when extending a helping hand I can remember articles like this one which illustrate that people like these are the exception rather than the rule.

Oct 23, 2008

I disagree, this is a powerful story, which does take the time to repeatedly point out the healing power of being alone and hiking in the wilderness. As a mental health professioanl, it is my opinion this man has anti-social personality disorder, and it rarely changes. Given his early life, experiance and choices, what used to be called a psychopath or sociopath. But that's not as important as how there may just be truth that his time on the trail did make enough of an impact to his future after he is released.

John Kozma
Oct 23, 2008

Looks like you were conned by him too.

Oct 20, 2008

What is it with all the stories of crooks and low character folks on the trail? Award or not I don't enjoy reading stories like this.


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