July 09, 2020

Slaying of hikers fearsome

One of Lollie Winan’s plans after her upcoming graduation from Unity College in Maine was to organize a program to take abused women into the woods for healing and renewal.

Instead, friends and family members of the 26-year-old woman are mourning her death and that of fellow hiker, Julianne Williams, 24, a science teacher and forest ranger from St. Cloud, Minn. While on a hike from Maine to Georgia on the Appalachian Trail, their throats were slashed.

You expect crime in the city, but not the great outdoors. That is where you go to escape the atrocities of urban life — to breathe in fresh air, the quiet and natural life, enough to help you create a good, clean life when you’re off the mountain or out of the forest.

These were street-wise and trail-wise women, friends say. They were, after all, expert hikers who taught others about the great outdoors through Woodswomen, a Minneapolis-based group that provides outdoor adventure and education programs for women.

They were high introverts — quiet and thoughtful women who liked to read books and hike, says Denise Mitten, executive director of Woodswomen. They were friendly but not overly friendly. They were not women who would call attention to themselves.

For this trip, they had backcountry permits and told relatives in precise detail their hiking itinerary. That latter point may account for how quickly their bodies were found.

These women were prepared to handle inclement weather, rock slides or to protect themselves against bears or snakes, all the natural risks involved in outdoors adventures. Knowing their concern with safety, Ms. Mitten says, it is highly likely they would have thought to bring Mace with them.

They did everything right, yet they are dead today.

A few weeks ago, the outdoors community was shocked by the death of Mount Everest hikers. But those adventurers knew the risks from the outset — and they chose to take them. Their deaths were tragedies but not totally incomprehensible.

For many women in the United States for whom hiking has become a growing passion during the past 20 years, the predatory slayings of the young women hit closer to home.

Women in droves began climbing mountains emboldened by a women’s movement that encouraged them every step of the way, shouting: You can do it if you want. It’s your choice.

But these recent deaths remind us that there is a qualifier.

Women hikers I have talked to about Julianne’s and Lollie’s deaths feel a sense of loss. They feel for these young women who had so much to offer the world and carved out time to help others appreciate the outdoors.

But they also feel a loss of freedom themselves, a sense that next time they go out into the wild, they will somehow be a little more guarded. And they feel a sense of frustration.

If someone is bound and determined to kill, there is no way to prepare yourself. Out in the middle of nowhere, Julianne and Lollie found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What can be done? I asked Ms. Mitten from Woodswomen.

She didn’t call for a massive hunt and then death for the slayer of the young women. She spoke as someone who, perhaps within the bosom of the woods, had developed some broader thought patterns. “I only hope men and women will get together and do something about violence in this culture,” Ms. Mitten said. “Rather than tell people somebody might hurt you, so therefore stay inside, it’s better to go to the people who are hurtful and teach them not to be hurtful,” advised Ms. Mitten. “It has got to be approached in our schools, families and churches.”

Sure, Lollie’s and Julianne’s deaths were unusual and random. Last year, there were only 15 homicides in national parks, which cover 83 million acres. The last homicide along the Appalachian Trail occurred nearly six years ago, and since then, more than 20 million people have visited the trail.

Still, it is jarring that a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail urges anyone who plans to visit or hike there to “take the same precautions they would in any strange city.”

While the forest feels far away from our culture of violence, the deaths of these young women remind us that even there you’re hardly out of the woods.

Maureen West is Opinions Page editor of The Phoenix Gazette. She can be reached at MNWest on America Online.

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