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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.

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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