The Appalachian Trail attracts a hardy lot, some of whom begin their hikes in Maine intent on making it all 2,159 miles to Georgia, braving the isolation and perils of the woods and mountains.
Now these courageous souls seeking peace and challenge in the Blue Ridge Mountains have been shaken by the slayings of two women, both accomplished backpackers, just off the trail in Shenandoah National Park.They were the eighth and ninth people killed in the past two decades along the Appalachian Trail, which is hiked or visited by about 4 million people a year.
"I'm definitely going to be looking over my shoulder on this hike," said Cindy Clymer, 42, of Charlotte, N.C., hiking near Dark Hollow Falls with her husband and 21-month-old son. "I don't know who's going to get me out there."
They decided not to camp out Tuesday night.
"That person could still be lurking around," Clymer said.
National Park police and the FBI withheld details of the deaths of Julianne Williams, 24, of St. Cloud, Minn., and Lollie Winans, 26, of Unity, Maine. Park rangers found their bodies Saturday one-half mile off the trail and within three miles of the popular Skyland Lodge on scenic Skyline Drive.
Investigators said the women's throats had been cut. Officials would not say if the women were
sexually assaulted. A dog that had been on the trail with them, a golden retriever named Taj, was found running loose nearby.
The women, who had planned to hike from Maine to Georgia, were last seen the Friday before the Memorial Day weekend.
Both women were trained as guides for wilderness camping and hiking.
"They wanted to help other people learn to be in the outdoors," said Peggy Willens, a spokeswoman for Woodswomen, a Minneapolis-based adventure travel vacation organization for women. "They were both very experienced outdoorswomen."
John Winans said his daughter had always enjoyed the outdoors, even as a child, when the family took camping trips to Arizona.
"That was her great love, the great outdoors. That's where her serenity was," Winans said in a telephone interview from his home in Boca Raton, Fla.
"This was not somebody going (on a hike) that didn't know what they were doing. She knew all that was going on," John Winans said.
Williams' uncle in Minnesota, Brownie Williams, described his niece as a one-woman Peace Corps. "She always was hiking, always was camping. She was really proficient at it," he said.
Park officials and trail organizations were receiving calls from people worried about hikers out on the trail.
"This morning I got a call from a man in Vermont who was very worried about his 18-year-old daughter who is hiking the trail alone," said Wilson Riley, director of administration of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.
"People are asking us what should we do, and we tell them to take whatever precautions they feel are necessary," Riley said. "You are alone and out of sight of others and if someone has criminal intent, there's really no one around to witness it."
Until these killings, seven people had been killed on or near the trail since 1974, according to the Appalachian Trail Conference in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., which maintains and manages the trail.
"In three of those cases, they were double murders: six incidents, nine murders," said spokesman Brian King.
In 1988, a man frightened two women off the trail and shot them, killing one, in Pennsylvania. Stephen Roy Carr was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Two years later, a man and his fiancee were shot to death as they slept in a remote shelter along the trail in Perry County, Pa. Paul David Crews is awaiting execution.
In 1981, a man and a woman hiking from Maine to Georgia were killed in a remote cabin near Pearisburg, Va. Randall Lee Smith, who pleaded guilty, is up for parole in September.
A Wisconsin woman was hacked to death by a hiker with a hatchet in Tennessee in April 1975; her attacker died in prison. A 26-year-old man was killed at a shelter in Georgia in May 1974.
In 1990, hikers were warned not to venture off a 14-mile stretch of the trail in Tennessee after booby traps were set and suspicious fires were started along the trail.
Last year, there were 15 homicides in national parks, which cover 83 million acres, said National Park Service spokeswoman Anita Clevenger.