Spanning over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail is a hot spot for hikers across the world. Notorious for its difficult terrain, limited resources, and unpredictable weather, few who attempt to traverse the trail actually do so. In fact, over 3 million hikers cross the trail each year, but since 1936, only 20,000 have completed it. Some, including the subject of today’s story, have even lost their lives to its harsh conditions.
An Appalachian Hiker Found Dead
On July 23, 2018, at approximately 8pm, two men named Nicholas Horton and Logan Bueller were hiking in the Big Cypress National Preserve in Collier County, Florida. After a long day of trekking, they rested at a picnic table and noticed a bright yellow tent pitched nearby.
Thinking that someone was inside, the pair called out expecting a response. However, they were met with only silence. Bueller decided to take a look inside the tent, and to his horror, he saw a man’s lifeless body. Authorities were immediately notified.
The Mostly Harmless Hiker’s Cause of Death
Authorities concluded that there were no signs of trauma or foul play. The man had likely died of starvation, as he weighed only 80 pounds at the time of his death. He had a rugged appearance, indicating that he had perhaps been living in the park. Strangely enough, his teeth were in near-perfect condition, and he was carrying $3,600 in cash. He also had no map, phone, or GPS. This suggested that he was likely an inexperienced hiker.
Why Is He Called “The Mostly Harmless Hiker”?
After police appealed to the public to help identify the man, over 100 hikers came forward to share their experiences of meeting him. While he never gave them his real name, he revealed plenty of other identifying information about himself.
He used the alias Ben Bilemy when checking into hostels. While hiking, he gave the name “Mostly Harmless,” a reference to the fifth book in the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, of which he professed to be a huge fan. He told his peers that he worked in the tech industry and was currently working on an app for hikers.
He would talk often about an ex-girlfriend, as well as his unspecified health issues, neither topic he went into extraordinary detail about. However, one hiker mentioned that he—Mostly Harmless—said that he wanted to walk the Appalachian Trail “while he still could,” implying that he felt he didn’t have much time left to do so. Could his health issues have played some part in his death?
The Mostly Harmless Hiker Identified Two Years Later
A hiker who went by the name “Mostly Harmless” followed, to near perfection, the hiker credo of “Leave no trace.”— WIRED (@WIRED) November 3, 2020
In the more than two years since he was found dead in his tent, no one has been able to figure out who he was https://t.co/8vz8sUcvJw
Despite many hikers who had come into contact with Mostly Harmless posting photos they had taken of him, authorities spent an entire two years unable to identify him. During this time, he became something of a legend on the internet, with many proposing both rational and bizarrely irrational theories on who he was and how exactly he died.
However, on December 23, 2020, Adventure Journal posted an article entitled “The Mystery of Deceased Hiker ‘Mostly Harmless’ Is At Long Last Solved.” Three friends and a former girlfriend revealed his identity. He was a man named Vance Rodriguez, a computer programmer from New York.
“Mostly Harmless” Was Not an Entirely Accurate Name
As those who knew him came forward with stories about him, it became clear that Rodriguez was, at best, a tortured soul. He had previously attempted suicide via self-inflicted gunshot wound to the stomach. This led many to believe that he had intentionally starved himself to death. He did still have food in his tent.
While one cannot help but empathize with Rodriguez’s plight, as more information was revealed about him, it became clear he was not, in fact, “mostly harmless”. A friend described him as having “outages”, or, depressive episodes during which he could be harmful towards others.
His ex-girlfriend of five years—whose name is redacted—made a post on Facebook following their breakup. “Apartment 950 a month / bills 300 a month / Standing up to the monster that beat you up emotionally and physically for 5 years? Priceless.”
After he was identified, the woman’s mother made a post of her own. “This man was so abusive to my daughter, he changed her.”
More detailed accounts of Rodriguez’s patterns of abuse can be found in the Wired article “The Unsettling Truth About the ‘Mostly Harmless’ Hiker.”
When the truth about Rodriguez came out, many speculated that the alleged suicide was, in a strange way, his personal version of atonement. Of course, we have no way of knowing whether this is true or not. In his interactions with other hikers, he had never expressed any form of guilt for past actions.
Prior to his identification, the internet had preconceived notions of Mostly Harmless. His life was romanticized before his actual self was even known. Upon discovering the disturbing truth about him, many—this writer included—felt let down. We can only hope that the people he hurt are able to heal and move forward.