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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.

Parry drove Matthews to a local hospital to have his foot looked at, and afterward, she sensed that something more serious than a bum foot was wrong. "He was hem-hawing around on the way back," Parry says. "Like he wanted to tell me something, but he couldn't. I said, 'Just spit it out.'"

Matthews told Parry about Lescoe. Matthews worried that the theft at Bear Mountain was gnawing at the man called Saved. He also worried about the woman who'd lost her gear bag.

When Lescoe came into town on the 15th, Trail Angel Mary confronted him. Stealing had always come easily to Lescoe. But so had apologizing. Especially when he was caught.

Wasn't he the guy, she wanted to know, who had been confessing his sins of thievery to other hikers? He was. And hadn't he been saved, and seen the light? He had. Didn't he want to set things right? He did. Well, what did he think would be the right thing to do?

Now that was a tough question.

Luckily, this angel also possessed a keenly refined sense of karmic payback, which she and others in the AT community refer to as trail justice. She said she would take the bag, with its stove and titanium spork, and she would add a box of food, and she would mail it to its rightful owner. Parry knew Sarah Holt's name because the 27-year-old had been through Duncannon. Trail Angel Mary was a sympathetic listener. And she was kind. She's called Trail Angel Mary, after all. But just like the samaritan with the prayer pamphlets in New Jersey and the confessing thief in front of her, she was also human. She would take care of setting things right with Holt. But she had another idea, too.

"I cleaned her bathroom," Lescoe says. "I scrubbed it. You wouldn't believe the mess that was, but in order to help pay for the postage and the whatever else, I done chores for Mary."

In the simple calculus that defines trail justice, the world was set right. One man, repentant. One woman, about to be reunited with her trail bag, along with some extra chow for her troubles. One trail angel, with a sparkling bathroom. There was no need to involve the law, so no one did. People don't strap on packs and enter a world of grubby goodness because they want more rules and regulations. The AT community would handle its own troubles.

"He should have been on my radar sooner," Ranger Remaley says. "When the food bag was taken, the northbound hikers suspected who took it. But it took several hundred miles, when he was in central Pennsylvania, before someone confronted him. And nobody passed the information along to me, or to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. It would have been nice if we had heard about this. It didn't surprise me, but it did disappoint me."

Six days after Lescoe met Parry in Duncannon, Sarah Holt, still on her northbound trek, checked her mail in Hanover, New Hampshire. Awaiting her was a box filled with Pop-Tarts, fruit roll-ups, mac-and-cheese dinners, instant coffee, cocoa, and ramen noodles. There was also the cookpot, the stove, and the spork. And a letter.

"I won't try to justify, explain, or rationalize what I did," Lescoe wrote. "I just want to apologize to you for what I now know was wrong of me."

Holt, like many hikers, knew about the mysterious instances of serendipity called trail magic. A bottle of water left at a campsite, stumbled upon by a parched traveler; a can of beans cached, then discovered by someone with a growling stomach. And now this.

"Somewhere along the line," Holt wrote, "he did a spiritual 180."

It would be a good story anywhere, but on the AT, where enlightenment and spiritual transformation inform the fantasy of long-distance hiking as much as crackling fires and twittering birds, it was a great story. At least it would have been, were it true. But once compromising begins, it's difficult to pinpoint where it ends. Lescoe left Duncannon, and his trail angel/taskmaster, with a lighter heart and a lighter backpack. Compromised, but confessing. A sinner, but saved. An alcoholic who had recently knocked back a few beers. Cheerful, but broke. He called Nicholls, asking for more money, some socks. He called three times, but Nicholls wasn't home for any of the calls.

Lescoe had let Jesus into his heart. He had not only confessed, he had made amends. He had even performed some undeniably humbling labor. But even a saint's gotta eat.

He continued to separate hikers from their food. He would tell his story of loss and redemption, and bags would open, granola bars would appear. He poked into caches of food hidden along the trail. He caught perch and largemouth bass, grabbed the occasional ear of corn from a field. Once he chased a baby turkey, but it was too fast.

By late August, as Sarah Holt was celebrating the healing power of the AT, its newest reclamation project was about to do some serious compromising.

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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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