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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.

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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