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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.

He says he is innocent, but “I was accused of things and I was scared.” So he fled. What better place than the trail? He had always loved the outdoors. By the time he was 16, he had completed all the requirements to become a Eagle Scout. He had spent much of his childhood in the woods near Nanticoke, spending so much time outdoors with his brother that dinner was usually cold when they finally came inside. “David could do anything,” says Sincavage. “He was handsome, he was a hard worker. He could charm anybody.” Says Andrew, “He was a normal kid until he got involved with the drugs and alcohol.”

After dinner, at night, he dreamt of a city. He wore a suit, carried a briefcase alongside other men with suits and briefcases, all advancing with purpose down the wide, glittering sidewalks of Manhattan. He had no idea where he was going, but he knew he was going somewhere. In the dream, he was happy. And now, monsters in mirrors. What could cause such a thing? Was it the drugs and alcohol? Having been molested? Was it that he met his father exactly one time, when he was six, and for the rest of his life had no idea whether the man was alive or not? To chart a bold line from a boy’s troubles to a man’s misdeeds is as satisfying as it is presumptuous. Men more ravaged than Lescoe have risen to lead nations. Other little boys, beloved, kill.

He left the Chevy toting a frayed and battered backpack, a jar of peanut butter, a box of crackers, and an 8-inch bowie knife with which he says he planned to cut his wrists. That he didn’t is just one of the questions, or inconsistencies, or mysteries, or murky instances of illogic, or flat-out lies that suffuses Lescoe’s narration of his wanderings on the AT. He also carried a notebook. One page was divided into two columns, labeled Things to Do and Things Not to Do. He wanted to convince other thru-hikers that he belonged. In the Things Not to Do column was “Be too eager to share shelter.”

He told people he met on trail that his name was Injun, a nod to his Sioux/Cree heritage. Nearly all long-distance AT hikers take on trail names. Not surprisingly, the men and women who go by Fang and Borealis and Slurps Like Ground Sloth as they trudge between Maine and Georgia are generally more attuned to the notion of getting away than to fitting in.
“There’ll always be people out there who are thinking things over,” says ranger Todd Remaley, the only full-time law enforcement officer now assigned to the AT. Remaley hiked the entire trail in 1990, when he was “at a crossroads. People use this as a place to change direction, to heal spiritually.”

What hiker would not want a trail name? The monikers strip away the trappings of civilization so many want to leave, if only for a little while. They also allow fugitives to wander with a little less anxiety.

Fourteen days after he began his journey, Injun came upon a sign atop a ridge near the New York/New Jersey border, not far from a town called Hewitt.

“I own a log cabin east of here, down the ridge,” the sign said. “You hikers are welcome to use an outdoor, rustic, but with privacy, hot/cold shower stall.”

The man who had posted the sign was 61-year-old Dan Nicholls. Nicholls, like Lescoe, was not a simple man. A born-again Christian, but divorced. A believer in law and order who corresponded regularly with and often visited David (Son of Sam) Berkowitz–one of this nation’s most notorious serial killers, born-again himself. Nicholls is a great samaritan who offers free showers and food to weary hikers–then tries to convert them.

Nicholls had been at the wake of a friend, and it was near dark when he arrived at the cabin. As he pulled up, he saw movement behind an oak tree in the yard and was alarmed, until he saw Lescoe’s pack. Then he relaxed; hikers had never bothered him. In fact, hungry, cold, and tired, many were excellent candidates for some old-fashioned religion.

Lescoe told Nicholls he was hungry, that he had recently killed and eaten a rattlesnake on the trail. He showed Nicholls the rattle to prove it. He said he was tired, depressed, spiritually adrift. He said that he had long wrestled with drug addiction and alcoholism, that his family had forsaken him. He said he was planning to kill himself. In a strange way, this cheered Nicholls. The hiker seemed ready to surrender his life to God.

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